Showing posts with label steampunk. Show all posts
Showing posts with label steampunk. Show all posts

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Cold Copper by Devon Monk

Rating: WARTY!

I've read material from Devon Monk before and enjoyed it which is why I picked this up, but this wasn't to my taste at all, and I DNF'd it pretty quickly. Whoever it was who decided that paranormal needed to be an integral part of Steampunk, and actual steampunk didn't, I don't know, but I'm not onboard with that scheme of things unless there's a really good reason to toss in everything, including the kitchen sink. Apart from rabid desperation and lack of imagination, there usually isn't.

This was book three in the "Age of Steam" series, but once again there was absolutely zip on the cover to indicate that to potential readers. Thanks assholes at Penguin Publishing Group for letting me know what unrelibale and unhelpful morons you all are. I'll keep your dedicated incompetence in mind.

But really I should probably blame myself. It said right there on the back cover blurb that the main character's name was Cedar Hunt. Seriously? I was so distracted by the name that I completely missed that he was a lycanthrope. That alone would have saved me from this novel! I should have followed my gut instinct to avoid like the plague any novel that has a ridiculous main character name like that. Instead, I made the grievous error of thinking that if I liked one book by this author, maybe I'll like another. I can see now why readers have absolutely no loyalty to authors whatsoever any more, and maybe that's a good thing.

But I digress, as usual. So anyway, the story was supposed to be about this werewolf (Monk evidently doesn't have the guts to call 'em like she sees 'em) who is hunting for a magical thing (yeah, magic!) that's capable of great destruction (yeah, world-shattering!). There are seven pieces to this, so presumably that means seven novels at the very least in this rat's nest of a series. It's a pity the Holder didn't destroy the series before it got this far. A glacial storm forces Cedar Hunt (he's hunting for the Holder, get it? He can't Cedar holder for da storm though) and his party to cannibalize each other (kidding). No, they take refuge from the storm in Des Moines, Iowa, and it's arguable really whether that's better than freezing to death. At least that latter would have got them a kiss from Elsa. Or Frozone if they preferred.

Des Moines is ruled not by monks (Devon Monk, des moines, get it?), but by Iron Fist - or at least the iron fist of some evil dude. And so it goes. Apparently this witch is so pathetic that she can't carve them out a warm igloo amidst the storm so this entire volume of the book looks to me like it's not going to expend a single joule of energy on getting closer to the Holder, but instead, is going to be completely sidetracked. Another problem with series. But at least I never got invested in this one. It didn't even have any steampunk - at least not in the bit I read. Instead, it had all the hallmarks of a western featuring witches, but it was so tediously-written and there was such an underlying stench of a Hollowquim romance about it that I could not stand to read more than two chapters about these characturds before I gave up. It was nice knowing you once Devon Moin, but no fear we must part ways here.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Manners and Mutiny by Gail Carriger

Rating: WARTY!

I read all four of this series and liked only the first two. I thought I was going to like this one until it became such a clichéd bore of a werewolf romance story that it made me want to vomit. I have no time for bullshit werewolf or vampire romances. This one promised not to be such a novel when it began. It was steampunk. Why authors feel the need to include vampires and werewolves in their steampunk tales is a complete and utter mystery to me, because it never works. The story always wants to be one or the other and is ruined by trying to make it both.

Sophronia is at a girls' finishing school based on an airship, but it's really a finishing school for female spies. That part was all well and good, but of course the author had to throw in a forbidden romance because no YA female main character is complete unless she has a demanding and pushy bad boy after her.

The guy's absurd name was Soap and he was a grease monkey on the airship - so, forbidden. Then the author evidently thought she had to up the ante, and she had Sophronia save Soap's life by begging the werewolves to bite him. Now Soap is a werewolf and even more forbidden, and far from being pissed at her for interfering in his life (or death), he now sees her action as a declaration of her love for him, and bizarrely thinks he owns her. Never once does Sophronia set limits or boundaries, because he pulls all sorts of entirely inappropriate behaviors on her and she gulps it down like a bitch in heat.

In short, the whole thing reeked. The author might have rescued it if she'd had anything going on other than the romance, but there was literally nothing happening that was worth the telling in the fifty percent of this that I could stand to read, and the romance was all this book had to offer. That was certainly not worth the telling. It's been done countless times before. Please, bring me an author with an imagination and some originality. I'm done with this one. I ditched it and moved on to something hopefully better, and which I felt certain couldn't possibly be any worse.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Clockwork Witch by Michelle D Sonnier

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

"...she watched as her family prepare to leave the house." This really needed to have used 'prepared' rather than 'prepare'.
"When do you think they'll finally drag you into the family business, brother dear?" Arabella smiled. "Oh, I think not." John barked with laughter." The second speech doesn't follow from the first! If the 'when' was omitted from the first speech, it would make more sense.
"We've combed the library and its' not inconsiderable resources" no apostrophe is required on 'its'

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I am not a huge fan of steampunk, but then this really isn't a steampunk story even though it superficially professes to be a mashup of witchcraft and steampunk. That juxtaposition is what interested me in the novel as it happens, but I had too many writing issues with it to love it, despite it starting out very strongly for me.

My blog is more about the writing of novels than the reading of them, but I explore writing through discussing my reading experiences and assessing the book accordingly, and this one felt very much like a book feels when an American writer tries to write a Victorian novel without really knowing the Victorian period very well - at least as it was experienced in Britain. An example of such an Americanism was "She'll be furious is what she'll be." That's a common format - repeating the same person and verb at the end as you've used at the start, but I don't see a well-bred Victorian family employing it in Britain!

I don't profess to be an expert by any means, but since there exist very many books from that period, fiction and otherwise, my advice to writers is to read a lot of them so you get a feel for the vernacular in use back then. That aside, I did enjoy reading this to start with. Unfortunately, it had too many issues, by far the worst of which was the disturbingly weak and bland female main character.

I adore books with strong females - and by that I do not mean they can arm-wrestle a guy to the ground (although that could be a trait they have!). No, I mean women who are self-possessed and self-motivated and who do not wilt every other paragraph. I don't care if they start out weak and grow strong or if they're strong from the off. I do care if they never grow, and never change no matter what provocation or incentive they have, and that was this character's problem.

I know it was set in Victorian times when women were all-too-often deemed weak and delicate, and some actually were, just as some are today, but there were some amazing women who lived in that era (the queen for one example) and who made their mark: such as Ada Lovelace, Annie Besant, Eleanor Coade, Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale, Isabella Bird, Marianne North, Millicent Fawcett. Dido Belle was another although she came long before the Victorian era. Radclyffe Hall was another although she came later.

The novel began strongly, but then slowly and inexorably went downhill. The main character was so weepy and showed no sign of growing a backbone, so around seventy percent in I couldn't stand to read about her any more. I did a search for the word 'sobbed' in this novel, and it showed up ten different times and each time it was the main character who was doing the sobbing! This was throughout the novel. I don't mind a girl (or a guy for that matter) breaking down once in a while, but this girl was doing it habitually, at the drop of a hat. It was nauseating to keep reading it. Parts of the novel were really great, but she was such a lackluster and limp woman who had showed no sign of ever growing, and I lost all interest in her and her story.

People have on occasion chided me for DNF-ing a novel, but I see no point in forcing oneself to read something that simply doesn't get the job done. Life is far too short. Their argument that maybe things will turn around is weak and I've disproven it repeatedly. If the novel isn't getting it done by the time you're twenty percent in, you should quit right then. I almost quit around the half-way point, but decided to struggle on in hopes that it would improve because there had been parts I really enjoyed, but it did not improve. It steadily grew worse, and meanwhile I'd wasted more of my time pursuing it! I do not subscribe to the sunk cost fallacy; quitting is a smarter move than continuing to invest effort in something not worthy of your time.

The story is of the Sortileges, the leading witch family in Britain, and one which is highly-regarded beyond the immediate shores of the so-called Sceptered Isle. The Family is a large one - seven daughters and two sons. In this world, the daughters take precedence, because they are witches, and men take a back seat, contrary to 'mundane' society (read: muggles!) where it is of course the reverse, as real life history shows.

The main character is Arabella, a name I can't think of without being reminded of the rather catchy song from the old Peter Sellers movie based on a stage play: There's a Girl in My Soup (which I recommend for light-hearted fun and a few witty remarks, but you have to be something of an anglophile to get the best from it). The song runs along the lines of: "Arabella, Cinderella, what did she do? She turned into a pumpkin at the stroke of two! You know she should have done it way back at midnight. Why, oh why, can she never get it right!"

The biggest problem with Arabella, the trope seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, is that she wept constantly and never once stood up for herself. It was too much. Once in a while under stress, or from a major setback perhaps, it would have been fine, but it was every few pages and for the slightest of reasons.

That song I mentioned is particularly appropriate here, because Arabella can't get it right. She's a squib, to put it in Harry Potter terms. This is trope for this kind of story: the magical person with no magic who in the end turns out to be especially magical. It's a bit tired, and this particular story - the initially undiscovered mastery machinery - has been done before in The Star Thief by Lindsey Becker, a story which I really did enjoy.

The family is invited to a demonstration of a new calculating machine along the lines of Babbage's difference engine, but whereas his machine was a small one controlled by turning a crank the requisite number of times to do the calculation, Mr Westerfield's machine is quite the behemoth and runs on steam. Note that Babbage never built his final machine - only a smaller model of it because the government lost patience with him and stopped funding it.

The reason we know it works is that the machine was actually built in the 1980's in Australia using Babbage's original drawings and the machining techniques available in Babbage's time. The engine worked as specified. The name of Westerfield's machine looked like it was simply chosen because it had some superficial resonance with 'difference engine' but Babbage chose his name for a valid reason. I didn't get the impression that 'distinction engine' had any rationale behind it at all, so it stood out as an odd choice.

During the demo, Arabella discovers she can literally see the work in progress in the form of a glow in the machine's mechanisms, and she discovers that she can operate it using only thought. This is how she learns she actually does have a power, and it's also what brings her into conflict with Westerfield, although his antagonistic reaction to her is way over the top and her weasel reaction to him is, honestly, pathetic.

There was one part of the machine which Arabella cannot see any glow in, and it seemed obvious why this was so. Unfortunately, it made Arabella look a bit on the dumb side that she did not figure this out quickly, but the reason I mention this event is that there were a couple of writing issues with it.

The first of these is when the dignitaries are addressed to call the meeting to order and the guy says, "Ladies and gentlemen, members of Parliament, and noble witches," but he has the order wrong. If the witches are indeed as important as they're portrayed in this story, then they ought to addressed first. This is still the way it's done - prejudiced as it may be - with the monarchy, peerage, and nobility coming first, as in "My Lords, ladies, and gentlemen," for example.

It seems to me the witches would have been insulted to have been placed last, but no one says a word about it! This issue is further highlighted later in the story when Arabella's older brother John comes to tea and I read, "Arabella served tea and inquired after their father's health." Wait - in a witch family, the female serves tea? Shouldn't it be the other way around? I think the author means that she poured the tea, not served it, which a maid would have done, but even so, it undermined the earlier statements to the effect that women in witch families always took precedence.

The other issue I had in this section of the book was with the naming of the leading witch's daughters. One of the sons is called John, the other, Henry, both of which were very popular names back then and fitted right into the story, but not a single one of the daughters was given a name anywhere close to the usual names for girls in that time! Now you can argue that this is a different world, and these are witches, but if this is so, then how come the author doesn't mention it?

If one had been named Morgan, as in Morgan le Fay, or Jennet, as in Jennet Preston, or Mary, as in Mary Trembles, that would have worked, but none of the girls' names here invoked what you might consider to be a suitable name for a witch based on the names of those who were (of course insanely) deemed to be witches historically. Just FYI, the girls were named: Vivienne, Rowena, Jessamine, Josephine, Arabella, Amelia, and Elizabeth.

Apart from that latter one, these are quite simply not names that Victorian parents gave to their daughters, so this stood out like a sore thumb. Maybe the author chose them for a reason. To me, names matter a lot, and I always try to give my main characters meaningful names, such as Janine Majeski in Seasoning or Cora Graigh in Saurus. Cora's name pretty much told her entire story, if you knew what to look for, but if that wasn't the case in this novel, and they were merely names that sounded good to the author, then this rather betrayed the deeper story. At least that's how I felt about it!

The timeline of the novel is a little off. As set by the date of the great exhibition at Crystal Palace, the story takes place in 1851, but it conflates two periods of history which never coincided. The Irish potato famine was largely over by 1851, and the suffragette movement set English society alight toward the end of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, but it was barely an ember in 1851. Crystal palace is now better known as a soccer team than an exhibition, but that's the only part of this story's background that did take place in 1851!

The novel seems to be intended as a steampunk story - which is by definition an obfuscation of the timeline - so perhaps this conflation can be covered under that, but in another such conflation, at one point the author has the sisters playing croquet. The earliest record of croquet is 1856. That doesn't mean it could not have been around earlier, but it didn't become popular until the 1860s a decade after this story is set, so it seems hardly like this mundane game would have been played by Arabella's witch family in 1851, especially since the family snobbishly had no truck with the 'common people' (and Arabella saw no problem with this - another reason not to like her). In short, everything just felt off.

At one point I read John saying, "Arabella Helene Sortilege, I'm surprised to hear you lecturing me about respect when you've obviously snuck out of the house..." I had two issues with this. First of all 'snuck' is an Americanism, and while it may be used in Britain today (a lot of Americanisms are) it would never have left the lips of a person of breeding in 1851! Additionally, an older brother in England back then was hardly likely to use her full name. He would be much more likely to use a pet name - something from their childhood. There were other such lapses, such as "John leaned his elbows on the table" - no! Not in a well-bred family he didn't!

There's one more such incident. Amelia's boyfriend Harlan (again not a name likely to be found in 1850's Britain) says to Amelia: "join the Sisterhood today, chickadee...." No! Just no! The chickadee is a North American bird. It's unknown in Britain and unlikely to have even been heard of by most Brits back then. The closest thing to it is a tit, but he could hardly have described Amelia as 'my little tit' - although that would have been amusing had the guy been set up as socially inept. But no! A better choice would have been linnet. This is a British bird and was used as an endearment when talking of young women, back then. That was something I could let go, but then for inexplicable reasons, Arabella's mom starts referring to her using the same term, and honestly? It just sounded stupid.

Technically, the book is well-written in terms of grammar, spelling and such, but the formatting is odd. There is an extra carriage return between paragraphs which is a no-no for professional publishing and means that the book takes up far more space if it runs to a print edition than it would otherwise. My advice is to save a few trees in your print version using a thing called paragraph spacing (along with a smaller font and narrower margins). In the ebook, this doesn't matter so much except that a longer book uses more energy to transmit, so it's always wiser to keep it shorter if you can.

So for this large variety of reasons, I cannot rate this novel as a worthy read, but I am interested in this writer. I think she has imagination and talent, and I would definitely read the next thing she writes - assuming it's a genre that I have an interest in of course! I have zero interest in reading a Harlequin-style romance by any author for example, no matter how much I love them! So even though I cannot commend this one, I wish the author success in her endeavors. We need fresh young voices and she's in an excellent position to become one of them.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Lady Mechanika the Clockwork Assassin by Joe Benitez, MM Chen, Martin Monteil, Beth Sotello

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I've read several Lady Mechanika stories now, both as ARCs and as print books, and this will be my last. While I'm quite willing to put up with the improbability of steampunk stories if I can get a good story, these particular ones simply don't engage me. I don't feel any investment in them. The art is well done, but not to my personal taste: the characters are too tall and skinny which means the women have inane figures - literally hourglass with pencil waists and pneumatic breasts.

Even if we let slide the question of exactly how a clockwork assassin could even work, the story itself was quite simply confusing. A lot of the time I could not follow it at all, but even so it was pretty obvious who the villain was given that this was the only inventor we'd met in the entire story and was superficially the least likely suspect to boot!

I think the big problem with the Lady Mechanika series is that it isn't very well defined who she actually is, so she ends up hanging precariously between genres. Is she a detective à la Sherlock Holmes? Is she a super hero à la Batman? Is she a vampire with those red eyes?! I think the creators want her to be both detective and super hero, but in the end she's neither, and this is the problem. Worse than this, she doesn't invite investment in her as a character, at least not from me. I feel no warmth in her so I feel no warmth for her, and so for me, there was nothing at stake here. I can't recommend this one.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Inventor's Secret by Andrea Cremer

Rating: WARTY!

You take Cremer with your coffee? Not me! Read decently by Leslie Bellair, this story still failed for me. Another audiobook experiment, it started out quite well, but soon started to sound tedious, and although I did not know at the time that this was a series, now that I know it is, I'm glad I didn't waste my time listening to this until the 'end' only to find it didn't actually have an end; instead, I'd have to go read the rest of this series to get the whole story. No thanks!

Essentially what this is, is the American revolutionary war transferred to the steam punk age, and there's little steam punk in it or at least here wasn't in the portion I listened to. The British Empire is once again the villain here, because it's a purported "global juggernaut propelled by marvelous and horrible machinery" according to the blurb. This could actually describe the present day USA!

In the story, Charlotte, who we're told is sixteen but who behaves more like an eleven year old, is living with a bunch of 0other refugees in a forest. Periodically, big brass collector machines which seem to have been modeled somewhat on the Martian machines from the 2005 War of the Worlds movie, come into the wilds to grab stray children. Charlotte helps one of these kids, escaping from the machine and hiding out in her secret layer with the rest of her crew

Now why do these impressive machines grab children? Surely it can't be for slave labor since they have these wonderful machines, now can it?! Oh wait, it is for slave labor! Fail! This made zero sense, but even that I was willing to let slide, until I started hearing about what Charlotte had to put up with in the camp. There was this utter jerk of a kid named (predictably) Jack who shamelessly harassed Charlotte, who was the sister of his best friend. Pathetic. I'm not going to read crap like that.

There was the occasional stroke of humor in it, but only when one of the youngsters cussed in British, such as "Bloody hell" or when Charlotte announced she was going to bed because she was "Knackered", but those moments were far too brief and scarce. Overall, this novel left me steamed and punk'd.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Lady Mechanika, Vol.1: the Mystery of Mechanical Corpse by Joe Benítez, Peter Steigerwald

Rating: WORTHY!

This gathers volumes 1 through five of the single comic books and was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I had a better experience with this one than I did with the second volume of the series, which I requested at the same time as this. The steam-punk world is rendered and colored beautifully, and the story was an intriguing and entertaining one, well told. Lady Mechanika is a cyborg - inasmuch as such things went in Edwardian times. I am by no means a fashion expert, not even in modern times, so I may have this wrong, but the styles didn't look Victorian to me, notwithstanding what the blurb says. That's not a problem, just an observation. I rather liked them as it happens. Joe Benítez and Peter Steigerwald could probably make a living as fashion designers if they ever tire of comic books!

Lady Mechanika is quite evidently someone's creation, but her memory is impaired, so her origins are as much of a mystery to her as they are to us. I am wondering if the guy she meets in volume two (reviewed separately) might have some knowledge of that, but it remains a mystery in that volume, too! Her mechanical parts are her limbs, and her 'title' was given to her by the tabloids. Her backstory isn't delivered here or in volume two, so we don't know how she came to be a private investigator and adventurer. I was interested in this story because of the upcoming (as of this writing) live-action remake of the Ghost in the Shell movie, which is a favorite of mine. I'm looking forward to the new one.

When the story opens, the Lady meets the 'Demon of Satan's Alley' which appears to be some sort of a human animal hybrid and which isn't a demon but which has been demonized by the public. Some crazy guys blunder in and kill it before Lady Mechanika can talk to it enough to maybe find out what it knows of its past - and maybe of hers, too. She's not best pleased by that. Soon she's off adventuring and trying to track down this creator of mechanical melanges. In this regard, the story has some resemblances to Ghost in the Shell, including the overt and unnecessary sexuality.

There were some technical issues with this as there are with all graphic novels which have not yet clued themselves in to the electronic age. In BlueFire Reader, which is what I use on the iPad, the pages are frequently enlarging themselves to fill the screen which means a portion of the page is curt off, since the iPad screen and the comic book page size are out of whack compared with each other, the comic book being a little too 'tall and slim' for the 'stouter' table format.

This is something I can work with, but whenever there's a double-page spread, it means turning the tablet from portrait view to landscape and back again for the next page. This isn't such a hassle except that the tablet is self-orienting, so the page is constantly swinging around like a loose yard-arm on a boat at sea.

One image was a portrait-oriented double-page spread, and it was so set-up that I could not orient this to view it since the image always swung to the wrong orientation no matter what i did! The only way to actually see it as intended by the creators was to orient it as a landscape, then carefully lay the pad flat and rotate it while it stayed flat; then the image was view-able in all its glory, but this only served to highlight one other problem - the minuscule text. It's far too small for comfortable reading. I know comics are all about imagery, but for me, unless there's also a decent story, all you really have, is a pretty coffee-table art book. It seems to me that artists and writers might consider collaborating a bit more closely on legibility!

This is going to become increasingly a problem as the old school comic fraternity struggles to repel all technology boarders. Personally, I prefer e-format to print format as a general rule, if only because it's kinder to trees, which are precious. The sentiment is especially poignant when we read horror stories to the effect that 80,000 copies of Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom had to be pulped because of typos. At 3 kg of carbon emissions per book, that's not a charmed system. You would need to read a hundred books for every one print book to balance the manufacturing pollution of an e-reader against that of the print version, but then your ebook comes over the wire at very little cost to the environment, whereas the print book has to be transported to you, even if only home from the store in your car.

But you can also argue the other side, which is that reading devices employ petrochemical products, and precious and toxic metals, and probably contains 'conflict' minerals which were mined in the Congo (curious given the location for volume two in this series!); however, you can argue that a multi-use device, such as a tablet or a smart phone, can be employed as an ebook reader without contributing to even more environmental carnage than it might already have caused. On the other page, you can also argue that a book never needs upgrading (as countless young-adult Jane Austen rip-offs have conclusively proven), will last for years, and can be recycled when done with. So you pays your greenbacks and you hopes you get the green back.

For this volume, I think it worth reading in any format, and I recommend it if you can overlook the sexploitation which is relatively restrained in this volume.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Star Thief by Lindsey Becker

Rating: WORTHY!

"The Mapmaker took in and impatient breath." - presumably should be "an impatient breath"

This was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher and author.

Don't be misled by the resemblance of this middle grade novel's title to The Lightning Thief. I'm not a fan of the Riordan series, but this is as different as you can get, and this author had me at the very first sentence, which is what all we writers should strive for, but few achieve! That first line read, "Honorine realized it was going to be a difficult night when she stepped into the east parlor to do a bit of light dusting and found it on fire." That struck me as hilarious and an awesome start. It's like she knew exactly how to begin this to bring me on board!

The book continued to impress as I read on. It's an easy and fast read which hits the ground running and never stops. It's something of a steam-punk fantasy for kids, and has the interesting premise that the constellations are really mystical animals who have powers, and with whom regular people can interact. There are also rather evil creatures in this story too, so in some ways it's like reading about angels and demons.

Honorine is a young housemaid who works for the wealthy Lord Vidalia who has disappeared. She's also something of an inventor. When odd events get going in the manor that night, starting with the fire and progressing to curious discoveries Honorine makes, and then to visits from two different factions on the same wild night, both of which claim that the other guys are the bad guys, Honorine has to choose who to trust. But she's torn. At first, she sides with the group which has her childhood friend and young lord of the manor, Francis, working with them. She had thought he was away at school. After this she gets to spend some time with the Mordant, which is what these constellations are called.

There are few mordant on their magical 'ship' and the reason is that there's a battle going on between two sides, one of which is trying to capture all the Mordant, and the other of which is trying to prevent that. Maybe both sides were bad! Yes, it was exciting, adventurous, action-packed and confusing, and my hope was that the author had it in her to keep up the pace. It turns out she did. There is never a spare moment, and always something new to find.

Like a seasoned professional, the author keeps on peeling back layers and just as you think you have a good handle on things, another layer strips away and reveals a deeper understanding. Honorine is thrown into the middle of this turmoil, and is constantly trying to determine who is right and who is wrong, what's really going on, and where she fits in. In the end, this strong young female figure takes things into her own capable hands, because she knows, ultimately that she's actually the only one she can trust to do the right thing.

I loved the story, the plot, and the characters, all of them, but especially Honorine, who is a true hero and a great role model. I recommend this book without reservation.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Devious Dr Jekyll by Viola Carr

Rating: WARTY!

I know exactly what you're thinking! Why oh why if he hated the first volume so much, did he ever begin to read the second? Well, there's an apropos for that!

I started reading this one, thinking it was the first of the pair I had from the library, but it was not! I had a bad feeling about this, and when I examined the two books more closely, I realized I'd picked up the wrong one to begin with, and it was the second I'd started reading! There is nothing on the cover to indicate this is 'Volume two of the Miss Hyde series' or whatever. There is a small note on the second volume indicating that the author wrote the previous volume, which If I'd paid more attention when I grabbed the book to begin reading, I would have noticed! Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa!

I wasn't enjoying volume two anyway, so I halted this and started on the first volume, which I gave up on at about ten percent in. I read a bit more of this one, to get it to ten percent afterwards, but it wasn't pleasant reading. This had the same problems the first did: unappealing characters, uninspiring plotting, boring excuses for steampunk, a changing voice between Eliza and the neutered Lizzie, and perhaps worst of all, the werewolf male protagonist was back right from the start. Barf.

There were some anachronisms in the books, too. I forget now which one this was in, but the worst one was the use of the term chauvinism to indicate sexism. The term Chauvinism was known in Victorian times but back then it did not have the meaning it's most-often associated with today; back then it meant something along the lines of the British term jingoism: blindly exaggerated patriotism. It had nothing to do with sexism - a coinage that didn't come into use until the 1930's, so no woman in Victorian London would have described a man as a male chauvinist.

So in short, this second volume was a fail just like the first one. But hey it's a series, so why not run with it? Maybe the publisher can sucker some addicts in. Not me. This is an exemplar of everything that's wrong and wrong-headed about novel series. You have my pledge as an author that I shall never write one. It's far too easy and cheap for everyone except the poor suckers who buy each tiresomely repetitive and derivative volume.

The Diabolical Miss Hyde by Viola Carr

Rating: WARTY!

I read ten percent of this, and gave it up because it was so bad and so trope-ridden. There is nothing new here, nothing unexpected, and it has nothing to offer. Some American writers can do a Victorian London well, but too many cannot, and this one cannot.

I'm tempted to say that the steampunk element is muddled with everything but the kitchen sink, but in fact I think there actually is a kitchen sink. It has fairies and werewolves and on and on, and the steampunk seems to be entirely confined to clockwork servants, so that really isn't any steampunk either, to speak of. In short it was a very confused effort.

The main character has nothing to offer to the discerning reader. The one hope of saving this - the fact that Eliza inherited her father Henry's 'condition' - is entirely predictable, but unfortunately brings nothing, unexpected because instead of making Lizzie truly bad, as was the original Edward Hyde, this author makes her cutesy and gelded. Lizzie Hyde turned out to be a complete disappointment. Eliza is the usual antagonist Victorian female in YA steampunk novels, and that's not a good thing. She predictably has the hots for the snotty, obnoxious, and overbearing main male character, who happens to be a werewolf. I don't read werewolf stories, so for me this was the last nail in the coffin of an already deathbed effort.

I thought this book was lost and muddled, contained far too much of the squalid London and nothing in the way of interesting or engaging characters or steampunk contrivances. The ever-changing voice was a major irritation: Lizzie gets first person, Eliza gets third. I cannot stand first person voice unless it's done exceptionally well, and this was not. In short, it's an all-around fail and I can't recommend it.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Rating: WARTY!

This one sounded from the blurb like it might make for an interesting read, but all that ultimately means is that the blurb writer did their job. It doesn't mean that the writer did! This was a fail for me. It started out gamely enough as a steampunk story, but then it did a sidestep into high fantasy with gnomes, dwarfs, and trolls, and I was wondering if I'd entered some other universe. Apparently I had, This is Terry Pratchett's 40th Discworld novel, and I now have zero interest in learning any more about Discworld!

It came back to the steam punk story after too long of a while, but by the time it did, I'd lost all interest in pursuing this. I don't mind mixing up genres, but I have no time for trolls and dwarfs, I really don't. On top of this, the novel reminded me very much of Douglas Adams. I like Adams, but I don't like his fiction! I never knew him personally, but I did go to one of his talks one time and I enjoyed it. I also enjoyed, and favorably reviewed his non-fiction book, Last Chance to See about endangered species, but if there's one thing I can't stand, it's a Brit writer babbling on and on humorously and in an annoyingly self-satisfied manner. It reminds me too much of my own inane parodies!

No one in their right mind should take those seriously, and I honestly could not take this seriously. I certainly can't recommend it based on the ten percent I could stand to listen to. There's no point in stoically plodding on to the bitter end in a novel that quite simply doesn't get your heart beating, when you can ditch it and be off and running with the next one that will get your pulse up. Life's too short!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Cogling by Jordan Elizabeth Mierek

Rating: WARTY!

I was asked by the author if I would review this after I gave a favorable review to a previous novel by this author: Escape From Witchwood Hollow back in February 2016. Well be careful what you ask for! I would have liked to have recommended this one, too, but I cannot. I was very disappointed in Cogling because it was so disturbingly far from what the previous novel had been. This felt like a first draft of a first novel by a new writer, whereas 'Witchwood Hollow', which also felt like a first novel, was a lot better-crafted and a lot more credible in its world than this one was.

This novel had a prologue which I skipped, as I do all prologues without exception. Never once have I missed anything by doing this, which only goes to show how useless prologues are. If it's worth reading, put it in chapter one, or simply omit it! Don't sacrifice any more trees to prologues! That said, this story was not technically bad in terms of spelling, grammar, and so on. Even the overall story was, in very general terms, an interesting idea, but it fell far short in the details, and while it was not an awful read, it was not a satisfying one at all for me.

The issues I had were many and ranged from general to specific. A specific one, for example, would be the use of 'kohl'. At least this author didn't write it as 'coal', which I have seen in a novel, but the phrase used was 'dark kohl' Since kohl is black, that phrase made little sense. To write, 'Kohl darkened her silver eyes' is one thing, but to say "Dark kohl rimmed her silver eyes" is not well-phrased at all. There were many instances of such suspect wording, each of which took me out of the suspension of disbelief and reminded me that I was reading a novel and not immersed in a alternate world.

The story is about Edna, a fifteen year old girl who discovers that her brother has been replaced by a cogling - a clockwork life-like replica, and she embarks upon a quest into the world of hags to rescue him. The hags use the dreams of children to power their machinery. This was my first problem, because it seemed like all that was being done here is that hags stole children to power machines to make more coglings which were used to replace the children being stolen. What was the point? Obviously they were seeking to take over the human world in revenge for a sour past history, but the hags had powerful magical and could control and enchant humans so why were the coglings needed? It made no sense at all to me.

The sad thing is that Edna is not allowed to rescue her brother alone. So much for girl power! Instead, she needs the trope YA studly male to prop her up and give her validation. That was bad enough, but the happenstance that she fell into the sphere of influence of the sole male in the entire country who was best set-up to help her was too much to take seriously, especially given his original story, which would be too much of a spoiler to give away here. The bottom line was that his behavior and living circumstances were simply not credible given his origin, and we were offered nothing to explain why or how he'd ended up where he had.

In this world, there is a history of antagonism between the hags (and their male equivalents, the ogres) on one side, and the humans on the other, and this is a story of the hags' revenge. These were not the only 'magical' creatures; there were others, but none of them were really given any freedom to breathe, and so they were consistently lifeless. It felt like they were simply added as pure MacGuffins or dei ex machina for no other reason than to help out Edna's quest, and then they disappeared completely. Most of them appeared so briefly that it was impossible to get a decent handle on them. I liked the idea of the 'foxkins', but the 'nix' and the 'tomtars' left me unentertained. Sometimes it seemed like these were actually mutated humans, and other times not, and there was so little to go on, that it left me frustrated that they had appeared at all.

I think one serious problem was that the author tried to do too much in one story. There was literally everything in this but the kitchen sink - and there may well have been one of those. In fact, I think there was in one kitchen scene. But there was fantasy, and magic, and steam-punk, and romance, and Oliver Twist (not in person), and a quest, and a hot air balloon which was not steam-punk, but which was called an airship which is often associated with steam-punk, and it felt like lots of little bits rather than one whole. It was the difference between Thanksgiving dinner and the next day's jumbled and assorted leftovers.

This story evidently arose (according to the acknowledgements) at least in part from a 'Victorian' fare in Rome, New York. I think that was the first problem: that Americans tend not to do Renaissance or Victorian well, or to overdo it, and consequently this novel was sadly warped, dragged down by a lack of authenticity. Granted we're not told explicitly where it was set (if we are, I missed it), but it seemed like it was professing to be set in Britain, as steam punk and Victorian dramas typically are, but there were far too many Americanisms for me to take that idea seriously.

For example, there are no klutzes in Britain - or at least there were not in Victorian times. There are clots, which means largely the same thing, but 'klutz' is a very American term which came from Germany via Yiddish, I think. Of course, American influence being what it is in the world, for good or ill, people probably do use that term in Britain now, but they didn't in Victorian times. This was as out of place as the word 'jerky' was. This is very much an Americanism, taken from the South American term char qui. It's not British.

There are very few cities in Britain which actually have the word 'city' in their name. Manchester City, for example, is a football (soccer) club. The city itself is simply named Manchester. The same goes for Birmingham, Exeter, Bristol, Leicester Norwich, and so on. Every single city in this story was named -something- City. The Brits don't have this insecurity which forces them to title a city as -something- City lest it be mistaken - gods forbid! - for a town!

Britain has no venomous snakes except for the adder (and yes, it does come in black!), which no one in Britain takes very seriously (notwithstanding scare stories in newspapers last year), so this Indiana Jones scene where kids are dumped into a pit of snakes wasn't impressive. Why would hags even do this when they have magic and can simply kill the kids outright? The real problem here though, was that the snakes are described as poisonous. No snake, to my knowledge, is poisonous, and by that I mean that you can eat any snake and it won't poison you; however, if you get bitten by one (and you're not in Britain!) then you may well become ill or die from it. Those snakes are venomous, not poisonous, and writers should understand this. Strictly speaking the British adder can do damage, but it's so rare that anyone is bitten, it's not typically an issue.

Edna Mather is supposedly fifteen, yet she behaves much younger. The story read like a middle-grade novel rather than a young-adult one. Several other reviews I've seen mention this and while I agree, I'm not sure I arrived at the conclusion the same way. The thing you have to remember is that this is not set in modern times and you cannot expect a fifteen year old Victorian era girl to have the same outlook as a modern one.

By our standards, she would seem ridiculously naive and sheltered, even though she would (had she any privilege) be far better read (and in better-written literature too!) than most modern fifteen-year-olds. In Edna's case, she was one step away from living on the street, and was largely in charge of running her home and taking care of her kid brother, so she should be expected to have the maturity which inevitably comes with that circumstance, yet she really didn't. She was desperately intent upon rescuing her brother, but this was all she had going for her, and it made her seem more juvenile than he was!

Worse than this though, for me, was the fact that Edna had magic in her - a magic which she thought was evil - a fact of which we're re-apprised to a really annoying degree. The problem for me was not so much that though, as it was that she never employed this magic. I kept waiting for her to go bad-ass and unleash it, but she didn't except in very minor and largely unimportant ways, and even then it wasn't clear if it was her magic or the magic embedded in this enchanted brooch she carried. This was really annoying. Why give her this power if it's not going to be employed in the entire story, even in dire cases where any kid who had magic would have pulled it out regardless of how they felt about it. It made no sense and was a major disappointment for me. It also made her look even more helpless and ineffectual than she already appeared.

I noted the author makes mention in the acknowledgements of a steamy romance between Ike and Edna, but there was no such thing. There was almost no romance, thankfully, and certainly no steam (not even of the steam punk variety except in passing mentions). There was impetus for romance, either. Neither Ike nor Edna were likable, and he was such a jerk to begin with that it's hard to see how she would ever come around to finding him romantic. The 'romance' felt forced and not natural - like the author was putting it in there because she felt this was the way things had to be done, not because there was anything organic or necessary about it. It felt false to me and it didn't so much get in the way of the story, as it was an annoying distraction, like a fly buzzing around when you're trying to fall asleep.

I noticed some reviewers had talked of there being a rape or near rape in this story, but there was nothing of the sort in the version I read. There was a case of highly inappropriate conduct of a doctor threatening to kiss a patient, followed by downright abusive conduct by that same doctor, but there was no sex involved. What bothered me about this scene and the events leading up to it was something I've seen no other reviewer mention, which is the absurd abduction of Lady Rachel.

Note that I do not believe for a second that celebrities and the wealthy should have any privileged treatment by law enforcement, but also note that this novel was set in Victorian times when nobility was highly respected (if perhaps derided in private), yet here we have Lady Rachel being forcibly taken from her aunt's home by two regular police constables, without a shred of respect or deference and based solely on this aunt's say-so. This was simply not credible in Victorian times, and especially not on the say-so of an aunt without any other reason. Never once was there any mention of contacting this woman's actual parents. Lady and Lord Waxman thought their daughter had been kidnapped, and yet instead of informing them she was safe and reuniting them, the cops haul Lady Rachel off for incarceration on her aunt's whim?! This robbed the story of all credibility for me, and frankly, I almost quit reading at that point because it was one straw dog too many.

The real killer was the ending. It's no spoiler to say it was a happily-ever-after one, but only for Edna and her crew. All her ideals and claims and vows to help the poor and downtrodden which she spouted regularly throughout this story were forgotten in the end. She did nothing to help anyone. This selfishness and self-serving attitude was brought into the light earlier, when she and Ike rescue a woman from a cruel psychiatric facility, which in itself is admirable, but they do it by kidnapping a homeless girl and substituting the one for the other in the blind assumption that this psycho doctor will simply toss the girl back out onto the street when he discovers the deception. I'm sorry, but no, heroic people do not do that. Good people do not do that. Jerks and villains do that. I already disliked the two protagonists before this, but after this behavior, I had no time for them at all. Frankly, this made me wonder if this neutered "dark magic' that Edna spent the entire story fretting over, had actually risen up and claimed her after all.

So, overall, this was not a worthy read by my standards. and I cannot in good faith recommend it. Read Jordan Mierek's previous story, escape From Witchwood Hollow instead. It's much better.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Scrivener's Moon by Philip Reeve

Rating: WORTHY!

This is an oddball steampunk novel to which I took an initial liking, and that stayed with me apart from an unfortunate dip in the middle, but overall I consider it a worthy read. It's always nice to find a novel that gets you right from the start. It's read by Sarah Coombes who has a delightful British accent and does a nice range of voices, including a beautiful Scots accent too, but her voicing of male characters is a bit off, and rather grating. Apart from that I really liked it. I'm picky, I admit, so it was nice to have a reader who didn't irritate me.

Note that this is book 3 of a series (the Fever Crumb series) and I haven't read books one and two. Evidently it's also tied to Author Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series which I haven't read either. I wasn't even aware that there was a series when I picked this audio book up in the library, since the morons in Big Publishing™ seem to have a huge problem with actually putting the book series information on the cover or in the blurb. That said, I was able to get into it without any problem. Obviously I don't know what I'm missing from the first two, if anything, and whether or not that would improve my appreciation of this particular volume, but this one didn't start out like it was one of a continuing series, so perhaps I'm missing nothing.

Normally I skip prologues like the plague since I don't see the point. This book proved my case. The entire three volume set is a prologue to his Mortal engines series! But, it's hard to skip prologues in audio books, since you can't see where they are or be sure that the first thing you listen to actually is a prologue if it's not announced as such, nor can you see where to jump to in order to bypass it arrive at chapter one. So I ended up listening to this prologue, and as expected. it contributed nothing.

The hilarious thing was that this is book three! Were not books one and two the prologue to this volume? If so, why do we need a yet another prologue here in volume three, especially one which contributed zilch to reader information or appreciation?! I think authors put prologues in because they think they have to, or because they're simply pretentious or melodramatic. They just don't get it, so let me offer this newsflash: chapter one is the prologue, you hockey pucks! I've never read a book where I've had to go back and consult the prologue to get an understanding of what's going on in the novel. Not once. I rest my case. Prologues are a delusional waste of time and worse, a waste of trees in print books.

That said, the story itself is nicely done in the steampunk genre with a twist. There was a nice emphasis on engineering, which I like and admire. Where would we be without engineers? And we definitely need more female engineers. Victorian times were a wonderful era for some amazing feats of engineering. People talk of the Pyramids as great engineering efforts, but all those guys did was stack block on top of each other! The Romans were engineers. The Victorians were engineers. Today we have engineers!

This novel however, is not set in Victorian times, which is another reason it's different. This is set in a future where some catastrophe (known melodramatically as The Diminishing) has set back humanity and reduced our numbers catastrophically - an era which could still come down the pipe if we don't take care of climate change, fresh water shortage, and disease. In the novel, all of the technology of today has gone, and we have been set back to the age of steam in a world where populations have splintered, barbarian tribes threaten England, and an ice age seems to be encroaching more and more territory. How things became so bad that we reverted to a steam age is not explained in this volume. I don't know if the earlier volumes offer more details.

Mammoths, for reasons unspecified, seem to have been brought back from extinction big time, although they're really just bystanders in this volume, so I did't get the point. There are actually three projects attempting to achieve this in real life as it happens, though. The entire mammoth genome (at least for one species of mammoth) has been recreated, but that was the easy part. Getting a healthy and viable fetus from a genome is something only nature has perfected, and even it has problems at times. Human science is far behind, so while we will probably see a mammoth again, it's going to be a while. Given how scientific knowledge and technology have been so completely lost, Reeve fails (at least in this volume) to explain how it was that the mammoth genome was not only preserved, but the technology to recreate it also survived whatever disaster befell humanity. Maybe they had been created before the disaster fell.

These threatening circumstances are the reason an engineer has decided to put London on wheels - yes, the entire city - so it can move around on tank tracks, to keep it safe from encroaching ice and barbarian raids. Absurd, but where would we be without fiction like that to set us back on our heels and amaze and intrigue us? Talking of which, in this world there are three intriguing females. Wavy, who is a mystery, her daughter Fever Crumb, who is an engineer, and Cluny Morvish, a woman is who very much Fever's equal, but who is on the opposite side of a brewing war. Fever and her mom are of the scrivener bloodline, but it's unclear exactly what that is. Again, this may have been covered in earlier volumes, but it was unexplained here.

In addition to these is Charley Shallow, the designated mustache-twirling villain although he is clean-shaven. I found him uninteresting (right through to the end, as it happens, and quickly took to skipping tracks on which he appeared. At the end, I didn't feel like I had missed a thing.

The story kicks into gear - brass gear no doubt - when information comes to Wavy about a mysterious pyramid in the frozen north - one which has a reputation both for being haunted and for being impregnable. The information is that a crack has opened up in it. Wavy and her daughter head north on a land ship to investigate.

For me, this is where the story went south, paradoxically. This is a quest story in many ways, and the goal is this pyramid, but when Fever and Her mom get to it (and meet up with Cluny on the way) Reeve expends a pitiful few pages on the thing, reveals virtually nothing about it, and then it's destroyed. I didn't get that at all. What was the point? Well the point was that i was ready to give up on the nbvoel after that, and the only thing which kept me reaidng was Cluny and Fever's interactions, wihc far form being instadore were relaistic and captivating. These two were os much alike in ways it would spoil the sotry to relate, but they were laso on opposite sides, and the frictiona dn tension between them was palpable.

To me they were really the only thing worth reading about in this book, and it was far too little, but what there was, was pure gold, particularly the ending sequence, which is why I finally decided I could rate this novel as a worthy read. I noticed that some reviewers had described this relationship as insta-love (or instadore as I term it since no actual love is ever involved in these relationships, especially when written by female authors of young adult paranormal stories. Those reviewers missed the point.

Cluny and Fever had significant ties which went outside the normal range of interaction and which for me explained their attraction to and fascination with one another. One was something which happened to each of them in their respective childhoods. Another was their isolation from real family and friends. Another was their being so alike yet on opposite sides. Another was their desire to see justice. Another was that each in turn was the captive of the other and was rescued by the other from imminent death. I don't see how they could not have been drawn together and bonded.

So overall, I recommend this and while some of it was boring to me, it's well-worth reading for the relationship.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Bullet Catcher's Daughter by Rod Duncan

Rating: WORTHY!

I'm not a series fan unless the series is exceptional, and this one managed to get under that wire even though it's the inaugural novel in "The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire" series. What this means, practically, it's that it's nothing more than a really, really long prologue, and I am not find of prologues at all. This book managed to persuade me it was a worthy read however, despite the curious title.

I should say I am not a fan of titles of this format: "The X's Daughter" where X is typically some sort of male profession, and the novel is typically historical, often Victorian. While I readily concede that such titles are inherently intriguing and provocative, I have to also argue that they're rather demeaning because they define a woman not in her own right, but as an appendage of a man, which I find insulting, so it's with mixed feelings that I enter the world of such a novel, seduced by the blurb, but uncomfortable with the pigeon-holing. As it happens, the main character isn't the bullet catcher's daughter, so there! And I still await a novel of the form "The X's Son" where X is a female profession.... Maybe I'll have to write that one myself.

This is a YA novel as well as both an alternate reality and a steam-punk novel, and one negative review I read railed against that, sternly admonishing the author to keep their genres straight, but I have to reject that! Why should the author be confined to a single genre? The author can do what they like as far as I'm concerned. They can completely mash-up genres. In fact, I applaud with authors who skirt the rules, although I don't guarantee that I'll like such a novel. It's not the reviewer's choice, it's the author's. We don't have to like it, but we do have to respect it! Think of this as primarily alternate history, but with a nice dash of steam-punk which complements the story without burying it in clouds of steam.

Talking of skirting the rules, the big attraction for me was the cross-dressing detective. She's a woman in a man's world and the only way she can make her own way is to be a woman by daylight, and a male detective by night. There's nothing sexual in this - it's purely practical. Hailing from a circus background, she is an expert at disguising herself, having spent her childhood years as a male impersonator in her father's traveling show. In this novel, the UK has become divided, after a second civil war, into the Anglo-Scottish Republic, which is essentially everything north of Leicester (pronounced "Lester"), and the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales (everything else).

One minor problem resulted in Leicester being slashed in half, the northern part of the city being in the dour, strict, man's world of the ASR, where women cannot hold property or serious jobs. It's a cross between cold-war era Soviet Russia and Victorian England if you can even picture such a mashup. The southern side of Leicester remained in the more flamboyant south, and Leicester itself therefore, a city not very far from my home town as it happens, became like cold-war Berlin - a hotbed of sly border crossings, spying, intrigue, subterfuge, and under-the-table dealings.

Elizabeth Barnabus grew up in the south, but had to flee it as a child after the Duke of Northampton bought up all her father's debt and promised to ruin him if he didn't pay it off by trading his debts for his young daughter's servitude with the lecherous not-so-noble man. What the Duke never understood was that his target was both Elizabeth and her own brother, Edwin. She fled the arse-ocratically controlled, but very liberal south, which she loved, for the protection of the dour and oppressive north, which she pretty much hates. Nevertheless, she managed to eke out a living there, using Edwin as the breadwinner. She is also earning a small keep herself by tutoring Julia, the daughter of her landlords, about the legal system. She doesn't have rooms, but lives on a steam boat on the canal, a boat which she is in danger of losing if she cannot come up with the final 100 guineas (a guinea is one pound and one shilling) which she requires to own it outright.

She's thrilled therefore to be given a very lucrative commission by the Duchess of Bletchley (that last word being a famous location in British intelligence history) to find her missing son. Elizabeth isn't quite so thrilled when her pursuit of this case brings her into conflict with the International Patent Office, otherwise known as the gas-lit empire - the multinational and all-powerful controlling body for all new inventions. She is perturbed to discover that one of their number has been stalking her, and resolves to quit this job, but you know she won't! it was at this point that I feared an inappropriately clichéd and tedious romance, but the author was smart enough to avoid that like the plague, so kudos and gratitude to him for this!

The same plaudit goes for his female character. She is a very strong woman even as she has moments of weakness and doubt, even though she gets things wrong and screws up some times. She is not strong in the sense that she can kick anyone's butt, yet she's inventive, smart (for the most part!), and largely fearless - or perhaps more accurate, not so much fearless as she is courageous, dedicated and brave. Yes, she despairs, and wavers, but in the end she comes through. This is why I liked her so much. This male author seems to understand what a strong female character is, and curiously understands it better than far too many YA female authors do. Why is that? I recommend this heartily and look forward to the sequel. It's really nice to be able to say that!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Lady of Devices by Shelley Adina Bates

Rating: WORTHY!

This novel is a classic example (and we've seen one or two on my blog!), of how much crap an author can feed me and still get me to like her novel - and this doesn't even get started on how ridiculously long the title is! Lady of Devices: a Steam-Punk Adventure Novel (Magnificent Devices Book 1) by Shelley Adina (Bates). In it, Claire Elizabeth Trevelyan is the daughter of Viscount St. Ives, and even at 17, she is still attending St Cecilia's Academy for Young Ladies. We meet her in a "Chemistry of the Home" class, wherein she makes something explode and is ordered to clean it up.

I found this to be completely preposterous in every measure. Even in a steam-punk novel, to pretend that a woman so highly born would be in school is stretching things beyond breaking point. We're told that nothing more of her is expected than that she will pour an elegant cup of tea (no, the daughters of viscounts do not pour their own tea, for goodness sakes!), sew a fine seam, and catch a rich husband, yet she's in school studying chemistry? To suggest, even if she were in school, that she would be learning chemistry, even 'chemistry of the home' is another ridiculous stretch, and to suggest that she would be required to clean up the mess is completely absurd!

Yes in any real world, people do these things, but in 1889, the daughter of one of the highest ranked members of the nobility doesn't do those things, so credibility was pretty much out the window from the off, even as I found myself drawn into this story. It didn't help that the Honorable Claire Trevelyan had every cliché heaped upon her from the start: spoiled noble woman who longs to get down and dirty with technology, accident-prone rule-breaker who blows things up, with a snotty bullying triplet of school-mates arrayed against her - and an eye-glass wearing female chum who supports her unconditionally? Check, check, check, and check. I was hoping for better.

Allow me to inject a brief note of clarification here. Despite having been born in Britain, I have neither respect nor time for the nobility, the peerage, or royalty. My point here is that if you're going to set your novel in Victorian England (or indeed in any other historical period or locale), you need to give at least a nod and a wink to the social and societal mores of the day (regardless of whether you agree with them) otherwise you risk undermining the credibility of your entire enterprise. Otherwise you're writing fantasy!

Claire's bullying fellow students have trope names: Lady Julia Wellesley, Lady Catherine Montrose, Miss Gloria Meriwether-Astor. Lady Julia is expecting a proposal from Lord Robert Mount-Batting? Mount-Batting? Seriously? Another irritation was the author's insistence upon adding a 'k' to the end of words ending with a 'c', so that we got 'electrick', 'kinetick, 'statick' and so on. Weird. Just weird.

The novel is set in London in 1889 when Victoria is Queen, but unaccountably, Charles Darwin's son Leonard is Prime Minister. In actual fact, the prime minister in 1889 was the Marquess of Salisbury, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil. But here, steam-power is king and anything goes, evidently.

There are some odd sentences in this novel such as "Julia, Catherine, and Claire herself were to be presented to Her Majesty during the same Drawing Room" During the same drawing room? During the same audience, you mean? Who knows? Maybe it's a phrase but it sounded weird. In another oddity, we're told that Claire's talents lie in the chemistry lab, where things have a regrettable habit of blowing up, so in what way, precisely, do her talents lie there? Is she to become an anarchist bomb-maker? Maybe. None of this made sense, although I confess that the people who write the absurd blurbs are not necessarily they who write the body of the novel.

Of course, Claire isn't going to be in this position for very long, because, as the blurb has it, her father gambles his estate on the combustion engine and loses. The coward shoots himself and off we go! Even if this were the case, however, why would Claire be out on the street? She has no relatives? I can see how "friends" would reject her and turn a cold shoulder on her plight if they had invested in the Viscount's failed petroleum scandal, but not family. Jane Austen made a career out of delivering her heroines to the less-than-tender mercies of distant relatives, so I don't know what went wrong here.

All of that said, I found myself, as I mentioned before, drawn into this and by the end of it, I was completely on board. After the very prickly start, the novel settled down and really got me interested. The events became, if somewhat improbably, more realistic, although where Claire's remarkable spine grew from, we were offered no firm guidance.

So, overall, I recommend this, believe it or not, despite the unfortunate series of annoyances, problems, and irritations. See? You can get me to continue reading - but you have to give me a story along with the headaches you inflict!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Girl Genius Agatha Heterodyne and the Beetleburg Clank by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Rating: WARTY!

It's day three of the July Smack-Down, and we have Girl Genius up against Wonder Woman. I have to tell you that I'd take a girl genius over a buxom wench any day of the week, including weekends, but I shall try to remain neutral if not neutered here! Girl Genius is a rather strange steam-punk graphic novel which left me feeling unsure about how to rate it, quite frankly, but having sat back and considered the various aspects of how this was put together, I have to rate it negatively overall. I liked the idea of it, but the execution was poor. Events were rather confusing, and the stereotyped pseudo-German characters of indefinable genealogy, but laughable speech patterns were a major turn-off.

I loved the basic idea of the main character, but it took too long for her to start showing her real self, and once she began, the comic ended, which was annoying in the extreme. Agatha "Clay", whose real name is quite obviously Agatha Heterodyne is your stereotypical trope character - raised with her true nature (as a "spark" some sort of wizard engineer, presumably, although it's never really explained) kept hidden from her, and even when danger looms, no one has the smarts to clue her in as to what's going on. This was clichéd and pathetic, frankly. It's tired, it's been done a gibbonillion times, please find something new to share with us!

It was hard to place Agatha. She started out as some sort of student or apprentice, but she didn't look or behave like one. Was she supposed to be a teen? Is this YA? If it is, the authors seriously missed their mark, because she doesn't remotely look like a teen. I note that other reviewers have said she looks more like a barmaid or something, and I have to agree. To me she looked like the loose-morals, rambunctious, buxom, adventurous, unfaithful wife of some straight-laced guy who, when her hubby is away, indulges liberally in rampant affairs with the milkman, the window cleaner, the mail carrier, or whoever, in some British straight-to-video sex romp movie.

I appreciate this if it was an honest attempt to break that stupid dumb blonde cliché, but that aside, her appearance was completely wrong, and I wonder if this was opportunity was squandered because they wanted Agatha to look like the female half of the writing duo? That was a mistake. Not because there's anything wrong with the female (or the male) half of the writing duo, and certainly not that the female half looks like she might be the character I described above, but because this particular character demanded a certain kind of look, and for me, she was robbed. She doesn't work as depicted.

The villain was interesting in that he really didn't seem very much like a villain - just a very anal guy who wasn't so bad really, although I suspect we haven't seen the worst side of him. One of my big problems with this story though, was that it really didn't flow. I'm sure the authors knew where the story was going and how it all fit together, but it moved with such a lack of grace, and with such staccato twitches and stutters that it was reminiscent of a badly-designed steam-driven robot, and it was really an uncomfortable read for me. It took a long time to start to feel like I had any good idea of what was really going on in this world, and by then the story was pretty much over. It's very short which on this occasion was a blessing.

For me, the art work was clean and well done, brown and white line drawings and some shading which was definitely a saving grace if perhaps a bit simplistic, but I liked it. That said, and without a coherent and enjoyable story, it's all just pretty pictures, and for this reason I can't honestly rate this as a worthy read. It might have been better as a regular novel, but then it wouldn't have the cachet of being a graphic novel, would it? It's a pity that too many people sell-out to graphics when they'd be better off buying into some heavier writing with fewer pictures, pretty or otherwise. This one smacked itself down.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason

Title: The Clockwork Scarab
Author: Colleen Gleason
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Rating: WARTY!

Note: this is not to be confused with The Clockwork Scarab by David Lantz (which I have not read).

Some opening issues to ponder: is drassy really a word! Maybe dressy! Not drassy. But that's a minor issue compared with this conundrum: Should the phrase be "There is a limited number" or should it be "There are a limited number"? I go with the first, but there are people who argue for the second, so I'm not going to get into this. I'll leave it for you guys to fight over!

I gave this novel the old college try, but I didn't like it. It's a YA novel but it felt to me like it was written at middle grade level with adult word choices! Hmm! The novel presents as a steam-punk wannabe (it's set in London in 1889), but it's really a paranormal romance.

It's also the increasingly inevitable first in the increasingly inevitable series. I mean why write one novel when you can rework the same story over and over, and get a whole series, instead of having to do the work of coming up with something brand new each time? Seriously, if you can find suckers who will buy it, where's the incentive to give more or do better? What it translates to, in effect, is that this whole novel was nothing more than a massive prologue. I don't do prologues. Nothing happens, nothing is resolved. What's the point?

So, Evaline Stoker and Alvermina Holmes, the nieces or whatever, of Bram Stoker and Sherlock Holmes. Yeah, bin there dun that. The problem here is that neither character is remotely likable. Stoker could have been - had she not been so ready to get jiggy with a disrespectful guy she just met and knew nothing about. Holmes is - how did Professor Snape put it? Oh yes: an insufferable know-it-all. Nothing to like here. Both characters sounded pretty much the same in each of their own chapters.

I knew I was going to be punished for wanting to like this steam-punk novel the minute I read that one character had amber flecks in his eyes. This was a guy about whom the author was sharply rapping us on the head to make sure we got the telegraph that Alvermina had the hots for him. The trope is gold flecks, so I don't know if the author thought there was something new, or fresh, or original in going for amber, or if she had read so little YA that she didn't know what a massive and very tired cliché that is.

I was hoping this didn't signal a down-turn in the novel to match the down-turn in my mouth, but I was robbed of that hope very shortly afterwards, when the other main female character, Evaline (sounds like a brand of motor oil doesn't it?) was literally man-handled by a character and didn't even whisper a complaint. She was too busy swooning. Be still my fluttering heart! Oh how my delicate skin is flushed! Oh how moist is my valley!

Of course the standard cliché male was strong and broad-chested, had a stalker's knowledge of her, and had no idea what the term 'personal space' means. Of course he gave every indication that he was lower class, but gave every other indication that there was more to him than met the eye. And suddenly, you're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of stomach and churn, but of gag; a journey into a nauseous land whose boundaries are that of a complete lack of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead; your next stop: the Promethazone.

Why do authors do this to readers? Especially: why do female authors do this to their female characters? Here we have two characters who hold the promise of being strong, engaging, significant female characters, and who are already fighting against stereotyping in a Victorian era, and what does the author do to them? Rapes them. Forcibly stereotypes them. Demeans them. Belittles them. Makes them dependent upon a man even as we're told - not shown, but told - how strong, independent, and smart they're supposed to be.

I actively dis-recommend this cynical and exploitative excuse for a story.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Sunken by SC Green

Title: The Sunken
Author: SC Green
Publisher: Grymm & Epic
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

This novel had a prologue which I skipped as usual. My position is that if the author thinks it unworthy to put it all in chapter one or later, then it's not worth my time reading it. I've never regretted not reading a prologue! Unfortunately I did have regrets about reading this novel. It sounded interesting to begin with, and the premise certainly held promise, but for me this promise was a preemie.

This is a steam punk novel set in London (of course!) in 1830, eight years before the reign of Queen Victoria began. In this world, dragons live in swamps outside the city. Why, I have no idea. King George is on the throne and he is at best an evil, short-tempered man. I have no knowledge of what he is at worst, since I never read that far.

In this world, religion has been upturned completely. Now people worship science, which is just as wrong-headed as worshiping fictitious gods. Yes, science is a powerful and proven method, but no, it isn't a religion, nor should it be. But this is fiction, and in this world, engineers and inventors are the priests and prophets, running their own churches! Within the city is 'The ward' - an enclave, the purpose or meaning of which I never found out. Perhaps its significance and origin are gone into in parts of this novel which I never reached, since I DNF'd it.

The novel tells the story of white men, and it was one big turn-off. There were no significant women featured at all, nor were there people of color - not in the portion I read. Ah! you may exclaim, there were no women or people of color who rose to prominence as engineers and scientists during this era, so why should a writer include them? My response to that is that neither were there dragons, yet we find them on prominent display in this novel! What's napalm for the dragon is palmetto for the dragonette, surely? Otherwise all we have is a holocaust, this time giving us the sanctity of Aryan men, with women and darker skin tones eliminated to protect that bleached, phallic purity.

Even that might have been something I could have grudgingly put up with had the story been truly compelling or original, and had it drawn me in, but it did not. I found myself increasingly wondering why I should be interested in or care about these irritatingly self-absorbed and ultimately boring characters who seemed uninterested in moving anything along, let alone an actual story. Why should I care about mutants under the city when there are so many repulsive versions of them above ground? I could find no valid answer to that question and ceased further perusal of this tome.

I made it to about one third the way through, and then I simply could not make myself read any more. It just was not appealing to me at all. It didn't help that the novel kept going back and forth between first person (which I detest) and third. The fact that it had to do this speaks powerfully against first person as a valid writing vehicle. There are instances where it makes sense, but for the most part it's a mistake because it's all "Me!" all the time and that's not only irritating, but worse, it's completely boring.

With an insane George the Third ruling in England, England at war with France, dragons attacking citizens in London, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel being issued a royal contract to build an underground railway linking Buckingham Palace and Windsor castle, you'd think that there would be enough there to concoct a really engrossing story, but it did not pull me in, not in the least. There was too much rambling on and on about politics and far too much telling of plot, with no showing and almost nothing of interest happening at all.

The author is female which made it even more remarkable there's almost no female presence in this novel - not in the first third, at any rate. I couldn't help but wonder why. It's not like it's a true-to-life historical novel, and even if it were, there were plenty of women of note whose names and activities could have been included. They were not. As it was, this novel ventured deeply into fantasy land, and it would not have been a problem at all to have included a plethora of female characters of note, but none appeared other than in tangential or minor roles. Again, I can't speak for the entire novel, but from what I read of it, this was worse than neglectful - it was inexcusable.

I cannot recommend this novel. Sunken is a great title for it.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Mad Tinker's Daughter by JS Morin

Title: Mad Tinker's Daughter
Author: JS Morin
Publisher: Magical Scrivener
Rating: WARTY!

p71 "Erefan knew of sunlight, of wind, clouds, and birds, bathe had given all that up..." should be "Erefan knew of sunlight, of wind, clouds, and birds, but he had given all that up..."
"...think fingers..." should be "...thick fingers..." (I forget the page number)

This is yet another author who doesn’t know the difference between 'stanch' and 'staunch' (21% in). I'm finding an increasing number of such authors. Are we undergoing a language change or are some authors not quite as literate as perhaps they ought to be? I know we all screw-up at times, but to see so many make the same mistake is as notable as it's lamentable. It’s the 'bicep' phenomenon again!

Mad Tinker's Daughter (not to be confused with The Tinkerer's Daughter by Jamie Sedgwick) is a steam-punk novel with emphasis on character rather than gadgets. This makes for a refreshing change, but it also came with other problems. The main character is Madlin. Or it’s Rynn. Or it’s Chipmunk. They're all the same character - at least that's what I thought initially, but it's actually not quite that simple. It was unnecessarily confusing.

This was like reading the second novel in a series without having read the first, and there was a good reason for that, but it's not something with which the author will help. I've run into this problem before, but never quite like this. This novel is very misleadingly listed as book 1 in the 'Mad Tinker Chronicles' (anything with 'Chronicles' in the title is very nearly guaranteed to turn me off, as this one proved!). This description is effectively dishonest, because it’s really book four of the "Firehurler trilogy"!

By that I mean that it’s set in the same universe as the original trilogy, but the author doesn't lift a finger to help a reader to find their feet and feel at home if they haven't read the original trilogy. I wasn't even aware that you really have to have read the first three books to be clued in to what’s going on here. Take it from me: this really isn't book one. It's book four.

I resent that immensely, but it is how authors and Big Publishing™ seem to operate in "YA world" these days, isn’t it? Why write one book and then move onto something new and different when you can trap readers like bugs by sucking them into a series where even readers who rate the first or second book as a 'one star', end up gushing that they simply have to buy the second or third to find out what happens?!

It’s like PT Barnum supposedly said, but instead of one born every minute, it’s more like dozens born every volume in the case of YA fiction. It's effectively a license to write bad books and it’s shameful. It’s even more sad in this case for me, because I really was enjoying this book, but instead of becoming less confused the more I read, it was just the opposite. I finally reached the point where I really thought I'd missed something, because I simply could not figure out what the heck was going on!

I'd read the first 25% of this novel under the now evident delusion that there was only one character, Madlin, who had two other aliases. In her primary persona as Madlin, she was working for her father, the mad tinker, in a secondary one, she moonlighted as a maid in a university under the name of Rynn, so she can read books and steal supplies on the sly for her own tinkering, and her third identity was simply a code name for Rynn, 'Chipmunk' under which she conducted night-time acts of terrorism.

Frankly this seemed bizarre to me because the author would write something like the following (note that this isn't a direct quote, merely an example of my own, based on an event in the book, to show what I mean): Chipmunk went down into the basement with the others. Rynn sat down and said, "I don't believe you. What happened to the rest of the money?". It's annoying at best, but once you understand the two are the same, it’s readable, if still profoundly stupid.

I thought the three character names all applied to the same person, but I had no idea what 'twinborn' meant, since it was never explained. I was forced into the assumption that the names were simply a device intended to portray different aspects of Madlin's life. They are not. Madlin is a completely different character on a different planet! Chipmunk/Rynn is evidently her 'twinborn', but even having finished the novel, I still have no idea what that really means beyond guesswork.

I had to go read some reviews to try and figure out if I was just being way more dense than usual, or if something was really odd here. That's how I found out about the two-worlds concept: not from the author, whose job it is to tell me the story, but from a fellow reviewer. That's sad!

The author will neither tell you nor give you any hints. The author's position is evidently that you’re a moron for not reading the first three volumes before you began this new trilogy, even though the two are not connected (as far as I know) other than being set in the same universe. The publisher isn't going to tell you. No one but a reviewer is going to tell you that you really need to fork out more cash for the first three volumes in order to maximize your return on this one. No excuses, just do it. That's the Big Publishing™ ethic.

It was irritating and frankly, I think it's patent dumb-assery to put this over on readers without giving them SOME kind of indication as to what’s really going on here. Would it have been so hard to actually advise readers on the cover or in the blurb that they really need to have read the first trilogy in order to properly understand this one? Would it have been so hard to offer a few hints and a bit of a recap sprinkled into the text for someone coming into this not knowing that it’s really book 4, and not book 1, as we're dishonestly expected to believe? Evidently neither the author nor the publisher cares.

That said, and as I indicated, I really liked this book to begin with, not because of the obfuscated world-building, but because the story in general, and the main two or three characters appealed to me - again, to begin with. I was really confused about the aliens and how they managed to traverse space yet still be in a steam-punk era! Of course, it occurred to me that they haven't actually traversed space, but are simply three sentient (and by that I mean human-like sentience) species, of which humans are the underdogs, all resident on the same planet - rather like Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series. It was only later that I started to realize that this series may indeed be a bit of a rip-off of his series, that is if it wasn't a bit of a rip-off of Planet of the Apes.

I finally grasped that when Madlin sleeps, she experiences Rynn's life - or vice-versa (even that is unclear), but nowhere does the author actually make this clear in this novel until it's almost over. Again, this was initially revealed to me via a review. Maybe how that works - without the brain being overworked, and psychoses setting in - is explained in the first trilogy, but given how vague this volume is, I honestly cannot trust that it's so!

So, not only is the main character an enigma, the entire world is. Is this is set on another planet or in an alternate universe. Who knows? There are two varieties of what appear to be aliens on this planet, although nothing is said about them other than to identify that they're different. Apart from that, I can't tell you a thing about them because the author has literally not described a thing about them save for one vague reference to the zuduks' bulk and solidity. The zuduk are the ruling class on Rynn's home world, but how this happened is a mystery. The author sure as hell won't tell you!

Why steam-punk novels insist upon labeling certain skilled people as tinkers is a mystery as well as being an insult to engineers, but Rynn and Madlin are "tinkers". Rynn's proudest invention is a long-barreled inductor gun which fires ball bearings accurately over long distances with great power. She routinely carries a revolver with a foot-long barrel which can fire eight shots, but she's so incompetent that she frequently loses her inventions.

I should have realized at the beginning that she was not a nice person, but for the longest time I rooted for her. it wasn't until the very end - the cliff-hanger end, be warned - that she shows her true blood-thirsty and extremely selfish colors. That's when I completely stopped liking her, and finally lost my last vetige of interest in pursuing this mindless, nonsensical series.