Roadside Picnic Rothdas book review RSS
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.




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.




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