Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

indexAbridged by James Goss from his original novelisation of the 1979 episode by Douglas Adams and David Fisher.

The Doctor and Romana arrive in Paris 1979 in hopes of a relaxing, cultured holiday, but all too soon they’re drawn into a plot to steal the Mona Lisa concocted by the mysterious Count Scarlioni. Throw a gritty British detective with a tendency to punch first and ask questions later, and a captive scientist working on time travel into the mix, and if the last of the Jagaroth have their way life on Earth won’t just be wiped out, it’ll have never existed in the first place!

Back in the day there was no Netflix, no iPlayer, no DVD boxsets and episodes of Dr Who were rarely replayed, so unless you were fortunate enough to have an early video recorder you had two options, the first was to make a sound recording of the episode, the other was to get hold of the novelisation, and from 1973 to 1991 Target books published practically every classic era story.

In recent years the BBC have resurrected the Target brand to release novelisations of modern Who episodes, including Russell T Davies writing an adaptation of Rose, and Steven Moffat with a novelisation of The Day of the Doctor. One of the few classic stories never to get the Target treatment (until now!) was City of Death.

It’s a lean novel, but no less fun for this. Of course Goss had great subject matter to work from, because the original script is a fun and frothy adventure (which depending on your view may be a good or a bad thing—some people don’t like the silliness inherent in this story, whilst others see it as a very early forerunner of how the modern show was able to marry the serious and the silly at the same time).

The dialogue sparkles, and because I’m so used to the serial it’s easy to hear the voices of Tom Baker, Lallla Ward, Julian Glover et al. So classic lines such as: “I say, what a wonderful butler! He’s so violent!” are as much a joy to read as they are to watch. Goss doesn’t just rely on the script however, and he fills in a lot of gaps, for example it’s made clearer here that Scaroth is only vaguely aware of his other splinters, in fact it seems Scarlioni doesn’t even realise he is a Jagaroth until the reveal at the end of part one which isn’t how it comes across on screen.

It isn’t perfect, but in the main what failings there are come from the source material, and to be honest the trope of aliens being responsible for human development is something that annoys me in far more Who stories than just this one.

I don’t know how this would read if you were unfamiliar with the source material, but as a fan I found this a fun read. Now I really must dig my DVD out!

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Save the Cat!

Posted: November 20, 2018 in Book reviews, Regarding writing
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By Blake Snyder

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We’ve all sat in a lousy film at some time or another and thought, I could write something better than this. And so a whole industry has sprung up, with a multitude of gurus offering their patented way to million dollar script’dom…for a price, and even though the spec boom of the 1990s has long since passed, plenty of people are desperate enough to pod out as lot of money to learn the so called secrets of success.

Some books on script writing have gained more cachet than others of course, take Syd Field’s seminal work, and Save the Cat! Is one of those books, with its slightly arrogant subtitle as The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need it’s been the go to book for millions of aspiring screenwriters.

Well a million and one because obviously I’ve bought it too.

To be honest it’s only the second book on screenwriting I’ve ever bought, and the first was decades ago, because there’s a lot of great advice and guidance for aspiring screenwriters out th ere that doesn’t cost a penny, or certainly doesn’t cost very much (The University of East Anglia runs a free course through Futurelearn, and I’d also highly recommend the Scriptnotes podcast by John August and Craig Mazin. If you want to access the back catalogue it’s $1.99 a month, but the most recent 20 episodes are always free). But having said that I’d heard enough about Save the Cat to be intrigued, even though some of what I heard wasn’t that complementary.

You see what Snyder (who sadly passed away in 2009) promised was a fool proof blueprint for writing a successful script, and given the book cost less than a tenner I figured, what the hell, reasoning there was bound to be some useful information in there.

And to be fair, there is useful bits to be gleaned from this work, but I don’t think it’s the scriptwriting panacea it claims to be and certainly isn’t a skeleton key to unlock movie writing success.

The title refers to the act of having your lead prove they’re a good guy or gal by doing something worthy early on in the script, like saving a cat, although the odd thing is that he based this on Ripley saving Jones the cat in Alien, which she doesn’t actually do till near the end? It’s also worth noting that for much of Alien Ripley comes across as an officious jobsworth, none of which stops us rooting for her (especially once we realise that if she’d been allowed to keep the others outside nobody would have died…well apart from Kane obviously, but you can’t always save everyone). Anyway, the point is that even the title of the book seems a little erroneous if you give it some thought.

Snyder provides some interesting thoughts on genre, even going as far as to create his own list which is surprisingly useful, so rather than comedy/romance/horror movie etc. He lists ten genres, and here’s just a few: Buddy Love (which covers not only romance but buddy comedies) Dude with a Problem (think Die Hard) Monster in the House (which covers not only horror but a lot of thrillers) and Institutionalised (which covers anything from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Police Academy).

Now we get into the meat of Snyder’s work, when he starts talking about the format of a screenplay, but this isn’t just about a three act structure, Snyder goes way deeper than this, micromanaging a script to the point where he claims that there’s effectively a tried and tested formula for writing a successful script.

He identifies 15 ‘beats’ and if you look online you’ll find numerous versions of his patented ‘Beat Sheet. This is all well and good, and structure is an important thing to get your head around, especially when you’re fairly new to screenwriting, so there’s “Theme stated” “Catalyst” “Fun and Games” and “All is Lost” to name but a few. The problem is the anal lengths Snyder insists you go to, even down to specifying exactly when certain things should happen! The catalyst must happen on page 20, you must introduce all your main characters in the first ten pages etc.

To be honest it’s a trifle ridiculous. In fairness Snyder did sell a lot of scripts, although only two of them ever got made; Blank Check (no I’ve never seen it either) and Stop or my Mom will Shoot (which again I’ve never seen but I have at least heard of) so he must have been doing something right. Even if this is the sure and certain path to success (and clearly it’s unlikely to be given how many copies of the book have been sold and the finite number of screenwriters out there) I’m not sure I want to write a cookie cutter script that hits all the right marks to impress some Hollywood reader who’s just looking for an identikit script.

But it was still an interesting read. Snyder’s prose is amiable enough (though he gets a trifle annoying at times when he becomes obsessed with how successful—or not— he feels Memento was) and there’s interesting stuff around loglines (those mini elevator pitches beloved of Hollywood) genre, structure, and the basis business of screenwriting, but I feel I’ve learned more about screenwriting from listening to John and Craig and from just watching movies/reading scripts so read it by all means, but don’t treat it as the be all and end all.  

By Alastair Reynolds

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It was a real honour to be declared runner up in the National Space Centre’s short story competition last year, but it was just as awe inspiring to meet Alistair Reynolds, and to learn he’d read and enjoyed my story! Part of my prize was a book signed by the man himself, a huge collection of short stories the size of which, to be honest, put me off at first, but I finally set a few months aside to work my way through it and what a treat.

As with any anthology some stories are better than others, some stories hit an emotional note with me and some didn’t, but all demonstrate a master of his craft. Anyway here’s a brief review of each of the stories within…

 

The book opens with Great Wall of Mars, a tale of enhanced humans and Martian terraforming that it took me a little while to get into, but once I had intrigued me greatly.

It’s followed up by Weather, a story set later in the same universe. It’s an interesting tale of space farers menaced by pirates, and the extreme measures they need to go to in order to escape, relying on an augmented human who they’re not sure they can trust.

The titular Beyond the Aquila Rift is next up, an unsettling tale of lost travellers that merges the Twilight Zone with the Matrix.

Minla’s Flowers is a neat tale of political expediency and features a character trying to save a less advanced civilisation, popping himself into cryogenic storage for a few decades at a time in order to monitor their growth. It’s a story that starts out quite sweet and winds up somewhere rather dark.

Zima Blue is probably the first story not to grip me, there’s an intriguing idea at its heart about an artist who’s now more machine than man, and his obsession with a particular shade of blue, but I’m glad it was one of the shorter stories in the collection.

Fury is about an incredibly old robot who serves as the personal protector of an equally ancient galactic emperor. When an attempt is made on the emperor’s life the robot goes in search of those behind it, but discovers secrets about himself and his emperor in the process that will change their relationship forever. It’s a story that didn’t remotely go where I expected it to, and the end is nicely done.

The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice is a gloriously gory story about cybernetically enhanced space pirates. It’s bloodthirsty and just plain bloody, but if you have a strong stomach it’s fun too.

The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter is more of a fantasy tale, albeit one with clear science fiction overtones. Set in a future Northumbria trapped in a mini ice age it features a young woman struggling to avoid the machinations of a vile suitor, and an old woman who may or may not be a witch. It’s an interesting mix of genres, and if I had a problem with it it’s that it feels like the prologue for a more epic story, rather than a self-contained story.

Diamond Dogs is a very long story, and another quite gory one, merging Steven King with films like The Cube as a group of explorers try and get to the top of an alien spaceship through room after room, each of which contains tests of increasing difficulty and penalties of increasing severity. It goes on a bit too long, and I found the eventual end a little unsatisfying, but it was delightfully devious for most of its length.

Thousandth Night was a bit of a joy, featuring as it did the characters of Campion and Purslane from House of Suns. I was already au fait with the characters and their world, and an enjoyable murder mystery ensued.

Troika is an evocative tale of a soviet cosmonaut who escapes from a hospital to try and reach an old scientist in order to tell her she was right in her theory about a mysterious alien artefact. It turns out he is the only survivor of a Russian mission to explore the artefact, but the story has an unexpected twist in the tale. I liked this one a lot, especially in its depiction of a snowbound Second Soviet. Very Quatermass.

Sleepover is the one story I didn’t read, because I read it a few months ago in The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF!

Vainglory is another story about art, and oddly another one I couldn’t quite engage with, although it’s central theme of people chiselling asteroids and creating rings around planets wasn’t uninteresting.

Trauma Pod, like Diamond Dogs, is another one that relies heavily on body horror, as a wounded solider is kept alive inside a robot which goes to increasing lengths to keep him safe. It’s very unsettling.

The Last Log of the Lachrymosa is another story featuring characters risking death to explore an alien artefact, in this case something buried in a cave system on an uninhabited planet. There’s a rough and ready piratical edge to the story I quite liked.

The Water Thief is okay, but only really interesting in that it doesn’t go where you expect it to as we follow the story of a refugee barely earning a living as a teleoperator remotely controlling robots, who eventually ends up involved in a political struggle on the Moon!

The Old Man and the Martian Sea has some wonderfully evocative imagery, and winds up being quite sad as a young girl runs away from home and meets up with a grizzled old man who takes her to one of Mars’ original settlements, now a city sunk beneath a lake.

The final story, In Babelsburg, has an interesting premise, that of a sentient space probe, but I feel it didn’t really go anywhere so it wasn’t one of my favourites.

All in all though a wonderful, if somewhat impenetrable at times, anthology that I’d recommend, maybe I should have interspersed it with other books in between every few stories though because it was like reading three novels bound together in terms of sheer size.

Dogs of War

Posted: August 31, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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dogs-of-war-16By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rex is a good dog.

He’s also a 7 foot tall canine/human hybrid killing machine. A bioform bred for war by a private security firm, he leads a multiform combat team that also includes Honey, a heavy weapons toting bear, Dragon, a serpentine infiltrator come sniper, and Bees, a distributed intelligence in the form of, well, a swarm of bees.

Loyal to his Master and his inbuilt hierarchies, Rex just wants to be a good dog and fight Master’s enemies, but when he and his comrades are deployed in Mexico to battle insurgents, the lines between friend and foe blur, and when his Master is charged as a war criminal, Rex’s whole existence is up for grabs. Are he and the other bioforms mere things, or are they sentient creatures worthy of rights?

*****

If you read my review of Children of Time you’ll see I absolutely loved it (still the best book I’ve read in years) but this left me with something of an odd conundrum, on the one hand it encouraged me to seek out more from Tchaikovsky, but it did make me worry that whatever I read next wouldn’t be as good as Children of Time.

Well if I’m being honest Dogs of War isn’t as good as Children of Time, the good news is that it’s still an enjoyable read.

On the surface it’s a very different kind of book, less expansive, and a much leaner read, and yet there are similarities. Again Tchaikovsky excels in writing sentient, non-human characters, and where Dogs of War works best is in the shape of its central character, Rex, who feels completely three dimensional, and Tchaikovsky never feels the need to fully anthropomorphise the character. Rex isn’t human, and Tchaikovsky never cheats the reader by pretending he is, yet still makes him a character we can empathise with.

And you have to applaud the sheer chutzpa of making your lead characters a sentient dogman, a surprisingly eloquent bear, a lazy reptile and an intelligent swarm of bees! Really, you’ve never read anything like it, and the sheer imagination of show here’s is amazing.

It isn’t perfect, after a strong start the middle portion of the book feels somewhat disjointed and meanders a little before the pace and the plot pick up again, and given there are so many big ideas at play here (sentience, distributed intelligence, cloning, private security firms doing governmental dirty work etc.) at times I wanted it to become more epic in scope, but then again we’d have lost the intimacy we have with Rex and the other characters if the author had gone down that route, so swings and roundabouts and all that!

All in all a though provoking and enjoyable read.

Rex is a good dog, and this is a good book!

8391123Edited by Mike Ashley

As regular readers of this blog may have worked out by now, I have a certain love of the post-apocalyptic genre. It’s not that I want the world to end, I just find the concept fascinating, so when I spotted this book, promising 24 tales of earth shattering cataclysm, well, how could I resist!

Ashley neatly splits the anthology into three sections, the first deals with the apocalypse itself, and its immediate aftermath, the second focuses on the medium term future, and the final, shortest section throws us thousands, even millions of years into the future, to a world beyond humanity.

I feel a little like a broken record here, but as I always say an anthology is something of a lucky dip, on the downside this means there will be stories you don’t like—and there were more than a few of those in here—but the flipside is there will always be some diamonds in the rough—and again there were plenty of those.

I won’t go through all 24 tales, but I’ll try and highlight the ones I enjoyed most, and mention some couple I really didn’t like at all.

The anthology begins with When We Went to See the End of the World by Robert Silverberg, it’s a fairly lightweight, amusing tale but when dealing with apocalypses it’s probably best to start small.

When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow has a novel set of heroes who begin to rebuild society in the aftermath of a global bioweapon attack. Despite a certain level of nerdy wish fulfilment I enjoyed it.

The End of the World Show by David Barnett slips humour back into the equation, as the world faces an increasingly surreal end, and the last line’s just wonderful in context.

Fermi and Frost by Frederik Pohl is a grim, yet curiously hopeful portrayal of survival during nuclear, and is definitely one of the more realistic stories in the collection.

I’m a big fan of Alastair Reynolds, and his story, sleepover, is a humdinger, incredibly inventive it postulates a apocalypse like no other and he deftly keeps you guessing for some time as to what the nature of the cataclysm actually is. As with most great mysteries, you can argue the story falls apart once you know the secret, and there’s definitely an element of The Matrix about it, but still very enjoyable.

Now we move into the medium-term post-apocalyptic future.

I wasn’t keen on Moments of Inertia by William Barton. It’s tale of a rogue star went to some interesting places but took too damn long to get there and I couldn’t really empathise with any of the characters.

Pallbearer by Robert Reed was probably one of my favourite stories in the collection. Can’t say it was stunningly original, but I just loved the author’s voice as he describes a post pandemic world where evangelical Christians believe they’re the chosen survivors of God, but the truth might be very different. Really, I could have kept reading this story for the rest of the book.

And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear starts out like an old school Mad Max style story, with the heroine, a biker courier, racing across irradiated American to deliver a package, but it goes somewhere very unexpected. It ends rather abruptly but I’m willing to forgive the author.

A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber is a story I’ve read before, many, many years ago in my teens. I’d found it really interesting back then, but sadly in hindsight it’s clunky and archaic. Bonus points for the nostalgia rush however.

Guardians of the Phoenix by Eric Brown is another somewhat old school Mad Max style tale of survivors struggling in a drought ridden world where the only water is buried deep underground. There’s some great imagery (ships becalmed in the middle of deserts) and a smidgen of hope at the end. Another highly recommended one.

Life in the Anthropocene by Paul Di Fillippo on the other hand might be the one story I really hated, full of longwinded names, made up gobbledygook technology and annoying post-humans. It isn’t that long, but I really struggled to get through it.

Terraforming Terra by Jack Williamson has a neat idea about successive generations of clones on the Moon watching Earth recover from an apocalypse so they can reclaim it, but I wasn’t keen. I couldn’t get my head around the characters, and the narrative is told in the first person by successive iterations of the same individual which makes no sense. It goes on way too long and ends with a Bradbury style twist that frankly Bradbury did better.

We’re into the distant future now, with tales that finish off the anthology by taking the (very) long view.

F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre’s World Without End is an utterly depressing, yet utterly engrossing tale of a young woman cursed with immorality who ends up the last human, doomed to wander the Earth as millennia pass. The choice of main character is interesting, and again the author’s voice very good. I really liked this one.

Hard Sci-fi legend Stephen Baxter has a wonderful grasp of deep time, and he demonstrates his skill here as The Children of Time provides snapshots of successive human offshoots that survive millions of years into the future. Again there’s a melancholic tone to the tale, but again it’s well enough written that I enjoyed it.

The final story, The Star Called Wormwood by Elizabeth Counihan, on the other hand, left me cold, and it’s a shame the book didn’t end with Baxter’s tale.

On the whole I enjoyed this anthology, though it maybe dragged on a little, and whilst a more general horror/sci-fi anthology can mix things up a little, here the relentless grimdark gets a tad wearing, even though Ashley tries his best to inject hope and humour where he can. In the end there’s only so much world ending even a fan of the genre can take!

Embers of War

Posted: June 11, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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30748899By Gareth L Powell

It’s the future, and a devastating conflict known as the Archipelago War is bought to a shuddering conclusion by a heinous war crime that devastates large swathes of a planet. One of the perpetrators of this attack, albeit under orders, is the sentient warship Trouble Dog. In the aftermath of the conflict Trouble Dog develops a conscience and resigns her commission, signing on with the noble, if underfunded, House of Reclamation, an organisation whose purpose is to provide aid and rescue to those in distress. The ship has a minimal crew and is captained by Sal Konstanz who was on the opposite side during the war.

After a tragedy, Sal imagines she might lose her captaincy, but when a pleasure liner is attacked in a mysterious solar system known as the gallery—where an alien intelligence carved planets into giant sculptures—the Trouble Dog is the only ship that can speed to its rescue in time.

Meanwhile, on a distant jungle world Ashton Childe, a burned-out spy, is given new orders. He’s to also make his way to the Gallery, and he’s to rescue one particular passenger from the downed liner, the renowned poet Ona Sudak.

Sudak isn’t quite who she appears to be however, and the Trouble Dog is heading towards more danger than she realises, which given this particular dog has had most of her fangs removed, could mean trouble!

There’s some ship to ship combat towards the end of this book that’s almost worth the cover price alone. It’s like the very best Star Trek battle transferred onto the page. Beyond this there’s a lot else to enjoy here, though this isn’t a perfect book by any means.

Powell’s world building feels a little sparse at times, but on the whole he does a good job of imagining a conceivable universe. I’m sure people might say it feels a bit derivative, but while sentient starships are nothing new, I liked the idea of a ship with a conscience, a ship that regrets what she was ordered to do and wants to make amends, and I loved the fact that, despite her noble aspirations, this is a ship that still enjoys a good fight!

If I had a problem with the book then it’s the use of first person, or more specifically the use of first person to cover multiple points of view. This would be fine but, despite Powell’s obvious talent as a writer, too often it was hard to tell one voice apart from another, and if it wasn’t for the handy aide memoir that each chapter is named for the character, it would have taken a while to determine which character’s POV we were with at any given time, especially once most of the characters are on board (or are!) Trouble Dog. Ironically the one character whose chapters do feel different is the alien engineer Nod, though it’s chapters are kinda superfluous, so it’s swings and roundabouts.

Yes it’s a tad lightweight in tone, never quite managing to hit the epic sweep it clearly wants to, but it was a fun read, with an interesting central conceit, and Powell writes well, especially scenes of combat, and it’s certainly a way better sci-fi novel than the last one I read.

So long as you don’t go in expecting Banks or Reynolds this is an enjoyable book, I’m certainly on board for any sequels and I’d really like to see Trouble Dog get into a few more scraps!

9781509833559the space between the stars_2_jpg_264_400.jpgby Anne Corlett

Jamie Allenby wakes from a fever to find she is one of the lucky few to have survived a virulent plague that has almost obliterated humanity. It’s fatal in 99.9999% of cases and so initially Jamie wonders if she might be the only survivor on this far flung colny world she’d travelled to in order to work as a vet, escaping from the pain of a miscarriage and the breakup of her relationship with her former partner Daniel.

She soon discovers she isn’t the only survivor on this planet, and it soon becomes apparent that there are survivors scatters across space. Soon Jamie is part of a disparate group of survivors aboard a battered freighter. They have no real plan, but Jamie wants to get back to Earth, certain that a garbled message she received is proof that Daniel has survived as well.

As the band make their way to Earth they will face dangers, and each group of survivors they encounter has their own ideas about the future of humanity, but the real danger might be closer to home.

 

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, and I’d add that you should never judge a book by it’s blurb. The cover of this book is gorgeous, and the blurb is enticing, talking about a plague that has decimated humanity across dozens of colony worlds, and promising an exciting, and somewhat novel, tale of post-apocalyptic survival.

If only the book had lived up to it’s cover, or it’s premise. Even my synopsis above probably does the book more justice than it actually deserves.

First it needs to be stressed that this is science fiction only in the loosest possible sense. Of course sci-fi is a broad church, ranging from space opera to hard, ultra-realistic science fiction, but all share, to a greater or lesser extent, a speculative element. Aside from references to space ships, and colonies, there is very little here that qualifies. In fact from the way people dress, act and talk, and from the technology on display, this could just as easily been set on Earth today, with Jamie waking up on the Isle of Wight, for example, rather than a far flung world. In fact it’s almost a period piece because at times it feels dated even by today’s technology—see reference to the net for example.

Each of the colony worlds they visit seems indistinguishable from the last, and whilst not every science fiction novel needs to go into detail about the technology of space travel, Corlett doesn’t even make a sop to it. There’s no hint of how space travel works, how artificial gravity works, what kind of fuel the ship uses—they keep having to refuel but it’s just generic ‘fuel’—and worst of all no real attention given to the unfathomable distances between these worlds. They may as well be in a transit van driving from London to Newcastle and stopping off at various service stations along the way.

I’ve seen one reviewer say that it isn’t so much sci-fi as a melodrama, but even there I think it falls down, because few really dramatic things actually happen. In terms of the survivors they meet only a couple of groups who pose any threat, and even here the group evade them with relative ease. Every obstruction to their journey is avoided with the ease of that transit van swerving around potholes. Even the nature of the plague itself is curiously bloodless, you may have thought John Wyndham did cosy catastrophes, but you’ve seen nothing yet. The plague kills billions, but helpfully turns everyone to dust so the survivors rarely have to see any bodies.

I guess Corlett really just wanted to examine the human condition, and there is a lot of navel gazing going on, but if you’re going to view the apocalypse from this angle you need to have more meat to grab onto. Some well-rounded characters would be a start, but sadly there are none.

Did you ever see the TV show Firefly? I’m guessing Corlett must have given the similarities of certain characters. The battered freighter itself reminded me of Serenity with it’s big loading ramp, it’s captained by a taciturn cowboy type named Callan, who has a surly female second in command. Their group also contains a priest with a troubled past, a hooker with a heart of gold and a youngster who appears to have Asperger’s. Pretty much every character in the book comes straight out of central casting, take Rena the religious fanatic. As for Jamie, it’s hard to like her. She seems more concerned with her own troubles than the fact that the human race has been wiped out.

And I haven’t even got to how contrived the ‘plot’ is, especially in terms of who miraculously survives the plague. There was one surprise midway through, one curveball I didn’t see coming, but everything else was horribly predictable, even the romance seems perfunctory.

The worst of it is that it’s a really good premise, and Corlett can clearly write, I liked a lot of her prose, it’s just that she didn’t seem to have a whole lot to say with it.

A missed opportunity and I can’t really recommend it.