Tag: SF/F

Review – Beauty

Posted October 15, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Beauty by Robin McKinleyBeauty, Robin McKinley

I think I’ll blame my partner’s Disney song playlist for making me want to (re)read a bunch of Beauty and the Beast retellings. The obvious place to start (for me, anyway) is with Robin McKinley’s two attempts at telling the story, Beauty and Rose Daughter. Beauty is perhaps the less delicate of the two, being suited to a younger audience in terms of complexity, language, etc, but it still makes a good story. You come to care for the little family, and learn to care for the Beast; the mysteries of the Beast’s castle are genuinely interesting, though how confining someone to a castle which contains a library full of all the books ever written and yet to be written is a punishment, I’m not entirely certain.

(You can see why I empathise with this version of Beauty, who loves her books and her studies, who reads and rereads Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.)

As usual, then, I found this a charming read, and I liked the little references to domesticity that are nearly inevitable with McKinley — the sisters’ rough hands as they learn their new work, their learning curve. And as usual, the thing I disliked most was that Beauty had to be made to match her name, in some magical transformation that made little sense — the goodness of her is in her inner beauty, and why on earth she needs to have dancing amber eyes, I couldn’t say. I liked that Beauty started out plain. I would rather she come to some happy acceptance of that than get a wish to be beautiful — that doesn’t solve anything.

If I’m remembering the key difference between this and Rose Daughter rightly, too, it’s a little awful that the Beast vanishes and changes so much too, leaving Beauty faced with a man she doesn’t know, who doesn’t even know his own name. He’s the same person, but then, you can’t really say he is when everything’s so different and suddenly the Beast she loved is a handsome prince, with very little explanation. It would, perhaps, be better if Beauty instantly recognised him instead of feeling so confused — at least then there would be a sense of continuity, of the importance of knowing what someone is like rather than what they look like.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Chalice

Posted October 14, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Chalice by Robin McKinleyChalice, Robin McKinley

For a book that I originally gave three stars, and found somewhat… disappointing, it probably seems weird that I’ve come back to it for a second time. But actually, I’ve grown very fond of it. I love the fact that it isn’t just a generic medieval Europe, but something that has some of those aspects while having rules, rituals, histories and roles of its own. And yet at the same time, it’s still rooted in the earth: in the common elements, in water and milk and honey, in the straightforward clear sight of a beekeeper called to higher things.

Mirasol makes a great character: neither so knowledgeable about the world she lives in that worldbuilding ends up being ‘as you know, Bob’, but not so ignorant that she’s completely at sea. We come into the story when she’s starting to find some purchase, starting to figure out what she needs to do, but even by the end of the story, she’s not all-powerful, so special she can fix everything. I like that a lot: the down-to-earthness of her; the fact that she turns to books for the knowledge she needs and just reads desperately, almost indiscriminately; the fact that she is so overwhelmed, unready and untrained, and yet does what she has to do.

I also like the sense of strain and work that comes through. It’s not effortless for Mirasol and the Master to save their land; it comes slowly, in fits and starts, as they adjust to each other and to the circumstances. The last section is one long hard slog for Mirasol, and she isn’t even sure she’s doing the right thing, only that she knows she has to do something.

I think I can still understand why people find it disappointing or unsatisfying — there’s so much unsaid about the world, so much more that could be done with it, and Mirasol’s story is only beginning here. And yet Chalice is whole in and of itself, a standalone fantasy story in a world that feels bigger than the story, which is exactly the kind of thing I like.

Despite the fantasy setting, it’s not really something to read for the sense of magic. One comparison that comes to mind now is Lifelode (Jo Walton) — the importance of the domestic in that.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Maplecroft

Posted October 13, 2014 by lionbird in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Maplecroft by Cherie PriestMaplecroft, Cherie Priest

I like Cherie Priest’s ideas a lot, and even the writing when it works for me — Bloodshot and Hellbent being books I totally adore. I like her characters, the way she picks people who other writers might overlook: the working mother of Boneshaker, the neurotic vampire and her found family of Hellbent, and here, Lizzie Borden — yes, that one. She takes the two Bordens and makes them heroines, tries to change your perspective on the murder of the Borden parents, makes them women of learning and resolve, biting back against patriarchal society. And Lizzie’s relationship with Nance O’Neil is explicitly a sexual one here, which… I’m not sure if I think it’s a bit exploitative, using these real people in the service of this story. And yet I don’t flinch if you go back further and use Chaucer or Gower or Shakespeare, speculate about their relationships, so I guess it’s just because they’re that much closer to living memory. Either way, I do enjoy the way Priest chooses characters to weave her stories around.

The format is pretty cool, too: an epistolary novel, basically, very much in the same sort of vein as Dracula — only here, it’s a woman acquitted of murder versus stuff from the Cthulhu mythos. I’m not sure how completely Priest draws on that or whether it’s just nods in that direction, but she does a pretty good job of making the menace felt. One thing I didn’t quite get was the tetanus stuff and how/why that worked, which weakened things for me a bit — I felt like just a bit more explanation on that point would’ve helped, much as it might have gone against the grain of the mystery and the superstition that was wrapped around the scientific aspects.

It is a bit slow at some points — the epistolary format doesn’t help with that, since it gives us very explicit glimpses into how characters are feeling after the events they’re recording, which can slow down the action as they introspect. But overall I thought it was interesting, and I’d definitely read more in the series, where I’m much less bothered about the Eden Moore books or even the Clockwork Century books, which I haven’t read all of.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Younger Gods

Posted October 10, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Younger Gods by Michael R. UnderwoodThe Younger Gods, Michael R. Underwood
Received to review via Netgalley

The Younger Gods sounds fun, but it ended up not really pulling ahead of everything else I’ve read that’s even a little bit like it. Somehow the assembling team, the plot, it all lacked anything that really made me care — there should’ve been at least a sense of urgency, and more feelings from the main character about what exactly was happening, but I felt like it was just going through the motions.

This is the first of Underwood’s books I’ve read, and I’m pretty disappointed; some of his ideas sound really cool. And this had, you know, nephilim and werewolves and all sorts, all stirred into the pot. But nope, it just came out as mediocre — for me, at any rate.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Venomoid

Posted October 9, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Venomoid by J.A. KosslerVenomoid, J.A. Kossler
Received to review via Netgalley

There are some unique ideas in this book; the way vampires and zombies are recognisable, but somewhat different, always makes for some added interest. Unfortunately, I didn’t really get into the world and plot around that. Instead of occurring within the world, the world seemed to be created for the plot — which of course, it is, but you don’t want the reader to realise that. You want there to be an awareness of the world around the events of the novel, and that was lacking here.

As other reviewers have said, the quality of the writing is fairly mediocre; it’s certainly functional, but it’s not deathless prose at all. It’s a very teenage style, and all in all the book comes across as being for the YA audience. That tone in the narration is a little awkward, as the main character isn’t a teenager in one sense — physically, he is, but if I remember rightly, he’s older than that in experiential terms, because he ages slowly as a vampire. The adolescent outlook doesn’t just come with a teenage body, but with teenage levels of experience.

The insta-love thing other reviewers have mentioned is also pretty problematic, not to mention the fact that one of the romantic leads is somehow a “good” zombie, and yet needs to tear apart and eat living humans. Maybe there’s some way to make that less horrifying, more equivocal, but as it is, I couldn’t get past that fact to see him as a unproblematic “good” guy. (And I don’t think the intention was to make him a problematic lead.)

Anyway, all in all, I can’t say I really enjoyed this, which is a shame because the tweaked supernatural characteristics could’ve been interesting.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – Black Swan, White Raven

Posted October 8, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Black Swan, White Raven, ed Ellen DatlowBlack Swan, White Raven, ed. Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling
Received to review via Netgalley

As with all anthologies, Black Swan, White Raven is a mixed bunch, with some stories and I enjoyed and others I was more ambivalent about. That’s probably going to be the same for just about anyone, but Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling are legendary SF/F editors for a reason, and that’s apparent here.

Reading other reviews for these stories makes me laugh: complaining about the darker aspects of the stories, the fact that sometimes only a few vestiges of the original story (or rather, the story we usually know) are used, etc. Clearly these people have never looked at the ‘original’ stories — ‘negative and creepy’ is one person’s assessment, so goodness knows what they’d think of earlier versions of Sleeping Beauty and so on.

It’s an interesting selection of writers, too, some of whom are well known names now (I don’t know about when this was first published). I can’t pick out a favourite, but overall I enjoyed the collection, and while for some stories the theme seemed a bit stretched, it’s still worth reading — I actually read the whole collection in two sittings.

Someone does point out that the voice of women is fairly absent here. There’s one or two strong stories, particularly a retelling of Snow White, but there are also stories where women remain the objects of the quest rather than people. Somewhat to be expected, given the fairytale theme; still somewhat disappointing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Good Omens

Posted October 6, 2014 by in Reviews / 10 Comments

Cover of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry PratchettGood Omens, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett

It’s been a while since I read Good Omens, since I rather overread it when I was about seventeen. It kept my spirits up during boring free periods at school, and let me feel like I was really cool by reading it (as cool as I ever got at school, which wasn’t very, because I read too much and answered questions in class — you know the type). It was fun returning to it now: the jokes and puns are familiar by now, and I greeted each character like an old friend. I still adore Aziraphale and would now like to crochet him a sweater, and perhaps I would give Crowley a pot plant to terrify.

Generally, this is an inventive and funny novel, and I love the way they choose to portray angels, demons, and the general struggle between them. I also love the way they choose to wrap things up: Adam’s moment of choice is perfect, his decision, the small ways the world changes afterward. The two authors worked well together, for my money, and created something that is more than either of them would be apart. Some parts are obviously one or the other, but not many.

In the latest ebook edition, there’s also a short interview with them and a piece from each about how they met the other. They didn’t write those blind, without talking to the other, and so somehow those bits still have a bit of the style of the other, and they tend to agree on events. I love the image it gives of them, though, ringing each other up excitedly to contribute bits of the story — there’s a kind of joy in creation here that I find it impossible not to appreciate.

Maybe one thing I could do without is the constant harping on Aziraphale being ‘a Southern pansy’ and the like. It might be funny once or twice, illustrative of the type of person (angel) Aziraphale is, but this time through I started rolling my eyes at the gay jokes. Particularly as I recall Gaiman and Pratchett kind of denying the undercurrent between Crowley and Aziraphale that becomes completely apparent if you start taking notice of how often everyone assumes it.

It’s like someone said to me in university: “You know when people keep saying, ‘oh, if we keep doing this people will think we’re a couple?’ Most of the time, it really means, ‘I wish we were a couple and I want people to think that’.” Crowley and Aziraphale’s relationship is highlighted so many times that that’s the effect, for me.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Cosmocopia

Posted September 29, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Cosmocopia by Paul Di FilippoCosmocopia, Paul Di Filippo
Received to review via Netgalley

I have no earthly idea of what to compare this novel to, apart from China Miéville’s New Crobuzon books. There’s something akin in the worldbuilding, in the weirdnesses. But where other people are comparing this to an acid trip and whatever, well, I’ve never taken drugs in my life and even feverish dreams aren’t this bizarre but at the same time carefully drawn.

I wasn’t particularly engaged by the first third of the story, but I loved the second part. The world created was so different from almost anything I know of, and yet still Di Filippo managed to create characters and stakes that you could care about.

The last part was… almost an anticlimax. It was still weird, but I didn’t care so much for it, and despite covering more time/space, it paled compared to the second part. I don’t know how I wanted the story to end, but perhaps I wanted it to surprise me again — and this didn’t, somehow. It seemed almost half-hearted, really, like the important part of the story was the central part and the rest, eh.

Despite all that, it’s not difficult to read at all, and is straight-forward to follow. It’s the ideas that are bizarre, not the execution. Still, if you prefer a good solid novel that goes from A to B — more Neil Gaiman than China Miéville — then it probably won’t be for you. On the other hand, I’d have said that before reading this, and it got under my skin.

Rating: 4/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted September 27, 2014 by in General / 12 Comments

I haven’t gone on such wonderful buying sprees this week, but I did go to two different libraries (go on, guess how many library cards I have). So it is not particularly a small haul, all the same. And I did get some books — my partner spoils me.

Ebooks

Cover of Graceling by Kristin Cashore Cover of Fire by Kristin Cashore Cover of Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Cover of The Language of Spells by Sarah Painter Cover of Fair Game by Josh Lanyon

I read Graceling a few years ago, and liked it well enough, but I wasn’t bowled over. I’m going to give Kristin Cashore another chance, evidently; my ex-housemate Ru will be pleased with me. The Language of Spells was a somewhat random choice, while Fair Game is necessary for me to read last week’s review copy of Fair Play.

Review copies

Cover of Unborn by Amber Lynn Natusch Cover of Riding the Unicorn by Paul Kearney

I tried to have restraint this week, see?

Library books

Cover of False Colours by Georgette Heyer Cover of The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen Cover of Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer

Cover of Surrender None by Elizabeth Moon Cover of Liar's Oath by Elizabeth Moon Cover of Tempting the Gods by Tanith Lee

Cover of Bad Things by Michael Marshall Cover of The Mighty Thor by Matt Fraction Cover of Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss

Cover of Seahenge by Francis Pryor Cover of Discovering Dorothea by Karolyn Shindler

More Heyer, which surprises no one; I keep meaning to read Sarah Addison Allen and since I’ve misplaced Garden Spells, I may as well start there; archaeology! paleontology! and… Matt Fraction. My usual hectic mix.

What’s everyone else been up to?

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Review – The Hobbit

Posted September 24, 2014 by in Reviews / 9 Comments

Cover of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Yesterday — or, by the time this goes live on my blog, the day before yesterday, the 22nd — was Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday, so naturally that constituted the final bit of excuse I needed to reread Lord of the Rings. And it never quite feels right without starting with The Hobbit. It doesn’t have quite the same cleverness that I enjoy with Lord of the Rings — Tolkien hadn’t come up with, or didn’t see the need to explain, his complicated text provenances, for example — but I still enjoy the narration, the sense of being told a story, and the fact that he expects you, dares you, to be on the ball. As a kid, I didn’t notice some of the flaws in Bilbo’s plans at all, but Tolkien’s narration gives you the benefit of the doubt there. Self-deprecating, almost.

I think the reason I dislike the Hobbit films so much is because they are adapting the book I love to blend with the films they’ve made already. I can see why they’re doing that, and why people enjoy it, but I don’t feel the desperate need to rationalise the difference between the tones of the two books. I like my dwarves goofy, the hero’s journey a little less blatant; I like that Bilbo makes his way through all the adventures because he’s a hobbit, with hobbit-sensibilities, not just a hero in hobbit form. I love that hobbits are basically Tolkien taking aspects of himself and letting them run around in this fantasy world without the illusion that of course he’d be the heroic type. It’s still wish fulfilment, but it’s a kind of wish fulfilment where the hero probably would be better off as a grocer or something else quiet, and manages despite that.

I mean, I bet a very small percentage of self-insert fanfics have the sense to admit that in reality, they’re more like the hobbits than the typical heroes. I really enjoy that Tolkien quite blatantly did that with his layers of authorship and the characteristics of hobbits as a race, and didn’t give in to the urge to over-romanticise it — while still making hobbits endearing, funny, brave, worth reading about, still pulling out aspects of character from even the most countrified bumpkin that could make them a hero.

And, let’s be honest, I just don’t understand people who don’t see the skill in Tolkien’s writing, in the way he builds up the world. Even here, where it isn’t taking the main character very seriously, he still takes the world seriously, shadowing it with the threat of the Necromancer, the Ring, the great alliances of the orcs — hinting at twisted dwarves and the complicated history of the elves, deftly bringing in little bits of lore so that they’re natural when we come to them in The Lord of the Rings. Not because he was planning it, but because he knew his world and knew how to show it to the reader.

Rating: 5/5

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