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.