Review: A Time to Build by Rick Rossing

2.5 stars (For an explanation of my curmudgeonly rating and reviewing quirks, please refer to my reviewing guide.)

There are many things to love about this book. It has a great early Heinlein feel to it, and the positives are easy to list:

  • a classic coming-of-age “lost prince” narrative hook
  • a light touch with dialogue
  • enjoyable character interplay
  • a fabulous, intricately-designed, sweeping universe to explore
  • good pacing
  • plenty of history, plenty of twists and reveals
  • action!

Great ideas. Lots of attention to detail. Fun creatures and creations, humor to balance out tension…but so many assorted presentation issues that I had to push myself to finish.

It’s a rough gem, but the setting interfered with my appreciation of its beauty. Grammar quirks. Repetitive descriptions and dialogue tags. Tons of dialogue without any tags, in multi-person conversations between people whose voices were too similar to tell apart. (I didn’t like it when Asimov did it, and I didn’t like it here.)  Everyone was always standing up and looking around, sitting down and turning their heads, touching an arm and nodding. Everyone was always talking. Telling each other things that happened. Explaining the past. Discussing the plans. Recapping what happened.

All the things I listed are sins I am undoubtedly guilty of committing as an author. Perhaps I am blind to the shortcomings of my own children and over-sensitive to them in others. This is possible, but in any case, this book exceeded my tolerance.

Taken together the elements do make a storytelling style, a cohesive and perhaps even an intentional one, but the older I get, the less patience I have for it. I want more poetry in my prose. My other main issue is more personal. I grew up reading “boy books” because there were very few SFF titles with women in lead roles, so I have no problem identifying with male protagonists. I also have experience tolerating story lines in which women, children, mothers and girlfriends exist as props for the main character’s development. At least the women in this story have brains, brawn and other strengths and weaknesses. Like Heinlein’s women, and David Weber’s, they’re more than furniture. I’m glad of that, but they never felt real to me, not the way the men did. A shiny perfect prize is still only a prize, not a person.

Now that there are plenty of stories out in the world that have spaceships, dragons, adventure and women who are villainous or heroic, strong or week independent of their men, I’d rather spend my time in those worlds.

My advice?  Read the Look Inside. If nothing about the style bugs you, and you have a high tolerance for traditional gender role-play dressed up in “strong female character” clothing, then you have a rollicking fun read ahead of you, with sequels to follow. This isn’t technically YA fiction, but the themes of maturing and choosing to act heroically makes it feel young, and the light, fast-moving plot full of aliens and adventure is suitable for teens.

Link to purchase: A Time to Build.

It may be just your cup of tea. Please give it a look.

Review: The Bigtime Series by Jennifer Estep

The Bigtime Series (Bigtime, #1-4)The Bigtime Series by Jennifer Estep
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goodreads always asks me, “What did you think?”

This series of four books-plus-extras is best enjoyed with a minimum of thought. I think of them as mental cotton candy. I love Jennifer Estep’s Spider Assasin series, so when I saw this omnibus edition on a freebie sale from Kindle, I grabbed it up and gobbled right through all the stories in order. They melted right into my brain with barely any effort at all.

When I was done, I had an odd taste in my mouth, plus I felt a little sticky and bloated. Cotton candy.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed these tales of super-heroines and their crime-fighting romance misadventures.  I liked these with a good, solid three-star like. (That’s what I give my own books, for the sake of comparison.) They’re fun, and light and fluffy and oh-so-sweet. I don’t finish books I don’t enjoy. I have no problem putting down a story after 10, 100 or even 1000 pages. (Looking at you, Mssrs Sanderson and Martin. I’ll revisit your worlds when the end of your series are in sight and not a moment sooner. But I digress. Again.)

My only warning is this: just as a steady diet of cotton candy will rot your teeth and encourage diabetes, a steady diet of books like these would rot your brain and have serious intellectual repercussions. There’s not enough substance to sustain thought. They’re fine for a quick treat, but don’t expect the ideas to stay with you much longer than it takes to lick your fingers clean.

The premise, that superpowers are real, that masked superheroes are an accepted part of society, is explored only in the most superficial ways. I don’t know that I would’ve enjoyed it half as much if I wasn’t already familiar with the tropes, types and themes of a four-color world. Since I do have a solid grounding in that genre, I appreciated the attention to detail and had a ball spotting all the references. Nearly all the characters had Golden Age alliterative names. Lulu Lo. Bella Belluci, Carmen Cole. The protagonist in Karma Girl comes from a small town called Beginnings, but she moves to the city when her career takes off. The city’s name? BigTime, of course.

The protagonists are well-written — no cookie-cutter characters from Jennifer Estep, no sirree — but they have all the depth of sheets of paper. This works, given that the world itself is so thinly sketched, but it makes their conflicts as predictable as the plot of a network sitcom. There’s no space wasted on development. Everyone falls neatly into their niche: shy nerd, plucky reporter, suave socialite, temperamental artist. Every detail has a purpose. Every action will have significance later in the plot.

Plot? Similar for all the stories. They’re romances in the most traditional sense, despite the atypical setting. Girl with quirks and a problem meets Boy with secrets. (Secret identities are a running theme,. All the inhabitants of this world have huge blind spots until the plot device starts working.) Girl and Boy dance through a courtship involving a contrived meetings, shocking revelations, and comedic moments. (And steamy sex! These are R-for-romance rated.) Major dilemma surfaces. Girl and boy must make Big Choices. Love conquers all. With capes.

In summary: fun, frivolous romance fluff, written tightly and traditionally, with an entertaining setting and clever use of classic comic book plot elements.

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Review: Written in Red by Anne Bishop

Written in Red (The Others, #1)Written in Red by Anne Bishop
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

TL;DR review: reading this was like sitting down for a little snack of cheese & crackers with glass of wine. It looks insubstantial, but before you know it, your head and heart are full of new ideas that may leave you feeling a little dizzy.

This series is a breath of fresh air in the stuffy, packed room of urban fantasy. One of the beefs I’ve always had with the sub-genre is that the assorted supernatural species are often portrayed as regular people with extra traits or powers. They’re sometimes monstrous, but they’re always motivated by understandable morals, emotions, and drives. Magic is just another science waiting to be mastered with logic.

Not so, in Anne Bishop’s world. These werewolves aren’t people who change shape. These vampires aren’t blood addicts who sparkle or brood. They aren’t human beings with fur or fangs. They are the monsters who lurk in the dark, dark woods. Magic is a force of Nature that acts for reasons that make no sense to mere mortal minds, and it kills without remorse if its strength is not respected. Monsters rule the world, and they neither care about human lives, nor revere humanity as an ideal. We are a tolerated, carefully-controlled pest species, not the dominant one.

The world-building was meticulously researched, but it is left where world-building belongs: in the background. The main character is a traditional New Guy, and we learn about this reality along with her, and the minimal required exposition is handled deftly and without fuss. There are anachronisms, yes, and logic gaps show up on close perusal, but this is true for most sweeping rewrites of reality. It’s still a hugely ambitious idea, and what’s most remarkable is how matter-of-fact it all seemed while I was reading. The cultural and scientific blend holds together pretty well on second, and even third reading.

Imagine a reality in which the New World was never settled by ancient tribes crossing a land bridge from Asia because they were all eaten Imagine a world in which most of the political and religious struggles that shaped our history never happened. It’s a bit mind-bending. NOTHING would be the same, and it isn’t.

The only reason humanity hasn’t been eradicated is that every other sentient species on the planet respects the choices of their unseen, unspecified Creator.They study us, in between the ruthless purges required to make us abide by the rules, because they don’t understand why humanity was created, but they assume there most be a good reason. That provides a great basis for the series — the search for knowledges is always a great foundation for dramatic conflict.

More questions are raised than answered, but this is clearly meant to be an unfolding series. I have faith that the ideas I’m left pondering at the end of this book will eventually be answered, and I’m going to enjoy watching the drama develop.

Postscript: I sometimes read a review and wonder whether the writer read the same book I did. That’s how I felt about the official Tor.com book review of this title. I’ve now finished reading the second book, Murder of Crows, and my admiration of the author’s originality and talent only feeds my aggravation over the critical treatment this book received.

Yes, Bishop raises her favorite themes of subjugation of and discrimination against women. Yes, there are situations where sexual and cultural confusion is milked for easy humor. Yes, the main character has a problematic addiction. I can understand not enjoying a story containing those elements, but that’s a far cry from accusing the writer of including them for shock value or personal enjoyment. (!) It’s clear that Bishop opposes abuse and understands the lure of self-destructive behavior. That’s not the same as condoning or enjoying either one. Hmph.

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