Titanicus, by Dan Abnett Rothdas book review RSS
3.0 Stars

Astrobleme; it means star wound

As usual, Abnett does a great job of taking the absurdity of WH40K, and in particular the absurdity of WH40K's 1970-ish mech designs, and somehow turning it into enjoyable and oddly believable stories. So of course you have clashing mechs, but there's also a Byzantine type religious schism about the unitary or divided nature of divinity, culture clashes between the human and mechanicus peoples on the planet, some amusing Skitarii interludes, a plotline that follows a woefully unequipped third line reserve force as they try to navigate the devastation of battle, a mech pilot struggling against mind-interface-rot, and a few other heroic threads at various levels of the conflict. The Chaos forces are largely absent in narrative terms, which I thought was an unusual choice but overall worked fine. And as usual I think these books are about 10-30% too long, but still a very solid effort of creation from an author that was given basically nothing to work with by his predecessors.

Let the Right One In
3.0 Stars

A well written but depressing and thematically confused story about a Swedish vampire that goes around, Quantum Leap style, helping out people in trouble. A few notes: from the book's portrayal Finland seems like a truly dire place, where absolutely no one is happy. The participants in the novel are all either depressed, drunk, druggies, hapless, befuddled, unlucky, miserable, sick, pathetic, sadists, criminals, hollow church goers, cops, or some combination of the above. I feel a little a bit about the place like I do when looking pictures of the worst Micronesian islands, that oh wow you guys really got stuck settling the absolute end of existence, where things are just a notch more habitable than the complete void of outerspace. And it shows in their affect. So much of this novel could have been avoided if these people had just managed to live in a place that is not an Artic wasteland, where people could just get a little sunshine each day and relax and feel decent. Note 2: the books go much darker than the movies. It takes a while, but they eventually get to at least the outskirts of Throne of Bones territory, and I can see why the movie adaptations of the book looked at the last third of the novel and just said "nope nope nope" and left it on the cutting room floor.

The Serpent and the Saint, and the Magister and the Martyr, by Dan Abnett
3.0 Stars

what is this, a cross-over episode!?

Our Ithacan Snake Boys are back! It turns out that the earlier Iron Snakes novel was an origin story rather than a series of stand alone vignettes, and now the characters from that book are mixed in with those from Abnett's more grounded and human level series. It's still sort of a high-level campaign, and as usual there's a fair bit of repetitiveness, but there's also a lot to like in these two books. E.g. the basic war stories are fun, the author has a consistent tactical inventiveness and ability to turn the absurdity of WH40K into weirdly belieavable and interesting situations, he does a decent job of representing the post-human space marines, and he does a great job of representing and making oddly sympathetic the traior marines opposing them. Hmm, what else. There's easily as much body horror as in Ballingrud's work, but as usual with Warhammer it's just thrown in there as a lagniappe rather than being the full deal. There is also, as the title implies, the saint that the entire 20 novel series revolves around. I'm not sure how I feel about that aspect. WH40K has always had this issue that it is nominally satire, but after 20 minutes and a few drinks it forgets about that and devolves into straight faced whatever-40K-is, and then this book folds imperial religion into it, which is kind of also a little bit Catholicism?, and at some point I lose the thread about what exactly this is supposed to be. It kind of works, after all who does not want to follow a Joan of Arc/White Rose figure into battle, but it kind of does not as I got lost in the various thousand folds of imitation and satire and I'm not sure exactly what the text is supposed to be conveying. Is Dan Abnett Catholic? Is he doing a mirror image of what Sanderson is doing, and trying to sneak his religion into a 5000+ page series of fantasy novels? It is a frightening thought.

Oh and I also liked the elderly married couple in their paired Warhound mechs.

Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell, by Ballingrud
2.0 Stars

hell is forever and it's meant to suck a lot

Like Throne of Bones, but for NPR listeners. There's a lot of grossness and gore, but it comes off as somewhat cartoonish and oddly safe. It's not bad exactly, and it does successfully make you feel a bit off, like you ate some slightly bad chili, but the events are not placed out there with the sort of skill and panache that you need to pull off a really good or gross horror story. E.g. compare to someone like Laird Barron, who, for all his faults, has a real physicality to his writing and can genuinely make you feel ill and sick to your stomache with his memorable horror stories. Like you ate some bad chili that was really off. Oh right and if it wasn't clear yet these are not stories of horror-adventure, where the characters have a chance to fight and survive, but rather stories of horror-they-are-fucked where none of the MCs have the capacity/autonomy to really do anything about the events happening to them. Kind of a depressing genre really.

A bit about the details of the stories themselves: They're Sunless-Sea/Fallen London type stories of high magic and dark urban fantasy; a small town colonized by ghouls and their ghoul religion, an infectious imp that falls in love/hate with the young diabolist that inherited it, a librarian sent to retrieve a hell-tongue, a sailing ship voyage to the border of hell, etc. etc. The usual stuff.

The Witch in the Well
2.0 Stars

there seems to be no escape from this sordid tale

A skillfully enough written book, about two long-time, small-town frenemies who are both writing a book about a "witch" that was thrown into a well in the 1800's. The only problem is that one the MCs, the one you spend ~70% of the book with, is a desperately toxic, bitter, and unpleasant lady. There are plenty of valid reasons for this in the story (ill luck in childhood, kelpie-blight, witch-dream influence), but it also makes the experience of listening to the book genuinely unenjoyable. The problem is compounded because the bitter MC takes over progressively more of the narration as the story continues on to its conclusion.

Actually, wait, if you want to there is also a reading of this book where there are no super-natural elements, just a truly dismal and unreliable narrator writing/editing the entire thing. That would be worse.

Sword of Liberty
1.0 Stars

There is a sub-genre of sci-fi that I like, which explores the hypothetical of how quickly could we colonize/industrialize outer space if Earth turned all of its surplus energies towards that task. Notable members include Seveneves, the Three Body problem novels, the various Lumpkin novels/Terra Invicta, and now this book as well. Unfortunately this novel is a verrrrry amateurish entry into the genre. The characterization is terrible, it doesn't really consider the world outside of America, and it doesn't really engage with any of the many, many technical problems of the task. There's a notable part early on where they're talking about building a new breed of space ship, but they haven't yet decided on what the ship will use for propulsion or what it will use for power. Which is, like, 99.8% of the difficulty of building a spaceship. Fortunately the author quickly handwaves these problems away. The one positive thing I will say about the novel is that the aliens, their reason for arriving, and the unfolding of their ship-complex was moderately creative and interesting.

Brothers of the Snake, by Dan Abnett
3.0 Stars

A perfectly fine novel about a space marine doing space marine things in various episodes that span a career of space marining. Has Greek flavor. The one historically inaccurate part of the novel is that when a guard dog rushes at the MC, the MC makes friends with the dog rather than splattering it with a bolter round. Space Marines = Cops = Dead Dog.

Double Eagle, by Dan Abnett
4.0 Stars

It was once said about the late, great, Vic Davis that he was like Michelangelo, if Michelangelo only ever worked in the medium of colored macarroni. Dan Abnett is a similar sort; he's a skilled and solid and prolific writer, but he *only* ever writes WH40K novels. Or to put it another way, he's like Brandon Sanderson, except with more interest in Band-of-Brothers type soldierly interactions, and with more heart and humor and cleverness, and with a sufficient amount of rivet counting to ground his fiction, but rather less interest in grand world-building and system-exploring than Sanderson. So, this is another Abnett book, this time about WW2 type air-battles on a contested planet. I originally started it up as a prelude to the new Masters of the Air series, but I'm pretty sure the book ruined the TV for me. Abnett has more freedom in his battles and plotting and events than the historically-bound TV show, and in general he just does a better job of coming up with interesting air men and the various arcs their lives go through as they fight for the skies.

Side note: often times the interests of the reader/viewer are more closely aligned with the antagonists than the heroes, since both villains and readers live for drama. Puella Magi Madoka made that alignment more explicit than usual; the antagonist of the show cannot feel emotions itself, but rather feeds off of the glorious highs and terrifying lows of the characters, and is contantly trying to engineer the most epic, Wagnerian drama possible. So its interests are very similar to the interests of the viewer, and in some ways it is a stand in for the viewer. There's something similar going on in WH40K; the Ruinous powers feed off the various struggles and strong emotions of mankind, but these emotions are also what the reader is there for. In particular this book has continuous, endless, WWII type air battles, which raises the question: are the Chaos Gods boomers? Is it one of those things where after a para-psychic entity reaches a sufficient age and power, it has to choose between being a Civil War buff or a WWII buff?

Hell Bent, by Leigh Bardugo
2.0 Stars

Ooof. The author has a real gift for creating stories that seem like they will be excellent, and then steadily tumble downhill in quality until they finally end in a rumpled and dirty heap at the bottom of failure-valley.

Some criticisms: 1) the author takes a low magic setting and then spins it up way too fast to where people are using Burning Hands as an at will power, travelling between dimensions, negotiating with demon lords, etc. etc. It makes the universe feel papery? fan-fictiony? like the author did not have a consistent idea in their head of the world they are trying to create. 2) the idiot ball is broken out of its locker and sees a lot of use here. "We're being hunted by doppelgangers who want to drain our life force, and we can't get rid of them till the new moon! Ok, everyone split up and go to their seperate apartments. Also make sure to go to work and school this week, that's clearly important at this time of imminent and life threatening danger". "We must try to rescue this person despite all odds!/predictably gets 18 people killed doing so" 3) the main character is constantly said to be a rattle-snake, a real hard bitten survivor, a dangerous, low-down, no good baddie, but the proof really is not there. At one point the evidence given of this unique hardness is that she lied to her parents, which is like the most universal human experience ever. The constant refrain comes off as silly after a while. The protagonist is not a complete cinamon roll, but she's also really, really not that bad.

In the moderately positive column, there are fun bits scattered here and there through out the story. E.g. the party is being tempted by a demon; to one person it offers political power and visions of becoming a Senator, to another person career success and wealth, to another the curing of her ADHD and the ability to finally focus on and complete the thesis paper that she's been nibbling at for the last ~6 years.

Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo
3.0 Stars

A somewhat confusingly named book about that is not about Gideon and Harrow and Necromancy, but rather about Yale and Urban Fantasy and Necromancy. The MC is a down on her luck kid, and it is only her ability to see ghosts that gives her a chance to join the magical world of Yale with its secret societies of spell casters. There's a murder, then a few murders, and then a few more murders, and she is not about to let them go unsolved.

On the upside, the book is easy to read/listen to, decently written, and has a number of grounded, physically thought out rituals that I liked. At its best the book is about grotty, low magic, and costly attempts to change reality. On the downside, the plot becomes gradually dumber as it moves along. In a world with teleportation, face-changing illusions, and mind-control magic, murder plots can quickly become convoluted to the point of farce. There's also a few modest elements in the book I wasn't a fan of; the trauma tourism on the one hand, and the fetishizing of Yale and its trivia on the other. On that second charge the book is ambivalent. It wants to recognize that Yale and the other Ivies have benefited from a false reputation of graduating geniuses and movers and shakers and real solid people, when in reality they are just idiots like all the rest of us. E.g. see the history of the CIA. On the other hand, the book can't quite help but buy into, at some level, the standard myths that have been erected around these places. Apparently the author went to Yale herself, and that made a lot of sense. She can see that it is a silly place, but still can't quite shake off her conditioning.

I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, by Victor Klemperer
5.0 Stars

Apparently somewhere between 1915 and 1933 people became fully modern. There were several times that I was reading the diary and was like yeah, these lines are both relevant and helpful in thinking more clearly about an online discussion I was having just a few hours ago. You could revivify Klemperer, give him a 90 minute primer on the last 90 years, and he would be completely at home on Qt3 or Reddit or Metafilter or where ever. He has perceptive observations about language, thought, identity, and politics, mixed in with longer passages about his wife, his relations & friends, his cats, his ongoing scholarly work, his money problems, his hypochondria (despite constant health fears, he survives both the Nazis and the Dresden fire bombing and lives for another 20 years), and his many bungled attempts to nearsightedly drive a car around the area. The author is a fine writer, a lovable idealist, a lovable idiot, and extremely intelligent and educated. There were many passages that I highlighted in this book, but these were my favorite sections.

The diary is also the most affecting thing that I've read this year. His direct thoughts and life work much better as art (in the Murdochian sense) than a novelization of the same times would.

Will of the Many
3.0 Stars

The Roman Empire. Don't think it, Don't say it

A YAish fantasy adventure/magic school set in a vague approximation of the Roman-empire. The main conceit of the book is ceding, a process enabled by ancient artifacts which allows one person to cede a portion of their strength/will to another. It reifies political organization, and allows groups to form hierarchies of ceding where those at the top of the pyramid are drawing from thousands of others at the bottom. This makes the leaders much stronger/tougher, and also lets them utilize magical Vril powers using all the excess will they've gathered. These vril-based magics are used to power the Empire's infrastructure and its warfare, but it also means that the masses at the base of the pyramid are living maybe ~75% of a life as their excess energy/strength/attention/lifeforce is sapped from them to supply the system. The protagonist does not like this, and decides to make it everyone's problem.

On the plus side, the book moves fast, goes to unexpected places with its world building, and quickly proliferates an array of competing organizations and characters with secret loyalties. On the downside, it can be rather tropey, and while the writing and character building are fine they're never really brilliant. I've heard this book ranked up there with the universally beloved Name of the Wind as one of the best magic school books out there, but I don't think the comparison holds. The Name of the Wind works because while the protagonist is enormously gifted, these gifts are tragic gifts that are enough to allow the protagonist to step over the normal rules of his society, but never quite enough to let him avoid/prevent the fallout caused by his actions. By contrast, In the Will of the Many, the main character is just omni-competent, and if he's not the best at something he can usually get there with a few weeks practice and then everything works great. It's a much more common and much less interesting dynamic, i.e. just a plain old fantasy.

Sandman Slim, various mid books
3.0 Stars

*Extraordinarily* silly but also decently fun audio books. Sort of like Supernatural if it started off really dark and munchkinish, and then gradually relaxed and de-powered its characters. The series takes a very Lincoln-in-Bardo approach to the afterlife, with the whole cycle of injury->death->ghost->limbo->Hell/Heaven->Tartarus all being carried out by very specific people, entities, and processes. These processes then get messed with to a surprising degree through the series, which is again quite silly, but also apt, since if you're going to give the characters in your urban fantasy these theological levers you can't complain when they actually use them. By the end of book ~6 or so the after-life has been mostly rewritten, things calm down, and rather than facing off against Satan/God/Cthulu the main characters are more worried about a Wolfram-and-Hart type investment firm. This might be the first time that I've seen an author actually take my advice and go from writing stories where the characters face a steadily escalating series of threats, and level it off to just tell more minor stories at a more constant and low-key level of threat. Now that I've received what I've been asking for, I'm not sure I actually want it? The books go into a bit of a doldrums as this happens, which the series may or may not pull out of.

Also of note, despite the main character being an absurd macho-cliche with the volume knob set to 11, the author of the book is just a normal progressive, and the author has been gradually chilling out the MC, having him learn to relate to others in a more well-adjusted fashion & pick up more healthier habits as the series goes on. The tears from the conservative fraction of his readership have been hilarious and are another positive quality of the series.

Clark and Division
2.0 Stars

More of a book report than a book. The history is fine, the mystery is fine, the story and cultural bits are fine. It is just that the writing for all of it is very simple and flat, very YA. Sarah Waters could have taken the same material and themes and made it into an amazing book, but as written it is kind of a straight forward and not very exciting exercise.

Spinning Silver
3.0 Stars

Enjoyable fairy tales, but also has plenty of good life lessons for young women. E.g. If you really care about a guy, show him by exorcising the ancient fire demon that has been plaguing him, or by saving his slowly melting ice kingdom from the siege of the summer sun. You *can* fix him! You just need to put in the work.

On the downside, was not a fan of the relentless investment fund propaganda, and how every finance person was clever and trustworthy and industrious and open handed, while every worker was shiftless and deceitful and drunkardly and cruel and violent.

Killers of the Flower Moon
3.0 Stars

Brutally depressing book about the winding down of a genocide and desultory efforts at justice.

The Spellman Files, Book #1
5.0 Stars

A story about a slightly dysfunctional family of private investigators. Has the virtues of being well written, humorous, fast paced, intelligent, not too light, and not too dark. Would happily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys stories about detectives.

It's ok to be *Angry* about Capitalism, Sanders
5.0 Stars

What a delightful young man. A clear, succinct, and beautiful little book.

Phantasmion, by Sara Coleridge
3.0 Stars

As Phantasmion awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. "Yesssss"

Quite possibly the first fantasy novel, very definitely another silly book. The book has one beautiful protagonist (Phantasmion), one beautiful princess (Iarine), ~30 different nobles from various feuding families and lineages, 7 fickle nature spirits and witches, and a vast overabundance of plot. The nature spirits and witches are *constantly* messing with the mortal characters, moving them from place to place, proposing plans and journeys, and then intervening to undo any progress that the characters have made. So the noble characters end up shuttling from one palace or glade to the next, over and over again, in various configurations of seeking or fleeing or disguise. It gets old after ~100 pages, though there are a variety of hilarious or well described moments that keep the rest of the book from being a complete morass. E.g. Potentilla, the spirit of Insects, transforms Phantasmion into a giant sized water bug. While swimming and flying around, he sees the queen Maudra about to sacrifice her child by throwing it to the water-spirit Seshelma. So Phantasmion swoops down, kicks off Seshelma's face, intercepts the air-borne child, and then flies off with the kid to take home and raise as his own. E.g. Potentilla gives Phantasmion the powers of the cricket, allowing him to leap large distances (seeing a pattern?). Furthermore, she weaves a giant web across a castle gate, in order to distract a party of hostile nobles so that Phantasmion can then steal Iarine out from amidst their group. This works, except Iarine doesn't want to go with him, since she's been tricked by a witch into thinking she needs to go on a quest to get some magic water to heal her father, and so she just runs off into the woods. Phantasmion takes this gracefully, but then he notices a childhood bird that he really liked has gotten stuck in the spider webbing, so he goes to free the bird, but then *he* gets stuck in the webbing too, and so he gets captured. And so Potentilla comes to him in his cell, and gives Phantasmion the the sharp & ridged arms of a something bug so that he can cut his bonds and escape, and so on and so on for another 300 pages. One suprising part of the story is that while the plotting is childish, the writing is occasionally quite good, with some skillfully described scenes of natural beauty or gothic nature vibes. In this it's kind of the opposite of Sister, Maiden, Monster, which had enjoyable plotting but often terrible writing.

Oh right another funny note, the perfect and impenetrable disguise for these royals is dressing up as a servant. As soon as a character has put on servant garb, they are completely invisible to all the other noble characters, even if they've known each other for decades. This tactic is used a at least 10 times through out the book.

Sister, Maiden, Monster
3.0 Stars

Like Peter Watts' Rifters, as written by an urban-fantasy-romance author on a deadline. Has plenty of liasons, body horror, viruses, and cosmic apocalypses. Or maybe like a slightly more upbeat Laird Barron with his elder gods who create worlds in order to consume worlds, or a Throne of Bones with more eroticism and moderately less cannibalism and necrophagia.

I liked many of the elements the novel was putting out there, and the story is fast paced and often cheerful, but unfortunately the writing is not that great overall and occasionally veers into the downright amateurish. In particular the author likes to pull an anti-Lovecraft, and just immediately and with very little foreplay lay out the nature of the monster, the mechanism by which the monster occurred, and what exactly the relation is between the monster and its elder god or whatever. So, not an author who is afraid of a very concise and complete info dump.

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