A Specter is Haunting Texas, Fritz Leiber Rothdas book review RSS
4.0 Stars
7-5-2019

I picked this Leiber book to read next because, well, Texas. And I was rewarded for my faith!

One way to describe the novel is that it is Fritz Leiber does Fall Out. The story is set ~100 years after a massive Atomic war, as a traveler from the Lunar orbital visits the new nations of the mostly interdicted Earth. There is satirizing of existing tendencies (the Texans are basically Banks' Affronters, conquering and enslaving other peoples, using super-serums to grow themselves and their horses to enormous heights). There are speeches and battles and sword fights, as the main character, a skeletal, 8 foot tall Lunar 'Thin' that can only move about in gravity due to a powered-suit, joins and is used by the Mexes' revolution against the Tall Texans. The protagonist is something of a Grey Mouser character, vain-glorious, aesthetic, self interested, skilled in speeches and trickery and retreat, but also partly comical in the indignities that happen to him and with a bit of a soft heart. One element the of lunar protagonist that I particularly liked was the repeated attention paid to how strange a planet would be to someone who has spent their entire life in zero-G. This crops up in a lot of ways; attention to the lunar musculature, how flame and water behave differently on planet, differences in fighting and stagecraft and movement. None of it is scientific at all, but it there is thought and creativity that went into it and it provides several neat conceits and scenarios for the story. And in general, this tale is more creative, crunchy, and fast moving, closer to the Lankhmar adventures than to Our Lady of Darkness.

And now for the caveats and self-criticism session. As with the last book, every female character is evaluated primarily on their attractiveness to the main character. Everyone is at least age-appropriate this time around, which is great, and there are really only two female characters so the trend is less noticeable. As with the last book, things that Leiber does in a fantasy setting work less and less well the closer they get to reality. Farhred and the Grey Mouser talking about buxom wenches in a bar, fine. Less fine in a modern office setting. Sexy were-rats? Sure. Sexy 13 year olds? Yikes, too Republican for me. In this story the gender/sexual aspect mostly works, simply because it's a future badland and more of an adventure story than a realistic one set in a modern city.

The other element that crops up here is race, simply because there are a ton of gleefully racist characters in the story. And it's not that Leiber himself is some huge racist, the story argues for exactly the opposite, it's just something to be aware of going in that Leiber's going to be satirizing a bunch of current day terrible tendencies. As with the sexism, I think it works better the farther away it is from our real world. E.g. in Banks' _Excession_, the Affronter's interactions with their thrall races is treated somewhat, queasily, humorously, but if you bring that same treatment into the real world it becomes a lot less tasteful.

Which brings us to the final third of the self criticism session, Texas. I have to admit I'm something of a Texas parochialist, and it's unclear how well that sits with my other views. Like, just now I wanted to write that I was born here and I've done everything I can to avoid leaving the state. I didn't, but that was my first impulse. So some elements of the story I find enjoyable/funny, e.g. the date in the story being the 27th of Alamo, conquered Vancouver being renamed North Amarillo, etc. etc. But should I? Is that really appropriate or is that something I should try to change about myself?

Postscript: fires 6-shooters wildly into air, puts on cowboy hat and goes to the backyard to tend my oil well.




Our Lady of Darkness, Fritz Leiber
2.0 Stars
6-30-2019

I was reminded of this book ~5 years ago, when the pre-production hype for _True Detective, Season 2_ mentioned that the show would explore the occult history of the Los Angeles highway network. Which both seemed awesome and made me want to go back and re-read OLoD. OLoD has a similar concept, that the design and emplacement of mass infrastructure was being used as the ritual component for enormous magics. Highways and movement along highways rather than pentagrams, weights of steel and fuel rather than goat's blood. _True Detective Season 2_ of course turned out to be a complete and hilarious failure, but I still wanted to go back at some point and re-read OLoD to see how it stood up and if there were any interesting ideas that could be gleaned from it.

Unfortunately, OLoD hasn't aged well since high school. The novel is overly long for the story that it tells and the writing isn't interesting enough to make up the difference. The story is "Lovecraftian" and it name drops a ton of authors from that literary set, but I feel like the original Dr. L would have told the story in 1/2 or 1/4 the number of pages and been better for it. Also, there wasn't any real meat to the idea of Megalopolisomancy, it's just sort of an idea that is pointed at but not elaborated on. So there wasn't much to steal there except for the basic concept. And finally in the list of complaints, there's a sort of 1950's sexism in the writing, where female characters boobily breasted down the stairs. It's not so much that Leiber explicitly thinks that women are inferior, it's more that they primarily exist in his stories as sex objects. Even the monstrous, mouthless, and extra-dimensional (but female coded) entity gets this treatment. Wait, actually, there's not 1 but 2 thirteen year old girls who also get that treatment. Oh Leiber. You should have stuck to the were-rats.

There are a few bright spots to the story: the monster design, the _Annihilation_ type dream that the protagonist has at the end, and the unsettling and jarring tonal shifts that the story takes at several points. These are all quality; it's just that they are not enough to sustain a 220 page novel.




The I Ching: A Biography
3.0 Stars
6-25-2019

While not as helpful as I would have liked, this book did at least do a good job of explaining the I Ching in a readable way to the layman audience. I picked up this book because, inspired by PKD and the like, I've been mulling over ways in which the I Ching could be used as a decision mechanic/source of randomness in games, and to do that I thought I should have a basic understanding of the thing. Which I never have had, despite bumping into it repeatedly over the years. And after reading this 250 page book on the I Ching, I can confidently say that I still don't understand it. :D The best I can say is that the I Ching can act like an extremely complex Rorschach test. It's not something that contains an answer, rather it's a prompt or spur to your own thought and meditation. Another description would be to say that it is the SE Asian version of the WarHammer franchise, a giant ball of ideas and fanfiction that has accreted over time while spreading and adapting to many different cultures and purposes. There were a few interesting tidbits here, but for the most part the political usage and cultural adaptations to the I Ching were unsurprising. One helpful thing I did learn was that a common way to use the I Ching was to take 2 readings, and then make the prediction based on the changes between the two readings. Which seems much more sensible to me. The single reading method that I'd always seen before this seemed like it ran into the newspaper-horoscope problem, where 12 or 64 possible answers just aren't enough to begin to cover every possible situation. 2^12 potential answers is much more plausible.




Citizen of Earth, Kassabian
2.0 Stars
6-15-2019

An unfortunate mil-sci-fi adventure novel. I really wanted to like this book, since I like its author and it is his first published fiction and I'd like him to succeed. However, while some of the ideas in the book are neat, the book doesn't really work as a story/entertaining piece of fiction. The main problem is (sorry) that the writer just isn't very good at his craft. There's a skill to writing evocative, entertaining stories that flow and draw the reader along and create a world inside the reader's head. I certainly don't have that skill, but I can at least broadly recognize it in writers who have developed that skill through talent/time/dedication. In this case the basic fundamentals of the story just don't function well, since much of the writing is just too bare bones and simplistic. It feels more like a rough draft or bullet point summary of what the story should be, rather than the actual story. Viewed from a certain angle it might *almost* make it to an Isaac Babel type sere style, except that the story matter/profundity just isn't there. All of the above isn't helped by the fact that I read this in e-book form (thanks a lot, Amazon discount) rather than in paper back form, and this always makes me undervalue a novel somewhat. The small silver lining to all of this is that the story does at least read quickly.

Oh, and just for completeness: the actual story is that North Korea invades the Star Wars universe. Humans almost entirely live in the Sol system, and they are ruled over by an oppressive Chairman who has successfully conquered and indoctrinated the Earth, the Moon, and Mars. The earthlings then get involved in an already ongoing war with the various other races that are out there in the galaxy. The main character is a kid who is drafted into the military, gets separated during battle, falls in with aliens, and starts to see the wider universe. He and his girlfriend meet aliens at bars, help out freedom fighters, assault the ground stations for various planet destroying super weapons, and board/crash various starships. In the hands of a Jim Butcher this might all work very well, but as above it just fell down due to the lack-luster writing. Oh, and since I ding the right-wing mil fiction for this, I will also do it to the left wing mil fiction. There is not that much thought about how technology would change warfare, rather things are just updated so that you have lasers instead of bullets and plasma instead of high explosives and blah blah blah. The combat isn't pure idiocy and it has a few neat ideas (the way weapons from different tech trees interact, the alien versions of Colonial Britain), but on the whole it is still closer in quality to Star Wars than to the Culture.




The Eleventh Son
4.0 Stars
5-30-2019

A fast paced and well translated Wuxia adventure. It follows Xiao, a drifter with a heart of gold and a hand of steel, as he is wrapped up in the machinations of corrupt lords and evil kung fu masters. There's also a romance woven in, between Xiao and the noble lady Shen that he rescues at various points. The action parts were generally clever and quick, the romance parts were generally slow and silly. I particularly liked the Doll House bit near the end where they are shrunk down to minuscule size; it was both very dumb and very smart and much better than I expected at first.




Flavia De Luce 01 - The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie
4.0 Stars
5-30-2019

A mystery novel set in rural, post war Britain: there is an unsettling stranger, a late night argument, a dead body in the morning. It's now up to 12 year old Flavia De Luce to conduct a shadow investigation in order to clear the family name or at least pin the murder on someone else. To do so, she will need to use every skill at her disposal; lying, deceiving, breaking, entering, sneaking, stealing, rifling, lock picking, threats, blackmail, deducting, and some light poisoning. She also has to contend with her older sisters, an inattentive father, bicycle impoundment, and the general melancholy and ruin of Britain after WWII.

In general I'm not a fan of mystery novels, but I thought this one was decently done. Two things make it stand out. One is that the author has an unusually good hand at descriptive turns of phrase and mixing historical, artistic, and literary bits into the work. The other is that the main character, Flavia De Luce, is an unusually good choice. She is what Seanan McGuire's mad scientist character should have been, someone who can look at a stained glass window and name the chemical compound used for each pane of glass, someone with a top 40's list of favorite poisons, someone who knows the modern and ancient names and descriptions of a thousand different chemical compounds. She's a delightfully selfish and self centered and gifted investigator, and a great foundation for the story. Her whole family is in fact good, each of them being monomaniacal in their own way, and sort of jointly but separately inhabiting the ruins of the family estate.




The Reckoners, Books 1-3, by Sanderson
3.0 Stars
4-30-2019

An adventure series that benefits from its great premise and good world building, but is otherwise mostly at a "serviceable" level of story telling. First off, the idea behind the series is a personal favorite: super-powers have entered the world in standard comic book fashion, but the people who exhibit powers all become criminally insane. The main characters exist in the aftermath of that event, and are baseline humans who use careful planning, guile, cunning, and technology to fight against the super-powered villains that dominate the world. I really like the idea; it's a theme that's been knocking around in my head ever since the original X-Com, and it's something that's popped into my head basically every time I see an X-Man movie. I've always thought that the humans and defense contractors dealing with the X-men were in a much more interesting situation than the X-men themselves. It's also a power structure that's produced some of my favorite games, e.g. Sang-Froid (where you are a flimsy, easily tired lumberjack fighting against were-wolves in the Canadian forest) and any number of other mystical monster hunter settings where baseline humans have to fight, research, and exploit the weaknesses of creatures that are inherently more powerful than them. So, if nothing else I love the premise.

The world building is also good, and as with the Mistborn series, Sanderson creates a world that poses interesting questions. In the Mistborn series the problem was that the answers to those questions were dumb, but here the answers are better. Besides the great premise, this quality world building is the other main strength and focus of the novels. These stories (again like the Mistborn's) can be thought of as world-detective stories, where the main concern of the novel is discovering how different facets of the world work. Characters, plot, dialog, etc. are all secondary to this process. So, typical questions in the Reckoners would be things like "what power explains the effect this super is exhibiting?", "what is this super's weakness?", "where does this new power combination or expression come from and how does it inter-relate with the super's psychology?". There are other and more involved questions that come later, but that would be spoiling things. :D The story spends much of its time on these questions and on fitting together various pieces as characters try to deduce how the powers of their world work. And the climax of the story is usually the Reckoners resolving these world mysteries rather than resolving more typical questions of plot or character. The plot does move along, but it always moves in tandem with discoveries about how the world works. I mostly enjoyed these mysteries and thinking about them; I felt like the author gave the reader enough information that they could usually resolve things ahead of time, which I like. Hmmm, what else. The first book is the most straightforward and compelling, the second book partially loses its way as it moves to a new setting and newer characters and less immediate plots, and the third book makes a comeback and has a surprisingly good ending. Along the way they hit any number of super hero tropes, and visit a city of steel, of water, and of salt. Oh, and they even made a mediocre board game out of series! As so often happens, though the books ruin the other media. In the board game the artwork for the characters is all wrong, which basically makes the game unplayable.




The Thief
4.0 Stars
3-30-2019

Another extremely fast reading book. In this case, the adventure is about a group making an overland hike through enemy territory to recover a politically priceless heirloom locked away in an ancient and hidden temple. The setting is somewhat as if the power structure of ancient Greece had managed to last till the 1500's, with city states, occasional guns, and some fantastic elements that have the same general shape as the Greek gods and spirits. Now that I write this, it sounds a great deal like _The Barrow_, but the tone is considerably more upbeat.

There are a couple of elements that make the story more interesting than your average adventure. For one, the protagonist is a master thief, allowed out of jail to help with this one task. He's as lowborn as possible and not entirely there of his own free will, while the other four members of the group are either nobility or nobility adjacent. So there is a class/educational/wealth tension between him and the rest of the group, and also mystery as he tries to figure out the position and motivations of the other members of the group. Another enjoyable element is that as an immensely skilled thief, he can basically steal anything from anyone that comes within reach. The book usually doesn't mention these thievings though, so most items/bits of gear exist in a cloud of possibilities, where if they've ever come close to the protagonist they might or might not be on him at any given time. So in addition to the narrative uncertainties, there's uncertainties about who is actually carrying what. These elements carry the book through it's first ~150 pages, after which we reach the wonderful water temple, where the author did a genuinely good job of designing a dungeon that is A) thematic B) interesting to explore C) could plausibly have been killing off entire groups of adventurers for centuries without needing any significant maintenance. The remainder of the novel isn't bad, but after the strong start it ends as somewhat of a letdown as the reveals become too much, and the strong central stream of the plot starts to divert into different and less compelling channels.




The Murderbot Diaries, 1-4
4.0 Stars
3-25-2019

Short sci-fi adventure books about a security bot that has hacked its governor modules and is now free. While not great literature, they are fast literature, and it's easy to read (and difficult not to read) each of these books in a single sitting. The main character is acerbic, the fights and situations are fast paced, the supporting characters are sympathetic, and the ShadowRun type corps and their plots make decent villains. The stories are consistently well done and fast paced and you like the characters and enjoy the time. I could list a few flaws (sci-fi hacking isn't the greatest mechanic given how much of the story it occupies), but overall these are quality entertainment.




Salvation's Reach, by Dan Abnett (Gaunt's Ghosts, like #27)
4.0 Stars
3-20-2019

Finally, some realistic mil-sci-fi! This book was a great palate cleanser after the terrible, boring, dumb, paint-by-numbers Markos Cloos books. This also the first Abnett book that I've read, and I can see why he's regarded as one of the best WarHammer writers. His story lines plus the great job of the audio-book reader made this my favorite(?) WarHammer book out of the many that I've read. While theoretically military fiction about armies and large scale battles and such, the book is really closer to a heist storyline, not exactly either Reservoir Dogs or Oceans's 7 but with some elements of both. There's a risky mission into enemy territory, a precise plan unveiled step by step, skilled experts using their expertise to overcome difficulty checks, traitors and saboteurs from within, misdirections, surprise difficulties during the mission, and plans within plans within plans. There's also some more standard military elements: a fleet battle that hews delightfully close to something you would see in Battle Fleet Gothic, and surprisingly decent personal storylines about courage, lack thereof, criminality, family, mortality, and marriage. Finally, let me add one more shout out to the reader for this novel. He had a ton of fun with the different voices, and really captured the turn-it-up-to-11 drama and extraness of the WarHammer universe.




Swordheart
2.0 Stars
3-20-2019

Possibly good, but with a very unappealing opening. The main character's weak-tea humor is a very poor thematic match for her suicidal thoughts and actions. It might get better, but the start of the book seemed very clumsy.




The Bear and the Nightingale
4.0 Stars
3-19-2019

An enjoyable fairy tale that starts off grounded before slowly and then rapidly moving into the fantastic. The writing and characters are nicely done, the isolated and wintery setting is fantastic, and I enjoy seeing more takes on Eastern European myths in the line of _The Witcher_ and _Worshippers_.

Also, from the study questions at the back of the book:

1) Throughout the novel, Vasya meets many strange creatures...Which of the demons that Vasya encounters is your favorite?
Definitely the Bannik, the Dany DeVito like bath house spirit that watches her family bathe every night. Only a few people have the Sight and can actually notice him, and I like how the Bannik handles that, looking them in the eyes and telling them to "not make this weird." Also, they are house spirits, not demons, and I think that using that word buys into Konstantine's world view and mistakes.

3)What tropes or stock characters of the traditional Western fairy tale can you spot in _The Bear and the Nightingale_?
Definitely the horses. There were a lot of magical talking horses. And looking at the author bio at the end, you can definitely recognize the crazed eyes of the Horse Girl.

10) Vasya is faced with the choice of marriage, a convent, or a life in which she's considered an outsider by her village and he family. What would you have done in her place?
This was a big disappointment; she actually had a 3.5th choice, the Artesia-Barrow option, that of becoming an undead witch queen, murdering her father and brothers, and helping rule over a new Age of terror, madness, plague, and war. But the book never seriously presented this as an option, which as with _Cold Magic_ is I think a failure to model positive dynamics to young women. Edit:
Actually, upon further reflection the joke above has a seed of truth in it. Perhaps the most important difference between the men and the women in this novel is the men are willing to use violence and the threat of violence. Until women are willing to ride to a defiant village during a Mid-Winter's night and set the place on fire so that its inhabitants die from exposure and hunger, they will never achieve true equality.




Cold Magic
2.0 Stars
3-10-2019

Get you a guy who looks at you like Andevai does, with arrogance and contempt. Wait, no, don't do that. Jesus that is a terrible idea. Why would you ever do that?

The book starts off reasonably enough. The setting is an alt-history Europe, where one of the key break points is that the Carthaginians defeat the Romans at the battle of Zama leading to an enduring Carthaginian presence on the continent. Later on, other disasters befall the Carthaginians, causing them to become nomads, explorers, sea traders, trusted couriers, investigators, spies, and mercenaries. So far so good! The setting is helped by the author's obvious enthusiasm for her world building. There are numerous and often inelegant info-dumps, but as long as you fundamentally like the setting you can survive a little awkwardness in the story telling. Besides the alt-history, the author also pours in several fantasy elements such as a magic/fairy plane that lies congruent to our own, magic users of elemental and shamanic stripes, a zombie/ghoul plague that led to an African diaspora, and sentient and highly intelligent parrot's found living in the Americas. It's a tad too many elements, but again the author is really enthusiastic and so I can roll with this.

Or that at least is what I am thinking for the first 200, 300 pages. There's an adventure about a Carthaginian spy in training, kidnapped from her home/university to marry into one of the powerful and cruel houses of Cold Mages. It's exciting, interesting, and you like the main character and are worried for her. Gradually though, over the course of this story it dawns on me that this isn't so much an adventure as it is a Romance. A terrible, terrible romance. And there's this trope in Romance where at first the two love interests don't get along, there's rivalry, competition, sparks fly, etc. This book though stretches that trope to absurd lengths, and makes the male lead just the worst person in the world. She didn't absolutely have to, but it would have been a perfectly reasonable course of action for the protagonist to kill the male love interest, his family, and the entire organization he worked for. Instead though the book increasingly tries to make the two of them into an item, eventually causing me to lose interest and put the book down at the 80% mark. The author's ideas are bad and she should feel bad for providing models like this for people.




Let's Put the Future Behind Us, by Jack Womack
4.0 Stars
3-1-2019

A darkly, darkly comic adventure/mystery set in Yeltsin's Russia. It's a bit _Death of Stalin_, a bit _Dying Earth, and a bit _The eXile_.

The protagonist is a mid-level Russian business man who for the most part has stayed above the moral curve. Sure, he has a few dozen guards with sub machine guns, but so far he hasn't had to have anyone killed. He's deeply corrupt and has been for decades, but no more so than his society. Then change comes into his life, in the form of Georgian mobsters and the husband of his mistress, and suddenly he needs to swim in waters that he has managed to avoid so far.

While this isn't my favorite Womack, I still appreciated it. This book is more grounded than his sci-fi/alt-history stories, but only just, and it's littered with the vividly described spectacle and excess of post communist Russia, at turns barbaric, brutal, violent, crass, depressing, stupid, maudlin, corrupt, etc. etc. There's a ton of sex, there's some realistic and terrible violence, but more than anything there's this constant drum beat of how the law and order/idealism that we assume in the West just does not exist in Russia. Some of that is the constant need for bribes, and the constant hostility that basically everyone has to doing their jobs. Another large chunk of it is the difference between ideas/paper and reality. So you have railroads that don't exist, faked documents, false advertising, constant fraud, a comic-pathetic Sovietland theme park, and in general just a farrago of lies and bad faith. If anything I think it's a bit over-used, by the end of the book I was like "ok, I get it already, the poorly made plaster figures are a symbol of the shoddiness of the mud-ball nation that they have built contrasted to its grandiose dreams".

Hmm, what else. I mentioned Vance before, and the narrator does have elements of Cugel, always willing to flatter and glad hand and bribe and deceive, while generally trying to avoid getting caught up in personal violence. He also has a layer of remove and abstraction and irony, which mostly works, but also robs the story of a bit of energy and pacing. Other notable events include the Kazakh-feast, the Sovietland that eventually gets built, the narrators surprising and somewhat touching trepidation of America, the baths and the Zhironsky-type figure. Again, not my favorite Womack, but it still stands well above most writers in intelligence and vitality.




Feminism, a Graphic Guide
3.0 Stars
2-28-2019

Page 97. :D

No, seriously, page 97 (Shulamith Firestone) and then the Pankhursts have the best names and the best ideas.




Conservation of Shadows, Yoon Ha Lee
4.0 Stars
2-23-2019

A collection of clever short stories by the author of _Nine Fox Gambit_. I enjoyed the stories, but they are some of the author's earliest work and they're a little less polished, a little more MFA than her later books. The short stories each get their own sci-fi or fantasy setting, though the sci-fi stories tend to have fantastical elements while the fantasy stories tend to have mathematical or linguistic elements. The typical story involves an agent on the losing side of a war or occupation, trying to find a way to deal with enormous threats while preserving or planting a measure of justice. Most of the societies in the book are highly hierarchical/collectivist. When reading _Nine Fox Gambit_ I thought of it as a Korean WarHammer 40K, but after reading these I think it's more accurate to say that they take a sort of historical, highly authoritarian Korean culture and bring it forward into the future, and that just happens to resemble 40K somewhat. Anyway, I enjoyed the stories, though they did not quite match up to _Nine Fox Gambit_. There is one story that is a mini-prequel to _Nine Fox Gambit_, and it was one of my favorites of the bunch and reminded me of just how good that setting is. Other honorable mentions include: Counting the Shapes (sweet), Iseul's Lexicon (nice burglary scene), and Between Two Dragons (fast and punchy).

Afterword:The collection has an Afterword section, which has notes on the various stories. I didn't like it! The author comes off as someone who would not be very fun in person, and confirms some of the less impressive seeds that I suspected for some of the stories. Also, she's wrong about Black Abacus. It's totally about sex!




Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
3.0 Stars
2-18-2019

A Jeeves and Wooster fan-fic that mostly succeeds. This is another one of those literay high-wire acts, where if the conceit failed the novel would go absolutely and horribly awry. But it mostly manages to stay on the wire, and the author creates an entirely reasonable fascimile of Wodehouse's voice and of the structure of a Jeeves and Wooster novel. There's certainly large parts near the middle where you forget you are reading a fan-fic and not the real thing. So, success? Kind of. Despite getting 90% of the way there, it is still a middling Wooster novel, so you probably shouldn't go to Jeeves and the Wedding Bells until you have exhausted all of the originals. Also, I have a bone to pick with some of the plotting choices near the end. Suffice to say that there is a Chekov's Smock, and a public play that does not end in complete and mortifying catastrophe. These problems should have been caught by the editor!




Complicity, Iain Banks
4.0 Stars
2-10-2019

Reading _The Fever_ spurred me to re-read _Complicity_, since _Complicity_ is basically what happens when the narrator of _The Fever_ decides to take direct, serial killer action. And while I do still like _Complicity_, it wasn't quite as good as I remember it and had a number of bad/embarrassing elements in the mix. Some of the bad parts are due to poor aging, e.g. most of the talk about computers and screaming fast 486's. In the same category, there's a lot of stigma around AIDS, and one crucial part of the novel is based around the "Highway of Death", where Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait were massacred by US air power. And reading that it's like "Banks, if you had just waited ~15 years to write your novel the US could have given you way better material than that, and not these baby-atrocities." More importantly, and as with _The Fever_, I disagreed with a good part of his list of who exactly should be up against the wall (isn't that always the problem?). The most egregious one was the incompetent military officer, who was killed because he got too many of his own soldiers killed and not enough of the enemy soldiers killed. That's just not any basis on which to construct a consistent morality. And in general there was just too much killing by the end of the book. It felt like Hannibal, a world where security cameras and bystanders and APBs don't exist, where psychopaths can just waltz around the city center spending hours setting up grisly displays.

Still! Even in the worst Bank's books (and this isn't one), there are ideas that I simply don't find anywhere else. Which unfortunately I can't talk too much about here, since this is a family blog, but along with _Song of Stone_ and a few other items it's helped develop my thinking in significant ways. Also quality in this book is the constant interleaving of its main theme of complicity, across all sorts of domains. There's the reader PoV, the gaming, the sex, the economic relations and violence relations, the art, and probably a number of other levels I am missing. Finally, and most minorly, but Banks does a good job with game design in this book. His envisioned game _Despot_ is basically _Crusader Kings 2_ thirty years before CK2 was ever released. In particular there's a feature he mentions in _Despot_, the PoV switching, which seems likely to come out in the next update for CK2. Anyway, it's an intelligent and insightful but very uneven book.




Half Witch
3.0 Stars
2-6-2019

A decent enough, YA type adventure in the vein of Spirited Away. A young lady goes on an adventure to rescue her father in a mythical-medieval Europe, faces challenges, and makes friends and clever decisions along the way. I was warned beforehand that this might be some sort of Christian allegory, and I think that warning contributed a good third of my enjoyment of the book since it is not at all clear what the allegory is. Is the Pope of Storms a symbol for climate change? Are witches and their creations a metaphor for technology and the inevitable AI rebellion? Unclear! But it is fun trying to fit the pieces together, even if I suspect the author never had that clear of a picture of what they were trying to say. There is some earnest Christianity in here (a page or three, easily skipped over), but it didn't significantly detract from the story. If anything I thought the earnest Christianity was overshadowed by the semi-heretical world building (e.g. communion wafers let you talk directly to the Trinity, who despite being well meaning are mostly out of touch and unhelpful advisors, kind of like jumped up school counselors). Anyway, it's a clever and above average YA adventure, but not a great general interest book.




The Fever
3.0 Stars
2-5-2019

A very short and very provoking book, but not one that I'd fully agree with or one that really applies to me, a person who has donated double triple digits of money to Elizabeth Warren. The basic idea is that the rich are terrible and the poor are good and our capitalist system might have some minor issues we should deal with. This is all fine, though again, a good deal of it doesn't apply to me since I've consciously bailed out of a large chunk of what The Fever complains about. Also, about 2/3s of the way through the book engages in a sort of bingo-cardism, where it quickly lists off all the counter-arguments that people would likely make to its message. But I've had this complaint before in more online discussions, that just because you name a counter-argument and place it on a bingo card, that doesn't actually mean you've dis-proven the counter-argument. And I think in this case the counter-arguments have a lot a weight and are more accurate and more correct, and that the book's emotional message is naive and short sighted and impractical and incorrect. Reading the play, you do fiercely want to converse with the author and enlighten him. Anyway, if nothing else the book succeeds in making you salty and thinky in a remarkably short amount of pages.




1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17