Bucket List -- See the Inca in DC


So last week, I took a very short trip down to DC to cross off a long-standing bucket list item -- taking in the Inca Road exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC (it's part of the Smithsonian).

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And that was pretty much it -- I went back to the hotel, got some supper and prepped to fly home the next morning. It was a short trip but a lot of fun. I'm glad I went.

Programmer for hire


  So last Wednesday, my company laid off a huge swath of its employees.  I was one of them.
  It was a bit sudden but the company had been having trouble over the past year so I wasn't surprised that it happened, just the timing.

  I'm still trying to right the ship a bit and get on the job hunt.

  If you're curious, I do software programming, mostly on the Microsoft stack, with a couple of different Java frameworks under my belt.  We can certainly talk if you think there's a position I might be a good fit for.



A few new reviews


I was on vacation recently and long plane rides are a great way to knock off a few books. So let's take a look:

Pre-vacation, I wanted a bit of palate cleanser from the fantasy coming up so I blew through Galaxy's Edge: Legionnaire by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole. It's the opener to a military sci-fi universe that ranges from deep space fleets to boots on the ground. As you might suspect, this one focuses on the ground pounders. Sergeant Chhun is stationed with the members of his squad on some dirt water planet at the ass-end of the universe. His commander is some idiot political appointee, the natives are restless, and there's nothing to do. Then everything goes to hell.

I finished the book so it wasn't awful, but it was the most paint-by-numbers military fiction I've seen in ages. Yeah, they're on a different world with alien locals and the warship that got them here orbits overhead, but with almost no effort at all, this would read like modern day military fiction set in the Middle East. I realize that perhaps war never changes, perhaps there will always be idiot COs, and grumpy natives, and bad food, and sand in your shorts, and the bond of battle that forges strangers into family, etc., etc., but even the most hard sci-fi settings would have profound effects on the way war is waged. Even the idea that it'll come down to boots on the ground might not be true. C'mon guys, spark my sense of wonder *and* my thirst for bloodshed in one literary package!

Also...I am almost 100% positive there weren't any women in Sergeant Chhun's platoon. There were references to higher level female officers back at base, and I'm pretty sure no one is saying women can't fight, but I don't recall a single female trooper. Again, maybe I've just forgotten, but if I go back through to check, I'll either fall asleep or be mad that I didn't do something better with my time (like sleeping).

Next up: The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick. I keep remembering how much I've enjoyed other Swanwick stories in the past and then I go searching around for more of his stuff. This time around, I came up with a dense, rich, prosaic, slice of fantastic reality that it took a bit to work my way through.

Imagine the Fae realms of Celtic lore, a world that's a fun-house mirror of our own. Now imagine that the alchemical-industrial revolution came along and turned the fields and forests into a dense urban sprawl. At the edge of the sprawl is a massive factory where dragons are made -- jet-powered, cybernetic, air combat dragons. Working in this factory is a young mortal girl named Jane. The book follows Jane and her attempts to grow up and grow out of Faerie.

I don't really want to talk about the plot because the plot is sort of a distraction -- the underlying metaphors are where the story is really at and as you read through it, don't be afraid to take in your surroundings, there's a lot to look at and see in new ways as Jane grows up and tries to get out of Faerie. It's not as thinky as some more "serious" pieces of literature, but it's not as obtuse, or perhaps it's poetically obtuse and that oddly helps you see it better. Anyway, it's a good book, give it a try.

On the flight back home from my recent vacation, I poured through Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. The blurb that grabbed my attention was: “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!”. The palace was actually on the Imperial Capital, but otherwise that quote is 100% accurate and if that seems like your jam, rest assured it is totally your jam.

So you've got a far future empire that runs on Necromancy. It's suggested that a lot of high-tech hardware like starships are mostly well-maintained relics rather than something in steady production. Below the Immortal Emperor there are nine great houses, one for each planet in the Imperial Capital's solar system. Gideon is an orphan ward of the Ninth house. The Ninth is a near-forgotten house charged with maintaining the tomb of the Emperor's greatest foe. Run like a massive monastery its an endless round of prayer and ritual. Gideon wants out. Partially because she wants to be a warrior in the Second House (essentially the Imperial Military) and because she's the personal whipping girl of Harrowhawk, daughter of the rulers of the Ninth House and in no way are those two attracted to each other.

Just before Gideon is finally about to escape the Ninth House an Imperial summons arrives -- each house is to present their chosen successor and their Cavalier. Harrowhawk has no Cavalier and despite being trained as a soldier and not a noble bodyguard, Gideon is the only person available. These house scions have been called to the Imperial Capital, a world dedicated solely to the Emperor's abandoned palace where they will undergo a series of tests to determine who will go on to become a Lyctor -- a sort of undead lich-saint who serves the Emperor. The first Lyctors were created shortly after the Emperor's rise and no new ones have been created for thousands of years since then. It's a golden opportunity everyone is anxious to seize.

So the bickering pair travel to the homeworld, meet their rival teams and their enigmatic hosts, and start trying to work out what the test is and how to pass it. Then people start dying.

It's a fun book. It does have that YA "young people are somehow much more capable and experience than their age would suggest" issue, but the sci-fi necromancy is a lot of fun and the plot clips right along. It does set up an obvious sequel, but at least it doesn't end on a cliffhanger while still teasing something interesting enough to go back for the next book when it comes out.

Finally, I finished up another short story. This time a piece called To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers. Ms. Chambers writes, hands-down, some of the most human and humanistic science fiction I've ever read and this is another fantastic example. The Lawki 6 Exoplanet expedition has just completed its basic mission and now has a question for the people back home on Earth. The book is their account of the mission, but not in a dry, factual way or even an exciting, thrill-a-minute kind of way. This is a story of small moments and daily lives. Those lives may be in a habitat module on a planet light-years away from Earth, but you really get into the hearts and minds of the four-person crew of the mission.

It's short, it'll handily fit into whatever spare reading time you have, but there will come a point where you know you're getting close, so you'll just rush through the end and when the book ends your heart is both full and content and the daily wonder of our world is more apparent. What more can you ask of a story? Go read it.



Where's the beef?


  Today I learned that Wendy's (yes, the hamburger chain) has released an RPG.  It's short, but fairly complete.

  Is it good?  Who knows? (probably not)  Do I want to play a one-shot?  Dear reader, you know I do.

  Check it out here.


Bucket List Items


  I've set up a bucket list of things I'd like to try and get done in the next year to 2 years.  The items on the list run the gamut of prosaic to logistically arduous, but all of them seem do-able within the time frame so I'm really making an effort to get things knocked off the list.

  And the purpose of this post (and hopefully others in the future) is simply to note/recount doing the thing I said I'd do because it's nice to remember that sometimes you accomplish the goals you have in life.

  So here are the first two items:

  Play a game of Root:  I said some of these would be prosaic.  I backed Root after having backed and played the amazing Vast: The Crystal Caverns -- an asymmetric board game that was incredibly fun but quite difficult to teach as each player in Vast take on a role that has different play rules and win conditions.  Aside from some very simple rules on movement, everyone acts completely differently from everyone else.  The upside is that the game has a lot of useful player aids and once you've played through two turns you know how to play your role, though learning how to play it *well* and learning what the other roles are up to is a different story. 

  Root was pitched as an asymmetrical wargame that feels like cute woodland animals having a tussle.  There are four factions, each plays slightly differently than the others, but everyone is trying to get the most victory points and the basic mechanics of movement and combat are the same for everyone (and the exceptions are all pretty straight forward).  So this seemed like a much more approachable/teachable game. 

I backed the base game and the expansion set.  It arrived over a year ago.  It sat there unplayed.  A number of bucket list goals are simply to play new games that I have but haven't played or replay games I haven't played enough.  Root was at the top of the list so a couple weeks ago we all sat down to play.  Along with the generous play aids and rule reminders, the game also has a pre-planned "teaching scenario" that walks all players through their first two turns.  You could stop then and restart, but we were fine playing out the game from there.

  The walkthrough was great.  The sheet has each person explicitly announce what they are doing for each part of their turn.  Obviously that helps you understand how your faction works, but it also gives players insight into how the other factions work.  But the game also has you take some actions that will really guide your strategy for the rest of the game.  The biggest example here is the Vagabond -- a lone adventurer who travels the forest looking for action, adventure, and better gear to keep doing the first two things.  The Vagabond has a relationship chart that tracks how the other factions view her.  You can ally yourself with a faction, or you can earn their hatred and both states offer benefits and challenges.  It's also pretty easy to get a faction to hate you -- just kill one of their dudes.

  The upshot is that you want to think carefully before you get someone ticked off at you, but the walkthrough doesn't care what you think.  Turn two the Vagabond kills a bird warrior and now the birds all hate her.  Remember, this is the very first time the Vagabond player has played the game and turn two she's made an enemy.  It's that kind of bold decision making (taken out of your hands) that really gets you stuck in to the game.  I suspect the other factions also made some very committal moves, but it wasn't as obvious as the Vagabond's.

  The game itself was a lot of fun.  I played the Woodland Alliance (i.e. the rebels caught between the cats and the birds).  So I'm slowly infiltrating spaces on the board with my supporters and forcing the others to pay me cards as they moved through those clearings.  I get an actual rebel base set up but the Alliance has a handful of troops and some of them need to be trained up as officers to help get those troops to do anything useful.  Meanwhile, the Marquis de Cat was fighting fires all over the board while trying to get enough troops together to blunt the advance of the birds of the Eyrie.  The Vagabond mostly did her own thing and stopped by the Alliance from time to time to get more gear.

  In the end, I pulled out the victory.  I'd like to say it was deep strategy on my part, but I think it mostly came down to me not looking like a threat.  I had lots of tokens everywhere but only a few actual troop meeples on the board.  The Cat was everywhere at the start of the game and Eyrie got real big, real fast.  The Vagabond probably needed to be more aggressive -- hey the Eyrie hates you, go kill some birds.  Still, the game has a lot of potential, plays in a reasonable amount of time, and it left us thinking about taking a second go at it.
  Special shout-out to the Eyrie player.  The Eyrie faction plays a bit like Robo-Rally for those who remember that game.  Each turn, the Eyrie lays down a couple of cards on their Decree track and then they have to do all the things in their Decree track, in order.  If they can follow their "program" great, next turn add some more cards and try again.  The problem is that eventually, you won't be able to do all the things on your Decree Track and when that happens, the Eyrie's government is overthrown, they lose troops, spaces, and victory points, and finally the Decree Track is cleared and a new leader is chosen.  We were all waiting to see the Eyrie's government fall, but the player managed to keep the same leader the entire game and never failed to carry out the Decree.  He was a very close 2nd and only a last-minute propaganda drive got me over the finish line.  One of the things we need to learn as we play this game in the future is how to make it hard for the Eyrie player to maintain their Decree.  Another is that Alliance bases need to be *ahem* rooted out.  It's costly, the Alliance is very strong on defense, but if you don't do it, the Alliance just slowly get better and if you do destroy a base, that triggers a bunch of bad stuff for the Alliance player which will set them back a bit.

  Overall, this game is a lot of fun.  It's easier to teach than Vast and the cutesy woodland theme disguises some serious gameplay.  

  Take a bike maintenance class:  I've been doing a bit more cycling over the past few years.  For a while I've been meaning to take a bike maintenance class, mostly just to get a better understanding of how my bike works and general stuff you can do to keep it in good condition.  This summer, I took the basic bike class at Broadway Bicycle School.  It was a six week course that met on Wednesdays.

  The class covered a lot of ground.  Fixing flats, adjusting hubs, wheels, and brakes, chain sizing and replacement, and working with the shifter -- it's a pretty comprehensive course.  This didn't turn me into a wrench monkey.  If anything, I'm more likely to take the bike to the shop and have them deal with it because man, it can be fiddly.  That said, I have a *much* better understanding of how everything works and I'm much more likely to correctly identify problems before they get worse.  Also, truing a bicycle wheel is quite...meditative.  I also picked up a few basic maintenance tips that I can do for myself (a little bit of chain lube makes it all better).

  Anyway, the course was fun, our instructor was great and I feel like I learned a lot of useful stuff.



A slew of reviews


  Got some more reading done so let's discuss:

  First up:  Priest of Lies by Peter McLean.  This is the follow-up to last year's excellent Priest of Bones.  You've got Tomas Piety and his fellow veterans, back from the war and restoring the his family's criminal empire in their hometown.  Along the way, Tomas got married to a royal spy to establish him as "respectable" and give him another set of tools to help thwart foreign agents from taking over the place.

  In this book, newly en-nobled Tomas is called away to the royal capital to make a splash on society and get the once over from his wife's boss.  Of course, if he's at the capital, he's not minding the store and when he finally gets back home, his criminal empire is only just hanging on and the city government is shot through with foreign agents and perhaps it's time to get back to some skull-cracking.

  The book is pretty good.  It's definitely a "bridge" book for what is at least a trilogy.  My biggest nit with the whole book is that Tomas complains about putting on airs like a noble.  Which is fine, but one thing that adds to his misery is any number of small social faux pas he commits because he doesn't know any better.  The problem is that his wife, Ailsa, is an accomplished field agent and a minor noble to boot -- but she never sits Tomas down and walks him through what he needs to know to get through various social situations.  Teaching your streetwise gang leader some high society manners and graces before thowing him the wolves seems like a no-brainer.

  Even so, the book motors along well, the dialog is crisp, there's some nice world-building, and it's generally an absorbing read.  Definitely going to get the next book in the series.

  Next up, another book of dystopian fiction, but this one is...on a more positive bent?  The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele is a book in the vein of Station Eleven where the world has fallen apart, but life goes on and happiness can be found even here.  In this book, climate change, super-bugs, technological failures, and general political paralysis has more or less put everyone on their butts.  Carson, a former school principal living in the failing husk of New York decides to pack up his stuff and walk across the country to Seattle where he hopes to find Beatrix, a woman he'd started a long-distance romance with back before things fell apart.  Handing a letter for Beatrix to the local bike messenger, he sets off, following road and rails across the country.  Beatrix, meanwhile, has returned to Seattle after the whole concept of fair trade goods no longer matters.  Beatrix is torn between heading north and finding her housemates who've moved to a farm, or sticking around and seeing what she can do for the people living in the area.

  This is a pretty low-key book.  You hear a lot about this cult whose leader is offering a better life if people make the trek to Wyoming and join him.  And they do run into this preacher, but it's a thread that doesn't really go anywhere.  More interesting are the people Carson meets along the way and Beatrix's efforts to rebuild her local community.  I feel like it's avoiding a *lot* of potentially ugly scenarios, but it's still nice to read dystopian fiction that has a bit of hope and optimism.  Definitely worth checking out.

  For some reason, I've been doing a few short story/novella length books this month.  This kicked off with The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall.  Vasethe is a man looking for someone who's gone missing.  To find her, he travels to the ends of the Earth and meets with the Border Keeper, an old woman who monitors the boundary between the world and the 999 demon realms of Mkalis.  With a little time and effort, Vasethe wins her over and the two enter the demon realms to track down Vasethe's missing person.

  This is fantastic and I hope it's up for an award later this year.  It's just a silk-smooth piece of storytelling.  The plot moves forward but has a surprising amount of subtlety.  I really liked it.  Well worth checking out for an evening's entertainment.

  After that, a little fantasy in the Jack Vance vein.  A God in Chains by Matthew Hughes isn't set in Mr. Vance's Dying Earth, but perhaps an eon earlier.  The world is old and run down and garrulous characters wander the land getting into scrapes and having adventures.  Farouche, comes to on a vast plain, unable to recall his name or his past.  He joins up with a passing caravan as a guard.  He handily fends off an ambush and impresses his boss.  At their next destination, Farouche takes on other jobs and tries to work out who he used to be.  

  The writing is very stylistically similar to Vance's Dying Earth stories (though the protagonists are usually a bit more heroic).  So if that's something you've enjoyed in the past, you might enjoy Hughes's stuff as well.  If you haven't read any of the Dying Earth books -- go do that first, then look into these.

  A couple more shorts.  First up:  A Year and a Day in Old Theradane by Scott Lynch.  So if you know Mr. Lynch's other books, you've probably got a good idea of what to expect.  Amarelle Parathis, the Duchess Unseen and her crew have landed in Theradane, a city state run by a parliament of wizards who are...mostly fighting each other.  The Duchess and her crew are here because if you give the wizards a big bag of gold and promise to be very good, they'll grant you citizenship and you're safe from whatever crimes you're wanted for elsewhere.  So they're taking it easy when a wiz-war interrupts their card game and the Duchess makes some unwise comments to one of the feuding wizards.  Now, she and her crew of rogues have to steal a city street to make one wizard happy and another one cry.

  It's a quick, zippy read with all of the Lynchian goodness you expect.  Fun characters, snappy patter, and a slick criminal caper all in a neat little package.

  Finally we round out with The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain.  In the near future, a powerful Djinn named Melek is freed from his mountain tomb and he sets out to pick up where he left off.  On his way down he encounters an angry old man who suggests that if Melek is looking for a challenge, he should come to Kathmandu and face off against Karma, the AI that runs the city and keeps it alive.

  Now, Karma is no evil AI, it just works to keep people safe and happy.  It offers social credits to people who do good/valuable work for the community and even if you do nothing (you're a "zero") you still get your basic needs more than adequately met.  So how do you rebel against the ultimate benevolent dictator? 

  Meanwhile, Hamilcar Pande is a sort of unofficial Sheriff for Karma.  Not that there's any crime per se, but Karma may have blind spots and to guard against that they have Hamilcar.  The Sheriff has noticed that two people, who are invisible to Karma's sensors and have none of the cybernetic augmentations that (literally) make life possible.  As he starts investigating he turns up something more serious and far less magical than a egotistical Djinn.

  Again, another fun short story.  I do really like the idea of a benevolent AI.  It's pretty easy to write stories with a Skynet, but I think the more interesting ones come from societies where AI really does take care of you.

  Anyway, that's what's crossed my kindle lately.



Oh hey, how about some reviews


  Been a while, but I do have some books to report on:

  First up:  Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle.  As you might guess this is an autobiography of one of the more interesting characters of early space exploration.  John "Jack" Parsons was the scion of a wealthy family who fell on hard times during the Depression.  Parsons read a lot of early sci-fi and got excited about the idea of space exploration and rockets.  Unable to afford collage, he started working for companies producing explosives for mining/construction and on the weekends would make different sorts of chemical rockets.  Although not formally schooled in chemistry, he had a very nimble mind and probably knew more about explosive chemicals than anyone at CalTech, where he managed to cobble together a small rocketry research program (at the time, rockets were considered nothing more than toys). 

  When WWII broke out, he created a rocket fuel formula to help large planes take off on short runways.  These rocket boosters were called JATO units (Jet Assisted Take-Off) -- note that they called them jets not rockets because jets were cool and rockets were dumb.  He formed a company to produce the JATO units called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and you probably know it toady as an integral part of NASA.  Those boosters he produced in WWII became the template for solid fuel rockets such as the boosters for the Space Shuttle.

  All of this is interesting enough but when you add in the fact that he got inspired by Alistair Crowley and set up an OTO temple in his house...well, you'd expect more but honestly there aren't a lot of records and most interviews are with people who were at the fringes of his crowd.  You want to hear about the rituals and the orgies and there's some of that, but there's a lot of stuff that's still quite opaque about the man and what he was doing.

  The general picture that you get from the book is that Jack Parsons was kind of a real life, low-budget Tony Stark, a bit of an asshole genius.  It's not clear if more funding or additional education would've helped, he clearly seemed to be the kind of person with his head in the clouds and a burning desire to achieve his goals.  It's too bad there's not more detail about his life, although I suspect frustration would factor large in it.

  It's a niche subject so I'm not recommending it to you unless you've got a real interest in this kind of stuff.

  So it's back to fiction with:  Edges by Linda Nagata.  Ms. Nagata is an author from Australia who wrote a series of transhuman sci-fi.  This is the start of a new series set in that universe.  I don't usually like dealing with coming into the middle, but this is a pretty good starting point and I never felt too lost so that's a point in it's favor.

  The basic premise is that transhuman society has spread throughout the galaxy.  However, around the fringes, a fleet of ancient war machines search out technically advanced civilizations and then crushes them.  Near a weird machine/neutron star called Deception Well, humans have found a refuge from the machines.  Towards the interior of human space, the oldest settlements eventually created Dyson spheres and other high-tech stellar engineering.  But they've got silent and from Deception Well people can see those megastructures are breaking up and they're not sure why.  It doesn't seem to be the war machine's fault but there's no way they can reach it.

 Until Urban, a human sent out from Deception Well as part of a team trying to beat the war machines returns in control of one of the warships.  He offers his old lover and a few others from Deception Well a chance to upload to his ship and come with him to go exploring into the core to find out what happened.

  They almost immediately run into transhuman trouble.

  I enjoyed the heck out of this book.  The concept of an "inverted frontier" is fun and the book really stares down the barrel of the various ramifications that transhuman technologies would produce.  I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.  Recommended, especially for fans of Ian Banks and the like.

   Let's roll back to a bit of fantasy.  The Grand Dark by Richard Kadrey is set in a not-quite-steampunk world trying to recover from a devastating war, in particular, we focus on the city of Lower Proszawa.  Berlin during the Weimar Republic is the obvious analog and the german words for streets and slang really helps orient you.  Largo is, for now, a bicycle messenger with a famous theatrical girlfriend and just a *teensy* morphine hobby.  One day, the chief messenger at the company is hauled away by the secret police and Largo gets a promotion, thanks in large part to his photographic memory of the city and its layout.  From high-class mansions to abandoned factories, Largo delivers packages and takes signatures and then comes back to the office to be quizzed about the day by his boss Herr Branca.

  Largo's deliveries get more and more strange and as rumors of war start to swirl, Largo is going to have to wise up about who he is and what he's doing.

  Another really solid book.  I enjoyed the world-building (and learned a bit of German too).  Largo is head-smackingly naive but once he starts to realize what's going on, well, he's still out of his depth but he knows he has to do something.  Very much a "so now I'm an adult, now what?" kind of journey for him.  I would say this is a slightly better fantasy LeCarr than the Amberlough series touted itself as (though that series really had a different idea in mind vs. it's ad copy).  A fun read.

  Back to space with The Outside by Ada Hoffmann.  When humans hit the Singularity, the Singularity decided that humans just couldn't be trusted with advanced science and technology so...they took it over.  Now AI Gods control and watch over human development.  They allow some level of experimentation but generally keep them firmly sandboxed.  Yasira Shien is a scientist working on an interesting new piece of science and the AIs are letting her have a go at it, but the new tech promptly unravels the space laboratory she's working on and the Gods scoop her up.  Branded a heretic and a murderer, the Gods are giving her a shot at redeeming herself by tracking down her mentor, a woman who has big plans to upend the gods and reality itself.

  A fun book that explores a theme I think is more likely in a transhuman future -- AIs who simply keep humans like...well, not like pets exactly, but more like toddlers who keep grabbing for things they shouldn't.  Banks's Culture novels sometimes touch on this a bit, but it's a theme that's front and center here and I kinda like it.

  I had one minor niggle.  Dr. Shein and her mentor are both described as having autism (it's suggested that this, in part, explains their scientific insights).  I realize that I don't think I've read any book, fiction book certainly, that has an autistic character at its center and really tries to get into their head.  My issue is that....Shien doesn't seem terribly different from a lot of other protagonists.  If she's freaking out about being abducted by AI gods and dragooned into a galaxy-wide hunt for a reality bending mad scientist -- that's an emotional crisis most people would have.  I didn't feel like her autism was something that came through on the page.  If it's deliberate, if it's a "autistic people are like everyone else", that's fine, but it's not like she's being ostracized because she's autistic, she's treated as a slightly eccentric genius and that's it, which seems like it really undercuts whatever sort of message they wanted to go with here.  Again, I can't recall a central autistic character in a book I've read in the past few years so perhaps I'm completely missing the point, but I don't feel like I got a sense of how her autism shapes her compared to any neurotypical character.

  Still, it's a pretty good book and I do recommend it.

  Finally, a new Max Gladstone book.  I've been eagerly devouring Max Gladstone's Craft series books since the first one.  A magic-fantasy take on modern finance that is *way* better than that description sounds.  His latest book, however, is a stand alone sci-fi novel called The Empress of Forever.  Here we have Vivian Liao -- entrepreneurial wunderkind whose made and lost fortunes in a near-future, ecologically failing Earth.  But now the Feds are closing in, ready to break her.  So Viv hatches a last-ditch plan to sneak in to an MIT server farm and...create a benign Skynet?  But in the process a glowing green woman suddenly appears, grabs her, and spirits her away to the far future.  

  With a little help, Viv escapes her prison and learns that here in the future there's The Cloud -- a digital mapping of...everything.  And the Empress (the green woman) basically rules and owns it.  If Viv wants to get home, she has to beat the Empress.  She also has to fend off the Mirrorfaith, techno-priests who try to study the Empress to learn her secrets, the Pride, war-toys of the Empress that she's discarded, and the Bleed, an alien species who show up when a civilization reaches a certain level of sophistication everything.  To prevent the Bleed, the Empress herself usually does this stunt.

  So...Viv gets the party together, a god-like space pirate, a techno-monk, a barbarian pilot, and a sentient blob of grey goo.  Together they go on adventures.

  Friends, Max Gladstone is a fantastic writer and this book is flat-out amazing.  Wonderful world-building and grand vistas, you can imagine how lush the movie would be.  Beyond that, the thing that really characterizes Gladstone's books is the human, emotional core a the center and how it addresses the numerous challenges we face here in the real world and how we attack those problems.

  Highly recommended, definitely check it out.

  OK, I think that covers it.  Happy reading everyone.



Remembering to Find Amnesty for missed reviews


  Read more books.  Let's see what I thought:

  First up: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. The Teixcalaanli Empire rules a pretty large chunk of the galaxy, but it's not the only player.  In a fairly desolate part of space, Lsel station manages a shaky peace with the Empire (mostly by dint of being too small to bother with).  But now the Empire has come calling to request a new ambassador to replace the man Lsel sent over 15 years ago.  Crucially, they aren't saying what happened to the previous ambassador.

  Lsel has one piece of tech that Teixcalaanli (for cultural reasons) hasn't developed -- the ability to record another person't memory and personality and, upon death, those recorded memories are transferred to a similar device placed in a carefully matched volunteer's head.  These recordings are not considered to be people per se and the volunteers retain control over their own thoughts and memories, but the chip acts as a source of "collective wisdom" the volunteer can call upon.  The main administrators of Lsel have chips containing nearly 15 generations' worth of memory, wisdom, and understanding.

  Mahit has been chosen to be the new ambassador.  Aside from being intensely fascinated by Teixcalaanli language and culture, she's a very good psychological match for the former ambassador, but the former ambassador's only available recording is about 10 years out of date.  And Mahit only had a few months to work on personality integration.  And then something goes wrong with the chip when she discovers that her predecessor has died from some sort of "allergic reaction" and the stored personality has a bit of a meltdown.

  So now she's on her own, in a culture she loves but has never really experienced, without any support to fall back on.  So she'd better figure out who killed the ambassador and why before she's next.

  I had a pretty good time with this book.  Aside from a few interesting discussions around the memory chip, there's a lot of fun ruminating on how hard it is to be really fascinated with a foreign culture even though you can't really be a part of it.  The writing was solid, the plot didn't drag, and the characters were interesting.  Definitely worth checking out if you're looking for some scifi.

  For more adventuresome scifi, you might want to check out Finder by Suzanne Palmer.  You get a scruffy nerf-herder named Fergus Ferguson, professional Finder.  He's been hired to track down and recover a starship Venetia's Sword.  He tracks down the man who took it, Arum Gilger, to a distant mining system called Cernee.  On his way to recover it, he encounters a feisty old woman riding a cable car with him.  Then the car is attacked and Fergus gets tossed into the volatile local politics.  Getting the Sword back is going to take a bit more effort than he expected.

  Yeah, another pretty good book.  Fergus has parental issues he struggles with in the book's probably weakest part of the whole thing to be honest.  The backstory is either too simple or too complex but either way it didn't get onto the page very adroitly.  It's not a huge part of the book though.  For the most part the book is action-packed and a pretty fun romp.  I especially like the little map of Cernee system in the front.  Most times you land on a planet or a space station -- here we've got a lot of asteroids joined together by tethers and it's a great change of pace.  The system and it's quirks are well-described and it's fun to poke around.

  Definitely some lighter, beach-reading sci-fi, but worth picking up all the same.

  Finally, the final book in the Amberlough series:  Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly.  This series has been generally described as LeCarre meets Oscar Wilde and the first book was definitely in that mold.  I was a little less impressed this time around.  The thing about this series is that while it talks a good spy game, there's really almost no espionage and covert operations after the first book.  Even LeCarre has spies doing spy work and in this series it's been pretty conspicuously absent. 

  Case in point -- the first book ends with a fascist dictator taking control of Amberlough.  At the end of the second book, it seemed like we were finally about to jump off with exciting adventures in the third book.  The third book jumps ahead five years and...the rebellion is over.  The dictator was cast out of office and then shot, the ringleader of the rebels is dead off-screen, and now it's mostly the story of a family and a pair of lovers picking up the pieces and trying to move on.  The book wants to focus on people and it does quite a good job at it, but the spy/crime thing is pretty overdone for the most part.  Still, this did wrap up a few things nicely and ends the series on a pretty decent note.

  I think the series is pretty good, but don't let the book blurbs convince you it's something it's not.

 So that's what I've read lately. I'm happy that I seem to be picking up the pace a little bit.



Lunar Fortress Reviews


  How's about I review the books I read in a more timely manner?

  First up, Luna:  Moon Rising by Ian McDonald.  This is the concluding volume of his Luna series.  The short version is that in the future the moon is run by five corporations and the families that own them.  The series primarily focuses on the Corta family who produce helium-3 for export to an energy-starved Earth.  But then their dome gets blown up in the first book, the Corta patriarch gets banished to Earth, but then returns with terrestrial allies to take over the moon in the second book, and now it's time for a showdown between the people of the moon and the people of Earth.  The story sprawls out over a fair number of Corta family members so you get to see the conflict from a few different angles.

  Overall, this book brought everything to a solid conclusion.  The writing in this series has always been quite good along with most of the hard science.  An easy recommendation if you're looking for intrigue, action and drama in a near-future setting.

  Next up:  Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker.  Mr. Parker has written a number of well-received fantasy novels most of which make liberal use of actual history to help flesh out the details.  This is a standalone novel about Orhan, leader of a regiment of Imperial Engineers.  He spends most of his time building bridges and tearing down or building up defensive works.  He returns to the Imperial City to discover unknown enemies have lured the defenders out into an ambush and they'll soon be bearing down on the city itself.  Orhan has to organize his forces and the people remaining in the city to stall the enemy long enough until help arrives.

  I stayed up waaayyy to late finishing this book off, which should probably be all the endorsement you need.  The chapters are short, punchy, and always make you want to "read just one more chapter".  The dialog is good, and Orhan is an active protagonist who is making plans, solving problems, and adapting to the enemy's efforts.  The plot suffers a bit from Orhan's interactions with the enemy commander (in the sense that the enemy deliberately does stupid things sometimes) and the end is a bit unsatisfying (but it's not an unreasonable or illogical ending and it's only the last 10 pages or so).  Still, this is a fun low-magic fantasy book which should make for some nice summer reading.