Blue Gargantua's Journal
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
7:18PM - Covert Builder Reviews
Finished up another couple of books. Both very different from each other.
First up, The Builders by Daniel Polansky. This is a talking animal book loosely based around Westerns and the Mexican Civil War. The Captain is a mouse who backed the losing faction in the kingdom's civil war. He'd almost won when he was betrayed by one of his own, turned by the Captain's arch-rivel Mephetic, a skunk. Several years later, the Captain pulls together the ragged remains of his closest fighters and they set off to get revenge and claw their way to the top of the pile -- all the while knowing that the traitor is still likely among them.
I rather liked this book. Short, punchy chapters with solid writing, good character work and touches of humor both light and dark. The animal natures inform but don't override all other character considerations. It was a lot of fun and should make for some diverting, light reading.
After that, I read through Clandestine Occupations by Diana Block. Ms. Block was part of a radical group promoting Puerto Rican independence and was forced to live underground for a number of years. The book is a fictionalized account of that experience centering around Luba Gold. Although the book sort of centers around her, it's mostly narrated by other people -- people who met her in her clandestine identity, those who knew her before, during or after her life in the shadows. And from Luba it spirals out to other people who were part of her organization or those who were caught up in its wake.
The book touches on a lot of topics, but mostly centers around the price people are willing or forced to pay in order to see their vision of the future realized -- and around the frustration of ideals clashing with realities. It also offers up a slew of voices not normally well represented in fiction and it's all handled with a great deal of humanity and compassion. A through-provoking book and recommended if you're in the mood for some heavier fiction.
Thursday, November 12, 2015
So a few weeks ago I read Zealot by Reza Aslan where he attempts to shed more light on the historical Jesus of Nazareth. It was an interesting read, but Aslan himself is a Muslim and I was curious what he had to say about his own faith. I was also interested in a brief overview of Islam. I can give the basic gist of the Jesus story as told in the gospels, but I’ve never been able to say very much about Mohammed and his life and I’ve always felt that was a bit of a gap I should cover. Mr. Aslan happily obliged my wishes and so I read through No God but God. The book covers more than just the Prophet’s life, it also runs down a high-level overview of the spread of Islam.
As with Zealot, Mr. Aslan’s writing is pretty clear and he provides historical context for the time and place the Prophet was born into and how that shaped his message. Additionally, as the faith spread out from Arabia into the wider world, time and place influenced how his message was interpreted and there’s plenty of discussion around that as well.
I think what comes across in the book is that while there are branches and schools of Islamic faith, Islam has always been a bit decentralized (and in the modern internet-era even more so). In part that goes back to Mohammed’s core message that faith is largely a matter between God and the worshipper. Obviously, people want to consult with imams and religious scholars to help better understand their religion and communal prayer is a visible display that worshippers are part of a larger, worldwide community, but Mohammed was railing against the idea that there were any intercessory beings that stood between you and God. It all starts with a simple declaration of faith.
Overall, I feel like I have a better handle on the subject than I did before. Certainly I can do a short run-down of the life of the Prophet. Actually, I’d hoped there’d be a bit more focus on that. The space devoted to it was OK, but I was hoping for a bit more detail. Still, you get a better feel for how diverse Islam is/can be. Worth checking out if, like me, you’d like a cliff notes guide.
After that, another book suggested by the (sadly canceled) Lapham’s Quarterly Podcast. In this case it was Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin’s Plot for Global Revolution by Giles Milton. The extended title should give you a clue as to the contents. With the fall of the Tzar and the rise of the Bolsheviks, Britain needed to get a picture of what was going on inside Russia. The book details efforts by the Secret Intelligence Service (later MI6) and the India Bureau to uncover Lenin’s plans.
I’ve read quite a few books discussing the Soviet Union’s skill at espionage during the Cold War, but in the early days, spying wasn’t exactly their forte. Aside from former loyalists worming their way into the new regime to break it from within, British agents managed to operate despite the increasing scrutiny of the secret police. In particular, Arthur Ransome (one of my favorite children’s authors), openly attended high-level meetings with Lenin and other Soviet leaders. The chaos of the revolution provided plenty of gaps for agents to slip through and provide detailed intelligence to British policymakers.
The book is a bit light on some details, especially operations in Central Asia to stop Islamic revolutionaries from sparking rebellion in India, but overall it makes for a fascinating read about the early days of the Soviet Union and the lengths people went to in order to bring back information. Worth checking out for spy buffs.
Finally, although I didn’t read it, I did listen through Half Share and Full Share by Nathan Lowell. We continue to follow Ishmael Wong as he climbs the ranks of enlisted spacer aboard the Lois McKendrick and his eventual decision to enroll in the Academy. Again, the plot sort of bumps along. It’s not even so much a picaresque tale despite the fact that the ship travels from place to place because they’re only ever at the orbital stations which are all sort of the same. Still, the author has a nice reading voice and the chapters slip away easily while driving around. I think I’m going to take a break for a while, but it’s fun stuff while you’re out driving around.
Sunday, November 1, 2015
5:05PM - Review of Shards
So being laid up in the hospital does mean you can get some reading done. In particular, I whipped through King of Shards by Matthew Kressel. It's the start of a fantasy trilogy that leans on kabbalistic underpinnings vs. European ones. I should mention that is just starts from there, but doesn't sort of fall down a Hermetic magic-hole.
The basic gist is that there are thousands of shards, previous attempts at Creation that have been scattered hither and yon. Earth and it's universe represents the Creator getting it right. The Earth is full of the waters of life which overflow and splash down to the various shards and provide them with the energy to keep them going, but life is pretty brutal in most of the shards.
Further, the Earth is supported by The Pillars of Earth, the Lamed Vav, thirty-six righteous people whose goodness keeps the Earth intact and stable. If you can remove enough of those pillars, the Earth will crack open and the Shards will all be flooded away.
Daniel Fisher is one of the Lamed Vav, although, like most, he doesn't know it. He's about to get married when a giant dog-man bursts into his ceremony and shoves him through to the shard world of Gehinnon. The dog man is a demon who goes by several names, but Caleb is pretty much what most people know him as. Caleb, as a demon is fighting off Mashit, his former lover, who's on a tear to try and yank the Pillars out and destroy the Earth.
Meanwhile, on Gehinnon, Rana works as a mason building grand architecture for the city of Azru on the edge of the rolling sea of sand. She discovers a giant white dog and a strange man in her workshop and it's off to the races for the trio. They need to find a powerful witch, find a way back to Earth and stop Mashit's plan.
Well...Caleb has a few other ideas.
Anyway, I thought this was a pretty good book with a lot of fresh, interesting ideas, but Daniel, the Pillar of the Earth, was pretty much a token. True, he didn't know who/what he was and in some respects he's sort of the princess to be saved (so a nice gender reversal there), but except for one bit near the end, he doesn't exhibit a lot of agency or decision-making. Frankly, the demon was a lot more interesting (and to be fair, aren't most bad guys?).
I'm not sure if I'll be following up on this one. It works best when people are outside Earth, but Daniel needs to sort of stay put by the end of this first book. We'll see.
I have also been listening to a couple of audio books. I worked my way through Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell. Imagine an age of sail book about a young crewman on a clipper ship but set in the far future. That's pretty much what you get. Ishmael Horatio Wong (yeah...that's his name) lives on a corporation planet when his mom is killed in an accident. Through various legal chicaneries, Wong is going to be penniless and deported. So he signs up for a menial job on a trading vessel.
What follows is not rollicking adventure, but really...just him doing his job, getting to know his crew and finding his place. Maybe a bit like Dickens or Horatio Alger, but with less moralizing and more slice-of-life. I'm pretty sure I'd never actually plunk down cash and read this book, but it is very soothing to listen too and quite pleasant while out driving. In particular, if you're a fan of the Traveller RPG, then this is completely up your alley.
So yeah, his books are all in free podcast format and you can look it up on iTunes or whatever.
Saturday, October 31, 2015
9:46AM - Things
Worst thing about coming home from the hospital: Peeling the various sensor stickers off my man-pelt.
2nd best thing about coming home from the hospital: Taking a shower.
The actual best thing about coming home from the hospital: Sleeping for 14 glorious hours in dark and quiet without anyone taking a blood sample from me at any point.
Tuesday, October 27, 2015
So, first off, while I'm not technically fine, I feel fine and things are getting better.
And now here's why I'm in the hospital.
You may remember a few years ago I went to the hospital because I had a pulmonary embolism. This morning I went down to the basement and when I came upstairs I felt like I'd just run a marathon. So I packed my bags, hopped in the car and checked myself in to the ER. One CAT scan later and yeah....another pulmonary embolism.
So I'm in the hospital for a few days. Very likely I'm going to be on some sort of anti-coagulant for the rest of my life. So I made it to 43 before I need daily medication. Not too bad.
Damn mutant healing factor.
Saturday, October 24, 2015
Cleaned up two books this week so let's get to the reviews.
First up Rules for Werewolves by Kirk Lynn. Much like the previous book I reviewed, this book leans pretty heavily on literary affect. In particular, there's almost no descriptive text. Everything is dialog or soliloquy and none of it is marked by "Bob said" or "Susan said" and if there's multiple characters in a scene...good luck.
The book follows a group of squatters from teenagers to 20-somethings who break into houses, liver there as long as they can and then move on. There are some intergroup squabbles and one of the members is sent home for a while.
Oh yes, they're all werewolves. That means something a bit different than what you're thinking but there is a physical change and a wildness that can be difficult to control and leads to trouble and is greatly yearned for.
I was rather reminded of Orange Eats Creeps although the kids here were vampires not werewolves. It also had a much more poetic and lyrical development while Rules stays relatively grounded in it's firehose of dialog.
Overall, I didn't feel this one really did a great job. A few high points, but nothing that really grabbed me.
Next up is a short novella piece called The Sea Hates A Coward by Nate Crowley. This is a much more straight-forward kind of book centered on a zombie uprising from the zombie's point of view.
Schneider Wrack wakes up from a pleasant dream to find himself in a living nightmare. He's a zombie on board a massive fishing/processing ship called the Tuvato. This ship supplies the millions of tons of meat required by the inhabitants of a city under an endless siege. With no land to farm and backed up against the sea, the City relies on the Tuvato and the steady stream of supply boats that return laden down with food.
And there's plenty of fish in Ocean. Not the ocean that washes up against the city but Ocean, a watery world connected to the ocean of the city by a portal. There's clearly a sort of "high tech society fallen on hard times" vibe to everything.
Anyway, the City needs food, Ocean has it and the workforce consists mostly of zombies. Enemy soldiers, criminals, political dissidents, anyone who gets in the City's way gets killed, reanimated and sent to work on Tuvato.
Wrack isn't terribly happy with this state of affairs, and he learns that it's possible to wake up other zombies and return them to a state of sentience (which can vary depending on the zombie). But the zombies are watched by Overseers, powerfully enhanced humans, and their various sea-monster/cyborg watchdogs. Wrack needs to get enough awakened zombies together and figure out a plan to take over the ship and end their exploitation.
Like I said, a novella more than a novel, but it really clips along and it's a fun little read. The descriptions of the ship, the meat, the terrible sea life of Ocean and the various zombies s well done. Not a ton of dialog but Wrack's inner monolog is good. While the author clearly intends to do more stories, it ends at a pretty good place and feels relatively complete in itself.
A fun little off-kilter zombie story for Halloween and well-worth checking out.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
7:51PM - Review 83
So I recently finished up Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and translated by Roland Glasser. Mr. Mujila was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now resides in Austria. He's done a lot of various writing about the Congo and Tram 83 is his first novel.
And it's a very literary novel. This isn't an artifact of translation, the book reads more like a prose-poem than an actual piece of prose. There is a basic plot. Lucien is returning to the City-State after a stay in Europe trying to get his writing going again. He's met by his old friend Requiem who has stayed in the City-State and gets by doing various dodgy things. Everyone and everything in the City-State revolves around the mines and Tram 83, a nightclub-bar where everyone goes to see and be seen, conduct some business and some pleasure as well.
But beyond this basic skeleton, the book is really about the chaotic atmosphere. The book often spirals off into long lists of people, of sensations, of sounds. The dialogue isn't clearly demarcated so it can be hard to tell who is speaking to whom and it's often intercut with other conversations, usually prostitutes trying to attract customers or waitresses demanding tips.
You're interested in the contrast between upright Lucien who wants to do the right thing and Requiem who's always working an angle, and the book merely sets up little situations one after the other to contrast them even if there's not a lot of larger plot. The prose, however, shows a great deal of deft construction and I wound up highlighting a number of passages from the book.
Overall, it's an interesting book and I think there's a lot to pick through, but it's not a straight read so pick it up if you enjoy the journey more than the destination.
Monday, October 19, 2015
12:38PM - A Zealous review
After hearing his interview on a podcast recently, I decided to pick up a copy of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. Three guesses as to what it's about.
Mr. Aslan attempts to paint a picture of Jesus and his life rooted on as much historical scholarship as possible. While he doesn't entirely dismiss the New Testament writings, he does try to lean on non-biblical sources. Since there is almost no historical record of Jesus outside the gospels, what follows is more of a general portrait on Jesus based on the times he lived in.
The short version is that Jesus was basically a wandering Jewish rebel who resented Rome's control of Judea and the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem who were supported by the Romans and were unlikely to upset the apple cart. Jesus's message was aimed at the Jews who got the short end of the stick in this deal -- mostly the poor and uneducated. This sort of agitation against Rome was common in the period and there were several self-proclaimed messiahs hoping to free Jews from Roman occupation.
The question is what happened that caused Jesus to become the foundation of a 2000 year-old religion while the others all disappeared. Mr. Aslan points to two major factors. First, after the Jewish Revolt and brutal re-conquest by Rome, it was decidedly dangerous to be associated with Jewish radicals and second, the apostle Paul re-envisioned Jesus and his message and made it decidedly non-Jewish and more spiritual and less about rebellion against Rome.
The book is fairly short. It's some 400 pages but easily half of that length is footnotes. The book itself is written in a fairly accessible manner but for those more eager to engage the author more deeply, he cites his sources.
I don't think I was blown away by any of the book's major points, but it was well-written and presented. I did enjoy the chapters about the early history of the church as it struggles to find its identity. I think it's incredibly telling that from very early on in its existence, there were always arguments and debates about Jesus and what he meant.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
10:55AM - Review of Crows
I just finished up Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. It had pretty much everything I want in these kinds of stories, but it really clunked out in the end.
This is fantasy heist novel which takes its cues from The Lies of Locke Lamora and then promptly does its own thing. The novel starts off in Ketterdam an island city-state mostly interested in making money any way it can. Among the criminally-minded businessmen there's no one more infamous than Kaz "Dirtyhands" Brekker. He's the power behind the throne of the street gang known as the Dregs.
He's made an offer he can't refuse. The world contains people with magic/psychic abilities called Grisha. There are several types and each focuses on a different power -- some control an element, some can harm or heal and others can make stuff. They are powerful, but are limited in their fine control. A scientist has developed a drug that greatly amplifies the power of Grisha allowing them to do far more than they normally could. The only problem is that a.) they become hopelessly addicted and b.) continued use kills them. Still, anyone who has the formula for the drug will wield enormous power so capturing the scientist is of vital interest to Ketterdam.
The only problem is that the scientist is currently being held in an impregnable fortress in the Kingdom of Fjerdan where they hate Grisha with a passion. So Kaz and his team won't have long to get there, find the man and spirit him away. So there follows a daring break-in and escape.
Like I say, there's a lot here to like. The world-building is solid even if the political entities are mostly historical analogs, but the magic seems pretty well thought-through. The crew Kaz assembles is a diverse mix of people and I believe it passes the Bechdel test. The actual caper itself is pretty much a mix of cunning plans, unexpected surprises, and brilliant improvisations. Everyone on the crew gets a solid does of spotlight time and their interactions are fun.
But there are some pieces that really undercut the book for me. First off, Kaz is the oldest person in the crew and he's only eighteen. It's possible this is a YA book and if that's the case I get it, but that's why I don't read much YA fiction. Could there be an 18 year-old criminal genius who can assemble a team and infiltrate a royal fortress? Sure, but everyone on this team is a young teen-ager and all of them are pretty skilled specialists of one kind or another. It's just a huge stretch to think these are the best people to send on this mission.
The larger problem is that the ending is built to support a sequel and it's terribly constructed. There's this huge bait-and-switch at the end which is kind of to be expected but it's incredibly unsatisfying.
Like I say, there's a lot of good stuff here and if you're into YA or fantasy crime fiction you might really like this, but it really fell flat for me at the end so I'm unlikely to carry on with the series.
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
2:39PM - Lunar Review
So Ian McDonald is one of my favorite sci-fi authors (he wrote a book about trains on Mars). His latest book came out and I finished plowing through it. The book is called Luna: New Moon and, as you might guess, it's a near-future novel set on the moon.
The moon is a libertarian wet-dream. There are no police, no laws, no crime, just contracts and negotiation. When you arrive on the moon you're outfitted with an implant that tracks your consumption of the four elements -- air, water, carbon and data. Everything you consume comes at a cost so if you don't have some cash coming in you're going to die and your body will be reclaimed by roving recycle bots trying to help settle your accounts.
Of course, not everyone is scraping for cash. At the top of the heap sits the Five Dragons, five families who own the major corporations that drive the lunar economy. Above them sits the Eagle of the Moon, the head of the Lunar Development Corporation who tries to keep things moving smoothly along.
The book mostly focuses on the youngest of the Five Dragons, the Cortas family who provide the Helium-3 that keeps the lights on down on Earth. The book opens with a celebration and an assassination attempt and then spirals out from there.
The writing is top-notch. The cast of characters are all well drawn and the world-building (moon-building?) is fantastic. The moon is settled by people from all over the world so a lot of cultures blend and meld and the book happily sets forth various cultural ideas and words and sends you scrambling to google to look stuff up. It also takes all this and builds a lunar culture that really comes alive and seems real.
So yeah, a fun book if you like dynastic family squabbles on the moon (and there's more than just that). The only downside is that this is the first of two books and there's not even a token attempt to find a good stopping point. It's just a big cliffhanger and it's over. So if that irks you, maybe wait until the second one comes out. I'll be looking forward to it eagerly.
Friday, September 25, 2015
So I recently finished Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged the Armenian Genocide by Eric Bogosian. As you might expect, it's a real chipper book.
During WWI the Ottoman Empire carried out a ruthless extermination program of Armenians living within its borders. After the war, the ringleaders fled the country and went into hiding, being convicted in absentia and sentenced to death. In the post-war rush to carve up the Middle East, no one was interested in spending a lot of time finding these guys. Except the Armenian diaspora.
Within a few years, a group of Armenians from across the globe formed Operation Nemesis. They compiled a list of high-ranking Imperial officials who oversaw the genocide and in a series of assassinations killed most of them in the early 20's. It was an astonishing success rate considering that many of the members had little to no training in setting up and running a clandestine network.
The book focuses primarily on one of the first assassinations -- Taalat Pasha was the former Minister of the Interior and Grand Vizier of the Empire. The highest priority target for the conspirators, he was gunned down in Berlin by Soghomon Tehlirian, a young man traumatized by the genocide. Tehlirian allowed himself to be captured and after a short trial was cleared of all charges.
The book is a very compelling read although I was hoping they'd go into more details about how the group was organized and carried out the intelligence-gathering operations needed to find and identify their targets. That was sort of glossed over in the book but apparently they were being fed information by other intelligence services (primarily the British but there may have been others).
The two other things in this book that really stood out was that although many Western nations condemned the genocide, they were pretty quick to forget it after the war when it came time to divvy up the oil resources in the region. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, after driving out pretty much everyone who sent soldiers into Turkey, gave a grand speech outlining his plans to construct a modern, Western Turkey. No one was willing to stomach a fight with him and everyone wanted oil so deals were struck and the Armenians forgotten.
The other item of interest to me is that the Turkish government has always denied the genocide happened and has done a lot of hide/suppress/destroy any official documentation that suggests otherwise. The modernization of Turkey has helped with that. Once Atatürk came to power, he replaced the Arabic script with a phonetic alphabet. Further, he set up institutions to formalize and codify the Turkish language and in the process erased or obscured the prior versions of Turkish. This means that modern-day Turks are unable to read documents before the alphabet shift and the vocabulary has changed so much that Atatürk's speech that set the pattern for reform in Turkey has to be translated to be comprehensible to modern listeners. Imagine if The Gettysburg Address had been spoken in the Old English of Beowulf and had been written in Sanskrit.
It's the very definition of Orwellian and it speaks to the idea that a language can shape and control the ideas and concepts you can talk about.
Anyway, not the most uplifting of books but still quite interesting.
Thursday, September 17, 2015
7:53PM - Windswept Review
So I finished up Windswept by Adam Rakunas (warning, the Amazon description is full of spoilers). It was a pretty good book.
On the planet Santee Anchorage, the local Union has carved out a small freehold against the Big Three corporations that dominate human space. The locals grow genetically-modified sugar cane and process the cane into various industrial products (including plastics and fuel). Padma Mehta is a Ward Chair and Union organizer. She needs to recruit new workers by encouraging corporate drones to ditch their indentured lives and come work for the Union. As the story opens, she's way behind on her headcount and she needs to make up the difference to secure a fat bonus and a chance to buy up one of the local distilleries.
She gets a line on a group of 40 employees looking to jump ship at Santee, but the deal goes bad and she only gets five (six if you count the corpse). Then her potential new hires get stolen from her. Then bodies start to turn up. Then the rum starts to go bad and she really has to get in gear.
So yeah, it's a good book. The dialog is pretty funny in a lot of places and the plot moves forward at a brisk pace. Even when the central mystery is more or less resoled, there's still a decent chunk of book left which is actually ok since some of the loose ends require vigorous tying off. My only minor nit is that Padma takes a brutal amount of punishment in a short span of time that would flatten just about everyone but that's kinda par for a lot of fiction.
Anyway, I was sold on the premise of a far-future labor organizer and the book really didn't disappoint. Nothing deep, but a fun read all the same.
Friday, September 11, 2015
4:05PM - Andereviewsonville
So I finished up Andersonville by Edward M. Erdelac. The very short version is that Barclay Lourdes, a black intelligence agent for the Union, infiltrates the Andersonville prison camp to find out what's going on and to try and prevent an deadly occult ritual.
Yeah...it really skates the edge of problematic. I *think* it manages to stay on the right side of OK, but it does prompt some thinking about what's appropriate for a horror setting. I feel that the writing shows a great deal of care was taken. The supernatural forces are more of a tool that can only be employed by humans willing to use them. So the supernatural isn't the cause of human misery, it's just another piece of leverage being used by humans so the culpability is largely there.
It also stands on some pretty solid writing. Barclay Lourdes and the people he encounters in/out of the prison are all well drawn and interesting. There's a good pacing of tension and the magic is all subtle and draws on a few different types of magical tradition all of which are given a respectful treatment. Aside from Barclay, there are a number of POC characters who make important contributions and even a few female characters (the book passes the Bechdel Test only just).
The only downside to the book (as with a lot of historical fiction) is that there are a few instances near the end of the book where a character stands runs into some nobody who turns out to be An Important Historical Figure. I never much care for that artifice. Other than that, the book was a gripping read that takes big risks with the subject matter and, I think, handles it all very well. Unless I lost you at the summary at the top, it's worth taking a chance on if it interests you at all.
Wednesday, September 2, 2015
I didn't get as much reading done on my vacation as I expected to, but I did chew through a fair number. So let's get to it.
First up: Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy by Dinty W. Moore. Yes, apparently that's actually his name and he's won prizes for his memoirs and essays.
Anyway in this collection of essays, other writers (of fiction and non) write in with various "Dear Abby" questions about their problems with writing. Dinty then answer them with a short note and then follows that with a short essay loosely connected to the question, the answer, or something else altogether.
This is perfect bathroom reading. Short, punchy pieces that entertains you while you're uh...waiting for the other shoe to drop. There's a wide range of topics covered and the tone is pretty lighthearted. Definitely worth looking into.
Next we have The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette Bodard. Ms. Bodard has previously written the meticulously researched Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec-fantasy books which I quite liked. Here, she takes on a new setting in her hometown of Paris.
In Wings, when angels are cast out of Heaven they quite literally fall to Earth. If they survive the landing, they retain a portion of their magical powers and a very long (though not infinite) lifespan. The Fallen tend to congregate in small groups called Houses for their mutual protection and benefit. Although other magical beings and religious structures exist, the Fallen basically outclass most of them and soon the great empires of Europe, assisted by the Houses colonize pretty much everything.
Then WWI happens. Only this time the Houses go at one another tooth and nail and turn Europe into a festering war zone. Paris is devasated, the Seine is so choked full of magical residue from the war that it turns black and ashy and is best viewed from a very safe distance.
Selene runs House Silverspire. It used to be headed up by Lucifer himself, but he went missing a couple decades ago and leadership falls to her. She senses a new angel has fallen to Earth and she rushes to the crash site to save her from roving gangs who would chop up the body for magical essence and to gain a new member for the House. When she arrives it's almost a bit too late, but when she tries to blast away the gangers, one of them turns her magic. The man's name is Philipe and he was a native of Vietnam and then he was recruited for the Great War and is now trapped in Paris.
On a whim, Selene decides to take them both in. Isabelle because she's a new Fallen and Philipe because she doesn't know exactly what he is. As Philipe and Isabelle explore Silverspire, they uncover a dark piece of magic that slowly starts killing member of the House and pushing for its downfall.
All in all, this was a pretty good book. I'm sure there's a ton of French socio-political subtext that I'm missing out on here, but you get a sense of the broad outlines of those themes. Even without all that, the book is quite good. The Fallen are all presented as quite dangerous, but fragile at the same time -- they can work wonders but there's a cost and no one wants to overplay their hand. No one is anxious to see the horrors of the Great War again either so there's a lot of subtle jockeying for position. One interesting way that shows up is that House Lazarus is run by a human woman. The implications are that it's quite possible for a human to hold their own against the Fallen, but you have to be incredibly ruthless and determined to do so.
The book ends at a good point and while I suspect there will be sequels, if this was the only volume, it'd be fine. Overall, this is an interesting new take on the "demons stalk the earth" idea and it's good to see a book coming from a different perspective. Well worth checking out.
Finally, I just finished up The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. This is a sort of sci-fi picaresque novel. It follows the Wayfarer a tunnel-ship that creates small hyperspace wormholes between worlds. The ship has just signed on a new clerk from Mars and then lands a major contract to construct a new tunnel connecting the Galactic Commons to a small planet claimed by the Tormei -- a violently xenophobic race that has opened negotiations to join the GC. The Wayfayer takes an extended journey to reach the planet where they will punch a tunnel back to GC space and collect a fat payday.
So the book is really about the crew members and how they grow and change on the long voyage out to the work-site and back. It's a little on-the-nose. You can pretty much spot everyone's major character arc as you get introduced to them. Still people do change and grow during the course of the trip and as they lazily travel from one system to the next interesting stuff happens.
It's definitely a quiet book. There aren't any epic space battles or desperate races-against-time, it's just a group of people forced to deal with each other and get a job done. I kind of liked it for that. There should be space for quieter books from time to time. Not everyone's cup of tea, but a fun read if that's the kind of thing you like.
Thursday, August 20, 2015
I plowed through a couple of books so let's talk about 'em.
First up Fifth House of the Heart by Ben Tripp. I was pretty jazzed about this book from the blurb and it didn't disappoint.
Asmodeous Saxon-Tang is an antiques dealer in his late 60'/early 70's who's made a comfortable fortune selling old and interesting items to the public. Where does he get his stock of wares to sell? Like any other dealer he goes to auctions and estate sales and the like. Unlike any other dealer, he also tracks down vampires, kills them and takes their horde of stuff. But Asmodeous is getting on and even in his younger days it was always a race between his greed for rare treasure vs. his deep desire to stay the hell away from near-immortal monsters. Now he figures that's all behind him and he can just settle down to a quiet life. Then he gets into a bidding war over an old clock and pays far too much for it.
The other bidder was, naturally, a vampire and now Sax has to assemble a team of experts to take care of the vampire before it takes care of him.
There is so much to like in this story. It's fun when protagonists are old -- what motivates an 18 year-old farm boy to save the world is a lot different than an 80 year-old. Older protagonists have a better sense of the stakes and the likelihood of failure so they have to make full use of their experience. It's also means that Sax has to put a team together and teams are a lot more interesting than The Lone Hero. Sax puts together a pretty good one with members from all over the world, male and female.
The vampires themselves are pretty good too. They aren't Dracula movie-vampires, they've got a more parasitic/predatory bent and they come in a variety of forms. They're also very dangerous and while modern weaponry is effective, they're very tough to kill.
Honestly, I was hoping for more of a caper/heist angle to the book when I picked it up, but it didn't really come out that way. It was all right in the end because it was really more of a D&D adventure -- go face down terrible evils, kill them, and take their stuff. Luckily, the writing elevates it from a tired dungeon crawler (though there are dungeons).
Anyway, I really enjoyed the book. If these things matter to you it does pass the Bechdel test, there are POCs on the team who make valuable contributions and Sax himself is gay. Beyond the liberal checkboxes, it's a well done adventure story of man vs. monster. Well worth checking out.
After that I picked up What Ho, Automaton! (A Reeves and Worcester Steampunk Mystery) by Chris Dolley. Many of you will probably deduce the conceit. Mr. Dolley has done up a Steampunk pastiche of P.G. Wodehouse's Worcester and Jeeves stories. In this particular story, Reeves is a steam-powered android who had been stuffed into the cupboard of the Drone's Club and forgotten until Regie Worcester rescues him. Reeves helps Worcester break up a bad engagement and then the pair solve the mystery of the missing debutantes.
It was a fun read, but the central idea of Worcester solving crimes (real crimes like kidnappings) just doesn't work for me. If they were shallow, petty crimes then yes, absolutely, but Bertie Worcester is all about avoiding serious matters (or minor matters if they involve a lot of work). Also, Worcester seems rather ignorant of a lot of Steampunk tropes and again, I see Worcester as someone who is an early adopter even when they don't understand the inner workings of their new toys. In the Wodehouse books, Bertie is always mad about some new craze. In this book, he seems to be constantly surprised at steampunk tech. To be fair, he still loves his car (a Stanley Steamer of course).
Finally, I dipped into YA and read through Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman. I picked it up because there were favorable comparisons to the Westing Game and it posits a world-wide community of people who hide books and then leave clues for other people to find them (a bit like geocaching).
Twelve year old Emily Crane has just arrived in San Francisco. Her family is on a quest to live in all 50-states so she moves around quite a bit. She's also a Book Scavenger -- she hides, finds and reads books. The Book Scavenger site is set up and maintained by beloved children's author Garrison Griswold. As the family moves in, Emily meets up with James, a kid her age who also loves puzzles and ciphers (though he doesn't care much for book scavenging). The day she moves in is also the day when Mr. Griswold gets shot at a BART station and rushed to the hospital.
Bumming around town, Emily and James go down to the BART station and discover a book, The Gold Bug by Poe. Reading through the book, Emily notices some strange discrepancies and that kicks off a book/treasure hunt all across San Francisco.
I'm trying to decide if I didn't really care for the book or if I'm just not reading it like a kid. I suspect I don't care for it. I think part of my problem is that the book tries too hard to tie to other books and to real-world things. Mr. Griswold is described as looking like Willy Wonky and that resemblance is remarked upon several times. The Tourism Board of San Francisco should be sending regular checks to Ms. Bertman considering how many landmarks Emily and Co. hit up. I think a children's book should always be a little vague about the place that it's set in -- the idea that it could be almost anywhere.
While I was reading this I was also listening to the audiobook version of Swallows And Amazons by Arthur Ransome. I've ready the physical book a couple times already and had the audiobook on standby for a long drive with children. Turns out it wasn't needed but I had so I listened to it. I really preferred Swallows to Scavengers -- it just felt less encumbered. Granted, Swallows was written in the 1930 so no cell phones or computers or stuff. Still, it seemed to have a better focus on what it was trying to do and who it was written for.
In the end, I suppose I'd have to give Scavengers to a kid and see what they think. But I'd give them Swallows well before that.
Friday, August 7, 2015
11:35AM - Breeding Moon Reviews
I happened across the British Fantasy Award nominations. Among the contenders for Best Novel was one book I'd already read (City of Stairs). I looked over the rest of the list and there were two more that looked interesting to me. They were also on sale for $4 each in the Kindle store so I figured I'd snap them up and read them. I finished up the other day so here are my thoughts.
First up we have Breed by KT Davies. Breed is a half human/half warspawn who's human mother runs an extensive Thieve's Guild in the small city of Appleton. Breed's on their way back from raiding a dragon's hoard (rather at speed with the dragon behind them) when they are dumped down into a crevasse. In the process of escaping the dragon and the prison of ice, Breed may have accidentally sorta freed a demonic monster from the ancient past who has slapped a whammy on them to recover a major relic.
Then Breed is accused of murder and magically enslaved to a one-handed priest. Things devolve from there.
So a fun conceit of the book is that Breed's real name or gender is never really discussed so I can't tell if it never passes the Bechdel test or always passes it. You get to choose. The pace was brisk, there were one or two laugh-out-loud places, but it could've used a touch more of the "cocky rogue" effect it was going for. The ending strongly suggests there's going to be a sequel, but it ends well enough with no cliffhangers. Overall the book was pleasant beach reading, but I don't think it should claim the BFA.
The next book might win the prize. The Moon King by Neil Williamson presents a setting with real elements of the fantastic and not just "it's like medieval Europe with magic and fantasy races" which is something I always really enjoy. In this case, the city of Glassholm sits on a small, rocky island. It's been ruled for the past 500 years by the Moon King -- the Lunane. The Lunane was one of the original founders of the city and it was he who went out over the ocean and returned with the moon that now circles above the island. Regular and precise, there is a deep rhythm to life in Glassholm. When the moon waxes to full, the town erupts in festival celebration. When the moon wanes to dark, the citizens are gripped with despair. Even the material substance of the city changes with the phases of the moon reflecting the mood of its people.
Anton Dunn is an engineer who was stood up at the altar on Fullday. He promptly got black-out drunk and wakes up in the palace where everyone is treating him as the Lunane. Lottie is an artist who dreams of leaving Glassholm and seeing the world. Mortlock is an ex-cop now working for the Palace who discovers that people in the city are mysteriously vanishing. They form the central core of protagonists that the story wheels about.
I'd compare this book pretty favorably to Chia Mieville with the bonus that in The Moon King stuff actually happens. There's a lot of imagination on display and it's well worth your time.
Tuesday, August 4, 2015
If you asked to be interviewed, my questions to you are in reply to your comments. I look forward to seeing your answers!
Thursday, July 30, 2015
3:37PM - A.M.A.
silentq wants to revive the old "Interview Me" meme and who am I to resist her charms?
1. When you were 10 years old (or thereabouts, before high school anyway), what did you want to be when you grew up? If you had a chance at a fresh start, would you do it today?
I'm pretty sure I wanted to be an astronaut and/or a scientist. Bear in mind, when I say "scientist" it's the kind of science you see in Road Runner cartoons. I *might* do the scientist gig today and I certainly *would* do the astronaut gig, except that I'm probably too big for any current or near-future lift systems. Jim Whetherbee, at 6'4" is the tallest astronaut who ever served and I believe that's the current cut-off limit.
I probably also wanted to be an actor/comedian/musician and I *might* take those up in a fresh start. I could probably do all those things but being successful at those things would be a much tougher proposition. Real-world scientists aren't necessarily paid crazy-money but I know they earn a decent living which most struggling artists don't.
Really, I still want to be a scientist-astronaut who invents anti-gravity propulsion and then FTL so...
2. If you could spend a day in the world of a book, which one would it be and why?
For purposes of this question, I assume I'm not actually the protagonist or otherwise directly involved in the story, I just get to be in that world.
Pretty much any one of the Culture novels by Iain M Banks. I'd get my consciousness copied off to a Mind and have a couple hundred major scientific achievements downloaded into my head so that when I was sent back to "reality" I could become a scientist-astronaut who invents anti-gravity, FTL, and human consciousness uploading (see question 1).
Even assuming there was some universal constant that kept my knowledge from being useful in our world, the Culture is, hands-down just the best place to spend a day. A utopian human-AI society that has to go begging for conflict to propel the stories, it'd be a pleasant place to visit.
3. What are your favourite and least favourite things about being tall?
Short answer: cleavage and concussions
Longer answer: Some studies show that there's a bit of tall privilege that I'm sure I benefit from (in terms of how people perceive you). I always know where I set down my cup at parties. I can see over crowds to get my bearing and people can usually find me pretty quickly.
The downsides -- ineligible for the astronaut program, tend to hit my head on things, cool t-shirts/clothing doesn't come in my size, a lot of sports require special footwear that doesn't come in my size, I will never own a Lamborghini or other low-slung sports car.
I dunno. I like being tall, but it comes with some hassles.
p.s. As per the rules of the meme, ask to be interviewed in the comments and I'll ask you three questions. You post the Q/A to your blog and keep the chain going. Robert M. of Trenton NJ broke the chain and he was killed by a rabid John Stossel, so keep it going!
Sunday, July 26, 2015
3:10PM - Last First Review
Max Gladstone continues to put out some of the most interesting fantasy on the market today. I just finished his latest book Last First Snow, the fourth book in his Craft series.
Up until now, the Craft books were all quite stand-alone and could be read in any order, although so far, they've progressed chronologically. Last First Snow breaks from that tradition and is a prequel. Both in that it comes before the other books chronologically and because it's a direct prequel to Two Serpents Rise focusing on a major character from that book.
I know there's science that says spoilers are a bit of a myth and that people tend to enjoy stories just as much, if not more, when they know what's going to happen than when they don't. Still, I'm never a big fan of prequels. It feels like a bloated tack-on to what you've read before. Sure, it's the journey, not the destination, but I'm not always sure the extra detail is worth it.
Anyway, this book takes us back to Dresediel Lex (a stand-in for Los Angeles) a few decades after the end of the God Wars that killed the Aztec-like gods who used to rule this land in favor of a "scientific" system that runs largely on an economy fueled by soulstuff and which is primarily overseen by The King in Red, who is basically a lich.
The people of the Skittersill district are the descendants of those conquered people and they're slowly being shoved out of their city. This district is the last place open to them and they've formed an Occupy Wall Street-style movement in Chakal Square to protest gentrification/redevelopment plans. Their protests are organized enough that development can't go forward until someone has met with the protestors to work out a compromise.
The King in Red sends his attorney Elayne Kevarian to meet with the protesters and open negotiations. She finds Temoc, a former warrior-priest she saved during the God Wars. Temoc isn't interested in a fight, he's seen the Red King's power first-hand. He simply wants to help people and protect his family, but others in the movement are less diplomatically minded. Elayne and Temoc work to bring both sides to the negotiating table. Eventually an agreement is signed and then a sudden burst of violence starts to unravel everything.
As always, the writing is strong and puts women and POC's up in front. Although it sits in the background a bit more than in his other books, there's still that whole "magic as economics" conceit that continues to spin out wonderful premises. I hope he someday does a book where a regulator has to track down firms rampantly manipulating the system for profit. If I didn't like this one as much it's only because of the prequel thing -- on its own merits it's quite good and certainly holds up to the rest of the series.
So if you've been following along, it's another no-brainer purchase. For those of you new to the series, this may not be the best stepping-on point but you should certainly start in on Three Parts Dead and treat yourself.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
12:21PM - Reviews in the Attic
Since apparently I'm doing Civil War stuff this year, I recently finished Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. Given the current controversy around Confederate flags and symbols, it's interesting to read a book discussing these issues over 15 years in the past.
Mr. Horwitz's grandfather bought a lavishly illustrated book on the Civil War when he emigrated to America. Young Tony grew up with a fascination for the Civil War but it fell away as he became an adult and traveled the world as a journalist. But shortly after he returns to settle down in America with his wife, he sees a bunch of Civil War reenactors passing outside his door. Like any good journalist, he gets into a conversation and that reignites his interest in the War and get him interested in travelling around the South to various Civil War battlefields to see how things have changed and how they haven't.
For the most part, people seem to have a deep sense of connection with their ancestors. If those ancestors fought in the War, then remembering their actions is important and provides a connection to them even if they fought on the losing side. Of course, no one wants to see themselves as a loser. America is big on underdogs and so people bend the narrative a bit to make their ancestors look a bit better. To some extent that's natural, but it's obvious some people invest a lot of energy in re-shaping the narrative of what happened.
The writing is good. I think his question of why people hang onto the idea of the South gets answered pretty early on and everything else is variation on a theme. It is interesting to see a few profiles of people who want to remember the war not as a gallant Lost Cause but as a national tragedy. Those are pretty far and few between, unfortunately.
Mr. Horwitz recently wrote about the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag and it offers a good summary of his book, but without the interesting descriptions of people and places.
Navigate: (Previous 20 entries)