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.
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Owen Butler
A series of sharp and well crafted short stories about South Vietnamese people coming to America. Some of the stories are humorous, some are melancholy, some are peaceful, and a surprising number involve the death of small animals. The pattern for the best of these stories is ~20 pages of somewhat innocuous setup followed by an unexpectedly emotional climax. I enjoyed them, though they suffered somewhat from not having any lasers, dragons, vampires, or lesbians. I was also a bit weirded out by the fact that the PoV characters are all South Vietnamese and somewhat exoticized, while the author's a white dude. Is this cultural appropriation? And by wondering so, have I become the thing I fear?
Edit: Nevermind! I was listening to an interview with a veteran-writer who was a 2nd-generation Vietnamese American, and he A) highly recommended this book and B) gave the author a waiver for not being Vietnamese.
The Vampire Genevieve by Jack Yeovil
Another shockingly competent genre fantasy entry. In this case, I feel like what happened was that a marketing guy came up with the idea "let's publish an enormous story cycle about a sexy, 16 year old looking vampire in the WarHammer universe", an idea that is almost guaranteed to be terrible. And then they passed that mandate off to the author, and the author proceeded to write a series of stories that did their best to avoid said vampire. Genevieve is usually no more than one out of an ensemble of characters, and in one story she literally just drops in to say "hi" to the main characters and then disappears for the rest of the narrative. And where Genevieve does show up and take part, she is usually not one of the leading lights and instead is a sort of affectless or "cold" space in the narrative. It's not that she is written badly, it's more that she suffers from a 600 year bout of ennui and is rarely as fully involved in the events as the other characters are.
So, some examples. Perhaps the first 300 pages are about plays-within-plays-within-plays, and delve surprisingly deep into the running of a theater company in a world of murderous magic and mutation. One of the real main characters of the story cycle, Detlef the writer/producer, is introduced and has an on-again-off-again thing with Genevieve. The author also builds up a number of characters, events, and locations that transfer from story to story, so that over the course of the 700 pages you gradually come to recognize different bars, nobles, city-factions, etc. Several events that are mentioned in passing in one story (e.g. a serial killer or civil unrest) are explored fully in other stories, as other members of the ensemble deal with them. And the long lived nature of Mrs G. allows for checking in on different characters at different portions of their lives. I liked this aspect, and particularly how it allowed some parts of the story to be told in reverse chronological order. What else do we have. There is a unicorn hunt, which makes the wise choice of making the unicorn gigantic, an absolute unit. There are some stories of other vampires, in particular Genevieve's 1200 year old grandmother. There are a couple of hunt-the-serial killer cases, which mix elements of Jack the Ripper, Basic Instinct, and Dirty Harry. Many of the stories are surprisingly and viscerally gory, even for WarHammer. The later stories are also have a lot more variance; in some of them the author seems to be taking his task progressively less seriously, like a GM at the end of an unraveling D and D campaign. Others have these weird injections psycho-sexual Ghost Busters II goo, particularly the Unicorn and the Jack the Ripper story. I don't know if I object to these, I would need to read and understand the author better before doing that, but I am sure some people would object to them. It's certainly not what I expected going into these stories. None of it is remotely canon for WarHammer. The author even pokes some gentle fun at some of the other WarHammer series at several points (e.g. they track down Gotrek and Felix at a bar, where it was mentioned 200 pages earlier that it was the city's main gay bar). Anyway! If you'd like some WarHammer stories by a skilled author who doesn't take his mission statement or genre-world or task entirely seriously, this is a good place to go.
The Kreutzer Sonata/The Death of Ivan Ilych
This was a quick re-read to see if there were any useful thoughts or impulses-to-thoughts for me in Kreutzer Sonata, a book that I remembered as being fairly out there. The answer turns out to be "no". The best you can say about it is that it is so far to the right in gender relations that it sometimes has an overflow error and comes back around to the far left.
On a brighter note, I do still love Ivan Ilych, a comfort book that I first read as a kid and which reconfirms the wisdom of not having excess furniture or possessions. That's not exactly the point of the book, but it is a very good point.
Lincoln in the Bardo
An unfortunate litany of heresies. This book is filled with mistakes, misconceptions, blindnesses, willful blindnesses, incorrect thoughts and perceptions, and just generalized wonky ontologies. It can't have anything but an evil effect on the uneducated reader, doing nothing but leading them away from the truth and right thinking.
While the author is skilled and I enjoyed some of the vignettes, the whole thing is crippled by being attached to a semi-standard and straight faced version of Christian mythology, with all its logical and psychological problems. Like, why are you punishing these things that you created? As a programmer I've never felt the urge to punish any of the programs I've made. I've never felt the urge to punish an errant Roomba. Once you understand the system, the obvious thing to do is to fix its faults rather than condemning it to Roomba hell or Roomba limbo. It reminds me of this whole Rosko's Basilisk thing; people of a lower order of intelligence and understanding leap to this idea that "oh yes those who wronged me must be punished", while once you reach a certain (minor) level of understanding that sort of thought becomes completely alien and you are more like "uh, just fix the F'ing mistake that's causing the problem?". And then from there we can move on to all the other head shaking issues with the mythology of the book. Reading the spiritual system he has set up is like reading and comprehending some horribly F'd up program architecture. It's like that scene at the end of Burn After Reading, where you are just grasping your fore-head trying to puzzle out how they could have made things so confused.
And of course you know why it is so confused, because at some point it was useful for someone for it to be confused. You can't get where you want to go through the real numbers, so you take a leap into the imaginary domain, jaunt through there for a bit, and then transition back to the rational numbers once you are at the location you want. It's similar to the _ScrewTape Letters_, though of course the list of things that get you damned/saved are different between the two books. Lol. And while in a generalized sense I can appreciate this sort of Cugel-like clever trickery played on people, this particular brand of bull shit has been pushed at me so often that I grew extremely tired of it, decades ago. And then also you feel bad for people like Mrs Lincoln, who were lied to about the world and then couldn't handle the truth when it came around. And I could go on and on in this vein; suffice to say that there are plenty of criticisms to be made about Christian mythology and how it is deployed in the world.
If you had removed the metaphysics I would have been fine with this book. If you had placed the book in a Grayhawk graveyard I would have been fine with this book. If you had emphasized the alienness of the metaphysics (e.g. Darkness Visible) I would have been fine with the book. If you had given the mythology an interesting twist (e.g. Protomen) I would have been delighted with the book. As is though it just reminds me of another aspect of my personality that has been shaped, pearl like, as push-back against an irritant foisted on me during childhood.
Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames
I listen to a fair number of podcasts by professional game reviewers, and one of their inside jokes and bete-noires is the word "fun". "Fun" is a word that people turn to very naturally, and yet it doesn't convey much information beyond the fact that you liked the thing. E.g. if a game is "fun", that doesn't tell you why the reviewer liked the thing; was it the graphics, the controls, the lore, the story, the core gameplay, the explosions, the upgrades, the community, etc. etc. etc.?
Anyway, this book was really fun. The author consistently sets up interesting, humorous, dangerous, witty, snappy, and simply well-written adventure situations for his band of heroes as they trek across civilization and the Wyld in order to rescue one of their kids from a horde of monsters. It's like having a really great DM and party recount their cleverest and most enjoyable encounters. Much of the Monster Manual makes an appearance in this book, and the author is clearly a huge fan of D&D and its tropes. The five main heroes and their relationships are also fleshed out surprisingly well, e.g. to a degree and with an intelligence way beyond what would be required to just tell an adventure story, but not to the point where it becomes burdensome or the main focus of the novel. If there is one slight criticism I would make of the story is that the author is a little too protective of his characters, and I think the story would be better if they had a little less plot armor. Oh, and there were a few too many pop culture references. Still! If you'd like to read an exciting, funny, and clever fantasy adventure story you can't do better than this. It is very beer and pretzels, but it is the absolute best beer and pretzels.
Bourne, by Jeff VanderMeer
Puts the "new" and the "weird" into "New Weird". Bourne is an imaginative delight. At various times this story reminded me of Perdido Street Station, Nabokov, Pit People, The Road, The Thing, Oryx and Crake, On My Way to Paradise, Princess Maker, and of course Annihilation/Control. It is a feast of ideas, relations, word play, and creation. The basic story is of a waste-land scavenger who comes across an advanced piece of biotech, and proceeds to raise the biotech up from an Aliens-type egg sac to its full, protean, end stage glory. This rearing and relationship and its ambiguity is the heart of the story, and really its strongest part.
The last 20% or so of the books talks more about people, which are boring, and less about the relationship between Mom and Beast. I would have been fine with just the first 80%, but whatever, it is not bad, the last 20% is more like _Acceptance_, a gentle let down after a crazy story.
I hope Scalzi is happy with his vast piles of cash. If Scalzi cared at all about writing great stories, Bourne would make him cry himself to sleep each night.
Collapsing Empire, by Scalzi
Yep, this is Scalzi. I read about 60 pages near the front, and then skimmed another 40 pages near the end. It's pretty Scalzi.
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire
Well, this was better than the last book in the series. The cover art is nice, the book is long enough for things to actually happen, and some of the things were neat. Still, the book has disappointments. It is too simple, it promotes poor ideas about diet and health, and it's not the first or the best book about a world of confection based weapons.
Sufficiently Advanced Magic
I felt bad for the tree that died to bring me this book, and in general it felt weird to see this sort of writing on paper rather than on a computer screen. Sufficiently Advanced Magic is somewhere way down on the Geek Hierarchy, the extremely guilty pleasure of reading the 1-for-1 novelization of an RPG campaign/adventure. I think I first started down this dark path in elementary school, reading Dragon Lance (in which they at least made a little effort to "novelize" the game session), and then continued down the path during the AOL days by reading this really neat necromancer campaign, and then later on it college with a Houston group/writers that were doing something similar and publishing it to the web. But for the most part that was all online, something indulged in behind pulled curtains and closed doors. This book on the other hand is completely out there and open and is just pages of print of the author telling you about his character and planning his stats bonuses and telling you the game mechanics of his world and people's mana and HP values and fighting monsters and summoning Final Fantasy style beasts to attack the monsters so on. It suffers from being too generic (e.g. includes every standard fantasy element) and too safe (e.g. the world is for the most part a standard MMO, with the usual hit points and mana bars and levels and such). The world does have occasional interesting elements, but it suffers from pulling in too many fantastic elements and details without sufficient pay off. The book is also absurdly long, and for the most part it doesn't work. The main character (author?) is mildly autistic, and doesn't have that much to him besides an obsessive focus on min-maxing. The book only really rises above this near the end, where they at least have an interesting situation/extended combat that pulls the book from its previous 400 page mire. In general though I feel like the author took something like this and decided to print it out on actual paper. It's like seeing a printed email, it weirds me out.
Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari
I was taking a trip and looking for something to listen to on the way. A web search for "best audio books" turned up this book (the recommendation was from before the monstrous acts for which Aziz is now famous), and I decided to check it out. The audio book is short, light, and mildly amusing but did not have much new information. It's essentially a book long version of one of the OkCupid data analysis blog posts, and it just reviews/skims the common wisdom on how dating/marriage has changed over the last ~100 years. I wish Aziz had spent more times examining dating in other countries (Japan, France, etc.) as that was the most interesting part of the audio book for me.
Red Sister, Mark Lawrence
Harry Potter meets Blood Sport. Alternatively, Name of the Wind without the sex, engineering, or economics. The story reads quickly and is generally likeable and well put together (e.g. there an appropriate number of Checkov's Guns and they go off at appropriate times). The protagonist goes to magic school, has magic classes, has magic fist fights, deals with corrupt aristos, deals with plots and threats to the school, etc. There is also some sci-fi world building, which while fine does not appear to be necessary. I'm ok with just saying "a wizard did it"; you don't really need to set the story on a fallen colony on another planet and provide genetic engineering reasons for different blood line abilities. I did enjoy this world's version of Vance's the Tand, I did enjoy the "minor" magical talents, and I did enjoy some of the school mates (Arabelle, Zole, Hessa).
Perilous Waif, by E William Brown
A silly novel about sci-fi fighting that is further flawed by its right wing flare ups. One way to describe Perilous Waif would be as the novelization of a _Total Annihilation_ match. There's a lot of robots building larger robots to build still other robots with guns and lasers and armor and going pew-pew at each other. Another way to describe the book would be to say that it is a sci-fi monty haul campaign, with characters rapidly levelly up to ludicrous power tiers and equipment loadouts. One side character goes from ROM chip, to maintenance android, to advanced combat mech, to gigantic-dragon-shaped-self-replicating-nanite-swarm-combat-mech in the space of like 100 pages. The main character follows a similar arc through the story. There's an enormous of focus on made up sci-fi weapons and combat mechs and loadouts. In that aspect it reminds me of the drawings I would make in elementary school, of cybernetic tigers with lazers mounted on their eyes and sword-tails. And in general the book has a lot of sort of pandering, low value, extruded product feel to it. It has a certain target it wants to hit (e.g. that Ender's Game fantasy of competence and battle and weapons and tactics), and it just goes after that target with unwavering consistency. It's a bit like the nerd-male version of the constant churn of e-books about women having to choose between vampires/werewolves/werewolf-billionaires/vampire rockstar/half-were-wolf-half-vampire-witch/ etc. etc. It has a fantasy that it wants to play to, and the author needs to write 500 pages of that fantasy in 2 months because that's just what the economics of the e-book industry is right now.
Anyway! So that's the basic problem with the book. A smaller but recurring problem is that it inserts idiotic right wing views into the story. It's not nearly as bad as _The Departure_, and I'm not afraid that the author is going to shoot up a women's college, but it's still an annoyance and it's an annoyance that I have little patience for in 2018. The book rags on vegetarianism (healthy, cheap, reduces your footprint and in general is a vote for human beings not going extinct), on not having a hand gun with you at all times (number of times the author or myself have needed to shoot someone, 0. Maybe not actually needed in most areas of civilization?), on any attempt to resolve things peacefully or any universe in which that could be a useful avenue. Also has gold as a currency in the far future when there are nanites and matter-fabricators everywhere. Also replicates a lot of the most boring parts of 21st century gender relations. Also doesn't really come out and make an apologia for Nazi Germany, but you know, good people on both sides. Again, not really interested in this in 2018.
The Two of Swords, Volume 1, by KJ Parker aka Tom Holt
The reviews on the cover of this book say that the author is:
"One of fantasy's premier voices."
"Parker's way with words can be as beautiful as it is technical."
"Parker's skillful control of pacing, expert rendering of characters, and subtle sense of humor add depth and believability."
Note that none of these reviews said that "the book is enjoyable to read", or "I liked any of the characters", or "there was some discernible plot or other reason for this 500 page book to exist". So. This book is set in an alternate version of the Byzantine empire, where the two halves of the empire have been fighting a civil war for the last 90 years. Notable features include two brothers who are genius commanders and are on opposite sides of the war, a Masonic secret society that is spread through both halves of the empire, and large tracts of devastated and depopulated land. The primary problem with the book is that it never gives us a reason we should care about the events in the book. The two sides of the empire seem approximately the same, and approximately evenly matched. There isn't any grand threat, or quest, or important sequence of events going on. There are PoV characters on both sides, and none of them really stand out enough that you would root for them, and none of them get quite enough screen time that you become attached to them. There aren't any idealists, or any particularly charming rogues, or any real villains. The best it can claim is some mildly interesting characters, going about doing dangerous and mostly useless things in a cruddy war zone. Admittedly, by the end of the book you can kind of see where the plot is starting to go, and what the next 2000 (!) pages of this series are going to be about, but man do you not care by that point. If it takes 500 pages to give the reader a hint of why they should care about the novel, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Another problem with the book is that it is a book about medieval warfare but it does not get medieval warfare right (at least to the best of my understanding). For instance, the first ~5 pages of the book are about a battle, and none of it makes sense. One side out numbers the other 3 to 1, and they are on a flat field, and yet somehow the larger army is "pinned down." ??? Another crucial factor in this battle is that the smaller army doesn't have arrows for its archers, so it looks like they will have to retreat because of that. This isn't really right; archers weren't a decisive factor in medieval battles, and it would be entirely possible to fight without them. Archers could be useful, they could harass and disrupt, and if given enough time they could destroy a force over the course of days, but they simply would not play a large role in the brief and brutal clash of melee. So the clever trick the genius general uses to solve this problem is to send his heavy infantry out with siege structures behind them, so that the enemy archers will shoot at his infantry and the misses would hit the siege structures, which could then be withdrawn, and then the arrows stuck in the siege structure could be harvested and reused. And this is terrible for many reasons. 1) is that this is stolen directly from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, except for in Romance it was with boats and it was in the fog and it at least a little made sense. 2) there wouldn't be any time for any of this. You don't get to wheel forward infantry and engines, have them shot at, wheel back the siege engines, harvest the arrows, etc. It would all be essentially over in 15 minutes as the larger force just marches forward and swords everyone. 3) The genius general says that "yes, we don't need the heavy infantry but we do need arrows" which is just crazy talk, it's like saying you don't need tanks but you do need nerf footballs. Well trained men in heavy armor were fucking terrifying back then and could put down basically any number of lighter conscript forces. Anyway! This nonsense continues through every battle scene in the book. There's this consistent idea in the book that battles were these precise chess games that were won by genius ploys, rather than brutal and confused scrums that were usually won for reasons like "That side had 5 times as many guys on the field." There's also this consistent, modern understanding of battle that "ranged weapons are really powerful and deadly." Which really wasn't true until around 1850 or so. And this is doubly weird, since the author is famous for his book _The Walled Orchard_ about an army which is (Spoiler!) beaten by ranged weaponry, but it takes like a full week for the process to actually occur and for ancient ranged weapons to inflict enough damage to shatter the army.
Anyway, I could go on with the other problems that I had with this book. But to wrap up, this series seems more like a make work project for the author than anything that would be interesting or gripping to a reader. The author needs an editor, he needs to get to the point, and he needs to give the reader a reason to care about his story.
The Clockwork Boys, Book 1, by T. Kingfisher
This was another "CJ Cherryh" incident, a shameless attempt by T. Kingfisher to pass herself off as a male author. Fortunately, I noticed that her story focused on romance, humor, emotion, evocative description, and interesting characters rather than on Thac0 and to-hit rolls. Based off these facts I was able to unmask her. The book is a fast reading and oddly light hearted fantasy adventure story about 4 mismatched characters going on a cross country suicide mission to find the source of the murderous, 10 foot tall golems that are rampaging through the land. The world is kind of bleak (Exorcist style demons! War! Plague! Unstoppable death machines! Farm animals stomped into jelly!) but it doesn't feel like it for the most part. The main character is a guerrilla accountant, her sidekick is a low-minded assassin, and their new teammates are a prissy polymath and a not so fresh paladin. It works well in an "enjoyable DnD group" sort of way, and is combined with a world that is fresh and avoids/rethinks a fair number of fantasy tropes. For example, the Gnolls in the book are something between a standard-fantasy-Gnome and a talking Great Dane. The book ends on something of an uncertain note, but I think the real treasure at the end of the quest will be the friends they made/banged along the way.
Scholar of Decay, by Tanya Huff
This was a re-read from 20 years ago, of a 180-page book that I read in one sitting while sitting in Barnes and Nobles. The re-read was kind of a lark, and because I was curious as to how badly the book had aged. And the answer is, not too badly! I can confidently say that the book is much better than it needed to be. The author, Tanya Huff, correctly identifies that were-rats are the sexiest of the were-creatures. She is joined in this opinion by Fritz Leiber, and later by the WarHammer crew and their silky sultry Skaven. Even more notably, she has discovered an entirely new sub-genre of horror, that is to say the horror of being a level 3 mage and exploring a dungeon all on your own. No meat shield, no perception or thievery, just you and the darkness and a bunch of creatures that can two-shot you. Absolutely terrifying. So! The book is about a wizard delving into sewers and such, while being enfolded and manipulated by a scheming clan of murderous, socialite were-rats. Both the delving and the scheming are reasonably well done.
The Black Prince, by Iris Murdoch
This was a re-read of an Iris Murdoch novel that I last read 15 years ago, and that I greatly liked and frequently think back to. The novel largely holds up, though I always forget just how entirely strange Murdoch's writing is. The fundamental weirdness is in the constant shifts of voice and tone. It's a bit SoulCatchery? In the sense that there are these constant blendings and shifts from one viewpoint into another, in combinations that would surprise you. Or that you don't typically think of going together. This is at least consistent with her ideology and the viewpoint she espouses, that human beings and reality are complex, that life is many things. And that is something that Murdoch has always been good about, making the nature/practice/methods/voice of her art match the ideology that she supports. E.g. she thinks part of wisdom is the steady, STEM like accumulation of facts, details, and fine distinctions, and it shows in her books which are filled with practical details and clinically precise characterizations.
So, what it is the novel? The novel is somewhat Nabakovian, with a partially unreliable narrator and a re-occurring reflectivity. The Narrator writes about himself, the narrator writes about his writing, the side characters write about the writing, the editor writes about the novel and the side characters, etc. Or maybe a bit like _Hate Story_, another story that both tells itself but also takes regular breaks in order to interrogate the story. In a larger sense, The Black Prince is also a chance for Murdoch to reflect on her entire literary ourve and method of writing. Two of the main characters in the book are authors, and Murdoch uses them to explore some of her own thoughts on writing, as well as to criticize and satirize her own work better than any of her actual critics ever have.
The novel is a bit Portlandia, in that it is about silly people doing silly things with each other in their own made up world.
The novel is a bit Wodehouse, in that it is about an introverted, prim, ascetic, dignified man being constantly drawn into drama, noise, embarrassments, pratfalls, and confusion, about meetings with different people that he absolutely wants to avoid, about those intolerable people becoming friends with each other and not leaving his house.
The novel is a bit Diplomacy, in that each of the people has a desired configuration of alliances and pair-ups that they want to see, and are resolutely framing things and arguing for an interpretation of the world in order to reach their desired situation.
The novel is a bit real-politik or materialist or mechanistic, in that all the words and thoughts and ideas could be viewed as a facade or mask placed on top of much, much simpler desires.
The novel is a bit Philip K Dick, in that the framing or interpretation of the story can radically, radically shift based on just a few sentences. There's one particularly memorable example of this in the latter half of the book, where one person relentlessly advances their frame, a letter is read, and then the tide is completely and brutally reversed. It's one of my top ~100 or so moments in all of literature.
The novel is a bit Ayn Randian, in at least the structural sense that the author is telling a story, but they are also going to frequently interject their own philosophical observations into the story at random moments and by God you are going to like it.
The novel is a bit Shakespeare or "Greek play", in that it is vulgar and comedic, but also not afraid to slake an insult with blood.
The novel is sweet. Murdoch can be brutal and unsparing with her characters, but there is a never a sense that she does not care for them. Unlike Nabakov, who often views his characters as insects, Murdoch treats hers more like fish or badgers. :)
Low Town, by Daniel Polansky
The synopsis on the back of the book is 90% accurate, so I will just parrot it here. Low Town is a low fantasy low life mystery story, and it is clever, dryly funny, and very fast to read. I'm not a huge fan of mysteries, but this one was good, and provided you with all the info about the world and characters that you need to piece together the plot and who-dunnit. Recommended if you want something gritty but light, fast but intelligent, fantastical and yet grounded.
The Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher
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.