Book Review – Automatic Woman by Nathan Yocum

Automatic Woman by Nathan Yocum

Automatic Woman by Nathan Yocum

The blurb steams:

The London of 1888, the London of steam engines, Victorian intrigue, and horseless carriages is not a safe place nor simple place…but it’s his place. Jolly is a thief catcher, a door-crashing thug for the prestigious Bow Street Firm, assigned to track down a life sized automatic ballerina. But when theft turns to murder and murder turns to conspiracy, can Jolly keep his head above water? Can a thief catcher catch a killer?

I think I like the idea of steampunk more than I like actually reading it, because although I keep reading these books I can’t actually remember one that I really enjoyed.

I think one of the secrets of reading steampunk must be above average suspension of disbelief, because I think what I have problems with is the combination of history and things that did not and could not happen.  It’s like historical fiction taken past its breaking point.

For example, the premise of the automatic ballerina seems to be “AI with cogs”.  Considering that we can’t do AI now, even with so many orders of magnitude more computing power… my disbelief cannot suspend.

As well as the fantasy aspect being hard to swallow, the historical aspects were also problematic.  Although things like the difference engine and punch cards had technically been invented by 1888, the book treats them as modern computers and data and I just don’t think that would be right in the context.

Another thing that steampunk books including this one like to do is improbable brushes with famous people.  I don’t think these are really necessary and I found them distractingly unlikely rather than thrilling.

My biggest problem with the book is its abrupt and anticlimactic ending – the main character was just a spectator for most of the end of the book.  It felt like one of the psych-out almost-endings that longer books have, so maybe if the book had been longer that’s what this ending would have been.

Something that I didn’t notice until a while after I finished the book was that the premise is never explained.  Other questions that are raised later in the book are explained, but the original mystery is not.

Having complained about the book for a whole blog post I feel bad – I did enjoy about the first half of the book.  I liked that the main character was flawed and that he didn’t have the typical advantages of protagonists.

Book Review – The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett

The blurb mystiques:

The year is 1919.

The McNaughton Corporation is the pinnacle of American industry. They built the guns that won the Great War before it even began. They built the airships that tie the world together. And, above all, they built Evesden-a shining metropolis, the best that the world has to offer.

But something is rotten at the heart of the city. Deep underground, a trolley car pulls into a station with eleven dead bodies inside. Four minutes before, the victims were seen boarding at the previous station. Eleven men butchered by hand in the blink of an eye. All are dead. And all are union.

Now, one man, Cyril Hayes, must fix this. There is a dark secret behind the inventions of McNaughton and with a war brewing between the executives and the workers, the truth must be discovered before the whole city burns. Caught between the union and the company, between the police and the victims, Hayes must uncover the mystery before it kills him.

I’m a fan noir and SF and I especially like the combination of the two.  The blurb doesn’t mention SF but some reviews I’d read did so I was expecting it.

I don’t think this is really a classical noir book – it doesn’t hold too tightly to the formula, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  Books that follow formulas are predictable, and I think that leads to stagnation of the genre.

Instead of just being a mix of noir and SF, the book was more of a journey – it started off noir but ended SF (via alternate history).  The blurb only really mentions the noir part, so only describes the first part of the book.

The love triangle was interesting because (again) it didn’t straightforwardly follow a formula.

Some of the mysteries were a bit obvious and some of them had too many clues dropped, but several major ones were good reveals.

The ending wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been.  Given the author’s eschewing of formulas I didn’t really expect everything to be wrapped up in a nice bow at the end of the book, but it wasn’t a really satisfying open ending either.

Book Review – The Wretched of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler

The Wretched of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler

The Wretched of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler

The blurb theologises:

In the ancient and mystical land of Muirwood, Lia has known only a life of servitude. Labeled a “wretched,” an outcast unwanted and unworthy of respect, Lia is forbidden to realize her dream to read or write. All but doomed, her days are spent toiling away as a kitchen slave under the charge of the Aldermaston, the Abbey’s watchful overseer. But when an injured squire named Colvin is abandoned at the kitchen’s doorstep, an opportunity arises. The nefarious Sheriff Almaguer soon starts a manhunt for Colvin, and Lia conspires to hide Colvin and change her fate. In the midst of a land torn by a treacherous war between a ruthless king and a rebel army, Lia finds herself on an ominous journey that will push her to wonder if her own hidden magic is enough to set things right. At once captivating, mysterious, and magic-infused, The Wretched of Muirwood takes the classic fantasy adventure and paints it with a story instantly epic, and yet, all its own.

Through most of the book my problem was that it didn’t make me care.  The main character was disadvantaged (literally “wretched”) but somehow the book failed to make me feel anything about that.  Part of it may have been that the reason for her wretchedness was the fact that she doesn’t know who her parents are (the book takes pains to distinguish between this and being an orphan).  Why this is important in the book’s world is explained, but I still couldn’t bring myself to care, and it’s the author’s job to make me care.  The main character’s greatest wish is to learn how to read, but the author never explains why.  Not understanding her made it hard to relate to her.

Increasingly though my problem with the book came from the magic system.  It’s basically a combination of blind faith and wishful thinking, which doesn’t leave the characters much to do other than try to “think right”.  Throughout the book I felt like I was being preached at somehow – maybe it was the “having faith” aspect of the magic system – and this was confirmed when the author’s biography at the end of the book mentioned him being a devout member of his church.  The reviews of the book on Amazon are shockingly good (4.5 star average over 1,575 reviews) which made me suspicious because it was so different from my impression, and sure enough all of the negative reviews complain that the book is LDS/Mormon religious fiction.  I suspect the large number of positive reviews are the author’s community supporting him.

There’s one really good, dramatic action scene in the book, which is pretty much responsible for the second star it got.

I’m always glad to see writers branch out from straight white male protagonists, and the main character does rescue herself on occasion, but she spends most of the book being pushed around by men or dealing with the consequences of their actions.

Book Review – Matter by Iain Banks

Matter by Iain Banks

Matter by Iain Banks

The blurb expounds:

In a world renowned even within a galaxy full of wonders, a crime within a war. For one man it means a desperate flight, and a search for the one – maybe two – people who could clear his name. For his brother it means a life lived under constant threat of treachery and murder. And for their sister, even without knowing the full truth, it means returning to a place she’d thought abandoned forever.

Only the sister is not what she once was; Djan Seriy Anaplian has changed almost beyond recognition to become an agent of the Culture’s Special Circumstances section, charged with high-level interference in civilizations throughout the greater galaxy.

Concealing her new identity – and her particular set of abilities – might be a dangerous strategy, however. In the world to which Anaplian returns, nothing is quite as it seems; and determining the appropriate level of interference in someone else’s war is never a simple matter.

This is the eighth book in the Culture series.  I read the previous books quite a few years ago so I don’t remember them that well (and my copies predate the Kindle so they’re a pain to re-read), although I do remember that I liked them.  Apparently it’s not just my fault that I stopped reading after the seventh book – there was an eight year gap between when the seventh and eighth book were written.

The Culture series is similar to Asimov’s Foundation series in that the books in the series don’t share characters or settings with each other, but what they have in common is that they exist in the same universe and share the same premise.  I think this is the secret to writing a long series without it getting tedious.

The Culture series is set in the far future, when humanity has spread through the galaxy, developed lots of new technologies and come in contact with other species of differing sophistication.  However all of the books (as far as I can remember) concern themselves more with how lesser developed species interact with the Culture (as we’re now known).  This has an interesting effect of allowing the author to write different kinds of novels set in differing pseudo-historical periods with the added spice of super-advanced humans undercover among them to observe and sometimes intervene.

Something I liked about this book was that it’s sci-fi the way nobody seems to write anymore, but I guess it makes sense since the first book in the series was written in 1987 and the basic premise hasn’t changed since then.

Sadly the author passed away in 2013, so we’re never going to get more than ten books in the series.  This gives me a bitter-sweet perspective on the remaining books that I haven’t read yet.  Fortunately this book did not disappoint – I enjoyed it at least as much as I remember enjoying the previous ones.

The theme of this book seemed to be “there’s always a bigger fish” – no matter how advanced you are, there’s always someone more advanced than you.  This was combined with the concept of the more advanced people spying on and toying with the less advanced, which should make any Culture citizen stop and think for a second.

Novels usually have fairly predictable story arcs in that they follow the traditional conflict-climax-resolution model.  I guess this is kind of a chicken-and-egg situation because novels being written that way make readers expect it, which means novels have to be written that way.  I thought this book was interesting in that it starts off with a traditional story arc and then gets entirely derailed by a different plotline.  I really liked it, but since it’s unconventional some people may not.