The Killing Machine/The Palace of Love, by Jack Vance Rothdas book review RSS
3/4.0 Stars

I picked these two Vance books somewhat at random; it turns out that they are books #2 and #3 of a pentalogy. Doh. Still, it works out ok as they are largely separate stories that can be read independently. This series is Vance's take on James Bond; the protagonist is an investigator/hunter/spy in a sci-fi universe who is hunting the 5 larger than life villain who destroyed his home. Unlike the other Vance stories I've read, the main character is competent, focused, has some integrity, and is moderately attractive to women. There are still bits of Vancian word play and reversals, but there is not a constant stream of them like in Dying Earth. I do like the basic structure of the stories; each 150 page book covers the investigation and hunt for one of the villain as you find out more of their history, psychology, and abilities. The Killing Machine was ok, and in that book the villain is primarily concerned with Terror. You don't find that much out about the villain psychologically, the main reveal is more about the methods & abilities the villain has. The Palace of Love was better. It does have slow sections, but I liked how it is more involved with uncovering the villain's psychology (which is absolutely hilarious) rather than his powers. His eventual defeat is also wonderful, and doubly hilarious.

We're All Completely Fine
3.4 Stars

A short novel of horror and action about a bunch of survivors from various horror movie-plots who have come together in a therapy group. It's a bit like if a single person had survived each of the scenarios from Cabin in the Woods, and then they came together to talk about and process their experiences. Of course the past is never dead, it's not even past, and a new horror experience starts unfolding in the present.

On the plus side, the book is snappy, has an interesting conceit, and has several creatively creepy bits. On the neutral side, it is a surprisingly recent story. One of the characters is into video games, and he mentions a somewhat obscure indie game that was released like 6 months ago, which was kind of a shock, like "wow, this is hot off the presses.". On the negative side, the writer isn't all that great at writing. He's not bad exactly, but coming down off of Jeff VanderMeer it certainly highlights the difference in their skills. VanderMeer's characters all so vivid and distinct, while I had difficulty just following some of the therapy sessions in this book. That's not to say that the author is actively bad, just that the writing isn't one of the strong suites of the book. Anyway, it was short and enjoyable and creepy.

Debatable Space, Philip Palmer
2.8 Stars

An early work by Philip Palmer that is doesn't quite succeed, and seems more like a prototype for what he would do successfully in his later books. Palmer relies on a gonzo energy in his books, with all the dials turned up to 11 and the creativity turned up to 12. Gonzo energy is a dangerous tool though, and if you don't use it correctly, or if it is not quite gonzo enough, it falls flat on its face. Imagine a Gallagher act where Gallagher had the flu that day and was just kind of going through the motions. What is funny and interesting (or I suppose would be funny and interesting, never actually seen Gallagher), instead becomes kind of cringey, kind of creepy. Debtable Space has that problem, as Palmer had not quite got his formula right. There are ~50 page sections which just don't work, and it really doesn't earn its 500+ page length. The dials all seem turned up to 7 or 8, and the book falls in this uncomfortable middle space where the events aren't really believable/sensible but aren't completely wild and energetic either. The book isn't absolutely terrible and it at least reads quickly, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you are a Palmer completist.

Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
4.0 Stars

The final book in the Southern Reach trilogy. While not bad, the finale was not as good as the previous two entries, and it felt more like an extended epilogue than a true successor. Both of the first two books were at least partially about situations that are radically, radically different than they first appear. They both have multiple moments were the floor just drops out from under the reader. In the third book, I didn't really find that many surprises. It was more an explication and expansion of the ideas and history and lore that are sketched out in the first books. You are more familiar with what is going on, you don't really have a central character any more (instead switching between several characters that you are already somewhat familiar with, filling in their back story), and you don't really find out that much about what is happening or has happened to the world at large. The second book leaves off with the world being consumed by a metastasising infections of un-reality, so it is somewhat disappointing that you find out all of the back story for minor characters, but nothing concrete about the pending apocalypse. :)

That's not to say that Acceptance is bad, it is not; VanderMeer is both fast paced and peaceful, skillful and evocative. I enjoyed his space whales, I enjoyed making more sense out of the ripples in the sky, I enjoyed his double-walled hogs, I enjoyed his character and scenery portraits. And in all three books I enjoyed how the characters are continually bumping off each other, always in a state of moderate bafflement and irritation. Each ofthe characters seems to have their own "meta", and never really thinks about things in the same way as the other characters. It's a neat effect, and further supports this atmosphere of uncertainty and never quite having a full grasp or model of how the world works. Lowry in particular stands out as a great grotesque. So while this book lacked the lightning of the first two, it is still enjoyable and well crafted.

Multiple Choice, Alejandro Zambra
3.5 Stars

An exciting concept for a book that is let down by somewhat less than exciting execution. The conceit is that the book is in the form of a multiple choice test, with each question on the test acting as a short story or poem. So far so good. As an example of the form, here is one of the cleverer test questions, where you are given a series of statements and need to choose statements to remove in order to eliminate un-needed information.

      Question 57:
      1) A curfew is a regulation prohibiting free circulation in public within a determined area.
      2) It tends to be decreed in times of war or popular uprising.
      3) The dictatorship imposed one in Santiago, Chile, From September 11, 1973, until January 2, 1987.
      4) One summer evening my father went out walking with no destination in mind. It grew late, and he had to sleep at a friend's house.
      5) They made love, she got pregnant, I was born.

      A) None
      B) 5
      C) 1,2, and 3
      D) 4 and 5
      E) 2
So, it is a tiny story, and depending on which lines you remove you can unpack several other tiny stories each with different meanings/goals. This is neat and I like it! At its best it reminds me of the epilogues in _The Black Prince_. Now though, let's move on to the next test question.
      Question 58:
      1) I didn't want to talk about you, but it's inevitable
      2) I'm talking about you right now. And you're reading this, and you know it's about you.
      3) Now I am words that you read and wish did not exist.
      4) I hate you.
      5) You would like to have the power of a censor.
      6) So no one else would ever read these words.
      7) I hate you.
      8) You ruined my life.
      9) Now I am words you cannot erase.

      A) None
      B) A
      C) B
      D) C
      E) D
It is not exactly Pale Fire. Read as a statement about an ex, it is cringe-worthy. As a statement about a parent or a dictator, it's a bit better but still not great. So, the book has an uneven quality, where some parts are very likeable while others are much less clever/interesting. Overall I did like it (and the book is only 100 pages, so it is at least short), but it didn't quite live up to its potential.

Dresden Files, Books 2-14
3.7 Stars

3.2 Stars

In my review of Water Born, I did not have any negative points to make, as I thought the author did a great job in everything he set out to do. In Black God, you still have the good qualities of Water Born. However, they are alloyed with some actual flaws (or what I considered flaws), which make Black God moderately less enjoyable than its predecessor.

On the positive side the author continues to build out the magic systems, myths, cultures, and history of his world. And this continues to be enjoyable; at many points it reminded me of Avatar in that by the end there is a complex dance of systems that have all been slowly introduced and built up. You also find out some neat secrets in the world-history and architecture, some of which made me laugh, other of which I found very clever. So, the good stuff from the first book is still there.

On the negative side, this book felt about 200 pages too long. Some of the character beats become repetitive, some of the reversals happen too often, and some of the danger of the first story seemed gone. A second major flaw was that to a certain extent, I did not care who actually won the climactic contest. The first book had a more focused ending, centered around whether the princess would live, die, or something else. That was fine, and it is carried by the fact that you actually care about the protagonist and don't want to see Princess-Hermione die. In the second book, the contest is about a much more abstract cause, and I could see good arguments for letting either of the factions win. It is a bit like if you had the Wheel of Time story, but rather than being a struggle between Good and Evil, it was a struggle between Lawful-Neutral and Chaotic-Neutral. The story and plot are still interesting and suspenseful, but the proposed conflict is less so.

So, my fundamental apathy about the ending combined with the extra 200 pages made this a much less taut of a read.

3.8 Stars

An enjoyable and well written fantasy adventure. The author has detailed and crunchy world building, neat mysteries to unravel, likeable and interesting characters, and a plot that ends nicely. It is not an absolutely amazing story, but it reliably does very well on just about everything you could want a fantasy adventure story to do.

The world building is a bit like Glorantha, in that you have farmers/hunters/gathers/herders who live in day to day contact with the mythic, with the minor gods and heroes of their land. A farmer might make a dozen prayers in a day, one to the goddess of the stream that goes through his land, one to the god of his pasture, one to the old great oak of the grove, etc. etc. And the minor gods of the land in turn play a key role in the success of his farming, and will talk with or advise or even inter-marry with the farmer and his family. This system is built out in a dozen different ways, and is combined with the different cultures the author has built up for his Viking/Native-American/Mongolian analogs. And as with Glorantha, in addition to these low tech-cultures and their godlings, there is a separate culture that is more advanced and organized and more populous, a Chinese-flavored city culture that worships a single monolithic River deity. And by river, we are talking along the lines of the Amazon. The River is enormously powerful and enormously hungry, and it swallows up and devours any godling that comes within reach of its waters. Fortunately, the River is also sleepy, and it has stayed within its banks for centuries.

So! That is at least the outlines of the world building. For the story, one thread follows a young princess of the River god's bloodline, as she tries to figure out why some members of her line disappear at puberty while others go on to be part of the ruling elite. The second thread is of a young barbarian cattle-man, who falls in love with a stream-god and vows to fight the River-God in her name. The two threads flow together until they finally intertwine at the ending. I liked it!

The Dragon Masters, by Jack Vance
3.5 Stars

Shut up! Don't make fun of me because of the title, this is *serious* literature. It won a Hugo award back in the 60's, and was the next Vance book that looked appealing. As always, Vance is swift and immensely inventive. Vance has a wonderful skill at creating names for people, coalitions, creatures, spells, weapons, etc; he is the anti-Atwood in that regard. The story here is not as light hearted as the Cugel stories, and is a bit more involved in its developments and characterization and patterns. It also kind of makes me want to make a card game out of the different dragon classes and their combats. Notable features include the Tand, a neat reification of cultural thought and transmission, and an involved and ongoing combat between four vastly different minor powers. It's like a bite-sized version of Dune.

Lud in the Mist
3.0 Stars

One time after I won a StarCraft match, my opponent insulted me by saying "you played so bad it confused me." He had a point, and I was reminded of his words while reading this book. The book isn't bad, but it does have stretches that seem too twee or too staid, and because of that I was blindsided by some of the more interesting things that the book does and the adeptness with which the author moves. In particular, it was only after finishing the book that I realized it was written nearly 100 years ago. Because of the book's modern cover and recommendation quotes, I thought it was a relatively modern book, and the fact that it was able to pass as such is a testament to how well it has aged. The tweeness or staidness were really unavoidable given its time period/author.

So, what is the book about? It is a somewhat ambiguous, family friendly, story about magic-fairy subversion. A few murders too. As wtih _A Delicate Truth_, I was disappointed/disgusted by the main characters not taking serious threats seriously enough, but the book's age is a good excuse for that. The writing is well done, though a tad meandering and as I mentioned, too plaid.

A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carre
3.0 Stars

The second audio book I listened to while moving, and unfortunately it is also a secondary or lesser Le Carre. On the plus side, I like the things Le Carre does with chronology and his increasingly free-form way of ordering the plot of his stories. As always the characters are well drawn, and they have some surprisingly emotional and well done pay-offs in the third act. I'm also pleased to say that 80 year old Le Carre has kept up with technology to an impressive degree, and that in general he is a real inspiration in being able to write and produce like this at his age. Even more generally, I like this book as one in a sequence of Le Carre books that paint a continuing or evolving picture of Britain and of the West. He reminds me of Everclear (bare with me here), in that consuming the whole of their work adds a dimension that any one individual work lacks. It is neat to hear Everclear's songs evolve over a 20 year period, and it is neat to see Le Carre's thoughts on his society evolve over his X-decade long productive career.

My complaints about this book are mostly the same as with the Constant Gardner. This is mostly because the plot is way too much like the Constant Gardner. As a long time Le Carre reader, the arc of the story becomes increasingly clear about midway through the book. And as with Constant Gardner, there is a sort of martyr fetish which focuses more on being morally pure than on being effective or avoiding obvious pitfalls. The injunction is to be "as wise as serpents and innocent as doves", and I feel like Le Carre is forgetting the first part. For instance, there is a key moment late in the book where the main character could simply *lie*, but does not think of it or chooses not to. It would have made him much more effective in his mission and avoided all sorts of trouble, but eh, then it doesn't have the pathos that Le Carre wants. And I feel that ultimately that it was not true to the character, who should be adept at lying, or to his motivations, which are not so dire or baked-in as they were with protagonist of The Constant Gardener. Hmmm. Or maybe I am wrong, maybe a high-level civil servant like that would not be so willing to just straight up fabricate. But he should be, if he was taking the situation at all as seriously as it warrants. Anyway. If Le Carre is reading this, please have a more skilled and clear-thinking protagonist in your next book.

Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu
3.5 Stars

An interesting sci-fi novel that has bright spots and smart ideas, but that ultimately fails to rise to greatness.

First though, some disclaimers. The novel was originally written in Chinese, before being translated to English, before being read to me by a rather un-inspired audio book reader. The reader voiced the main character a bit like Kevin McDonald does his nerdier characters, e.g. Kids in the Hall. And then when the aliens show up, they all get re-treads of the human voices, including the Kevin McDonald voice. So the book had to pass through a few lossy encodings, and that might the reason the it did not grab me like it did the Hugo committee.

The basic setup of the book is a reverse _A Deepness in the Sky_ situation. There are aliens, the aliens are at an advanced but not god-like level of tech, and the aliens are manipulating the technological and social development of earth through the subtle use of their technology. This is neat! Also neat is the alien home-system, which has three suns and gives rise to the title of the book. The three suns provide some of the alien psychology and also the most apocalyptic and visually stunning parts of the story. There are numerous other clever bits of the story which make it clear that the writer is technically skilled and intelligent and grounded in the concepts of computing and astronomy and quantum mechanics, and is not just throwing around tech-concepts around the way that J.J. Abrams would. Another potentially interesting aspect is the way that the Cultural Revolution was mixed into the history of the book, though this might have even more resonance with Chinese readers. Oh! And there is a neat scene with carbon fiber, and another neat scene of the intersection of the Communist Party bureaucracy and SETI, and so on.

Based off the above, there were points in the book where I was ready to fall in love with the author. This promise kept being betrayed though by stretches of mediocre plot or writing. The characters were frequently wooden, and often just served as card-board cut-outs to move the story to the appropriate place. One glaring instance of this was with the main character when you find out he is married and has a kid. His family is only in a single scene for one particular technical reason, and then they play absolutely no role in his emotions, character, or plot for the rest of the book. It was profoundly weird when you find out about his surprise family, and equally weird when the family is forgotten about for the rest of the novel. There were also issues with the aliens, who turn out to be dis-appointingly un-alien. More generally, the book has this consistent problem where it will have a neat idea but then fail to develop it or think about its ramifications. So there are aliens who should have been truly different, but instead are just like humans with a flat affect. Or the aliens are trying to manipulate human scientific development, but they really only have one trick, and it is not a particularly sensible trick. Or the alien's colonization efforts in general, which seem to be going about things all wrong by trying to colonize an already inhabited planet. Or with the basic setup of the book, where there is a lot of potential interesting ambiguity about the alien's motives, but in the end it just turns out to be a bog-standard invasion. Anyway, Three-Body is not a bad book, but it is not the coming of the next Iain M Banks either.

Tales of Dunk and Egg, by George R. R. Martin,
4.4 Stars

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 MiƩville
3.4 Stars

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
1.5 Stars

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
5.0 Stars

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
3.5 Stars

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
4.5 Stars

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
5.0 Stars

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
1.0 Stars

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.

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