A Stranger in Olondria Rothdas book review RSS
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A beautiful and lush book that has some of the best descriptive scenes I have ever read. I'm usually not a person who gets off on lengthy descriptions of scenery, material goods, clothes, poetry, flora, mud, ghosts, towers, falling light, etc, etc, and in general I view the world as a series of black and white circles with simple text labels on them. However, I found the etoliated crocus's of this book to be genuinely enjoyable, and I would find myself happily reading 50 page sections that were almost entirely about the sensory texture of things. There is some plot to the book, and some character and plenty of world building, and these were all quite fine and nothing was wrong with them and they were occasionally quite good. The main focus and strength of the book though is in its language and descriptive powers.

P.S. Olondria actually reminded me a tiny bit of _The Historian_, in that they both involve the supernatural, and fetishize the written word and tourism in distant lands. Olondria though is vastly, vastly more intelligent and better written. Apparently the author spent a decade editing and revising this book, and the effort wasn't wasted.

P.P.S. One of the text-based religions in the book is based on a giant meteorite that had been found in a desert. The meteorite was covered with thousands upon thousands of lines of unknown text, and upon deciphering and translating the text they turned out to be this huge list of surprisingly sensible maxims, aphorims, life-heuristics, and such. How cool is that? So much neater than coming down from a mountain with a few stone tablets.




Analogue: A Hate Story
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

I normally don't review interactive fiction, but when I do it is genuinely creative and interesting. This story is by Christina Love, who also wrote the excellent _don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story_. Hate Story is a sort of epistolary novel, where you are recovering crew-member logs from a generation starship that never completed its mission of colonization. This is complicated by the fact that you can only interact with the logging system with the assistance of ship's AI. So it starts off as an epistolary novel, but then adds in a narrator who is sort of reading over your shoulder, and that is questioning you, and who is then modifying what you read. You could think of it as taking an adaptive SAT written exam, where the exam itself is judging you. And that is just the initial premise, after that things start to get weird. :) I could write more, but I think any further information would ruin the charm of the story. There are some flaws in the story, and I don't think it fully realizes the great potential of the sort of narrative system that it sets up, but I still really enjoyed the work as a whole. It manages to be a clever experimental novel, very fun, occasionally moving, and quite simply something I haven't seen before in the realm of words on paper.




Zoo City
4.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A fast moving and enjoyable urban-slum-fantasy-detective story set in a South Africa. The conceit here is that particularly heinous acts (e.g. most murders) result in A) a sort of karmic blackness that will quickly devour a person, leaving only a dark stain on the pavement B) an animal familiar, who will keep the karma at bay so long as the animal is alive and close by, and C) some random, minor magical power. Unsurprisingly, the animalled are heavily discriminated against and for the most part have to live in their own slums. In the case of the protagonist, her power is being able to feel the threads from people to their lost things, and vice versa.

I'm not usually a fan of detective stories, but this one actually appealed to me. The story moves quickly, and the South African magic system was appealingly unfamiliar. I was also a big fan of the protagonist, her spunky sloth, and their continual antagonizing of people. I like to think of her as the protagonist of _Random Acts of Senseless Violence_ except all grown up. :)




The Screaming Staircase
2.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A very young adult book. The book describes what Conquest of Elysium players know as a Conjunction with the Plane of the Dead, where the spirits of the departed come back to haunt the places where they died. The proper response is to abandon old castles, battlefields, graveyards, gallows, and large cities, as they will simply produce too many ghosts to be held. You should consolidate your forces in the more productive farming villages and market towns until the Conjunction has passed, at which point you can begin rebuilding and re-taking your land. In this book though London is still using young adults (who are more psychically sensitive) to try and combat the growing ectoplasmic menace. The haunted house and ghost scenes are actually alright, so kudos to the book for getting its core correct. Everything besides the haunted house scenes is not necessarily bad, but it is extremely simplistic, like you would expect to see in a kid's movie. Characters are very 2 dimensional, the dialog is kind of flat, the plot beats are clear ahead of time even to someone oblivious like me, etc. etc.




Our Game
4.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Kind of an odd Le Carre book. The first half of the book is great, and has a weird similarity to one of my favorite Iris Murdoch novels, The Black Prince. There is a dried up, risk-averse and retired Treasury agent (ok, in this book it is just his cover, but he's still retired), there is his lifelong friend/rival who is much more outgoing and dicey, there is the wife and their shared history, and then there is the much, much younger woman that our Treasury agent has fallen in love with. It even plays around with the same themes of competing head-canons, and of their collisions and attempted impositions on other people. There are a few other similarities in how their relations unfold, but I don't want to spoil too much. This first half isn't much of a spy novel at all, and is mostly just configurations of 2-4 people in a room talking or interrogating, with their unfolding histories and relations and psyches. There is some spy/law enforcement stuff going on, but it's much more tangential than in a typical Le Carre novel. There are also several delightful scenes of English gentlemen becoming shocked and indignant when someone tries to bring morality into a discussion of foreign policy. I actually expected the book to end halfway through, simply because that is where the Murdoch novel ended.

And that brings us to the second half of the story, which was kind of meh? Usually I am right on board with Le Carre and his views, but here I really had to side with the English gentlemen. The second half becomes more of a spy novel, as our Treasury agent sets out on a somewhat quixotic quest. I didn't really buy the motivation for starting the quest, or for continuing the quest, or even that the quest was a good thing. Or to put it another way, the usual Le Carre story involves people being caught up in the machinery of patriotism/national security, and either being ground up by it in one way or another, or managing to escape from it (sometimes by leaving a limb behind). In this novel I feel like the the protagonist manages to break free, but then he turns around and plunges himself back into a different and even more arbitrary set of machinery. Anyway, it was a very frustrating denoument, as I really wanted better things for a protagonist that in many ways I quite liked.




Lies of Locke Lamora
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A generally enjoyable beer and pretzels fantasy adventure story. The main idea is that there is a Thieves Guild, and a clever & roguish thief, and nobles and merchants, and some plots and cons and sword fighting and magic. At least initially I assumed that it had been written ~20 years ago, and it reminded me really strongly of some short stories that a friend was writing back around 2000-2002. But nope, Lies of Locke Lamora was published in 2006, and apparently wasn't anyone's inspiration after all. Still, despite the some what old school feel to the story, it's not bad. There's some nice world building, and the writing is decent and fast moving, and the few magicians that show up have an overpowered-evil-and-strange feel to them like in the old Conan stories. Also, I read 700 pages of it while enjoying myself and not becoming upset at the writing, so that's something.

There were a couple of weak spots, which kept the book from rising to 4 stars. The story is a tad slow for the first 500 pages, and doesn't have as much of a sense of danger as I would like. Things only really pick up in the last 200 pages or so. There's also a sort of double storyline going on, where you are moving through events both in the past and in the present day. The past storyline was never as interesting as the present day one, and when I arrived at the start of another past-chapter I would sigh just a bit. Finally, the main character is supposed to be really clever and conniving, but the author occasionally didn't have the chops to make him that way. I.e. the character might come up with a plot/con, but it seems like the con only works because the author gave the character plot armor, rather than because the con was actually clever. So the story never really rises to the level of something like the Kvothe books.




Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A collection of Japanese "ghost" stories. The stories were written in the modern age, but are set back in the 1700's-1800's amongst a collection of laborers, craftspeople, and house hold servants. The stories are OK? They tend to be quietly enjoyable and well written, and don't really have any fast paced action, or over arching themes, or really scary moments. It's just kind of oh, there's this rainy workshop and its various characters and its calm routine, and then this one room is haunted, and eventually they find out the backstory to the apparition, and then deal with it, or not. I think my favorite short story was the one where an oni was haunting a particular room at night. To deal with it, the household hid in various nooks of the room. When the oni arrived, they jumped out, threw a blanket over the oni, and then bludgeoned it to death. It was a very sensible response. :)




Fortune's Pawn
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A really delightful and fast paced space-adventure-romance story. A friend described it as urban fantasy set in space, and that is spot on. You definitely see the sorts of tropes and story beats and fast paced writing style that you would in urban fantasy, except that it has been all been transposed into a sci-fi setting. And I don't know, maybe I should be jaded and literary and hard-sciency and look down my nose at that? But I really can't, I thought it worked wonderfully. There were developments that would been boring and cliched in a urban-fantasy novel, but that were great the first time you see them re-skinned, as it were, for this new setting.

Ok, enough about tropes, let me try to review the story directly. It's like Firefly! Except the story is told from the point of view of an awesome female version of Jayne, and the fist fights all take place in power armor/mechs, and there are interesting alien races and telekinetics and secret crew member histories, and oh no! Jayne has fallen in love! :) I'd like to single out the fight scenes for particular praise. Maybe it's just because I was raised on a diet of mech-warrior novels, but I thought that the author did a really good job with the power armor. Nothing is easier than writing a boring fight scene (I'm looking at you, Nexus), and I think the author largely avoids that, at least partly in thanks to the protagonist's Jayne-like love for her weapon systems.

Anyway, this book was about the same length as Scaramouche, but at least subjectively it took me about 1/10th the time to read. I'm definitely looking forward to the sequels. I wouldn't want all my sci-fi novels to be like this, but four or so like this would be great.




Scaramouche
2.0 Stars
1-1-2015

"M de La Tour d'Azyr's concern for Aline on that morning of the duel when he had found her half-swooning in Mme de Plougastel's carriage had been of a circumspection that betrayed nothing of his real interest in her, and therefore had appeared no more than natural in one who must account himself the cause of her distress."

That sentence is a pretty good summary of the novel, which is a somewhat soggy and overwritten soap opera set in revolutionary France. Here's another one:

"But fast to danger-point as was the speed, to the women in that carriage it was too slow."

Yes, far too slow. Zing! There were actually parts of the book I enjoyed, and initially I was interested to see where the story would go, but over time the book just became more disappointing. The protagonst is a bit of a Mary Sue, and the morals, gender relations, political theory, and diction were all wonky (are they left over's from the 1950's? are they supposed to be accurate to the time the story is set in?). At the end I had the sneaking suspicion that I'd just read the 1950's version of a Michael Crichton novel.




The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A *very* short and fast adventure story (short story?) with a few twists. The quest is given and accepted by page 5, and the combat encounters are done by page 60. The setting is a little Lovecraftian, a little real-politik, and involves two Britsh agents investigating a disappearance at a sanitarium. This is the rare case where I might have given a book more stars if there had been more pages.




Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A short, fast, mildly humorous read about a necromancer in mid-century England trying to get his soul back from the Devil. A fair number of the jokes and asides fall flat, especially at the start, but towards the middle and end of the book the story and the humor start to come together. There were a few genuine lol moments, and I enjoyed his insane Mythos cultists and their chants.




Perfect Circle
4.0 Stars
1-1-2015

The quoted reviews for this book are actually dead on, so I'm not sure that I have too much else to add. "Stephen King meets Ibsen." Yep, it is a ghost/exorcism story that is well written and deeply tied into family. "I read is all in on gulp". Yep, it is a very fast read, and I consumed most of it in one evening.

I couldn't quite give the novel 4 stars though, since it was good and enjoyable and very readable but not excellent. I suppose strictly speaking this is urban fantasy, but the quality and feel of the book is so different from most books in the genre that I'm not sure the term is really useful. As always with Peterson, the supernatural elements in the story have this wonderful combination of intuitiveness, creativity, and precise physical detail. He describes witchcraft with the same sort of physical detail that he might use in describing setting a fishing lure or some other bit of minor manual cleverness. And as usual, the supernatural elements are set amidst a richly realized family structure/history. Reading Sean Stewart is always a treat, and it makes you imagine an alternate history where fantasy authors are all just absurdly good writers.

There were a few tiny, niggling things about the book that bothered me. One is that it doesn't seem to be in the same alternate universe as his other books. The timeline and supernatural system are similar to his other books, but not quite the same (kind of like Against a Dark Background relative to the Culture novels). There is much less magic in this story, and it seems to be limited to just ghosts. I would have loved to have another book set in his main timeline, and I kept going back to the fact that this story is not quite in the same timeline as the others. A second annoyance for me is that the story is set in Houston, and is deeply connected to the city. It is constantly grounding itself in the street names and parks and restaurants of the city, which is unfortunate, since it is such a terrible, terrible city. Lol. It reminded me a bit of the first time I heard someone called Houston "H-Town", and how I couldn't tell if it was ironic or not. He does have a few nice touches in there (he comments on the oddity that concrete culverts are called bayous in Houston, which has always puzzled me), but overall I think I would be happier if it was set in another city. Anyway, this was like the other Peterson books that I've liked so much, except faster, lighter, and on a smaller/more contained scale.




Galveston/The Night Watch
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

This a joint review for both Galveston and Night Watch.




The Night Watch
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Kwaiden
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A collection of Japanese myths, supernatural stories, haiku's, and musings that was compiled around the year 1900. The myths are short and occasionally interesting, though I think I liked the butterfly haiku's better. The author was a Westerner who had to settled in Japan, and his interludes and proto-sci-fi musings were enjoyable. It's always interesting to read an intelligent person from a completely different intellectual milieu. He also has a great name, Lafcadio.




Ancillary Justice
4.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A sci-fi novel that has been compared by some to Ian Bank's Culture novels. And yes, Ancillary Justice does have an inventiveness in far-future cultures and couture and language and religion and planet formations and such. And yes, Ancillary Justice is well written, and fast and fun to read. And yes, it does involve AI ship minds, and interesting questions of distributed consciousness. However, in some respects it falls short of Bank's very high mark, as the world building is not quite as clever as the master's. In other respects, Ancillary Justice falls far short, as much of its sci-fi grounding is kind of crud. E.g. in a far future with AI's and Dyson spheres and massive FTL ships, it doesn't make any sense to talk about humans being useful for producing goods, or for humans carrying guns to be of any use at all in warfare. Also, I'm not really sure what the message of the book is, except that it is kind of bad to live in a militaristic and authoritarian society? Compare this to _The Player of Games_, one of Bank's wonderful leftist polemics. _The Player of Games_ has a terrible society (Azad), but also a far better alternative (the Culture) to stand in contrast. In Ancillary Justice, you just have a kind of terrible society, without anything to stand as a counterpoint. I am somewhat hopeful that the rest of the series will do something with the initial setup, and take the story somewhere truly interesting. But for now at least it doesn't look like this is the second coming of Banks that I was dreaming of.

Postscript: Oh, and one neat element which I completely skipped over was the gloves! All through the story there is this idea that civilized people wear gloves, and to be without them is to be a complete barbarian. I love how she never explains any of the backstory or reasoning for this, and just leaves it out there.




The Best of Cordwainer Smith
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A collection of enjoyable and weird sci-fi short stories. The stories are from the distant past (1950's and 1960's?), and are set in the far, far future. The stories are not sci-fi in the sense that they have lots of science, rather they are futuristic fantastic tales that are occasional metaphors for modern issues. The stories range widely. Some are adventures, some are romances, some are about religion and civil rights for cat people, some are about whether an engineered and perfected society would suck the enjoyment out of life. I think my favorite is Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, where some citizens are newly released from their technological paradise and have a sort of "first contact" with a material world not carefully crafted to cater to them. In general, the writing is brisk and the world building inventive. It suffers a bit from the common 1960's tropes (mixing psionics and sci-fi, conflating physical beauty and meaning, the idea of an emotional or metaphysical oneness or transcendence that will change things forever). It also has lots of cat-girls?




Lord Darcy
2.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A series of alternate-history-detective stories which follow an aristocratic investigator and his mage assistant around as they solve high crimes. While the stories aren't bad per se, they really aren't that good either. They also have the misfortune of running up against both my rudimentary social justice instincts and the thematically similar, but far more skillfully done Le Carre stories I've been reading recently. I read the first quarter of the stories (~150 pages) and then stopped.

So, a bit more background. The alternate history is one in which both religion and magic have some efficacy, and have largely supplanted science in the progress of civilization. Monarchs and the Catholic church still rule the great nations of Europe, and in the 1950's the feudal/aristocratic system is still firmly in place. There has been some development (preservation spells in place of refrigerators, basic telegraphs, primitive guns), but there are still castles, sailed ships, horses, swords, etc. Our investigator, Lord Darcy, is called in on a number of cases where a member of royalty has gone missing or been found murdered. He then performs interviews, gathers clues, has his mage assistant perform metaphysical CSI work, and then Lord Darcy unravels the plot/intrigue to the gathered nobles.

Now, the problems. One is simply that the setting rubbed me wrong. I feel like a 1950's where the feudal system is still in place is on the same order of badness as a 1950's where the Nazi's had won WWII. An ongoing feudal system necessarily means hundreds of millions of additional lives that have been blighted by lack of freedom, opportunity, and resources. The author though, he seems to think that the setting is perfectly fine? The royals are usually lean, fit, intelligent and upright, the commoners are happy in their place, the priests are pious and holy, etc. It's like the author just ignored all of recent and ancient history, and said "screw it, monarchies are awesome". And for my part, I was going "arrghhh" each time a peasant touched his forelock to the protagonist. Usually settings don't bother me like this, but the combination of the modern day timeline, the terrible world, and the author's ok-ness with that terrible world set me off. Now, one could argue that the Lord Darcy universe is actually quite good, since it appears to have a benevolent God (as opposed to our own Lovecraftian universe). But that just pushes the problem back a step, from why would the author create such a terrible world to why would his deity create such a terrible world.

The second problem is that I've recently read a lot of Le Carre, which has superficially similar stories of mystery, spying, and intrigue. The difference is that Le Carre's novels have beautiful psychological portraits, and a wonderful depth and texture and realism to them. Taken together, they make these sorts of stories (e.g. Sherlock Holmes with some monarchy and magic tacked on) seem very shallow and shoddy by comparison.




The Secret Pilgrim
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A collection of short stories set in the Smiley universe. In this case we are following one Ned through a series of recollections of his life in the service. Many of the short stories check in with characters from previous books, and we get to see them from different angles both in their more famous moments and and in some previously unseen episodes. The short stories touch on many of the usual Le Carre concerns (how the spook industry grinds up its agents and damages societies, the psychological costs paid by its agent runners in their various acute and chronic deceptions, how the nature of the work attracts/promotes the criminal and sociopathic mind set, the question of whether the work is of any use at all in most cases, etc.) As usual though each story is its own individual and unique thing, and the dialog and psychological modeling are wonderfully detailed and fascinating. There is also some one semi-new theme (a Lord Jim like episode of a single terrible mistake/failing), and a shout out to Musil.




Nexus
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

This isn't a great book, or a hugely intelligent or clever book, but it is at least wrong in interesting and provocative/demonstrative ways. The setting is the world in 2040, where technology promises/threatens the creation of post-humans who have mental and physical abilities well beyond the baseline. In particular, the book focuses on technologies and programs that allow the inspection of minds and direct communication between minds. The main story is a kind of action-techno-thriller as different parties try to shape how these technologies will be used and disseminated. As an action-thriller, it is decent and readable.

So, the problems. One is that I found myself skimming surprisingly large sections of the book. Some of the fight scenes became a bit boring and overdone, but the primary culprit was the frequent sections involved with LSD-like trips and cosmic oneness and light and unity. These weren't particularly moving; the author doesn't have the skill to convey religious experience in an interesting way.

This leads into the second problem, which is that while the author has taken the first step of agreeing that brains make minds, he hasn't really allowed the implications of that to seep into the rest of his world view. E.g. if he can see a lab animal that has a wire stuck in its brain to cause it to feel pure joy, and then he turns around and uncritically describes his own metaphysical experience of light and unity as a sort of ultimate and objective good, I think he has sort of failed to put 2 and 2 together.

In addition, in his description of brain techs, the author often falls into the kind of implicit Cartesian Dualism that Dennet complains about. If some nano-probes are in your head and mucking up your memories, you wouldn't feel tendrils in your mind, since there is not a homunculus in your head to observe the changes. To put it another way, you wouldn't feel the change anymore than if someone changed a webpage somewhere out on the web. When the change happened there would be nothing for you to notice, it's just that the next time you went to the webpage, the content would be different. Or at least that's my understanding of things. Similarly it doesn't make any sense to say that a character uses their will to resist these sorts of physical level changes. There are a number of related problems I could go on about, but I will leave it with the above two.

Hmm, what else can I complain about. The main protagonist is a moderately skilled programmer who develops software that runs on/affects brains. He uses his own mind as a test machine for this, i.e. he rolls out changes to his own mind without testing them anywhere else first. And he's writing in, like, low level C. As a programmer, I can't look on these practices with anything but horror. I also feel like I disagree with the author on his main ideological points. He seems to think that group consciousness would be a wonderful thing, while the last thing in the world I would want is to let other peoples' trash minds touch mine. More seriously, I think if you look at programming, where you lay out semi-thoughts in a semi-physical form, the first thing a programmer wants to do when they come to someone else's codebase is to rewrite and refactor everything into their own personal style. The other person(s) code seems terrible and smelly and alien and you want to make it right. I'm not saying this instinct to refactor is a good instinct, but it is definitely there and it is definitely common. I feel like if the author looks at his own personal experience with programmers, where we can't even deal well with this small shadow of another person's mind, I don't see how he can say that more direct experiences would be better. The author also thinks that these sorts of transformational technologies should be freely available to anyone, and tries to sell that at length in the book. My own opinion is that if we get to the point that anyone with access to a high school biology lab and an internet connection can wipe out large swathes of the human race, we'd be pretty fucked. I'm not a huge fan of behemothic surveillance states, but existential tech threats would be one of the few one valid justifications I could think of for them.

Ok, those were the complaints. Despite all of them, I didn't mind the book that much as it did trigger more thought than most novels. I wouldn't want to read a sequel, but one was good.




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