A surprisingly high quality adventure story set in an Old, Weird West that has had a ShadowRun-type awakening of magical talents in the wake of the Civil War. There were a lot of things to like about this novel. The powers are inventive, the pace is fast, the world building was interesting, the writing astute, and things could get unexpectedly dire/gory/horrific. So, in more detail. For the world building, I like that the author recognizes how powers would completely upend society. Just like how a nomadic society tends toward certain social structures and an industrial society tends toward others, the fact that no one person can ever have that much direct physical power pushes us to cooperate and imposes at least a modicum of society and equality on us. But with heroic/magical powers, all of those previous relations go out the window and its not clear that anything like past human society would be able to survive. And the book takes that as the premise, that the West and the United States as a whole are unraveling as allegiances to ideas and countries are replaced with allegiance to whichever individual has the raw talent to keep an area safe. And the talents run the whole gamut; there is shape changing, mind-afire seeing, scrying, foretelling, shouting, carving, elemental bending, a mess of different summonings, and "chattering", a speaking in tongues type talent that manipulates the world directly. And those are just the basic ones, a number of wilder ones are introduced later on. So! You take those powers and world building, and mix them with more traditional Western themes of Sheriffs and Black Hats, Soldiers and Indians, blood and revenge. It's shotguns and strange magics. I enjoyed the crud out of it.
Edit: While looking up the author on Amazon, I found some recent blog posts by him. Mark Summer is apparently now a leftist writer for DailyKos. Noice!
Orconomics: A Satire, by J Zachary Pike
A theoretically humorous fantasy novel that falls down due to some regrettable comedy choices and conflicting thematic elements.
The basic idea of the novel is to take what Venture Brothers did to super heroes and apply the same conceit to D&D. So you have a formalized Heroes Guild, with Quest contracts that members sign up for, membership cards you earn points on for killing monsters until you rank up, licensed vendors that only sell items to heroes with enough Heroes Guild ranks, etc. And then there are associated ideas like a Thugs Guilds (used to control/do violence to adventurers), Venture funds that buy options on unclaimed treasure hoards, NPC papers that monster races can get in order to be exempt from hero violence, etc. etc. more etc. The story follows a down-and-out group of heroes within this system as they are roped into a seemingly doomed quest on behalf of an eccentric religious prophet.
And now the complaining begins. The problems start from the first chapter, where the main character (a dwarven berzerker) mugs a low level hero and sells the hero's equipment to buy beer. And the economics of it don't work out at all: the hero had a ton of high quality magical gear, and yet selling it is only enough to fuel a single night of drinking beer. And ok, this seems like a *very* persnickety complaint, but it points to a repeated element in the story that things are extremely cartoony and that there is never any consistent idea of value, world-systems, or meaningful stakes/reality. This is a problem since so much of the book tries to be about money and economics, but due to the lack of specificity/consistency it instead just ends up gesturing at these ideas. And this narrative "floatyness" is even more of a problem later on in the book, where the author tries to make things more gritty and more serious. The cartoonishness of the world makes these later attempts at pathos and tragedy just fall flat on their metaphorical faces. Contrast this with _The Name of the Wind_, which consistently uses money and prices to ground the world and give an idea of how its systems/relations work. When done right, prices are a great and underused technique to convey a fantasy world to a plutocratic reader. Or contrast this with _Soon I Will be Invincible_, which takes super heroes and makes it serious, but can only do so because it is grounded from the very beginning of the novel (well, and also because it's writer has more skill).
And then there's the attempted comedy. The comedy is not all bad, but there are parts of it which should never have made it into the book. The worst offenders: cribbing off the Monty Python and the Holy Grail bit about the killer rabbit. Referencing Leeroy Jenkins. The name of the Orcish holy relics, which when pronounced phonetically are "oh my gerd". These are all terrible. There are many, many other parts which are not terrible, but aren't precisely funny either. On average it's a flabby comedy, and it should have been tightened up/edited. To be fair, there are several bits which I did genuinely enjoy: the dialog with the high level *redacted* which they fight in the tower, and the consistent annoyance of the 2 main schools of magic with the third gray school. I also liked bits of the world building, like how when different fantasy races interbreed they tend towards human, and how elves are immortal but their slowly shifting memories effectively turn them into different people over the decades and centuries.
So! That's the book. Its glowing reviews on Amazon are entirely wrong, and are more reflective of its low quality readership than any high quality writing.
Pompeii, by Robert Harris
An acceptable and semi-educational thriller set in ancient Roman times, in the few days immediately before the Vesuvius eruption. The surprising strength of the novel comes from the focus on the system of aqueducts that interlaced the region. The main PoV character is a Roman aqueduct engineer, and the story follows him as he follows the disruptions in the water supply that precede the eruption. This aspect of the novel was very well done, and delves into the various reservoirs, stations, pipelines, building materials, fittings, human resources, and methods of operation for the aqueduct system. The whole system is neat and fiddly and beautiful when in motion, and I feel like it could be its own genre of games, just like the various _Trains_ franchises that dot board gaming and computer gaming (actually, wait, Banks might have already done this in Hydrogen Sonata. I forget). The first half of the novel is built around this water system, as the engineer Attilus reasons back from the sudden water supply problems to what might have gone wrong in the system and how to fix it. This would have been a fine technical drama in its own right since the aqueducts are the only water supply for the 200,000+ people in the area, and if the water is disabled for more than ~48 hours absolutely everything will go to ruin. There are a couple of other elements to the story, e.g. a mystery about what happened to the previous head engineer, labor issues, corrupt and cruel local officials, a love interest, etc. But I feel like these elements are mostly there to spice up the more educational/technical parts of the novel.
Then of course there is the second half of the novel where Vesuvius actually erupts. This part is ok? It has a similar structure to the first half of the novel, in that it has some human drama set on top of a thorough exploration of a segment of history. Where the first half went into detail about the aqueducts, the second half reconstructs the several days of the Vesuvius eruption. Assuming that the novel is not just flat out lying to me, I thought this was part was interesting (if not quite as compelling as the aqueduct parts). I'd always envisioned Vesuvius as a sudden blast and then rapid, fiery, death and entombment. Instead there was a full ~24 hour period where the region was being pelted by light pumice stone, basically a heavy and never ending hail storm. People could and did escape Pompeii during this time; nearly everyone who died there did so as a result of this is fine dog. The end came for the city as a result of the second stage of the eruption, when arcs of superheated gas and ash started rolling down the mountain. Due to the vagaries of wind and geology, there were cities on the other sides of the mountain which escaped destruction and more-or-less survived the eruption. Pompeii of course caught one of these waves directly, causing its complete destruction.
Anyway! I liked much of the historical subject matter, and the remainder was perfectly serviceable.
In the Valley of the Kings, by Terrence Holt
Another re-read, although this time the stories didn't hold up as well. My reaction to several of the short stories changed, with some aging poorly while others I appreciated more. This isn't too surprising, the stories are basically poetry, and your mood has a lot to do whether you find it enchanting or trite. _Apocalypse_ was the stand out of the bunch; it's basically _The Last Policeman_ in fast-forward, and was really lovely. The others I enjoyed, though I did not love them as much as the first time. _Eurdyke_ and _Aurura_ were the runts of the litter.
Random Acts of Senseless Violence, by Jack Womack
Another re-read of a childhood favorite. In this case the story held up better (or my body chemistry was better), and I really enjoyed it even though I've read the book ~4 times now. The basic idea is that this is the coming of age story of a bookish, lesbianic, satanic, murderess in a dystopian and collapsing near-future New York. As that list of adjectives implies, the story is completely and 100% extra and I love it for that. The story is told through a diary which tracks the descent of the protagonist and the society around her, through events but also through the changing language of the diary. The future-argot that the author invents has a few moments that flicker between being embarrassing and perfect, but for the most part I liked it and the conceit works far, far better than it could. In the hands of a less talented writer the conceit would have simply ruined the book. I don't have a ton of patience for invented languages and dialects, but this one I enjoyed, perhaps because it is introduced slowly, or perhaps because it takes English and radically simplifies it in some ways rather than making it more baroque and difficult to parse. And it is a neat phenomena that you can read a random passage near the end of the book and not really like/appreciate it, but if you read the entire book through from the beginning and let your mind soak in the argot then the later passage reads far more clearly/evocatively. Ok, the hard part of the review is over. Now, in case you can't get a copy of this book yourself (Jack Womack is criminally under-published), here are the 3 best phrases of the book, little bits of world building thrown in along the way:
Operation Domestic Storm
No Justice - No Mercy
It's a simple formula but I am a simple person.
A Severed Head, by Iris Murdoch
"The muscles of her nose contracted." What other author would write a sentence like that? None, that's who. When she wants to Iris gets crazily and wonderfully and clinically precise in drawing her characters. Also a good book in other ways, though not feeling it quite as much as I did when I first read it.
The Lifespan of a Fact
Despite the shortness of the book it never really grabbed me. The main author was offputting; after years of reading _Harpers_ I'm allergic to his style of writing and it was only a few sentences in before I was annoyed with him. And then the fact checker seemed *really* obsessive compulsive in a non-healthy or useful way about many of statements that came up. This might work better as a sit-com, but as a written conflict between two people who have entirely different ways of interacting with the world it was grating. It's basically reading 60 pages of passive aggressive emails from someone's work place.
The Dragon's Path:
Despite the generic title and forgettable cover art, this is actually a fairly high quality fantasy book. It's kind of what you would get if you took Game of Thrones, but turned everything down by 30%-40%. The events are dangerous and occasionally grim, but not too much so. The politics are interesting and semi-complex, but not to the point that you need a wikipedia page to figure out the lines of politics and succession. The writing is enjoyable and crunchy, and not quite so embroidered and elaborate as to describe every meal at the feast. It's also a very quick read; if I had not needed to pack for a trip it could have easily been a one day, 500 page excursion. It helps that the book starts off strong, with some action but also with a road trip where 90% of the people are pretending to belong to professions that they actually know nothing about. It's not a typical start to a fantasy adventure, but I liked it and it helped lead into the rest. The PoV characters are generally fine, but I'd like to particularly commend one of them, Weber, for being like the farce-road trip and not at all the typical fare for a fantasy epic. He's a character where for long periods I was genuinely unsure about where he was going/becoming. Other positive qualities: there is fighting, but probably not more than once per 100 pages, and even then it tends to be a brief and self contained thing. There are also a bunch of animal themed fantasy races (the author mentions in the afterward that he is a *huge* furry), but as with the title this works far better than you would expect. In summary, this isn't a genius work of fantasy, but it is one where things are consistently better/more interesting than you would expect, and where many of the common irritants of the genre are not present.
A Room with a View
The fabled missing link between Jane Austen and Iris Murdoch. The first 30 pages of this book did nothing for me, being set amidst year ~1900 English people, which are the worst. There is the smallness of thought, the constraint of long dead conventions, and just a generalized squalor of mind and body and housing and food and weather. But! After ~30 pages the novel emerges from this gray morass and starts to shine steadily brighter. The characters are fleshed out with greater detail and precision, revealing new facets of their personality and history. An infusion of new and more lively people joins the social graph. There is a magical socialist who plays an ever larger role, breaking people out of their shells and arguing against narrow convention, there are streams and glades, sunlight and flowers and unexpected kisses, there are people comedically stumbling upon other people naked. There is comedy, delusion, hypocrisy, and an argument for kindness. In short, it represents a transition point between Austen's world and the more fevered and modern and multi-aspected and accurate one of Murdoch. It's still very much a simple and partial prototype, not something as undeniably correct and graceful as what Murdoch creates, but all the basic parts are there. Oh, and the chapter names and character names are a treat.
Brave Story is like the Thomas Covenant books, but you know, for kids! It is a slow but ultimately likeable adventure about a Japanese school boy pulled into a fantastical world of strange creatures and magic. The basic idea is common enough in manga that has its own sub-genre, (Iseki?) but sure, one more never hurts.
The story is told simply but well. The protagonist is a good kid who plays a lot of video games and just generally wants to do what is right in any given situation. And the fantasy world he is pulled into is in part a reflection of his own mind and experiences, so there are challenges and dangers but nothing beyond what you would see in Final Fantasy III or the like. I thought it was enjoyably non-edgy, just a sort of warm and interesting novelization of a JRPG adventure. Really the scariest part of the book was the first 250 pages set in the real world, where the kid's parents are going through a fairly brutal divorce. And despite the over all simplicity of the plot and structure and characters, I did reliably enjoy the actual descriptions of the scenes. It's not a terrible book for a long relaxing easy read.
A Short History of Everything
A warm, interesting, and occasionally misguided general science book that I wish had been published 15 years later. The topics vary widely; the author basically went to 200 scientists and asked each of them to talk about the most interesting facts and historical anecdotes in their field. It works well. You learn about Hubble's track and field dominance, about a savant who could look at 1000-star fields and instantly spot the new star created by a super nova, and about a conniving and villainous 18th century dissectionist who started a nice museum in his retirement. There was some new scientific information in here for me too. I didn't realize how completely enclosed the earth was during its greatest ice ages (very, even oceans completely frozen over), and I hadn't followed the theories on why the Cambrian Explosion happened (probably wasn't an actual explosion, probably a result that creatures need to be a certain size to be fossilized, and creatures started reaching that size. So not necessarily more varied creatures, rather just larger creatures that would actually show up in the fossil record), and how the various pre-humans spread out of Africa (not so much in eliminationist waves, more likely from inter-breeding and inter-region breeding). The general guiding theme of the chapters is to cover all the bits of info and history and chance needed for humans to occur on earth, from the astronomical, to the atomical, to the geological, to the biological, climatological, etical, etical.
There are some minor annoyances with the book, e.g. he will write things like a million million million rather than E18. Also he starts the book off with the view of "how neatly the pothole fits us, the puddle!", rather than "the puddle fits the pothole, because the pothole created the puddle". That quibble made me a bit slow to get into the book, but he drops it after the introductory chapters. And then one final issue/ask was that I wish the book was more recent, so that I could be positive I was not making a fool of myself when I mention his info at cocktail parties. Overall this is a very readable general science book with a nice theme and easily digestible, ~30 page chapters.
Ok, and a few more bits:
Horses nearly went extinct! We came that close to never having ponies.
It's mildly surprising how many scientists only changed their minds by dying.
It took a really, really long time for bacteria to oxygenate the atmosphere. And now you're wasting it. :P :D
An upper middling urbane fantasy story. The setting is a 1900's alt-London that is ruled over by jerk mages. The magic in the story is semi-Vancian; the mages do not cast spells themselves, rather they use true-names to summon and enslave the djinns/demons who do the magical heavy lifting. So far so nice. The story has two PoV characters; one is a an apprentice summoner and budding jerk, the other is a djinn with a heart of gold (Bartimaeus). Bartimaeus is by far the better character, he has most of the adventures and cleverness and insight and humor. If there's one criticism I'd make of him, it is that he's not *quite* as tricky/self-interested/vengeful as he really should be. Like he's an 8, but he should really be an 11. The summoner, Nathan***, is a sort of moderately talented young republican, and he kicks things off through a misguided quest to revenge a personal slight. On the way they both meet complications and end up facing off against a plot against the jerk government of Great Jerk Britain.
From just the first book, it's unclear where exactly the trilogy is going. The book is fairly clear that most of the mages are terrible people, lacking even the out-sized chutzpah and rhetoric of Vance's mages. But at the same time, 90% of the named characters are mages. So as the reader you are kind of ok with all of the named humans in the story dying. On the other hand, the book is fast paced and inventive enough that you can largely ignore such high level concerns while the plot and world building unfolds. The author consistently picks the right level of pacing and detail and (quality) description. Not to spoil things too much, but I particularly liked the sensory descriptions and inventiveness of the final conflict. Anyway! It's a clever and well crafted start to a series that I would enjoy exploring further. I'd like to see where he takes the series.
Hyena, by Jude Angelini
Another book that doesn't *quite* justify being printed on paper. Hyena is a bunch of extremely short stories about doing drugs, having regrettable sex, and just generally lumpen-proling it up. It's kind of a modern, low quality Bukowski (it turns out the author mentions him as an influence in the Afterword), just without the intelligence, the experience with work, or the ability to convey an actual psychology. E.g. from what I've read of Bukowski, his characters are terrible but there's a genuine and skilled effort to portray their minds and their legitimate complaints and reactions. Another unfavorable comparison would be to my own semi-autobiographical account of my formative years. In any case, this book has been done before and done better. The best you can say about it is that some of the short stories enter the realm of stand up comedy, e.g. they start out sleazy and embarrassing, but just keep pushing that further until they're genuinely funny. It's also extremely fast to read, since the it's a short book with large type and small words. In general though it seems like a long list of terrible life choices by a person who is no longer limited by the finances/circumstances of their upbringing and really could be doing better. He needs Ars Magica in his life, possibly some Twitch streams, and not to be sleeping with yet another person that he doesn't really like.
The Fixed Stars: 37 Emblems of the Perilous Season, by Brian Conn
Another weirdo book, consisting of 36 short stories. In this case the setting is a sort of post-Oryx and Crake world where our civilization has been destroyed and replaced with the seeds of something different, possibly better. The new humans are vegetarians, eschew material goods and buildings and shoes, rely on bio-tech and spores and insects as their primary tools, and in general have an undecided, allusive, open, a-hierarchial, egoless, and extremely community driven approach to the world. They're also prone to literary flights of fancy, incomplete or ambiguous descriptions, and are preyed upon by mutated wasteland monsters that resemble human beings to various degrees. All of this though is really just the start of the oddness of the book. There is also a great deal of structural experimentation. The stories are mostly disconnected from each other but twist and twine about with similar settings and ideas. An early story involves a helical structure in the ground, who's nearly identical branches curve along next to each other without ever quite touching. That seems a decent metaphor for the structure of the novel, as the stories and characters seem like they might be connected but aren't quite. And still, this is just one more part of the oddness. Stories cut off mid-way, ending at about the 70% mark of a normal story. Narrators may or may not be monsters pretending to be human. Chains of narrators may or may not be monsters pretending to he human. There are skewed interpretations of advertising copy, there are skewed re-creations of plays and stories. In general, people speak in a similar way to the translations of freshly discovered tribes, in winding and discursive and repetitive patterns where it is clear that what is written down is really only a partial translation of the true weirdness of how they view the world.
So, that gives you at least an idea of what is going on. As literary work that you read for enjoyment, the book just barely works. The author is missing the usual hooks of plot and character, and instead simply tells a series of disconnected and highly experimental stories that frequently cut off before reaching resolution. So this isn't a book that drives you to read it all in one day; for the most part it seems indifferent as to whether you even read the next page or not. Despite the self-indulgent nature of the novel, I can't quite condemn it because the author really is quite good. It takes a great deal of skill to make the communities seem so alien and yet so grounded. His descriptions are often striking, lyrical, and beautiful, and it takes real intelligence to create something so consistently unsettling and skewed without seeming random or wacky or twee. His tremendous talent at writing saves this book, and elevates it from being an unreadable morass. Instead it is just a very slow reading and scenic morass, but not the complete disaster it would have been in hands of someone less skilled.
The Throne of Bones, by Brian McNaughton
This is a book. After that, I'm not quite sure what to say about it. It has just about every content warning out there, and I can count on zero hands the number of people I would recommend it to. There's a fair amount of murder and rape, an occasional cannibalism, frequent necromancy, and a whole lot of having sex with, in, and around corpses. In the book there's this one faction, the Sons of Cludd, who are these ignorant, violent, witch burning hillbilly religious zealots. You know, republicans. At the start of the book they seem terrible and despicable. By the end of the book you're like "yep, that is the correct attitude given the world they are in. They are entirely rational to burn anything that seems weird because it inevitably turns out to be floridly evil." As with _Sufficiently Advanced Magic_, I'm surprised that this book was ever printed on paper much less won any awards.
So, that's the general content of the book. I've already lost all the sanity points I have to lose in this particular domain, so I didn't find the book scary or shocking, just very, very strange. The author's style contributes to this too; he takes a brisk and generally light hearted approach to the stories. There is one line near the end that sums up his voice perfectly:
"He brightened ever so slightly, like a leper with a new hat"
So the writing itself is succinct, creative, light, and playful. And due to this, the book reminds me more of a really fucked up Fritz Leiber, rather than someone heavy and depressive like Laird Barron.
Other notable bits:
- Quodomass and his difficulty with the basic social interactions needed to buy things. The struggle is real.
- The names: Lord Glyphtard, Seithreethra, Glitittia, Filloweela, Dodont, Glocque
Penelopiad, by Marget Atwood
There is a board-game reviewer that I like, and he says that the three most important qualities for a game are "pacing, pacing, and pacing". I don't think this entirely transfers to novels, but it mostly does, and I'd give "pacing" at least one of the top three spots for what makes a readable and enjoyable book. You can forgive a lot of things to a book that doesn't waste your time, that knows what it wants to say and says it. This is such a book, though there's not much to forgive here. Penelopiad is a short, semi-sweet, semi-black, somewhat ambiguous, highly creative re-imagining of the story of Odysseus from the perspective of his wife Penelope. It's quite possibly my favorite Atwood story and certainly the only one that I read in a single day. Atwood covers the obvious ground of how Penelope has a terrible situation in the Odyssey, but also adds in a cloud of other possibilities. She offers alternate versions for the events of Odysseus' journey, a potential relationship between Helen and Odysseus, and a number of different reasons why Penelope's maids might have been killed in the end. There are suggestions, not proofs, of what might have actually happened. The story also has a fair bit of structural creativity as the main narrative is interleaved with a Chorus that explores even more forms and viewpoints on the events. It's Nabakovian, but with the traditional Atwood themes of men's shittiness towards women as well as the ways in which women can be shitty to each other. And then the core of the book of course isn't really about Penelope at all, it's about these 12 nameless slave women who were killed for ambiguous, but guaranteed terrible reasons and then largely overlooked for 2500 years by just about everyone who read the story. It's a worthwhile core to build upon.
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
A poignant reminder of how far technology has brought us; just as 90% of the populace used to be farmers in order to feed the needs of the nation, so to it used to require an entire 200 page book to do the same work that we could do today with an eggplant emoji, or perhaps an impassioned plea to "lemme see that dick". This book is one long "will they, won't they" for two characters as they try to navigate past disasters, current suitors, bad advisors, uncertain feelings, and other sundry problems.
This was the second Jane Austen book that I've read, and my impressions of this one are similar to my impressions of Sense and Sensibility. The book is well written and intricate and has precise character portraits and manipulates relationship slots in the same way that Iris Murdoch does (though at a much slower pace). Despite those positive qualities, it is still deeply, deeply rooted in a time and a set of social codes that are mostly irrelevant to my own. And some of those codes are just bad, like if an Aztec wrote a novel about how to most sensibly and properly and virtuously sacrifice people to the gods. It is a skilled book, but also one that I have trouble truly connecting to except at its best sections. And as with Strange Mountain, it suffered from not having any lasers, dragons, vampires, or visible lesbians.
Ars Magica, by Tasha Yar
A short and delightful reframing of the life of a historical pope through the lens of an Ars Magica campaign. The author takes the known historical facts and key incidents, and then re-imagines them in the light of magic and spirits.
This book was a huge relief after some of the tomes that I've encountered this year. The author gets right down to things, writing enjoyable/interesting/emotional stories in 3, 10, 20, and 40 page increments. For instance, the start of the book actually tries to get you interested and excited about what's going on within 2-3 pages. This seems like Writing 101, but you would never know it from many of the books I run into. Anyway, within these first 3 pages the protagonist/future pope declares his love for his monk bros, Science, and God, barely rejects a coven of nubile sex witches, and experiences each of the earthly and celestial elements. As a person who loves Mind and Spirit and makes hydralisk spitting noises at the Body, I love this stuff, and it's a great way to start out. The rest of the book continues along similar paths, as our pope meets ever more educated bros, learns math and magic, puts God and magic artifacts before hoes, and tries to contain the cascading damage from the few but significant mistakes he made in using his power. The writing is consistently evocative, brief, and beautiful, and the author gets the "feel" of the setting completely right.
I liked this book, and my only major complaints is that it is only Ars Magica adjacent rather than being full on the Ars Magica RPG. E.g. it explains history in semi-Ars terms, rather than just going full on and exploring the entire life of a mage/coven using historical trappings.
A skillfully written, but also kind of dumb, historical-fantasy-war-adventure.
One the one hand, the author is a good writer, and he has a fast paced and action filled story with descriptive and well done combat and realistic tactics and strategy and such. The author has set his story in a just slightly ahistorical/fantastical version of Ancient Greece and its city states, and the descriptions of the gear and tactics and daily life and tools match up with the best theories we have about what that was all like. And the story is paced well, not too long, with not too many extraneous bits, and with a short but sensible dramatic structure.
On the other hand, the title page of the book has a blurb-recommendation by Steven Erikson, who is the godfather of terrible fantasy door stops. And when you think about it, you can see why Erikson would like the novel. It has this feel of manly men and blood and tragedy for no particular good reason. While the moment to moment writing is fine, there's a lot of open questions about what the story and plot are doing and why they are doing it. E.g. Why set this story in a fantastical version of Greece? Did the science fictional and ahistorical elements really add anything to the story? (no) If you are doing a fantastical story, why hew so closely to these historical plot lines? E.g. why not just write historical fiction, rather than off-by-10% semi-fantasy historical fiction? Were we supposed to be rooting for the majority of the PoV characters? They seemed like kind of dicks in the greater scheme of things and there wasn't any real reason to hope that they would succeed rather than their opponents. Along the same lines, were we supposed to feel bad when bad things happen to them and their people? Or is the story more "milk man gets served milk"? (yes) Did the story need so much rape? As usual the answer is probably not.
So, this was a technically competent historical-fantasy adventure story (a bit like a text version of the movie _Gladiator_, but without the gladiators?) that was lacking in overall direction and meaning.
Pandora's Star by Peter Hamilton
An unfortunate and bloated book. I ended up Benjamin Buttoning this novel. The first part of the novel was boring and dumb (e.g. the sci-fi author failed to fully engage with how his technology would change life, e.g. we still have cars and car dealerships and money in 2400 AD, also he was throwing shade at socialism/any attempt at a non-barbaric society), so I skipped to the end of this 1000 page novel to see how things turned out. And the ending was kind of interesting? So then I reverse-skimmed the thing. And after reverse skimming I can say that the basic problem with the novel is that 2/3's of it is terrible. It involves not fully thinking about how science would change life, dumb characters, and dumb plotlines that go absolutely nowhere. One small example of this would be a visit to a far away colony where some of the inhabitants are waging a guerrilla war against an ethically ambiguous Federation Science outpost there. And the story goes deep into the Scottish-themed clans waging this war, and their techno-equivalents of old medieval weapons, and their buxom Scottish lassies, and it all has this choking air of RenFair about it. And that's like, a 50 page excerpt? And there's plenty more dumb excursions like this, e.g. an interminable police procedural, and an interminable overland hiking trip. I skipped these whenever they came up (they came up a lot) as they did not appear to actually impact or add to the main plot and were certainly not enjoyable to read.
In fairness, there is 1/3 of the novel which is decent-to-good. This 1/3 is the part of the novel that involves space, aliens, and first contact logic. I liked many of the alien races the author created, and how they have their own alien motivations and tech paths and history and way of thinking. In particular I appreciated how so many of the aliens are these just singular things or societies that are not trying to expand or paint the map in their color. Many of them are significantly older than humanity, and so there are questions about their true history and past interactions with each other and their relations to the super-structures that litter the book. Anyway, I've read the reviews for the sequel to this book, and apparently the author takes his bloviation to an even higher level in the sequel. It is a shame; there is a decent 500 page novel struggling to work its way out of this 2000 page series.