Shadow of the Wind Rothdas book review RSS
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

This story combines gothic soap opera with some uninspiring meta-literary ideas. Like N-thousand books before it, Shadow of the Wind focuses on writing, books, and the love of reading. Many of the characters are book sellers, writers, translators, librarians, wide-eyed book lovers, etc. The villians like televison. The story unfolds as the young protagonist tries to track down the history of a certain novel, going from one tidbit of information and small tale to the next. He learns about the novel's author, and how the drama in the author's life parallels the drama in the protagonist's life. It is a similar setup to the Harry Potter books, except that in this case the main story is Spanish soap opera rather than adventures at a wizard boarding school. If you're into Spanish soap opera, this is great! If you're not, then it is less so. There are Dad's being murderously upset over their daughter's virginity, people obsessing over their first love from 20 years ago, a complete unawareness of birth control, vows of eternal vengeance, pining caretakers and parents, mistaken/assumed identities, cursed houses, etc. Hmmmm, I might be making it sound better than it is. Anyway, there is a lot of this soap opera (500 pages), and while I realize the soap opera was an intentional style, I didn't entirely enjoy it and had trouble connecting with the character's contrived and willfully bad decisions. Seriously, if the head of the city police threatens to use a blow torch on you, *again*, just move to a different city. More generally, I felt that there was this weird mismatch between the light-hearted and adventerous tone of much of the book, and the deadly state-sactioned violence that the main characters were risking. Compare this to another Gothic book, Melmoth the Wanderer, which is un-relentingly grim and has a much, much deeper stack-trace of nested stories. I feel like Melmoth's consistency and extremism works much better in a Gothic novel.

The Shadow of the Wind did have its bright spots. The author isn't a bad writer, and there were many small spots of charming dialog and vivid description. It's just that the overall plot and design of the book never really cohered for me.




Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A decent generalist history of the Comanches and, well, their rise and fall. The book presents a meandering mix of historical developments and personal stories from the frontier. The history part is fairly straight forward and serviceably written, and is mostly just a recounting of the events that occurred. The personal histories were occasionally interesting, but I felt like they often confused the historical progression more than they enlightened. I almost would have preferred two books or two different sections; one the history and one the extended anecdote. The book is fairly brutal and un-PC, and does describe several dozen of the more notable atrocities.

While the book wasn't that great overall, Empire of the Summer Moon did have several points that raised it to a solid 3 stars. One is that much of the book is set in Central Texas, and it was neat to read the history of the place where you grew up. A second reason is that the tactics of plains warfare were interesting, and how in some ways the plains really did mirror the "ocean" of grass that it was compared to. Horses were as necessary as ships were in the ocean, and to be deprived your horse could easily mean death by exposure and deprivation. Similarly, the Comanches never focused on taking or holding a fort or hill, in the same way that navies wouldn't care about a few square miles of ocean. Speed was the best defense, and everything was about scouting, setting up advantageous engagements, and protecting your own population centers while threatening your enemy's. Actually, it reminds me more of the start of the Culture-Iridan war than anything else, if the Culture had had more Reaver in them. Although I guess the Reavers were partially based off the Comanche, so that is a bit circular. Anyway.

Finally, I enjoyed the book as a corroboration of the theories laid out in Diamond's _Guns, Germs, and Steel_. The sort of same-lattitude technology transfers that Diamond emphasized about took place here, where the horses bred in Arabia were transferred and flourished on the Texas Plains. This led to the ascent of the Comanche, as they fully adapted their formerly marginal society to the new technology. They became mini-Mongols who were able to dominate a huge swathe of the mid-continent, and hold off enormous hordes of settlers for decades. It's interesting to think about what the Comanches could have become, if they hadn't received the technology 1000 years after the Eurasians did.

P.S. They have several pictures of various settler families. Jesus they were a tough and angry looking bunch. If the question is "How many high plains five year olds I could take in a fight?", I think the answer is 1? maybe 2?




Talion: Revenant
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Apparently there is this new term, "basic", e.g. How to tell if you are a basic b****
This was pretty much the most basic possible fantasy novel. One of way of putting it is that Talion is the inverse of the Name of the Wind; everything that Wind does well, Talion does poorly and in a cliched fashion. According to the blurb at the back, the author writes a book every four months or so. It definitely shows.




Last Call
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Yurghhh. I'm not sure if it is the author or just my own baggage, but this book did nothing for me. The basic story is a sort of Unknown Armies type situation set in Las Vegas, with a sort of sub-par No Country For Old Men type urban hunting between different groups as they try to achieve their different archetypes. This could have been good! However, there were a number of things about the story and the writing that either rubbed me wrong or were just completely inert. I started reading smaller and smaller slices of the book, until at page 270 I finally gave up.

Since I don't have much good to say about the book, let me just start listing flaws.

1) The magic system is kind of terrible. The basic idea is that their are mystical archetypes in the world, based off of the tarot, and that by studying/manipulating poker cards (a simplified tarot), you can interact with these archetypes and perform magic. Unfortunately, the magic doesn't seem to be very useful. You never really see the magic doing anything, except to help locate other people who have identified with one of the archetypes. There is a suggestion that being the King archetype brings business success, but it also means that there is a constant stream of people trying to kill you and take your place. And being King doesn't really provide any special powers; one of the King's is simply shot by a random person he happened to to have offended. So it's unclear why someone would follow the King path, rather than just applying to Harvard Business School. Ok, ok, so the current King is using the magic system to extend his life, but given the constant danger of being shot, it seems like the expected lifespan of such a course would still be less than the MBA option. In addition to being mostly useless, the magic didn't really make sense. For instance, at one point the ghost/simacrulum of the protagonist's dead wife starts to come back and solidifying in their old house. Why? Eh, it's not really clear. And then a lot of the magic is just silly, like where they attach poker cards to their car tires in order to produce a sort of mystical chaff. This stuff was particularly bad for me, since I'm already very familiar with Artesia's awesome and well thought out Tarot-based magic system. And I'm already familiar with Sean Stewart's _Galvestion_, which combines poker and great writing and powerful magic with an entirely understandable sort of dream logic.

2) The lore is kind of terrible. In addition to the tarot, there are these constant references to Authurian Legend and the Fisher King and such. In my life I've had to wikipedia the Fisher King ~5 times, because each time I read about it I become so bored that I immediately forget what it was about. I feel pretty much the the same about Authurian myths, so basing a story around them really doesn't do much for me. I would have preferred more modern day archetypes, like Unknown Armies uses. Also, the constant allusions and poetry drops reminded me a bit too much of some of the lower tier Stephen King stories.

3) The characters are kind of terrible. The evil King is really not that bad once you get to know him. He kills a few people, sure, but he didn't strike me as significantly worse than a non-mystical Las Vegas mobster. And he's certainly not the magnitude of evil you would get with a Dick Cheney or Soulblighter type character. On the flip side, the protagonists never did much for me either. Again, there's a kind of low end Stephen King vibe to them. They each have their roles in the story, and they perform them dutifully. For instance, it is time for the protagonist lady to leave her significant other, and go away and fall in love with the other protagonist she hasn't seen in 20 years. This takes all of maybe 2 pages to perform, and it has about as much realism and nuance as Draco Malfoy bullying Harry Potter. Another canker is that at several points the author will introduce characters who have no relation to the current storyline. He will then water them with occasional boring excerpts, with the thought that maybe, eventually, they will actually join the main storyline. It's like GRRM's new character disease, except Tim Powers doesn't even bother introducing the new characters to someone we care about first.

Anyway, I could see that if you had not read Galveston, or Artesia, or Unknown Armies, or No Country for Old Men, or Afro Samurai, or if you cared about Authurian myths, then this book might be enjoyable. And yes, I know that chronologically _Last Call_ came before some of these books. But in my own experience though he came after them, and I couldn't help but read _Last Call_ as a collection of parts that other authors have done better.




Witcher - The Last Wish
3.5 Stars
1-1-2015

An enjoyable set of fantasy short stories. These were written by Poland's most famous fantasy author, and provided the setting for the Witcher series of video games. The stories aren't bad at all; as my friend said they are like very high-quality Warhammer short stories. Some parts were really are clever and well done, and there's generally at least one or two layers to unravel before the resolution. A lot of the dialog was also surprisingly snappy and self-referential. I would give the book more stars except that it has a number of weird tonal shifts, from serious to very not serious. In that regard it reminded me a bit of the sillier James Bond movies. Anyway, I was never quite 100% in sync with the stories, either because of the translation or the culture difference or just the author. I did like them though, and they were certainly a good advertisement for the video games.




The Encyclopedia of Early Earth
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A jumbo sized graphical novel which tells a variety of myths and stories about a proto-bronze age earth. The stories are warm hearted, creative, and quietly funny, sort of like ScaryGoRound crossed with the Greek and Inuit and Old Testament myths. A very enjoyable hour's reading.




Honor's Knight
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

This is the sequel to Fortune's Pawn, a book I quite liked. This one didn't turn out so well though. The storyline is darker, and lots of the fun characters from the first book are turned into assholes. The story also tries to raise the stakes to be this huge galactic threat, and I didn't really feel that it worked out. I preferred the small and interesting interpersonal stories from the first one. Finally, some of the newness had worn off for the concept, and the tropes are starting to show. This was reasonably acceptable space-opera product, but it didn't really warm my heart the way the first one did.




Destiny Quest: Legion of Shadow
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Based off the title, and the cover art of a cloaked figure with a ball of magic power in one hand and a blinged-out trident in the other, I can tell that this will be fine literature. This is an evolved form of the choose-your-own-adventure book, and vastly expands the mechanics and combat portion of the book so that it is more like the written version of the rules for an Action RPG (e.g. Diablo). Below, I will chronicle my adventures as I defeat this book.

1: Looking through the rules, all characters have attributes which govern combat. Brawn/Magic + 1D6 deals damage if you win a combat round. Armor subtracts from damage taken. Interestingly, your Speed + 2D6 is used to decide who gets to deal damage in a combat round. If you lose the Speed roll, then you don't deal any direct damage that round. There are also 15 pages of different abilities which can modify the above.

2: I murdered a goblin, a hobgoblin, and a werewolf in the first quest, which is a variant of the Little Red Riding Hood tale. After looting the bodies, my speed is now 2. Fear me! So far there are three problems. One is that the combat is like if you had to roll multiple D6 for every attack that occurs in Diablo. Two is that after years of dice thievery by my gaming group, I now own only a single D6. :( Three is that the book does not have enough state, so that after beating one node, I can then "return" to characters I haven't even met yet on the path I took to get to that node. I feel like a Twine version of this book would work a lot better, where the author's could more easily keep track of state and modify just parts of the story according to that state.

3: I did the second quest line, and none of the loot was better than what I had collected in the first quest line. Fah! I'm quitting the adventure. There are not enough interesting decisions per unit of busy work, and contrary to my expectations the writing is absolutely terrible. More generally, I think that by taking a forgiving approach to the game where the monsters are easy, and you regain your health after each combat, and you can just start a quest over if you lose, the author's are shooting themselves in the foot. A lot of the appeal of CYO adventures is the constant possibility of instant, arbitrary death. Take that away and what is left?




Roadside Picnic
4.0 Stars
1-1-2015

This book was similar to Annihilation, in that much of it is about people exploring an alien and hostile environment. In this case the environment was the scene of a brief alien visit (the Roadside Picnic of the title), where the aliens left behind various bits of their trash and pollution. Even the alien's trash and pollution is immensely valuable though, and demonstrates concepts far beyond human science. However, for this same reason the picnic grounds are immensely dangerous and unpredictable, as even common objects in the zone might have been tainted/changed by radiations we can't even measure yet. Entering and exploring the zone is a bit like reading SCP entries written in the 1970's. The non-zone parts of the book are fine, but suffer a bit from being written 40 years ago, which is why wouldn't rate this as 5 stars. Still, for the time period this book was written in it was extremely original and inventive, and 40 years later it is still a great sci-fi story.




Annihilation
6.0 Stars
1-1-2015

An account of the 12th expedition into Area X, a chunk of Florida that has been warped by the presence of some non-Euclidean entity. The previous 11 expeditions have ended in collective murder/suicide or worse(?), so you can imagine how this one goes. I don't have that much to say about this book, since it does just about everything right. The plotting is fast and interesting and draws you swiftly along. It actually reminded me a bit of Blindsight, with its desperate first contact situation, altered consciousness, uncertain loyalties, and alien biologies. The world building is wonderfully inventive and detailed, and the author fleshes out many of the typical Lovecraftian elements without ever seeming derivative. It tends to beautifully show, rather than tell. For instance, where Lovecraft might tell you that some tome had blasphemous, mind warping text, Annihilation will actually have a paragraph or four of blasphemous, mind warping text. And it's of very high quality! You can tell the author put some work into this.

I read this 200 page book straight through, and there wasn't any part of it I did not enjoy.

Post Mortem: Last night I wanted to look up some passages in this book, and I ended up re-reading the entire thing. I think Annihilation really does approach the Platonic form for this type of Lovecraft story, there isn't anything I'd remove or add from the book. Oh, and Like my other favorite, _In the Valley of the Kings_, _Annihilation_ has a wonderful, destructive phrase cried out three times, with exclamations at the end of each cry. Always the mark of a good book!




Fire in the Lake
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

"For ten years we have been engaged in negotiations, and yet the enemy's intentions remain inscrutable."
- Hoang Dieu (1829-1882)
A letter from the commander of the citadel of Hanoi to the emperor just before the citadel's surrender to the French and the suicide of its commander.

This is the perfect opening quote of Fire in the Lake, a study of the Vietnam War. The quote is meant to illustrate the mutual incomprehension that characterized so many of the interactions between the Vietnamese and their Western invaders. While the book is a study of the Vietnam War, it is primarily concerned with cultural and political course of the war rather than on military hardware or numbers. That is also one of the main themes of the book, that the Americans viewed the conflict primarily in military terms, while the North Vietnamese and the southern NLF more correctly viewed the conflict in political and cultural terms. Despite being published in 1972, well before the end of the war, Fire in the Lake holds up as a remarkably insightful and readable work.

While the book is fairly long (450 pages), and has a wealth of detail and analysis, the basic narrative of the book is fairly straightforward. The conquest of Vietnam by the French, then the Japanese, and then the French, devastated the Confucian value system that had dominated Vietnam for the previous millennia. This resulted in a sort of mass psychological uprooting, and the search for new values. It's basically what Nietzche thought would happen in the West, before cat gif's armored us against such weaknesses. In the case of Vietnam, a Vietnam adapted version of Communism was the most fit of the available values. It provided an idea or dream that explained the modern world, that encompassed the whole of a person's life, that accorded with many traditional Confucian values, and it was also a national dream that was not limited to just one sect or group of people. This dream allowed the North to unify and organize itself, and then apply unrelenting pressure to the south. In contrast, the south had a number of competing dreams (Catholicism, Buddhism, the religious sects, the military juntas, the Diem's shade of Confucianism), but none of them could rapidly make converts, none of them could conquer the others, and none of them could effectively compromise with the others. The result was a perpetual seethe and confusion that precluded effective joint action. When the American's tried to push colossal amounts of money, troops, and high explosives through this society, it had only had the effect of further frac'ing the society. The vestiges of village life and Confucianism were destroyed, the ancestral ties to land and family were broken, the agricultural economy was ruined through war and aid imports, much of the population was turned into refugees, etc. etc. In a short period of time every social tie of the previous society was dissolved, resulting in a collection of damaged, untrusting, and self seeking individuals. One of the many ways the author phrases this is that it's the difference between an army and a bunch of strangers with rifles. That disunity was ultimately why the South lost despite huge amounts of US aid.

So, that is the basic idea of the book, and I think it is a good idea that the author sells convincingly. In addition to this sort of cultural/strategic insight, I would also commend the book for the tone that it brings to the discussion. Despite its catalog of mistakes, blindness, selfishness, corruption, injustices, atrocities, torture, mega deaths, etc, I don't think the author ever really presents anyone as "bad" or "evil". Rather, she has a more even handed, almost technical approach. The consistent analysis of the people in the book is that they had incorrect mental frameworks with which to understand their situation or their partners in the war. Or that even if they understood their situation, they were operating under impossible constraints. For example, she describes how Diem presided over massive corruption, infighting, and destruction, but her presentation of Diem is not as a monster but as an academic, unsuited to leadership and raised with inapplicable values, who by accident was raised to an enormous position. This is not to say that the book soft pedals the disaster of American involvement in Vietnam. To the contrary, it is an absolutely devastating critique of the South Vietnamese government and the American effort in Vietnam. Basically everyone from the President to the GI to the development worker is dissected, and there are some truly brutal vignettes and turns of phrase in this book. The war effort as a whole is explained as not even wrong, but rather a misapplication of ideas to a situation that they do not at all fit. One complaint I would make is that while she does criticize the Communists, she is generally kinder to them and does overlook some of their flaws. In particular, the Communist's claim to having any great insight into the progress of world history looks particularly silly now.

Ok, that's the main review, now for a collection of random thoughts and quotes:
- One of the original sources of Marxist revolution in the north was that the French educational system in Vietnam produced large amounts of grad students without worrying if there were actual jobs for them. Sound familiar? General Giap basically started off as a disaffected grad student.
- "I ran for the assembly to oppose the government, and now I find that there is nothing to oppose." One of the quotes she brings out that summarizes her criticisms of the South Vietnamese government.
- One of the facts that stood out was that in the three weeks of unrestrained fighting that followed TET, ~165,000 civilians were killed, mostly by US heavy weapons used inside densely packed cities. Wow.
- One of the reasons I like the central insight of the book is that it works just as well to explain the American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan 30 years later. The regimes we are trying to work through lack a basic unifying dream that they can believe in, resulting in partners who are divided and self seeking. This is why the MLP fandom could be so crucially helpful to US strategic interests.




Slant
2.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Another Greg Bear book, this one not so good. Kind of terrible really. I slogged away at this for a week only to find that I was on page 120, and still had another 180 pages to go. I then resorted to flipping to chapters further on, and then discarding. Part of the problem is that this book is set in 2050+, and Bear makes up a terrible future dialect to go with the times. Or maybe terrible is not the right description, inert might be better. The dialect isn't necessarily cringe worthy like Margret Atwood's corporation names in _Oryx and Crake_, it's just not very well explained, it lacks the flash and challenge of something like _Clockwork Orange_, and is just kind of "eh" every time it is peppered through the book. And it's kind of a shame; listening to a foreign take on your language is often a delightful experience (e.g. the Starcraft II announcers from different countries and their cute verbal mixups and shortcuts). After the dialect, there are the interminable relationship and sex scenes. These scenes make up maybe half of the first part of the book, and like the dialect they somehow fall in this middle range of slow failure, where they are neither interesting nor offensive nor quick to read. They reminded me strongly of Watts and his often terrible relationship scenes, where he just insists on taking the lived and conscious experience and trying to jam it into his biology equations. Or to put it another way, imagine any romantic relationship in any book ever, and then add in a steady babble of evolutionary psych. Viola! An unreadable scene. And even when the evolutionary psych isn't burbling along, Bear's relationship/sex scenes still reads like a nerd trying and just barely failing to sound like one of the cool kids. Biologists, please leave the sexy talk to the computer scientists. :)

Oh right, and the plot. From what I gathered in my flipping, it is more biological/bacterial super computing stuff.

P.S. Ok, I got bored and skim-finished the book. The ending improves the book moderately, so I'm giving it back half a star for a total of 2.5 stars. Hopefully Bear appreciates it.




Blood Music
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A well done but somewhat uncompelling sci fi story about the creation and outbreak of an intelligent "plague". It had a fair number of similarities to Watt's _Maelstrom_, but I liked this version better since the characters, science, and less negative tone were generally more pleasing.

It's been over a decade since I've read any Greg Bear, and I was curious to see how well he held up. As it turns out, fairly well. He's basically like I remember him; very interesting science, settings, and characters that are arranged into stories that are oddly slow to read. It's not like the stories are really a slog or are offputting, it's more like they just lack the sort of compelling plot hooks/arcs that normally propel a story along.

In the case of Blood Music, the technical details of the story were surprisingly good, especially as it was written in 1985. The story focuses on the creation of biological computers, where the existing cellular infrastructure is repurposed to provide vast amounts of memory and processing power. It makes a lot of sense, since in some respects our biological components are vastly more effective/efficient than our computers. And there's actually been some recent progress on this, with teams using DNA to store *huge* amounts of data. Admittedly, it is data that is difficult and slow to read/write, but for pure information density it is really impressive. So the idea of creating colonies of cells with enormous computing power does make a fair amount of sense. Later in the book Bear goes off into some more woo territory, but that is largely ignorable.

The characters are also fairly well done, maybe a little wooden, but not terrible. I think the main problem is that Bear gets rid of his PoV character about every 30% or so of the book, which kills off any momentum and attachment that has been built up. I ended up reading the latter half of the book somewhat out of order as a collection of short stories.




Paladin of Souls
4.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Another very romantic Lois McMaster Bujold book. The hero of this book is the senile, depressive, shut-in aunt character from the previous book, which along with the title had me completely unexcited about starting this novel. However, within 30 pages or so LMMB has, like one her demons, sunk her plot hooks into my spirit and started dragging me along on a memorable journey. In some ways the book is generic fantasy, but LMMB's great writing and characterization raises it to another level. For instance, there will be a scene where a brave knight rescues a princess who is being stolen away by raiding northern barbarians. And it will be moving and romantic! It's like why are these "awww's" spilling out of me, and the best reason I can come up with is just that LMMB is very, very good at her particular dramatic style. She cares a lot about her characters and gives them challenges and complexity, but still tries to make sure that they all come to good ends. She generally manages to stay on the right side of being too sweet. Her magic/religious systems are also surprisingly complex and interesting.




Divergent
2.0 Stars
1-1-2015

The story of a young Christian girl who endures various trials and tribulations at tertiary school, before finally being pushed too far and shooting half the people in her class.

The writing is very simple and spare, with a direct plot and constant action. This is one of the books virtues, as are its wide margins, large typeface, and generous kerning. :) Altogether it means you can read this 500 page book very quickly. The book is often compared to the Hunger Games, but it seems like kind of a down-market version of the Games and doesn't really manage to reach any of the peaks that Hunger Games did. The Hunger Games wasn't a great book, and it wasn't really aimed at me, but it was a competent book and I think several parts of it were really well done. This book doesn't really have any of that. Rather than being a well-thought out sort of pandering, it instead has a kind of paranoid, violent, and anti-knowledge vibe to it. Which I guess might be pandering too, but is a little too off for me to really appreciate as such? This book does manage to top the Hunger Games with its world building, which is even more completely absurd. It reminded me a tiny bit of Borges and some of his short stories about weird different ways in which societies could be ordered.




The Barrow
2-4 Stars
1-1-2015

I finished the book last night, and, um, wow.

The markings in this book mostly consist of three runes. The first rune, the Rune of Fantasy-Adventure, is the most successful. The main storyline is interesting, enjoyable, fast, and bloody, and it reminded me of several of my favorite Fritz Leiber stories. There are tomb robbings, library thievings, politicing, plotting, magic, cults, overland travel encounters, and in general it reads like an extended RPG adventure that turned out really, really well. I thought Smylie did a great job of this, and if the book was just this adventure story I would give it 4 stars.

The second rune is the Rune of RPG-Designer-Turned-Novelist, which is less successful. The world building is kind of odd, and draws very heavily on the Artesia RPG book. In many ways it feels like a novelistic walk though of all the concepts laid out in the RPG book. At times Smylie veers into describing the story via his game mechanics, rather than telling a story that could potentially be explained by the game mechanics. There are also more than occasional info dumps. I was thinking that it would be like Chris suddenly deciding to expound at length to his companions about some familiar topic, but then I remembered that the main protagonist is also an academic, so maybe this part is actually realistic. :) Smylie also has this tendency to overproduce in terms of fictional constructs. This works for him really well in terms of designing RPGs, but not so much in terms of story telling. Where some authors would have a fictional city gang or three, Smylie will bring in a dozen. Ditto with nobles, retainer knights, vassal relations, bloodlines, cultures, provinces, forts, etc. These all tend to be dumped on you at the same time too, rather than being introduced and characterized one at a time. I'm not sure how this would read to someone who was not already familiar with the RPG and the comics, but it seems like it would be even more confusing to a complete new comer. Then again maybe the newness of the world building would make it more interesting to them?

The third and final rune is the Rune of Wat. This rune first appears on page 23, and then re-occurs every 10 pages or so up until page 200. After that it largely disappears, before making a triumphant comeback near the close of the book. You will be going along in this great fantasy adventure story, and then all of a sudden it will be like bam, Smylie whips out an at-length description of someone's veiny, glistening cock or night long 4 way or whatever. He definitely follows Checkov's dictum that if you have a corrupt priestess wearing a severed unicorn horn in Act I, then 2-3 pages later she will bloodily and graphically violate someone with it. These sections were the weakest of the novel, since A) they seem wildly out of place with the rest of the story, B) they greatly limit the people who are going to like/not be disgusted by the novel, and C) wow, I was actually surprised that you are allowed to print stuff like this and then just keep it on a general shelf at Barnes and Nobles.

So, overall the book is kind of a hot mess. I would probably read a sequel when it comes out in six years, but I wouldn't put the novel at the same level as either the RPG or the comics.

Minor notes:
- the book is quite long (600 pages!), which I failed to realize when looking at a 2D image of it on Amazon. It was only when the book store clerk handed over this giant tome that I realized what I had gotten into.
- There are a number of technical descriptions of arms and armor, which I thought could have benefited from having pictures. Smylie already has 3 pages of maps and ~10 pages of glossary, I think he could have stolen a few of the beautiful pages from his RPG/comics and dropped them in to show what a pallor helm or whatever actually looks like.


Massive, Massive spoiler notes. Invisible to the un-initiated:

So, yeah, the sex in this book. Initially it's not easy to square what I think I know about Mark Smiley (progressive, intelligent, humane, feminist in a sort of Joss Whedon way), with the sex scenes in this book, which seem to be a mixture of prurience, sadism, necrophilia, um, and I'm sure there's a number of other descriptors I am leaving out. My head cannon is that Mark Smylie is not necessarily a terrible person, and that he wasn't writing those scenes with just one hand. I think what is going on is somewhat mirrored in the book, where you have the Aurian/Divine King culture, which is conservative, patriarchal, and restrictive when it comes to sex, vs the Old Religion culture which is much more free-love and somewhere between matriarchal and egalitarian. Take for instance the first Wat Rune in the book, where Erim looks at three of the other grave robbers, and then starts this recollection of a story she had heard about a MMMF foursome in one of the Dievan temples. I think the intial reaction to that is a kind of eww, what is this penthouse letters interlude doing in the middle of my swords-and-sorcery adventure. And if you were to look around in our culture for MMMF porn, I would hazard a guess that that most of it is not really pro-F, but rather views the F as being in a degrading or lesser position. That is not really required though, it's just what is typical in our culture. From an Old Religion perspective, the MMMF story is more like a guy talking about this wild party he had on spring break where he slept with 3 chicks at once. It's an accomplishment, or a conquest, or a good time, but not something that is degrading or dishonorable or makes him lose face. Viewed from this perspective, and also given that the Old Religion culture has used magic/prayer to take control of their reproductive health and eliminate STDs, then I think most of the sex scenes in the book become unobjectionable. The final barrow scene isn't necrophilia, rather it is a princess breaking free from patriarchal constraints and using her vagina to conquer a lich king. It's basically not any different from Erowyn of whatever beating the Witch-King and his Nazgul at the end of LoTR, and is practically ready for its Disney movie treatment. There are some sex scenes which are still objectionable, but I think those are because the people in them/causing them are evil, and are quite literally (fictionally) going to hell. Despite the above, I'm not sure the book really works. If you look at the initial 15 Goodreads reviews, 0 out of 15 take the above interpretation. Most of the reviews are like "yeah! grimDark!", or are like "I reached the 7th or 8th Wat by page 150, and then I stopped reading this terrible, terrrible book". And I think that latter response is perfectly rational, especially if you know nothing about Smylie's other work before starting this novel. It's a bit like if Banks wrote Player of Games, but through the fiction completely failed to make it clear that Azad was supposed to be the bad society. And then some of the reviewers are like "yeah, Azad seemed neat and grimDark and gritty", while the other 35% of the readers simply threw the book away after being sufficiently offended. I suppose that this does somewhat mirror Smylie's theme of hidden knowledge and interpretations inside texts? Personally though I think a better idea would be to write something which makes clear what it is trying to say, and isn't going to be mis-interpreted by a large majority of its audience.




A Stranger in Olondria
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.




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