Search Results: "Russ Allbery"

21 August 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Some Desperate Glory

Review: Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-250-83499-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 438
Some Desperate Glory is a far-future space... opera? That's probably the right genre classification given the setting, but this book is much more intense and character-focused than most space opera. It is Emily Tesh's first novel, although she has two previous novellas that were published as books. The alien majo and their nearly all-powerful Wisdom have won the war by destroying Earth with an antimatter bomb. The remnants of humanity were absorbed into the sprawling majo civilization. Gaea Station is the lone exception: a marginally viable station deep in space, formed from a lifeless rocky planetoid and the coupled hulks of the last four human dreadnoughts. Gaea Station survives on military discipline, ruthless use of every available resource, and constant training, raising new generations of soldiers for the war that it refuses to let end. While Earth's children live, the enemy shall fear us. Kyr is a warbreed, one of a genetically engineered line of soldiers that, following an accident, Gaea Station has lost the ability to make except the old-fashioned way. Among the Sparrows, her mess group, she is the best at the simulated combat exercises they use for training. She may be the best of her age cohort except her twin Magnus. As this novel opens, she and the rest of the Sparrows are about to get their adult assignments. Kyr is absolutely focused on living up to her potential and the attention of her uncle Jole, the leader of the station. Kyr's future will look nothing like what she expects. This book was so good, and I despair of explaining why it was so good without unforgivable spoilers. I can tell you a few things about it, but be warned that I'll be reduced to helpless gestures and telling you to just go read it. It's been a very long time since I was this surprised by a novel, possibly since I read Code Name: Verity for the first time. Some Desperate Glory follows Kyr in close third-person throughout the book, which makes the start of this book daring. If you're getting a fascist vibe from the setup, you're not wrong, and this is intentional on Tesh's part. But Kyr is a true believer at the start of the book, so the first quarter has a protagonist who is sometimes nasty and cruel and who makes some frustratingly bad decisions. Stay with it, though; Tesh knows exactly what she's doing. This is a coming of age story, in a way. Kyr has a lot to learn and a lot to process, and Some Desperate Glory is about that process. But by the middle of part three, halfway through the book, I had absolutely no idea where Tesh was going with the story. She then pulled the rug out from under me, in the best way, at least twice more. Part five of this book is an absolute triumph, the payoff for everything that's happened over the course of the novel, and there is no way I could have predicted it in advance. It was deeply satisfying in that way where I felt like I learned some things along with the characters, and where the characters find a better ending than I could possibly have worked out myself. Tesh does use some world-building trickery, which is at its most complicated in part four. That was the one place where I can point to a few chapters where I thought the world-building got a bit too convenient in order to enable the plot. But it also allows for some truly incredible character work. I can't describe that in detail because it would be a major spoiler, but it's one of my favorite tropes in fiction and Tesh pulls it off beautifully. The character growth and interaction in this book is just so good: deep and complicated and nuanced and thoughtful in a way that revises reader impressions of earlier chapters. The other great thing about this book is that for a 400+ page novel, it moves right along. Both plot and character development is beautifully paced with only a few lulls. Tesh also doesn't belabor conversations. This is a book that provides just the right amount of context for the reader to fully understand what's going on, and then trusts the reader to be following along and moves straight to the next twist. That makes it propulsively readable. I had so much trouble putting this book down at any time during the second half. I can't give any specifics, again because of spoilers, but this is not just a character story. Some Desperate Glory has strong opinions on how to ethically approach the world, and those ethics are at the center of the plot. Unlike a lot of books with a moral stance, though, this novel shows the difficulty of the work of deriving that moral stance. I have rarely read a book that more perfectly captures the interior experience of changing one's mind with all of its emotional difficulty and internal resistance. Tesh provides all the payoff I was looking for as a reader, but she never makes it easy or gratuitous (with the arguable exception of one moment at the very end of the book that I think some people will dislike but that I personally needed). This is truly great stuff, probably the best science fiction novel that I've read in several years. Since I read it (I'm late on reviews again), I've pushed it on several other people, and I've not had a miss yet. The subject matter is pretty heavy, and this book also uses several tropes that I personally adore and am therefore incapable of being objective about, but with those caveats, this gets my highest possible recommendation. Some Desperate Glory is a complete story in one novel with a definite end, although I love these characters so much that I'd happily read their further adventures, even if those are thematically unnecessary. Content warnings: Uh, a lot. Genocide, suicide, sexual assault, racism, sexism, homophobia, misgendering, and torture, and I'm probably forgetting a few things. Tesh doesn't linger on these long, but most of them are on-screen. You may have to brace yourself for this one. Rating: 10 out of 10

18 July 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Legends & Lattes

Review: Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree
Series: Legends & Lattes #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-88609-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 293
Legends & Lattes is a sword and sorcery fantasy novel of the RPG-inspired, post-Dungeons-and-Dragons subtype. It was Travis Baldree's first novel. Viv is an orc, the heavy muscle for a roving band of adventurers who take jobs for hire in a way familiar to any Dungeons and Dragons player. As this book opens, she's been an adventurer for twenty-two years, and she's done. Her band have defeated the Scalvert Queen and gained its hoard, but all that Viv wants is the stone in its head. With that in hand and some vague lore about how to use it, Viv leaves, rather abruptly, and heads for the city of Thune to chase a dream she's never told anyone else about. Viv wants to start a coffee shop. Legends & Lattes is an unapologetic comfort story. Viv doesn't entirely know what she's doing, but she has a lot of experience hiring people, negotiating, and figuring things out, and she's willing to do a lot of hard work. She's blunt and a bit rough, but she's ethical and kind, which lets her attract and retain her first two employees: a taciturn expert carpenter Viv picks out by watching people work at the docks, and a succubus she hires as a barista. From there, the story slowly turns into a found family dynamic, full of people that you like and are rooting for. There is one actual villain who shows up towards the end of the book to give it some conflict, but mostly this is the story of Viv building a small business while being a good employer and friend. The subtitle of "a novel of high fantasy and low stakes" is therefore an excellent description. (Pedantic aside: This is "high fantasy" in the literary sense of not involving an otherwise-normal world, not "high" in the RPG sense of having less realistic, more mythic characters.) You are not going to be surprised by the outcome of the story, or even most of the events along the way. It's a book full of basically good people trying to do the right thing, largely succeeding, and building a community in the process. If that feels relaxing and fun, you have precisely the right idea. Sometimes you want a book in which good things happen to good people, and that's exactly what Baldree delivers. There are also a lot of specific details about explaining coffee to everyone and setting up a portion of the menu of a modern coffee shop in a fantasy world, and those parts I found less interesting. Baldree uses the handwave of gnomish machinery to import big chunks of 2020s coffee technology wholesale, which felt oddly out of step with the vaguely medieval-ish Dungeons and Dragons world. This is also one of those books where the characters independently reinvent multiple ideas that historically came from different regions and slow processes of refinement. Here it's drinks and pastries rather than major technological advances, which I guess is a little bit better, but I find this style of world-building grating. The obligatory coffee shop cat is delightfully strange and suits the fantasy setting. I wish more of the coffee shop trappings had similar twists. That said, everything else about the book worked for me, and the characters are thankfully more central to the book than the coffee shop trappings. I liked all of them and had no trouble rooting for them. The found family bits worked for me and the character relationships developed slowly enough to be believable but fast enough to be satisfying. Viv is refreshingly blunt, so I wasn't annoyed by communication failures. And the succubus, Tandri, is a fun, complex character and a great counterpoint to Viv. If you're looking for something challenging or deep, this isn't the book, but if you're in the mood for a predictable comfort read, this hit the spot. Recommended. Followed by Bookshops & Bonedust (not yet published), but Legends & Lattes is a complete story. My edition has a novella (maybe a novelette) at the end of the short novel. "Pages to Fill": This is a prelude to the novel, telling the story of Viv's first encounter with a coffee shop and the point where she made the decision to stop adventuring. That's not the main plot of the story, though. She and her team are pursuing a shapeshifting thief, which leads to Viv having some unexpected reactions. This was fairly slight and predictable, but once you've read the novel, it's fun to see how the story began. The best part is seeing more of Gallina, the gnome who was by far my favorite of Viv's old team. (6) Rating: 8 out of 10

17 July 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Unkindest Tide

Review: The Unkindest Tide, by Seanan McGuire
Series: October Daye #13
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 0-7564-1255-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 355
This is the 13th book in the long-running October Daye urban fantasy series. There is a strong series arc and a plot that builds on previous books, so this is a series with both significant spoilers and significant confusion if read out of order. The Unkindest Tide in particular is closely tied to the previous book, Night and Silence, and should not be read before it. For once, this story does not start with someone Toby loves being attacked or going missing, or with someone trying to attack her. It instead starts with the Luidaeg. For several books now, she's been dropping hints about the debts that Toby owes to her and the favors she will someday call in. That time is now; she's going to address a problem that she has been putting off for years, and Toby is going to help her. This was a Luidaeg book, so I knew going in that I was going to enjoy it, and indeed I did. That said, I thought it was a bit awkward. This is a moment that McGuire has been building up to for quite some time (series readers may have a few guesses at what the Luidaeg is up to) and she wanted it to land with a lot of force while adding some last-minute complications and letting Toby take her typical role as the stubborn hero. But the primary complication she adds felt unrelated at first, and while the story does tie everything together in the end, it left the story feeling disjointed. The novel needed some fight scenes and some opportunities for people to worry about Toby, so those were provided, but I'm not sure they flowed naturally out of the story. There are some truly great moments here between Toby and the Luidaeg, and between Toby and a few of the other people involved in the story (naming them would be spoilers). Some of the banter is really fun. But I thought the best emotional moment of the book was a underplayed and could have used some more focus, build-up, and time to breathe, rather than shifting the Luidaeg off-stage for a big chunk of the story. McGuire has a bit of a power level problem here and finds some deft ways to avoid it, but I think that hurt the emotional arc. We're also told a lot about the emotional impacts of the plot, but I wish it had been shown more. The one character touchpoint the reader has is mostly uninvolved, and her involvement is a bit disappointing when it does happen. The biggest flaw in this book is the biggest flaw in the series: McGuire has a formula, and while it's more varied from book to book than a lot of long-running series, it's still predictable. Toby and Tybalt say the same things, Toby gets into the same kind of trouble, she worries about the same things, the banter goes in predictable ways, and the fights go very similarly to the fights in previous series entries. A lot of the novel won't be very surprising. There are always a few moments in each book that stir strong emotions, and personally I love the world-building and am eager to read more of it, but there are also sections of these books that I read very fast without feeling like I'm missing much. I've said this about this series before, which is another angle at the same problem. I think the world-building is getting more interesting as the series goes along, but the writing is not; if anything, it's getting a bit worse. It's far from bad enough to stop me from reading, and this was one of the better series entries overall, but it does keep the series firmly in the "reliable fun" category rather than the "excellent and worthy of savoring" category. It's still reliable fun, though. If you're this far along, you'll want to keep reading. The Unkindest Tide felt a bit like the end of an arc, so I'm curious to see where the story goes next. Followed by A Killing Frost. As is typical of the last few books, there is a novella included at the end. "Hope Is Swift": The novella at the end of Night and Silence was the best part of that book and focused on exactly the character I was hoping it would focus on. At the end of this book, I really wanted another novella about Gillian and directly related to the main novel. Unfortunately, what we get instead is a story about Raj that is entirely unrelated to the rest of the book. Raj is fine as a supporting character, I suppose, but he's not one of the series characters I care very much about, and sadly this novella did nothing to change my mind. It's a story of teenagers and of the perils of fae/human interactions that I found rather predictable, a bit anxiety-inducing (constant discussion of medical procedures), and entirely forgettable apart from the bits I didn't like. The takeaway lessons felt so obvious that they could have been the moral at the end of a Saturday morning cartoon from my youth. Maybe if you're a cat person you'd get a bit more out of it? I kind of regretted reading it, sadly. (4) Rating: 7 out of 10

29 June 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Semiosis

Review: Semiosis, by Sue Burke
Series: Semiosis #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: February 2018
ISBN: 0-7653-9137-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 333
Semiosis is a first-contact science fiction novel and the first half of a duology. It was Sue Burke's first novel. In the 2060s, with the Earth plagued by environmental issues, a group of utopians decided to found a colony on another planet. Their goal is to live in harmony with an unspoiled nature. They wrote a suitably high-minded founding document, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pax, and set out in cold sleep on an interstellar voyage. 158 years later, they awoke in orbit around a planet with a highly-developed ecology, which they named Pax. Two pods and several colonists were lost on landing, but the rest remained determined to follow through with their plan. Not that they had many alternatives. Pax does not have cities or technological mammalian life, just as they hoped. It does, however, have intelligent life. This novel struggled to win me over for reasons that aren't the fault of Burke's writing. The first is that it is divided into seven parts, each telling the story of a different generation. Intellectually, I like this technique for telling an anthropological story that follows a human society over time. But emotionally, I am a character reader first and foremost, and I struggle with books where I can't follow the same character throughout. It makes the novel feel more like a fix-up of short stories, and I'm not much of a short story reader. Second, this is one of those stories where a human colony loses access to its technology and falls back to a primitive lifestyle. This is a concept I find viscerally unpleasant and very difficult to read about. I don't mind reading stories that start at the lower technological level and rediscover lost technology, but the process of going backwards, losing knowledge, surrounded by breaking technology that can never be repaired, is disturbing at a level that throws me out of the story. It doesn't help that the original colonists chose to embrace that reversion. Some of this wasn't intentional some vital equipment was destroyed when they landed but a lot of it was the plan from the start. They are the type of fanatics who embrace a one-way trip and cannibalizing the equipment used to make it in order to show their devotion to the cause. I spent the first part of the book thinking the founding colonists were unbelievably foolish, but then they started enforcing an even more restrictive way of life on their children and that tipped me over into considering them immoral. This was the sort of political movement that purged all religion and political philosophy other than their one true way so that they could raise "uncorrupted" children. Burke does recognize how deeply abusive this is. The second part of the book, which focuses on the children of the initial colonists, was both my favorite section and had my favorite protagonist, precisely because someone put words to the criticisms that I'd been thinking since the start of the book. The book started off on a bad foot with me, but if it had kept up the momentum of political revolution and rethinking provided by the second part, it might have won me over. That leads to the third problem, though, which is the first contact part of the story. (If you've heard anything about this series, you probably know what the alien intelligence is, and even if not you can probably guess, but I'll avoid spoilers anyway.) This is another case where the idea is great, but I often don't get along with it as a reader. I'm a starships and AIs and space habitats sort of SF reader by preference and tend to struggle with biological SF, even though I think it's great more of it is being written. In this case, mind-altering chemicals enter the picture early in the story, and while this makes perfect sense given the world-building, this is another one of my visceral dislikes. A closely related problem is that the primary alien character is, by human standards, a narcissistic asshole. This is for very good story and world-building reasons. I bought the explanation that Burke offers, I like the way this shows how there's no reason to believe humans have a superior form of intelligence, and I think Burke's speculations on the nature of that alien intelligence are fascinating. There are a lot of good reasons to think that alien morality would be wildly different from human morality. But, well, I'm still a human reading this book and I detested the alien, which is kind of a problem given how significant of a character it is. That's a lot baggage for a story to overcome. It says something about how well-thought-out the world-building is that it kept my attention anyway. Burke uses the generational structure very effectively. Events, preferences, or even whims early in the novel turn into rituals or traditions. Early characters take on outsized roles in history. The humans stick with the rather absurd constitution of Pax, but do so in a way that feels true to how humans reinterpret and stretch and layer meaning on top of wholly inadequate documents written in complete ignorance of the challenges that later generations will encounter. I would have been happier without the misery and sickness and messy physicality of this abusive colonization project, but watching generations of humans patch together a mostly functioning society was intellectually satisfying. The alien interactions were also solid, with the caveat that it's probably impossible to avoid a lot of anthropomorphizing. If I were going to sum up the theme of the novel in a sentence, it's that even humans who think they want to live in harmony with nature are carrying more arrogance about what that harmony would look like than they realize. In most respects the human colonists stumbled across the best-case scenario for them on this world, and it was still harder than anything they had imagined. Unfortunately, I thought the tail end of the book had the weakest plot. It fell back on a story that could have happened in a lot of first-contact novels, rather than the highly original negotiation over ecological niches that happened in the first half of the book. Out of eight viewpoint characters in this book, I only liked one of them (Sylvia). Tatiana and Lucille were okay, and I might have warmed to them if they'd had more time in the spotlight, but I felt like they kept making bad decisions. That's the main reason why I can't really recommend it; I read for characters, I didn't really like the characters, and it's hard for a book to recover from that. It made the story feel chilly and distant, more of an intellectual exercise than the sort of engrossing emotional experience I prefer. But, that said, this is solid SF speculation. If your preferred balance of ideas and characters is tilted more towards ideas than mine, and particularly if you like interesting aliens and don't mind the loss of technology setting, this may well be to your liking. Even with all of my complaints, I'm curious enough about the world that I am tempted to read the sequel, since its plot appears to involve more of the kind of SF elements I like. Followed by Interference. Content warning: Rape, and a whole lot of illness and death. Rating: 6 out of 10

28 June 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Translation State

Review: Translation State, by Ann Leckie
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: June 2023
ISBN: 0-316-29024-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 354
Translation State is a science fiction novel set in the same universe as the Imperial Radch series and Provenance. It is not truly a sequel of any of those books, but as with Provenance, it has significant spoilers for the conclusion of Ancillary Mercy. Provenance takes place earlier, but it's plot is unrelated as far as I can recall. Enea has spent much of hir adult life living with hir difficult and somewhat abusive grandmanan and, in recent years, running her household. Now, Grandmanan is dead, and the relatives who have been waiting to inherit Grandmanan's wealth are descending like a flock of vultures and treating hir like a servant. Enea can barely stand to be around them. It is therefore somewhat satisfying to watch their reactions when they discover that there is no estate. Grandmanan had been in debt and sold her family title to support herself for the rest of her life. Enea will receive an allowance and an arranged job that expects a minimum of effort. Everyone else gets nothing. It's still a wrenching dislocation from everything Enea has known, but at least sie can relax, travel, and not worry about money. Enea's new job for the Office of Diplomacy is to track down a fugitive who disappeared two hundred years earlier. The request came from the Radchaai Translators Office, the agency responsible for the treaty with the alien Presger, and was resurrected due to the upcoming conclave to renegotiate the treaty. No one truly expects Enea to find this person or any trace of them. It's a perfect quiet job to reward hir with travel and a stipend for putting up with Grandmanan all these years. This plan lasts until Enea's boredom and sense of duty get the better of hir. Enea is one of three viewpoint characters. Reet lives a quiet life in which he only rarely thinks about murdering people. He has a menial job in Rurusk Station, at least until he falls in with an ethnic club that may be a cover for more political intentions. Qven... well, Qven is something else entirely. Provenance started with some references to the Imperial Radch trilogy but then diverged into its own story. Translation State does the opposite. It starts as a cozy pseudo-detective story following Enea and a slice-of-life story following Reet, interspersed with baffling chapters from Qven, but by the end of the book the characters are hip-deep in the trilogy aftermath. It's not the direct continuation of the political question of the trilogy that I'm still partly hoping for, but it's adjacent. As you might suspect from the title, this story is about Presger Translators. Exactly how is not entirely obvious at the start, but it doesn't take long for the reader to figure it out. Leckie fills in a few gaps in the world-building and complicates (but mostly retains) the delightfully askew perspective Presger Translators have on the world. For me, though, the best part of the book was the political maneuvering once the setup is complete and all the characters are in the same place. The ending, unfortunately, dragged a little bit; the destination of the story was obvious but delayed by characters not talking to each other. I tend to find this irritating, but I know tastes differ. I was happily enjoying Translation State but thinking that it didn't suck me in as much as the original trilogy, and even started wondering if I'd elevated the Imperial Radch trilogy too high in my memory. Then an AI ship showed up and my brain immediately got fully invested in the story. I'm very happy to get whatever other stories in this universe Leckie is willing to write, but I would have been even happier if a ship appeared as more than a supporting character. To the surprise of no one who reads my reviews, I clearly have strong preferences in protagonists. This wasn't one of my favorites, but it was a solidly good book, and I will continue to read everything Ann Leckie writes. If you liked Provenance, I think you'll like this one as well. We once again get a bit more information about the aliens in this universe, and this time around we get more Radchaai politics, but the overall tone is closer to Provenance. Great powers are in play, but the focus is mostly on the smaller scale. Recommended, but of course read the Imperial Radch trilogy first. Note that Translation State uses a couple of sets of neopronouns to represent different gender systems. My brain still struggles with parsing them grammatically, but this book was good practice. It was worth the effort to watch people get annoyed at the Radchaai unwillingness to acknowledge more than one gender. Content warning: Cannibalism (Presger Translators are very strange), sexual assault. Rating: 8 out of 10

25 June 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Wee Free Men

Review: The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #30
Publisher: HarperTempest
Copyright: 2003
Printing: 2006
ISBN: 0-06-001238-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 375
The Wee Free Men is the 30th Discworld novel but the first Tiffany Aching book and doesn't rely on prior knowledge of Discworld, although the witches from previous books do appear. You could start here, although I think the tail end of the book has more impact if you already know who Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was the first Discworld novel written to be young adult, and although I could see that if I squinted, it didn't feel that obviously YA to me. The Wee Free Men is clearly young adult (or perhaps middle grade), right down to the quintessential protagonist: a nine-year-old girl who is practical and determined and a bit of a misfit and does a lot of growing up over the course of the story. Tiffany Aching is the youngest daughter in a large Aching family that comes from a long history of Aching families living in the Chalk. She has a pile of older relatives and one younger brother named Wentworth who is an annoying toddler obsessed with sweets. Her family work a farm that is theoretically the property of the local baron but has been in their family for years. There is always lots to do and Tiffany is an excellent dairymaid, so people mostly leave her alone with her thoughts and her tiny collection of books from her grandmother. Her now-deceased Grandma Aching was a witch. Tiffany, as it turns out, is also a witch, not that she knows that. As the book opens, certain... things are trying to get into her world from elsewhere. The first is a green monster that pops up out of the river and attempts to snatch Wentworth, much to Tiffany's annoyance. She identifies it as Jenny Green-Teeth via a book of fairy tales and dispatches it with a frying pan, somewhat to her surprise, but worse are coming. Even more surprised by her frying pan offensive are the Nac Mac Feegle, last seen in Carpe Jugulum, who know something about where this intrusion is coming from. In short order, the Aching farm has a Nac Mac Feegle infestation. This is, unfortunately, another book about Discworld's version of fairy (or elves, as they were called in Lords and Ladies). I find stories about the fae somewhat hit and miss, and Pratchett's version is one of my least favorites. The Discworld Queen of Fairy is mostly a one-dimensional evil monster and not a very interesting one. A big chunk of the plot is an extended sequence of dreams that annoyed me and went on for about twice as long as it needed to. That's the downside of this book. The upside is that Tiffany Aching is exactly the type of protagonist I loved reading about as a kid, and still love reading about as an adult. She's thoughtful, curious, observant, determined, and uninterested in taking any nonsense from anyone. She has a lot to learn, both about the world and about herself, but she doesn't have to be taught lessons twice and she has a powerful innate sense of justice. She also has a delightfully sarcastic sense of humor.
"Zoology, eh? That's a big word, isn't it." "No, actually it isn't," said Tiffany. "Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short."
One of the best things that Pratchett does with this book is let Tiffany dislike her little brother. Wentworth eventually ends up in trouble and Tiffany has to go rescue him, which of course she does because he's her baby brother. But she doesn't like him; he's annoying and sticky and constantly going on about sweets and never says anything interesting. Tiffany is aware that she's supposed to love him because he's her little brother, but of course this is not how love actually works, and she doesn't. But she goes and rescues him anyway, because that's the right thing to do, and because he's hers. There are a lot of adult novels that show the nuanced and sometimes uncomfortable emotions we have about family members, but this sort of thing is a bit rarer in novels pitched at pre-teens, and I loved it. One valid way to read it is that Tiffany is neurodivergent, but I think she simply has a reasonable reaction to a brother who is endlessly annoying and too young to have many redeeming qualities in her eyes, and no one forces her to have a more socially expected one. It doesn't matter what you feel about things; it matters what you do, and as long as you do the right thing, you can have whatever feelings about it you want. This is a great lesson for this type of book. The other part of this book that I adored was the stories of Grandma Aching. Tiffany is fairly matter-of-fact about her dead grandmother at the start of the book, but it becomes clear over the course of the story that she's grieving in her own way. Grandma Aching was a taciturn shepherd who rarely put more than two words together and was much better with sheep than people, but she was the local witch in the way that Granny Weatherwax was a witch, and Tiffany was paying close attention. They never managed to communicate as much as either of them wanted, but the love shines through Tiffany's memories. Grandma Aching was teaching her how to be a witch: not the magical parts, but the far more important parts about justice and fairness and respect for other people. This was a great introduction of a new character and a solid middle-grade or young YA novel. I was not a fan of the villain and I can take or leave the Nac Mac Feegle (who are basically Scottish Smurfs crossed with ants and are a little too obviously the comic relief, for all that they're also effective warriors). But Tiffany is great and the stories of Grandma Aching are even better. This was not as good as Night Watch (very few things are), but it was well worth reading. Followed in publication order by Monstrous Regiment. The next Tiffany Aching novel is A Hat Full of Sky. Rating: 8 out of 10

24 June 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Rose/House

Review: Rose/House, by Arkady Martine
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-64524-034-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 109
Arkady Martine is the author of the wonderful Teixcalaan duology, a political space opera. Rose/House is a standalone science fiction novella in an entirely different subgenre. Basit Deniau was a legendary architect whose trademark was infusing his houses with artificial intelligences. A house AI is common in this future setting, but what Deniau did was another kind of genius. He has been dead for a year when this story opens. The carbon of his body has been compressed into diamond and displayed on a plinth deep inside his final creation. Rose House. Dr. Selene Gisil was his student. It was not a comfortable relationship. She is now the only person permitted entry into Rose House, allowed to examine its interior architecture and the archive of Deniau's work that is stored there. Once per year, she may enter for precisely one week. No one else in the world is permitted to enter, ever. Selene went in the first time she was allowed. She lasted three days before fleeing. There is a law in the United States, the Federal Artificial Intelligence Surveillance Act, that sets some requirements for the behavior of artificial intelligences. One of its requirements is a duty-of-care notification: an artificial intelligence must report the presence of a dead body to the nearest law enforcement agency. Rose House's call to the China Lake Police Precinct to report the presence of a dead body in the sealed house follows the requirements of the law to the letter.
"Cause of death," said Maritza. I'm a piece of architecture, Detective. How should I know how humans are like to die? After that the line went to the dull hang-up tone, and Rose House would not take her return calls. Not even once.
Rose/House has some of the structure of a locked-room mystery. Someone is dead, but no one at the scene can get inside the house to see who. Selene is the only person who can enter, but she was in Turkey at the time of the killing and has an air-tight alibi. How could someone be in the house at all? And how did they die? It also has some of the structure of a police procedural. First one and then the other detective of the tiny local precinct are pulled into the investigation, starting, as one might expect, by calling Selene Gisil. But I'm not sure I would describe this novella as following either of those genres. By the end of the story, we do learn some of the things one might expect to learn from a detective novel, but that never felt like the true thrust of the story. If you want a detailed explanation of what happened, or the pleasure of trying to guess the murderer before the story tells you, this may not be the novella for you. Instead, Martine was aiming for disturbing eeriness. This is not quite horror nothing explicitly horrific happens, although a couple of scenes are disturbing but Rose House is deeply unsettling. The best character of the story is Maritza, the detective initially assigned to the case, who is trying to ignore the weirdness and do her job. The way she approaches that task leads to some fascinating interactions with Rose House that I thought were the best parts of the story. This story was not really my thing, even though I love stories about sentient buildings and there are moments in this story where Rose House is delightfully nonhuman in exactly the way that I enjoy. The story is told in a way that requires the reader to piece together the details of the conclusion themselves, and I prefer more explicit explanation in stories that start with a puzzle. It's also a bit too close to horror for me, specifically in the way that the characters (Selene most notably) have disturbing and oddly intense emotional reactions to environments that are only partly described. But I read this a few weeks ago and I'm still thinking about it, so it clearly is doing something right. If you like horror, or at least half-explained eeriness, it's likely you will enjoy this more than I did. This portrayal of AI is an intriguing one, and I'd enjoy reading more about it in a story focused on character and plot rather than atmosphere. Rating: 6 out of 10

22 June 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Furious Heaven

Review: Furious Heaven, by Kate Elliott
Series: Sun Chronicles #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-250-86701-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 725
Furious Heaven is the middle book of a trilogy and a direct sequel to Unconquerable Sun. Don't start here. I also had some trouble remembering what happened in the previous book (grumble recaps mutter), and there are a lot of threads, so I would try to minimize the time between books unless you have a good memory for plot details. This is installment two of gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space. When we last left Sun and her Companions, Elliott had established the major players in this interstellar balance of power and set off some opening skirmishes, but the real battles were yet to come. Sun was trying to build her reputation and power base while carefully staying on the good side of Queen-Marshal Eirene, her mother and the person credited with saving the Republic of Chaonia from foreign dominance. The best parts of the first book weren't Sun herself but wily Persephone, one of her Companions, whose viewpoint chapters told a more human-level story of finding her place inside a close-knit pre-existing friendship group. Furious Heaven turns that all on its head. The details are spoilers (insofar as a plot closely tracking the life of Alexander the Great can contain spoilers), but the best parts of the second book are the chapters about or around Sun. What I find most impressive about this series so far is Elliott's ability to write Sun as charismatic in a way that I can believe as a reader. That was hit and miss at the start of the series, got better towards the end of Unconquerable Sun, and was wholly effective here. From me, that's high but perhaps unreliable praise; I typically find people others describe as charismatic to be some combination of disturbing, uncomfortable, dangerous, or obviously fake. This is a rare case of intentionally-written fictional charisma that worked for me. Elliott does not do this by toning down Sun's ambition. Sun, even more than her mother, is explicitly trying to gather power and bend the universe (and the people in it) to her will. She treats people as resources, even those she's the closest to, and she's ruthless in pursuit of her goals. But she's also honorable, straightforward, and generous to the people around her. She doesn't lie about her intentions; she follows a strict moral code of her own, keeps her friends' secrets, listens sincerely to their advice, and has the sort of battlefield charisma where she refuses to ask anyone else to take risks she personally wouldn't take. And her use of symbolism and spectacle isn't just superficial; she finds the points of connection between the symbols and her values so that she can sincerely believe in what she's doing. I am fascinated by how Elliott shapes the story around her charisma. Writing an Alexander analogue is difficult; one has to write a tactical genius with the kind of magnetic attraction that enabled him to lead an army across the known world, and make this believable to the reader. Elliott gives Sun good propaganda outlets and makes her astonishingly decisive (and, of course, uses the power of the author to ensure those decisions are good ones), but she also shows how Sun is constantly absorbing information and updating her assumptions to lay the groundwork for those split-second decisions. Sun uses her Companions like a foundation and a recovery platform, leaning on them and relying on them to gather her breath and flesh out her understanding, and then leaping from them towards her next goal. Elliott writes her as thinking just a tiny bit faster than the reader, taking actions I was starting to expect but slightly before I had put together my expectation. It's a subtle but difficult tightrope to walk as the writer, and it was incredibly effective for me. The downside of Furious Heaven is that, despite kicking the action into a much higher gear, this book sprawls. There are five viewpoint characters (Persephone and the Phene Empire character Apama from the first book, plus two new ones), as well as a few interlude chapters from yet more viewpoints. Apama's thread, which felt like a minor subplot of the first book, starts paying off in this book by showing the internal political details of Sun's enemy. That already means the reader has to track two largely separate and important stories. Add on a Persephone side plot about her family and a new plot thread about other political factions and it's a bit too much. Elliott does a good job avoiding reader confusion, but she still loses narrative momentum and reader interest due to the sheer scope. Persephone's thread in particular was a bit disappointing after being the highlight of the previous book. She spends a lot of her emotional energy on tedious and annoying sniping at Jade, which accomplishes little other than making them both seem immature and out of step with the significance of what's going on elsewhere. This is also a middle book of a trilogy, and it shows. It provides a satisfying increase in intensity and gets the true plot of the trilogy well underway, but nothing is resolved and a lot of new questions and plot threads are raised. I had similar problems with Cold Fire, the middle book of the other Kate Elliott trilogy I've read, and this book is 200 pages longer. Elliott loves world-building and huge, complex plots; I have a soft spot for them too, but they mean the story is full of stuff, and it's hard to maintain the same level of reader interest across all the complications and viewpoints. That said, I truly love the world-building. Elliott gives her world historical layers, with multiple levels of lost technology, lost history, and fallen empires, and backs it up with enough set pieces and fragments of invented history that I was enthralled. There are at least five major factions with different histories, cultures, and approaches to technology, and although they all share a history, they interpret that history in fascinatingly different ways. This world feels both lived in and full of important mysteries. Elliott also has a knack for backing the ambitions of her characters with symbolism that defines the shape of that ambition. The title comes from a (translated) verse of an in-universe song called the Hymn of Leaving, which is sung at funerals and is about the flight on generation ships from the now-lost Celestial Empire, the founding myth of this region of space:
Crossing the ocean of stars we leave our home behind us.
We are the spears cast at the furious heaven
And we will burn one by one into ashes
As with the last sparks we vanish.
This memory we carry to our own death which awaits us
And from which none of us will return.
Do not forget. Goodbye forever.
This is not great poetry, but it explains so much about the psychology of the characters. Sun repeatedly describes herself and her allies as spears cast at the furious heaven. Her mother's life mission was to make Chaonia a respected independent power. Hers is much more than that, reaching back into myth for stories of impossible leaps into space, burning brightly against the hostile power of the universe itself. A question about a series like this is why one should want to read about a gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space, rather than just reading about Alexander himself. One good (and sufficient) answer is that both the gender swap and the space parts are inherently interesting. But the other place that Elliott uses the science fiction background is to give Sun motives beyond sheer personal ambition. At a critical moment in the story, just like Alexander, Sun takes a detour to consult an Oracle. Because this is a science fiction novel, it's a great SF set piece involving a mysterious AI. But also because this is a science fiction story, Sun doesn't only ask about her personal ambitions. I won't spoil the exact questions; I think the moment is better not knowing what she'll ask. But they're science fiction questions, reader questions, the kinds of things Elliott has been building curiosity about for a book and a half by the time we reach that scene. Half the fun of reading a good epic space opera is learning the mysteries hidden in the layers of world-building. Aligning the goals of the protagonist with the goals of the reader is a simple storytelling trick, but oh, so effective. Structurally, this is not that great of a book. There's a lot of build-up and only some payoff, and there were several bits I found grating. But I am thoroughly invested in this universe now. The third book can't come soon enough. Followed by Lady Chaos, which is still being written at the time of this review. Rating: 7 out of 10

31 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Night Watch

Review: Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #29
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: November 2002
Printing: August 2014
ISBN: 0-06-230740-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 451
Night Watch is the 29th Discworld novel and the sixth Watch novel. I would really like to tell people they could start here if they wanted to, for reasons that I will get into in a moment, but I think I would be doing you a disservice. The emotional heft added by having read the previous Watch novels and followed Vimes's character evolution is significant. It's the 25th of May. Vimes is about to become a father. He and several of the other members of the Watch are wearing sprigs of lilac for reasons that Sergeant Colon is quite vehemently uninterested in explaining. A serial killer named Carcer the Watch has been after for weeks has just murdered an off-duty sergeant. It's a tense and awkward sort of day and Vimes is feeling weird and wistful, remembering the days when he was a copper and not a manager who has to dress up in ceremonial armor and meet with committees. That may be part of why, when the message comes over the clacks that the Watch have Carcer cornered on the roof of the New Hall of the Unseen University, Vimes responds in person. He's grappling with Carcer on the roof of the University Library in the middle of a magical storm when lightning strikes. When he wakes up, he's in the past, shortly after he joined the Watch and shortly before the events of the 25th of May that the older Watch members so vividly remember and don't talk about. I have been saying recently in Discworld reviews that it felt like Pratchett was on the verge of a breakout book that's head and shoulders above Discworld prior to that point. This is it. This is that book. The setup here is masterful: the sprigs of lilac that slowly tell the reader something is going on, the refusal of any of the older Watch members to talk about it, the scene in the graveyard to establish the stakes, the disconcerting fact that Vetinari is wearing a sprig of lilac as well, and the feeling of building tension that matches the growing electrical storm. And Pratchett never gives into the temptation to explain everything and tip his hand prematurely. We know the 25th is coming and something is going to happen, and the reader can put together hints from Vimes's thoughts, but Pratchett lets us guess and sometimes be right and sometimes be wrong. Vimes is trying to change history, which adds another layer of uncertainty and enjoyment as the reader tries to piece together both the true history and the changes. This is a masterful job at a "what if?" story. And, beneath that, the commentary on policing and government and ethics is astonishingly good. In a review of an earlier Watch novel, I compared Pratchett to Dickens in the way that he focuses on a sort of common-sense morality rather than political theory. That is true here too, but oh that moral analysis is sharp enough to slide into you like a knife. This is not the Vimes that we first met in Guards! Guards!. He has has turned his cynical stubbornness into a working theory of policing, and it's subtle and complicated and full of nuance that he only barely knows how to explain. But he knows how to show it to people.
Keep the peace. That was the thing. People often failed to understand what that meant. You'd go to some life-threatening disturbance like a couple of neighbors scrapping in the street over who owned the hedge between their properties, and they'd both be bursting with aggrieved self-righteousness, both yelling, their wives would either be having a private scrap on the side or would have adjourned to a kitchen for a shared pot of tea and a chat, and they all expected you to sort it out. And they could never understand that it wasn't your job. Sorting it out was a job for a good surveyor and a couple of lawyers, maybe. Your job was to quell the impulse to bang their stupid fat heads together, to ignore the affronted speeches of dodgy self-justification, to get them to stop shouting and to get them off the street. Once that had been achieved, your job was over. You weren't some walking god, dispensing finely tuned natural justice. Your job was simply to bring back peace.
When Vimes is thrown back in time, he has to pick up the role of his own mentor, the person who taught him what policing should be like. His younger self is right there, watching everything he does, and he's desperately afraid he'll screw it up and set a worse example. Make history worse when he's trying to make it better. It's a beautifully well-done bit of tension that uses time travel as the hook to show both how difficult mentorship is and also how irritating one's earlier naive self would be.
He wondered if it was at all possible to give this idiot some lessons in basic politics. That was always the dream, wasn't it? "I wish I'd known then what I know now"? But when you got older you found out that you now wasn't you then. You then was a twerp. You then was what you had to be to start out on the rocky road of becoming you now, and one of the rocky patches on that road was being a twerp.
The backdrop of this story, as advertised by the map at the front of the book, is a revolution of sorts. And the revolution does matter, but not in the obvious way. It creates space and circumstance for some other things to happen that are all about the abuse of policing as a tool of politics rather than Vimes's principle of keeping the peace. I mentioned when reviewing Men at Arms that it was an awkward book to read in the United States in 2020. This book tackles the ethics of policing head-on, in exactly the way that book didn't. It's also a marvelous bit of competence porn. Somehow over the years, Vimes has become extremely good at what he does, and not just in the obvious cop-walking-a-beat sort of ways. He's become a leader. It's not something he thinks about, even when thrown back in time, but it's something Pratchett can show the reader directly, and have the other characters in the book comment on. There is so much more that I'd like to say, but so much would be spoilers, and I think Night Watch is more effective when you have the suspense of slowly puzzling out what's going to happen. Pratchett's pacing is exquisite. It's also one of the rare Discworld novels where Pratchett fully commits to a point of view and lets Vimes tell the story. There are a few interludes with other people, but the only other significant protagonist is, quite fittingly, Vetinari. I won't say anything more about that except to note that the relationship between Vimes and Vetinari is one of the best bits of fascinating subtlety in all of Discworld. I think it's also telling that nothing about Night Watch reads as parody. Sure, there is a nod to Back to the Future in the lightning storm, and it's impossible to write a book about police and street revolutions without making the reader think about Les Miserables, but nothing about this plot matches either of those stories. This is Pratchett telling his own story in his own world, unapologetically, and without trying to wedge it into parody shape, and it is so much the better book for it. The one quibble I have with the book is that the bits with the Time Monks don't really work. Lu-Tze is annoying and flippant given the emotional stakes of this story, the interludes with him are frustrating and out of step with the rest of the book, and the time travel hand-waving doesn't add much. I see structurally why Pratchett put this in: it gives Vimes (and the reader) a time frame and a deadline, it establishes some of the ground rules and stakes, and it provides a couple of important opportunities for exposition so that the reader doesn't get lost. But it's not good story. The rest of the book is so amazingly good, though, that it doesn't matter (and the framing stories for "what if?" explorations almost never make much sense). The other thing I have a bit of a quibble with is outside the book. Night Watch, as you may have guessed by now, is the origin of the May 25th Pratchett memes that you will be familiar with if you've spent much time around SFF fandom. But this book is dramatically different from what I was expecting based on the memes. You will, for example see a lot of people posting "Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably Priced Love, And a Hard-Boiled Egg!", and before reading the book it sounds like a Pratchett-style humorous revolutionary slogan. And I guess it is, sort of, but, well... I have to quote the scene:
"You'd like Freedom, Truth, and Justice, wouldn't you, Comrade Sergeant?" said Reg encouragingly. "I'd like a hard-boiled egg," said Vimes, shaking the match out. There was some nervous laughter, but Reg looked offended. "In the circumstances, Sergeant, I think we should set our sights a little higher " "Well, yes, we could," said Vimes, coming down the steps. He glanced at the sheets of papers in front of Reg. The man cared. He really did. And he was serious. He really was. "But...well, Reg, tomorrow the sun will come up again, and I'm pretty sure that whatever happens we won't have found Freedom, and there won't be a whole lot of Justice, and I'm damn sure we won't have found Truth. But it's just possible that I might get a hard-boiled egg."
I think I'm feeling defensive of the heart of this book because it's such an emotional gut punch and says such complicated and nuanced things about politics and ethics (and such deeply cynical things about revolution). But I think if I were to try to represent this story in a meme, it would be the "angels rise up" song, with all the layers of meaning that it gains in this story. I'm still at the point where the lilac sprigs remind me of Sergeant Colon becoming quietly furious at the overstep of someone who wasn't there. There's one other thing I want to say about that scene: I'm not naturally on Vimes's side of this argument. I think it's important to note that Vimes's attitude throughout this book is profoundly, deeply conservative. The hard-boiled egg captures that perfectly: it's a bit of physical comfort, something you can buy or make, something that's part of the day-to-day wheels of the city that Vimes talks about elsewhere in Night Watch. It's a rejection of revolution, something that Vimes does elsewhere far more explicitly. Vimes is a cop. He is in some profound sense a defender of the status quo. He doesn't believe things are going to fundamentally change, and it's not clear he would want them to if they did. And yet. And yet, this is where Pratchett's Dickensian morality comes out. Vimes is a conservative at heart. He's grumpy and cynical and jaded and he doesn't like change. But if you put him in a situation where people are being hurt, he will break every rule and twist every principle to stop it.
He wanted to go home. He wanted it so much that he trembled at the thought. But if the price of that was selling good men to the night, if the price was filling those graves, if the price was not fighting with every trick he knew... then it was too high. It wasn't a decision that he was making, he knew. It was happening far below the areas of the brain that made decisions. It was something built in. There was no universe, anywhere, where a Sam Vimes would give in on this, because if he did then he wouldn't be Sam Vimes any more.
This is truly exceptional stuff. It is the best Discworld novel I have read, by far. I feel like this was the Watch novel that Pratchett was always trying to write, and he had to write five other novels first to figure out how to write it. And maybe to prepare Discworld readers to read it. There are a lot of Discworld novels that are great on their own merits, but also it is 100% worth reading all the Watch novels just so that you can read this book. Followed in publication order by The Wee Free Men and later, thematically, by Thud!. Rating: 10 out of 10

30 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Mimicking of Known Successes

Review: The Mimicking of Known Successes, by Malka Older
Series: Mossa and Pleiti #1
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-250-86051-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 169
The Mimicking of Known Successes is a science fiction mystery novella, the first of an expected series. (The second novella is scheduled to be published in February of 2024.) Mossa is an Investigator, called in after a man disappears from the eastward platform on the 4 63' line. It's an isolated platform, five hours away from Mossa's base, and home to only four residential buildings and a pub. The most likely explanation is that the man jumped, but his behavior before he disappeared doesn't seem consistent with that theory. He was bragging about being from Valdegeld University, talking to anyone who would listen about the important work he was doing not typically the behavior of someone who is suicidal. Valdegeld is the obvious next stop in the investigation. Pleiti is a Classics scholar at Valdegeld. She is also Mossa's ex-girlfriend, making her both an obvious and a fraught person to ask for investigative help. Mossa is the last person she expected to be waiting for her on the railcar platform when she returns from a trip to visit her parents. The Mimicking of Known Successes is mostly a mystery, following Mossa's attempts to untangle the story of what happened to the disappeared man, but as you might have guessed there's a substantial sapphic romance subplot. It's also at least adjacent to Sherlock Holmes: Mossa is brilliant, observant, somewhat monomaniacal, and very bad at human relationships. All of this story except for the prologue is told from Pleiti's perspective as she plays a bit of a Watson role, finding Mossa unreadable, attractive, frustrating, and charming in turn. Following more recent Holmes adaptations, Mossa is portrayed as probably neurodivergent, although the story doesn't attach any specific labels. I have no strong opinions about this novella. It was fine? There's a mystery with a few twists, there's a sapphic romance of the second chance variety, there's a bit of action and a bit of hurt/comfort after the action, and it all felt comfortably entertaining but kind of predictable. Susan Stepney has a "passes the time" review rating, and while that may be a bit harsh, that's about where I ended up. The most interesting part of the story is the science fiction setting. We're some indefinite period into the future. Humans have completely messed up Earth to the point of making it uninhabitable. We then took a shot at terraforming Mars and messed that planet up to the point of uninhabitability as well. Now, what's left of humanity (maybe not all of it the story isn't clear) lives on platforms connected by rail lines high in the atmosphere of Jupiter. (Everyone in the story calls Jupiter "Giant" for reasons that I didn't follow, given that they didn't rename any of its moons.) Pleiti's position as a Classics scholar means that she studies Earth and its now-lost ecosystems, whereas the Modern faculty focus on their new platform life. This background does become relevant to the mystery, although exactly how is not clear at the start. I wouldn't call this a very realistic setting. One has to accept that people are living on platforms attached to artificial rings around the solar system's largest planet and walk around in shirt sleeves and only minor technological support due to "atmoshields" of some unspecified capability, and where the native atmosphere plays the role of London fog. Everything feels vaguely Edwardian, including to the occasional human porter and message runner, which matches the story concept but seems unlikely as a plausible future culture. I also disbelieve in humanity's ability to do anything to Earth that would make it less inhabitable than the clouds of Jupiter. That said, the setting is a lot of fun, which is probably more important. It's fun to try to visualize, and it has that slightly off-balance, occasionally surprising feel of science fiction settings where everyone is recognizably human but the things they consider routine and unremarkable are unexpected by the reader. This novella also has a great title. The Mimicking of Known Successes is simultaneously a reference a specific plot point from late in the story, a nod to the shape of the romance, and an acknowledgment of the Holmes pastiche, and all of those references work even better once you know what the plot point is. That was nicely done. This was not very memorable apart from the setting, but it was pleasant enough. I can't say that I'm inspired to pre-order the next novella in this series, but I also wouldn't object to reading it. If you're in the mood for gender-swapped Holmes in an exotic setting, you could do worse. Followed by The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles. Rating: 6 out of 10

29 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Book haul

I think this is partial because I also have a stack of other books that I missed recording. At some point, I should stop using this method to track book acquisitions in favor of one of the many programs intended for this purpose, but it's in the long list of other things I really should do one of these days. As usual, I have already read and reviewed a few of these. I might be getting marginally better at reading books shortly after I acquire them? Maybe? Steven Brust Tsalmoth (sff)
C.L. Clark The Faithless (sff)
Oliver Darkshire Once Upon a Tome (non-fiction)
Hernan Diaz Trust (mainstream)
S.B. Divya Meru (sff)
Kate Elliott Furious Heaven (sff)
Steven Flavall Before We Go Live (non-fiction)
R.F. Kuang Babel (sff)
Laurie Marks Dancing Jack (sff)
Arkady Martine Rose/House (sff)
Madeline Miller Circe (sff)
Jenny Odell Saving Time (non-fiction)
Malka Older The Mimicking of Known Successes (sff)
Sabaa Tahir An Ember in the Ashes (sff)
Emily Tesh Some Desperate Glory (sff)
Valerie Valdes Chilling Effect (sff)

23 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: A Half-Built Garden

Review: A Half-Built Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-21097-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 340
The climate apocalypse has happened. Humans woke up to the danger, but a little bit too late. Over one billion people died. But the world on the other side of that apocalypse is not entirely grim. The corporations responsible for so much of the damage have been pushed out of society and isolated on their independent "aislands," traded with only grudgingly for the few commodities the rest of the world has not yet learned how to manufacture without them. Traditional governments have largely collapsed, although they cling to increasingly irrelevant trappings of power. In their place arose the watershed networks: a new way of living with both nature and other humans, built around a mix of anarchic consensus and direct democracy, with conservation and stewardship of the natural environment at its core. Therefore, when the aliens arrive near Bear Island on the Potomac River, they're not detected by powerful telescopes and met by military jets. Instead, their waste sets off water sensors, and they're met by the two women on call for alert duty, carrying a nursing infant and backed by the real-time discussion and consensus technology of the watershed's dandelion network. (Emrys is far from the first person to name something a "dandelion network," so be aware that the usage in this book seems unrelated to the charities or blockchain network.) This is a first contact novel, but it's one that skips over the typical focus of the subgenre. The alien Ringers are completely fluent in English down to subtle nuance of emotion and connotation (supposedly due to observation of our radio and TV signals), have translation devices, and in some cases can make our speech sounds directly. Despite significantly different body shapes, they are immediately comprehensible; differences are limited mostly to family structure, reproduction, and social norms. This is Star Trek first contact, not the type more typical of written science fiction. That feels unrealistic, but it's also obviously an authorial choice to jump directly to the part of the story that Emrys wants to write. The Ringers have come to save humanity. In their experience, technological civilization is inherently incompatible with planets. Technology will destroy the planet, and the planet will in turn destroy the species unless they can escape. They have reached other worlds multiple times before, only to discover that they were too late and everyone is already dead. This is the first time they've arrived in time, and they're eager to help humanity off its dying planet to join them in the Dyson sphere of space habitats they are constructing. Planets, to them, are a nest and a launching pad, something to eventually abandon and break down for spare parts. The small, unexpected wrinkle is that Judy, Carol, and the rest of their watershed network are not interested in leaving Earth. They've finally figured out the most critical pieces of environmental balance. Earth is going to get hotter for a while, but the trend is slowing. What they're doing is working. Humanity would benefit greatly from Ringer technology and the expertise that comes from managing closed habitat ecosystems, but they don't need rescuing. This goes over about as well as a toddler saying that playing in the road is perfectly safe. This is a fantastic hook for a science fiction novel. It does exactly what a great science fiction premise should do: takes current concerns (environmentalism, space boosterism, the debatable primacy of humans as a species, the appropriate role of space colonization, the tension between hopefulness and doomcasting about climate change) and uses the freedom of science fiction to twist them around and come at them from an entirely different angle. The design of the aliens is excellent for this purpose. The Ringers are not one alien species; they are two, evolved on different planets in the same system. The plains dwellers developed space flight first and went to meet the tree dwellers, and while their relationship is not entirely without hierarchy (the plains dwellers clearly lead on most matters), it's extensively symbiotic. They now form mixed families of both species, and have a rich cultural history of stories about first contact, interspecies conflicts and cooperation, and all the perils and misunderstandings that they successfully navigated. It makes their approach to humanity more believable to know that they have done first contact before and are building on a model. Their concern for humanity is credibly sincere. The joining of two species was wildly successful for them and they truly want to add a third. The politics on the human side are satisfyingly complicated. The watershed network may have made first contact, but the US government (in the form of NASA) is close behind, attempting to lean on its widely ignored formal power. The corporations are farther away and therefore slower to arrive, but the alien visitors have a damaged ship and need space to construct a subspace beacon and Asterion is happy to offer a site on one of its New Zealand islands. The corporate representatives are salivating at the chance to escape Earth and its environmental regulation for uncontrolled space construction and a new market of trillions of Ringers. NASA's attitude is more measured, but their representative is easily persuaded that the true future of humanity is in space. The work the watershed networks are doing is difficult, uncertain, and involves a lot of sacrifice, particularly for corporate consumer lifestyles. With such an attractive alien offer on the table, why stay and work so hard for an uncertain future? Maybe the Ringers are right. And then the dandelion networks that the watersheds use as the core of their governance and decision-making system all crash. The setup was great; I was completely invested. The execution was more mixed. There are some things I really liked, some things that I thought were a bit too easy or predictable, and several places where I wish Emrys had dug deeper and provided more detail. I thought the last third of the book fizzled a little, although some of the secondary characters Emrys introduces are delightful and carry the momentum of the story when the politics feel a bit lacking. If you tried to form a mental image of ecofeminist political science fiction with 1970s utopian sensibilities, but updated for the concerns of the 2020s, you would probably come very close to the politics of the watershed networks. There are considerably more breastfeedings and diaper changes than the average SF novel. Two of the primary characters are transgender, but with very different experiences with transition. Pronoun pins are an ubiquitous article of clothing. One of the characters has a prosthetic limb. Another character who becomes important later in the story codes as autistic. None of this felt gratuitous; the characters do come across as obsessed with gender, but in a way that I found believable. The human diversity is well-integrated with the story, shapes the characters, creates practical challenges, and has subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) political ramifications. But, and I say this with love because while these are not quite my people they're closely adjacent to my people, the social politics of this book are a very specific type of white feminist collaborative utopianism. When religion makes an appearance, I was completely unsurprised to find that several of the characters are Jewish. Race never makes a significant appearance at all. It's the sort of book where the throw-away references to other important watershed networks includes African ones, and the characters would doubtless try to be sensitive to racial issues if they came up, but somehow they never do. (If you're wondering if there's polyamory in this book, yes, yes there is, and also I suspect you know exactly what culture I'm talking about.) This is not intended as a criticism, just more of a calibration. All science fiction publishing houses could focus only on this specific political perspective for a year and the results would still be dwarfed by the towering accumulated pile of thoughtless paeans to capitalism. Ecofeminism has a long history in the genre but still doesn't show up in that many books, and we're far from exhausting the space of possibilities for what a consensus-based politics could look like with extensive computer support. But this book has a highly specific point of view, enough so that there won't be many thought-provoking surprises if you're already familiar with this school of political thought. The politics are also very earnest in a way that I admit provoked a bit of eyerolling. Emrys pushes all of the political conflict into the contrasts between the human factions, but I would have liked more internal disagreement within the watershed networks over principles rather than tactics. The degree of ideological agreement within the watershed group felt a bit unrealistic. But, that said, at least politics truly matters and the characters wrestle directly with some tricky questions. I would have liked to see more specifics about the dandelion network and the exact mechanics of the consensus decision process, since that sort of thing is my jam, but we at least get more details than are typical in science fiction. I'll take this over cynical libertarianism any day. Gender plays a huge role in this story, enough so that you should avoid this book if you're not interested in exploring gender conceptions. One of the two alien races is matriarchal and places immense social value on motherhood, and it's culturally expected to bring your children with you for any important negotiation. The watersheds actively embrace this, or at worst find it comfortable to use for their advantage, despite a few hints that the matriarchy of the plains aliens may have a very serious long-term demographic problem. In an interesting twist, it's the mostly-evil corporations that truly challenge gender roles, albeit by turning it into an opportunity to sell more clothing. The Asterion corporate representatives are, as expected, mostly the villains of the plot: flashy, hierarchical, consumerist, greedy, and exploitative. But gender among the corporations is purely a matter of public performance, one of a set of roles that you can put on and off as you choose and signal with clothing. They mostly use neopronouns, change pronouns as frequently as their clothing, and treat any question of body plumbing as intensely private. By comparison, the very 2020 attitudes of the watersheds towards gender felt oddly conservative and essentialist, and the main characters get flustered and annoyed by the ever-fluid corporate gender presentation. I wish Emrys had done more with this. As you can tell, I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of quibbles. Another example: computer security plays an important role in the plot and was sufficiently well-described that I have serious questions about the system architecture and security model of the dandelion networks. But, as with decision-making and gender, the more important takeaway is that Emrys takes enough risks and describes enough interesting ideas that there's a lot of meat here to argue with. That, more than getting everything right, is what a good science fiction novel should do. A Half-Built Garden is written from a very specific political stance that may make it a bit predictable or off-putting, and I thought the tail end of the book had some plot and resolution problems, but arguing with it was one of the more intellectually satisfying science fiction reading experiences I've had recently. You have to be in the right mood, but recommended for when you are. Rating: 7 out of 10

22 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Tsalmoth

Review: Tsalmoth, by Steven Brust
Series: Vlad Taltos #16
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-4668-8970-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 277
Tsalmoth is the sixteenth book in the Vlad Taltos series and (some fans of the series groan) yet another flashback novel to earlier in Vlad's life. It takes place between Yendi and the interludes in Dragon (or, perhaps more straightforwardly, between Yendi and Jhereg. Most of the books of this series stand alone to some extent, so you could read this book out of order and probably not be horribly confused, but I suspect it would also feel weirdly pointless outside of the context of the larger series. We're back to Vlad running a fairly small operation as a Jhereg, who are the Dragaeran version of organized crime. A Tsalmoth who owes Vlad eight hundred imperials has rudely gotten himself murdered, thoroughly enough that he can't be revived. That's a considerable amount of money, and Vlad would like it back, so he starts poking around. As you might expect if you've read any other book in this series, things then get a bit complicated. This time, they involve Jhereg politics, Tsalmoth house politics, and necromancy (which in this universe is more about dimensional travel than it is about resurrecting the dead). The main story is... fine. Kragar is around being unnoticeable as always, Vlad is being cocky and stubborn and bantering with everyone, and what appears to be a straightforward illegal business relationship turns out to involve Dragaeran magic and thus Vlad's highly-placed friends. As usual, they're intellectually curious about the magic and largely ambivalent to the rest of Vlad's endeavors. The most enjoyable part of the story is Vlad's insistence on getting his money back while everyone else in the story cannot believe he would be this persistent over eight hundred imperials and is certain he has some other motive. It's otherwise a fairly forgettable little adventure. The implications for the broader series, though, are significant, although essentially none of the payoff is here. Brust has been keeping a major secret about Vlad that's finally revealed here, one that has little impact on the plot of this book (although it causes Vlad a lot of angst) but which I suspect will become very important later in the series. That was intriguing but rather unsatisfying, since it stays only a future hook with an attached justification for why we're only finding out about it now. If one has read the rest of the series, it's also nice to see Vlad and Cawti working together, bantering with each other and playing off of each other's strengths. It's reminiscent of the best parts of Yendi. As with many of the books of this series, the chapter introductions tell a parallel story; this time, it's Vlad and Cawti's wedding. I think previous books already mentioned that Vlad is narrating this series into some sort of recording device, and a bit about why he's doing that, but this is made quite explicit here. We get as much of the surrounding frame as we've ever seen before. There are no obvious plot consequences from this it's still all hints and guesswork but I suspect this will also become important by the end of the series. If you've read this much of the series, you'll obviously want to read this one as well, but unfortunately don't get your hopes up for significant plot advancement. This is another station-keeping book, which is a bit of a disappointment. We haven't gotten major plot advancement since Hawk in 2014, and I'm getting impatient. Thankfully, Lyorn has a release date already (April 9, 2024), and assuming all goes according to the grand plan, there are only two books left after Lyorn (Chreotha and The Last Contract). I'm getting hopeful that we're going to get to see the entire series. Meanwhile, I am very tempted to do a complete re-read of the series to date, probably in series chronological order rather than in publication order (as much as that's possible given the fractured timelines of Dragon and Tiassa) so that I can see how the pieces fit together. The constant jumping back and forth and allusions to events that have already happened but that we haven't seen yet is hard to keep track of. I'm very glad the Lyorn Records exists. Followed by Lyorn. Rating: 7 out of 10

21 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Stone Canal

Review: The Stone Canal, by Ken MacLeod
Series: Fall Revolution #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 1996
Printing: January 2001
ISBN: 0-8125-6864-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 339
The Stone Canal is a sort of halfway sequel to The Star Fraction. They both take place in the same universe, but the characters are almost entirely disjoint. Half of The Stone Canal happens (mostly) well before the previous book and the other half happens well after it. This book does contain spoilers for the ending of The Star Fraction if one connects the events of the two books correctly (which was a bit harder than I thought it should be), so I would not read them out of order. At the start of The Stone Canal, Jon Wilde wakes up on New Mars beside the titular canal, in the middle of nowhere, accompanied only by a robot that says it made him. Wilde remembers dying on Earth; this new life is apparently some type of resurrection. It's a long walk to Ship City, the center of civilization of a place the robot tells him is New Mars. In Ship City, an android named Dee Model has escaped from her owner and is hiding in a bar. There, she meets an AI abolitionist named Tamara, who helps her flee out the back and down the canal on a boat when Wilde walks into the bar and immediately recognizes her. The abolitionists provide her protection and legal assistance to argue her case for freedom from her owner, a man named Reid. The third thread of the story, and about half the book, is Jon Wilde's life on Earth, starting in 1975 and leading up to the chaotic wars, political fracturing, and revolutions that formed the background and plot of The Star Fraction. Eventually that story turns into a full-fledged science fiction setting, but not until the last 60 pages of the book. I successfully read two books in a Ken MacLeod series! Sadly, I'm not sure I enjoyed the experience. I commented in my review of The Star Fraction that the appeal for me in MacLeod's writing was his reputation as a writer of political science fiction. Unfortunately that's been a bust. The characters are certainly political, in the sense that they profess to have strong political viewpoints and are usually members of some radical (often Trotskyite) organization. There are libertarian anarchist societies and lots of political conflict. But there is almost no meaningful political discussion in any of these books so far. The politics are all tactical or background, and often seem to be created by authorial fiat. For example, New Mars is a sort of libertarian anarchy that somehow doesn't have corporations or a strongman ruler, even though the history (when we finally learn it) would have naturally given rise to one or the other (and has, in numerous other SF novels with similar plots). There's a half-assed explanation for this towards the end of the book that I didn't find remotely believable. Another part of the book describes the formation of the libertarian microstate in The Star Fraction, but never answers a "why" or "how" question I had in the previous book in a satisfying way. Somehow people stop caring about control or predictability or stability or traditional hierarchy without any significant difficulties except external threats, in situations of chaos and disorder where historically humans turn to anyone promising firm structure. It's common to joke about MacLeod winning multiple libertarian Prometheus Awards for his fiction despite being a Scottish communist. I'm finding that much less surprising now that I've read more of his books. Whether or not he believes in it himself, he's got the cynical libertarian smugness and hand-waving down pat. What his characters do care deeply about is smoking, drinking, and having casual sex. (There's more political fire here around opposition to anti-smoking laws than there is about any of the society-changing political structures that somehow fall into place.) I have no objections to any of those activities from a moral standpoint, but reading about other people doing them is a snoozefest. The flashback scenes sketch out enough imagined history to satisfy some curiosity from the previous book, but they're mostly about the world's least interesting love triangle, involving two completely unlikable men and lots of tedious jealousy and posturing. The characters in The Stone Canal are, in general, a problem. One of those unlikable men is Wilde, the protagonist for most of the book. Not only did I never warm to him, I never figured out what motivates him or what he cares about. He's a supposedly highly political person who seems to engage in politics with all the enthusiasm of someone filling out tax forms, and is entirely uninterested in explaining to the reader any sort of coherent philosophical approach. The most interesting characters in this book are the women (Annette, Dee Model, Tamara, and, very late in the book, Meg), but other than Dee Model they rarely get much focus from the story. By far the best part of this book is the last 60 pages, where MacLeod finally explains the critical bridge events between Wilde's political history on earth and the New Mars society. I thought this was engrossing, fast-moving, and full of interesting ideas (at least for a 1990s book; many of them feel a bit stale now, 25 years later). It was also frustrating, because this was the book I wanted to have been reading for the previous 270 pages, instead of MacLeod playing coy with his invented history or showing us interminable scenes about Wilde's insecure jealousy over his wife. It's also the sort of book where at one point characters (apparently uniformly male as far as one could tell from the text of the book) get assigned sex slaves, and while MacLeod clearly doesn't approve of this, the plot is reminiscent of a Heinlein novel: the protagonist's sex slave becomes a very loyal permanent female companion who seems to have the same upside for the male character in question. This was unfortunately not the book I was hoping for. I did enjoy the last hundred pages, and it's somewhat satisfying to have the history come together after puzzling over what happened for 200 pages. But I found the characters tedious and annoying and the politics weirdly devoid of anything like sociology, philosophy, or political science. There is the core of a decent 1990s AI and singularity novel here, but the technology is now rather dated and a lot of other people have tackled the same idea with fewer irritating ticks. Not recommended, although I'll probably continue to The Cassini Division because the ending was a pretty great hook for another book. Followed by The Cassini Division. Rating: 5 out of 10

1 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

Review: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #28
Publisher: HarperCollins
Copyright: 2001
Printing: 2008
ISBN: 0-06-001235-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 351
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is the 28th Discworld novel and the first marketed for younger readers. Although it has enough references to establish it as taking place on Discworld, it has no obvious connections with the other books and doesn't rely on any knowledge of the series so far. This would not be a bad place to start with Terry Pratchett and see if his writing style and sense of humor is for you. Despite being marketed as young adult, and despite Pratchett's comments in an afterward in the edition I own that writing YA novels is much harder, I didn't think this was that different than a typical Discworld novel. The two main human characters read as about twelve and there were some minor changes in tone, but I'm not sure I would have immediately labeled it as YA if I hadn't already known it was supposed to be. There are considerably fewer obvious pop culture references than average, though; if that's related, I think I'll prefer Pratchett's YA novels, since I think his writing is stronger when he's not playing reference bingo. Maurice (note to US readers: Maurice is pronounced "Morris" in the UK) is a talking cat and the mastermind of a wandering con job. He, a stupid-looking kid with a flute (Maurice's description), and a tribe of talking rats travel the small towns of Discworld. The rats go in first, making a show of breaking into the food, swimming in the cream, and widdling on things that humans don't want widdled on. Once the townspeople are convinced they have a plague of rats, the kid with the flute enters the town and offers to pipe the rats away for a very reasonable fee. He plays his flute, the rats swarm out of town, and they take their money and move on to the next town. It's a successful life that suits Maurice and his growing hoard of gold very well. If only the rats would stop asking pointed questions about the ethics of this scheme. The town of Bad Blintz is the next on their itinerary, and if the rats have their way, will be the last. Their hope is they've gathered enough money by now to find an island, away from humans, where they can live their own lives. But, as is always the case for one last job in fiction, there's something uncannily wrong about Bad Blintz. There are traps everywhere, more brutal and dangerous ones than they've found in any other town, and yet there is no sign of native, unintelligent rats. Meanwhile, Maurice and the boy find a town that looks wealthy but has food shortages, a bounty on rats that is absurdly high, and a pair of sinister-looking rat-catchers who are bringing in collections of rat tails that look suspiciously like bootlaces. The mayor's daughter discovers Maurice can talk and immediately decides she has to take them in hand. Malicia is very certain of her own opinions, not accustomed to taking no for an answer, and is certain that the world follows the logic of stories, even if she has to help it along. This is truly great stuff. I think this might be my favorite Discworld novel to date, although I do have some criticisms that I'll get to in a moment. The best part are the rats, and particularly the blind philosopher rat Dangerous Beans and his assistant Peaches. In the middle of daring infiltration of the trapped sewers in scenes reminiscent of Mission: Impossible, the rats are also having philosophical arguments. They've become something different than the unaltered rats that they call the keekees, but what those differences mean is harder to understand. The older rats are not happy about too many changes and think the rats should keep acting like rats. The younger ones are discovering that they're afraid of shadows because now they understand what the shadows hint at. Dangerous Beans is trying to work out a writing system so that they can keep important thoughts. One of their few guides is a children's book of talking animals, although they quickly discover that the portrayed clothing is annoyingly impractical. But as good as the rats are, Maurice is nearly as much fun in an entirely different way. He is unapologetically out for himself, streetwise and canny in a way that feels apt for a cat, gets bored and mentally wanders off in the middle of conversations, and pretends to agree with people when that's how he can get what he wants. But he also has a weird sense of loyalty and ethics that only shows up when something is truly important. It's a variation on the con man with a heart of gold, but it's a very well-done variation that weaves in a cat's impatience with and inattention to anything that doesn't directly concern them. I was laughing throughout the book. Malicia is an absolute delight, the sort of character who takes over scenes through sheer force of will, and the dumb-looking kid (whose name turns out to be Keith) is a perfect counterbalance: a laid-back, quiet boy who just wants to play his music and is almost entirely unflappable. It's such a great cast. The best part of the plot is the end. I won't spoil it, so I'll only say that Pratchett has the characters do the work on the aftermath that a lot of books skip over. He doesn't have any magical solutions for the world's problems, but he's so very good at restoring one's faith that maybe sometimes those solutions can be constructed. My one complaint with this book is that Pratchett introduces a second villain, and while there are good in-story justifications for it and it's entangled with the primary plot, he added elements of (mild) supernatural horror and evil that I thought were extraneous and unnecessary. He already had enough of a conflict set up without adding that additional element, and I think it undermined the moral complexity of the story. I would have much rather he kept the social dynamics of the town at the core of the story and used that to trigger the moments of sacrifice and philosophy that made the climax work. The Discworld books by this point have gotten very good, but each book seems to have one element like that where it felt like Pratchett took the easy way out of a plot corner or added some story element that didn't really work. I feel like the series is on the verge of having a truly great book that rises above the entire series to date, but never quite gets there. That caveat aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this and had trouble putting it down. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh was one of my favorite books as a kid, and this reminded me of it in some good ways (enough so that I think some of the references were intentional). Great stuff. If you were to read only one Discworld book and didn't want to be confused by all the entangled plot threads and established characters, I would seriously consider making it this one. Recommended. Followed by Night Watch in publication order. There doesn't appear to be a direct plot sequel, more's the pity. Rating: 8 out of 10

29 April 2023

Russ Allbery: INN 2.7.1

This is a bug fix and minor feature release over INN 2.7.0, and the upgrade should be painless. You can download the new release from ISC or my personal INN pages. The latter also has links to the full changelog and the other INN documentation. As of this release, we're no longer generating hashes and signed hashes. Instead, the release is a simple tarball and a detached GnuPG signature, similar to my other software releases. We're also maintaining the releases in parallel on GitHub. For the full list of changes, see the INN 2.7.1 NEWS file. As always, thanks to Julien LIE for preparing this release and doing most of the maintenance work on INN!

14 April 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Babel

Review: Babel, by R.F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyage
Copyright: August 2022
ISBN: 0-06-302144-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 544
Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution, to give it its full title, is a standalone dark academia fantasy set in the 1830s and 1840s, primarily in Oxford, England. The first book of R.F. Kuang's previous trilogy, The Poppy War, was nominated for multiple awards and won the Compton Crook Award for best first novel. Babel is her fourth book. Robin Swift, although that was not his name at the time, was born and raised in Canton and educated by an inexplicable English tutor his family could not have afforded. After his entire family dies of cholera, he is plucked from China by a British professor and offered a life in England as his ward. What follows is a paradise of books, a hell of relentless and demanding instruction, and an unpredictably abusive emotional environment, all aiming him towards admission to Oxford University. Robin will join University College and the Royal Institute of Translation. The politics of this imperial Britain are almost precisely the same as in our history, but one of the engines is profoundly different. This world has magic. If words from two different languages are engraved on a metal bar (silver is best), the meaning and nuance lost in translation becomes magical power. With a careful choice of translation pairs, and sometimes additional help from other related words and techniques, the silver bar becomes a persistent spell. Britain's industrial revolution is in overdrive thanks to the country's vast stores of silver and the applied translation prowess of Babel. This means Babel is also the only part of very racist Oxford that accepts non-white students and women. They need translators (barely) more than they care about maintaining social hierarchy; translation pairs only work when the translator is fluent in both languages. The magic is also stronger when meanings are more distinct, which is creating serious worries about classical and European languages. Those are still the bulk of Babel's work, but increased trade and communication within Europe is eroding the meaning distinctions and thus the amount of magical power. More remote languages, such as Chinese and Urdu, are full of untapped promise that Britain's colonial empire wants to capture. Professor Lowell, Robin's dubious benefactor, is a specialist in Chinese languages; Robin is a potential tool for his plans. As Robin discovers shortly after arriving in Oxford, he is not the first of Lowell's tools. His predecessor turned against Babel and is trying to break its chokehold on translation magic. He wants Robin to help. This is one of those books that is hard to review because it does some things exceptionally well and other things that did not work for me. It's not obvious if the latter are flaws in the book or a mismatch between book and reader (or, frankly, flaws in the reader). I'll try to explain as best I can so that you can draw your own conclusions. First, this is one of the all-time great magical system hooks. The way words are tapped for power is fully fleshed out and exceptionally well-done. Kuang is a professional translator, which shows in the attention to detail on translation pairs. I think this is the best-constructed and explained word-based magic system I've read in fantasy. Many word-based systems treat magic as its own separate language that is weirdly universal. Here, Kuang does the exact opposite, and the result is immensely satisfying. A fantasy reader may expect exploration of this magic system to be the primary point of the book, however, and this is not the case. It is an important part of the book, and its implications are essential to the plot resolution, but this is not the type of fantasy novel where the plot is driven by character exploration of the magic system. The magic system exists, the characters use it, and we do get some crunchy details, but the heart of the book is elsewhere. If you were expecting the typical relationship of a fantasy novel to its magic system, you may get a bit wrong-footed. Similarly, this is historical fantasy, but it is the type of historical fantasy where the existence of magic causes no significant differences. For some people, this is a pet peeve; personally, I don't mind that choice in the abstract, but some of the specifics bugged me. The villains of this book assert that any country could have done what Britain did in developing translation magic, and thus their hoarding of it is not immoral. They are obviously partly lying (this is a classic justification for imperialism), but it's not clear from the book how they are lying. Technologies (and magic here works like a technology) tend to concentrate power when they require significant capital investment, and tend to dilute power when they are portable and easy to teach. Translation magic feels like the latter, but its effect in the book is clearly the former, and I was never sure why. England is not an obvious choice to be a translation superpower. Yes, it's a colonial empire, but India, southeast Asia, and most certainly Africa (the continent largely not appearing in this book) are home to considerably more languages from more wildly disparate families than western Europe. Translation is not a peculiarly European idea, and this magic system does not seem hard to stumble across. It's not clear why England, and Oxford in particular, is so dramatically far ahead. There is some sign that Babel is keeping the mechanics of translation magic secret, but that secret has leaked, seems easy to develop independently, and is simple enough that a new student can perform basic magic with a few hours of instruction. This does not feel like the kind of power that would be easy to concentrate, let alone to the extreme extent required by the last quarter of this book. The demand for silver as a base material for translation magic provides a justification for mercantilism that avoids the confusing complexities of currency economics in our actual history, so fine, I guess, but it was a bit disappointing for this great of an idea for a magic system to have this small of an impact on politics. I'll come to the actual thrust of this book in a moment, but first something else Babel does exceptionally well: dark academia. The remainder of Robin's cohort at Oxford is Remy, a dark-skinned Muslim from Calcutta; Victoire, a Haitian woman raised in France; and Letty, the daughter of a British admiral. All of them are non-white except Letty, and Letty and Victoire additionally have to deal with the blatant sexism of the time. (For example, they have to live several miles from Oxford because women living near the college would be a "distraction.") The interpersonal dynamics between the four are exceptionally well done. Kuang captures the dislocation of going away to college, the unsettled life upheaval that makes it both easy and vital to form suddenly tight friendships, and the way that the immense pressure from classes and exams leaves one so devoid of spare emotional capacity that those friendships become both unbreakable and badly strained. Robin and Remy almost immediately become inseparable in that type of college friendship in which profound trust and constant companionship happen first and learning about the other person happens afterwards. It's tricky to talk about this without spoilers, but one of the things Kuang sets up with this friend group is a pointed look at intersectionality. Babel has gotten a lot of positive review buzz, and I think this is one of the reasons why. Kuang does not pass over or make excuses for characters in a place where many other books do. This mostly worked for me, but with a substantial caveat that I think you may want to be aware of before you dive into this book. Babel is set in the 1830s, but it is very much about the politics of 2022. That does not necessarily mean that the politics are off for the 1830s; I haven't done the research to know, and it's possible I'm seeing the Tiffany problem (Jo Walton's observation that Tiffany is a historical 12th century women's name, but an author can't use it as a medieval name because readers think it sounds too modern). But I found it hard to shake the feeling that the characters make sense of their world using modern analytical frameworks of imperialism, racism, sexism, and intersectional feminism, although without using modern terminology, and characters from the 1830s would react somewhat differently. This is a valid authorial choice; all books are written for the readers of the time when they're published. But as with magical systems that don't change history, it's a pet peeve for some readers. If that's you, be aware that's the feel I got from it. The true center of this book is not the magic system or the history. It's advertised directly in the title the necessity of violence although it's not until well into the book before the reader knows what that means. This is a book about revolution, what revolution means, what decisions you have to make along the way, how the personal affects the political, and the inadequacy of reform politics. It is hard, uncomfortable, and not gentle on its characters. The last quarter of this book was exceptional, and I understand why it's getting so much attention. Kuang directly confronts the desire for someone else to do the necessary work, the hope that surely the people with power will see reason, and the feeling of despair when there are no good plans and every reason to wait and do nothing when atrocities are about to happen. If you are familiar with radical politics, these aren't new questions, but this is not the sort of thing that normally shows up in fantasy. It does not surprise me that Babel struck a nerve with readers a generation or two younger than me. It captures that heady feeling on the cusp of adulthood when everything is in flux and one is assembling an independent politics for the first time. Once I neared the end of the book, I could not put it down. The ending is brutal, but I think it was the right ending for this book. There are two things, though, that I did not like about the political arc. The first is that Victoire is a much more interesting character than Robin, but is sidelined for most of the book. The difference of perspectives between her and Robin is the heart of what makes the end of this book so good, and I wish that had started 300 pages earlier. Or, even better, I wish Victoire has been the protagonist; I liked Robin, but he's a very predictable character for most of the book. Victoire is not; even the conflicts she had earlier in the book, when she didn't get much attention in the story, felt more dynamic and more thoughtful than Robin's mix of guilt and anxiety. The second is that I wish Kuang had shown more of Robin's intellectual evolution. All of the pieces of why he makes the decisions that he does are present in this book, and Kuang shows his emotional state (sometimes in agonizing detail) at each step, but the sense-making, the development of theory and ideology beneath the actions, is hinted at but not shown. This is a stylistic choice with no one right answer, but it felt odd because so much of the rest of the plot is obvious and telegraphed. If the reader shares Robin's perspective, I think it's easy to fill in the gaps, but it felt odd to read Robin giving clearly thought-out political analyses at the end of the book without seeing the hashing-out and argument with friends required to develop those analyses. I felt like I had to do a lot of heavy lifting as the reader, work that I wish had been done directly by the book. My final note about this book is that I found much of it extremely predictable. I think that's part of why reviewers describe it as accessible and easy to read; accessibility and predictability can be two sides of the same coin. Kuang did not intend for this book to be subtle, and I think that's part of the appeal. But very few of Robin's actions for the first three-quarters of the book surprised me, and that's not always the reading experience I want. The end of the book is different, and I therefore found it much more gripping, but it takes a while to get there. Babel is, for better or worse, the type of fantasy where the politics, economics, and magic system exist primarily to justify the plot the author wanted. I don't think the societal position of the Institute of Translation that makes the ending possible is that believable given the nature of the technology in question and the politics of the time, and if you are inclined to dig into the specifics of the world-building, I think you will find it frustrating. Where it succeeds brilliantly is in capturing the social dynamics of hothouse academic cohorts, and in making a sharp and unfortunately timely argument about the role of violence in political change, in a way that the traditionally conservative setting of fantasy rarely does. I can't say Babel blew me away, but I can see why others liked it so much. If I had to guess, I'd say that the closer one is in age to the characters in the book and to that moment of political identity construction, the more it's likely to appeal. Rating: 7 out of 10

13 April 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Once Upon a Tome

Review: Once Upon a Tome, by Oliver Darkshire
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Copyright: 2022
Printing: 2023
ISBN: 1-324-09208-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 243
The full title page of this book, in delightful 19th century style, is:
Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller, wherein the theory of the profession is partially explained, with a variety of insufficient examples, by Oliver Darkshire. Interspersed with several diverting FOOTNOTES of a comical nature, ably ILLUSTRATED by Rohan Eason, PUBLISHED by W.W. Norton, and humbly proposed to the consideration of the public in this YEAR 2023
That may already be enough to give you a feel for this book. Oliver Darkshire works for Sotheran's Rare Books and Prints in London, most notably running their highly entertaining Twitter account. This is his first book. If you have been hanging out in the right corners of Twitter, you have probably been anticipating the release of this book, and may already have your own copy. If you have not (and to be honest it's increasingly dubious whether there are right corners of Twitter left), you're in for a treat. Darkshire has made Sotheran's a minor Twitter phenomenon due to tweets like this:
CUSTOMER: oh thank heavens I have been searching for a rare book expert with the knowledge to solve my complex problem ME (extremely and unhelpfully specialized): ok well the words are usually on the inside and I can see that's true here, so that's a good start I find I know lots of things until anyone asks me about it or there is a question to answer, at which point I know nothing, I am a void, a tragic bucket of ignorance
My hope was that Once Upon a Tome would be the same thing at book length, and I am delighted to report that's exactly what it is. By the time I finished reading the story of Darkshire's early training, I knew I was going to savor every word.
The hardest part, though, lies in recording precisely in what ways a book has survived the ravages of time. An entire lexicon of book-related terminology has evolved over hundreds of years for exactly this purpose terminology that means absolutely nothing to the average observer. It's traditional to adopt this baroque language when describing your books, for two reasons. The first is that the specific language of the book trade allows you to be exceedingly accurate and precise without using hundreds of words, and the second is that the elegance of it serves to dull the blow a little. Most rare books come with some minor defects, but that doesn't mean one has to be rude about it.
You will learn something about rare book selling in this book, and more about Darkshire's colleagues, but primarily this is a book-length attempt to convey the slightly uncanny experience of working in a rare bookstore in an entertaining way. Also, to be fully accurate, it is an attempt shift the bookstore sideways in the reader's mind into a fantasy world that mostly but not entirely parallels ours; as the introduction mentions, this is not a strictly accurate day-by-day account of life at the store, and stories have been altered and conflated in the telling. Rare bookselling is a retail job but a rather strange one, with its own conventions and unusual customers. Darkshire memorably divides rare book collectors into Smaugs and Draculas: Smaugs assemble vast lairs of precious items, Draculas have one very specific interest, and one's success at selling a book depends on identifying which type of customer one is dealing with. Like all good writing about retail jobs, half of the fun is descriptions of the customers.
The Suited Gentlemen turn up annually, smartly dressed in matching suits and asking to see any material we have on Ayn Rand. Faces usually obscured by large dark glasses, they move without making a sound, and only travel in pairs. Sometimes they will bark out a laugh at nothing in particular, as if mimicking what they think humans do.
There are more facets than the typical retail job, though, since the suppliers of the rare book trade (book runners, estate sales, and collectors who have been sternly instructed by spouses to trim down their collections) are as odd and varied as the buyers. This sort of book rests entirely on the sense of humor of the author, and I thought Darkshire's approach was perfect. He has the knack of poking fun at himself as much as he pokes fun at anyone around him. This book conveys an air of perpetual bafflement at stumbling into a job that suits him as well as this one does, praise of the skills of his coworkers, and gently self-deprecating descriptions of his own efforts. Combine that with well-honed sentences, a flair for brief and memorable description, and an accurate sense of how long a story should last, and one couldn't ask for more from this style of book.
The book rest where the bible would be held (leaving arms free for gesticulation) was carved into the shape of a huge wooden eagle. I m given to understand this is the kind of eloquent and confusing metaphor one expects in a place of worship, as the talons of the divine descend from above in a flurry of wings and death, but it seemed to alarm people to come face to face with the beaked fury of God as they entered the bookshop.
I've barely scratched the surface of great quotes from this book. If you like rare books, bookstores, or even just well-told absurd stories of working a retail job, read this. It reminds me of True Porn Clerk Stories, except with much less off-putting subject matter and even better writing. (Interestingly to me, it also shares with those stories, albeit for different reasons, a more complicated balance of power between the retail worker and the customer than the typical retail establishment.) My one wish is that I would have enjoyed more specific detail about the rare books themselves, since Darkshire only rarely describes successful retail transactions. But that's only a minor quibble. This was a pure delight from cover to cover and exactly what I was hoping for when I preordered it. Highly recommended. Rating: 9 out of 10

12 April 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Last Hero

Review: The Last Hero, by Terry Pratchett
Illustrator: Paul Kidby
Series: Discworld #27
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 2001, 2002
ISBN: 0-06-050777-2
Format: Graphic novel
Pages: 176
The Last Hero is the 27th Discworld novel and part of the Rincewind subseries. This is something of a sequel to Interesting Times and relies heavily on the cast that was built up in previous books. It's not a good place to start with the series. At last, the rare Rincewind novel that I enjoyed. It helps that Rincewind is mostly along for the ride. Cohen the Barbarian and his band of elderly heroes have decided they're tired of enjoying their spoils and are going on a final adventure. They're going to return fire to the gods, in the form of a giant bomb. The wizards in Ankh-Morpork get wind of this and realize that an explosion at the Hub where the gods live could disrupt the magical field of the entire Disc, effectively destroying it. The only hope seems to be to reach Cori Celesti before Cohen and head him off, but Cohen is already almost there. Enter Lord Vetinari, who has Leonard of Quirm design a machine that will get them there in time by slingshotting under the Disc itself. First off, let me say how much I love the idea of returning fire to the gods with interest. I kind of wish Pratchett had done more with their motivations, but I was laughing about that through the whole book. Second, this is the first of the illustrated Discworld books that I've read in the intended illustrated form (I read the paperback version of Eric), and this book is gorgeous. I enjoyed Paul Kidby's art far more than I had expected to. His style what I will call, for lack of better terminology due to my woeful art education, "highly detailed caricature." That's not normally a style that clicks with me, but it works incredibly well for Discworld. The Last Hero is richly illustrated, with some amount of art, if only subtle background behind the text, on nearly every page. There are several two-page spreads, but oddly I thought those (including the parody of The Scream on the cover) were the worst art of the book. None of them did much for me. The best art is in the figure studies and subtle details: Leonard of Quirm's beautiful calligraphy, his numerous sketches, the labeled illustration of the controls of the flying machine, and the portraits of Cohen's band and the people they encounter. The edition I got is printed on lovely, thick glossy paper, and the subtle art texture behind the writing makes this book a delight to read. I'm not sure if, like Eric, this book comes in other editions, but if so, I highly recommend getting or finding the high-quality illustrated edition for the best reading experience. The plot, like a lot of the Rincewind books, doesn't amount to much, but I enjoyed the mission to intercept Cohen. Leonard of Quirm is a great character, and the slow revelation of his flying machine design (which I will not spoil) is a delightful combination of Leonardo da Vinci parody, Discworld craziness, and NASA homage. Also, the Librarian is involved, which always improves a Discworld book. (The Luggage, sadly, is not; I would have liked to have seen a richly-illustrated story about it, but it looks like I'll have to find the illustrated version of Eric for that.) There is one of Pratchett's philosophical subtexts here, about heroes and stories and what it means for your story to live on. To be honest, it didn't grab me; it's mostly subtext, and this particular set of characters weren't quite introspective enough to make the philosophy central to the story. Also, I was perhaps too sympathetic to Cohen's goals, and thus not very interested in anyone successfully stopping him. But I had a lot more fun with this one than I usually do with Rincewind books, helped considerably by the illustrations. If you've been skipping Rincewind books in your Discworld read-through and have access to the illustrated edition of The Last Hero, consider making an exception for this one. Followed by The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents in publication order and, thematically, by Unseen Academicals. Rating: 7 out of 10

11 April 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Circe

Review: Circe, by Madeline Miller
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Copyright: April 2018
Printing: 2020
ISBN: 0-316-55633-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 421
Circe is the story of the goddess Circe, best known as a minor character in Homer's Odyssey. Circe was Miller's third book if you count the short novella Galatea. She wrote it after Song of Achilles, a reworking of part of the Iliad, but as with Homer, you do not need to read Song of Achilles first. You will occasionally see Circe marketed or reviewed as a retelling of the Odyssey, but it isn't in any meaningful sense. Odysseus doesn't make an appearance until nearly halfway through the book, and the material directly inspired by the Odyssey is only about a quarter of the book. There is nearly as much here from the Telegony, a lost ancient Greek epic poem that we know about only from summaries by later writers and which picks up after the end of the Odyssey. What this is, instead, is Circe's story, starting with her childhood in the halls of Helios, the Titan sun god and her father. She does not have a happy childhood; her voice is considered weak by the gods (Homer describes her as having "human speech"), and her mother and elder siblings are vicious and cruel. Her father is high in the councils of the Titans, who have been overthrown by Zeus and the other Olympians. She is in awe of him and sits at his feet to observe his rule, but he's a petty tyrant who cares very little about her. Her only true companion is her brother Ae tes. The key event of the early book comes when Prometheus is temporarily chained in Helios's halls after stealing fire from the gods and before Zeus passes judgment on him. A young Circe brings him something to drink and has a brief conversation with him. That's the spark for one of the main themes of this book: Circe slowly developing a conscience and empathy, neither of which are common among Miller's gods. But it's still a long road from there to her first meeting with Odysseus. One of the best things about this book is the way that Miller unravels the individual stories of Greek myth and weaves them into a chronological narrative of Circe's life. Greek mythology is mostly individual stories, often contradictory and with only a loose chronology, but Miller pulls together all the ones that touch on Circe's family and turns them into a coherent history. This is not easy to do, and she makes it feel effortless. We get a bit of Jason and Medea (Jason is as dumb as a sack of rocks, and Circe can tell there's already something not right with Medea), the beginnings of the story of Theseus and Ariadne, and Daedalus (one of my favorite characters in the book) with his son Icarus, in addition to the stories more directly associated with Circe (a respinning of Glaucus and Scylla from Ovid's Metamorphoses that makes Circe more central). By the time Odysseus arrives on Circe's island, this world feels rich and full of history, and Circe has had a long and traumatic history that has left her suspicious and hardened. If you know some Greek mythology already, seeing it deftly woven into this new shape is a delight, but Circe may be even better if this is your first introduction to some of these stories. There are pieces missing, since Circe only knows the parts she's present for or that someone can tell her about later, but what's here is vivid, easy to follow, and recast in a narrative structure that's more familiar to modern readers. Miller captures the larger-than-life feel of myth while giving the characters an interiority and comprehensible emotional heft that often gets summarized out of myth retellings or lost in translation from ancient plays and epics, and she does it without ever calling the reader's attention to the mechanics. The prose, similarly, is straightforward and clear, getting out of the way of the story but still providing a sense of place and description where it's needed. This book feels honed, edited and streamlined until it maintains an irresistible pace. There was only one place where I felt like the story dragged (the raising of Telegonus), and then mostly because it's full of anger and anxiety and frustration and loss of control, which is precisely what Miller was trying to achieve. The rest of the book pulls the reader relentlessly forward while still delivering moments of beauty or sharp observation.
My house was crowded with some four dozen men, and for the first time in my life, I found myself steeped in mortal flesh. Those frail bodies of theirs took relentless attention, food and drink, sleep and rest, the cleaning of limbs and fluxes. Such patience mortals must have, I thought, to drag themselves through it hour after hour.
I did not enjoy reading about Telegonus's childhood (it was too stressful; I don't like reading about characters fighting in that way), but apart from that, the last half of this book is simply beautiful. By the time Odysseus arrives, we're thoroughly in Circe's head and agree with all of the reasons why he might receive a chilly reception. Odysseus talks the readers around at the same time that he talks Circe around. It's one of the better examples of writing intelligent, observant, and thoughtful characters that I have read recently. I also liked that Odysseus has real flaws, and those flaws do not go away even when the reader warms to him. I'll avoid saying too much about the very end of the book to avoid spoilers (insofar as one can spoil Greek myth, but the last quarter of the book is where I think Miller adds the most to the story). I'll just say that both Telemachus and Penelope are exceptional characters while being nothing like Circe or Odysseus, and watching the characters tensely circle each other is a wholly engrossing reading experience. It's a much more satisfying ending than the Telegony traditionally gets (although I have mixed feelings about the final page). I've mostly talked about the Greek mythology part of Circe, since that's what grabbed me the most, but it's quite rightly called a feminist retelling and it lives up to that label with the same subtlety and skill that Miller brings to the prose and characterization. The abusive gender dynamics of Greek myth are woven into the narrative so elegantly you'd think they were always noted in the stories. It is wholly satisfying to see Circe come into her own power in a defiantly different way than that chosen by her mother and her sister. She spends the entire book building an inner strength and sense of herself that allows her to defend her own space and her own identity, and the payoff is pure delight. But even better are the quiet moments between her and Penelope.
"I am embarrassed to ask this of you, but I did not bring a black cloak with me when we left. Do you have one I might wear? I would mourn for him." I looked at her, as vivid in my doorway as the moon in the autumn sky. Her eyes held mine, gray and steady. It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did. "No," I said. "But I have yarn, and a loom. Come."
This is as good as everyone says it is. Highly recommended for the next time you're in the mood for a myth retelling. Rating: 8 out of 10

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