A pure and great book. The author, Sarah Waters, wisely decided to center her story around lesbians, who are the foundation upon which all great art is built. In addition to the lesbians, the book has memorable and well drawn characters, lock picking, severe trickery, excellent writing, and a lot of neat little grounded details of 1850's English life. The movie Handmaiden draws *heavily* from the book, though it changes several of the later narrative beats. I like both versions; the movie has a simpler and cleaner third act, where the motivations take yet one more ninety degree turn. It can get away with this last twist since the movie only shows the surfaces of characters, allowing some motivations to be hidden in ways the book could not. For the book, the third act dragged a bit, it was more complicated and muddled and slower and way meaner than even the first two acts. I did not like it quite as much. Except for the very, very, very end of the book, which was 100% delightful and wraps up some niggling meta-issues. E.g. one the villains of the book is someone who obsessively collects and collates erotica, including lesbian porn (quiet! quiet!), but then how do you square that with the fact that the reader is reading a steamy lesbian book and the writer is writing a steamy lesbian book? Anyway, this was my first Sarah Waters book and I'm looking forward to trying more of her work. One complaint: I kind of want to re-read the book to better understand some of the smaller bits and symbols, since it is a book that reveals itself in stages and so encourages a second reading to catch everything. However, at 600 pages I can't justify the time it would take to re-read. The Handmaiden movie has the advantage there, since it is not as big of a commitment to re-watch.
The Warded Man
Not good! Listening to this reminded me of trying to listen to the Wheel of Time books ~15 years ago. There's this combination of extreme slowness, predictability, boring characterization, 1950's gender views, and just generallly shallow and constrained thought. Rather than delving into this at any great length, let me instead link to something that is actually enjoyable.
Less, by Andrew Sean Greer
Not a bad novel, but not a great one either. The basic idea is that a second-rate gay author is traveling the world to avoid thinking about his ex's wedding. He deals with travel travails while sorting through memories and relationships from his last 50 years. The central problem that the novel has is that the central character is not entirely interesting or sympathetic, and so there's not much joy in reading about his endless navel gazing and self regard. Breaking this down into more concrete terms: the main character, Less, is supposed to have this flaw where his life is undignified, e.g. one time at a party he got Tibet and Nepal mixed up, and that was super embarrassing and worth remembering. And for him maybe that would be one of the most embarrassing moment of his life, but for me that would just be a Tuesday. This flaw of indignity is never really brought to any real depth or weight, it is like in a YA novel where the worst flaw the author can stand to give the protagonist is that she is supposedly clumsy. Which brings us to the flaw #2, the self pity and self regard. Like, there are worse and less dignified fates than to travel the world while being served and waited on by other people. For instance, you could be any one of those people who works to make your existence possible. Or you could be one of their children who will have to deal with the massive carbon foot print from all of your air travel. The narrator doesn't actually have anything seriously or uniquely wrong with his life, so it makes reading about his made up troubles kind of blah. At least he won't be having any kids to add to our environmental problems. Which brings us to flaw #3, the blurry sex. There's a lot of nominal sex in the book, but it's also unclear what exactly is going on. E.g. the book does this sort of 1950's movie dissolve whenever actual sex comes up. The story would have been improved with more heat, with a sex dungeon or two, with some honesty or detail about what it is these characters desire and enjoy. I felt like _Brenda_ had more realism about sexual desire in 3 pages than this book does in 300 pages. Then there are problems with the relationships, e.g. the two main relationships in the book are about 40 year old dudes hooking up with 20 year olds. Not hooking up with someone who is in their 20's, rather hooking up with someone who is literally 20 years old. Which is just creepy and predatory. Which is not to say I wouldn't do it, but I also would not be under any illusions about it. But the book is perfectly fine with this sort of action. Which bring us to issue #4) ... actually I've kind of run out of interest in criticizing the novel, so I will just stop there. Oh wait actually one more: no one is interested in an entertainment-unit about making said entertainment-unit. Don't write a novel about writing a novel, don't write a song about writing a song, don't make a movie about making a movie, don't make a video game about running a video game studio. It's tired already. Write to your reader's fantasies, not your own, that is your job.
On the plus side, the writing is competent and often cheerful. There is light humor which frequently works, there are some brief and enjoyable travelogue descriptions of various parts of the world, and there's some grounded and well thought out sensory descriptions. I also liked the tiny bits about the different authors' work habits, which were not ground breaking but were accurate to life.
Oh, and this novel won a Pulitzer. ?? I have no idea how that worked out, except that the novel seems somewhat tailored to what (I imagine) the Pulitzer committee would like, e.g. the novel name-checks the Pulitzers and Proust, the novel is about writers and writing novels, the novel has a ton of self-regard, the novel has Oprah-type sentiments, the novel is about the upper middle class of the cultural production set. Ok so maybe the author was writing to a very particular sort of reader, it just wasn't someone like me.
The Black Company, Books 1-3 + The Silver Spike, by Glen Cook
The final entry in this year's Christmas of Counter-insurgency event. This was another elder book, one that had I originally read during high school, and then last re-read about (calculates...) 18.25 years ago. When I first read the series in high school I looooved it, and I'm happy to say that in many respects the series (or at least its first ~3 books) holds up really well. Normally at this point I would do a quick summary of the book, but the web actually has some much better lines that I'm going to quote instead:
"Reading his stuff was like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote." - Steven Erikson, in one of his better lines of writing
"Lord of the Rings told from the perspective of a medic in Sauron's army." - not entirely accurate, but not a terrible summary either
My own less pithy take would be that the series is a sort of military or tactical noir, narrated by the surgeon/historian of a mercenary company as they get caught up in the rebellions and grand events of a fantasy continent. So far so basic, except that the series distinguishes itself in several ways: - The author was part of the US military during the Vietnam war (though as part of the Navy rather than a grunt), and his first hand experience is an enormous help in making the characters and actions feel real and lived in. I didn't know that the author was a Vietnam vet the first 2 times I read the books, but a friend mentioned it to me years later, and it made soooooo many things about the books click into place. Ok, continuing on...
- The magic "system" is great. With fantasy books there is always the question of how do you handle magic, how do you capture a sense of strangeness and wildness and wonder while still also having a somewhat consistent world. Cook's answer to this question is to A) have all the PoV characters be non-magic users and B) have magic be to these characters what US airpower was to a Vietnamese peasant. That is to say that magic is completely alien to their lived experience, it is massively violent and destructive and just completely outside the bounds of what they are familiar with. Magic in the world is a force without limits; like technology there is no upper bound on what can be done with clever enough rules-lawyering. Nothing about magic is explicable to the characters, and any sort of real sorcerer is a terrifying creature that is capable of almost anything. Oh, oh, here's another way to put it, it's a bit like having a Star Wars series from the perspective of the non-Jedi, where the force using characters are these super-human murder machines driven by abstruse and ancient ideological conflicts, and the best you can hope for it is not be noticed/force-strangled by them.
- The villains! The villains in this series are great; they are all basically powerful wizards that have been lucky/vicious/paranoid enough to survive for 500+ years. The downside to that survival is that A) using high level magic is semi-Lovecraftian, since vibing with its alienness requires/creates serious psychological harm, so the wizards are all disturbed to one degree or another just as a baseline, and then B) most of them were horribly tortured into serving the previous Big Bad, before C) they were all defeated by an ancient rebellion and buried alive in warded tombs, since they were too powerful to be destroyed by the rebels of the time. So by the time some memorabilia hunters accidentally released these wizards from their centuries long entombment, they are all pretty freaking insane. A characteristic example would be the Howler, a 4 foot high dude completely wrapped in stinking rags who, every 20-30 seconds, just screams at the top of his lungs with mad abandon. He doesn't sleep, but except for the chronic screaming he's one of the more rational spooks. And then of course all of these weirdo wizards are completely driven by their old politics and endless, byzantine feuds and plots, like if high school had gone on for 500 years.
- The hero! The most heroic character in the story is the White Rose, a Joan of Arc type character that is prophesied to re-incarnate every so often to defeat the great evils of her day. I don't want to spoil too much, but she's super sweet and brilliant and vicious and I still get all sentimental about her story. Like you can imagine the Vietnamese girl who was napalmed in that infamous photo, if she had spent her life watching, learning, scheming, and fighting in order to get her revenge on those fucks in the US Air Force.
- The wildness of the world; there are were-jaguars, there are wizards with gestalt-minds, there are illusions and invasive mind-magic, there is a ranger and pet pair where the pet is the one actually controlling the ranger, there are snake demons and flying carpets, sentient menheirs and ents, and these things are all sort of introduced organically and bit by bit into a the backdrop of a grounded, low-tech world. E.g. at the start of the books you learn about this thing called the Plain of Fear, and how it's a really crappy and inhospitable place where a far-away battle or two was fought, and then a book or so later they actually visit the Plain and you learn more about the place and its fever-dream creatures, and then another book or so on you learn more about what actually creates the Plain, and the ecosystem of its creatures, and how it ties into the ancient history and a wider cosmology, etc. etc. So the books are constantly dropping references and names, and some of them get passed by, while others are expanded more and more by events. It creates the illusion of a full and lived in world with a wild history stretching back for millennia, with each great event leaving its detritus and weirdness behind it.
- Minor neat thing 1: there is this really evil thingy-ma-jig, kinda like the One Ring, but no one extant in the world really knows how to destroy it. Solution? Open a gateway to a different dimension, throw it in there, have it be someone else's problem. I love this, it is so perfectly human.
- Minor neat thing 2: There is this demon dog, a millennia's old protean slavering beast of Zhul that can take Terminator 2 levels of punishment. He's also kind of one of the more level headed and rational creatures in the books, he just can't actually talk and so is sort of forced to work with/around the various insano wizards he's on the same side as.
- Minor neat thing 3: The wonderful Myth series of games that Bungie created draw *extremely* heavily on the Black Company's world building/flavor/cosmology, and I loved those games too.
- Minor neat thing 4: At the end of the first book they visit Charm, the center of the evil empire, and this world's equivalent of Mordor. And rather than being a blasted desert, it has these perfectly green and well managed fields, with a giant black basalt cube-fortress in the middle of the lands. It's basically his fantasy version of West Virginia and the Pentagon, except that the Pentagon has one less side and is all in black stone.
- Minor neat thing 5: One of the reasons the ancient wizards are so scary is just because of their enormous breadth of knowledge. E.g. there's a point midway through the first book, where the rebellion's living mages are trying this new spell to break a siege, and the narrator digs through his history books because he remembered that this magic was mentioned in his annals at one point from like 400 years ago. And he takes his information to the insano-crypt-wizard in charge of their army, and the insano-wizard is like "yeah, that class of spell was the meta several centuries ago, but don't worry I spent 20 years playing that sub-game and so just watch as I take these noobs to school." I love this from a game design view-point,;it's completely unrealistic in terms of actual playability and such, but I love the idea that this deep-deep knowledge is almost more useful than raw skill.
Anyway! In case you can't tell, I'm still an *enormous* fanboy of the series, and I could go on and on mentioning things I liked from it. The quality kind of drops off after the first 3.5 books, as the events which drive the first trilogy are largely resolved and new and less interesting impulses to action have to be created. As I remember and half verified, the next ~6 books don't really rise to the level of quality as the first 3, though they do have their moments (e.g. a surprising head in a box, a 50 year old death-cult high priest who is getting tired and arthritic and reconsidering his choices in life, a very nice and sweet final ending).
The Red and the Green, by Iris Murdoch
I decided to read this as my next book in the Christmas of Counter-insurgency event. I had remembered (dimly, from a plane ride, from 15 years ago) that the Red and the Green was primarily about the Irish uprising of 1916, with only modest Murdochian human interest elements added in. I could not have been more wrong. What the book is really about is Millie, a middle-aged and low-moraled trouser-wearing sex sphinx, who decides that what would be really fun is to mess with a lot of dudes and just completely fuck up their dumb male minds. The basic pattern of the book is that you have a male character who is at a critical moment of their life where they are coming to a crisis of their politics/religion/marriage, and then Millie comes along and emotionally pokes and supplexes them into utter confusion when they are at their most vulnerable and distracted.
There are other elements of the story: a surprisingly detailed and readable account of the politics and history of Ireland, a proto-Tallis character in the form of Kathleen, and some standard Murdoch psychological mechanics bits. There's also a fair bit of horse and transportation based humor. She still has the capacity to make me laugh with surprise, and I found myself delighted and/or giggling through large stretches of the novel.
The Traitor Blueberry Croissant, by Seth Dickinson
Primary Exports: Edge, Woke, Sadness
Ooof, this book. I had heard good things about this fantasy novel over the years, and I wish I hadn't. The book has qualities, but it also serious flaws, and I went into the experience with expectations that were way too high. One issue is that the book tries to be A) very dark and B) very woke, but then it fails to back up these attempts with solid writing and world design. In a lighter, looser, happier book I could completely ignore these issues, e.g. in Gideon the Ninth everyone uses swords and no one uses guns, and the author just cheerfully ignores/lampshades this and you're willing to go along with it because sword fights are cooler and more dramatic than gun fights. In this book though the author is trying to say Serious! things about Economics! and Imperialism! and Racism! and LGBTIAQ!, and so I hold him to a higher standard than I would a fun adventure book about swords and sorcery. The standard is raised even higher because the author also wants to make the book really dark, e.g. Peter Watts levels of dark where nothing ever goes right and the bad guys always have perfect luck because I am the author and I have clinical depression so Nyaaaahhhh. And as mentioned, the writing and plotting and world building really aren't good enough to support the weight the author wants to place on them. Some quick examples: there is this Falcresti Empire, it's at an approximately 1800 level of tech, and they have these large over seas colonies, but they don't really have any huge tech advantages over the people they're supposed to be colonizing. E.g. the Falcresti guys have armor and swords, and the people they are oppressing have armor and swords, and it's not really clear how this is supposed to work when the Falcresti are having to ship all their dudes a quarter of the way across the world on sail boats. Historically the British and such could kind of get away with it because they had machine guns while the people they were colonizing had spears, but in this case there doesn't really seem to be the kind of tech differential needed to make a large colonial venture work. This is doubly egregious since the Falcresti looooove messing with their colony's religion and marriage laws, which would just lead to constant and massive rebellions. Then there are smaller issues, like how the Falcresti keep putting 20 year olds in charge of ships and provinces, and how they rely on overly complex plots and battles to go exactly perfectly in every detail, and how no one is actually happy with their job or has any real patriotism or nationalism, and how there isn't any clear command structure, and how shitty masks would be for battlefield command and morale, and how infantry doesn't escape from a double envelopment, and how the army and navy are kept purged and subordinate but are still supposed to be effective fighting forces, and how none of the Falcresti just take a bribe or leave or defect or rebel or just do a shitty or lazy or corrupt job. The entire thing reminded me of this Simone Weil quote, which I can't seem to find any more and so now will butcher, that "fascism doesn't work well because no one has the energy for that shit after 30." Like, after a certain age most people just want to go to bed by 9:00, and not be involved in some continual struggle of the will. And then there are issues with the author's proposed rule by spies, and how quickly that would devolve, and how promoting double agents is the worst idea possible, and blah blah blah. Le Carre I think has a much more realistic take on this same plot-arc in Little Drummer Girl, and on spies and double-agents in general in the rest of his work. That is to say that an agent does not have any natural power base, and a double-agent has even less, since their position puts them completely at the mercy of a small faction of their home government, with little material incentive to redeem the double agent after their work is done. Spoiler, spoiler, there was never any reason for anyone to give Baru any reward for her services, as once she accepted the job she had no leverage over anyone.
Anyway, that's the book. The author isn't unskilled or creative, but he needs a different container or vehicle for his work than the one he is trying to use here. Maybe also to get a puppy.
Post Script 1: Oh and I didn't really like the main character.
Post Script 2: I tried out the first 40 pages of the sequel, and it's basically unreadable. It continues on with the Peter Watts style of trying to inflict his malaise on the rest of the world. It's like an endless RPG where good guys can ever only roll a 1.
A novella about a young person's mysterious disappearance. Has important life lessons about not trusting French people, and how American's lack of vacation days keeps us out of trouble. The story is well written, but like most crime/serial killer fiction the events ultimately feel so dumb/wasteful.
Tom, Thom, by Ferebee
A novella about how wolves solve everything. Nice fairy magic and descriptive imagery.
The Collected Short Stories of MR James
Annnnd another late-Halloween reading. This time it is approximately 30 short stories by MR James, written around 1900-1930. He is mostly known (at least to me) for his story Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad, and that story is a good emblem for his work as a whole. It has a lot of characteristic MR James elements: relatively extensive framing of the story, meta-textual elements and an impatience that subverts the framing (e.g. in many places he will write "just assume that this type of conversation or action occurred and fill in the details yourself), hotels, academics, and brief, excellently described snippets of actual horrific events. For example, in OWAICTYMY, there is the erratic and searching movement of the ghost in his dream, and the moment at night in the hotel when he clearly hears something rising up out of the second bed that he thought was empty. In a later story, he nicely describes the sound of grave dirt falling against the floor as the corpse crawls in through the window. This is good stuff! It is grounded, creative, well described, and memorable. On the whole though I had some difficulty with the short stories, and I could never read more than one or two at a sitting. I think MR James' writing is stuck in an uncomfortable position where it is unwilling to entirely abandon the sensibilities of an older style of writing, while also not entirely taking those sensibilities seriously. In practice that means that each 10-20 page story is contained in this inedible shell of 2-5 pages of mostly uninteresting Victorian framing, where you have to chew through these long winded sentences about relations and village names and history and travel arrangements and introductions and so on before you get to the actual, scary, sweetness of the story. Several stories also have a distinct lack of autonomy; they basically consist of "I saw this weird thing in a dream". I kind of wish MR had been writing a century later; I could envision a neo-MR-James where he keeps the sharpness and creativeness but isn't bound to these older forms. What that would look like I don't entirely know, either super-short ficlits of terror, or longer tracts where he allows himself to develop more, I'm not sure. But he is a skilled writer, and he can be surprisingly breezy and funny when he allows it.
Ok and now the part you have been waiting for, my picks for best stories:
Number 13 - The neighboring hotel room is a ghost room, with an ecstatic ghost/demon inside.
Casting the Runes - a slightly longer and more plot driven story, about a book reviewer who runs afoul of a Lovecraftian sorcerer
Wailing Well - an unruly school boy sneaks into the forbidden ghoul grove, gets hunted and eaten by ghouls. Brutal.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas - Another longer story, this time with minor cryptography, also a toad monster. Also has one of Jame's minor themes, of the English gentleman's uncontrollable desire to invade other people's land and steal their historical artifacts and goods
After Dark in the Playing Fields - the most humorous story, you could see this being written by Alexander Petri or someone similar
A Warning to the Curious - nice descriptions of guardian ghosts
The Mezzotint - long for the story it tells, but the core of it is nicely spooky
Come Closer, Sara Gran
A late-Halloween horror story, this is a modern tale of demonic possession. It failed to spark joy. The writing was well below fan-fic levels of quality and really the book should never have been instantiated as a physical object. One of the major flaws of the story was that it mostly failed to be fictional writing and instead just listed the various events in outline format. The other main flaw was that the narrative was uncreative and unsurprising, and the main character just seemed so flat. I can imagine the consciousness of some of my step family is like this, they just seem to have this poverty of mind and spirit. I'm not sure if this affect was intentional or if the author is a shoddy person and can't envision non-shoddy people.
Collected Halloween short stories
A number of spooky and weird stories for Halloween, with a minor theme of unalterable Fate and free will. They range from the excellent to the serviceable.
Dark Air - A cheerful story of body horror, off the grid hippies, and the dissolution of the nuclear family. Wonderful.
Brenda - Great stuff; a short, physically grounded tale of weirdness, puberty, and the desire for vileness.
The Sandman - One of the neater and more whimsical stories. Structurally interesting, a number of internal callbacks, a complete doofus of a main character, and various fears of clock work, glass, Fate, and shifty Italians.
The Earth and Everything Under - a prologue to the author's new series of Urban Fantasy books. Has hedge witches, law enforcement, and a Sabriel-like underworld. Content warning: occasional beautiful imagery.
Afterward, by Edith Warton - a traditional but well written ghost story. The one part that didn't entirely make sense (aside from the ghosts) was how their friend Alida initially predicted everything? But perhaps that is just dark fate at work again.
The Shadow, by Nesquik - A simple enough and well written ghost story, that is speckled with footnotes through out. And the footnotes are kind of insane? I'm not sure if the footnotes are the result of an overzealous editor pushing their own theories about the story, or whether they are a sort of "meta" part of the art. It seems like the former, but in any case they do enliven the story somewhat.
The Horla - Shamelessly steals from the backstory of Star Control's Ur-Quan Masters; posits the arrival of a star-race of psychic mesmerizers that dominate and enslave their thralls. I feel like the main characters could have learned from the example of the noble Ur-Quan, and kept trying to find ways to fight back. Would an Excruciator work? What about just wearing a blindfold, or a series of mirrors, to help prevent mesmerization and to actually see the Horla? Could the beast be buried, as in _Brenda_? Arguably he was crowd-controlled at the end and so didn't have the normal faculties to work with, but still it's worth thinking about.
The Treasure of Pikatuth A simple Mars adventure story about an abandoned machinery that grants immortal life but takes away the ability to sleep. Pretty spooky! Also has a mind control device, which is arguably much more interesting and terrifying when examined closely.
What's Expected of Us (Ted Chiang) / Fate (Zenaida Hippius) - A pair of stories about free will, fate, and predestination. The Chiang story was definitely the lesser of the two; it relies on what I think is an incorrect understanding of Free Will. Extended monologue incoming: in Freshman year of college, I had to take an elective course on philosophy/religion, and the subject of Free Will was duly covered, and to me the idea seemed flawed, e.g. you have some brain machinery which evaluates and makes decisions and which is seemingly deterministic (or perhaps there is some quantum chance involved, but nothing you would consider meaningful). So if you have machinery which pumps out decisions, what exactly could be meant by Free Will (in the capitalized sense)? E.g. the machinery gives you a deterministic decision/action, would you then ignore that result and pick something else? If so, by what means if not by more machinery? The only other possible alternative is just random chance out of a set of possibilities, which A) isn't deeply meaningful either and B) could also be understood as just another part of decision-making machinery. As best as I can tell, somewhere in the deeps of history some Christians needed to get out of a logical corner they had painted themselves into (I believe it was to the _Problem of Evil_), and they came up with the ill-founded concept of Free Will in order to hide one fallacy with another. And that conception of Free Will rolled down through the ages, till it reached my Freshman class. At the time of the class I did a minor, minor study of other books on the subject to see if I could find other people who had similar thoughts to mine, but all I came up with was more bafflegab. At least until a few years later when I read Iain Banks' _The Player of Games_, and one of his characters tosses off this line:
"And what is free will anyway? Chance. The random factor. If one is not ultimately predictable, then of course that's all it can be. I get so frustrated with people who can't see this! Even a human should be able to understand it's obvious."
That was one of the moments I fell in love with Banks, that just as a minor aside he has written something more insightful on Free Will than most scholars on the subject ever come up with (assuming Banks' actually believed the line he put in his character's mouth, assuming both he and I aren't missing something entirely). *Anyway*. This is all just to say that Chiang's story is based upon the difficulty and disruption of giving up this received idea of Free Will, when really it's not a big deal since the concept was nonsense to begin with. All the cool kids abandoned the idea years and years ago, and the un-cool kids don't care about such ideological/philosophical issues and will happily ignore a dozen contradictions in their beliefs before breakfast each day.
The second story in the pair, _Fate_, was much better despite being written 100 years earlier. This story involves a lady who was mystically gifted/cursed with knowledge of all the future moments of her life, so that she remembers the future events of her life in the same way she remembers the past events of her life. Essentially, she has already received spoilers for *everything*. It's actually a bit better than that; if she would have lived a life N, and then would have lived a life N+1 given the perfect foreknowledge of life N, she is *actually* given the knowledge of life N+1 and she never got to experience/have foreknowledge of life N. If you want to get technical, you could say that well, life N+1 would in turn spawn a life N+2, and so on, with the sequence never settling down. E.g. if your foreknowledge/Fate told you that you were going to get a muffin at the bakery today, why not just fuck with it and get an apple-fritter instead? And if that in turn led to a life N+3 where you have foreknowledge of getting an apple-fritter, why not get a muffin instead in life N+4? Perhaps the Countess in the story did not have the same intrinsic desire to poke Fate that I do. In any case, this was a more engaging and well thought out take on the same idea of the lack of Free Will, and one that actually makes it into a curse since the foreknowledge would ruin all of the delight of surprise in life.
The Changeling, LaValle
A modern fairy tale that warns of the dangers of the sunk cost fallacy. When the protagonist's baby is stolen by goblins, the smart play would be to just take the L and move on, maybe pop out another one in a bit. Instead the protagonist begins a quest to get back his kid, launching him into a dangerous world of witches, magic, trolls, and Norwegians. Hmmm, I might be making this sound more exciting than it actually is. The book is very baby focused, and very into parenting and fatherhood and such. So if you think it is compelling to read about childbirth, raising a 6 month year old, the relation of child raising to social media, or the napping of a kid, you might like this. If on the other hand you have broken free of the chains of traditional values, attachment, and meaning, you might find the book an extended exercise in silliness. It's also slightly heavy-handed with its wokeness. And at the same time it leans into the wokeness, the book promotes another prejudice, the prejudice against people who don't have sufficient/correct furniture and interior design. This is a bias I have struggled against my entire adult life, that some large part of the American population immediately goes from "does not have correct furniture/tchotchkes" ---> "must be a serial killer". Which is just hurtful and usually untrue. Other quibbles: There is no way that an urban park is that empty. No way at all. I'm a connoisseur of urban and near urban parks, and you will either have A) tons of cops or B) tons of homeless people. Out of all the magic and monsters in the book, this was the part that really broke my suspension of disbelief. Also, while I'm quibbling with the story, I'm really not sure why it was the guy who needed to apologize to his wife for not believing that their child was a changeling and needed to be killed. Like, that's a pretty big ask. Also, I feel like maybe she should have apologized for chaining him up, beating his head in with a hammer, and leaving him to die in a fire. That seems like it should have been mentioned at some point.
One the plus side, the writing itself was fine, and occasionally quite good. I liked the bit about the Tab, and I liked several bits and pieces of the world and characters that rang true to life. Also, this book caused me to look up the author's other work, and several of them look quite good, in that the premise of them is immediately interesting. So maybe this so-so book is a spur to finding other works by LaValle that I would like?
Anddddd, back to down sides again. We now enter the part of the review which is informed by GoodReads, where an astute reader commented that it seemed like the author had 3 novellas and tried to jam them together into a single novel. Which seems correct; you have the family history and baby raising novella, then the disaster and baby loss novella, and finally the tour through magical New York novella. And the different elements did not really blend well. Sometimes a novel can do great work with an abrupt tonal shift, and make it feel like the metaphorical floor just fell out from under the reader (e.g. Fritz Leiber's _Lady of Darkness_, Iris Murdoch's _The Time of the Angels_). In this case though the book just seemed muddled. In addition to the different novellas, it mixes themes of classic Greek Myth, Nordic Myth, modern parenting, the relation of technology to parenting, the downsides and invasiveness of social media/technology, as well as changing gender relations for good measure. It's just a bit too much and it never seemed to cohere into an artistic whole.
Damned monkey paw. A few years ago I made a comment about the mainstreaming of fantasy and super-hero elements, and how this was a good trend since they were moderately enlivening what would otherwise be very boring, staid, and uninteresting novels. Well, this trend came back to bite me. I was browsing at the book store and saw Vicious as one of the staff picks, and on the strength of their recommendation and the subject matter and the cover art I threw the book into the cart. Mistake! Tricked! This book is what happens when you take the crime novels my parents listen to and try to jazz it up with super-hero elements. Some of its sins include: the super-hero bits were uninspired, added nothing to the genre, and seemed unaware of any of the neat things the genre has done over the last 20+ years. A girlfriend gets refrigerated. The world building made no sense (1); super-powers are reliably triggered by near death experiences, and it seems like if that was the case you would have tens of thousands of junkies coming back from Narcan treatment with unusual gifts. The world building made no sense (2); somehow everything super hero related happens in this one college town, when really the whole world should be going topsy-turvy from the profusion of super-heroes. Worst of all though was that the story telling was weirdly inert, like trying to eat food with the wrong chirality. The best way I can describe it is again to reference these crime novels for old people, which combine lots of murder with shallow character portraits and dull plotting. It's sort of dumb and bloody and reductive. The TV versions of these things are shows like SVU: Miami, which just churn out episodes week after week where someone is horribly raped and murdered, and law people do pretend gritty law things, and blah. Or to put it a third way, there's a quote about how a book should be a ball of light in your hands, while this was just wet mulch and leaves and dead slugs.
The one nice thing I will say about the novel is that I liked parts of the ending, even if they didn't make a ton of sense on consideration. If the author had pared the 350 page novel down to a 40 page story and kept the good ending parts I would probably have recommended it.
A mostly acceptable but very dry and uninspired history of socialism over the last few hundred years. The most interesting bits:
- A lot of the history of socialism is of people asking for more rights and a fairer deal, and then being massacred. :(
- I knew about the Romans and their Fabian strategy, and I knew about modern Fabian societies, but I hadn't really made the connection between them. Anyway, the idea behind the more modern Fabian societies is to take the military Fabian strategy and apply it to the realm of society and politics, that is to say to avoid outright conflict and instead convert the area of thought and culture and law that is not the immediate area of conflict. Neat.
- Why are the Communists the Reds? The color was picked early on to A) indicate that everyone's got blood. Good point and B) commemorate the people who died in one of the various revolts of Paris.
Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
A neat beer and pretzels and necromancers and lesbians and spaceships story that is great fun but doesn't quite rise to the level of greatness. The story is FanFiction++; it can be tropey and fan-servicey but does so with a quality that puts it above what you might find on some random fan fiction site. So, some more details. The protagonist (Gideon) is a Korra type character; jockish, kind of a doof, enjoys fighting. She's the unhappy ward of the Ninth House, one of the nine houses of Necromancers in the Empire. Her companion/antagonist is Harrowhark, the scion of the decaying Ninth House, an ultra-goth and ultra-skilled necromancer, sort of a female Raistlin character. Together they've been summoned by the !Necrolord Supreme! to a special conclave, where the scions of all nine Houses and their cavaliers will be meeting. The meeting turns into an ambiguous escape room/murder mystery, where the different groups need to figure out why they have really been brought to this island complex, what lessons or secrets they are supposed to learn, whether they should be competing or cooperating on these mysteries, and how the place they have been brought to plays into the history and metaphysics of their empire. It's a great dynamic; each of the House's has its own outlook and specialized skills, and you end up with a cast of ~20 characters who are all distinct and memorable and interacting and problem solving in different ways.
So, overall the book was great fun. It did have a few issues though, which keeps me from putting this at the level of something like _Nine Fox Gambit_. One is that due to the number of characters, the primary characters didn't receive quite the level of development that I would have liked. E.g. I would have loved to see more of the interactions between Gideon and the Thirds, or Gideon and the Seventh. Instead these things are given a paragraph or three, but you don't get the fully developed and elongated and realized relationships like you would in something like _Persuasion_, where the majority of the book is focused on just one pairing. Similarly, Harrowhark's character gets short shrift. At the start of the book Harrowhark is a force of nature, and it is only near the end of the book where she starts talking more and we start peeking into her PoV. However, once you start learning more about her, she doesn't seem to have the sort of personality which would produce the actions from the first half of the book. I feel like Harrowhark should have been something like the protagonist of _The Wasp Factory_, but her actual personality once you get to know her isn't nearly fucked up enough. Finally and most nigglingly, it wasn't entirely clear how some of the magic/necromancy aspects of the story functioned. E.g. 90% of the way through the story, someone gets a Hold Person spell cast on them, but it was not clear like on what basis the spell is working. And I feel like I should have understood that, as well as some of the larger metaphysical aspects of the story, better. I'm not sure if that's a failure to comprehend on my part or a failure to explain/design things on the author's part.
Northanger Abbey, Austen
Northfear leads to Northanger. Northanger leads to Bath.
A rather silly Austen novel where the author allows herself to be more whimsical than usual. She lightly satirizes romances and moderately satirizes gothic novels, and at the end of the novel she encourages the reader to fill in for themselves the standard endings for these types of stories. The protagonist is a good hearted and good breasted seventeen year old imbecile, her antagonists are a solipsisticly self-centered sister-brother pair, and her true love is a charming 26 year old book reader. The true love really was too charming though, his flirting induced feelings of panic in me like "oh shit am I supposed to be being that clever?". Overall the story is light and lightly likeable. I enjoyed that Austen moved at least a little farther away from 1800's aristocratic social mores, and into more meta territory where her wit and intelligence could shine more clearly through. The downside of course of these more abstracted stories is that you don't care quite as deeply for the characters, since there more remove between you and them. Anyway, _Northanger Abbey_ is tied with _Persuasion_ as my favorite (of the three) Austen novels that I've read. This one was lighter and cleverer, but had lesser emotional high points. And as always after reading Austen, I promise that this one is going to be my last one. Really, I can quit any time. I've quit already. One day at a time, Rothda.
Edit 1: Oh, and one more neat thing, they use the word "pinery" in the book. Which I had to think about; the word was used in the context of greenhouses, which meant it probably wasn't a place where they grew actual pines, or pine nuts, or such. I was thinking "is this a place where they grow pineapples?" and that was indeed the answer. Anyway, neat word.
The New Space Opera 2
A collection of decent, but not great sci-fi short stories that did not have too many surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise on opening it up was the thought that "wait, haven't I read these before?" And after going through a couple of the stories and examining my memories, I'm pretty sure that at one point in the past I read several of the initial stories before getting distracted/bored and moving on to something else. That's ok though; the mediocre stories I had forgotten and got to experience again, while the better stories I remembered but also liked enough that I wanted to read them again.
So, a quick run down of the contents, from best to worst:
To Raise a Mutiny: best story; has lesbians and lasers if not dragons. Also prompted the realization that wait; AI ships are basically the sci-fi equivalent of dragons, so it kind of has dragons too. Also neat connections between FTL travel and emotional bonds, as well as an invention packed universe and a pleasantly gothic/ambiguous ending.
Lost Princess Game: fast, interesting, and fundamentally accurate about oligarchs.
Catastrophe Baker and a Canticle for Leibowitz: a wonderfully dumb 10 page shaggy dog story.
From the Heart: A nice plot shift mid-way through the story
The Tenth Muse, Defect, Punctuality, Crackle Grackle, Helvetican Renaissance, Join the Navy, Space Pirates: OK!
Shell Game: It's Neal Asher! Highly violent short stories that are kind of smart but not really that smart. In particular there's this Chekhov's gun of "tiny worm parasites that can infect and modify people" that never actually goes off (as far as I can tell, I was expecting it go off but can't find but the merest smidgen of textual support for that). It's like introducing _The Thing_ but never having it take someone's face.
The Island: It's Peter Watts! Intelligent writing but super focused on his own ideology to the detriment of narrative/enjoyability.
To Go Boldly: It's Cory Doctorow! It has this Sid Byrd affect where it communicates semi, kind of, intelligent ideas in a weirdly aggressive and toxic and self important manner. I blame Doctorow for setting out a poor model for impressionable youths.
Tale of the Wicked: It's Scalzi (TM)! He always seems to be drawing with crayons compared to other authors. His story was at least short.
Chameleons: It's Elizabeth Moon-Moon! It prompted another interesting connection, between this story and MetaFilter's analysis of Tom Clancy as the ultimate Boomer-Dad author. To wit:
The books are obsessed with the logistics of getting from place to place. If an airport can be name-dropped, it will be, as well as the airlines involved and the models of planes being flown. Trips by car will always have their route discussed, with attention paid to traffic, efficiency, and how the driver knows a special shortcut. Spend five minutes talking to a Boomer dad, especially a Midwestern one, and this will all become immediately familiar.
And a lot of these characteristic Clancyisms are in Moon-Moons stories, just this constant focus on the most boring and mundane details of transportation in this future universe. Anyway, the story was simple and unenlightening, kind of a space Hardy Boys.
Tabloid Dreams, Owen Butler
Well written and creative short stories that take lurid tabloid headlines and ground them in interesting characters with nuance and detail and various thoughtful elaborations on the writing prompt. That's the good part! The bad part is that much of the story matter is somewhat bland to me; it's hyper-focused on sex, and in particular it has this sort of Updikian mind space of "middle-aged, middle-American sex lives are super super fascinating and worth obsessing over". So, some examples. The starting story is about the ghost of a man who died during the Titanic sinking, and there are neat bits in there about the seat of consciousness being water, and his ghost moving through oceans and clouds and rivers and tea, and his last moments as the ship went down, and the various stages of the sinking. But the intended kicker of the story is that he meets this lady during the sinking, and that he regrets not boning her, and that in a sort of a "The Remains of the Day" fashion wasn't he always a ghost for not boning more people? And it's like eh, not really. Something you realize by the time you hit the triple digits of partners, and hopefully well before that, is that sex really does not need to be that big of a deal, and is certainly not worth the time and attention it takes away from your Starcraft practice. This first short story forms a pair with the final short story in the book, which is an account by the lady Titanic traveler after she is found in the Bermuda Triangle a century later. And again, there are neat bits in the story as she reacts to the new time period, but so much of the story is about similar sexual regrets (I wish I had boned more people before getting on the Titanic) or the paired regret (I wish I had boned that guy before he drowned to death). And ok, those aren't middle American, but they give you an idea of what I am talking about. Back to the good parts now! Some stand outs were _Alien Space Lover_ (nice detail and I liked both of the main characters), _Doomsday Meteor_ (dumb and spacey but very sweet lovers), and _Nymphomaniac_ (clever take on the condition, one of the sharpest endings). For the stories that didn't work as well, it was mostly because of the above mentioned factors, and because the Owen-Butler-Short-Story-Pattern becomes more predictable with repetition, and you start to expect the sorts of endings he shoves in there. Still, even if I didn't always connect with the subject matter, I did have a lot of respect for the writing and intelligence and creativity he puts out there. He's a genuinely talented writer, just not one that always has the same interests as me.
The Stormlight Archives, Book 1, Sanderson
The quality is terrible, but at least the portions are enormous. This book killed any further interest I had in Sanderson; it's a ton of extruded dreck that re-uses many of his ideas and themes from the MistBorn series. I got about 80% of the way through this audio-book before putting it aside due to terminal slowness and shallowness.
A Specter is Haunting Texas, Fritz Leiber
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 of the 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 there is thought and creativity that went into it and this aspect provides several neat conceits and scenarios for the story. And in general this tale is more creative, crunchy, comical, 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 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 write that, but it 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.