Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Tale Retold With Robots

Review: Ensnared by Rita Stradling

Some stories are evergreen: the girl who encounters danger in the woods; the hungry children enticed by the aroma and taste of food where they least expect it; a girl who agrees to live with a beast to save her father from imprisonment.

The girl in the woods need not wear a red hood for us to recognise her. We hold our breath as the children succumb to the lure of sweets, even when they are not gingerbread shingles.

And we recognize the Beast even when he does not wear fur until midnight, and Beauty by her kind patience and willing self-sacrifice.

The clever recasting of this futuristic interation of Beauty, though, is where Ensnared shines. Lorccan Garbhan, the beast of this story, is all too human in his major foible; he cannot abide to be in the presence of a human. His billionaire-brilliant strategy is to commision a high-end AI-driven femmebot to help him reduce his social anxiety.

Rose steps in when her father, unable to deliver the commisioned artifact by the deadline, faces prison for fraud. And romance, or a suitable facsimile thereof, is totally to be expected.

That's if the other robots and AI devices involved don't rat out the human masquerading in their midst!

Wonderful, Appalling, Thrilling By Turns

Review: Lee's Priceless Recipes, compiled by N.T. Oliver

Need to clean a grease ring off the collar of your black suit coat, and wash the wood paneling in the den? The same recipe (a mix of castille soap, ether and glycerin) serves both purposes. Never mind where you can buy ether nowadays (or what licenses and equipment you need to legally use it), it's fun to read about!

Want "fictitious gold" suitable for fooling a fiancée? The recipe found in these pages will supposely resist detection by "the action of nitric acid, unless furiously boiling". Ladies, fair warning: turn up the heat under your HNO3!

Or the economics of making penny-popcorn candy, complete with staffing and wages for "boys" to cook the popcorn and syrup, and assemble and cut the candy pieces. Of course, the economics of producing both candy and faux gold are from the 1890's, but how delightful to contemplate!

Less delightful: the prospect of clipping and brushing one's eyelashes with sulphate of quinine to make them grow, or treating your hair with gallic acid, ammonia and silver nitrate to darken it. 

Even less so: grinding lead salts (white lead) to mix with linseed oil and turpentine to make a "pure white paint", or applying creosote directly to the skin, although masked with peppermint oil, to ward off mosquitos. Ugh! 

Fortunately, much better things are to be found in this compilation. My book now falls open to page 65: Rockets.

A Lioness Without Teeth

Review: The Lioness of Morocco by Julia Drosten

I had only mediocre hopes for this novel, which I selected at no charge as a Kindle First offering from a very poor field of novels. This was simply the least unenticing of the six books, by my tastes, anyway, that we were offered for May. 

Once I began reading it, however, I was taken by the story. Its setting on the Atlantic Coast of Africa instead of the usual Mediterranean port or Marrakech made for a promising start. The author had obviously done a lot of research on the history of the area and culture of the period. She then folded it (almost) seamlessly into her tale of a daring Victorian woman.

From her first bold escape from stodgy, propriety-laden London to 'frontier' life in Morocco
, howeverSibylla Hopkins's expressions of rebellion devolve into wardrobe and footwear choices. The repetition of situations and descriptions begins to grate after the first section of the story, while a hypocritically sympathetic treatment of harems and their isolation of women (echoing the Victorian purdah Sibylla escaped in London) grows from merely irritating to disturbing. 

Over and over, Sibylla retreats from her initial daring vision and (outwardly) chooses the course of propriety, keeping her "improper" behavior in the shadows. While realistic for women of the time, this is not what is implied by the book's title, and so I was disapointed—the more so because, after reading the first section, I had already revised expectations upward from an original lack of enthusiasm.

At the end, I was wincing over the wimpy behavior of the "lioness" whose moniker, it became clear, was a reference to her blond hair, and had nothing to do with courage, command, or boldness.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ismael Wang Rides Again!

Review: To Fire Called (A Seeker's Tale From The Golden Age Of The Solar Clipper Book 2) by Nathan Lowell

Pirates and smuggling are the nemesis of any shipping endeavor, even in a future time where sun systems substitute for trading destinations, and space stations take the place of port cities.

Nathan Lowell's tale of shipping and trading in space takes up the story of Ishmael Wang and his crewmates as they explore the source of the piracy and mayhem that over the initial six novels had gradually overtaken their happy existence, from the disastrous salvage ship in Double Share to the assassination iOwner's Share. 

I was happy to see Wang finally returning fully from this devastating loss, rising appropriately like the Phoenix that his new trading venture evokes. I particularly liked the way To Fire Called also wove into this story the characters and events from Milk Run, which had seemed to be a stand-alone novel in this universe. 

Kudos to Lowell as well for keeping his characters realistic, and not making them too lily-white or simon-pure—or eternally youthful! Even so, Ishmael is still himself, still insightful and full of integrity. Pip as an adult is a reasonable projection from Pip the semi-slacker data-crunching genius we first met in Quarter Share, and Chief Stevens has come to be one of my favorite characters!

If you haven't read the earlier series, Trader's Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clippers, some of the delight I gleaned from this book may be missing for you
—but I do envy you the experience in store as you catch up! I recommend beginning with Quarter Share and reading through all six to Owner's Share, then following with the earlier Seeker's TalesMilk Run and In Ashes Born (in either order) before launching into this latest tale.

Fair disclosure: I have never read a Nathan Lowell novel that I haven't had 5-star enjoyment from. Ditto his short stories. I'm an unabashed fan
—dig into the Solar Clippers tales, and join the crew!

Western Thrills from a High-Tech Specialist

Review: Gold for Horses (El Vasco Book 1) by Eduardo Suastegui

I usually look to Eduardo Suastegui for tightly-scripted novels about virtual intelligence and semi-cyborg characters. (Not always human ones, either; his Tracking Jane novels follow cybernetically-enhanced dogs and their handler.) I was a bit dubious about this novel, a western. How would the author's story-telling abilities fare once he was out of his wheelhouse?

Happily, I can report that he has made a successful transition! The tale is engrossing, even though the highest tech in it is rifles.

As his nickname suggests, the gunslinger El Vasco is a Basque in an era and a locale where the Basque were depised. His rescuer Marlene fears he will unbalance the uneasy peace she has managed to achieve, as she tries to keep her own secrets in the midst of a range war.

The physical setting for the novel is familiar territory for me: California's Mono Lake and its environs before the State Water Project opened the taps and drained much of its water to Los Angeles. Local mining communities, nearly ghost towns already by the time of the novel, play a major role in the story, as do the Great Basin agricultural industries of the era: horse-ranching and sheep-herding.

The action is full of suspense, and interations between the main characters are just as engaging as those in Suastegui's day-after-tomorrow science fiction. I liked it so much, I downloaded (for free) and read the short-short tale of El Vasco's backstory, Why El Vasco Killed a Man, and now I just have to wait for the sequel to come out. I expect it will also be thrilling and delightful.

Even without any cyberwarfare.