Out of the Dark by David Weber (2010)

February 15, 2012 at 10:17 am (military SF, science fiction, WTF?)

I don’t usually spoiler books in my reviews, but this was published way back in 2010, and it is pretty much impossible to express myself on the subject of this book without talking about the surprise ending.  You have been warned.

Near-future alien invasions have been done before, and this one even includes a reference to Independence Day‘s use of over-used SF tropes.  It does not, however, mention the common trope of the special-snowflake status of the USA being extended (with a prominent US role, of course) to the whole human race – that would be the narrative undermining itself.  These types of books pretty much all do that, though I think if I tried I could probably find examples that buck the trend.

But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about.  It isn’t the lengthy, loving descriptions of arms and armament that I want to talk about either, although the book probably would’ve been 30 pages shorter if those have been trimmed.  Weber’s tendency to include long disquisitions about politics is also on display from time to time, as well.

But no, what I wanted to talk about is vampires.

See, in the last few chapters it turns out that a vampire is unalive and well and still living in the mountains of Romania.  Yes, that vampire.  And he’s not happy about aliens destroying most of the major cities on the planet (and a lot of the minor ones) through kinetic bombardment.  He’s even less happy when the aliens (they’re called Shongairi, by the way) unwittingly decide to pick the wrong villages to collect experimental subjects from – villages he’s taken up the burden of protecting.

Yeah, so.  Vampires save the human race from alien invasion.  I suppose you could say this undermines the typical special-human-snowflwake alien invasion story trope, but then you probably haven’t actually read the book.  I have, and it doesn’t.  The epilogue is titled “Year 1 of the Terran Empire.”

In an era of Jane Austen and zombies and Abraham Lincoln as a vampire-hunter, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  But I still think Weber wrote up the proposal on a bet, and then got stuck with writing it when it actually sold.  I mean, he’s got to make a living, even with the Honor Harrington series still doing so well.

But.  Still.  Umm.  I mean, really???

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It Takes a Witch by Heather Blake (2012)

February 14, 2012 at 9:24 am (cozy mystery, fantasy)

I can’t find parts of the basic premise credible – witches with hereditary powers have kept this fact a secret for hundreds of years? Considering what happened with the wombat, I really doubt it.

However, the book has a nice breezy style and diverse and interesting characters, and the murder mystery’s not bad either. I could wish for less ignorance being forced on the main character, Darcy, but I suppose it’s a reasonably effective way to avoid the dreaded infodump.

I can’t imagine why they put a cover on it that looks like it’s aimed at teenagers, especially since Darcy is pushing thirty, but whatever.

All in all, pretty good light reading.

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The Riyria Revelations by Michael J. Sullivan (2011/2012)

February 12, 2012 at 10:34 pm (fantasy, negativity)

Two positive reviews in a row – okay, so they were both back in December and now it’s February,  never mind that – so it must be time for another pan.

An ominous way to start, eh?  Actually it’s not all bad – Sullivan has a good authorial voice, an excellent line in witty banter, engaging characters, and a bunch of interesting ideas.

The problem is, this trilogy of books needed better editing.  I’ve gathered that Sullivan is one of the handful of authors who’ve made the transition from self-published to published, which is great for him.  But Orbit Books is not the first publisher to pass through books that need more work.

What do I mean by “editing”?  I mean having somebody (and preferably multiple somebodies) look at the aspects of the book that don’t rely on that evasive and indefinable “way with words”:  pacing, structure, plot, and worldbuilding.

Actually, I’m mostly going to talk about the first book, Theft of Swords, because that’s the one I’ve read.  My husband read all three, and laments that so many trees have died to print them.  I couldn’t bring myself to read the second and third, even though I was somewhat interested in who the Heir of Novron really was, what the Church thought it was up to, and how the approaching civil war was going to work out.

The fundamental problem is that the further into Theft I read, the more I felt that I was reading an unreliable narrative.  In a book with an unreliable narrator, the reader realizes (sooner or later) that the putative speaker is not necessarily providing a true, complete, or accurate picture of events.  With an  unreliable narrative, the reader realizes that the author is withholding information that might make the novel’s events make sense.

An engaging style and characters can only do so much; a book also has to deliver things happening, with an order and level of impact that both makes sense and keeps the events moving forward in a way that satisfies the reader.  A really good narrative develops a sense of inevitability without seeming forced, and delivers the reader to a conclusion (even in a series book) that feels like milestones have been passed and the characters have reached an important new stage.

Theft doesn’t do that, even though it concludes with Important Revelations, the destruction by fire of a large building and most of the people in it, and a fight with a not!Dragon (yes, those last two are closely related).  It took too long to get there, wandering in and out of too many characters’ heads and down side plots until I was reading the book just because I wanted to know what happened in the end (and particularly exactly two characters), not because I was really enjoying it.

It’s hard to point to specific reasons for this perception of narrative unreliability, because the effect is cumulative.  First one thing happens, then another, and then another, and the reader is still left uncertain about where it’s all going.   It’s pretty clear, for example, that the Church of Novron holds the role of Evil in this book.  But why?  The apparent reasons were a mix of ideological politics, callous self-interest, and mindless resort to doctrine.  There was pretty obviously some underlying reason, but neither the protagonists nor the reader were allowed to know what it was.

Similarly, there was no explanation of why nobody was aware that – as was revealed late in the second half – humanity’s ancient enemy, the elves, were still there right across this here river, held in check only by an ancient treaty.  It’s not credible that the Church, top to bottom, really believed they’d never cross the river again.  Or maybe there was some reason, but it wasn’t being disclosed.

Basically, information crucial to understanding what was going on was being withheld from the reader for much, much too long.  It was so well-hidden that I didn’t even know what it was, except that it most likely had something to do with the Church.

In fact, according to my husband, it takes all the way until the very end of the third book for the ultimate reason for all of the religio-political deception and centuries of conniving and human misery to be explained.  That’s what I had begun to suspect would happen.   It’s very nearly the equivalent of the “and then I woke up” surprise ending.

And it is, frankly, a rookie authorial mistake: thinking that holding back the Big Secret to the very end is the way to keep the narrative tension going.  Not in semi-gritty epic fantasy, it’s not.  Knowing the truth and seeing if and how the characters would somehow manage to make use of it?  Now that would’ve been narrative tension.  Instead, both the protagonists and the reader are handicapped by having only the vaguest idea of what’s going on.  The story appears to have no structure, because its backbone is deliberately obscured.

I’ll probably give whatever Sullivan next produces a look, though.  While voice and the style can rarely (if ever) carry a book for me by themselves, if he can get a better grip on structure and all the rest, I bet he could really show me something worth reading.

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