A well-written story of heists, cons, and criminality set in a low-fantasy world that contains Benders of different types but also pre-modern technology and guns. If you can imagine a series of dark and gritty Avatar episodes set in the slums of Republic City, it is a bit like that. The first part of the book is the better and more grounded part, and introduces characters that are genuinely likable and have interesting and non-cliche backstories. I particularly liked the world building around the relations between Benders and non-Benders, and their histories and various civil wars in different countries. Besides the criminality and the main-heist and the world building, the story is also about the relations of the main six, with the six resolving into three different pairs. The Nina-Matthias pairing was by far the best since Nina was by far the best. The constant tension between her and Mathias was the highlight of the book, just like the constant sexual tension between Aang and Zhuko was the highlight of the early Avatar seasons. The other 2 pairings were ok-to-meh. Kaz and Inej could have been good, except that Kaz is a constant, edgy, Marty Stu throughout the book, while the remaining two characters of Jesper and Wylan are never as fully realized and so don't really register.
The last quarter of the book is a bit of a let down, as it resolves into young-adultisms and increasingly improbable turns of fortune. Overall though the book is quite good, and is a fast and satisfying and well crafted read. Oh! And best of all was the book design; they added some coloration to the page edges to give the thing a really neat matte-black look. It is a neat but understated effect, and really pulls the book together.
Book review score Re-balancing
This is a bit inside-baseball, but I've decided to change how I score novels and have gone back and re-balanced all my old scores based on the new system. In the old system, I was trying to fit all of human writing into a 1 to 5 star scale. So at 1 star you would have a things like NyTimes editorials and crude anti-semitic comments on YouTube videos, while at 5 stars you would have works of transcendent genius that set off cascades and feedback loops in your skull. Realistically though, I don't read or review much 1-star material since it's pretty easy to identify as bad/useless and then avoid. And on the other end, there are not that many works of genius that exist and are readily identifiable from afar. So the scoring scale ends up being between 2.0 (terrible stuff that managed to make it into my reading queue) and 4.0 (really good stuff that I've found and really enjoyed/admired). It's similar to the problem that video game reviewers ran afoul of, where most reviewed games would end up being between 7 and 9 stars out of 10. They don't really go above 9 stars, since that would imply a perfect game, and they don't really go below 7 stars since that is the land of games that don't run at all and have technical problems or are obviously terrible. (Also, companies/fanboys would bitch and moan if there game got below a 7, so that was another incentive not to).
Anyway! To solve the problem, I've copied Tom Chick's solution and decided to use the whole range of stars available to me. A bad book is going to get 1-star, and a really good book will get 5 stars. And if there are things which theoretically should be off the scale, (the NyTimes editorial, the book of genius), well, I will the deal with the outliers as they come either by going off the scale or just bounding the outlier to the ends of the scale.
Jack and Jill
A short book (200 pages) that seemed even shorter. We already know the characters from _Every Heart a Doorway_, and this prequel goes into how Jack and Jill became the characters that they are in that first book. This doesn't work well for a couple of reasons. One is that the original characters are both kind of one-note; there isn't a lot of deep mystery to them that we were dying to uncover. They each have their one conversational tic and motivation, as would any NPC that my code would generate. A second problem is that the novel spends a lot of pages scene setting and not much in actually developing character. For a 200 page book, there are not that many events, and really only like 3? 4? things happen in fairy land. It seems like we already know the starting point of the story (they are born) and the ending point (they come back from fairy land in their one-note state), and not *that* much seems to happen in between.
On the plus side, the author isn't terrible, I liked the little world building that goes on in the Moors, and I agree with the author's general moral of letting people develop and flourish in their particular fashion rather than according to strict roles/genders. All in all it is very YA.
A fun and fairly straight forward book about a down and out air-ship crew and their heists and misadventures. It's a bit like a steam-punk version of FireFly (or maybe Serenity). The first half of the book is the better half, and introduces interesting characters with genuine and amusing traits and flaws. A few standouts from this section are the fighter craft and their dog fights, the terror of such, demons which are summoned and contained by precise acoustic harmonics, and some good lines ([paraphrasing:] "The mansion is on fire. Make of that what you will."). The second half of the book is the weaker half, and resolves every situation, mystery, and character arc in exactly the same way. There weren't a lot of surprises once you start to get the author's MO.
Nine Fox Gambit
A fast paced and clever space-opera that is like the novelization of the best parts of a StarCraft game. The setting is the Korean version of WarHammer 40K, where a militarized, totalitarian, and cruel/wasteful society is busily engaged in total war against external threats and internal rebellions. The main character is Cheris, a loyal infantry commander who due to her quick thinking and mathematical genius is promoted to lead an impossible battle against rebels who have taken over an impregnable star fortress. She is joined in this effort by Sedao, the technologically preserved ghost of the Empire's greatest commander. Sedao was only retired and "ghosted" after he went murderously insane and lead an entire Imperial army into destruction. Since that incident, Sedao is only let out of the vaults in order to assist with rare and difficult situations, where the danger of his advice is less than the danger of the enemy. The rest of the book follows the partnership between the two, and focuses on tactics, deception, and political maneuvering as they try to take back the rebel fortress. Sedao acts as a sort of strategic Sherlock Holmes, noticing the features and tactics that most people would miss, while Cheris usually acts as his Watson.
The book has a ton of energy and ideas, and lards on the setting and strangeness. The author invents planets, regions, and space empires, cultures and robots, spaceships that are all oddly named after moths, four dozen exotic forms of weaponry and equipment, seven interesting Imperial castes, various sigils and languages, etc. etc. A particular focus is on what the call "Calendrical effects"; these are a bit like the Dominions of Dominions 3, i.e. zones of reality where the basic rules of the universe are altered slightly due to the beliefs of the inhabitants. In a slower paced or less busy book many of these elements would not work, but as a rapid-fire amalgamation of new ideas they are great. It is like the Paradox Games version of book writing, where you just keep piling on new features and ideas until it somehow becomes fun. Another positive to the book is that while the Imperial society portrayed in the book is quite evil, the author also realizes that it is evil, which is really all that I want from my novelists.
Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
“You might as well go out and shoot everyone you see and then shoot yourself."
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
A straight forward, factual, and brutally depressing account of CIA history that is based on primary sources and de-classified documents. I was reading this book at approximately the same time that I watched this video [trigger warning: absolutely everything], and while the two are superficially different, I feel like they share a similarity in the way that two scenes would in an Iain M. Banks novel, where the same ideas and themes are shown at different levels of detail. Which is to say again that this book is incredibly depressing. Legacy of Ashes is not a book with a lot of storytelling or synthesis or authorial voice; it is closer to a plain listing of facts and information. This works though as the information is interesting and important enough to warrant reading. Indeed, you could teach a class on modern US history based entirely off this book, and it would be truer/more useful than the vast majority of more general US history books.
The basic story is of the 3-stage life-cycle of the CIA. There were the early years (1940's-50's), when the CIA had no clue what it was doing, and basically had a 100% failure rate against the KGB and other communist intelligence agencies. After that came the CIA's golden years, when it became more adept and scored some successes at the price of causing massive damage to the societies of dozens of countries. And finally there was the CIA's doddering senility in the modern age, where it became lost in a maze of bureaucracy and contractors and irrelevance.
Some of this history was at least partially familiar to me, either from other history books or from writers that I like. Le Carre touched on many of the highlights of the early years of the CIA: the botched operations and deaths, the sensitive material forgotten in hotel rooms, the moles who turned entire services inside out, the double agents who created mirages and illusions, the opportunists who invented information to collect cash payouts, the constant siding with fascists, gangsters, and dictators, the way the service encourages and selects for negative character traits among its own ranks, and the ability to decieve at least the civilians on your own side if not the enemy intelligence services. Lewis Lapham covers more of it in his recounting about the time he interviewed to join the CIA. Lapham chatted breezily at his ivy league with the recruiters, and then the rest of the interview was them asking a few Kingsman-like questions about fashion, drink preferences, and what was appropriate to wear to the regatta. Lapham decided they were empty headed idiots and never had anything more to do with them.
Ok, but that's enough anecdotes from other sources. Time for some anecdotes from the book:
- I'm not saying that it was the Cubans but... it was the Cubans. The interpretation of the book was that JFK was killed by Castro, and that this was in response to the CIA's bungled attempts to kill Castro at JFK's request.
- Iran as we all know was the fault of the CIA, and that crisis helped take out Carter.
- The Watergate plumbers were all ex-CIA but still very tied in, and they helped take out Nixon.
- Iran-Contra and 9/11 should have taken care of Reagan and Bush II, but didn't. You have to learn to lean into your failures. So, all in all it's about 50/50 whether the CIA will destroy any given US presidency.
- There was that time the Russians got a double agent to the head of the West German intelligence services. Whoops!
- There was that time the Russians got a double agent to the inner circle (basically second in command) of the British intelligence services. Whoops!
- There was that time the Russians suborned the CIA officer in charge of counter intelligence, who had access to, well, everything. His information was used to roll up all the CIA networks in the USSR. Whoops!
- There was that time the Russians suborned the CIA officer in charge training new recruits, who burned every single CIA agent trained over a 3 year period. Whoops!
- There were the air drops into Communist countries, where first a few, then dozens, and then hundreds of agents were parachuted to their deaths behind enemy lines. Literally thousands of people were parachuted in to face torture and execution without a single success.
- The fact that for most the Cold War, the CIA failed to have any significant spies or sources in Russia.
- many, many lapses of intelligence and analysis, where the CIA did not see events coming, or in many cases insisted that the event was not happening while it was happening (e.g. China joining the Korean War, Castro turning Commie, the revolts in Eastern Europe, the fall of the USSR, the fall of the Shah, a few Middle East Wars, The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, etc. etc.).
- After the fall of the Shah, Iranian militants captured and interrogated the 4 CIA members stationed in Iran. The agents told their interrogaters that they were newly stationed in Iran, that they barely knew the culture, that they didn't speak the language. At first the interrogators thought they were lying, and then the interrogaters were insulted as it dawned on them how little effort and competence their great enemy had pitted against them.
- and I could go on and on in this vein. The book certainly does.
The book is very harsh on the CIA, and I am a smidge less so. I have some sympathy for them in the early days of the agency, when they were trying to create an intelligence service from scratch and were pitted against agencies with centuries of experience. The book describes the agency then as "a rich blind man". For my part I think of it as a brain-in-a-vat or possibly some situation setup by Descartes. How do you begin to learn and reason about the world when all of your senses and analysis nodes are potentially deceptive and misinforming you in the worst possible way? It is a difficult problem, and it is not surprising that the only early successes of the agency were technical and not social, e.g. cracking a code or tapping a line in order to read communications directly, or later on using the U2's or spy satellites to gather information. Even more than that, I think the US is at a cultural disadvantage in spy craft. One of the downsides of living in a free and open society is that it gives us no practice at espionage. I've never payed a bribe in my life, and I'd be at a severe disadvantage in a suborning competition when faced with someone from Russia who might use bribes daily or weekly. And it its not enough to say that we should not engage in espionage at all; the book is focused on the CIA and so mostly glosses over the atrocities by the Russians, but there were genuine threats and USSR espionage actions that needed fighting. Again, it is a difficult problem. I feel like we do best by leaning on the things were are good at, e.g. idealism and money. The best sources of intelligence during the Cold War were never CIA spies, rather they were USSR defectors who were attracted to our system and turned off by their own. Similarly, we didn't win in the end because we were tricky or cruel, but rather by making a prosperous and attractive society that didn't just lay down and die on some random Tuesday. [Ed note: this all written from the perspective of 2016 or so, rather than our current shit-show] Rather than launching plots with a "Hold my beer" attitude like happened through a lot of the CIA's history, it would be wiser to always consider the potential blow back and damage done to the real sources of our strength. A good current day example of this would be the NSA, and how their offensive operations and their blow back have undermined the US tech sector.
So, in closing, Stop. Look. Think.
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate
This will be an inverted-sandwich review, where I talk about the bad, then the good, and then the bad.
As a teen I read a couple of Al Franken's books at Barnes and Nobles, and as per best practices I just read them in the store rather than paying for them. I enjoyed the books though and thought they hilarious and intelligent/informative/useful, and that prompted me to purchase Franken's newest book a few decades later. Unfortunately, the latest Al Franken doesn't live up to my memories. First off, _Giant of the Senate_ does not really succeed as comedy. Franken is an engaging writer, and there are a few genuine chuckles and many more sensible-chuckles in the book, but it mostly hovers around a Dave-Berry level humor. There's also a fair number of jokes that either fall flat or are simply mean-spirited. I can't entirely blame Franken for the book not being an outstanding comedy, since his high office places a lot of boundaries on what he can say/joke about.
Fortunately, comedy is not the main focus of the book, it is more of a light spice or garnish that is sprinkled though out. The meat of the book and where it does well is in the details of running for the Senate and then being a Senator. There's a lot of interesting and lived detail about the requirements of the campaign trail, public speaking, running an office, passing a bill, asking for donations, and interacting with other Senators. There are interesting personal stories about a dozen different Senators and as many constituents, and overall it does well as a sort of optimistic/patriotic/idealistic call to make US politics better and to bridge divides and do right by the country. Quite apart from his books and comedy, I've been a fan of Franken the politician, and he is up there with Sanders, Warren, Wyden, and Udall as people who are consistently in the right (as I see it) and fighting for things I believe in. So it is not too surprising that I enjoy him writing about politics and what he believes in and why.
I'm just not sure it is enough. One of the stories in the book was how during a hearing Franken rolled his eyes at something Mitch McConnell was saying, and how this eye-roll was considered a super-serious breach of Senatorial decorum. And Franken further writes about how he made an abject apology, and Mitch was a complete mensch for accepting the apology. And this is fine and all, and might have been entirely appropriate 20 or 40 years ago, but I'm not sure it is sufficient for the current situation. E.g. a few years later we have republicans shouting "You Lie" during the President's speech, or assaulting journalists, or in Mitch's case pushing forward health care cuts that would kill on the order of 10K Americans per year. This is on top of the 10K-15K Americans who are killed each year from Republican governor's refusal to accept federal money to expand Medicaid, as part of their efforts to sabotage health care for political gain. And it is not like that will be the end of it, these are just some of the current set of moves being taken. And at that point, I feel like the situation is serious enough that if considered clearly, you can't just engage in comity and making nice and deeply apologizing for your eye-roll. Again, I realize that there are boundaries to what Franken can write as a Senator in good standing, and maybe it is useful to have people like him as the Sinn Fein to Sander's IRA. Still, as a clear and honest appraisal of our politics I don't feel like this book is up to the requirements of our time.
Update: 1-1-2018 Annnnnnd he's out. I'm not going to say I called it, but I called at least little bits of it. Item 1) Franken's comedy really isn't that good. As a person with a terrible sense of humor, I emphasize with him, but I also wish that somehow he could have been the man he was without ever telling a joke. That is to say he was a much better politician than he was a humorist, and the good he could have done was sabotaged by his poor sense of what is funny and what is not, leading to that embarassing picture. Item 2) They were never interested in comity, and it was a mistake to think so. Franken was taken out by the the GOP's little league version of a FSB operation, as well as our own over eagerness to sacrifice an effective leader on some somewhat dubious grounds. It was a mistake for Franken to have focused on komity when his opponents were focusing on killing. Anyway, my best wishes go out to the guy. Against the odds I hope he comes back angrier and wiser.
Matter, Iain M Banks
This was a re-read, as I seem to be re-reading the entire Culture series book by book for the 2nd (and in some cases 3rd or 4th) time. This is at least partly due to my efforts to get more people to read the Culture novels (which have paid off handsomely, see here!), and which has inevitably led me to re-read the novels so that I know what I am talking about/can verify that they haven't changed. So, _Matter_ was next on the list. And it was much like I remembered it, a good but not great entry in the series. There are the standard Banks' ideas of having the same themes played out at different levels of scale and of reality, as well his general propaganda in favor of not being a dick and working to order/design/imagine things so that suffering and inefficiency are minimized. A notable inclusion in this book is a sort of Shakespearean element, as many of the characters and their speech/thought/plot patterns are from a medieval level civilization. These Shakespearean threads are interwoven with and collide in amusing ways with the more standard Banksian space opera elements. Another notable inclusion was way too much detail about structures, hallways, door ways, passage ways, chambers, architecture, portals, and various accommodations. Maybe I just lack the sort of spatial imagination to appreciate these parts, but I feel like there was a lot of scene setting here that could have been skipped over. This is mostly focused around the Nameless city and the transport between the layers of the ShellWorld. Hmm, what other random things to note. I liked all of the characters? Basically every main character in this story is sort of quietly enjoyable and interesting to read about, while still being noticeably different from each other. I especially liked Anaplian and her sequence on joining the Culture and being uplifted to their standards. It is such a sweet and wonderful bit of utopianism. Banks really is the king of Utopianism, and it is always such a drop coming down off of him back to things like, say, American politics.
Historical Note: I first read _Matter_ years ago, so many years ago that it was the source of my Steam Id. I always liked the Aultridia and their hapless persecution and fairly good intentions.
Brass Man, Neal Asher
I skimmed through this one, just to confirm my first impressions of the author. Yep, he is god-awful. And so many murders. Why so many murders?
A Return to Laughter
Another delightful anthropology book. From what I can tell, the defining feature of field anthropologists is a certain insane self-confidence. In this case it is a young and introverted American lady who goes to study a Nigerian tribe, despite not knowing their language or having any camping experience. The start of the book reminded me of a great passage from _Soon I will be Invincible_, in which a super villain does this comic-cliche act of dressing up in spandex and going with his battle-robots to rob a bank. The bare events are dumb and cliche, but the book makes the experience real and forces on your mind just how terrifying it would be try something like that, and the immense chutzpah you would need to walk into a bank with spandex and a freeze ray and declare yourself the enemy of society. Similarly, I'm sure people leave to study other places all the time, but the start of this book brings home just how difficult and unsettling it would be to not know the language, the culture, or even the bare techne of how to live in that biome. The author is very talented, and does a great job of relating her experiences as she gradually unravels the nested puzzles of the tribe's language and culture. You gradually come to know different tribes people with her, and she studies them and their character and actions with a depth that would not be out of place in a Jane Austin or Iris Murdoch novel. Her task isn't made easier by the fact that the people generally subscribe to the Vancian best practices of low-key amorality/deception, which makes unraveling even simple, dinner food related questions quite difficult. Later on in the novel there are more complex plots, as she starts to follow the political struggles of the tribe and learns more about witch craft. In the end she understands their culture better, but is still apart from their them and the brutality/callousness they have to endure. A defining moment for her is when several tribes people are joking about a trick played on a blind person, which of course as Westerners we could never engage in (Imgur front page).
Great book, two thumbs up, would study foreign cultures again.
A short, readable, layman's take on drug use in the Nazi regime. This isn't so much a magisterial history book as it is an author who found an interesting angle and sources and then ran with it. The book is full of stories and tidbits and stats about Nazi drug use and policy, and looks at the entire Nazi period through the lens of pharmacology. The Communists had a phrase which I like, "Being is consciousness". They meant it mostly in class terms, but I think it is even more apt when expanded to look at the whole body system rather than just your job. This book makes frequent use of the "Being is consciousness" view to explain Hitler's policy/military actions through his doping regimen.
Around 20% of the book covers the institutional role of drugs in German society and the third reich. For example, there is the the 35 million doses of meth that they ordered and distributed to the military before the invasions of Poland and France (best name for it: "Pilot's Salt"). Or later on there were the wild experiments to try to find a miracle drug that could banish tiredness in the pilots of single-man submarines. It turns out that a massive dose of cocaine, meth, and oxy is not the answer. Instead this just leads to your submariners hallucinating for 4 days straight before coming down and immediately surrendering to the first people they see. Other interesting bits of institutional trivia include the Nazi War on Drugs (which resembles our own about as much as you would expect), the tons of pure cocaine shipped around by the Nazi intelligence services as bribes to their allies, and how drug experimentation programs tied together the army, navy, SS, and the concentration camps. Oh, and the use of meth laced chocolates, meth laced chewing gum, meth tablets, and meth-paste tubes. Meth! It's a hell of a drug.
The other 80% of the book is the more personal tale of Dr. Morell, who became the doctor and personal drug distributor to Hitler. Morell started off catering to high end Berliners, offering shots and other cures. He was recommended to Hitler's personal photographer to take care of an STD, and that in turn earned Morell an invitation to a dinner with Hitler, who was suffering from digestive problems. Morell treated this with a fecal transplant, which was sensible and worked, and which in turn earned Morell the present of a large mansion in a ritzy neighborhood and his initial place as Hitler's physician. A this point Morell was basically riding a tiger; he now had a large mansion that he couldn't afford the maintenance on, as well as a murderous dictator who was constantly looking to him for cures/fixes. Morell made the best of the situation though. He quickly learned to abuse his position of influence, and to secure his position by doping Hitler up on ever wilder ingredients. Over five years he took the dictator on a grand journey across the entire field of pharmacology. I think the only thing Morell didn't inject him with was marijuana. He did though use glucose, caffeine, meth, morphine, cocaine, oxy, a variety of heart medications and uppers, belladonna, strychnine, testosterone, ground up and liquefied animal organs, glands, and testes, and approximately 80 other substances. In a typical week there could be dozens of injections and pills. There are many stories about this, but two of my favorite are:
1) Hitler was feeling very low and nearly catatonic because he was obviously losing the war and his health was in shambles and he had an upcoming meeting with Mussolini where it looked like the other dictator was going to break up with him and withdraw from the war. Morell comes up with one his best injections yet, sending Hitler into the stratosphere. Hitler pops up and goes to his meeting, where he literally talks for three hours straight, not allowing Mussolini to get a single word in edge-wise (sound like anyone we know?). In frustration Mussolini puts off the break up for a later date.
2) Morell needed money to pay for the upkeep on his house, since even though Morell was Hitler's physician the job carried only a nominal salary. So he has the plan to get into the "vitamin" business and creates his own brand of vitamin cakes (basically little sugar pastries with a few odd herbs in them). First he convinces Hitler to eat them, with the idea that once Hitler is doing it everyone else will want to. And it works! From there it spreads to the general staff, and from there Morell picks up contracts to sell his vitamin cakes to the army and to the civilian population. Morell tries to sell them to the air force, however a competent general in the air force looks into it and refuses to buy, on the grounds that they don't need to purchase over priced lemon bars and send a dozen of them up with every plane as essential materials. Morel in turn uses his influence and has the general fired, so that he can continue his biscuit-selling scheme in order to pay for his mansion. Teutonic efficiency at its finest.
Anyway! I liked this book overall. It has a wealth of interesting details, it provides a compelling explanation for some of the high level Nazi dysfunction and bad decisions, and it never wavers from depicting these people as terribly as they deserve.
The Fortunate Fall
A book that fit what I was looking for. I've been wanting to read some Jack Womack, but the internet has been letting me down, and this book filled the want nicely. The Fortunate Fall is a mid-90's cyber punk story, set 250 years in the future. A Doll House situation has been reached where people can CRUD into other people's minds, and this has led to global disasters and horrors before finally an unstable peace is reached. Society maintains itself through PostCops (a "cop" wet-ware that is downloaded into people's minds to get them to behave as temporary cops when needed. It is like a fast and involuntary and potentially homicidal jury duty.) and Weavers (NSA like figures that constantly scour the internet to prevent and contain any mind-viruses or taboo information that might spread and infect people like in the bad old days). I don't want to say too much about the story in order to avoid spoilers, but there is a cetacean, there is a wAIfu, there are dominionist concentration camps, there is a police state vs individualists, there is a fluidity about identity and trust. The entire thing is somewhat dark, somewhat cynical, well written, and enjoyable.
A Gentleman of Leisure, by P.G. Wodehouse
A lesser Wodehouse. There are some sensible chuckles, but it is definitely inferior to PGW's more famous books.
Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I can confidently say that this is a fine book to listen to while laying down caulk. They switched narrators for this one, and while the new narrator is not as outstanding as the old he is still perfectly serviceable to listen to while you watch the silicone flow. The sequel picks up where Wolf Hall left off, with Cromwell's rise to pre-eminence and the death of Thomas Moore. It then covers the political maneuvering during Anne Boleyn's reign, and the replacement of Anne Boleyn with wife number 3. As before, there is a great deal of competence porn, and Cromwell being in charge and taking care of things and people. In this case though the events have a darker tone. It is less Cromwell rationalizing the nation's finances and more Cromwell murdering his political enemies and fully embracing the courtier/Game of Thrones life style. There is also a bit of the Peter Principal at work here, as it is not at all clear that Cromwell can swim in high level political waters as well as he can take care of financial and legal matters. Near the end of the book he says that he is ready for next political knife fight that is surely coming, but I don't see any evidence of it, or indication that Cromwell has some way of handling his enemies or Henry's fickleness over the long term.
So, that is the basic idea. Spunky kid makes good, rises to high office, and is gradually corrupted by it. I'm not sure that this is a story that needs 1200+ pages to tell, but again it is fine for listening to while you do house repairs. Still, listening to this story and Wolf Hall, I kept being reminded of a bit from one of Naomi Novik's books, like book #4 in her dragon waifu series, where the dragons start telling stories to each other. The dragons are not like the hypothetical lion, where even if he could speak we could not understand him. Rather the dragon's story making process is recognizably human, of taking very basic desires and then building elaborate and intricate shells of events and words around them. It's just that the dragons have moderately different basic desires then humans do, so their stories are focused on different ideas and values. In the case of Wolf Hall/Bring up the Bodies, Henry the 8th's desire that generates all these words is very plain, and it can't help but feel a little silly reading so very many words built up around such a simple and mechanical impulse. I can't say that there is a lot to learn from the experience, and so I am retroactively taking away .1 stars from Wolf Hall. Take that, Booker Prize committee.
A City Dreaming, by Daniel Polansky
420 Blaze it up like Merlin! That is what I would say if I was at all into drug-wizard culture(1), which I am not, but the book is. The book is also into a general hipsterism and cool-struggle(2), and sexing many people causally(3), and New York(4), all of which I'm also not into. So the book starts off with a lot of strikes against it, and initially I bounced off the thing after ~30 pages. However! After returning to it and reading further, I started to like the book more and more. Part of it is that the initial stories are some of the poorer ones, with the best ones being further on in. Part of it is also that the narrator grew on me, with his apathy and confused morality and crab like way of moving through the world. The stories are bite sized, which I like, and they rely more on deception and surprise, which I also like. The magic was neat (in particular some of the Outsider or Infernal zones), the writing was well written, and even the flawed stories have 2 or 3 interesting things going on in them. It is a testament to the author's skill that I ended up liking the thing despite not liking most of its constituent parts. :) I would love to see more writing from him, after he's matured a bit and moved out of New York.
- visual novels are my anti-drug
- distracts from the important things in life, see (1)
- missionary for purpose of procreation, as God intended
- the general formula is: (A) I am good/correct (B) I am paying enormous amounts of money to live in a rat-infested closet in NY -> therefore there must be something special and ineffable about this closet since otherwise (A) would be violated. This formula is then carried out millions of times, resulting in all the bullshit about NY that gets written.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
Before anything, there are 2 notes for this book. One is that I listened to it via audio book, and it benefited from an amazing narrator. The narrator has several great accents and is not afraid to use them. His Bishop Woosley is immensely self satisfied, his HRE ambassador is wonderfully weaselly, and his Thomas Moore is delightfully snide and vehement. So, kudos to the narrator for making listening a continually enjoyable experience. The second note is that the book is *long*. I was listening to the thing on a daily basis for literally a month, and checked how to see how close the ending was. It had to be close, right? Nope, I was 45% of the way through. The combination of the ~700 pages and the narrator's languorous delivery make this a long term listen.
So, what is the book about? It is mostly competence and social-competence porn, about Cromwell and all the ways he is useful to people during his life. Imagine Kvothe from the _Name of the Wind_, but he is older and his polarity towards authority has been reversed. Instead of constantly rebelling and having to get the last word in, Cromwell takes his talents and turns them towards profit-making, efficiency, management, and serving nobles with just the right flavors of obsequiousness. This isn't as bad as it sounds; he is generally a force for reason, modernization, order, and mercy in a rather cruel and benighted age. He sees to his family and their futures, tries to not execute anyone who does not really need it, and is just generally a cool-dude in matters administrative and political. It is all fine, if a little stretched out. The author has nice patches of description and memory and dialog, and there are countless jaunts out into food, architecture, friends, associates, clothing, books, children, wives, religion, and a dozen other subjects. This does mean however that the words-to-plot ratio is low. Again, I enjoyed the slow ride due to the narrator, but I could easily see having the opposite reaction if I had actually read the book and was in a hurry. Also, due to the sheer length of the book the effect of the plot is attenuated; Cromwell gets his revenge on a person or two near the end of the book, but by that time the injuries Cromwell had suffered from them are a month ago in real time. And my reaction was like, "oh, yes, I vaguely remember that." In any case, it is not a particularly plot heavy book, it is more about a slow journey through an interesting fictional character's life.
Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch
Unlike most fantasy series, this one has been steadily getting better as it goes. The third entry is my favorite one yet, and it avoids/ameliorates some of the problems that I had with the first two entries. The schemes are a bit less bad, and in some ways the entire thing is just less dire and more fun than the previous entries. The main focus is on a contested election in a republic, where the election itself is just a game played by the city's real rulers, the mages. So in many ways the stakes are less than life and death, and more about social and economic competition and deception. In other ways the stakes are higher, as you find out more about the larger world building, the previously mysterious mages, and the more cosmic factors at play. The author also introduces more of his magic system, which is often neat and intricate and interesting. I feel like the more the author gets away from standard stories and tropes and into his own creations the better he does. There was even a neat moment when I thought he was going to explain away the success of some of Locke's past harebrained schemes by saying that it was, literally, magic. That is to say, it was not just authorial fiat which explains why Locke was so convincing, but a sort of sub-conscious magic that was playing out and resulting in his success. Sort of how in the Star Wars movies you have The Force as a stand in for what the author wants to happen. The author didn't end up going that way, but it was still a neat possibility.
Oh, and it would not be a review of a Scott Lynch book if I didn't find something to complain about. This time the (marginally less annoying) fly in the ointment is the romance between Locke and Sabetha. This has to be one of the most extended and badly waged and romances I have read, and you really just want to shake either/both of them and tell them to stop wasting time and to find someone who they are actually attracted to and fit with. I feel like CJ Cherryh or your average fan-fic writer would have known how to fix the situation; make them gay. That's not a suggestion that I make often, but in this case Locke/Jean really is a better connection than Locke/Sabetha. Ok Scott Lynch, you know who to send the royalty checks to for your big reveal in book 4!
Anyway! I just generally like the characters and world and sort of low key adventures that happen. It is not great literature, but it is on average enjoyable.
Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch
Going into this book, my expectations were kind of low. I remembered the previous entry in the series as having high points, but also as being marred by being somewhat turgid writing and a somewhat generic thieves guild setting and silly plots and so on. But I started reading _Red_, and for at least the first 200 pages I was steadily surprised as I enjoyed the book more and more. The setting is much improved, and moves on to a sort of Dishonored 2 locale with complicated clockworks and dozens of different poisons and more interesting capers and politics. There wasn't any long origin story to slog through, it was just the characters in their prime doing neat things. So at 200 pages in, I was ready to love it. And then the book jumps the shark. It moves everything out to sea and switches to being a naval/pirate adventure story. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised as the title is _Red Seas Under Red Skies_, and it does have a picture of a boat on the cover, but it still came as a disappointment and the quality of the book fell for the around 500 page of naval adventure that followed. Part of the problem is that by moving out to sea, the book sacrifices the momentum it had built up over the previous 200 pages. All of the main plots are put on the back burner, the characters have new "origin stories" as they learn the ways of the sea, and a completely new set of characters and locales are introduced. Also, the book suffers by comparison to the many, many, many high quality naval books that have been written before. Foremost in my mind are the Jack Aubrey/Steven Maturin stories, of which I have read 20, and which have basically conquered the genre for me. So the book loses its momentum, moves into an area that is already dominated by great writers, and generally becomes becalmed [Ed. you really should have started the naval puns earlier in the review]. The naval stories are ok, but they not great. And then the last 60 pages of the book wraps up all of the main plot points that were started in that first 200 pages.
This structure/framework of the book is unfortunate, as I think Scott Lynch has it in him to write some excellent stories. Just make them shorter Scott! Write a 260 page book that gleams, and not a 760 page book with all sorts of padding. Take a vacation, read some Isaac Babel. Also, work on your plotting. :) As with the first book, several of the plots just did not make sense. There is one character and his super power is supposed to be that he is supremely skilled at conning/convincing/out-planning people, but in the story it just does not work and often comes through as authorial fiat. Supposedly smart people continually fall for really dumb tricks, or come up with plots/justifications that make no sense at all. E.g. there is a banker/casino owner who stores the merchant prince's money. The military leader is at cold war with the merchant princes. The protagonist has a plan to steal *all* of the merchant prince's money. The protagonist falls into the hands of the military leader. At this point the military leader could just say "go ahead", as stealing the money would win him the contest. Instead, he puts everyone on a boat. :0
Not all of the plots are like this, but several of them are and they just do not work. Ok, now on to book three which is hopefully boat free.
A series of short stories that are set in Abercombie's universe and fill in the back story to his main characters or add a bit of detail and color to some of his tangential characters. I've always had trouble enjoying Abercombie, but I haven't been exactly sure why. It *seems* like I should enjoy his writing, but something has always been a bit off. After reading and thinking about these stories I believe the problem is that his characters are always so unhappy with their world. Generally speaking, people come to a an equilibrium with their circumstances (or flame out horribly). E.g. living in medieval times was in many ways worse than our present day circumstances, but I don't think that they were generally more unhappy than we are. Like us they would have good days and bad days, victories and defeats, and their happiness would fluctuate around a rough human or cultural average.
In Abercombie's world, everyone is just unhappy. The mercenaries are unhappy, the thieves are unhappy, the farmers are unhappy, the barbarians are unhappy. And I don't think it is justified! Like, if you've spent the majority of your life camping out and hiking through mud and wilderness, I don't think those things would (generally) make you upset. But his characters always are, as if they were modern day coddled Americans forced to do those things. And I think that this continual and unjustified level of complaining is one of the reasons I don't really connect with his stories.
These stories are some of his better ones though, and they have sort of an action-movie/Tarantino vibe to them. These aren't trying to be "real" or organic; they all have a slickness or artistry to them. Some of the better ones are a knock-down drag out fight in an abandoned old west town, the earlier Shev/Javre stories about a slight thief and a Zarya like bruiser, the hagiography/propaganda written about a mercenary commander by his aide-de-camp, and the story of rescuing an artifact from a barbarian tribe. I think all of these would have been better if I had read their parent stories more recently, but even as stand-alones they were acceptable-to-fine. Anyway, Abercombie, would it kill you to smile occasionally?
Five Women Who Loved Love
On second thought, let’s not go to Japan. ‘Tis a silly place.
A series of 5 short and silly stories about love and folly in feudal Japan. Some characteristic events are: a young married woman accidentally gets in what looks like a compromising situation with a 70 year old married man, and the old man's wife starts harassing the younger woman. Incensed, the younger lady goes on and actually has an affair with the 70 year old. Or, there is an ugly man who has his heart set on a beautiful girl, and he hires a crone to set them up. The crone arranges for the girl to take a trip to various shrines, so that the man can join the girl along the way and make advances. However, when the time comes the girl catches the eye of another man and he also joins the trip, and the two men sabotage each other as the three of them visit sacred shrines. Or a person is making devout prayers to the Buddha, only to see a handsome man walk by. The prayer and then throws their piety to the wind to chase after the handsome man. And so forth.
The stories are amusing, and are notable for being written in the early 1600's. The stories have aged very well, and/or the translator has done a good job of updating them, and you could see any of the stories being a plot line in a modern anime or an episode of Always Sunny in Philadelphia. They have an almost Vancian mockery of idealism and the stories that we tell ourselves. One concession the author does make to the mores of the time is that basically all of the stories end in tragedy. The meat of each story is an absurdist love comedy, but then at the very end of each tale the author goes "oh, but they violated the strict social laws, and so everyone involved is executed/commits suicide/becomes a nun." I never placed much weight on this aspect of the stories, and enjoyed them for what seemed like their core.