Good Morning, Midnight Rothdas book review RSS
1.0 Stars
5-1-2016

The story of an English woman living in Paris after WWI. She has an investment income that supports her and she supplements that by borrowing from rich friends, so she doesn't really need to work. She spends her time eating at restaurants, dancing, drinking shots, and purchasing hookers. She's also really, really upset about how unfair the world has been to her. And then she takes out that upset on the people around her. Overall the story is a bit like _The Idiot_, but without the intelligence. Or maybe like Bukowski without the energy or the grounding in working life. Or maybe like some of the passages from Iris Murdoch, about a character completely overcome with grief, and their blind and animal sobbing and how unbridgeable the gulf is between them and the other characters.

On a personal level, as someone with a living income who frequently wakes up around midnight, the narrator was hugely irksome. If you have the money to support yourself it sort of puts a lower bound on how bad most situations can ever really be, and it makes this kind of self-absorbed whinging really annoying. Not to say that I don't do it myself! But I at least have some self reflection, and there's usually the moment of "well, I suppose on a larger scale things are still pretty ok." Sort of a reversed and positive version of this meme, a moment where your context expands. The narrator here though, she never really has that moment.




Dark Entries, Robert Aickman
3.00 Stars
4-30-2016

A set of 6 extremely oblique stories about the weird and the strange. The stories are all written nicely enough, but I thought they suffered from an excess of detachment. In general, the protagonist of the story either A) doesn't have enough info to make sense of any of the strange events, or B) has absolutely no control/agency in what occurs. Because of this, I didn't connect with the stories and fall in love with them like everyone on GoodReads apparently has. So, in a bit more detail.

The School Friend: Contains some of my favorite characters in the book, and it has something vaguely Lovecraftian going on with corrupt family lineages/potential soul swapping or cloning or something, but there is simply not enough information in the story to really make heads or tails of it. To put it another way, if I had not read Lovecraft I wouldn't have the first clue of what is going on in the story, and the strange happenings would just be completely random happenings.

Ringing the Changes: A neat short story, but it suffers somewhat in that what is hinted at and implied in the end of the story is written out in full and explicit detail in The Barrow. The briefly shown ankle from 1960's is no longer so shocking 50 years later and after the advent of the internet, the glorious internet.

Choice of Weapons: This is like _The Passage_ in 40 pages. A young man has his mind taken over by a hypnotist, and then proceeds to follow the geas laid upon him. I felt like the narrator never really made or had any choices, which made it difficult to connect to the story. I liked the random sewings reveal though! That is if anything a good symbol of Aickman's stories.

The Waiting Room: A more traditional ghost story. Again, there is a certain detachment. The narrator does see ghosts, but he seems to comes out of the experience with nothing worse than some mild PTSD. And again, there was not much choice by the narrator, he just happened to take a nap in the wrong room.

The View: Perhaps my favorite, in that you can actually make out what is going on, and that it makes you think for a tiny bit. A sorrowful man inadvertently trades most of his life span for 3 months of pure happiness. Perhaps not a bad deal for him?

Bind Your Hair: A lady goes out to the country, and sees a strange cult ritual and some nicely creepy children. The narrator here at least has some agency, and a certain amount of the recklessness that you would more typically see in a Lovecraft protagonist.




EchoPraxia
3.00 Stars
4-20-2016

Another Watts book. This one is about half-way between the near-genius of Blindsight and the sludge of his Rifters/Maelstrom series. On the plus side, many of the "space" parts of the story were well done. The approach to Icarus station and the Sun were great, as was the actual encounter at Icarus Station. Heck, even the return and re-entry to Earth was interesting. For a biology guy, Watts actually does a really good job laying out future spacecraft and their orbital maneuvers. I also enjoyed the meta-elements of the story, as the characts from Blindsight communicate back to the characters in this book. It was neat and put a different spin on the original story. And in general, Watts is a fast paced, hi-plot, hi-action writer which helps make his books very readable.

On the downside, you have the standard Watts' flaws. His books are very GrimDark, always so GrimDark. You can just assume that God (the author) has it out for humanity, and will weight the dice so that they are eliminated as quickly as possible. Also, everything is biological for some reason. Well, ok, the reason is that the author is a biologist. But it still doesn't make the sci-fi better. One glaring instance of this "everything must be done through biology" theme is the crowd control virus. In order to stifle dissent and protesters, viral weapons are used to turn people into zombies. It's like, uh, wtf? Is that really the best way to handle a sit in? Why not just attach some tasers to some drones? Companies/police departments are doing that already, its dead simple and cheap and doesn't have any possibility of causing a pandemic. I mean, both methods are pretty horrible, but one horrible method of crowd control actually makes sense. In keeping with the bio-theme, there are also the vampires from Blindsight, who are even more annoying this time around. They've since become Wuxi-monks, able to move faster than cameras, and able to manipulate people by tapping their chi points and so on. Hmm, what else. There is religion in this book, which is handled better than it could have been, but is still kind of annoying each time it comes up. There's also the trend of stupid-smart people. This is a perennial problem, of how do you represent a super-intelligent character when you are only an intelligent author? I thought that Watts really fell down with his genius-group-mind in this regard. Despite their in-book genius, they have 3 failings in a row which I think that any reasonably competent video game player would avoid. 1) If you're running across a large open area, and someone might be gunning for you, don't run in a straight line (any Arena Shooter) 2) If something seems off to you, it is probably because it is (Legend of Grimrock) 3) If a scorpion asks you to carry it on its back, don't. Really, just don't, it will turn out exactly how you think it would. For the story's vampire genius, Watts handles the issue of intelligence a bit better. He just gives the vampires endless Xanatos-gambits.

Anyway. EchoPraxia is not a great book, but it is at least an interesting book. And I'm interested to see where Watts goes next. Well, not next-next, as I'm sure his next book in this series will just be the same world ending sludge as we got with Rifters. But I would like to see the next series that he creates.




The Woman in Black
3.5 Stars
4-15-2016

A well written, slow burning ghost story. I liked the way the author captured the smell of the wind and the night, I liked the ghost-house on the marsh flats where sea, land, sky, and fog joined into one. I liked how the story rewards the slow build by becoming progressively more frightening, tragic, malevolent, and brutal.




The Barrow
5.0 Stars
4-3-2016

This was a re-read; apparently The Barrow is what I turn to when various plotless books have reduced my reading velocity to zero. The Barrow was better the second time around; I was prepared for the wat, and I could think more about the book as a whole and what it is saying. And I like what it is saying! I wouldn't necessarily say that this is a feminist book, but it is a book where the main concern is how we think about sex. Like, there is a perfectly valid reading that this book is about a struggle between three different ways of viewing sex and gender. And I wouldn't necessarily say that I completely understand what Mark Smylie's view point is (even after reading ~1000 pages of his work over the last 10 years), but it is a viewpoint that I want to learn more about and get more data points on. The book is still in some sense a failure, since 80-90% of reviews mis-understand the book, but I at least enjoy The Barrow even if most people could not comprehend its genius. :)

Quite apart from the themes, The Barrow is simply an excellent adventure story. If you don't enjoy the first 50 pages you are either dead inside or not a giant nerd, and that sort of high quality & fast paced action continues through much of the story. I would quibble with how some of the action turns out at the very end (Sir Arduin was robbed; he would never fall for that/That Annwyn reversal really came out of no where; there wasn't any textual evidence for it before the very end), but overall the plotting and scene setting were great.

#ThisIsAGreatDay #ThisIsABlessedDay #TheGreatestDayOfAllIsComing




The Rings of Saturn
3.0 Stars
3-30-2016

A slow paced and dreamlike story. It follows the elderly narrator on a walking tour of the modern English coast and its run-down towns and abandoned sites. He weaves together laconic dreams, dying towns, European imperial history and atrocities, decaying museums, and various neurotics, cripples, ineffectual artists, and royals who are slowly wasting their inheritances. It's a bit like the _Connections_ series, if all the connections were dusty and ancient spider webs lit by a cloudy and fading English sun. Some of the passages actually are beautiful, but the book as a whole suffers by completely abjuring the power of plot.




The New Weird: An Anthology Edited by the Vandermeers
3.0 Stars
3-15-2016

A decent collection of short stories. There is a fair amount of body horror, some dream like sequences, and a little sci-fi. Some of the stories were repeats for me; there is one repeat from the odious MJ Harrison, and one repeat from the radiant KJ Parker. The rest were mixed but usually at least of decent quality.

A few of the better/ more notable entries were:
• The braining of Mother Lamprey - clever, creative; a short story about a world where entropy has reversed itself
• Jack - one of the few Mieville stories I've read so far; it was pleasantly brief and snappy
• The Lizard of Ooze - I enjoyed the reversals of normal bodily functions, light and dark, above and below
• Letters from Tainaron - short and strange but sweet, about a man visiting a city of insects
• The Ride of the GabbleRatchet - Again, creative and fun, a jaunt through many places being chased by an extra-dimensional Wild Hunt

There are also a few essays/message board threads at the end of the collection, which I skipped through and mostly ignored. Most of these didn't seem worthy of publishing, except the KJ Parker one which was at least pleasant reading.




Artemis, by Philip Palmer
3.6 Stars
3-1-2016

Another enjoyable and fast paced action/pulp-sci-fi Palmer book. In this book the author returns, at least a little, to the timeline/universe of Version 43. This was a surprise to me, since I always thought of Palmer's world building as a purely generative process, where each new chapter just creates technology/worlds/cultures/races/history whole-cloth. This time he actually refers back to things that have gone before, which was a pleasant shock. This story of crime and battle and murder and pirates is set slightly before Version 43, in the time period right after the fall of the Corporation. While continually readable & fun, I rated this one slightly lower than the other two, since _Artemis_ did not have the wonderful alien weirdness of HellShip, and did not have the continual revisionist narrative of Version 43. Instead the narrative is closer to that of a normal novel, with a more straight forward progress to the story. There are reveals, but each one doesn't just completely change what had gone before.




Hell Ship, by Philip Palmer
4.0 Stars
2-16-2016

A wonderfully absurd space adventure story. If the book wasn't recommended to me, there would be no way in a thousand years that I would have opened this book up. The cover art is in 70's sci-fi pulp style, and the tagline is "Aliens, Invaders and Pirates in Space!". Which is technically true, but it completely mis-represents the book. There are aliens, invaders, and pirates in space, but those are just the building blocks. It is like taking the Bible, and giving it the tagline "It is written using 26 characters!" (or however many were in the original). _Hell Ship_ is enormously inventive and fruitful, with a continual stream of new species, locations, battles, cultures, made up technologies, humor, brutal violence, tragedy, pain, and of course, the warrior Sharrock's ultimate battle! As with _Version 43_, the other Palmer book that I've read, the story goes through numerous massive shifts in perspective, though in this case the narrators are somewhat more reliable, and the story in general is more grounded. To be clear though, _HellShip_ is more grounded only when compared to _Version 43_. _HellShip_ is still an absurd and endlessly xenophilic story.




Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett
3.00 Stars
2-10-2016

A detective story written in 1920, about a two-fisted private detective who solves mysteries and kills every single criminal in a small town. I liked the book, though I wouldn't necessarily want to read many more like it. The writing is pleasingly sparse and to the point, and I enjoyed the constant stream of 1920's slang. There is a lot of plot in this 200 page book, and a constant stream of mid-level deception. Almost too much? Basically everyone in the town is lying to everyone else at all times, if you go with that assumption you will have an easier time of keeping up with the plots. On the downside, the general vibe of the book (constant lies, violence, and murder, navigated and instigated by a omni-competent hard man) isn't really a favorite of mine as a fantasy. I think this book might be what people are talking about when they say "toxic masculinity". :)

Perhaps just as interesting as the book itself is that it has been pre-figured for me for years. The first part of Philip Palmer's _Version 43_ is an extended homage/subversion of this book, and there is a memorable Iris Murdoch character, who is her take on the author of this book. The Murdoch character is one of my favorites and one that I think back to reasonably frequently, so it was neat seeing the source material.




That Book your Mad Ancestor Wrote
4.5 Stars
2-6-2016

A collection of wonderful short stories that arrive from the past, the present, fairy tales, alternate time-lines, and who knows elsewhere. The stories share some of the same themes as KJ's excellent book _Etched City_, but also venture into new waters. In general the stories are quick, incisive, highly imaginative & crunchy, and just generally well written. There are some delightful 2 pages stories in there, and about a dozen seeds for novels that I would love to read. A few of the stories were a bit too abstract/surreal/negative for me (e.g. Maldoror, Last Drink Bird Head, some of the ending poems), but that problem can be solved by just flipping ahead a few pages. :)




Handling the Undead
3.0 Stars
1-29-2016

A neatly written and quickly paced book about several thousand recently dead Norwegians coming back to life. The process seems to have happened through some sort of mystical mis-filing. The newly risen are alive but mostly inert, and they act as a mirror with which to reflect society.

On the plus side, the author rarely goes where the standard zombie cliches might lead. The book is mostly non-violent and I felt like standard zombie tropes were actively avoided. At one point the story seems to be entering a more standard zombie story, only for the narration to completely veer away from that thread. It is kind of the anti-World-War-Z. Similarly, the author thinks about the details and less common aspects of a zombie story. How do you dig an unliving out of a grave, how do you clean and care for them? Can they be re-habilitated, re-taught? What would the event be like for people in all the different configurations of loss, mothers who have lost children, wives who have lost husbands, husbands who have lost wives. How does that intersect with religion, with government, and with the press? The author has a consistent knack for thinking about details and overlooked things that the zombie genre usually skips over.

On the downside, the cosmology of the story is all kinds of dumb. :)




The Narrator
1 - 5 Stars
1-25-2016

If Viriconium was depressing, The Narrator was angrifying. Like Viriconium, the book starts off brilliantly. Everything about it is wonderfully off and new and different, like it was sent from a foreign country or a different time-line. The cover art is baroque and alien and for once it perfectly fits the story. Even the typeface and page setting are different from 99.9% of other books, but still are completely readable and pleasant. The story starts in media res. Very in media. The world seems to be at an ~1890's tech level, but the countries and ethnic groups and wars and history are all strange, and the human societies seem to be ruled over by something approximating mind-flayers, as well as the mind-flayer's own little eco-system of extra-worldly organisms, mechanisms, and spirits. The protagonist and PoV character is a "Narrator", which is a sort of translator/Shaman. So far so good. And the writing can be beautiful at times; an instance of this is an early passage describing the cave of organ donations made to a mummified saint, which manages to be A) not gross, B) actually does make you think about what the color/texture of these organs are, and C) brings out their meaty, glisteny beauty.

So where does it all go wrong? The problem is that the in media res never resolves into anything fully understandable. Things start off pleasantly strange and confusing, with all these uncertainties and puzzles to solve, and then they just get more strange and confusing from there, losing any sense of grounding or attachment or meaning. Every 10 pages, the story wanders off from the PoV of the conscript Narrator, to a dream of his, or a vision of his, to the viewpoint of his book-homunculus stalker, to the ghost-memory of someone who lived at the same location, or to some other random entity. This is compounded by the often stream-of-conscious nature of the narration. Words and purposes are left out, things are rarely described plainly, and what is described is usually only the immediate sense inputs available to the Narrator. A few examples of this from a random flip through the book:

"Brightening up for a change, icy light although the day is ending, brilliance soft on the eye, not dazzling."
This isn't really a formal sentence, but it is at least understandable, which is something.

"I run, I get down, I want to ask somebody something - man splashes to within a few feet of me raises his gun aiming and it bursts in his hands swatting him to the ground and he's clawing his face and kicking on his back."
This is from one of the many fire-fights in the book; you only get the sensory information that the narrator has, and even this is garbled by the shock of events. These aren't even particularly unclear selections, they are just the standard writing for much of the novel.

As a cherry on top, there's also meta-narrative elements where the protagonist, for instance, summons up a memory, takes an item (say a rock) out of that memory, and uses it in his current situation. Trust me, it sounds cooler than it was.

So, you take a garbled world, garbled writing, garbled PoV, garbled meta-fiction, and the end result is kind of a gibberish. It would be like taking a selection of fine sauces and wines, and mixing them all together into a giant bowl. Far too much, and a waste of something that could have been quite good if used in moderation. In this story I could generally understand what was going on, but my ability to care gradually went down over the course of the book as it became increasingly clear that nothing would really be made clear. I don't know, I had a similarly hostile reaction to Bank's _A Song of Stone_, maybe I am just offended by books that make the basic communication of information into an unnecessary ordeal? Somewhat like a program that is complex, not because it has a complex algorithm, but because all the variables are badly named and jammed together into one huge function? And what is the final message of the book? That war was is bad? Yes, I was already on board for that, thanks for letting me know.




Viriconium
1 - 5 Stars
1-4-2016

This is fantasy by way of Thomas Bernhard's Frost. The stories are masterfully written and terribly, terribly, demotivating. After finishing each 50 to 200 page story, I just wanted to lie down and take a nap, and gather strength for a couple of days before continuing on. The setting is completely burnt out and exhausted, both ecologically and spiritually. Insanity is just as much of a problem as pillaging barbarians from the Wastes. Everything has been tried before and failed. People occasionally find future-tech artifacts in the cold deserts that have been poisoned with heavy metals, but these machines work for a while, before breaking down, or malfunctioning, or going quietly insane. Mostly the artifacts can't be understood, and the last person who could understand their CRT screens died or went mad a thousand years ago. Farms are planted and then abandoned. Fleets are launched and founder in the ice and fog. Towns and cities disintegrate from madness, from cancerous memories, from alien dreams, from wandering fogs of entropy that infect the space-time. In 450 pages, there is approximately one healthy or warm relationship.

Honestly, I wasn't a huge fan. After the first 200 pages, I thought it was depressing but still quite good. After the first 450 pages, I just didn't see any reason to keep reading it, and I quit reading with ~50 pages to go. That is not a good sign, when the reader's motivation has been so depleted that they drop out after going that far. It's almost worse than dropping out after the first 20 pages, at least then you might have simply misjudged the book. If nothing else it did make me think why I disliked this (and _Frost_), but liked seemingly similar things like _The Road_ or _In the Valley of the Kings_. I think one reason is that while Viriconium is well written, it is also over-written. There is a ton of sensory description, which slows down the plot, and all of the description is depressing. So rather than being fast & sharp & negative, this is slow and muddied and negative, and wallows and circles over the same ground over and over. Where Valley of the Kings has the infinite void of space, layers of deeper blackness within a tomb, and a single word of madness, all in a few dozen pages, Viriconium has hypochondriac art critics, retarded kids and dumb farmers, backwards and dirty nobility living among glowing machines they will never understand, scrawled across hundreds of pages. The word choices are perhaps also not that great. The author went deep into the thesaurus, and on some pages there are a half-dozen words that I don't know the meaning of. And ok, that is unusual at this point in my life, and new words, yay, that should be good? But then I also have to think that well, if I haven't seen this word before in 35 years, what exactly are the odds that I am going to see that word again before I die? And did it really add anything to the novel to pick a series of almost entirely unknown words to describe a scene? Sorry gamboge, bullace, and pthsis. The above problems are compounded by the plotting/character choices. The book is a collection of stories, and each story is populated with different characters. However, the characters do have large overlaps, and they are frequently alternate-reality versions of the characters in the previous stories, or similar characters 300 years later, or various fun house mirrors of the characters that came before. This starts to wear after a while; it feels less like 10 separate stories and more like the same morose story told 10 times.

Anyway. The stories have moments of brilliance, but these are gradually snuffed out by slow, unrelentingly waves of depressing prose.

Edit 6-1-2016
I would like to give some belated credit to one of the ideas in Viriconium that I come back to with some regularity. In one of the stories, a whole cohort of people stored in suspended animation are brought back to life. These are people from a far advanced technological state, and are returned to a world that is utterly broken and winding down. And the tech-people go slowly crazy? Not so much from sadness, but more from an inability to map the ontologies of their old life onto the new world, and by the ghosts of their old agendas which crowd out the new world around them. I get that! I can imagine trying to explain some of the ideologies and conflicts of today to someone from 200 years ago, things like the EFF or Snowden or all the emotions over GamerGate. And you can just imagine what it will be like once we are 50 or 100 years further into the noosphere, with AR and VR and who knows what other sensorium. The difficulty and strangeness of translating that back to a medieval farmer is excellently captured in Viriconium. Edit 2: 7-11-2016
Crap. Not one month later, and I see the word "Phthisis" in a video game. Also, on further thought I probably could explain all of the above issues to someone from 200 years ago. Though I still stand by the point that future issues related to computers, AR, and VR would not be so easily explainable.




A Song for Nero
2.0 Stars
12-25-2015

Yrugh. My least favorite Holt book; I dropped this one after ~70 pages. The main character's voice in this is even worse than in the previous novel. He tries to be a lovable rogue in a wacky world, but the humor is at about the level of an indie-dev programmer doing their own writing. Maybe worse.




Alexander at the End of the World
2.5 Stars
12-20-2015

My second least favorite book by Holt. Unlike the Walled Garden, which I quite enjoyed, this historical Athenian novel did not work for me. There is a lot of dad-humor in it, and parts of it seemed written by Dave Barry, or perhaps by the Black Company's Croaker on an off day. The central theme or idea of the novel was also poorly implemented. The book is constantly trying to sell you on the theme that the main character, by focusing on ideas and ideals, inadvertently causes terrible damage to the people and world around him. But the actions of the book usually fail to support that assertion. For instance, the main character is walking along and thinking, when the brother he hasn't seen for 20 years runs into him from behind. His brother's leg is broken in this accident. The book then tells you over and over again that it is the protagonist's fault that his brother's leg was broken? It just doesn't make sense. Similarly, the protagonist helps found a new Greek colony at one point in the book. Their neighbors are Scythians, and one of the Scythian teenagers goes on a raid, kills several of the protagonists friends, and is then mortally wounded by the protagonist. This too is blamed on the protagonist, that he killed this teenager who was on a murder-rampage? That's just kind of karma in action, not some grievous moral fault by the main character. There's plenty of other examples like this; those two just stood out. The theme itself is fine, and I'd be open to it, but the novel never really supports the themes. Or to re-phrase, the novel is constantly telling you a theme and then showing you something else. There's also an annoying number of anachronisms in the book. I usually don't notice these, but perhaps because the storyline didn't really work for me the anachronisms really stood out. For instance, you have phrases like "under pressure" which really wouldn't mean anything in the ancient world.

So, what is the story about? It is the memoir of a Greek philosopher, as he deals with life, tutors Alexander the Great, founds a colony, talks to his brother about military campaigns, and so on. The Alexander parts were more interesting than the main character's navel gazing, and oddly in the last 150 pages of the 450 page novel there is some more interesting, PKD type time-slip action going on.

[Edit:




Uzumake - Spiral into Horror
4.0 Stars
12-15-2015

Uzumake is a series of Japanese comic books, or as they call them over there, "visual novels". There are ~20 issues in the series, where each issue covers one incident in the gradual infection and corruption of a village by a supernatural terror. The terror is less of a monster and more of a platonic idea, the idea of the Spiral, which entrances and maddens and transforms and kills the inhabitants of the village.

The collection was surprisingly good, for some values of good. Visually the novel is great. The "spiral" idea lends itself very well to the comic book form, and there are dozens of neat and creative visual motifs and riffs on this form. The stories themselves are not really scary in the sense of a jump scare or an afraid of the dark scare, but rather they are deeply unsettling. I'm not sure how well I can measure this, as thanks to the internet I've already lost most the Sanity Points I have to lose in this area, but I thought that a lot of the imagery was really out there and disturbing. There is a lot of body horror, warts and growths that consume their host, corrupted placentas growing into fungal blooms, babies moving back into wombs, etc. (Ed. Keep it up Japan!) There were a number of shared themes between this and Jeff Vandermeer's Annihiliation series; you have the lighthouse and inverted lighthouse, the transformation of human into beast, the idea of semiotic contagion and corruption, the idea of a region where reality itself has been marked out and claimed by an alien power. Vandermeer is a lot more restrained with his weirdness though; here it is more balls to the wall weirdness from from page 1 through page 500. Partially as a result of that, the stories feel less grounded than Vandermeer's. That's kind of a weird criticism to have of a book of Weird Tales, but I think it can be important to have some sense of consistency or breathing room in the story. I feel like in terms of realism A) There is no way the protagonist actually stays in the village past issue 2, or maybe issue 3. I think any half-way rationale person would be packing the car at that point. And B) there is no way the protagonist survives past issue 10 or so. I can see why the stories are laid out this way (it's a monthly comic book where each issue needs to be its own self contained thing while maintaining the theme), but it makes the story perhaps less interesting than it would be if told as a cohesive whole. Still, a really well done work.




Girl with the Pearl Earring
3.0 Stars
11-15-2015

A pleasant enough book, though I'm not sure I really understood it. The main lesson of the book seems to be that it sucked to live in the 1600's? Or that it 1.2f * sucked to be a woman back then? The story is a bit like Uprooted, with a cold master and warmer apprentice, though this time the subject is painting rather than magic, and there is laundry rather than sword battles, and in general things are woefully under consummated. I liked the tidbits about painting theory in the book, though they were generally more technical than ideological. I prefer Iris Murdoch's take on painting in the SandCastle. I did like though the small details of Netherlandic life that the author put in, and I liked the understated and calm nature of the main character. The ending was also pleasant, though I feel that the author also had a great, uncertain ending ~10 pages before the real ending. I half-wish she had just ended the book early, with all of the possible futures hanging in the air.




Etched City
5.0 Stars
11-1-2015

Nice, really nice. This is a wandering book of semi-fantasy, semi-actual literature, with a mix of adventure, crime, romance, and occasional warps in the fabric of reality. One of the two main characters is a doctor who's idealism has been hollowed out by events, leaving behind a sort of fossil of its shape that continues forward. Aside from her occasional gun fights she wouldn't be that out of place in an Iris Murdoch novel. Actually now that I think about it she has a bit of Tallis in her, though her design is not as perfect as his. The other main character is a blackguard and gunslinger, who does just fine without ideals and instead makes do with an uncanny amount of luck and engaging the world as it is. These two characters are semi-friends, and over the course of the story they move from a bitter, Wild West desert frontier, to a florid and decadent jungle city, and back again. Things happen? The plot is kind of slack or pleasantly wandering; it does not necessarily have the normal peaks and valleys that you would expect. Instead there is just continually beautiful (and frequently brutal) writing.

The tech level in this book seems to be around the ~1850's in our world, though it lacks the same sort of technological momentum and acceleration that ours has. One interesting offshoot from this book was that it made me realize how much of my own idealism is a result of that acceleration. It is much easier to look at some instance of human crappiness and say well, we can at least hope to fix that, maybe not today but hopefully in X decades when we have better tools and technology. Or to put it another way, you can say that yes idealism is completely unrealistic, but it is still not inconceivable that one day we could, Infinite Tsukuyomi style, wrap the world in thicker and more perfect layers of abstraction in order to get something halfway decent.




Version 43, Philip Palmer
4.0 Stars
10-13-2015

An odd, brutal, funny, and well crafted sci fi mystery of shifting perspectives. The book is recent, but in many ways it reminds me of classic 70's sci-fi. Like a lot of 70's sci-fi, it is less about science and more about the fantastic. There are ray beams and space ships and such, but there isn't any sort of consistent basis to them, and they exist right along side quantum powers & magic & time dilation & psychic abilities. The book also has the sort of shifting perspectives & unstable ground that you find in Philip K Dick, or in something like _The Thing_ , where just a few new pieces of information can completely shift the narrative ground you thought you were standing on. Version 43 has many of these shifts, as successive versions of a cyborg cop are incarnated to try and deal with a bizarre murder on a lawless planet. With each iteration and reveal, you learn more about the planet, the characters, and what might be going on. This largely works and is enjoyable, even if it starts to go off the rails a bit in the last 50 pages. Still, Palmer keeps things on the rails for much longer than I thought possible, and he does a really impressive job of story telling and plotting. I particularly liked the unreliable main character, a sort of murderous but lovably arrogant robo-cop with various shifting currents in his unconscious. His beau was also quite adorable. I'm usually not a fan of mysteries, but this one was very well done.

I would give the book an extra half star, but the 70's combination of magic, psychics, time-travel, etc. kept the story from feeling grounded or consistent enough for me to really, truly connect with it. It always felt more like an clever tale being spun out of cobwebs rather than something happening to real people. To paraphrase Simone Weil, "To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the novel".




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