Another extremely fast reading book. In this case, the adventure is about a group making an overland hike through enemy territory to recover a politically priceless heirloom locked away in an ancient and hidden temple. The setting is somewhat as if the power structure of ancient Greece had managed to last till the 1500's, with city states, occasional guns, and some fantastic elements that have the same general shape as the Greek gods and spirits. Now that I write this, it sounds a great deal like _The Barrow_, but the tone is considerably more upbeat.
There are a couple of elements that make the story more interesting than your average adventure. For one, the protagonist is a master thief, allowed out of jail to help with this one task. He's as lowborn as possible and not entirely there of his own free will, while the other four members of the group are either nobility or nobility adjacent. So there is a class/educational/wealth tension between him and the rest of the group, and also mystery as he tries to figure out the position and motivations of the other members of the group. Another enjoyable element is that as an immensely skilled thief, he can basically steal anything from anyone that comes within reach. The book usually doesn't mention these thievings though, so most items/bits of gear exist in a cloud of possibilities, where if they've ever come close to the protagonist they might or might not be on him at any given time. So in addition to the narrative uncertainties, there's uncertainties about who is actually carrying what. These elements carry the book through it's first ~150 pages, after which we reach the wonderful water temple, where the author did a genuinely good job of designing a dungeon that is A) thematic B) interesting to explore C) could plausibly have been killing off entire groups of adventurers for centuries without needing any significant maintenance. The remained of the novel isn't bad, but after the strong start it ends as be somewhat of a letdown as the reveals become slightly too much, and the strong central stream of the plot starts to divert into different channels.
The Murderbot Diaries, 1-4
Short sci-fi adventure books about a security bot that has hacked its governor modules and is now free. While not great literature, they are fast literature, and it's easy to read (and difficult not to read) each of these books in a single sitting. The main character is acerbic, the fights and situations are fast paced, the supporting characters are sympathetic, and the ShadowRun type corps and their plots make decent villains. The stories are consistently well done and fast paced and you like the characters and enjoy the time. I could list a few flaws (sci-fi hacking isn't the greatest mechanic given how much of the story it occupies), but overall these are quality entertainment.
Salvation's Reach, by Dan Abnett (Gaunt's Ghosts, like #27)
Finally, some realistic mil-sci-fi! This book was a great palate cleanser after the terrible, boring, dumb, paint-by-numbers Markos Cloos books. This also the first Abnett book that I've read, and I can see why he's regarded as one of the best WarHammer writers. His story lines plus the great job of the audio-book reader made this my favorite(?) WarHammer book out of the many that I've read. While theoretically military fiction about armies and large scale battles and such, the book is really closer to a heist storyline, not exactly either Reservoir Dogs or Oceans's 7 but with some elements of both. There's a risky mission into enemy territory, a precise plan unveiled step by step, skilled experts using their expertise to overcome difficulty checks, traitors and saboteurs from within, misdirections, surprise difficulties during the mission, and plans within plans within plans. There's also some more standard military elements: a fleet battle that hews delightfully close to something you would see in Battle Fleet Gothic, surprisingly decent personal storylines about courage, lack thereof, criminality, family, mortality, and marriage. Finally, let me add one more shout out to the reader for this novel. He had a ton of fun with the different voices, and really captured the turn-it-up-to-11 drama and extraness of the WarHammer universe.
Possibly good, but with a very unexciting opening. The main character's weak-tea humor is a very poor thematic match for her suicidal thoughts and actions.
The Bear and the Nightingale
An enjoyable fairy tale that starts off grounded before slowly and then rapidly moving into the fantastic. The writing and characters are nicely done, the isolated and wintery setting is fantastic, and I enjoy seeing more takes on Eastern European myths in the line of _The Witcher_ and _Worshippers_.
Also, from the study questions at the back of the book:
1) Throughout the novel, Vasya meets many strange creatures...Which of the demons that Vasya encounters is your favorite?
Definitely the Bannik, the Dany DeVito like bath house spirit that watches her family bathe every night. Only a few people have the Sight and can actually notice him, and I like how the Bannik handles that, looking them in the eyes and telling them to "not make this weird." Also, they are house spirits, not demons, and I think that using that word buys into Konstantine's world view and mistakes.
3)What tropes or stock characters of the traditional Western fairy tale can you spot in _The Bear and the Nightingale_?
Definitely the horses. There were a lot of magical talking horses. And looking at the author bio at the end, you can definitely recognize the crazed eyes of the Horse Girl.
10) Vasya is faced with the choice of marriage, a convent, or a life in which she's considered an outsider by her village and he family. What would you have done in her place?
This was a big disappointment; she actually had a 3.5th choice, the Artesia-Barrow option, that of becoming an undead witch queen, murdering her father and brothers, and helping rule over a new Age of terror, madness, plague, and war. But the book never seriously presented this as an option, which as with _Cold Magic_ is I think a failure to model positive dynamics to young women. Edit:
Actually, upon further reflection the joke above has a seed of truth in it. Perhaps the most important difference between the men and the women in this novel is the men are willing to use violence and the threat of violence. Until women are willing to ride to a defiant village during a Mid-Winter's night and set the place on fire so that its inhabitants die from exposure and hunger, they will never achieve true equality.
Get you a guy who looks at you like Andevai does, with arrogance and contempt. Wait, no, don't do that. Jesus that is a terrible idea. Why would you ever do that?
The book starts off reasonably enough. The setting is an alt-history Europe, where one of the key break points is that the Carthaginians defeat the Romans at the battle of Zama leading to an enduring Carthaginian presence on the continent. Later on, other disasters befall the Carthaginians, causing them to become nomads, explorers, sea traders, trusted couriers, investigators, spies, and mercenaries. So far so good! The setting is helped by the author's obvious enthusiasm for her world building. There are numerous and often inelegant info-dumps, but as long as you fundamentally like the setting you can survive a little awkwardness in the story telling. Besides the alt-history, the author also pours in several fantasy elements such as a magic/fairy plane that lies congruent to our own, magic users of elemental and shamanic stripes, a zombie/ghoul plague that led to an African diaspora, and sentient and highly intelligent parrot's found living in the Americas. It's a tad too many elements, but again the author is really enthusiastic and so I can roll with this.
Or that at least is what I am thinking for the first 200, 300 pages. There's an adventure about a Carthaginian spy in training, kidnapped from her home/university to marry into one of the powerful and cruel houses of Cold Mages. It's exciting, interesting, and you like the main character and are worried for her. Gradually though, over the course of this story it dawns on me that this isn't so much an adventure as it is a Romance. A terrible, terrible romance. And there's this trope in Romance where at first the two love interests don't get along, there's rivalry, competition, sparks fly, etc. This book though stretches that trope to absurd lengths, and makes the male lead just the worst person in the world. She didn't absolutely have to, but it would have been a perfectly reasonable course of action for the protagonist to kill the male love interest, his family, and the entire organization he worked for. Instead though the book increasingly tries to make the two of them into an item, eventually causing me to lose interest and put the book down at the 80% mark. The author's ideas are bad and she should feel bad for providing models like this for people.
Let's Put the Future Behind Us, by Jack Womack
A darkly, darkly comic adventure/mystery set in Yeltsin's Russia. It's a bit _Death of Stalin_, a bit _Dying Earth, and a bit _The eXile_.
The protagonist is a mid-level Russian business man who for the most part has stayed above the moral curve. Sure, he has a few dozen guards with sub machine guns, but so far he hasn't had to have anyone killed. He's deeply corrupt and has been for decades, but no more so than his society. Then change comes into his life, in the form of Georgian mobsters and the husband of his mistress, and suddenly he needs to swim in waters that he has managed to avoid so far.
While this isn't my favorite Womack, I still appreciated it. This book is more grounded than his sci-fi/alt-history stories, but only just, and it's littered with the vividly described spectacle and excess of post communist Russia, at turns barbaric, brutal, violent, crass, depressing, stupid, maudlin, corrupt, etc. etc. There's a ton of sex, there's some realistic and terrible violence, but more than anything there's this constant drum beat of how the law and order/idealism that we assume in the West just does not exist in Russia. Some of that is the constant need for bribes, and the constant hostility that basically everyone has to doing their jobs. Another large chunk of it is the difference between ideas/paper and reality. So you have railroads that don't exist, faked documents, false advertising, constant fraud, a comic-pathetic Sovietland theme park, and in general just a farrago of lies and bad faith. If anything I think it's a bit over-used, by the end of the book I was like "ok, I get it already, the poorly made plaster figures are a symbol of the shoddiness of the mud-ball nation that they have built contrasted to its grandiose dreams".
Hmm, what else. I mentioned Vance before, and the narrator does have elements of Cugel, always willing to flatter and glad hand and bribe and deceive, while generally trying to avoid getting caught up in personal violence. He also has a layer of remove and abstraction and irony, which mostly works, but also robs the story of a bit of energy and pacing. Other notable events include the Kazakh-feast, the Sovietland that eventually gets built, the narrators surprising and somewhat touching trepidation of America, the baths and the Zhironsky-type figure. Again, not my favorite Womack, but it still stands well above most writers in intelligence and vitality.
Feminism, a Graphic Guide
Page 97. :D
No, seriously, page 97 (Shulamith Firestone) and then the Pankhursts have the best names and the best ideas.
Conservation of Shadows, Yoon Ha Lee
A collection of clever short stories by the author of _Nine Fox Gambit_. I enjoyed the stories, but they are some of the author's earliest work and they're a little less polished, a little more MFA than her later books. The short stories each get their own sci-fi or fantasy setting, though the sci-fi stories tend to have fantastical elements while the fantasy stories tend to have mathematical or linguistic elements. The typical story involves an agent on the losing side of a war or occupation, trying to find a way to deal with enormous threats while preserving or planting a measure of justice. Most of the societies in the book are highly hierarchical/collectivist. When reading _Nine Fox Gambit_ I thought of it as a Korean WarHammer 40K, but after reading these I think it's more accurate to say that they take a sort of historical, highly authoritarian Korean culture and bring it forward into the future, and that just happens to resemble 40K somewhat. Anyway, I enjoyed the stories, though they did not quite match up to _Nine Fox Gambit_. There is one story that is a mini-prequel to _Nine Fox Gambit_, and it was one of my favorites of the bunch and reminded me of just how good that setting is. Other honorable mentions include: Counting the Shapes (sweet), Iseul's Lexicon (nice burglary scene), and Between Two Dragons (fast and punchy).
Afterword:The collection has an Afterword section, which has notes on the various stories. I didn't like it! The author comes off as someone who would not be very fun in person, and confirms some of the less impressive seeds that I suspected for some of the stories. Also, she's wrong about Black Abacus. It's totally about sex!
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
A Jeeves and Wooster fan-fic that mostly succeeds. This is another one of those literay high-wire acts, where if the conceit failed the novel would go absolutely and horribly awry. But it mostly manages to stay on the wire, and the author creates an entirely reasonable fascimile of Wodehouse's voice and of the structure of a Jeeves and Wooster novel. There's certainly large parts near the middle where you forget you are reading a fan-fic and not the real thing. So, success? Kind of. Despite getting 90% of the way there, it is still a middling Wooster novel, so you probably shouldn't go to Jeeves and the Wedding Bells until you have exhausted all of the originals. Also, I have a bone to pick with some of the plotting choices near the end. Suffice to say that there is a Chekov's Smock, and a public play that does not end in complete and mortifying catastrophe. These problems should have been caught by the editor!
Complicity, Iain Banks
Reading _The Fever_ spurred me to re-read _Complicity_, since _Complicity_ is basically what happens when the narrator of _The Fever_ decides to take direct, serial killer action. And while I do still like _Complicity_, it wasn't quite as good as I remember it and had a number of bad/embarrassing elements in the mix. Some of the bad parts are due to poor aging, e.g. most of the talk about computers and screaming fast 486's. In the same category, there's a lot of stigma around AIDS, and one crucial part of the novel is based around the "Highway of Death", where Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait were massacred by US air power. And reading that it's like "Banks, if you had just waited ~15 years to write your novel the US could have given you way better material than that, and not these baby-atrocities." More importantly, and as with _The Fever_, I disagreed with a good part of his list of who exactly should be up against the wall (isn't that always the problem?). The most egregious one was the incompetent military officer, who was killed because he got too many of his own soldiers killed and not enough of the enemy soldiers killed. That's just not any basis on which to construct a consistent morality. And in general there was just too much killing by the end of the book. It felt like Hannibal, a world where security cameras and bystanders and APBs don't exist, where psychopaths can just waltz around the city center spending hours setting up grisly displays.
Still! Even in the worst Bank's books (and this isn't one), there are ideas that I simply don't find anywhere else. Which unfortunately I can't talk too much about here, since this is a family blog, but along with _Song of Stone_ and a few other items it's helped develop my thinking in significant ways. Also quality in this book is the constant interleaving of its main theme of complicity, across all sorts of domains. There's the reader PoV, the gaming, the sex, the economic relations and violence relations, the art, and probably a number of other levels I am missing. Finally, and most minorly, but Banks does a good job with game design in this book. His envisioned game _Despot_ is basically _Crusader Kings 2_ thirty years before CK2 was ever released. In particular there's a feature he mentions in _Despot_, the PoV switching_, which seems likely to come out in the next update for CK2. Anyway, it's an intelligent and insightful but very uneven book.
A decent enough, YA type adventure in the vein of Spirited Away. A young lady goes on an adventure to rescue her father in a mythical-medieval Europe, faces challenges, and makes friends and clever decisions along the way. I was warned beforehand that this might be some sort of Christian allegory, and I think that warning contributed a good third of my enjoyment of the book since it is not at all clear what the allegory is. Is the Pope of Storms a symbol for climate change? Are witches and their creations a metaphor for technology and the inevitable AI rebellion? Unclear! But it is fun trying to fit the pieces together, even if I suspect the author never had that clear of a picture of what they were trying to say. There is some earnest Christianity in here (a page or three, easily skipped over), but it didn't significantly detract from the story. If anything I thought the earnest Christianity was overshadowed by the semi-heretical world building (e.g. communion wafers let you talk directly to the Trinity, who despite being well meaning are mostly out of touch and unhelpful advisors, kind of like jumped up school counselors). Anyway, it's a clever and above average YA adventure, but not a great general interest book.
A very short and very provoking book, but not one that I'd fully agree with or one that really applies to me, a person who has donated double digits of money to Elizabeth Warren. The basic idea is that the rich are terrible and the poor are good and our capitalist system might have some minor issues we should deal with. This is all fine, though again, a good deal of it doesn't apply to me since I've consciously bailed out of a large chunk of what The Fever complains about. Also, about 2/3s of the way through the book engages in a sort of bingo-cardism, where it quickly lists off all the counter-arguments that people would likely make to its message. But I've had this complaint before in more online discussions, that just because you name a counter-argument and place it on a bingo card, that doesn't actually mean you've dis-proven the counter-argument. And I think in this case the counter-arguments have a lot a weight and are more accurate and more correct, and that the book's emotional message is naive and short sighted and impractical and incorrect. Reading the play, you do fiercely want to converse with the author and enlighten him. Anyway, if nothing else the book succeeds in making you salty and thinky in a remarkably short amount of pages.
Terms of Enlistment
Would you like to commit war crimes? Y/N
Oh no! The JAG is on your case for killing more American civilians than the average 9/11 attacker. How unfair! Is this all the fault of the liberals? Y/N
So... I didn't like the politics of this book. It's also sort of low key racist. It also fails to engage with how 150 years of advancing technology would change how we fight wars. Instead it posits a universe with star fleets and FTL and anti-grav and dozens of interstellar colonies, but otherwise things are still kind of the same. Also, the military is good and democratic socialism is bad, except for the military's socialism which is good. I was promised that aliens would show up in this book but I didn't make it that far.
Edit: ok, I actually did end up making it to the aliens. This part was ok! So if you do want to read this book, just take the first half of the book, rip it out, and then read the rest.
Perhaps my favorite Polansky book, this is a short and stark tale of gun-slinger violence and betrayal and revenge. This is what Abercombie's _Best Served Cold_ should have been, with larger than life characters, fast and violent action, and a continual series of clever and occasionally funny plot-beats. While many novels are like a NetFlix television series (drawn out, stuffed with mediocre filler in order to create 10 hours of run time), _The Builders_ was closer to a movie. It actually has to tell its story and make its point within 90 minutes. That was also the approximate reading time of the novel, and I raced through the entire thing in one morning. Oh, and all the characters are animals, in the vein of _Tooth and Tail_ or the _Red Wall_ series. Or maybe like _Mouse Guard_, but with old West weaponry and dark Western theming. And now one minor spoiler, the best part of the book:
There's a fearsome character you hear about, "The Quaker". It turns out he's a rattle-snake. Get it? Quaker? Rattle? Literary genius.
Not a terrible book, but also not one that particularly excited me. The basic outline is that during the days of the Roman empire, a Vancian scoudrel type merchant character goes up from the Roman portions of Gaul and into the Gaullic portions of Gaul and then far beyond, trading, tricking, getting people killed, and in his adventures laying down the outlines of the Norse myths that we are familiar with today. While the book was decently written, it had a few issues that kept me from really enjoying it. These issues are mostly that Wotan wasn't more like Vance's Dying Earth series. The characters tend to be men of few words, and don't have the overblown and baroque rhetoric of Vance's characters. Rather they have a weird sort of pre-modern way of speaking and thinking, where motivation isn't always clear and there isn't a rich inner dialog. There will be actions, but only later if ever are the reasons for the actions clear. Another issue is that the balance between the main character and the world was off, equipoise was not maintained. With Cudgel in the Dying Earth, Cudgel's shittiness towards other people was always balanced by their shittiness towards him, e.g. Cugel might trick people and do bad deeds, but his deeds were always repayed in approximate proportion (and vice versa). Which goes a long way towards being able to enjoy and laugh at the story. It's Always Sunny has a similar balance, and it's the only thing that makes these sorts of comic Chaotic Evil characters bearable, that their schemes injure themselves as often as other people. In Wotan the balance is off, and while the main character suffers somewhat, it's not proportionate to what he causes to happen to other people. Which makes it difficult to sympathize with him and laugh at his adventures, and makes it more difficult to ignore the problematic parts of the story.
A final issue I had was that while I get what the author was doing (provide a potential origin for Norse myths through realistic actions and events), it just didn't do much for me. I'm not super into Norse mythology, and I didn't find the author's origin-seeds to be particularly clever. There is an additional weird/interesting thing going on, that while Wotan is laying down a realistic basis for the Norse myths that we have today, the story also has super-natural elements in that there is an actual Greek-God driving Wotan's actions. So it's a Myth-Realism-Myth sandwhich. Which might have been tastier to me, except that the underlying myth starts getting into the noble and tragic destiny of the German people and their martial spirit (and mentions the battle of Jutland?), which is like ehhhhhh. Not necessarily Nazi but again not really my area of interest.
Anyway! It's a competent book, but not particularly engrossing and it took me ~2 weeks to read 200 pages of it in bits and bursts. There was another 400 pages to go and I decided to opt out of that experience when I came to the end of the first story-part.
Hooligans of Kandahar
Booof. This book is the extremely first person account of doing a tour duty in Afghanistan as an army grunt. It doesn't necessarily tell you anything you didn't know about the war there, but it does present the things that you know at a very close level of detail and with tons of lived experience.
Another way of describing the book and its author would be: "what if every aspect of my life and all of my decisions were the complete opposite?" So there's a whole bunch of switches that get flipped to their opposite: dirt, violence, personal courage, sleep deprivation, weight lifting, food, temperature, sex, drinking, personal hygiene, sanitation, etc. etc. Suffice to say that I'm happy with my choices. :D The stories do make for good reading though. The start of the book and the end of the book are a bit rough, but the middle 80% which describes living and soldiering in Afghanistan are compelling and interesting.
A third (and hopefully final) way of describing the book would be to say that the book is about the difference between theory and reality, between abstractions on a military map or in an opinion piece and what is actually happening in the world. So you have mine-detectors, but they don't actually detect mines. You have Afghan army units, but they absolutely will not fight. You have police, but they will refuse to act in even the most basic ways (e.g. drive this wounded civilian to a hospital) unless bribed. You have provincial governors, but they are arguably Taliban. You have reconstruction projects, that no ones uses and are abandoned and are eventually turned into forts by insurgents, and then bombed by coalition air strikes and turned back into rubble in some sort of weird cycle of life. It's just one thing after another that exists only on paper or only in the dream-castles built up within documents and speeches. It's theory crafting. It's what happens when you try and take Western idealism and try to force it on a Vancian society.
Afterward 1: The author also does podcasting, which is where I first heard about him. One of their better out-takes is here (tons of cursing, NSFW, Trigger Warning: Academic PTSD).
Afterward 2: After a long percolation, there actually is one other thing the book taught me/made me realize, which is just how much human damage gets hidden from the casaulty figures by advances in medical treatment. Out of the ~20 soldiers the author was grouped with, ~100% of them had some sort of fairly serious injury from their time in Afghanistan. On the low end, these are things like ankle injuries or chronic lower back pain, which never get officially recorded but will stay with a person and crap up the rest of their life in minor daily ways. Ramping up a bit, there's a host of psychological issues of various levels of severity, and then beyond that the actual concussions, brain damage, and serious wounds caused by combat. In the US Civil War, about half of his group would have been dead from the wounds they suffered, which we would rightly recognize as a horrific casaulty rate, enough to destroy a unit. But thanks to advances in first aid, transport, and surgery, only a few of his unit were listed as injured and none of them actually died. And when you just look at those figures, it hides just how much they (and one assumes other groups) went through and were hurt.
Nightflyers/Nightflyers, by George RR Martin
This is a double review: The first part of the review is for the recent SyFy series, _NightFlyers_, and the second part of the review is of the collection of sci-fi stories by George RR Martin, which includes and is named after its longest story, _Nightflyers_.
So, the SyFy series. It's dummmmmmb. It shares some similarities with BlindSight, so just imagine that, except everyone on the ship is an idiot. The best thing to be said about the series is that they did a great job of picking actors with really interesting faces/presentation. Basically all of the main actors are really neat to look at, without being typically Hollywood handsome. But yeah, the air-mix in their ship needed more oxygen.
The actual short stories are considerably better. They're not hard sci-fi, and many of them have silly ideas like psionics, but despite that they're generally clever and intelligent stories. Like with his fantasy political stories, they rarely go for the obvious plotting and instead tend to fold back on expectations 2 or 3 or 4 times in interesting ways. The story _NightFlyers is best in this regard, and upsets expectations several times while still having a "warm" rather than a clever ending. Another way of putting it is that GRRM tends to make plotting and writing decisions that more stereotypically sci-fi author's would not. And all the stories are just competently written and enjoyable to move through. There are one or two stories where a sci-fi nerd will see the ending at the ~50% mark of the story, but despite that I still enjoyed finishing them out. Oh right, and what are the stories about. They're all small tales, of groups of a few or a few dozen people exploring, trading, mining, or scienceing. Kind of a sci-fi version of the _Ballad of Buster Scruggs_, they just try to be small and interesting and thematic stories in the genre. Oh, and one notable bit that I have to mention; in one of the stories there is a couple where the lady is a leading scientist and the guy is technician/poet. The guy is feeling depressed. And about half way through the book the lady scientist creates an entire ********, which, you know, is pretty impressive. And within a few minutes of that she's then doing emotional labor for the technician guy. :D Anyway, it's not really the point of the story, but I thought it was a funny bit-part. Actually the more I think about it the funnier the whole story is.
The Voice of our Shadows
An interesting and well written book that completely failed at several key points. The basic structure of the novel is that it's a standard piece of literary fiction, with the normal elements of growing up and writing and Europe and affairs, and then half way through it introduces fantastical/horror elements as one person in the story might be an actual magician.
On the positive side, the book is relatively brief and often well written. There's one part near the middle which is a good example of the author's voice:
"My stepmother had begun to lose the nice figure she'd brought to their marriage, but at the same time, she looked both more relaxed and more sure of herself than when I'd last seen her".
Many writers would come up with some variation the first half of that sentence, with varying levels of venom or acidity or acuity. I like though that the author also has the second thought, which is more humane and fair minded and takes in the broader picture outside of his immediate concerns. This pattern occurs frequently through the book, where the author will cover expected beats but will also have a second and more interesting level of thought or insight or consideration. It's not a work of blazing genius, but it does make the story quietly readable and enjoyable. These good points persist through most the story. The bad points of the story are more like sharp, critical failures. There are three of them.
1) The ending. It is extremely abrupt, and little-to-no groundwork was laid to support the ending. You can imagine War and Peace stopping with "and it was all just a dream" to give you an idea of how bad this was. The most charitable interpretation is that a dead, mind reading magician drove the narrator insane, or else completely scared him using illusions and mind magic and his long harbored guilt. Only slightly more plausible endings are "the narrator was always insane" or "the narrator exists inside a hell dimension controlled by his sadistic older brother". All of these explanations require giant leaps of faith and copious head scratching, and are literally the only way that I can make sense of what goes on.
2) The affair. This was less obnoxious, but was still a critical failure in the novel. One of the key plot points is that the narrator sleeps with the magician's wife, and this is taken as a giant betrayal. Which, ok, I guess it is. But at the same time it's like holy shirtballs, every single circumstance of their time together was pushing for this to happen. It was the least shocking thing ever; there are large parts of the novel where it seemed like the magician was actively pushing them to sleep together. At this point I'd call on Mike Pence, Taylor Swift, and Iris Murdoch. If you don't want to have a terrible-idea -affair, don't place yourself in the position to have a terrible-idea-affair. It's basic interpersonal mechanics. But in the story, the 40+ year old magician is like "nope, this is fine" and then gets super offended when the absolutely expected happens. Compare this to another fictional magician love story by the super literary Jim Butcher. Spoiler, but in that series of books, the narrator and his magical study-buddy fall in love, because they are teens and of course duh. And their mentor planned it that way and setup their time together to promote that, because that would be useful to him. Anyway! If Jim Butcher is surpassing you in realistic relationship dynamics, your magician needs to go back to charm school. zing.
3) The Guilt. Finally, there is this consistent judgment through out the book that the narrator is a scumbag and that his older brother and his delinquent friend were vital and full of life and magical and wonderful. And it's just completely dumb. I can understand this judgment as like the narrator's trauma reaction from having to deal with his sadistic older brother while growing up, and that completely skewing his viewpoint, but it's incredibly wrong. But I don't feel like many of the reviewers on GoodReads really understood that, and it's not clear if the author did either, e.g. whether he actually thought that way or whether he meant for it only to be that the narrator thought that way. Anyway! Just for the record, the older brother his friend were both violent morons who played stupid games and won stupid prizes. In the key scene where the older brother gets it, there are just RIRs all over the place. As with the affair, it's the second least surprising thing ever.
Devil's Engine, by Mark Summer
The same, but different. The narrative advances a few years, and rather than a young buck trying to complete his heroes journey, we now have a Sheriff trying to preserve his family and his town in a changing world. The structure of the book is also a little more fancy, as it has a _Time Traveler's Wife_ situation going on. This was both a weakness and a strength. A weakness in terms of the frequent deus-ex-machina, as the Traveler shows up to arrange or save pieces on the board. It's a bit like how in LoTR, Gandalf or some Eagles or some other bullshit is always showing up to save the day, and it drains tension/immersion from the story. The Traveler is a strength though in that it pays off in some surprisingly sweet ways later on in the story. What else. The ending wasn't quite as good, a few of the key events from the first book are swept under the rug, and the author to continues to be unable to decide if prostitution is a terrible fate or a fine profession. Despite those minor problems, the writing, pacing, plotting, and world building were all better than par.