The Lady Astronomer by Katy O’Dowd

Three eccentric siblings living in Bath, England get pulled into a grandiose scheme to construct a giant telescope. Lucretia, a hat maker and astronomer, Freddie, her brother and a hopeless businessman, and Al, the youngest and a clockwork inventor, face everything from court politics to rock-hard tea biscuits. That’s to say nothing of the other adventures, mishaps, and catastrophes standing between the trio and their telescope.

Unfortunately, a host of issues makes it difficult for the reader to appreciate this novel. The plot is a series of predicaments rather than a chain of connected events, the frantic pace never allows the reader time to adjust, a host of characters prevent each other from standing out, and the cluttered writing obscures the finer details. The author’s passion, though clear, is insufficient to offset the various problems.

The telescope’s construction is a framing device rather than the central thrust of the plot. Although it serves as an excuse to periodically move the characters around and set certain events in motion, it’s usually in the background playing second fiddle to a manufactured crisis. This prevents the story as a whole from being particularly focused, and only a handful of the one to three chapter dilemmas the characters encounter are ever entertaining enough to stand on their own. The result is a loosely connected series of events which fail to engage the reader.

In addition, the pacing never leaves the reader a moment’s peace to digest what has just happened. There are rarely more than a handful of paragraphs separating one flurry of chaos from the next. Worse, a decent portion of the events feel contrived, such as when Lucretia’s pet lemur and owl repeatedly wreak havoc for no other reason than to make sure something is happening. More prolonged, frequent breathers would have done a great deal to even the book out.

There is also an overabundance of characters. The vast majority are irrelevant caricatures who are of momentary importance at best. Those who have a higher purpose, Lucretia and her siblings included, never have a chance to establish themselves because of the other characters clogging the pages. Worst of all, Lucretia has little agency and instead spends most of the book reacting to the people confronting her. A later segment in which she’s held captive is particularly bad about this.

My final issue with the novel is the amount of general clutter. I’ve already mentioned the excess of adventures and characters, but the dialogue and description of Lucretia’s physical surroundings presented similar difficulties to me. Before I continue, I should mention that the era and style of literature is not one I’m fond of unless it’s being written by Oscar Wilde, so there are friendlier audiences than me.

That said, most of the dialogue runs around in polite circles without amounting to much of anything. Even when a character has something important to say, his or her words make an artificial fuss beyond what the manners of the era require. As for the description of the world, it focuses on fantastical details instead of the mundane ones which could make the otherwise fairy tale take on England more tangible. As its stands the bizarre world gets in the way of the story rather than assisting it.

All of these criticisms aside, the author’s passion shines through. Her writing speaks of a genuine joy in the act itself, but it isn’t enough to rescue this work from the issues plaguing it. The loose plot, frantic pace, excessive cast, and general clutter undermine the end product. I give it a 2/5.

If you want to give it a read for yourself, you can find a copy at Amazon.

Luckbane by Tony Breeden

First, the hook: in a future dominated by megacorporations, a virtual reality MMO with permanent character death is one of the major forms of entertainment. Longtime players are ranked based on the points they score in the game as well as their popularity with a viewing public that can watch play sessions. Despite that, the players themselves are more or less anonymous. The hero, Jarrod, plays the most popular character and is selected to travel to an actual world that has been created in the MMOs image to play his character in person.

The hook is the only thing about this novel that stands out. The rest is bog standard fantasy/sci-fi that fails to deliver in its execution. The author spends the bulk of the time telling the reader about the world instead of showing it, an overuse of action sequences leaves the setting little room to breathe, and the characters have no depth.

As fun as the hook is, the author presents the setting in long, descriptive paragraphs that outright tell the readers everything they could ever want to know, and more, about the world. There are few instances in which the author actually shows his readers how the world works. Instead, he feeds the readers just enough to make it to the next action sequence.

Part of the problem is that the author is essentially trying to take the reader through three different worlds simultaneously. First, there is the world of the MMO and the characters within it. Then there is megacorporate Earth. Finally, there is the world on which the real version of the MMO is taking place later in the book. All of this leads to a lot of clutter, and the author never figures out how to present all of this information to the reader well.

In addition, this is a run and gun novel in which there’s little breathing room between each action sequence. Most scenes resolve themselves in some kind of fight or other form of direct conflict. While this isn’t a problem on its own, the author is trying to build a world with this novel, not just enough of a world to connect the action sequences. This leaves the book on uneven footing, like a chemistry teacher trying to conduct a history lesson with explosions.

Finally, the characters are stock archetypes without any nuance to set them apart. Part of the humor in the book is that they’re mostly MMO characters, so of course they have silly names and are over the top. Unfortunately, the joke stops there and the author never really digs down into each character to reveal something beneath the stats on a character sheet.

Even the main character is your typical chosen-one everyman. Of course he’s had a memory wipe, is immune to stasis sickness, has no idea how famous his character is, is a janitor that has the physical skills of a master thief, has a corporate princess seeking his company, he is the representative of the common man versus the corporations, etcetera. He’s a bundle of clichés, not a character. The only difference between him and the other characters is the amount of fantasy/sci-fi chicken stock they were boiled in.

There are other issues with the book: the author shifts between too many character perspectives, he saps mystery out of the story via foreshadowing, the characters shift between emotions at an unrealistic pace, and he uses ‘growled,’ ‘sputtered,’ ‘sneered,’ and the like instead of sticking with ‘said.’

All of that aside, the basic idea was a fun one, and the writing was decent. I didn’t have to fight to get through to the novel, though I found myself skimming rather quickly. I give it a 2/5.

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of it, you can nab one here.