The Barrow, Book 2 and Book 3, by Mark Smylie Rothdas book review RSS
4.0 Stars

Great, but also greatly deranged. Continues the story of Stepjan Blackheart, a power-hungry power-bottom who lives for drama, as well as a cast of 100+ other characters as they slowly, ever so slowly, advance the timeline of the Known World.

First the good. At least to my mind, Smylie is an excellent writer. I love his little vignettes, I love his world building sensibilities, and I think he writes great pieces of action-horror. I came into this book with zero excitement, but within ~20 pages I was remembering why Smylie is such a personal favorite. I like that Smylie creates something different; he has a style and a world that is refreshingly separate from the main lines of fiction and fantasy. There were some slight, slight nods to contemporary politics in these books, and while it is nice to know that Smylie is on the good side politically/culturally, I was also saddened to find even the lightest connections between the world he creates and our own dumb timeline. Other notes: a character from the Artesia RPG's sample adventure makes an appearance in the first book, which I know because my brain decided that particular bit of information would be worth preserving for 20 years. Thanks brain, top notch work.

And now, the not so good. As best as I can figure out, Smylie started out trying to write a gigantic, Game-of-Thrones style saga that would cover massive events from many different angles over many different years. He then realized, like a indie-dev trying to make an MMO, that whoa this is actually a vast amount of work and there is no way I will ever finish this. And so in these books we are getting the pieces that Smylie did finish, but they have all sorts of oddities since they are just randomish parts of a much larger, incomplete vision. This comes through clearly in the first book, which is ~200 pages long, and introduces well over 100 characters. Which is simply insane, and could not have been the intent when he started out writing. There's also the characteristic Mark Smylieisms, e.g. the random mixing of in-depth lectures on geography, history, religion, trade, dynastic relations, etc. etc. with action-horror, ultra-gruesome magic, fairly complex deceptions and spy work, main battle, assassinations, and extremely graphic sex. And on top of that there's a complete overload of information, with Smylie dumping out hundreds of character names, place names, details of several religions, the ultra-specific details of dress and armor and armament, etc. etc. Too much, too much! It completely reads as outsider-art, which is part of the reason I love it, but is also part of the reason that people who don't have a 20 year investment in the writer will be turned off. Oh and I think a lot of the action/events of the novel will only make sense in the context of the RPG it is based on? Like there is a mechanical reason that characters occasionally launch into poetry/prayer/song, but that won't necessarily be clear to a fresh reader.

And perhaps over all there is also a feeling of melancholy, in that A) it is very unlikely that Smiley will finish his series in any meaningful way, unless he starts writing more than ~50 pages per year, and B) even the stuff that he is writing is mostly filling the details and side-paths of a time period and location that he's pretty well covered in his earlier books & RPGs. E.g. the same stuff he was covering 20 years ago. Finish it off! Mark a line through it on your checklist, and move on to fresh projects.

Anyway, despite all the criticisms I am happy that I read these books, I would buy more of them, and I wish all the best for their talented and insane author.

Her Body and Other Parties
1.0 Stars

Well, this is no Tabloid Dreams. I read a few of the short stories and the author seems sad about something? Unclear what it is. Has she tried getting outside and walking more? Would that help? Maybe watch some anime? DNF.

Ancient Dreams - Ancient Ruins
X Stars

A new entry in the genre of LitTRPG (Literary Tree RPG). Reading this made me deeply ambivalent. One the one hand, it makes me think we should revert to an earlier save. Just erase all the books, movies, tv, and other stories we have created over the last 100 hundred years, and then start again fresh. On the other hand, maybe we should allow every weirdo autist with an internet connection to publish and audiobookize their fan-fictions. Let a trillion deranged and retarded flowers bloom. I'm not sure which course would be better. DNF.

(Book #5 in my Autumn of Auscapism series. Also the last one I think. A random sampling of what the internet likes has brought me only grief.)

Zodiac Academy
1.0 Stars

Ok, first the good. The author follows the old advice about catching the reader's interest within the first few lines/pages, and starts her story with the protagonist trying to sneak through a window, but really having to struggle because her dump-truck ass is just too wide to fit. Brilliant writing.

From there things go downhill though, as I realize this is not a Fantasy book but rather a "Romance" book. E.g. Terrible people, terrible love interests, nobody has ever heard of consent, Azad Azad, etc. etc. These romance writers are some sick, sick people. They need Jesus, or Tzeentch. Anything really but these same, dumb, terrible, boring patterns. Did not finish.

(Book #4 in my Autumn of Auscapism series)

Moarrrr Warhammer40K audio dramas and audio books
3.0 - 4.0 Stars

The Oubliette: Heresy: sometimes ok?

Deacon of Wounds: A documentary about Florida's COVID response.

Darkly Dreaming:A short and not particularly distinguished drama about a masked ball. Pour one out for Deshi though, the only genial, diplomatic, and self-effacing character in the entire Warhammer universe.

Moar Warhammer40K audio dramas and audio books
2.0 - 4.0 Stars

Some of the take-aways here are that A) horror stories really lend themselves to audio book readings and B) WarHammer stories do this in triplicate, since they give the authors and readers license to take everything to an extreme and really reap the full benefits of the audio medium. I liked basically all of these stories, even though they did have a certain sameness after a while (hint: everyone dies). Despite this similarity these stories mostly distinguished themselves by enlivening and embroidering their tale far beyond the point a less skillful or enthusiastic team would, and in really just going whole hog with the horror of the different situations. In more detail:

Perdition's Flame: Too angry to die! I'm not 100% sure what was going on here but I enjoyed the squelchy ride. I think there was some more detailed WarHammer lore I was supposed to know which would have made the ending make more sense? (Edit: after further research, the lore is that some GamesWorkshop folks saw GhostRider and thought "That is cool, that should be part of our setting".) But I am always here for a Nurgle story. *heart_emote*

The Way Out: Too cold to die! A fairly straightforward but also quick and varied murder fest, as a crippled ship's crew goes from bad to worse.

The Wicked and the Mad: You have an overzealous commissar (Mad; also the weakest story as it was a bit too long), a soldier haunted by the black deed she committed (Wicked; with a genuinely scary ghost and a brilliantly realized ship and ship's company (also a great narrator)), and then the final story which is sort of WarHammer meets Alien, where a Lvl 1 priest goes up against the steadily mutating warp beast that is stalking the station (Mildly wicked? the main character is not a moral exemplar, but also holy shit was he out of his depth).

Reverie: WarHammer meets Annihilation; an audio book about a gate to the Warp that is slowly infecting and subverting the land around it. Has fan-favorite themes of symbolic contagion, revelatory texts written by madmen, reality slips, time slips, time loops, reincarnation, and bodily liberation. I liked it. It suffers from a common Warhammer problem of being about 30% too long, but if it had sharpened the story up a bit and made the structure of the story a few increments weirder, I think it would have been genuinely excellent rather than just good.

Sepulturum: By far the weakest of the set. The general description is that it's a Walking Dead type series of adventures in a hive city, as survivors of a zemi-zombie plague deal with the undead and each other. The story is undercut by A) the plot makes no fucking sense, B) mixing random elements and themes in ways that make no sense, and C) being too long. The narrator was fine at her job, but for some inexplicable reason there was no indication of when the PoV changes. From one sentence to the next, the meaning of "I" changes and you have to figure out from context that they have moved on to a different thread in the narrative. This was particularly confusing the first few times it happens! To add to the oddness, the narrator does say the chapter headings like normal, it is only the breaks inside of a chapter that are nulled out.

The Dragon's Banker
1.0 Stars

A comprehensively deranged artistic creation. On the one hand I don't want to criticize the book, since I think that gives the book more validation than it is worth? On the other hand, I also *really* want to criticize the book.

The first thing you notice with this book is the audio-book reader, who is the author, and who has a slight and reedy voice that is always *just* on the verge of cracking. It is uncanny how bad of a speaking voice he has, and it is weird that there was no one in his life who could have told him not to do this thing. The next thing you notice is that the author has inexplicably named his main character "Sailor", so that any number of sentences start with phrases like "Hey, Sailor..." Which makes it sound like it is going to be the lead in to a raunchy proposition? But it never is, because the author is not a fun or humorous person. For the plot of the story, I'm not going to delve too deep into it, but the basic idea is "what if neoliberalism was not bad?" It takes place in a fantasy world, with dragons and renaissance level tech and a protagonist who is an investment banker and supposed to be a good guy. But even in this self created fantasy world the author still can't make his premise hold up. The protagonist flat out murders 50 innocent people by sabotaging their ship, and his dragon friend incinerates another several thousand dock workers. This is why blood-red is the color of Communism, to help you remember that Capitalists have murdered and will murder any number of workers in order to maintain their class privilege.

(Book #3 in my Autumn of Auscapism series)

Tipping the Velvet
4.0 Stars



Waters returns to form with this book and then some. It is waaaaaaaaaaay more prurient than her other books, and is also slightly simpler and sweeter and more broadly drawn. Kind of like a Dicken's story, but with more fisting. That's not to say this is a simple book though, it's just less of a jagged puzzle than her others.

The Watcher in the Rain
4.0 Stars

I was expecting a long Warhammer40K audio-book, instead I got a short WarHammer40K audio-drama. It was delightful! The audio team leaned into the strengths of the medium and was wonderfully over the top, while the writing was sweetly succinct and greatly gothic. They should really make more of these audio-plays.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City
3.0 Stars

Kind of a mess. The basic idea is that a cynical engineer sets up a bunch of Home Alone type traps to defend a city under siege. Or put another way, it is a _The Martian_ type outing where a super clever engineer and his crew come up with all sorts technical work-arounds that no one has ever thought of before in order to put off death for another day.

This seems like a fine premise for a book, and it kind of works? But it also runs up against a number of long standing KJ Parkerisms. He wants to be super deep into the details and mechanisms of his medieval world, but at the same time he just murders the consistency of his world building on a regular basis. E.g. one of the absolutely key plot points is that there is a navy that wants to relieve the siege, but it can't. Why not? Because there is a difficult shoal that the navy has to go through, and the enemy controls the light house that is supposed to guide ships through the shoals. By pointing its light on the path. Through the shoals. And reading stuff like that it's just like, wow, dude, do you have any fucking idea how a light house works? How did you make it to 60 years of age without learning what a lighthouse does? They are there to orient ships at night. During the day, you don't need them, and at absolute worst you can send some small craft through the reefs to measure the depth and then lead the heavy ships through. So, yeah. There are a number of bits in the book where reading them will just ruin your whole day with how stupid the world building is. Which is a problem! Since as mentioned above, the book is all about this world building, and then also trying to be cynical in this world.

Despite these major flaws, and a few smaller mis-steps, the book does a least have a dynamism from its premise and can work well when it is not absolutely shoving some dumb bit in your face. It's a fun scenario to think about, it's enjoyable to see the cunning & low-class supply sergeant run rings around people, it's fun to see imperial toffs and barbaric invaders outwitted. Etc. etc. The more cynical musings about the world/race/etc don't really work, but, eh? Oh and I can't ever imagine reading this if you are a woman. Finally, kudos to the audio book reader for making the bold choice to say his lines really, really slowly. There were a number of points where I was like "uh, is the mp3 player broken?" but nope it was just an extended dramatic pause. It was a surprisingly nice change and added some unearned gravitas to the book.

(Book #2 in my Autumn of Auscapism series)

A Memory Called Empire
3.5 Stars

"Like a microwaved orchid, this book is sticky and hot" - singer/poet One Direction

So, right away this book has 2 red flags: First it is focused on a sci-fi empire that is based off the Mayans/Aztecs, and second it purports to say important stuff about empires and colonialism. I've been burned by both of these traits on multiple occasions. Oh right, another flag, its plot did not necessarily make a lot of sense/have much meat to it (e.g. one reading of the book is that she is a diplomat, she gets a message from home, she decodes the message with the help of a tech, she transmits the message, fin). Also the book can't seem to make up its mind about what is saying about empires? Also some of the technical/strategic bits didn't entirely hold together.

Despite the flags though, I enjoyed this outing and came away liking the book. This was helped by the book not taking itself too seriously or getting too deep into its technical world building. E.g. there might be a space warship, but how is it powered? what does it fire? how many other ships are with it? the author is completely uninterested in any questions like these. Instead she puts her efforts into colors, clothes, plazas, flowers, food, scents, senses, memories, and people. It works well. I liked basically all of the characters, and I liked the over the top romanticism and sensory descriptions of their world. And because of that affection I could blithely ignore the sentences that were trying to be more serious, most of the poetry, and all of the above mentioned red flags. One sci-fi element that did work well was the imago, a personality recording device that the protagonist's culture uses to record and transmit knowledge down the generations. It's a fun device to bring out the flavor of characters and add a second layer of resonance to much of the story, since the main character's imago is basically investigating their own death, and the main character has an inherited layer of memory and emotion already built up around most of the other characters.

HeartStrikers, books 1 & 2
2.5 Stars

"Your strategy was so bad that it confused me" - random Starcraft player after I defeated him, ~2014

An odd but not entirely terrible series of books. They're sort of like YA versions of the Dresden novels, with tense situations and magic and adventure and a tiny bit of romance and a lot of dragons. The plotline is that ~50 years ago magic returned to the world, and with it all sorts of supernatural things have woken up from hibernation, including several hundred dragons. The main character is the youngest of these dragons, but he has been raised on too much modern human media and doesn't want to be a sociopathic asshole like the rest of his dragon family, and so he has Spirited Away type challenges and adventures where it turns out being nice to various supernatural entities wasn't quite as bad of a choice as his family is telling him. The books are not great, but there are charming bits and creative bits & they are competently written. There's a couple of beats that are drawn out too long/repeated too often, but it's still a cut above just generic dreck.

The books are oddly structured though in that very quickly they introduce the idea of Seers, characters who can directly see the future and sift through the likely outcomes of people's actions. There are exactly 3 Seers at any point in time (I like this), but they exert an enormous control over events, since they can manipulate events and lives through both short and long term plots. E.g. any direct struggle against a Seer is 100% doomed, since their pawns will be gifted with extraordinary good luck, while their opponents will just slip on banana peel after banana peel. And you can't really run from Seers, since they can just look ahead to where you will go and then meet you there. So real freedom of action only exists in the boundaries between Seers, where their plots are clashing against each other. And this is a really weird thing to introduce into your book from the very start, the idea that the character's actions are mostly blessed/doomed from the start and have been specifically engineered to have the outcomes that they do. It makes the whole exercise seem even more meaningless than usual? And the author isn't really doing anything meta with the idea, e.g. the idea of Seers as stand-ins for the author or some such. Which brings us back to the main character, who has been specifically chosen by one of the Seers, precisely because the main character's decision making is so bad and unlikely that he can introduce an element of chaos & disrupt another Seer's carefully laid plots. So on the one hand the book is saying that "go ahead, be kind, remove that thorn from the lion's paw and he will reward you later" and on the other hand the book is saying that "the only reason this behavior is working is that a thousand year old dragon-Seer has manipulated events to make being nice work out, otherwise you would be dead". Anyway! It's just an odd conceit to structure your otherwise quite standard adventure books around, the sort of conflicting reality-shaping fields exercised by these three Seers, and where and how characters can act to possibly go against this flow.

There's 3 more books in the series, and I probabbbbbly won't read them, since they're a tad too slow and overwritten for the content they have.

(Book #1 in my Autumn of Auscapism series)

The Little Stranger
3.0 Stars

Betrayal! Sarah Waters and I have a deal: she writes slow, beautiful, lesbian romances, and I give her 4 and 5 star reviews. This book though? Zero lesbians. *Zero*.

Instead, I get an ultra-slow burn ghost story set in a British mansion. On the one hand, I like that Waters taps into a under-used vein of horror, that of home ownership and watching this enormously valuable asset crumble around you as it is continually assaulted by heat, cold, rain, snow, winds, accident, plant growth, leaks, mold, etc. etc. It is scary and nerve wrenching stuff. Things become doubly parlous when you are dealing with the famously shoddy and drafty British construction standards. Besides the plus of house-based horror, I also simply enjoy Water's writing. I think she's a charming writer, even when she is just meandering through scenes of people talking and carrying out their daily lives. She also has a real skill at painting people and environments with acuity, making rooms and architecture and gardens perfectly clear, and capturing the shifts in mood and conversation. At the best her characters feel concrete. Like there is no airiness or artifice to them, and Waters is just directly transmitting the lived experience of interacting with them.

On the other hand ... the book has structural problems in that her chosen sub-genre and plot simply do not fit the page count. 500 pages is too long of a run time for a relatively sedate ghost story. The massive page count saps any real tension or terror from the book. Things are not helped by the protagonist being the nicest of nice guys, and as he is the only PoV character, you spend the entire, long, novel in his head. The final dozen pages of the book do have an excellent pay off, and it does kind of make you want to read the entire novel again, but as with most Waters this desire is balanced against the largish length of the book.

Free Will
1.0 Stars

There was an online discussion about free will, and then on the same day I saw this book at the library and picked it up. Synchronicity? No, Mistake!

There is this phenomena where, for some reason, the published writing about free will is in terribly bad. Pick up a random book or essay on the topic and odds are it will be ass. I think the reason for this is that people who get the correct answer on this subject only need to write a few sentences, while people that aren't able to grapple with the idea need to write endless epicycles in order to try and make their ideas not so obviously wrong. The end result is sort of an extreme Sturgeon's Law, where the only people writing about the topic are the people who don't really engage with it, and just continually slip back into dualism in their attempts to think about the topic. That is what happens with this book: the author continually, implicitly assumes that there is some thing that is making decisions besides the brain. Anyway, obviously, DNF, I just thought the more general phenomena was interesting.

Blood on the Stars, Book 1 & 2 & 3
1.5 Stars

Some extremely thin gruel, and yet this is all that I actually require from a mil-sci-fi-series on audio book. It is not good. But it is just barely sufficient to listen to while doing yard work, as opposed to it's failure of a younger brother, 2034. I haven't forgotten you 2034. The author of this series understands the low bar that he has to clear, and he churns out reams of just-barely above GPT3 writing for an endless series of novels.

Minor note 1: "duty" sounds progressively more funny the more times it is said out loud.
Minor note 2: the book is bad-middle-manager focused, with an endlessly repeated beat where the engineers say that it will take 6T amount of time, and the ship-manager demands that they get it done in 2T or 3T amount of time. You can only assume that the first several months of engineering training is how to instinctively and immediately pad your estimates by 300% in order to deal with this bullshit. There's another bad-management beat where officers are always saying "I can feel my tactical attention slipping! Doctor, inject me with more vials of meth, stat!"
Minor note 3: There is another similar, terrible series, and in that series the author uses the phrase "a chink in the armor" precisely once per book. This author does the same thing? I'm not sure if this is because of similar upbringing, a sort of convergent evolution of bad-mil-sci-fi authors, or if the phrase is an intentional nod of the head, or if (more likely) there is a demon successively possessing these authors and forcing them to write these novels and in each novel the demon leaves its characteristic spoor.
Minor note 4: ok, I will say one good thing. The author chose to make this a legacy game, with the events taking place amongst the ruins and dead planets of a much larger and more advanced previous empire. This is a good choice, since whenever you need a new tech or McGuffin or whatever, it can just come out from the ruins.

Northern Spy
3.0 Stars

An important PSA about why you shouldn't become an agent for an intelligence service. All downside, only the promise of an upside, you are the one taking all the risks and hanging out on a limb. It's like the adage about a poker table; if you look around the table and don't see the sucker then you are it.

The story was competent enough and it also brought in some unusual elements (motherhood and childcare), but overall it was not my cup of tea.

Demon Princess Magical Chaos
5.0 Stars

Amazing. Iconic. An Artistic masterpiece. Kim Stanley Robinson, *this* is how you write a novel.

Ministry for the Future, KSR, audio book
2.0 Stars

We will sustainably power the world by hooking a generator up to KSR's handwaving (Book #3 of my "Spring" into the Apocalypse reading list.)

There's a lot to be said about this book, but for the most part other people have said it better elsewhere ( I will just contribute a few more bits of snark, e.g. this book reminded me most strongly of the ending of Brazil, where the protagonist is inventing an increasingly fantastical and farcical rescue plotline in order to disassociate himself from the experience of being tortured to death. (spoilers). Ministry starts off slightly realistic, but becomes increasily absurdist as the story goes on. I've read LitRPGs where the hero gains 999 levels and defeats God which were more grounded.

That concludes the main body of the review. As a final note, I would just like to say that this book and its characters are annoying as fuck to listen to. It dug up long repressed memories, of being cornered by some Rice big-brain and being talked at about math while feeling the life-force palpably drain from my body. The book is both too intelligent and not intelligent enough. On the one hand, because of the author's enlarged brain, he fails to understand the many true things that a dumb person would implicitly understand. On the other hand, the author is not smart enough to offer any useful ways forward that other people haven't thought of before. Normally I would give this experience 1 star, but since the issue is of immense global importance I am spotting the book an additional, *full* 1 star, in the hope that this book at least sparks useful thoughts from some other person.

Level 7
4.0 Stars

- Item 1 on checklist: Do not die (Book #2 of my "Spring" into the Apocalypse reading list.)

A little bit Dr Strangelove, a little bit Fallout, and a little bit Threads, told in a succinct, simple, and effective style. Also the novel is ~100 pages long, which I think is a great length for a novel and something that many more writers should emulate. The author wrote this early enough (1958) that it precedes most nuclear-apocalypse fiction, and it seems like this book would have been ground breaking at the time (even if it is mostly forgotten today). It still holds up well, and while the basic ideas are now common the story still works and it doesn't cheaply use the dire events of the book. Put another way, I'd much rather read this than most of the 2021 Hugo nominees.

The Expanse, audiobooks 7 & 8
4.0 Stars

Decent quality, and there is so much of it. All of the Expanse novels have the same essential plot: some assholes attempt to use alien artifacts to become the new lords of humanity, the protagonists try to stop them, 600 pages of events ensue. These books continue with that same story structure, though this time the assholes are moderately more successful than usual. I liked it? I liked that the authors aged everyone up by 30 years, I liked that they allowed more fragility and change in the story, and I liked that the stories for the most part keep an essentially humanist tone. This isn't quite Iain Banks, but the books do mostly side with people's desire to follow their own desires and paths over any sort of universal systematizing or patriotism or empire building. The adventures that go on are fine, the plotting is fine, the world building is fine. I liked the sense of dislocation but also possibility that the story produces, that the universe is no longer Earth, Mars, and the Belt and their old rivalries, but rather dozens of new worlds with growing millions. I also liked the Laconians, the new assholes from this book, in that the author did a great job of making them so dislikeable. These latter Expanse novels are a definite step up, and the authors are becoming better and more confident story tellers and also benefiting from all the previous work that they've put into their world.

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