23 June, 2014

Taming of the Shrewd

Mad Marco
Annie L. Jones

     This is at least the fifth self-published first novel i have read in the past couple of years, all of them, funnily enough, in the genre i have been taught by my clever friend Stephanie to call SF ~ speculative fiction, though i used to use those initials for sci-fi alone.  One might almost thing that i could set up in some kind of pre-reading business (and, oh, how i would enjoy that!), if this trend continues.

     Two of these five were written by Stephanie and i have an emotional tie to them, not least because i beta-read them and have seen them grow and mature until publication, so i am not able to fairly judge or compare them; of the other three, however, this by Jones is in mine opinion clearly the best.  The other two, Miss Mabel's School and Joshua's Key (i have linked each title to my review of the novel), were by no means failures ~ i suspect that almost no one would throw away the time and, i imagine, money required for proper self-publication if the product were not at least reasonable ~ but each, including this one, had flaws.  The flaws here are, however, lesser than the strengths, which are what are worth exploring in this review.

     The plot is, at root, The Taming of the Shrew thrown into a fantasy setting, and given some elaboration with a bit of adventure thrown in.  I recognised the plot basis very early on, but that did not spoil mine enjoyment ~ indeed, perhaps it enhanced it as i was pleased with myself! ~ as the differences were sufficient that it is not simply a retelling of Shrew but a development.  The major difference is that after the Petruchio analogue, the Marco of the title, has won over his bride he is suddenly put in a position of peril and she, almost without understanding what is happening, is put in the position of rescuing him.

     Part of the plot is built around the setting, a valley or plain, a region almost, with in impassible mountains, with enemies of some form on the outside of the mountains, some form of magic or sorcery which has in some measure been used to set up the communities within the region and protect them from the outsiders.  Marco is the eldest son of the family whose task is the coordination of that protection, which is exceptionally physical at times.  I find that i want to know more, more than Jones has given us, about the land, the sorcery, the history, the reasons for the way things are.  I wonder, is this an initial introduction or is it all that Jones is planning on doing; i believe she has made herself a setting she could use in the future to tell further stories ~ if they were of the same quality i, for one, would read them.  And that statement alone, using my criterion, makes Mad Marco a success.

17 June, 2014

A Little Witchery

Miss Mabel's School for Girls

Katie Cross

     At the very top of the cover of this novel it says, “Book One in the Network Series”, so i have no excuse for being surprised; let me merely state, for the record then, that while i knew there would be sequels, i did not expect this book to almost require them ~ it is not, by any means, a standalone novel, the way The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (to name but two novels which are also the first books in series) are. I expected a certain amount of unfinished business, i suppose, but what we have here is a book which sets up a plot with a lot of tension and antagonism in it, but insufficient resolution; not satisfactory to me, i'm afraid.

     When i read something like this, which has what to me is a large drawback, i can only fall back on my single criterion to help me decide if it is a success: Would i read another book by Katie Cross, based solely on the fact that she is the author of this one? If yes, then Miss Mabel is a success; if no, then it's not. So, then, how do i feel? Funnily, i struggle to know exactly how to respond. Indeed, i find i need to lay out the positive and negative stimuli and reactions in order to find my response.

     On the upside, i enjoyed the thing almost all the way through; that should be enough for me, but clearly it wasn't. The characters are fairly well drawn ~ at least the major ones; the minor ones are not, to my mind, sufficiently in focus that they can be told apart. Character is essential to me to cause me to want to read on; if i don't care for a character and don't care what happens (for good or for ill) to him then i don't have a lot pulling me to finish or read another. Here i care about the two main characters, the protagonist/narrator Bianca and her antagonist Miss Mabel; that is good. Unfortunately, not only do i not really care about the others, i don't really know anything about them, there is not enough detail given ~ or i didn't pick up on enough ~ to know the difference between Bianca's classmates or the other teachers in the school.

     In general, the plot falls on the upside as well, in that it is deliberately structured to pull the reader in, the conflict is strong and requires resolution. It is by no means a unique plot, after all, how many are, but it is given enough that is new that it feels exciting and fresh. On the downside, the driving conflict, between Bianca and her teacher, Miss Mabel, is not resolved, indeed, shows signs of not being resolved until the end of the series, however many books that might turn out to be; this is not necessarily the death knell for a book (the conflict between Harry Potter and Voldemort isn't finally resolved until the end of the septology, for example), but it must be sufficiently resolved to bring some satisfaction to the reader and Cross doesn't give enough, in mine opinion. In addition, within that conflict and around it, there are a lot of questions raised which i am not confident are ever going to be answered; i have to assume that they will be, but that is my assumption about Cross's intentions as author rather than any deduction from the book itself. I want to know more, for example, about the curse laid on Bianca, and then about curses in general in this world.

     In fact, i am led to a certain amount of frustration by my lack of knowledge, as i want to know more about the setting ~ the Networks, their geography and history ~ and the characters ~ other students and teachers at the school ~ and the results of the plot against the leadership which lies in the fairly immediate past. This lack is for me definitely on the downside, quite strongly so. The result is that, torn as i am, i shall probably read another of the series, if i come across it when it is released, but not with the bated breath that i love pulling me towards a book i want to read. Still, in the end, if mild, yet a success.