Dumpster Diving

Last Updated 27 December 2003

Negative short reviews; more-generous short reviews are in Cover Slugs.

  (1) David Feintuch, The Seafort Saga. [16 Feb 00] 1 star (bad)

  (2) Mercedes Lackey, Owlknight. [16 Feb 00] 1 star (bad)

  (3) Thomas Harris, Hannibal. [17 Mar 00] 1 star (bad)

  (4) Janny Wurts, The Wars of Light and Shadow. [14 May 00] Half a star (really bad)

  (5) Sarah Zettel, The Quiet Invasion. [14 Jun 00] 2 stars (mediocre)

  (6) Deborah Christian, The Truthsayer's Apprentice. [14 Jul 00] 1 stars (almost mediocre)

  (7) Holly Lisle, Courage of Falcons (The Secret Texts III). [13 Nov 00] 2 stars (mediocre)

  (8) Jim Grimsley, Kirith Kirin. [11 Jan 01] 1 stars (almost mediocre)

  (9) Iain M. Banks, Look to Windward. [13 Apr 01] 2 stars (almost good)

(10) Sheri S. Tepper, The Fresco. [30 Apr 01] 1 stars (almost mediocre)

(11) Sarah Zettel, Kingdom of Cages. [02 Dec 01] 2 stars (almost good)

(12) Ian Irvine, A Shadow on the Glass. [13 Dec 01] 2 stars (almost good)

(13) George Foy, The Last Harbor. [01 Jan 02] 2 stars (almost good)

(14) P.C. Cast, Goddess by Mistake. [15 Mar 02] Half a star (really bad)

(15) Pauline J. Alama, The Eye of Night. [19 Mar 03] 1 star (bad)

(16) Max Barry, Jennifer Government. [15 May 03] 2 stars (mediocre)

(17) Harry Turtledove, Gunpowder Empire (Crosstime Traffic, Book 1). [27 Dec 03] 2 stars (mediocre)

Toxic waste (no stars) will continue to get individual reviews. Thankfully, I have one of the best public libraries in the country to rely upon so that I don't have to pay for the objets d'garbage, either.

 (1) David Feintuch, The Seafort Saga

16 February 2000

In my dictionary, there is a crossreference to "frag" under "Nicholas Seafort."

The Seafort Saga—which shows little, if any, sign of ever ending, let alone reaching a conclusion—blends all of the worst aspects of the Hornblower Saga with bad late-20th-century diarism and 1950s creature features, in which the creatures were more probably commies than Godzilla. The series started off with the abominable Midshipman's Hope, which introduces us to Our Hero as a midshipman on an interstellar packet ship. (We'll leave the questionable economics and logistics of the system aside and just note that the education level portrayed for the crew wouldn't support a mid-century tank battalion, let alone an interstellar vessel.) What really got my attention, though, were Nicholas Seafort's character defects as a human being, let alone officer or commander. Young, immature officers didn't last any longer in Napoleonic times than they did in Vietnam, particularly when they started acting like ignorant, arrogant asses. Thus, everything after page 75 or so is borrowed time. Time borrowed from us readers. Perhaps "borrowed" isn't the right word; "stolen" seems more like it.

Sad to say, Midshipman's Hope is the most tightly plotted and internally consistent book in this series. Seafort's "hero quality" is enough to eventually take him to world power after he overcomes a number of other problems too simple to call "idiot plots," at which point he suffers a crisis of conscience over deception practiced by individuals under his control and retreats to a monastery. Too bad the author didn't do so instead.

Because the writing itself bears some resemblance to contemporary English, I'll be generous and award the Seafort Saga 1 star (bad).

 (2) Mercedes Lackey, Owlknight

16 February 2000

Valdemar has been steadily going to the dogs. By my count, this is the fourth contemporary adolescent power-fulfillment fantasy (in the psychological sense) set in Selenay's reign. One trilogy is difficult enough to swallow, but each succeeding trilogy has depended upon the same structure, same character "awakenings," and same stupid villains (renamed slightly to protect the guilty). The Arrows trilogy was enough. Otherwise, Selenay should just bloody well abdicate to the next adolescent who hies into Haven and be done with it! The previous trilogies' protagonists just fade farther and farther into the background, making one doubt that they ever really learned anything themselves from their own quests. I am reminded very much of the medieval romances—Amadis of Gaul and so on. Where is Cervantes when we need him?

There is a place for William Morrisish "utopian medievalism" in literature. The problem is that Lackey wants to have things both ways: She wants preindustrial rustic charm and hot running water, feodality and enlightened education, dominance of the craftsman-artisan and cheap commodities supporting a high standard of living and low level of disease. That works for one novel, or even (at a stretch) a trilogy. We're over 25 books now. Even Amadis didn't slime out that far!

In the end, the real problem is that Valdemar is not growing, and Lackey's writing is not growing within Valdemar. Her writing did grow when she stepped outside of the adolescent protagonist (Vows and Honor, By the Sword, Price of Magic) and outside of Valdemar entirely (the gypsy/musician milieu most recently appearing in Four and Twenty Blackbirds). Valdemar is in serious danger of becoming the Jonathan Livingston Seagull of the IFS—a truly frightening prospect.

This latest trilogy gets 1 star (bad). Some of the previous material has been much better, but this stuffed owl has lost its feathers.

 (3) Thomas Harris, Hannibal

17 March 2000

There's just nothing to sink one's teeth into here.

One can almost hear the author shrieking with laughter as he cashes his royalty checks. He kept the same names for the two "main characters" as in the previous works (print or cinema), but virtually none of their real character. (Didn't anybody learn anything in Silence of the Lambs?) He thereby has earned a mint, at the expense of any intellectual honesty or honor that he had. By a "mint," I do not mean one of those little chocolatey things some restaurants hand out after a meal. Of course, the publisher spent a mint on publicity, when it need not have spent a cent—the media was salivating over this book so much that it didn't need any advertising—all the while making a mint itself. Meanwhile, more-obscure works that deserve more attention and effort have languished below the puny attention span and intellect of the marketing dorks.

Then there's the plot. Or, rather, its absence. "Idiot" is a good description of the plot. It's also a good description of whoever approved this rough draft for publication. What really irritated me the most, though, was the deterioration in Harris's prose. Once again, it looks more like a rough draft than a finished novel. Character voices change from page to page in the middle third, while virtually identical objects (or, in one case, the same object) get widely varying descriptions.

The saddest aspect of Hannibal is that it could have been a decent book with a hard developmental edit and significant revision. There is a story hiding in there, but it's so deeply buried under the crap that I doubt that long-term sales will justify the publisher's urge for a quick buck. At least I hope not, because the publishing industry needs to have its double standard exposed for what it is—and pay the price for it.

Perhaps Dr. Lector ran short of fava beans and Chianti, because this book is as appetizing as raw liver. 1 star (bad). Hannibal reinforced for me why I don't read "horror."

 (4) Janny Wurts, The Wars of Light and Shadow

14 May 2000

This garbage struggles mightily with Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time for the dubious title of "Epitome of the Interminable Fantasy Series" (IFS). Jordan's series weighs more at the moment, but Wurts is not far behind; they're both of Schwarzeneggerian proportions, as it would take Conan the Librarian just to shelve them.

We'll start out with the cover art. After all, Janny Wurts is herself the artist; she can't complain about the artist missing the point of the book! But not an artist who pays nearly enough attention to detail. Look carefully at the grips used on The Grand Conspiracy, the latest offering: they're both wrong, and wrong in a way that no trained knife-fighter, let alone one used to the main gauche, would stoop to. The dagger itself is wrong, too—a main gauche has even less need for a blood channel than any other dagger. Then, on the other hand, the sword, which does need such a channel, does not have one, and is instead inscribed with quasi-Celtic runes. OK, maybe it really is a magic sword; the blood still needs somewhere to go.

If one turns only a couple of pages, one finds a map, naturally enough; perhaps the very map so cynically, but effectively, lampooned by Diana Wynne Jones. There are not one, but two "mountain ranges" that run right down to the ocean for extended distances. Rivers (such as those in Fallowmere, on the northeast part of the "continent") take courses completely at odds with the supposed mountain ranges. Then, the publisher didn't even bother to print the key partially provided on the lower right.

Admittedly, these are just packaging errors. What really matters is the words between the covers. However, these packaging errors were committed by the author, not by some overextended artist working to a deadline. This does not engender confidence. And, unfortunately, the packaging is better than the contents. One of the reasons I've reviewed so few books lately is that I've been struggling through the preceding four books in this series; even though the subject of my review may well be a middle or closing book, I attempt to read all that preceded that book first.

To be blunt, brevity is not one of Ms. Wurts's greater failings. Her fondness for the infodump does not help matters. But, in the end, there is this: the end of each book is predictable from the first thirty or forty pages, and we don't see much (if anything) in between that really matters later. Grand Conspiracy is, if anything, even more guilty than its predecessors—if the characters were "real" (and they're not even close), friction would have introduced significant levels of uncertainty by this stage.

Yet, for all of the dead trees consumed by this IFS, there doesn't seem to be anything to say. Contemporary commercial fiction has drawn all of the wrong lessons from the long Russian works of the nineteenth century—particularly Tolstoy and Doestoievskii; and the longer-still English-language works of the twentieth century—particularly Tolkein, Eddison, Galsworthy, Powell, and (at the extreme) Joyce. In each of those cases, the level of detail is part of the point of the book/series. Detail is supposed to support the story and its theme, not just accrete on the page in a stereotyped fashion to answer the same tired questions (usually with the same tired answers) and create the ideal book package: one that is about an inch and a half thick. That also describes how thick my skull felt after slogging my way through this dreck.

Half a star Worse than bad, and certainly homely, but not quite ugly.

 (5) Sarah Zettel, The Quiet Invasion

14 June 2000

This novel was a terrible disappointment. Zettel usually writes well, somewhat on the margins of traditional science fiction and certainly well outside the traditional boundaries of cultural models. Fool's War, for example, took its main character (and much of its central conflict) from not the usual Euroamerican or occasional Asian context, but Arabic.

The Quiet Invasion, though, spends so much effort creating its alien societies (human and otherwise) that the characters just don't fit. In the end, our "viewpoint character" is not either the decisionmaker ("Aunt" Helen) or either the human (Dr. Veronica Hatch, a visual artist with a graduate degree in optics) or alien interspecies communicators. Instead, there simply is no viewpoint character. This makes the insufficient diversity of characters painfully obvious, because we're head-hopping in an ill-considered attempt to create "simultaneity." Then there are the inconsistent interactions at the human climax, with their counterpart in the cheating resolution at the alien's end of things. The viewpoint is, at once, too loose and too tight. The book needs a single storyteller on each side of the divide, but that storyteller needs to be much more omniscient and willing to provide context. Zettel's strength in her previous novels has been injection of the alien(ated) viewpoint into human societies. The Quiet Invasion tries to substitute alien location and alien societies for that development of the viewpoint, and it just doesn't work. The politics, to paraphrase Le Guin, dominate the book from the viewpoint of Poughkeepsie, not Venus.

Yes, Virginia, this is an allegory. There are many sound theoretical reasons that the allegory is essentially dead in post-Romantic prose. The Quiet Invasion, for all of the effort that went into creating the milieu, fails as fiction for many of the same reasons as Spenser's Faerie Queen: there's no real story here. (Yes, that's a somewhat unfair comparison, as the Spenser is in the form of a poem and the allegory is much more apparent, but that's life.) The major plot-concept failure just underscores this as a problem. For some reason, the aliens were able to learn pretty good English by intercepting human transmissions. Bullshit. Without context, how do they know it's communication in the first place? Even if they do, how does contextless communication (almost all of which is probably digitized, making analysis that much harder) enable a truly alien species to learn English—a particularly difficult language—well enough to engage in sophisticated conversation? Plotwise, it's necessary; without this conceit, Zettel can't narrow the miscommunication far enough to advance her plot concepts.

Finally, this short review would not be complete or fair to the author without noting that her efforts were undermined by thoroughly unprofessional presentation. The binding is shoddy, the type is not properly kerned, the paper is of inconsistent weights within the book, and the printing was crooked on several copies that I examined. Worst of all, though, is a copyediting job that would not pass muster in eighth-grade language arts. "Its" was swapped with "it's" at least six times (I gave up counting after chapter 11), and that is far from the least of the grammatical sins. One cannot blame the author for this. This is the publisher's fault, and brings shame and disgrace upon the imprint name for generations to come.

2 stars (mediocre). By far Ms. Zettel's least satisfactory novel published to date.

 (6) Deborah Christian, The Truthsayer's Apprentice

14 July 2000

Hey, D&D players, this book was intended for you! The adventuring parties both have characters for which I could probably draw up character sheets in ten minutes or so. I could probably recreate the "wilderness encounter" and "city encounter" tables in an hour or so, too. And the excitement of hearing dice rolling for every combat or critical random event! (Hey, I was a D&D player. I still have my heavily marked-up Chainmail, and the notes from my first GM plan—back before there was a Greyhawk supplement to the three-book set. Yog Sothoth I'm dating myself!)

But that's not good writing, or good literature. And, sad to say, this is a vastly superior species of the "RPG book." There's no comparison with the insulting crap put out by TSR (and its corporate successors—now Hasbro) since the 70s, epitomized by the truly awful Weisandhickman insults to dead trees (no stars/ugly). Each individual scene is relatively well-drawn, in a verbal sense, which is a substantial improvement over the typical RPG novel (which often seems to be the GM's session notes with a heavy copyedit). But they don't fit together.

The anachronisms are both literary and substantive. Literarily, there are virtually no transitions; the chapter divisions are supposed to do that work, I suppose, but then there are also many scenes, particularly in the last third of the book, that break over chapter divisions. That last third of the book bears many marks of hasty rewriting immediately before publication, including a significant increase in typographical errors (not to an unprofessional level, but the contrast is quite apparent to anyone with publishing experience).

Substantively, the milieu just doesn't fit together. Neither do the "adventuring parties" (one "good", one "evil"). For example (far from a complete list):

I won't go on. I blame the production schedule and editor for this as much as the author. Good, firm editorial guidance and a willingness to wait until the damned thing was done might have salvaged the book literarily—at least somewhat, as I don't think any editor could completely remove the sound of dice rolling in the background.

Grudgingly, 1 stars (almost mediocre). Unlike most RPG books (particularly those tied to previously published gaming systems), Christian at least tries to write instead of rely on random-encounter tables. She's not all that successful; this is just not a novel, despite its attempt to masquerade as one.

 (7) Holly Lisle, Courage of Falcons (The Secret Texts III)

14 August 2000

As the barmaid at Bob's Country Bunker might say, "We've got both kinds here—high fantasy and romance!" And, as at Bob's Country Bunker, it just doesn't quite work, although Lisle's intentions are much more benign.

Lisle's basic worldbuilding and premise manage more than adequately. The backlash of magical energy into Scarring (both physical and psychological, although the latter does not become apparent until the third book) is quite well-conceived. The physical environment also shows excellent attention to detail. For example, the map is both geographically sound and technologically appropriate—no GPS accuracy, and the level of detail is far greater around settlements than in the wilds, or in abandoned Novtierra.

Unfortunately, those are the high points.

The first beer bottle against the chickenwire is the Poughkeepsie Effect (cf. Le Guin's essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie"). Names are very important to suspension of disbelief, and unfortunately Lisle's ear gives little evidence of rising to even tin. Kait, Galweigh, Novtierra, Strithia, Iberal Peninsula, Karnee, Duclas… common words that failed a spellcheck. It's not as bad as M'Caffrey, but it's bad enough. These language problems continue in dialog: one character, in this nontechnological, nonastronomical environment, refers to "the universe" on several occasions.

Rather wooden characterization breaks another bottle. Where this three-part novel goes astray, though, is in the "girl meets boy—girl falls hopelessly in lust with boy—girl and boy fight…" nonsense that eventually overwhelms everything else in the book. By midway through Courage of Falcons, it becomes impossible to care any more about the potential end of the world, or the Big Magical Device, while waiting for raging teenage hormones to reappear (as they do regularly every ten to twelve pages). Perhaps saltpeter and cold showers would have helped. Love does have a place in fiction; out-of-character lust overwhelming both vengeance (a weak-enough motivation for a thousand-page novel in any event) and saving the world is not.

Although Lisle tries hard, the awkwardness in plot, characterization, and execution make this novel somewhat less than good, if slightly more than merely mediocre. Absent the horribly forced romance, this novel might have been almost good. As it is, it's only mediocre 2 stars.

 (8) Jim Grimsley, Kirith Kirin

11 January 2001

Before getting to the contents, a couple of comments about the packaging. The physical presentation of this book leaves a lot to be desired. The cover design appears to be an overreaction to "bright and shiny is good" nonsense; it is a muddy mess in purples, greys, and black, and fails the "10-foot test" spectacularly. The lettering is not much better, as it's in a font that tends to look indistinct beyond reading distance. It appears that Meisha Merlin needs to exercise a lot more control over the quality of work done by its printer—of the four MM books I've examined, three have had crooked print, three (not the same three) have had crooked trimming, and all have had both shoddy bindings and lots of dropped ascenders and descenders toward the outer edges of pages, which usually results from mishandling during trimming and binding. The paper is of marginal quality. Worst of all is the binding itself, which is not robust enough to stand up to much use at all.

Next, a word about the author bio. Ten paragraphs on two-and-a-half pages, probably well over 800 words—and almost entirely concerned with building the author up based on his dramatic and mainstream writing. OK, maybe there were pages left to fill up a signature, but this is excessive.

All of this for a book that is, at best, eminently forgettable. I, for one, am sick to death of stories of callow predestined adolescents, particularly when told in first person. I suffered through the stereotypical evil ruler allied with stereotypical evil magicians. I remain disgusted by the stereotypical "earth-worshippers good—citydwellers bad" bullshit (I see enough of that in the political gerrymandering of election districts back here in the mundane world). The writing itself is craftsmanlike, but no more.

In the end, this is a disappointing book. Leaving aside the problems with the packaging, the content is not really different from the usual DAW/Del Rey/Roc pablum (which is not to say that all of their books are bland—just that bland is the overwhelming nonflavor of those imprints). That, plus a fairly premium price of $16, makes this book an unlikely success for Meisha Merlin. In turn, that leaves me of two minds: We desperately need more publishers to create some diversity, both in the field and in publishing in general. We don't need more of the same, though; numbers won't create diversity if the new publishers try to act as clones.

Almost mediocre (1.5 stars). Not a strong effort at all. The packaging is so noticeably substandard that it takes away from an otherwise-mediocre effort.

 (9) Iain M. Banks, Look to Windward

13 April 2001

This British book (Orbit/Little Brown) is a new novel of The Culture, Banks's far-future extrapolation of something like humanity. (Knowledge of the previous Culture novels is almost assumed.) But this is not a quasi-hard-SF analog of the IFS. In fact, it's not really all that close to nuts-and-bolts hard SF.

Part of the difficulty with this book is its overreliance on Clarke's Law ("any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") as a way of getting oneself out of tight spots. For example, one major technology that the entire society seems built upon is the "backing up" of personalities, particularly prior to engaging in dangerous activities. A little thought, though, demonstrates fairly conclusively that the backups are far too small. Recent research in memory seems to indicate that the brain maintains its own internal backups—not really redundant, but used for different functions—and that the spatial relationships (both three-dimensional and pathwise) of particular pieces of data are as important as the "bit value" (which appears likely to be continuous, not discrete). All of this means that a complete backup is likely bigger than a human brain, but Banks postulates that it's likely slightly bigger than a walnut.

This may seem like nitpicking. Perhaps, in some sense, it is; however, the backups are so central to both the plot and the characters themselves—particularly as one of the characters is in fact a backup. And here is where the structure almost collapses on itself, for this in the end requires both a clichéd, overly predictable resolution and some very strained character relationships that just don't sit right. As one note: if backups of important military personalities from the past are as posited, why aren't there security experts, covert operatives, cops, etc. on duty long after their deaths, routinely backed up and rated for effectiveness? (Answer: If there had been, the paltry conspiracy at the center of the plot wouldn't have gotten past chapter three.)

Almost good (2 stars). This novel just is not up to the standard of Banks's other works. He has unfortunately chosen to build the characters and events around the least satisfactory aspects of his speculation.

(10) Sheri S. Tepper, The Fresco

30 April 2001

Over the years, I've watched a number of writers go over the edge from strongly opinionated to raving madness. I'm not a psychiatrist, but on the basis of this book, Ms. Tepper has joined the lunatic fringe. Somewhat differently from her more-recent fiction, Tepper has no axe to grind. She has abandoned such primitive technology for a carbide-tipped chainsaw. I've seldom read a work as bigoted, culturally imperialistic, arrogant, supercilious, and one-dimensional as The Fresco since I left active duty and discontinued my diet of classified reports.

Tepper starts with an interesting premise: that First Contact will come to us, that not all civilizations engaging in that contact will be benevolent, that First Contact very likely will come to someone not "trained" for it, and that we will need guidance from a more-seasoned civilization to learn our interstellar manners. That's the closest to a novel that this garbage gets. The Fresco is not a novel, but a misanthropic polemic that careens almost at random among

•  Treating a Y chromosome as a birth defect (that English literature—especially speculative fiction—has historically treated the absence of a Y chromosome as a birth defect is no excuse).

•  Advocating a eugenics program worthy of Hitler, and not all that far removed from it, either.

•  Criticizing by exclusion every other culture in the world than American as so inferior that it might as well not exist.

•  Creating alien societies that, in some if not all respects, are less culturally and technologically advanced than we are, except for the accident of interstellar drive—really, now, are we expected to credit interstellar "predator" societies that haven't learned the principles of herd management, and others with no apparent knowledge of medicine or epidemiology?

•  Depending upon "universal translators" that work almost flawlessly with no prior knowledge of underlying context.

The characters never came alive, either. One can almost see them being whipsawed between attempts to advance the idiot plot and polemical infodumps; the only saving grace is that Professor Superscience lectures—"As you know Bob, although you've been my research assistant these past fifteen years, the Transmigrational Teapot works like this…"—are minimized. Style is quite uneven, almost unedited in places.

Almost mediocre (1 stars). This novel isn't. It is neither novel in the sense of being new, nor a novel in the literary sense. Tepper's misanthropy—or, perhaps, just misandrony—has never been more apparent. Marion Zimmer Bradley had an infamous rejection commanding authors who have a message to go rent a theater. Although Ms. Bradley shamelessly overused this rejection, it would have been appropriate for the manuscript of this book.

(11) Sarah Zettel, Kingdom of Cages

02 December 2001

Once again, Zettel's efforts have been undermined by the publisher's unprofessional packaging. Along with the same physical and editorial problems noted in The Quiet Invasion, the book contains several inconsistent spellings of proper names. (I reviewed a library copy, not an uncorrected galley.) This is embarassing, and became at times distracting.

Zettel is again concentrating on the conflict between inconsistent social systems. This time, instead of systems more directly based upon terrestrial cultures, she presents the dilemma of Balkanized economic development: the conflict among political power structures, economic development, personal freedom, and environmental protection. This is fertile ground for creating highly tense dramatic situations, and Zettel nicely presents the problems without preaching. The difficulty is that the characters, and their reactions to the problems, just don't fit; in the end, neither do the possible solutions explored in the book.

Zettel's choice of adolescents (the Trust girls) as protagonists is consistent with her earlier works, all of which include a theme of psychological metamorphosis to (a kind of) adulthood. The difficulty is that the girls never really do grow up; Chena in particular is jarringly unchanged by the end of the novel. Further, the subversives on Pandora should be the viewpoint characters, because they are the ones with the greatest personal change and personal risk. Instead, they are virtually marionettes, dancing on the ends of preprogrammed strings with perhaps barely enough vigor to hold up their part of the plot.

Almost good (2 stars). Since her first two novels, Zettel's skill at worldbuilding has not been matched by execution from interesting premises. The last two works have been seriously marred by appalling production errors.

(12) Ian Irvine, A Shadow on the Glass

13 December 2001

After reading this effort (or lack thereof) from the Warner Aspect production department, I feel somewhat relieved, in a cynical sort of way. Sarah Zettel's books were not marred because she pissed somebody off; they were marred because this publisher's production department can't name the first letter in "Quality Control." This mass-market paperback had a set of eight pages upside down in the middle of the book, and about one in twenty verso pages had been printed from damaged film (in a ragged sort of way, up to two letters were missing, although the margin remained correct).

The plot, however, is barely worth pondering, being so generic as to defy much description. It's very much a standard orphaned-child-of-destiny who comes into possession of a mysterious magical device, who then must battle the elements and a burgeoning romantic relationship with an equally outcast travelling companion. As generic as that is, however, Irvine shows some deft pacing and good writing mechanics. It's really too bad that he didn't show the same skill in setting up his story as he did in executing it, because there is an underlying lack of suspense in this kind of book: we know that the protagonist will suffer through physical challenges, probably will be seriously injured, and must struggle against nonhuman supernatural powers exerted by mysterious and not-quite-implacable foes. On the other hand, Irvine does a nicely subtle job in portraying some of the racism and insularity common to the IFS, and leaves a faint trace of authorial disapproval.

That said, one of the other major difficulties with this book is that it is the first of an IFS. It is relatively short for such, but only relatively: 640 pages, or about 150,000 words. Its greatest sin is that some—not all, but some—of the necessary context is revealed in a gradual manner that is too close to hiding the ball from the reader. Some of the material was predictable, but some was not, and that damaged the last third of the book.

Almost good (2 stars). Frankly, this novel shouldn't have been published as is. It is close enough to being a good book that an editor should have spent more time and effort on shoring up its weaknesses, because Irvine has a solid grasp of the mechanical aspects of storytelling while not relying on beating his point into the reader with a lead pipe.

(13) George Foy, The Last Harbor

01 January 2002

The cover blurbs have even less to do with the contents than usual. For all her skill as a writer, Doris Lessing is not exactly a top choice for critical acumen. The blurb from Locus—"Hemingway meets magical realism"—completely misses the mark on Hemingway, magical realism, and this book.

To start with, Hemingway is an inapt comparison. The prose style bears little resemblance, no more than do the characters to the kinds of people Hemingway wrote about. The only point of contact is that this story is also about a man and the sea—at least on the surface. If one must compare books to literary classics to explicate them, The Last Harbor would better be compared to Dostoevski's shorter works, or perhaps Thomas Mann.

Neither is Foy's book a work of magical realism. Magical realism depends upon a certain flatness and complacency in the characters' contact with the surreal, whereas more-traditional surrealism and absurdism require that the characters object to and express confusion over the more-surreal aspects. However, Slocum (we don't find out that his given name is John until less than a quarter of the book remains) both deconstructs the virtual realities Foy uses as a plot focus and was partially responsible for creating them. In approach, this is much closer to the knocking-on-the-ghetto-walls efforts of Richard Powers and Margaret Atwood than to magical realism.

Instead, Foy tells a story about a rather unsympathetic protagonist and his efforts to "free" the resident of a ship that pulls up in the harbor. Because we find out early on that Slocum is a recovering addict, we can guess both that the addiction will be tested and that this test will somehow lead to other revelations that in turn lead to the resolution. Foy manages just enough twists to keep it from being completely predictable.

Almost good (2 stars). The initial situation had some promise, but Foy's choice of narrative method and rather pedestrian structure did not fulfill it. This is a serviceable book—no more, no less.

(14) P.C. Cast, Goddess by Mistake

15 March 2002

This book has everything, or darned near it. Everything that makes people with any aspirations of literary taste sneer at speculative fiction, that is. It starts off with truly wretched packaging, both physically and aesthetically. It's not just the cover, either; I've come to expect ugly from small-press trade paperback covers, with the possible exception of Golden Gryphon. The interior design is poor: inadequate gutter; poor choice of typefaces, size, and leading; stereotypically bad chapter opening design (including improper use of drop capitals that really throw the page's balance off); improper kerning and layout (look at, for example, page 41); you get the idea.

OK. That's not the author's fault. However, it's sort of like going to a job interview wearing cutoff jeans, a threadbare Hawaiian-print shirt, and three days of stubble (gender irrelevant). It makes a really poor impression. This should be a lesson for small-press publishers. It's not that hard to produce a professional-looking book, regardless of the contents. Look at anything by Danielle Steele!

It doesn't help the book that the editing borders on the incompetent, whether from a mechanical or substantive perspective. For example (I opened the book at random to find this):

Smallpox, or no smallpox — I was going to be really glad to get back to the Temple of the Muse. My butt felt like it was adhering to my husband's back — which is not a particularly good thing.

And then… there's the content. Wince. Let's see, now. We have an unappreciated, undersexed female highschool English teacher who finds a Magic Item at an auction after the last day of school. By coincidence, she loves horses, which turns out to be a very good thing: the Magic Item makes her change places with a somewhat oversexed sortakinda horse goddess as she is about to be married off to a centaur. (The author bio shows where some of this just might originate.) No remarks about being "hung like a horse," please. And the clichés just pile on from there. This might be somewhat amusing as a satire. A short one. A self-aware one. No such luck. I won't give any plot spoilers here; of course, that assumes that there is something resembling a plot, or any doubt after the first six or seven pages as to where this book is going to end up.

Overall, this book reads like a first novel's first draft as it is handed to the let's-all-be-friends-and-not-hurt-any-feelings local writer's group. It is just not ready for submission to a demanding publisher, let alone ready for print. There might be a germ of something in there, but it requires a very firm editorial hand and a completely different authorial voice, and even then might not be sufficient.

Half a star Really bad. This book is very close to being truly ugly. That the editor should turn in his or her literary license due to the DWI involved in selecting this book for publication, let alone the appalling lack of editorial guidance, is yet another irritant. However, one cannot entirely blame the author when she was given no guidance.

(15) Pauline J. Alama, The Eye of Night

19 March 2003

This wretched excuse for a novel kept another novel (probably a considerably superior one) from seeing print. And that pisses me off. This book qualifies as an exhibit in the unpublished author's screed about he/she can write better than the stuff that is getting into print. Of course, that's not setting a very high standard. (Fortunately, this book was a freebie pickup at ConJose; I'd be ashamed if the local library had purchased it!)

Eye is yet another addition to the para/quasi/pseudo-Celtic "semiromantic fantasy" subcategory. These can be done reasonably well, as rare as that is. Sadly, Eye doesn't manage to come up to even the low standard set by the subcategory. For starters, characterization is simultaneously severely lacking and created by beating multiple dead horses and leaving Clues so obvious that it's not worth even trying to dissect. The setup, involving yet again another corrupted religion that makes life a burden for the protagonist, is clunky in its best parts. The plot—such as it is—is indistinguishable from so many other "collect-the-coupons-and-save-the-world-from-the-Big-Evil" books; even the TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer does a better job of matching the characters to the plot and keeping the coupons from being so obvious. And then there are the mutual incompatibilities between character philosophy and their purported backgrounds.

Where this book really falls down, though, is in its theme. Or should that be themes? The difficulty is that the initial theme gets dropped in favor of another (incompatible) one about 100 pages in, with no warning and for no good reason. This second theme persists until nearly the end of the novel, at which point all of the balls that the author has been hiding are brought out and juggled for a nice, neat, stereotypical ending. I expect better of any novel; I particularly expect better of a novelist with a PhD in medieval literature.

1 star Bad. Definitely not a recommendation for the entire subcategory.

(16) Max Barry, Jennifer Government

15 May 2003

This book (published by Doubleday, which once upon a time was a leading publisher of science fiction) is an excellent example of slumming from the mainstream—but not in its excellence. It doesn't really have any of that.

The best part of this book is the premise, in a sense. In a rather bizarre twist, Jennifer Government begins in an Americanized relative of the initial background of Neuromancer, with its not quite cyberpunkish sensibility but lifetime "company town" economy like the stereotypical zaibatsu. People no longer have surnames; they instead take the surname of their employers. Hence, federal agent Jennifer Government; newly promoted marketing worker Hack Nike; bewildered Billy NRA. The overt use of violence and Lochnerish reliance on "freedom of contract" (and the consequences of their breach) fit in, too.

The failures of this novel are twofold. At a sentence-by-sentence level, the prose is fine; not elegant, but not obviously commercialized. As the perspective steadily broadens, however, the storytelling falls flat. Individual sections of narrative are extremely short, leading to a headhopping effect and all the problems with false simultaneity (particularly since the narrator is almost obsequiously omniscient). More grievously, though, all character development stems from the narrator's revelations of various hidden balls and guidance through the plot coupons.

Had Barry made himself more familiar with near-future science fiction, he might well have seen many of these errors and avoided them. No doubt the marketing dorks with their segregation and other idiocy were a factor. All one need do is compare the cover of Atwood's Oryx and Crake—which I may well review after finishing my hissy fit—with randomly chosen "in-category" near-future works from the perspective of someone with a reasonable education to see how that would discourage anyone with a modicum of taste from even touching those other works, however flawed they may be.

2 stars Mediocre. Jennifer Government could be the unusually well-developed product of a highly fashionable college literary magazine. It has a clever premise and a few clever touches in the middle. That does not make it good fiction.

(17) Harry Turtledove, Gunpowder Empire (Crosstime Traffic, Book 1)

27 December 2003

Although not marked so, this is really a YA book—and not a good example thereof. The protagonists are high-school students, and the didactic presentation shows some of the negative influences of current YA fiction. For, in the end, this is a "problem book." That the "problem" is slightly more subtle than most does not make it good fiction.

Turtledove's premise is quite similar to that of H. Beam Piper's Paratime books: that one "timeline" of Earth civilization has developed the ability to move sideways into alternate timelines, and is harvesting basic necessities from those timelines. We'll leave aside the dubious economics of not simply using "empty" timelines for that purpose and "colonizing" them. (Perhaps the corporate masters are afraid of more revolutions followed by nationalization—a possibility that could be minimized merely by exercising the same control over medical care as actually done in Gunpowder Empire.) Turtledove substitutes a megacorporation for the quasigovernmental Paratime Police, but at least thus far in the series—this is only the first book—the differences are immaterial.

I cannot fault Dr. Turtledove's research. One thing that he does do better than did Piper is build internally consistent alternate histories, particularly preindustrial ones. However, the story suffers from serious infodumping and indistinguishability of characters. Further, the characters seem to be remarkably slow learners, particularly for experienced crosstime travellers. For example, they never seem to learn how to smooth relations with government officials, either by refraining from obvious sarcasm or more traditional means (such as graft, which is shocking in its absence)—and do not seem interested in doing so.

What is most disturbing, though, is the shortsightedness of preparation. As thorough as the basic indoctrination of the travellers (even children) seems to be, they are not prepared for the particular (temporary) isolation from the "home" timeline that is caused by easily forseeable events on the "home" timeline—so forseeable that one of the other characters implies that this is not the first time such a near-catastrophe has occurred. And why the hell aren't there printed backup manuals, emergency checklists, and emergency survival gear in the "secure" subbasement? Those items would be absolutely trivial compared to everything else that would be found if the subbasement were to be penetrated by the "natives," and particularly in "Agrippan Rome" use of modern and technical English would have been more than sufficient to keep the written materials from causing undue contamination. This is in stark contrast to the lecture-style infodumping that permeates the book.

2 stars Mediocre. This book simply is not up to Turtledove's usual standards, treading as it does on some of H. Beam Piper's Paratime territory with better historical research and less-interesting characters. Connie Willis's Domesday Book and Fire Watch are better choices, with slightly older protagonists.

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