I wanted to like this audio book, if only as a way to throw further shade at NK Jeminisen. Unfortunately, it was a mixed bag, a fairly non-compelling mixed bag, and probably the worst Jim Butcher book that I've read. In more detail:
- The setting is basically the Roman Empire, but with elemental Benders. This is good! This is also where I started making comparisons with NK Jemisen and her terrible Earth Bender series.
- Like the Roman Empire, the setting has slavery. This is bad! It makes it hard to root for the people who should be the good guys when they're fairly complicit in this scheme.
- The Barbarian tribes don't have elemental bending powers, instead they have totem-powers from the animals they are bonded with. Many of their totems are not traditional things like hawks or deer; instead they are things like brontosauruses or raptors. So we have barbarians riding dinosaurs versus elementalist Romans. This is good!
- The reader for this audio book is doing no one any favors. She does a lack luster and uninspired reading of the story, and at several points during the reading I realized that... I actually do better voices than this when GMing. This is bad!
- There's a neat parasitic alien-wax-forest-spider interlude in the middle of the story that the barbarians use as a trial of bravery and wits. This was good!
- There's a weird interlude/sub-theme of sexual violence/assault. This wasn't like Peter Watts levels of bad, but still it's not something I'm looking for in my fantasy adventure. This was bad!
So, a thoroughly mixed bag. I never connected fully to the story, and what should have been the exciting, climactic battle to end the adventure became just kind of background noise while I was gardening.
The Witcher, Books 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7
A delightful, clever, funny, bleak, and pleasantly rambling series of eastern-European fantasy novels. I initially heard about the Witcher books from a friend who loaned me the first novel in the series. So when it was time for me to move into my second (and hopefully last) house and I needed audio books I thought back to the series. The Witcher audio books served their purpose admirably, and added a touch of monster-hunting, destiny chasing flair to an otherwise boring house moving endeavor.
So, in more detail. The books start off as a series of one-offs, about investigating and occasionally killing different monsters. Many of the initial stories are based off of fairy tales, but add in more realistic and interesting twists. A characteristic tale would be his version of Beauty and the Beast, where a young man is cursed to beast-hood and lives in more-or-less isolation on his manor estate. Unlike the Disney tale though, the young man doesn't entirely mind. Before he was weak and nobbly; now he is mysterious and dangerous and robust, attractive to ladies and imposing to men. From there the story develops more, bringing in Beauty, the true nature of the curse, and other fun elements. So that is the standard Witcher formula: start with a fantasy cliche or anachronism, and then mesh it with a more realistic universe and continually embroider, twist, and complicate the result. It's not a bad pattern, and I generally like the result. From these initial one-off stories the Witcher gradually becomes more of a standard fantasy series, and mixes in longer term villains, plots, and threats. However, the author never fully commits to a linear plot or standard characters or story telling tropes. The PoV character will change frequently, and the titular Witcher becomes steadily less central as the books go on. The last book in the series is the most bold in this structure, and gradually takes the main river of the story and disperses it into dozen of different streams and deltas. In this way it reminded me of Hellboy, another series with a strong protagonist that could have become overbearing, and which gradually shifts the focus of the story to different and often lighter characters who serve to leaven the main character. So you gradually have more tales from the PoV of the Witcher's companions or former companions, from his enemies, from his neutrals, from his "child", from history books, from memories, from memoirs, from prophetic visions, from dreams, from dreams from different worlds, etc. One particularly neat part of this is that one of the main stories becomes the Witcher and his companions raising and training a kid. It's a bit like if the Fellowship of the Ring was bringing a teenager along, and each of the members had time to train and influence the kid. It's not something you usually see in the fantasy genre.
Hmm, what else can I say about these pages. The stories are a good deal more cynical than their typical Western counter parts. I've heard the Witcher series called the Polish LoTR, and that's kind of accurate. But where the LoTR was influenced by the author's victorious WWI experience, the Witcher's stories borrow a lot more from the Eastern European experience in WWI and WWII. Which was not good. So rather than sharp battle lines between orcs and humans and Rohan's Riders and whatever, the Witcher books are instead full of racial tensions between humans, elves, dwarves, halfings, etc, cooperation and pogroms, intelligence agents and purges, guerrillas and partisans, massacres, betrayals, ethnic cleansing and refugee caravans. At no point is a king or ruler ever depicted as just or honorable, instead they tend to be the most terrible monsters in the series. Another, somewhat brighter item I'd note were the mages, which I thought were consistently well done. Each mage is completely confident in themselves and their own frame of reference, and steadfastly refuses any encroachment on their world view or any interpretation of facts that could put them in the wrong. Later in the series there is a round table of 12 powerful mages, and their scenes together were always great. I would have loved to see more of that, just these really distinct and powerful personalities clashing and arguing.
So, the Witcher series. Come for the vampire hunting, stay for the unicorns, elf princes, and cocaine.
The Aeronaut's Windlass, Jim Butcher
The Honorverse series by way of Jim Butcher. While this story takes place in the upper atmosphere rather than in space, it does involve many of the same thematic elements of daring and honorable ship captains, grim naval and marine fights, a prosperous and open England-type monarchy, a brutally militaristic and treacherous neighbor, arrogant and cowardly nobles, heroic midshipmen and commoners, etc. etc. Oh, and lots of intelligent cats and some magic and wizards. It works better than it has any right to, most of which I attribute to Butcher's skill at creating interesting, desperate, and prolonged fight scenes. The whole book isn't an action sequence, but most of the last half is. He also does a decent job of making characters that while not deep, are at least likeable and fun and grow on you. They all have that quality of "interesting DnD character with just enough hooks/personality to hang the stats onto and be fun to play." I also liked how for the intelligent cats, he took the personality/traits of the vampire nobles from his Dresden books, and transplanted those traits whole sale onto the cats. Again, it works better than it should.
This might well have been trolling, but I read somewhere that Jim Butcher plans to write 22 more books in this series. If so, Excelsior! Jim Butcher's audio books are god-sends while carrying out the scut work of moving/house repair. I recommend them to anyone who needs to tune out for 20 hours at a time.
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
A funny and sweet story that covers the thirty year time span between Jesus' birth and death. The tone of the book is generally light and comedic, and for the most part its humor works and occupies a space somewhat above Dave Barry but somewhat below Three Men in a Boat. A lot of the book is two men in a boat, as Jesus and Biff travel the world, have silly encounters, learn Eastern religions, and gradually build up the teachings and aphorisms that would later be written down in the Bible. So it is a somewhat comedic reverse engineering of the Gospels, a Beowulf/Grendel situation but with less devouring and more puerile sex humor. For the most part I liked it.
The Cold Commands
A failure of a book. While competently written, the author completely failed at presenting characters and situations that a reader might care about or emphasize with. A majority of the main characters were unlikeable and uninteresting. They are literal murder hobos, going around murdering people. The character development consists of a series of notifications of when someone's cock get hard. Just imagine _It's Always Sunny in Philidelhia_, but without the comedy or energy. There was some overarching plot, but it was revealed at such a glacial pace that you could sense the ghostly spirit of Robert Jordan guiding the author. It was also hamstrung by the fact that you really don't care which side wins. Fantasy Ottomans or Sidhe? Sure, whichever man.
Now begins the part of the review where I slag on the main character. There are 3 PoV characters, but Ring-worm gets the most pages. And he is the worst. I am a person who waded through 6 books of Thomas Covenant without complaining, but Ringil, oh man, he is *terrible*. I quickly moved to skimming and then skipping his chapters. Ringilosis. The author thinks he should be fascinating and wants to explore his possible futures, but it turns out he sucks in all possible timelines. He is also visited by members of a pantheon in disguise, sort of like in Greek myth where a God disguises themself as a mortal to check on things. If only we cared about or knew anything about that pantheon. Rin Fair nerd. Toward the end, this book started to remind me of the Malazan books, another god awful fantasy door stop where nothing makes sense and you actively want the main characters to die. Rinjob.
The Steel Remains
[Ed 1: Publish or Perish! This is the second version of the review, as a failing hard drive took out the first version before it was published to the web. I liked the first review better; this is just a tribute to that first review.]
[Ed 2: I read this book basically in a single sitting, while staking out a hotel for my bounty hunter business. I think that contributed to me getting fed up with this author's style, and my resulting dislike for the sequel.]
A fast reading, grim-darkish fantasy that combines any number of different themes and ideas. It also has a lot of stabbing and sexing. The world is somewhat Abercrombian, as it has grim warriors and lots of injustice and misery. (Though these characters aren't quite such constant sad-sacks as Abercombie's characters). The world is also somewhat Vancian, and as it is set in a far, far future that has technology, magic, and technology advanced enough to be magic. There are baseline medieval humans, fantasy muslims, lizard people, dragons that rule over the lizard people, world/plane traveling high-tech humanistic engineers, the engineer's AI cores, world/plane traveling sidhe, multiple realms of existence, ghouls, a dozen different fantasy beasties, impact craters from orbital weaponry, several spirit-gods, etc. etc. Hmm, so maybe more WarHammer than Vance. In any case, the author shoves a lot of different flavors into his world. And he does at least put his own particular twist on each of these flavors. An early example of this is the ghouls; rather than the standard fantasy ghouls, instead you have these gray-slime-tentacle beasts that hollow out a corpse and then puppet the corpse for use as armor/locomotion. Neat.
The above might make it sound like the story is balls to the walls crazy, but there are actually a fair amount of "normal" elements in the tale. The story has nations, religions, families, friends, tribal politics, politics, law, and economics. The fantastic exists in the world, but does not usually impinge on the story too much. For example: there are dragons, dragons have shaped history, and few people have even killed a dragon and made commemorative knives out of their teeth. But a dragon never actually shows up in the story or directly influences events, it is just this thing that exists in the world. The later parts of the book do start to deal more with one particular fantastic element, but much of the rest of the story is mostly a human story.
And speaking of humans... there is a lot of sex in the novel. A lottttt. A lot of gay sex too. In this regard the book reminded me of Mark Smiley's novels, but while I always found Smiley's sex scenes to be delightful and hilarious, the ones in this book are kind of 'meh' and skippable. The gay sex also plays a large role in the plot, as one of the main characters is gay and faces a great deal of prejudice for this. This aspect of the book didn't particularly work for me, since in my own personal victim Olympics women get the gold, and LGBT people get maybe the bronze. And women are treated *terribly* all throughout this book. Actually, most people are. For this reason the main character complaining about his particular struggle while surrounded by people who are getting it far, far worse didn't really work for me. Or to rephrase it slightly, if you are treating other people worse than they are treating you, maybe don't complain about your fate so much. (Begin derail: sort of like the Houston mansions with the "Don't tread on me" flags outside. Who the f' is treading on your million dollar mansion and its team of servants? End derail.) Another similar issue that didn't really work for me is the slavery in the book. The book is nominally anti-slavery, but it also litters its pages with lavishly described nubile sex slaves, which I think undercuts any moral position the novel is trying to take.
So! In the end this is a well written, wandering stew of grim fantasy, adventure, sex, and sometimes over long but mostly apt scenes of violence. It's not entirely like any other fantasy book I've read, but it's also not something I completely connected with or loved despite the author's competence.
The City of Stairs
A likable and clever book about a fantasy world after its Gods have been driven out. The previous steady-state of the world was that Bulikov ruled everything, and Bulikov's rule was assured by the frequent miracles and intercessions of its Gods. After millennia of oppression though, one of Bulikov's colonies figured how to shoot a God with a bullet, and in relatively short order the gods are dead and their works have disappeared along with them. Hence the name City of Stairs; the divine golden towers to the sky vanished in a heartbeat, but the simple stone stair cases built to reach the towers still remain. Now Bulikov is in disarray and ruled over by one of its former colonies. A gross modern comparison would be if in the 1920's, technology stopped working, Britain lost its empire and fell into starvation and chaos, while India vaulted into prominence and a world empire of its own.
So, that sets the stage of the events in the book, as a spy from the India-analog investigates the murder of a historian in Bulikov, and begins to unravel the secret history and current plots of Bulikov. The investigator was likable and smart, her partner Starbuck was amusing, their associates were well crafted, and the plots going on in the city were complex enough to be interesting, but also simple enough to be tractable. In particular the book did a good job with the interface of the divine and the mundane, and all the little details of what it would mean to deal with something from the book of Revelations when it shows up on your neighborhood park. There was one serious flaw though: the Trickster, face-stealing god was criminally underused. The end of the book feels like a play where that particular gun is still sitting on the mantle, gathering dust.
This wasn't a perfect fantasy book that I loved, but it was an extremely charming fantasy book that I liked. It had enough crunch and cleverness and humor that I really enjoyed it.
Seveneves, by Neil Stephens
Seveneves is not a great book, and maybe is not even a good book, but it is an interesting book. The structure of the story is divided into two parts. In the first part the moon is blown up, which is good as far as it goes. Stupid moon. However, serious amounts of moon debris are scheduled to rain down after 2 years, meaning that anyone who wants to live needs to get off the earth and into space where they and their descendants can ride out the moon-rain. This is basically a thought experiment in saying "what if you had the entire earth's resources to devote to the space program, how awesome could you make the ISS in two years? Make sure to show your work". So if you like the ISS, or space, or astronauts, and want 500 pages obsessively devoted to that, then you will love this novel. I am only luke warm on space and the ISS, so as with Perdido Street Station, I ended up strategically skipping certain sentences and paragraph-parts. I mean, these things are interesting, but are they 500 pages interesting? (No.) I had particular problems from page 100 (after the initial premise had worn off) to page 400. A lot of this section struck me as silly, as they posit a world where 99.99999% of people will die in 2 years, and yet things keep more or less functioning up until the end. E.g. one of the main characters, a Neil deGrasse Tyson stand-in, takes a plane flight to see family near the end. And it implies all sorts of things like stewardesses, and pilots, and mechanics, and baggage handlers who are doing their day to day jobs despite the fact they know they are dying in a few weeks. And I just don't see it. Like I can see the moon blowing up, but I can't see people showing up to their minimum wage jobs the week before the apocalypse. I think the _Last Police Man_ had a much more realistic and nuanced take on this situation, of what sorts of things would happen in the rapid and complete collapse of values. Rick and Morty also did a good job with this scenario. Similarly, I think the idea that there would be a global, rational response to the crisis is rather far fetched, especially the idea that elites would agree not to send themselves up. But anyway, that is the author's conceit, so we will just ignore that and focus on the science. And it does actually start to pay off. Around page 400 the story starts to get legs again, carrying things straight up to the page 500 boundary.
And that's where the second part of the story begins. I don't want to say too much about this second part, but it is almost like a review or reflection of the first 500 pages of the novel. Handmaid's tale did something slightly similar, where you have a normal novel, and it is bookended by ~10 pages of anthropologists talking about the novel. Seveneves takes this ~10 page bookend, and expands it to 300 pages, reviewing and reflecting and transforming the first 500 pages of the story. Another comparison would be to a Legacy game, where you first play one game, and then you play the second game based on the configurations and ruins left by the first game. Admittedly, the second game/story does just kind of wander and not really go anywhere or come to any conclusion, but structurally at least it was delightful. I don't want to say too much more about this, except that if you are going to read the book you should do yourself a favor and not read any detailed reviews (except mine) or even the book-jacket. Just dive in blind to this one.
So! The book has neat bit parts, and neat ideas, and semi-neat characters, and some funny moments, and some clever moments, and some smart moments, and some structural ingenuity, but waaaay too much science detail and a lack of any really coherent plot arc and a somewhat blinkered view of human beings. It's also 820 pages. :) If nothing else, it would make effective radiation shielding?
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
A novel about bird law and bird persons
This belongs to the "etoliated" class of fantasy novels, along with _Viriconium_ and _A Stranger in Olondria_. These are fantasy novels with fancy words, fancy authors, and meaty, industrial strength writing. For Perdido, the story is fantasy, and it involves monsters and magic and frogmen and birdmen and bugmen and far more exotic things. However, it is also a novel which is focused on the details of life in the city, things like semi-normal human relationships, breakfasts, dinner dates, careers, publishing, transport, street food, clothes, political structure and parties, economic structure, corruption, unrest, strikes, unions, policing, informing, etc. etc. etc. So while the subject matter is fantastic, its treatment is in many cases down to earth and intelligent. I say many cases, since the book is many things. There are social sections which could be set in modern New York, there are other sections devoted entirely to city infrastructure (actually reminded me a bit of Hunchback of Notre Dame; you have a normal book with a 50 page architectural history lesson randomly inserted into it), while others parts of the book are these almost dream sequences of the sporting of aerial, trans-dimensional monsters. And as many people have said before, the city itself is one of the characters here (New Crobuzon, population 6 million, Republican paradise, where you are not the customer you are the product in like six different ways), with enormous amounts of attention paid to its different districts, neighborhoods, and tourist features.
So, the next question is, "Is it good?" and in general the answer is yes. Many of the main story sections are compelling, and many of the shorter vignettes outside the main story are delightful. Mieville is inventive and skilled, and has no problem at all in pouring out one idea, contraption, creature, or magic system after another. There were rough spots though, and several of the sections did not work. In general, I felt like I was not entirely aligned with the author. It's a bit like watching a Tarantino movie; yes the creator is skilled, but he also intentionally inserts a certain amount of grit or unpleasantness into the mix. The end result is somewhat more impressive than it is likable. So, some concrete examples. One is that I was not as on board with the city descriptions as the author was. There is an immense amount of verbiage dedicated to describing the neighborhoods of the city, as well as the various roads and canals between them. A certain amount of this ok to give character to the place, but in this book I thought it was overdone. Similarly, there is at least one section deep into the book (maybe at page 600 out of 720 pages total?), where the author goes into 30 pages of detail of laying a cable across part of the city. And once I saw what was happening, I just started skimming and skipping until I got to the end of that section. Which is generally not what you want your reader to do at what should be the climax of the story. There were a few other parts that didn't work; the idea and description of "crisis energy" was just dumb, and I was only able to get around it by mentally translating it to "perpetual motion machine" and then skipping any other wording associated with it. There are also a few spots where I felt like Mieville was running into the same problem that he had in _Kracken_, of continually introducing new fantastic elements without ever processing the previous elements. This tendency is not as bad in this novel though, and it is mitigated by the fact that you expect more fantastic elements from a fantastic city. Oh! And one final quibble, the moral question at the end of the novel seemed a bit silly given that they had just finished murdering a few dozen police officers.
So! To sum up my thoughts on Perdido, I would say that it is... better than Viriconium. Two Viriconiums maybe.
Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds
I've heard about Reynolds for years, and had this impression of him as someone who wrote hard, dry, sci-fi that was realistic but perhaps a little too much so. You know, a man's man's sci-fi author, someone who will combine physics calculations with cardboard cut out characters in order to put hair on your chest. And so for years I've put off reading anything by Reynolds, until I saw one of his books in the library and decided to finally try him out. And wow, my impression could not have been more wrong. _Revenger_ is a swashbuckling story set in system similar to that of _Against a Dark Background_, where countless high tech civilizations have risen and fallen, leaving the current inhabitants surrounded by future-tech flotsam and jetsam, most of which they are unable to reproduce or understand. Much of the tech-talk is done through a Mad-Max type lingo; electronics are "gubbins", singularities are "swallowers". And much of the theming comes across as 1800's nautical, as spaceships set solar sails to travel between islands of civilization while worrying about pirates and buried treasure. There's also a bit of firefly in there with proto-Reavers, bounty hunters, and various scrappy space-ship crews. And maybe a tad of Patrick Rothfuss too, in that the world is very exciting and has a surfeit of interesting avenues to explore. Anyway! The story reads quickly, has a whirl of neat ideas (especially at the start), and the ending is not bad even if parts of it are a tad predictable.
Side Jobs, by Jim Butcher
This was a collection of short stories set in the Dresden universe, mostly collected from various anthologies that Jim Butcher has published in over the years. As with most of his work, the stories are extremely fast reading, and have a sort of beer and pretzels and cheesecake enjoyability to them. If you like the Dresden novels you will probably enjoy these short stories just as much. They're mostly at the same level of quality as the novels, and the few that aren't are at least breezy and of some historical/completionist interest. For me the particular standout was _Aftermath_, which encapsulates everything I like about the author. I feel like all I've ever really wanted from literature are a series of 1 to 2-twist plots with interesting tactical battles, likable characters, modern firearms, magic, and mild humor. Sort of like X-Com, but with magic in place of aliens. And yet English departments and authors continue to churn out things that are not that. It is a disappointing state of affairs.
God's Demon (Shame! 3)
I was so excited when I randomly saw this at the library and read the first part of its book jacket. A novelization of Solium Infernum? Sign me up! In practice though the novel completely fails to cohere in any way. It is all over the map, it is the FATAL of novels, it is the 4chan of novels. What I like about Solium Infernum is that it is weird and alien and horrible and completely consistent and committed to that theme. The UI, the flavor text, the art, the byzantine mechanics and political systems, they all work together at presenting this unwieldy and ancient and hide-bound and endlessly elaborate society. This book fails to make such a commitment, and starts dealing with god-bothering and good demons and bad demons and so just kind of falls apart. Though maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised by that aspect due to the title. There was weirdness and alienness and horribleness, but they were only at about 40% of where they needed to be for this novel to work.
Kushiel's Dart (Shame! 2)
A vast disappointment after the other two Jacqueline Carey books that I read which were all about dragons, magic, clever LOTR re-imaginings, and other such wholesome things. This book is all about terrible gender roles and bosom-heaving porn about those roles and Azad Azad Azad. It's also frickin long. I didn't finish the audio book of this.
The Return of Moriarty (Shame! 1)
I was so excited when I randomly saw this at the library. John Gardner? I love John Gardner. So I took this home and started reading. Huh, not that great. But maybe it is just setting up something neat later on? Hmmm, doesn't seem to be...then around page 100 I started getting really suspicious and googling around. It turns out that there are 2 John Gardeners; one that writes excellent moral/psychological/existential novels, and another that churns out low-grade James Bond thriller chum. The book in the library was by the latter. I got to page 100 before figuring out the mix-up, and then another 50 pages before I gave up entirely. The book is just Azad, Azad, Azad. Moriarty does criminal stuff for no good reason and in ways that are not even remotely clever. E.g., Moriarty has a fairly smart minion, and he has used the minion to poison people through their food as a sort of SOP. The minion is then captured by the police and is likely to spill vital information to the police. Moriarty sends the minion a gift basket, which is poisoned, and knowing who the basket is from the minion eats the food in the basket and dies. It's like, ok... I was expecting something clever, since clearly the minion would expect the food to be poisoned? But nope. Similarly, there is the Jack the Ripper case. Again, I was like ok, this a chance for cleverness and reversals and historical re-imagining. Moriarty mentions again and again how the case was interfering with his empire since it brought so many cops and so much attention to his area. And I am like, "Ah! This ripper guy is somehow setup/connected/directed by Holmes in order to interfere with Moriarty." Nope, the Ripper is just a random guy, and the random guy then gets informed on by a random drunk and killed. I skimmed at this point and the rest of the book seems to continue in this same vein. It also has some moderate and cliched racism against Chinese people.
Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo
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.