Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo Rothdas book review RSS
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.




Sorry, Please, Thank You
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A collection of enjoyable meta-fictional short stories. Generally the stories involve characters who are playing a role in someone else's story, or who have some sort of dual role where they are both themselves and participating in a fiction. E.g. a story told from the PoV of the hero in a fantasy MMO, or of the author's own tulpa/imaginary self as he lives through the author's thoughts, or people who find a doorway they can travel through into a novel, or of someone in a Total Recall like novel experience, etc. etc.

I wouldn't call any of the stories great, but at the very least they are readable and not painful, which is more than you can say for most high concept stories. There's some moderate cleverness and occasional emotion. The author's tone doesn't quite click with me, he is very earnest in a _The Shins_ sort of way. I can't help but feel that he would be happier if we were still doing arranged marriages.




Resurrection Man
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A high quality modern fantasy story. The book is set in the 1970's of an alternate timeline, where magic has started to filter back into the world. And unlike every other instance of this conceit, the Resurrection Man actually does a good job with it. The story is grounded in the life and history of a single family, and is told by the younger generation as they unravel the family history and their own connection to the supernatural. The writing and story are a bit like the oaken furniture that litters the tale: heavy, solid, rich with age and history, muted dark colors. There aren't any fireballs or trolls or anything, just an interwoven family, a few other characters, and a subtle and occasionally wild magic. The book is just the right length for its story, too.




Neptune's Brood
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A rather odd little sci-fi novel. In some ways it is constantly imaginative, as it describes the various ways that mechanical life has adapted to the different niches of the universe. You never meet just a "person", instead they will be a deep-sea adapted mermaid form and her cloned and regularly mind-merged sisters, or a mechanocyte priestess who can reprogram mechanical flesh, or an almost group-mind squid variant that communicates with its pod mates via chromatophores, etc. etc. Basically each character and environment is its own fleshy, squishy, mutable thing, like they all have a bit of, well, The Thing in them. The book is not really great science and doesn't have any really new ideas (i.e. most of these character are just animals plus sci-fi dust), but it is enjoyable. I feel like it would make a really good splat book for Eclipse Phase or some other trans-human RPG.

Then you have the plot, which in many places is as dry and shaky as the physical details are wet and meaty. The main character is an interstellar accountant, and the main plot is about unravelling a centuries old financial mystery. The general formula is that the protagonist is propelled from from place to place, and then observes new things at the new place. I'd estimate that half the scene changes take place because the protagonist is kidnapped or dragged by guards. It reminds me a bit of David Brin, and how when he couldn't think of a segue he would just have the PoV character knocked out and then wake up in a new place. The actual psychological models of the characters are very thin, and the main character has very little agency. The central mystery and plot are a bit ludicrous, and then a lot ludicrous by the end of the book.

Anyway, this wasn't my favorite novel, but it is at least unusual, and I enjoyed the various cheerful oddities that it describes.




The Curse of Chalion
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A very sweet book. It's a bit like Game of Thrones, if the Gods were just and cared about people, and goodness and faithfulness were rewarded, and true love came to deserving young nobles. Ok, so not very much like Game of Thrones. Maybe more like Dickens, except in a medieval fantasy setting, and written by a more modern and balanced hand. I found this adventure/romance to be very readable and heart warming. It comes right up to the edge of being saccharine but rarely crosses it. The adventures and politics and curses and magic were all just fine too.




The Stars my Destination
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

An enjoyable book, but one that is still very much a product of its times and doesn't have that much useful to say 50 years later on. Kind of a disco fever type of thing. The story starts with a brutish man stranded in space by an intra-stellar war. A passing merchant ship notices him and stops, but ultimately decides to continue on and leave him to die. The rest of the story is about his quest to track down and revenge himself on that ship. Along the way he changes, grows, rapes, murders, etc. Generally the book is clever, creative, violent, and fast moving. It also reads very much as a 1960's book, which is unfortunate. There are psychic powers, telepathy, LSD-like synthesia, a 2001 type full-of-stars journey through the universe, time travel, etc. The tech is also very outdated, e.g. the starships use simple chemical thrusters, they signal each other with flares, they transfer gold bullion from planetary bank to planetary bank, etc. So it's not really a novel that engages with physical facts much, and it doesn't really have any deep psychological modeling, or at least not any that I can parse.




The Human Division
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A series of short adventure stories set in a nominally sci-fi universe. The stories read a bit like episodes from the original Star Trek, where a brave and clever band of starship captains, ambassadors, and scientists deal with new alien species and some sort of plot or diplomatic incident. The stories are largely enjoyable, though the sci-fi aspects are very thin. In particular the aliens think and speak very much like the humans do, and the humans mostly think and speak the same (homespun, likes baseball, mildly right wing). The short story form does work much better for the author than his long form novels set in the same universe. With a short story the premise behind the episode only has to work for 30 pages rather than 300. The short episodes are strung together and gradually move the larger plot along. One of the best stories though is a standalone buried at the end of the book, which has a clever and enjoyable hand-to-hand fight against a strange alien beast.




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