A low key but enjoyable and highly readable set of short stories set in the Game of Thrones universe. They remind me a bit of the Witcher series in that you have somewhat standard fantasy scenarios that rapidly veer into new and interesting plots. And they remind me a lot more of the other Game of Thrones stories, with their emphasis on complex ties of kinship and fealty mixed with deceptions and the occasional burst of brutal violence. That being said, these stories are more light hearted than Game of Thrones. The two characters Dunk (a strong, dumb, and good hearted knight) and Egg (his clever but out-spoken squire) are both highly likable, and I read the entire set of stories over the course of one evening.
The City and the City, by China Miéville
A well written but slightly silly mystery novel. The conceit is similar to a Vance short story, that the population of a city has split into two cultures which are physically intermingled but pretend not to see each other except in very formalized circumstances. Kind of like liberals and conservatives on FaceBook. The conceit is interesting and Mieville spends a lot of pages filling out its myriad practical details, but in the end I think he spends too much time on it. I enjoy the details, but when the idea is examined a bit more it does tend to fall apart rapidly. The conceit is also a little bit too familiar, both from Vance and from numerous video games which have a Light and a Dark world, or something similar. On the flip side, Mieville is a skilled writer and does a good job with the Eastern European politics and characters and the mystery itself. I think I would have preferred a straight up mystery novel from him rather than a mystery which plays with fantastic elements.
Solomon Kane, by Robert E Howard
Reviewing this book presents a dilemma. Exactly how many stars do you remove from a story for being incredibly racist? For now I've settled on 1.5 stars. The stories in this collection are pulpy and actiony, and represent a kind of failed and mis-shapen attempt to create a Conan the Barbarian type hero. The hero Solomon Kane has the same sort of problems that Conan does, e.g. wrestling with giant snakes, killing slavers with swords, dueling pirates and stabbing sorcerers. This aspect of the stories is fine, and it provides competent action adventure with occasional scenes that rise to being quite good. Solomon's attitude though does not work at all. Instead of Conan's amoral and whole hearted attempt to be the best barbarian that he can be, Solomon tries to be the ultimate white knight. He spends years tracking some random captured lady across seas and jungles, kills dozens to free her, and then is like "No milady! I could never accept a kiss, now I will be on to my next quest!". And then he wanders back off into the jungle. I don't exactly get it, except as the author trying to pander to people who are deeply uncomfortable with any form of sexuality. And in general, the hero simply isn't a very appealing/attractive/identifiable character. He ascribes to a sort of sentimental and romantic morality, and whenever that is threatened he erupts into extreme violence. It is just a very weird fantasy hero to create. And as mentioned above, there is the constant racism, which belongs more to the year 1730 than 1930.
The Compleat Dying Earth, by Jack Vance
A compilation of clever and hilarious short fantasy stories. It's a bit like taking Dungeons and Dragons, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Oscar Wilde, and then mixing them all together. The typical story takes the protagonist to a new kingdom or village of the Dying Earth where they deal with some combination of ancient magics, ancient technology, venal rogues, venal mages, venal rulers, venal workers, and various hybrid monsters and magical items and sticky situations. The protagonist varies from story to story, but they are almost always a morally flexible trickster-adept-criminal-rhetorician-epicurean, and generally a vain-glorious fool as well.
The book is great fun, and I laughed out loud at several of the endings. It is not quite Jeeves level of comedy, but it can come close. Vance has an amazing facility for invention, and his language and creations and plotting are consistently delightful. Despite appearing over 60 years ago, the stories are still fresh and full of life. The sexual politics are perhaps not so great, but otherwise it has aged wonderfully.
Feersum Endjinn, by Iain M Banks
A lesser Banks book. In the story, humanity has long since achieved vast levels of technological prowess, re-shaping the earth and leaving for the stars. The characters are those who live on Earth millions of years after this technological singularity/diaspora, and make their home amongst the monuments and machines and caretaker AIs that were left behind. In that regard it reminds me a bit of _Tides of Light_, which had a similar dynamic. The impetus for action is the Encroachment, a cosmic dust cloud which is on a collision course for the solar system. The story is about the various attempts to deal with the Encroachment, as it intersects and inflames existing tensions.
While the book is not bad, it suffers from a few flaws. One is that the technology is a little too indistinguishable from magic. The PoV characters are relatively primitive, and are nowhere near understanding what the machines around them are doing/can do. So for the reader there is no good way to model what might happen in the story, and many events just read as authorial fiat. A second flaw is the phonetic chapters. There is one character who has lesser/different mental functioning, and his chapters are written in a phonetic style like in the title. While I could read these chapters, they were more hassle than I really wanted to deal with. I ended up skimming this 25% of the book, which apparently you can do without losing too much of the storyline.
On the plus side, I enjoyed the mega-architecture and indoor climates of the book. And as usual Banks does an excellent job with VR, and with understanding the wildly transformative potentials of technology. Also on the plus side is the chapter near the end, with the extended vision of what of the Encroachment will do to Earth. The entire book can also be read as a parable of global warming, which I appreciate (annnnnd it looks like the book was published in 20+ years ago, and look at how much progess we have made on that front. Fairly fucking depressing.) To a certain extent I think I am being harsh on the book. I've internalized so much of Banks that I don't consciously notice many of his virtues, and instead read it as a sort of preaching to the choir. It's a bit like fish commenting on the wetness of the water today. So as usual let me just say that Banks is extremely creative, easy to read, has interesting and humane characters, and provides a continual stream of action and plot.
Red Claw, by Philip Palmer
Another delightful Palmer book. This one makes use of his strengths (xenophilia, crazy creativity, action-movie violence) by placing the action on an enormously fecund alien jungle world. A group of human scientists and soldiers are on a mission to catalog the absurd life forms of the planet. Really, you can read the first 20 pages of this book and decide whether you will love the author as I do. The intro is a wonderful showcase of Palmer's inventiveness and playfulness. Besides the wildlife on the planet, there is a back story and plot and schemes going on, all of which I found to be hilarious and charming. Hmm, what else. About mid-way through there is a Candide-like segment as they try out different forms of governance, and then there is a final section of woo. As usual, I'm not a fan of the woo, but it grates less in Palmer's playful books than it does in a nominally more technical and realistic book like David Brin might write.
The Last Policeman, Countdown City, World of Trouble
This is a triple book review for the Last Policeman trilogy. Usually I will read a book, wait a day or three, and then write a review. That process did not work for this series though, since I read one of these books a day for three days straight and now they're all conjoined in my mind. :) Needless to say I enjoyed them. The setting and world building are great; the characters are enormously likable, the mysteries make sense, and the writing is unobtrusively beautiful. The books were also enormously addictive to read; there were several occasions where I was like "Oh, I will just read a few pages while I wait for this to download", and then ended up reading for the next 4 hours.
Why was it so addictive? Part of it is the likable main characters, and in particular the straight-laced, straight man of the narrator. He desires to solve mysteries in the same way that dwarves desire to carve stone. He is not particularly good at violence or survival, but he does have an unbreakable, almost Tallis like desire to put things right. So, that part definitely worked for me. I also enjoyed the mysteries, which is uncommon for me. Too often with mysteries I feel like the reader doesn't have enough information, and the conclusion is really forced and contrived, sort of like a long form version of these mysteries. In this case I felt like everything fit together. I was able to track and make sense of what was going on, and the investigation results tied nicely into the larger themes. In particular, I enjoyed the author's habit of fading back and forth between different theories and interpretations of what sort of crime/plot was afoot. The trilogy is not a blinding piece of genius, and it doesn't have the insane imaginative fecundity of an Iain Banks or a Philip Palmer, but it does do everything right in a quiet and competent and well thought out manner.
Good Morning, Midnight
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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. :)
1 - 5 Stars
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.