Sunday, July 31, 2022

Dragon's Code by Gigi McCaffrey

Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern (DRoP) books were a huge part of my teen and young adult years, and have been a massive influence on my writing (to the point where I've been told that my fanfiction is almost indistinguishable from the source material in style – a fact that made me purr). I've lost count of how many times I've read the books, and each time I am transported in vivid detail to Pern. And I can understand the appeal. I mean, who wouldn't want to feel special enough to have a dragon bond with you? The DRoP books, in my opinion, blur the lines between fantasy and science fiction somewhat, and to sum up for those who've not read any of the books: colonists arrive on a planet and end up genetically modifying the native fauna (fire lizards) into large 'dragons' that can be ridden and used to burn a nasty 'thread' (alien spore that eats all organic material) that falls at certain times when a red star is visible in the sky. The riders share a telepathic bond with their highly intelligent dragons, and Anne wrote an entire series of books for this setting that have been perennially popular. In fact, it would not surprise me in the least if we eventually see them being produced for film. There certainly is more than enough fodder to mine.

But alas, Anne passed away in 2011, and her children have since stepped up to the plate to add to her body of work. Gigi, Anne's daughter, penned Dragon's Code, which is a sort of 'lower deck' story surrounding the events that occur in Anne's The White Dragon. We follow the doings of Piemur, the 'failed' harper as he's sent around the southern continent to do mapping. What Piemur is a tad bit too dim to understand is that he's really the eyes and ears of the famed Masterharper Robinton, who has placed him in a perfect position to keep an eye on a rogue band of dragonriders known as the "Oldtimers" who had been brought forward in time (yes, the dragons can time travel, in addition to teleport). Piemur uncovers a plot to steal a queen dragon egg, and although he's not pivotal in its return, he does play a part in the events that unfold. 

One of the criticisms that is levelled at this work is that it doesn't cover any new ground. Gigi plays it safe by writing the connective tissue that plays out in the background of another work. My other criticism is that the writing itself could have used more rigorous editing – in terms of development and general technical considerations. The dialogue alone was enough to make me weep, with many 'as you know, Bob' type situations, where characters were clearly only talking about certain topics for readers' benefit. Not just that, but there was so much exposition, I wanted to tear out my eyes. I still need to go back to Anne's original writing to see how I feel about it after all the intervening years, but I don't recall her indulging in so. Much. Exposition.

There were instances of voices 'raised several octaves' which made me giggle uncontrollably, because clearly she meant the voices must've raised in volume and not pitch, and this is a common error non-musicians make that the editor *should* have caught.

Gigi also plays rather loose and fast with official canon. In my understanding of Anne's setting, her 'runner beasts' were horses that had been originally imported from Earth by the colonists. Gigi turns them into native, six-legged species with horse-like attributes, which made me want to crawl up the walls. In terms of characterisation, she totally misrepresented Masterharper Robinton. In Anne's works, he's shrewd and observant, but Gigi portrays him as being aloof, authoritarian and bumbling, especially in how he treats Piemur in such a patronising manner. This. Is. Not. Robinton. Nope. Nope. Nope. Also, Journeyman Sebell gets a whole new title when in Anne's books he's clearly a journeyman and not the fancy title Gigi gifts him.

Then Gigi commits one of the cardinal sins: that of writing an entire scene from the viewpoint from a third-person character while deliberately and oh-so-mysteriously not telling us who this person is, despite us having a perfectly good idea of what they're thinking, feeling. Gah! If you're writing a viewpoint character, DON'T DO THIS. This is a rookie move. This should never have flown in a traditionally published book. It's lazy, ham-fisted writing in a vague attempt to build tension. (Kinda like a murderer as  viewpoint character in a whodunnit who conveniently doesn't mention that they're the darned bleeding murderer.)

Anyhow, that's my take on the matter, based on years of editing, being edited, and writing book reviews. Yeah, yeah, argument from authority and all that, but I'll stand by my opinion about viewpoint glitches such as the aforementioned because they truly grind my gears.

I'm glad that I listened to the audiobook capably narrated by Ryan Burke rather than read this book. I maintain that audio is a far more forgiving and engaging medium if the text is subpar, with many of the gremlins becoming somewhat less 'visible', so to speak. If anything, Dragon's Code has made me want to revisit Anne's work again, and perhaps even start writing a new fic in the setting, because the DRoP books occupy a special place in my heart. And if you do decide to give Dragon's Code a spin, perhaps if you view it as officially accepted fanfiction rather than canon, it's probably going to be perfectly all right to read (if you can get past the dialogue, characterisation, and viewpoint issues).

While it's perfectly possible to enjoy Dragon's Code without having read any of the other books set on Pern, I do suspect that much of what happens may go over your head. It's a big, sprawling world, with a lot of history, so I suspect Dragon's Code is very much aimed at the hardcore lore enthusiasts. Although those who are serious about lore and characterisation, will most likely be as disappointed as I was in the execution of what could have been a really good story. What I did enjoy was the glimpse into Piemur's past and upbringing before he studied in the Harper Hall. So there was that. Make of it what you will.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Mass Effect: Nexus Uprising by Jason M Hough, KC Alexander

I wish I'd read Mass Effect: Nexus Uprising by Jason M Hough and KC Alexander before I played Mass Effect: Andromeda. It would in all likelihood have changed much about how I played the game and offered me a much better understanding of the dynamics between the different characters. Be that as it may, Uprising presents a lovely bit of backstory about the troubles that arises on the Nexus before our plucky human Pathfinder arrives.

Security Director Sloane Kelly has her hands full when she awakens out of her her cryopod to a critically damaged space station, thousands of light years from help and the home they've left behind. With life support systems failing, hydroponics all but destroyed, and food supplies running low, the survivors are dropped into a race against time to get things back online before the first arks arrive from the Milky Way.

Of course, things are not smooth sailing, and what Nexus Uprising does well is show how all good intentions can go horribly, horribly wrong as factions start working against each other in a desperate bid for survival in a hostile environment. Kelly finds herself in a difficult position, playing middle woman between the decision makers and the security and engineers who are trying to keep it all together. Sometimes the right decisions are not always the easiest, and this is how we discover why Kelly ends up where she does in-game. A hint: she's not all bad, like you might assume the first time you meet her on your play-through. I won't spoil.

As always, if I have to pick favourite, it's the krogans. I really hope we get to see more of them in the future. It's so tempting for me to eventually replay ME:A just so I don't make some of the terrible choices I did in-game the first time around. Especially knowing more of the backstory that I know now. Overall, Uprising is a slow-boil thriller with a devastating conclusion that sets the tone for what our Pathfinder discovers once they arrive. I suspect this story won't be to everyone's taste, but I loved the characterisation, the way that all the characters were portrayed as being morally grey. It's always so tempting to make someone the big bad, which none of them really are. 

If you're looking for a space survival SFF story stuffed with intrigue and machinations, this one may well tick the boxes. Perhaps not as fast-paced as some would expect, it nonetheless provides context for events in-game that make this a valuable addition for the lore it offers.

Mass Effect: Nexus Uprising was included in my Audible subscription and is wonderfully narrated by Fryda Wolff, who voices Sara Ryder in Mass Effect: Andromeda and is a well-known voice artist for the gaming industry.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Aether Shift by Alex Shepherd

Aether Shift by Alex Shepherd has one of those covers that in absolutely no way has anything to do with the content. At a glance, you might be forgiven in thinking it a SF novel, which it's not. Aether Shift is very much a magic-rich fantasy of an epic kind. Our main character Daen is a rebel whose mistake costs him his freedom – he ends up in a slave market, which can be argued is a fate almost worse than death. But to make matters worse, he is purchased by Duke Kieron who is a representative of everything Daen has been fighting against – a man who has a penchant for collecting magical creatures that he controls with the very magic that he despises.

We also meet the shapeshifter Asha, a long-time thrall of Kieron's, who is used to manipulate Daen, who is (obviously) resistant to sharing any intel that might jeopardise his fellow rebels. His cause is not helped by the fact that the king, too, has a rather lethal interest in Daen. Asha does not believe that anyone would want to help her, and she's very much aware that she is a tool in Kieron hands. Daen is a high-value pawn, whether he likes it or not, and it's her job to crack him. She just doesn't expect that she's going to warm to his advances of friendship.

I wasn't quite sure where Shepherd was going with this story, whether it would be a desperate bid for freedom resulting in a quest – but it was an engaging read nonetheless, with plenty of intrigue and fascinating world building, in addition to a well-realised magic system – always good to see. I did feel, however, that this novel could have used a more stringent bit of copy editing. For instance, 'drug' is definitely not the past participle of 'drag', and the occasional modern idiomatic expression crept in that felt out of place with what feels like a baroque-era type setting. And there were the occasional dropped words, grammar gremlins or typos, but not enough to upset me. Overall, Shepherd tells a solid, engaging story that I related to, and after I got to know the characters, I cared about them pretty quickly.

This is a story about freedom, about doing the right thing, even if it's dangerous. This is also a story about about trust – and friendship despite having all the odds stacked against success. It's clearly a first book in a series, and if you're in the mood for a story about slaves fighting for freedom (a noble cause, if ever there was one) then this one will push the right buttons.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Junji Ito's Cat Diary

My beloved husband keeps insisting that I read manga – or more specifically selected works from his extensive (and ever-growing) Junji Ito collection. In *general* I'm not a huge fan of the more commercial manga I've glanced at, but Junji Ito is undoubtedly in a league of his own. And I'll admit that it was easier to twist my arm and get me to read Junji Ito's Cat Diary because, well, cats. We've got the hardcover collector's edition and while the Cat Diary is not in Ito's usual creepy-AF, near-cosmic horror, what he does with the Cat Diary is special. Very special. 

For all his reputation for grim and exceptionally strange horror, what Ito does with this slim volume is tell us about his cats, Yon and Mu, and the (mis)adventures they experience. He fictionalises his life, casting himself as J-kun, and his then-fiancée A-ko in their own manga. The joy comes in with how he portrays life with these felines – darkly humorous takes that flirt with then subvert all the expected horror tropes he's known for. But with cats. And no one dies a grisly death, swallowed by a mountain or menaced by giant floating heads. Let's admit it: cats can be kinda creepy in their own way.

And I laughed. A lot. The little tales are short, so if you need to decompress after a torrid work day, then you'll most certainly gain a few much-needed chuckles that won't tax your concentration. I felt that this was almost a shorter, sweeter answer to Paul Gallico's The Silent Miaow (at least in my mind a vaguely comparable work). Interspersed between the strips we also have short interviews with Ito that offer small glimpses into his world. And he really does seem like a really lovely person (well, duh, he loves cats). Even if he draws his wife with no pupils in her eyes (which apparently made her rather vexed).

Saturday, June 18, 2022

The Whistling by Rebecca Netley

I don't read nearly as much horror as I used to, so when The Whistling by Rebecca Netley landed on my TBR pile, I really did look forward to sinking into a suitably unnerving bit of gothic horror. The story, however, could belong to nearly every other gothic horror novel or film released in the past hundred years or so, with a number of checkboxes that include: an isolated Scottish island; an orphaned nanny with a tragic past; a little girl whose twin brother has died under mysterious circumstances; surly locals; a spooky old house with strange goings-on ... You catch my drift, I'm sure.

We follow the doings of Elspeth Swansome, who accepts a post in the fictional Scottish isle of Skelthsea. Her charge is the rather troubled little girl Mary, whose brother William (whom no one, apparently, liked much) died. Her parents are dead, too, and since her brother's passing, she has not spoken a word.

Almost immediately, Elspeth runs afoul of some of the locals, and although she does not at first believe in the supernatural, the spooky phenomena eventually bring her around. She soon realises that nothing is what it seems, and with little else to do but care for a child she comes to love as though she were her own, Elspeth must also untangle the mysterious and tragic past that enshrouds the house and its inhabitants.

I'm not going to go into too much detail for fear of spoilers, but I am going to critique the things that bugged me. Netley's writing is what I would term adequate, so she carries the story well, but the pacing lags considerably. She spends much time creating mood and atmosphere, for which I must give credit where it's due. But then the story gets bogged down in piles of red herrings. When I started reading, I called what the big bad was (possibly based on the fact that I've read and watched a pile of horror in my time) and guess what? I was right. 

While the use of horror tropes to build tension isn't necessarily bad, it's when they're the ones you can see coming from a mile away, including jump scares (which somehow don't quite work in fiction, let's be honest) I didn't find any of the devices used to build tension or terror at all terrifying or effective. I'd hazard to say that this book felt like an amalgamation of every Gothic horror or mystery already in existence, that has been cherry picked for suitable narrative elements. No fresh ground is covered, in other words.

I'd say that if you are new to the horror or Gothic genres, you might find this work fresh and suitably chilling, but alas, I admit my jaded palate has already tasted many similar and better executed flavours over the years. At times I felt that this book would have been better served as a movie than the written word, where the mood and atmosphere could truly come into its own.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Mass Effect Andromeda: Annihilation by Catherynne M Valente

Tie-in fiction can often be a little hit and miss, and from what I've read of BioWare's offerings that supplement the games has often left me feeling somewhat let down. But then, on the other hand, I love the lore, can spend hours picking it apart, so there is that. And it's for this reason that I'll dig into the supplementary content because let's be honest, who has time to game much these days. 

I will admit that Mass Effect Andromeda was my starting point with the ME games, which is possibly not the best place to dig into the franchise, but there we have it. And while MEA didn't hit me with a cosmic 2x4 the way Dragon Age Inquisition did, I still enjoyed the game, glitchy as it was. As a noob to the ME world, I will also admit that I didn't have an established context for half the details taken for granted by others.

There's a lot of potential for content in the ME games, and I vaguely recall that the two books that tie in with MEA were meant to supplement the main storyline – and in Annihilation by Catherynne M Valente, we discover the fate of the Quarian Ark, the Keelah Si'yah.

The plot is very much a case of 'let's make a list of anything that can and will go wrong on a space-faring vessel' ... and then some. And considering when the novel came out, it was, ahem, oddly prescient in investigating how people deal with a pandemic. Part 'whodunnit', part MacGuyver-style quest, our desperate team must battle against the spread of a deadly disease and lack of resources, all while a metaphorical clock is counting down. No one ever said colonisation was easy, and if you're 600 light years out from your home world, there are no do-overs. You must make do, instead.

This was my introduction to most of the races that I didn't get to meet in the game, and I particularly loved the elcor doctor Yorrik with a penchant for Shakespeare. I will also admit that I struggled to tell my drells apart from my voluses, so if you've not played any of the games, you may want to visit the Wiki before plunging into Annihilation

This was, to my knowledge, the first Catherynne M Valente book that I've read – and she's been on my radar awhile now, and I reckon she does a good job with this story. It's a bit slow-moving, I suspect, for some tastes, but I enjoyed the gradual unfolding and ramping up of tension. And ick, the pandemic theme was a little too close to the bone for me. Tom Taylorson does a bang-up job narrating, and I have no complaints there.

While this hasn't been the greatest hit I'm going to crow about in reviews, this was still an enjoyable read for someone who's wanting a better frame of reference for the ME universe. Alas, poor Yorrik. 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

I'll kick off by saying that Jacqueline Carey is one of my all-time favourite fantasy authors. Kushiel's Dart, and the subsequent novels set in that same universe number among my beloved epics. So, I had really high hopes when I picked up Starless, especially since it's a standalone novel and I simply don't have the stamina to work my way through entire series at present.

We meet Khai, who's a warrior-monk training in a desert fastness, destined to be the shadow (guardian) of one of the Sun-blessed in a royal family. So, that's the premise we start with, and Carey spends much time in the desert building up Khai's unique situation and allowing us to get to know him. I really got stuck into the story at that point. Then, Khai is taken to meet his charge, and the story kinda starts to fall flat for me.

I get the whole "these two are destined to be close because of the Prophecy" kind of relationship that is akin to an 'insta-love' zing across the room, but the ease with which Khai and Zariya kindle their close partnership felt a little too effortless for me. The concept of the novel, too, while interesting and well realised – with the gods walking among mortals, feels a bit too epic in the sense that I actually struggled to suspend disbelief (!!!). Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking. This not-so-gentle reader who happily accepts dragons and inter-dimensional portals stumbling over larger-than-life deities and the relentless pursuit of nasty world-ending critters.

There's a point later where the story performs a sharp, ninety-degree turn into a completely different direction that threw me off, too. Stuff happens, and the affected parties were so calm, once again taking the shift in their fortunes so calmly, it didn't quite ring true. If you lose out on a deal that cost you a lot in terms of your wealth and time, you're not going to be calm about it and wish all parties well, merrily on their way, is all I'm saying.

I feel the main problem with this novel is pacing. We spend a good chunk setting up Khai as a character at the Fortress of the Winds, then arrive in the capital Merabaht, where we are plunged into an Islamic Golden Age-type intrigue. All this comes across as set-up, with Khai turning into a bit of a lovestruck loon that feels almost at odds with his character at the start. Then about halfway through, what initially felt as if it was going to be a novel chock full of courtly intrigue, we are suddenly flung into a sea-roving quest with a completely new cast of characters we simply don't have enough time to get to know enough to care about.

Or, rather, the support cast was intriguing, and I'd wanted to know more.

In terms of the general theme of a world without stars at night, and gods incarnated in the flesh, I kinda called the ending and what would happen. And all I'll say is I was not surprised. There was something quite Frodo-esque about how things were resolved, and from there the story sort of just ends on what I feel is a wee bit of a damp squib. I get the idea that Carey had a fantastic concept for this story but then didn't quite develop it to its full potential. This could have been a trilogy, but instead we had everything squished into one novel that almost felt like a ttRPG in terms of the way the action plays out. Not that this is a bad thing, but it felt rushed halfway through, as if she wasn't quite sure where she wanted to take the story. So we go from intricate detail to rushed, broad strokes – and this felt jarring to me.

My overall verdict is that this could have been so much better. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Was there stuff about Starless that annoyed me? Yes. Carey remains on my list of favourites, but this is not her strongest work.