An enjoyable fantasy story about a kingdom (and an odd-couple wizard duo) fighting a malevolent, powerful, and infinitely patient forest spirit. The forest spirit is somewhere between the omniscient antagonist in _The Wise Man's Fear_, and the distributed and near unkillable giant plant from the Ruins. I liked it! The characters were neat, the writing is snappy, the world building is fine, the magic is crunchy, the antagonist is interesting, and all together it just lays out a nice Dominions 3 scenario. Even more than Novik's other books, this one is a romance in addition to an action story. I find most romances to be boring and templated, and have difficulty paying enough attention to read them. However! With this book and with Jacqueline Carey, I've learned that I can actually get into Romances, so long as you warm me up first with 150 pages detailing the strategic/magical balance of power :) As with Novik's other books, these were not great literature, but they are at least well-constructed & enjoyable pandering that I enjoyed reading.
Consider Phlebas, Iain M Banks
This was a re-read, as I wanted to sample this novel again before giving it as a gift. And wow, Consider Phlebas is still really, really good. Let me just start listing off superlatives: hugely inventive, great detail and descriptive scenes, memorable characters, intelligent themes and layering of themes and variations of themes, exciting action, uh, and I think that covers most of it. Banks has this wonderful quality where he will just create huge, generous streams of character and detail and scenery; it is like walking through a ticker tape parade, where as most authors will just throw a sad handful of confetti at you. For example, take the recent read _The Goblin Emperor_, which was not a bad or uninventive book. Two weeks after reading it, I would be hard pressed to describe many of the main characters, except as general statements about their personality. His wife? Uh, likes astronomy and kind of nice? His secretary of state? Helpful, trustworthy, tactful, traumatized by that one land owner. Whereas with Phlebas, I could give more detailed descriptions of at least a minor dozen characters. Banks has a very crunchy & memorable writing style, the closest thing I have to it today is my favorite RPG blog, Goblin Punch.
Anyway! In terms of what the book is actually about, it is about a galactic war, and one small episode within the war. Two agents on opposite sides of the war are trying to claim an AI core that has been stranded within a planet owned by a neutral and powerful elder race. There are adventures through out the war zone, and then again within the neutral planet. People die. There are explosions, nuclear explosions, anti-matter explosions, and love making. Why, why has no one turned the Culture novels into a series of movies? They are just begging for it. Hmm, perhaps because the books are depressing? Despite the action-movie nature of the book, it is really an extended reflection on the loss and pointlessness? waste? tragedy? of war, and of downward seeking behavior in general.
The Goblin Emperor, by Sarah Monette
Editors Note: I read this entire book while on 4 hours sleep, and while stranded on a balcony. I do not claim that this review represents my normal, completely objective and impartial opinions.
So! The Goblin Emperor. It is a bit of Hamako's _Long Live the Queen!_, where a half-goblin-half-elf (or "golf" as they are called) is unexpectedly promoted to lead a tradition-soaked Elven empire. The Golf must determine what sort of ruler he will be, and must survive treacherous political waters and various threats. On the whole the book is enjoyable. The main character and many others are likeable, there are inventive and cleanly described scenes and environments, and there are some neat twists to what could have otherwise been a more standard tale. I particularly liked the interviews with the sabetours at the end. There is some difficulty/confusion in the book, since you have to learn a boatload of elven names and terms, but I interpreted this as a way for the author to convey the difficulty the protagonist has to face when first plunged into the Imperial Elven court. The writing is of a general high quality, and like with _Authority_ I enjoyed the descriptions of political/psychological/organizational struggles.
There were a few flaws in the book. The main character Maia is very likable, and reminded me of an elf/goblin version of Avatar Aang. Maia's psychology never really fit for me though. Aang is who he is because of a naturally cheerful disposition, and because of his warm and careful upbringing by Buddhist monks. While Maia had some positive early influences from his Mom, that stopped when he was 8 years old, and just about every experience after that was bad. It did not entirely fit for me that a childhood of abuse and neglect produces the enlightened 18 year old in the novel. Or to put it another way, his psycho-history didn't really ring true, and there wasn't an entirely convincing explanation for it in the novel. Still, there are worse things than having a largely cheerful and wise protagonist. A second complaint that I would make is that in some ways, the hero doesn't really do that much. He survives the plots against him mostly through other people's interventions or just luck. He would *not* have made it far in the environment of _Long Live the Queen!_. The hero does make positive changes in the empire, but again a lot of that is due to placing his trust in bystanders who happen to be trustworthy, rather than through positive or direct action of his own. Or to put it another way, he is not really a Tywin Lannister, he is more someone who exemplifies the Tao and then has that flow down through his subordinates. I think I might like a sequel more in this regard if we were to see the hero after he has come into his own, and & can play a more active role in manipulating/guiding the politics of the kingdom. Like with Ancillary Justice, I think there is a lot of promise in the universe that Monette has created.
This is sci-fi. This is a big, 500 page block of sci fi. It is not bad? It is not original in its ideas at all, but the execution is pleasingly competent and generally enjoyable. It is a bit like an actiony 1970's sci-fi book, but updated with modern graphics. The setting is a few hundred years in the future, where we have developed fusion drives and have started colonizing the solar system, but do not yet have AI's, FTL, or any truly transformative technologies. Events occur! There is tension between the wealthy inner planets, and the frontier miners of the outer planets. More Events occur! The characters are quietly likable & usually not too obtrusive. There are some brief moments when the author tries to introduce larger ideas or psychology, but these can be safely ignored. The author does a better job with the small details of Belter life, and in the thought he has put in to the habits, tics, trade, and living quarters of people who have never been in a gravity well. I particularly liked his aural descriptions, both of the everyday sounds of spacecraft and of when they are falling apart.
I'm not sure I want to read the rest of the series in my current state of supreme physical wellness (apparently the author has written enough of these novels to fill a small shipping container?), but I would definitely turn to them if I was bed-ridden by tuberculosis.
Authority, by Vandermeer
Authority is the delightful sequel to the wonderful Lovecraftian gem that is _Annihilation_. _Annihilation_ is a constant stream of action, revelation, and betrayal. From the very first the protagonist is struggling to survive in Area X, a normal seeming but immensely dangerous wilderness. _Authority_ is a slower book, and this time the deceptively dangerous environment is the government institution set up to watch over Area X. Here the operative mode of the story is not the constant physical threat of death/dissolution, rather it is in the sudden leap between normalcy and the utterly insane and alien. For this reason the book is a bit slower; it first has to setup a relative normalcy in order to later disrupt it. This is not say that the Authority is slow, there is tons of fighting, but most of the fighting is of the organizational, political, administrative, and psychological variety. I enjoyed this political infighting, even if it is not quite as compelling as the original. Authority is still in the LoveCraftian/Delta Green genre that I love, but this time it is less about the dangers of the field and more about institutional corruption and shadow wars.
I worry that in describing Authority I will fail to say how much I liked it. I liked it! I liked it enough that I read the 350 page book in basically one sitting. The problem that Authority faces is that its predecessor was basically a perfect novel in the genre, or at least perfect enough that I could not point out anything I would change. Authority is very good, but it is not quite perfect. The protagonist, a CIA manager, is not quite as relatable as the biologist from the first novel. His acerbic, absentee, and domineering CIA mom also reminded me a bit too much of Archer's Mom. :) And as I said, Authority is a bit slower. It also does not do quite enough to advance the plot/explore the mystery. We don't learn much more about Area X. The things that happen in this novel are, basically, what the biologist thought might happen in the first book. We don't get any new paragraphs of awesome, insane cultist gibberish (though I guess we do get a few neat cultist murals). In short, in terms of world building it felt like the author was just fleshing out the lines that he'd already laid down in the first book, without adding much more that was really new. Compare this to the first book, where every 25 pages there is a sudden lurch as something new is revealed and the situation completely changes. Ok, enough of my quibbles. Authority is a highly enjoyable read, and it has at least three completely wonderful, laugh out-loud, terrifying and f'd up moments. I'm looking forward to the third book in the series, even if like the second book it is merely excellent and not perfect.
Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie
A decently written but rather silly space opera. The basic (and neat) idea is that there is space emperor, who has used cloning and brain implant technology to create countless duplicates of herself. Each duplicate is linked via brain-implant to the others, so that theoretically they all have the same identity. Each one is put in charge of a different sector or system of the empire. However, as the empire has grown to thousands of worlds, propagation delays have caused the versions of herself to drift apart, to the point where after centuries of plotting the two factions of herself are now openly in conflict. So! This second book in the series starts off with the galactic civil war just getting underway. The fate of thousands of planets are at stake! Our hero has been given command of an FTL warship, and sent to a vital system with orders to protect the system. At which point our hero starts doing fetch quests. Her first order of business is to improve the plumbing and health-services for the ~100 or so people in the poor-person's block of the system space station. Not to, say, figure out the loyalties of the other warship captains, or to get her hands on the AI overrides for their ships. After her first bold move, she progresses on to similarly important tasks like making sure this one space station cadet gets out of a mildly abusive relationship, or improving working conditions for a small portion of the tea-growers on planet. Oh my lord lady. It is like in a JRPG, where there is this world-threatening evil, and you ignore addressing it in favor of doing fetch quests or finding a lost cat for townsfolk. Here is an idea; if the tea-harvesters have a crappy life, have some fricken' robots do the job instead. Now that that issue is taken care of, you can turn to the more important issues like making sure the whole place isn't nuked in the incipient interstellar war. The author does make some small nods to automation as a solution, by saying that most tea is made by automated factories, and only the prestige brands are made by hand. But that just leads to the question of why given the means of production available (mass automation and robotics, advanced AI, thousands of FTL ships, plenty of pleasant and sparsely inhabited planets, centuries of peace and reasonably competent rule), everyone is so incredibly, incredibly poor. The space ship crew can barely afford tea, a new officer can barely afford rum. Even the elites of the society are terribly poor; the grand oligarch of the planet only has a few McMansions and a few hundred indentured workers. I think the source of this problem is that the author wants to write a very social-justicy novel, and to do that you need injustices to highlight and fix. This doesn't really work though since A) the injustices the author comes up with are basically from our world and don't fit with the technology/sci-fi situation presented, and B) it often felt like pandering; e.g. have a laundry list of current social justice issues (colonialism, racism, income inequality, spousal abuse, etc. etc.), and then have our physically deadly and morally righteous protagonist slice through them. [Editors note: Someone on GoodReads described the novel as the one-sided continuation of an argument the author had on the internet; that seemed apt.] And in the end, I have to ask to what purpose? Even if the hero fixes all the inequalities in their system, she has only delivered its people into something moderately worse than a middle-class American existence. Why not have some imagination instead? You have AIs and anti-gravity and cloning and brain CRUD! Go to town! Create an actual positive vision of a humane future like Iain M Banks did, where people aren't wasting their lives as soldiers, or butlers, or manual labors. Let them flourish to the limits of baseline human potential, or let them go far beyond that if they wish. Oh! Or here is an idea, just fully accept that you don't care about the science in your science fiction, and instead write space romances, about the love between the AI ships and their captains. Make it the full focus of the novels like Termeraire did, and happily ignore the sillyness of the world you have built up.
Anyway! When the book can be bothered to turn back to the main quest line, it can be good. There are the seeds of interesting stuff in trying to suss out the loyalties of the other captains and governors and AIs in the system, especially since brain-implants and AI overrides can come into play. The main plot wasn't all that well developed, but I liked the parts that were there. And like in the first book, the protagonist is unobtrusively gender blind, which as in the first book I liked but was generally blind to. I believe this blindness is because I am similarly enlightened myself, and failed to notice the abscence of something I don't pay much attention to. Either that or I am an unobservant and lazy reader. :)
Pale Fire, by Nabokov
Enough has been said about this book elsewhere that I'm not sure I need to elaborate on it too much. The first time I read this was about ~15 years ago, and I loved it at the time. And I still kind of love it? There are sentences and paragraphs that just make me laugh for the pleasure of how perfect they are. The writing and structure of the book are simply brilliant. And when I say brilliant, I do not mean brilliant in my usual "desperate-search-for-adjectives" kind of way. It really is just genius level thinking that went into the creation of this story. Still, I wasn't as motivated/entranced when reading this a second time, since a large part of the pleasure of the book is unwrapping/decoding what is happening. And since I had already unwrapped the main part of the book, the things that are left to unwrap are the smaller and more minor puzzles, and to really do that I would need to start taking notes or reading other people's commentary on the text. And I'm not sure I want to commit quite that much time or go quite that meta. :)
One thing I did appreciate the second time around was how the commentary actually makes me appreciate the poem more. Initially, I did not particularly like poem that is the heart of the book (the constant rhyming throws me off and feels a little silly?), and I skipped over parts of the poem when I first came across it at the start of the book. However, the negative/acidic commentary makes a nice contrast to the poem, and helps me appreciate the poem more.
Anyway, if you enjoyed Pale Fire, I would also recommend its more modern incarnation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtpT5u5eOa0&list=PL8cGaJKvM_-73lQO-4fTjrVjkgcide_5I
Ficciones, by Borges
A series of brilliant but dry short stories. The stories tend to be abstract, self-referential, and experimental. They are what you would expect from a very smart South American who is skilled at writing and has an advanced CS degree. But the thing is, Borges didn't have a CS degree. o_O. Borges wrote all of these about 30-50 years before his ideas really started filtering out to other authors. Despite the clear genius of the design, his writing never really grabbed me. The stories were a bit too puzzle like, and I read each one focusing on identifying the trick or conceit of the story rather out of any enjoyment of the tale.
The Player of Games, by Iain M Banks
This was an inadvertent re-read, as I had purchased a copy for a friend and wanted to just refresh my memory of a few parts. Lol, we know how that turns out. I enjoyed the book on the second time around, though not nearly so much as the first. I found parts of the book to be more preachy and heavy-handed than the first time through. I was also more aware and bothered by a flaw that I mentioned last time, that the game Azad, which is the primary field of contention for most of the book, can never really be described. There are large parts of the book where there just isn't anyway for the author to have any detail in the writing, since the thing he is writing about is so nebulous. The McGuffin becomes the Albatross. Banks does better with the smaller games mentioned earlier in the book, since these he can actually outline and fill in some detail for. So, not a bad book, but I think it suffered a bit on re-read. Still very fun, snappy, and creative in many respects.
The Book of Imaginary Beings, by Borges
I picked this up since it seemed like it might be neat, and at the very least I could mine it for ideas to use in different games that I run/make. I ended up with the "least" scenario. The book is not particularly fun to read. It's not bad, but it's not something I would read if I were not looking for ideas for imaginary monsters. The book does have the usual Borges conceit of intertwining the fantastical and the historical, which is kind of cool, but in this instance it is not functionally different from the usual Monster Manual strategy of taking something that exists in the real world or in a real world myth and using it as a template/inspiration for your new fantastical creation. Or to put it another way, what Borges was using as a delightful literary idea 50 years ago has become, through the vagaries of the nerd entertainment complex, a standard and slightly lazy method to churn out product. Anyway. I was not unhappy that I read the book, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who is not GMing or game designing.
Invitation to a Beheading, by Nabokov
A wonderful, absurd, surreal, and darkly comic novel about a man condemned to die. It is like Nabokov took the last section of _The Stranger_, stretched the narrative out like taffy, and then subjected Meursault to a hundred different farces and indignities. Except in this case the protagonist is more likable and more innocent than Meursault, and the society that imprisons him more totalitarian and more Zemblan, and the ending more ... something? In any case, there is a neat sort of solipsistic shadow struggle carried on through out the book, and naturally it reaches its climax at the final scene.
Overall it is a delightful book. Two notes of caution though: Note 1) the first 20-30 pages are a bit slow, so stick with it for bit until the pieces start fitting together. Note 2) In my printing, the back of the book had horrible, terrible spoilers. Like, 3 sentences that just ruined some of the wonderful situations that Nabokov set up. So, grade A trolling on the part of the publishers. I'm not sure why people complain about 4Chan or Reddit when hooligans like Random House are allowed to roam free. If you are interested in the novel at all, rip the back cover off the book and toss it to the wind.
Ok, I cannot resist, here is a final bonus note. The next book on the Nabokov list is _Pale Fire_, which I would be reading already if I hadn't accidentally reserved the audio book version from the library. Pale Fire is a re-read, and while doing some browsing about it I came across this original, hilarious, NYTimes review of Pale Fire from when it was first published.
Wow. I'm sure I've misread a book this badly at some point in my life, but fortunately I've never published it on the internet to be preserved for all time.
The Enchanter, by Nabokov
I started off my new Nabokov campaign by randomly choosing this, and Wowwwwwww. The Enchanter is like the Wasp Factory on crack. It is the hipster version of Lolita, for people who were into old men who were into young girls before it was cool. A stunningly uncomfortable 100 pages.
Single and Single, by Le Carre
Another wonderful Le Carre book. It starts with a brutal and amazing in media res, and moves outward from there to explore the various ties of family, friendship, love, history, money, and betrayal in an international criminal conspiracy. Like with many Le Carre books, it is quite sweet despite the subject matter, with a focus on character and relationships that is only occasionally interrupted by AK-47s.
The Kreutzer Sonata, by Leo Tolstoy
Lol. I am definitely giving a copy of this to two of my engaged friends.
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
A decent book, that loses a some of its enjoyment simply because times have changed and much of it is no longer that relevant. The story has two main parts that are woven together. The shorter and more enjoyable part is a re-imagining of the Christ story. This re-imagining is from the viewpoint of Pontius Pilate, and is a sort of collision between security services and real-politik on the one hand and a supernatural peace on the other. This story is written in the style of a hyper realistic political or spy novel, with a focus on details like the troop contingents assigned to different areas, the division of political power in Jerusalem, the characters in the Roman security services, etc. These were my favorite chapters, both because they are actually moving and because of the interesting and unusual perspective on an old story.
The second and larger part of the book is set in 1930's Russia, as the Devil comes to Moscow. Here the tone is reversed; as the Devil and his cohorts trick, tempt, baffle, humiliate, and only occasionally decapitate various officials and venal self-seekers in Moscow. This Devil isn't so much a lord of darkness, as a fairy-tail figure, a fickle and powerful tester of mankind. He comments that the people of Moscow don't seem to be any worse than earlier people, it is just the housing crisis that makes them bad. :) A lot of this story is about the Devil's tricks to get a suitable apartment for himself and his entourage, as well as other people's efforts to secure lodging there once they realize spots have opened up. Anyway, this part is fine, and writing it certainly must have taken courage when you lived in 1930's Russia, but much of the humor and commentary is not as biting in 2015. If it was written about the San Francisco housing market or some such I might enjoy it more. There's also a love story that gives the book its title, but that didn't really do much for me either. For some reason I've never really clicked with Russian love stories.
The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks
Another re-read, this time of the first Iain Banks book that I ever read. The Wasp Factory is still a snappy and hilarious little novel, and it is still a great and small and clear example of the qualities that I love so much in Banks. There is a wealth of invention, detail, wit, precise action, and clever/brutal plotting. It also has the sort of moral divide that you find in a lot of Banks' books, though usually not as simply and distinctly. One the one hand there is a sort of downward seeking, atavistic, Thanatopic mode of thought, and on the other hand a sort of upward seeking or life seeking mode of thought. I tend towards this sort of Manichean thinking myself, so it resonates with me. The Wasp Factory isn't Banks' most complex or deepest book, but it is still a fun read.
The Nice and The Good, by Iris Murdoch
As always, it is a bit of a shock coming back to Murdoch. Her style is so odd in some ways, moving between unprovoked bursts of metaphysics and high-flown desire to a cold blooded evaluation of psychological/social/sexual mechanics. One way to think of her books is as a replay or demonstration of how she thinks these mechanisms work, as well as propaganda (in the best possible way) for various ways in which she thinks people should live. Anyway, I like it. She accurately describes at least some experiences that I'm familiar with, which gives me hope that she is getting other things right, and there are at least a few tidbits in each book that I've taken away and incorporated. Err, what else to say. This story is a sort of Iris-Murdoch-Occult-Noir-Love story? But the focus is never on plot, it is pretty much all on psychology and relationships.
Marque and Reprisal, by Elizabeth Moon-Moon
Ok, I read another one. In my defense, I had already checked it out from the library and left it in the bathroom. It was an improvement over the first one, in that there was an actual action scene. There was also the weird and continual contract parsing of the first book; reading it reminded me most strongly of filling out the paperwork to rent an apartment. There was also some of the most awkward and sad flirting that I've ever read. I kind of want to give the author a hug.
Trading in Danger, by Elizabeth Moon-Moon
This book is a sort of low quality imitation of David Weber's already low quality Honor Harrington series. _Trading in Danger_ does at least make you appreciate all the things the Honorverse books did well. For all their flaws, the Honorverse books did have a certain compulsive readability (or listenability) and a beer and pretzels charm. Weber's series has high stakes, more interesting plots, tactical/strategic puzzles, better tech/world building, and even better characterization. Moon's first book just felt very flat. The relationships never quite clicked, the plot was kind of Hardy Boys level, and much of the made up tech was glossed over. Moon did have a lot of legalese and contract negotiation in her book though, so she has that going for her. :(
There's also a continuous fellating of military over civilian values. Not that great.
Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford
A disappointing and tepid book. There are two basic elements to this book. One is a sort of slice-of-life story telling in 1950's - 1970's Russia, especially amongst the scientists, engineers, and managers. It's natural to compare this to The Gulag Archipelago or The Cancer Ward, since these books have the same time period, location, type of characters, and general structure of storytelling. And when you compare them, Red Plenty comes up very lacking. It is the difference between The Wire (Gulag Archipelago) and an NBC cop show (Red Plenty). The characters in Red Plenty simply never felt right; they never matched up to my conception of how these characters should act or think. They lack the hardness and reality and details that you find in something like Gulag Archipelago, or in Isaac Babel, or even in novels like The Master and Margarita or Road Side Picnic. As Mao put it, Spufford has grown up eating only honey, and it makes his novel seem very false in its basic characterization and story telling (not that there is anything wrong with honey; I love honey! But at the same time I wouldn't try to write these characters.) Reading through the footnotes, Spufford is familiar with most of the Russian novels I listed above, so I guess he just has a lot of misplaced confidence? In fairness, there are some isolated parts at the middle and end of the book where the writing finally starts to come together, but by that time my patience for the book was *really* wearing thin. Page 300 is not the time to try and get the reader interested.
The second element to the book is the potential use of computers and algorithms in order to centrally plan and regulate the entire Soviet economy. This is ok? There are a couple of dozen good pages about this, but in terms of ideas it is not anything you would not pick up from a 4 year CS degree and either reading the back cover of the book or just having read some articles on all the different ways that metrics can pervert decision making.