Wednesday, 27 January 2016

CBR8 2: Once Upon A Marquess, Courtney Milan

Seriously, "once upon a Marquess" has literally zero to do with the plot except that the male lead is a Marquess. I can't imagine that Milan had anything to do with it unless she was off her tits. Given that she self-publishes, it can't have been pressure from the publishers. I am a fan of Milan specifically, and I have fond feelings for romance in general, but the naming convention is total sexist bullshit that infantilises the readers and detracts from the genre. Am I right? I'm right.

Judith Worth and Christian Trent had a History, but Circumstances mean that Judith turns to Christian for help protecting her remaining family. Judith is the second of five Worth children and is the sole guardian and protector of the youngest two; the eldest son is presumed dead, and the middle daughter left Judith after their father and brother were tried and convicted of treason. Judith has to keep her remaining family together and happy while resisting the pull of the past. Christian, meanwhile, is torn between the honesty that his honour demands, and the narrative that is demanded by his loved ones.

So far, so predictable, as far as set-ups go. Will Judith and Christian get back together? Will the youngest Worth boy get over his year of torment at Eton? Will the clearly on the autism spectrum Worth daughter continue to be a comedy interlude slash signifier of the purity of Judith's character or will she experience true growth? Is the eldest brother really dead or has he been secretly you know what, actually, let's just go with this book is mostly predictable in its entirety, but that's not a bad thing.

What makes Milan stand out as a writer is her social commentary, not her plotting, and in Milan's defence there it should be pointed out that I am pretty cynical about romance plots generally (I prefer it as a sub-plot) and, unfortunately, whenever I read a book with the intention of reviewing it I bring the full force of my cynicism to bear. It's sort of the force of a strong gale, not a hurricane or El Nino driven snowstorm or Arctic whatever. I'm British. Our cynicism, like our weather, is constant but relatively mild.

The social commentary in Once Upon A Marquess is as good as I expected, and more philosophical than I anticipated - which in retrospect was my error; anyone as astute as Milan at under-the-radar social justice commentary can obviously do the same with moral philosophy 101. She seems to be expanding her repertoire, and I look forward to finding out how that progresses. I would like it if she was less narrow with her representations of life-as-neuratypical, but the fact that she has any representations of it at all is still awesome.

4 stars: I'm looking forward to the rest of the series and will read this again. Half a point removed for slightly ableist representation of the sister, another half a point for the OCD representation; half a point regained for good addict/addiction representation, and another half a point for not starting the sex scene with cunnilingus. (It annoys me as a trope, okay? It's the cookie-cutter aspect of sex scenes that bothers me rather than any one particular aspect.)

Cross-posted to Cannonball Read here.

Friday, 15 January 2016

CBR8 1: A Rose Red Chain, Seanan McGuire

So, a new year and a new Cannonball. A Rose-Red Chain, by Seanan McGuire, the ninth book in the October Daye series. Also, warning: this review will contain spoilers for the rest of the series, which I have not reviewed, on account of having read most of them before starting to review books for the purposes of Posterity, Comedy, and Fucking Cancer (But Not Like That Where Has Your Mind Gone You Filthy Animal).

October is newly engaged to the lovely Tybalt, my favourite man-who-is-also-a-cat (which really isn't a descriptor I ever thought I would write, good to know all those English Lit courses were in fact for nothing), and they have just started to plan their wedding when Toby - through shenanigans - is sent to be the ambassador to the northern Kingdom of Silences, which has just declared war on the Kingdom of Mists. She has to stop the war, and preferably also survive.

I'm a huge McGuire fan, she's an incredible writer who has the perfect amount of black humour, terrible puns, scorching hot sexytimes, and rapid-fire action for my tastes. This book feels like one of the weaker ones in the series though, which I think is probably a combination of the winding up of the series (sob), and the relative absence of the Luideag from the story, because she's my favourite. Sarcasm and a tragic back story does it for me every time.

That said, my standards for McGuire are really high at this point, and she handles Toby's power-creep really well - Toby angsts about her nature, confronts various moral dilemmas regarding the usage of her powers and resolves them in a pleasing fashion, and while the villains of the story are powerful enough to be a threat and a challenge to Toby, they're not subject to the same power-creep, which is really nice - they're a challenge because they're clever and careful and powerful, and Toby's victory is more to do with her allies and friends than it is her own special snowflake-ness. In that respect, McGuire is both fighting the tropes as well as satisfying them, which is a hard line to walk for any author, especially in paranormal-urban-romance-fantasy, which is really trope-tastic. (I have Thoughts about the nature of the genre, actually, but I'll save that for another time. I think it deserves its own post.)

My main complaint, really, is the speed of book. The pacing was weird in places, really slow in some parts and then so fast it was almost blink-and-you-miss-it in others, and the ending was much more abrupt than I expect from a Toby book, usually there's more deconstruction and winding-down of the plot after the big bad is gone. I don't know if that's because McGuire is doing about twelve other things and got distracted by the siren song of another novel, or her editor was phoning it in that week, or if it was a deliberate choice and the next book will pick up immediately in the aftermath, but it left me a little wrong-footed.

Still, this is still a damn good book, and an excellent addition to the series. Don't start with it, obviously, start with the first one ffs, but this is one that fans of the series are going to want to read and won't be disappointed by.

4/5: when I read again, I'm going to add in my own Luideag commentary and it will be awesome. "Really, Toby? Really? JUST BURN IT. What, none of you can make fire? I dunno, kids these days, what was Dad thinking." Etc.

Crossposted to Cannonball Read here.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

#CBR7 12: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Tho' much is takes, much abides;

On a frozen world far outside of civilised space, Breq is distracted from her self-appointed mission of vengeance by a face from her distant past. Seivarden was the sole survivor of an assassination attempt on the Lord of the Radch a thousand years ago, a period in Breq's past which becomes more and more relevant as the narrative weaves on.

Breq is the last remnant of the troop carrier Justice of Toren, lost to all parts of herself and cast adrift two decades previously. She is not mad, although she was for a time, stuck in one body with only one set of senses to draw on where before she was the ship and the thousands of ancillaries she controlled. She struggles constantly to disguise her nature and her past from those around her, allies and enemies alike, while she unravels her recent and distant pasts and begins to understand the nature of her true enemy.

This book is incredible. The narrative is gently paced and portentous at first, as the world is slowly built up around Breq, but it accelerates constantly and by the end of it I resented every interruption and really had to force myself back into the real world. The characters are wonderful, redolent with flaws and strengths and dreams broken against the terrible machinations of a nearly-unimaginable enemy. The various different cultures examined in the book are all believable and unique - no simple space America, space USSR, space inscrutable Orientals here.

The blurb talks about how if you loved Iain M Banks' Culture novels you'll love this, and there are definitely similarities in the scope and ambition of the galaxy-building, as well as the transhuman and AI elements. But for me, Leckie felt much more like a true inheritor of Ursula K LeGuin, with her intricacies and slow burn and above all, her superb investigation into the nature of gender in society. If you are even the slightest bit interested in the way gender and sex interact with language and thinking, you need to read this book.

If you prefer rollicking space opera, this is going to be a harder read for you. (QQ, puppies, QQ.) But it's still the best Mil-SF I've read since Walter Jon Williams' Dread Empire's Fall series, and it does Leckie a massive disservice to overlook how good the action sequences are, how well she uses physics, and how much care she has taken to make it all visualisable and believable.

5 stars: and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Cross-posted to Cannonball Read here. Poetry: Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Monday, 15 June 2015

#CBR7 11: New Amsterdam, Elizabeth Bear

I went on holiday last week and prepared my kindle with a bunch of interesting new books, several of which have been recommended by fellow Cannonballers. The first one I read, though, was one I bought a while ago in a Humble ebook bundle: New Amsterdam, by Elizabeth Bear.

More of a collection of short stories than a novel per se, the book contains several mysteries which are investigated and solved by three connected people: the vampire Don Sebastien de Ulloa, the sorcerer Abigail Irene Garrett, and de Ulloa's servant and courtier/courtesan Jack. The mysteries all have a supernatural bent to them, but the very human politics and scandals surrounding them are just as thrilling.

I've read other books by Bear, which I didn't review because I was stuck for a while, and she does non-standard characters well, as well as non-heteronormative romances. This book is no exception: the chemistry between the various different characters is great, and the way Sebastien builds up his small and unique court is a pleasure to watch unfolding. If I had to be a thrall to any fictional vampire, I'd want it to be him. He is a lovely character, and a really good vampire as well, with pleasing amounts of inhuman predator about him.

Abby Irene was my favourite though. She is never anything less than brutally honest with herself, and she takes no prisoners with anyone else either. She is very much in charge of her body and sexuality, and that's rare to see in any female character, let alone one in her middle age. She reminded me a lot of some of Bujold's older heroines, although Bear's style is very different than Bujold's work.

Amazon tells me there are more books in this series. I will definitely be checking them out at some point.
4 stars, highly recommended, would like more sex for fifth star.
Cross-posted to Cannonball Read here.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

My pain is not your entertainment

This post contains spoilers for The Others series by Anne Bishop and references the computer game Guild Wars 2. It also contains descriptions of self-harm and self-harm ideation, and discussion of various mental health conditions. As such, clicking on the jump into the post signifies your consent to reading all of the above, that you will never talk about this or mention it to my mother, and also your understanding that these depictions might distress you. Links are included to various organisations dedicated to helping the survivors and sufferers of the issues discussed. I am turning off comments for this post.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

#CBR7 10: Paper Towns, John Green

I read this at the request of a friend, who had really enjoyed it and wanted me to read it as well. Thanks to Malin (thanks Malin!) I was able to get hold of a copy and read it in an evening. My cheesecake -loving friend really enjoyed it; my own feelings were slightly more mixed.

Paper Towns is a book in three parts, but defining them involves spoiling the story, so I'm going to stick to being vague. All three parts have a different feel to them, and they take roughly a third of the book each - it's well-balanced and the writing keeps moving you forward. The journeys of the main character, both literal and metaphorical, are very detailed and realistic.

I strongly disliked Margo for the first half of the book. She embodies everything I hate about the manic pixie dream girl trope, and I hated Q's fixation on her and his own embodiment of the unhappy nerd stuck in friendzone trope. I really, really hate the friendzone bullshit narrative that nerd subcultures fixate on, and my exhaustion with MPDGs combined with what appeared to be a straight out friendzone bollocks meant that the only reason I got past the first half of the book at all was because I told my friend I would read it, and I didn't want to dismiss something he was so clearly invested in.

Fortunately for me, Green is a far cleverer writer than I gave him credit for to begin with. He explicitly deconstructs Margo's personality and life, exploding the manic pixie myth very effectively. He's less explicit about the friendzone thing, but I think it was less widely talked about when the book was written in 2009, and he still does present a good deconstruction of the ideas around it so he gets thumbs up from me for that.

The secondary characters were less good though. Part of this is the limitations of first-person narrative, combined with a less than completely reliable narrator, and in fact there is one really good scene where one of Q's friends calls him out on his lack of empathy with another member of their circle. In that respect, their flatness can definitely be viewed as a comment of Q's own self-absorption and carelessness. But the relationships his two best friends have are poorly investigated, and one in particular felt really clich├ęd and unrealistic.

There is a lot in this book for any aspiring teenage student of literature. That sounds more faint praise than I intend it to: the book perfectly exemplifies several literary themes and conceits which regularly feature in literature studies, and the characters are all in high school so it's going to resonate much more with a younger audience than most of the crap - sorry, classics - they make you study in school. That said, I can't bring myself to give the book a 5, because of how long I spent wanting to slap the two main characters upside the head. Which I guess is a feature of not being a teenager any more, something I am permanently grateful for.

4 out of 5, definitely recommended.
Cross-posted to Cannonball Read here.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

#CBR7 9: The Girl WIth All The Gifts, MR Carey

Melanie is one of a small group of children who are educated at an exclusive facility, with highly trained security personnel and top-tier medical experts on hand. Her education is extensive and varied. She is a precocious and brilliant girl, with an inquisitive personality and a great deal of self-control. Her survival instinct is finely honed. This all comes in very useful when she, her favourite teacher, two of the guards and one of the doctors are forced to flee their facility and run for their lives in infested territory.

Infested by what, you say? Well, you know those ants? You've seen the time-lapse. There's an ant, and it gets infected with a fungus, and then it climbs as high as it can and waits until a mushroomy thing grows out of its head, and then the mushroomy thing makes spores go over all the nearby ants? That ant thing. I'm not finding a link. You can google it at your leisure.

Just so we're clear, that has always been my personal fucking nightmare. I don't know why. I have a problem with plants growing where they shouldn't. I freaked the fuck out when I found a clover growing up through the overflow in the sink in my last house, and it was green and normal, do not even get me started on the creepy white no-sunlight plants gah they're awful. I am aware this is firmly on the "Elizabeth being really not normal" side of the ledger, but I get twitchy just thinking about it. (I think this is why beansprouts really bother me as well. Yech.)

Anyway, this is a zombie apocalypse novel without any actual undead, and it is an incredible piece of work. I forswore zombie novels after I spent a year and a half dreaming about zombies courtesy of Max Brooks World War Z, but this one had piqued my interest earlier. (I dreamt about the book last night. Actually, I dreamt about writing this review about the book, and then it sort of segued into the plot of the book. I spent some time in the dream critiquing my own dream version of the story, so it definitely stayed with me. I just hope it stops, I remember my dreams every night courtesy of brain drugs and I am really not joking about the year and a half of zombie dreams thing.)

ANYWAY, the characters are all really well fleshed out and the story is really well-paced; I have a very visual experience when I read, but this was even more like a film than normal. Carey has written a bunch of comics before, and he's clearly learned a thing or two about pacing and dramatic tension. If this doesn't get made into a film at some point, I will be very surprised.

I am mostly very tired of zombies as a trope, vampires have always been more my thing, but The Girl With All The Gifts is a really good addition to the oeuvre, and there's a lot in there for the reader to mull over. Clearly, it stayed with me really very clearly, and I think it would even without the fungus thing. (GAH. Still horrible. Yuck yuck yuck.)

4 stars: clever and compelling, this book doesn't quite meet my criteria for 5 stars but it's a very close thing. Highly recommended.

Cross-posted to Cannonball Read here.