Search Results: "Russ Allbery"

1 February 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: System Collapse

Review: System Collapse, by Martha Wells
Series: Murderbot Diaries #7
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-250-82698-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 245
System Collapse is the second Murderbot novel. Including the novellas, it's the 7th in the series. Unlike Fugitive Telemetry, the previous novella that was out of chronological order, this is the direct sequel to Network Effect. A very direct sequel; it picks up just a few days after the previous novel ended. Needless to say, you should not start here. I was warned by other people and therefore re-read Network Effect immediately before reading System Collapse. That was an excellent idea, since this novel opens with a large cast, no dramatis personae, not much in the way of a plot summary, and a lot of emotional continuity from the previous novel. I would grumble about this more, like I have in other reviews, but I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Network Effect and appreciated the excuse.
ART-drone said, I wouldn t recommend it. I lack a sense of proportional response. I don t advise engaging with me on any level.
Saying much about the plot of this book without spoiling Network Effect and the rest of the series is challenging. Murderbot is suffering from the aftereffects of the events of the previous book more than it expected or would like to admit. It and its humans are in the middle of a complicated multi-way negotiation with some locals, who the corporates are trying to exploit. One of the difficulties in that negotiation is getting people to believe that the corporations are as evil as they actually are, a plot element that has a depressing amount in common with current politics. Meanwhile, Murderbot is trying to keep everyone alive. I loved Network Effect, but that was primarily for the social dynamics. The planet that was central to the novel was less interesting, so another (short) novel about the same planet was a bit of a disappointment. This does give Wells a chance to show in more detail what Murderbot's new allies have been up to, but there is a lot of speculative exploration and detailed descriptions of underground tunnels that I found less compelling than the relationship dynamics of the previous book. (Murderbot, on the other hand, would much prefer exploring creepy abandoned tunnels to talking about its feelings.) One of the things this series continues to do incredibly well, though, is take non-human intelligence seriously in a world where the humans mostly don't. It perfectly fills a gap between Star Wars, where neither the humans nor the story take non-human intelligences seriously (hence the creepy slavery vibes as soon as you start paying attention to droids), and the Culture, where both humans and the story do. The corporates (the bad guys in this series) treat non-human intelligences the way Star Wars treats droids. The good guys treat Murderbot mostly like a strange human, which is better but still wrong, and still don't notice the numerous other machine intelligences. But Wells, as the author, takes all of the non-human characters seriously, which means there are complex and fascinating relationships happening at a level of the story that the human characters are mostly unaware of. I love that Murderbot rarely bothers to explain; if the humans are too blinkered to notice, that's their problem. About halfway into the story, System Collapse hits its stride, not coincidentally at the point where Murderbot befriends some new computers. The rest of the book is great. This was not as good as Network Effect. There is a bit less competence porn at the start, and although that's for good in-story reasons I still missed it. Murderbot's redaction of things it doesn't want to talk about got a bit annoying before it finally resolved. And I was not sufficiently interested in this planet to want to spend two novels on it, at least without another major revelation that didn't come. But it's still a Murderbot novel, which means it has the best first-person narrative voice I've ever read, some great moments, and possibly the most compelling and varied presentation of computer intelligence in science fiction at the moment.
There was no feed ID, but AdaCol2 supplied the name Lucia and when I asked it for more info, the gender signifier bb (which didn t translate) and he/him pronouns. (I asked because the humans would bug me for the information; I was as indifferent to human gender as it was possible to be without being unconscious.)
This is not a series to read out of order, but if you have read this far, you will continue to be entertained. You don't need me to tell you this nearly everyone reviewing science fiction is saying it but this series is great and you should read it. Rating: 8 out of 10

29 January 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: Bluebird

Review: Bluebird, by Ciel Pierlot
Publisher: Angry Robot
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 0-85766-967-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 458
Bluebird is a stand-alone far-future science fiction adventure. Ten thousand years ago, a star fell into the galaxy carrying three factions of humanity. The Ascetics, the Ossuary, and the Pyrites each believe that only their god survived and the other two factions are heretics. Between them, they have conquered the rest of the galaxy and its non-human species. The only thing the factions hate worse than each other are those who attempt to stay outside the faction system. Rig used to be a Pyrite weapon designer before she set fire to her office and escaped with her greatest invention. Now she's a Nightbird, a member of an outlaw band that tries to help refugees and protect her fellow Kashrini against Pyrite genocide. On her side, she has her girlfriend, an Ascetic librarian; her ship, Bluebird; and her guns, Panache and Pizzazz. And now, perhaps, the mysterious Ginka, a Zazra empath and remarkably capable fighter who helps Rig escape from an ambush by Pyrite soldiers. Rig wants to stay alive, help her people, and defy the factions. Pyrite wants Rig's secrets and, as leverage, has her sister. What Ginka wants is not entirely clear even to Ginka. This book is absurd, but I still had fun with it. It's dangerous for me to compare things to anime given how little anime that I've watched, but Bluebird had that vibe for me: anime, or maybe Japanese RPGs or superhero comics. The storytelling is very visual, combat-oriented, and not particularly realistic. Rig is a pistol sharpshooter and Ginka is the type of undefined deadly acrobatic fighter so often seen in that type of media. In addition to her ship, Rig has a gorgeous hand-maintained racing hoverbike with a beautiful paint job. It's that sort of book. It's also the sort of book where the characters obey cinematic logic designed to maximize dramatic physical confrontations, even if their actions make no logical sense. There is no facial recognition or screening, and it's bizarrely easy for the protagonists to end up in same physical location as high-up bad guys. One of the weapon systems that's critical to the plot makes no sense whatsoever. At critical moments, the bad guys behave more like final bosses in a video game, picking up weapons to deal with the protagonists directly instead of using their supposedly vast armies of agents. There is supposedly a whole galaxy full of civilizations with capital worlds covered in planet-spanning cities, but politics barely exist and the faction leaders get directly involved in the plot. If you are looking for a realistic projection of technology or society, I cannot stress enough that this is not the book that you're looking for. You probably figured that out when I mentioned ten thousand years of war, but that will only be the beginning of the suspension of disbelief problems. You need to turn off your brain and enjoy the action sequences and melodrama. I'm normally good at that, and I admit I still struggled because the plot logic is such a mismatch with the typical novels I read. There are several points where the characters do something that seems so monumentally dumb that I was sure Pierlot was setting them up for a fall, and then I got wrong-footed because their plan worked fine, or exploded for unrelated reasons. I think this type of story, heavy on dramatic eye-candy and emotional moments with swelling soundtracks, is a lot easier to pull off in visual media where all the pretty pictures distract your brain. In a novel, there's a lot of time to think about the strategy, technology, and government structure, which for this book is not a good idea. If you can get past that, though, Rig is entertainingly snarky and Ginka, who turns out to be the emotional heart of the book, is an enjoyable character with a real growth arc. Her background is a bit simplistic and the villains are the sort of pure evil that you might expect from this type of cinematic plot, but I cared about the outcome of her story. Some parts of the plot dragged and I think the editing could have been tighter, but there was enough competence porn and banter to pull me through. I would recommend Bluebird only cautiously, since you're going to need to turn off large portions of your brain and be in the right mood for nonsensically dramatic confrontations, but I don't regret reading it. It's mostly in primary colors and the emotional conflicts are not what anyone would call subtle, but it delivers a character arc and a somewhat satisfying ending. Content warning: There is a lot of serious physical injury in this book, including surgical maiming. If that's going to bother you, you may want to give this one a pass. Rating: 6 out of 10

16 January 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: Making Money

Review: Making Money, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #36
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2007
Printing: November 2014
ISBN: 0-06-233499-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 473
Making Money is the 36th Discworld novel, the second Moist von Lipwig book, and a direct sequel to Going Postal. You could start the series with Going Postal, but I would not start here. The post office is running like a well-oiled machine, Adora Belle is out of town, and Moist von Lipwig is getting bored. It's the sort of boredom that has him picking his own locks, taking up Extreme Sneezing, and climbing buildings at night. He may not realize it, but he needs something more dangerous to do. Vetinari has just the thing. The Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork, unlike the post office before Moist got to it, is still working. It is a stolid, boring institution doing stolid, boring things for rich people. It is also the battleground for the Lavish family past-time: suing each other and fighting over money. The Lavishes are old money, the kind of money carefully entangled in trusts and investments designed to ensure the family will always have money regardless of how stupid their children are. Control of the bank is temporarily in the grasp of Joshua Lavish's widow Topsy, who is not a true Lavish, but the vultures are circling. Meanwhile, Vetinari has grand city infrastructure plans, and to carry them out he needs financing. That means he needs a functional bank, and preferably one that is much less conservative. Moist is dubious about running a bank, and even more reluctant when Topsy Lavish sees him for exactly the con artist he is. His hand is forced when she dies, and Moist discovers he has inherited her dog, Mr. Fusspot. A dog that now owns 51% of the Royal Bank and therefore is the chairman of the bank's board of directors. A dog whose safety is tied to Moist's own by way of an expensive assassination contract. Pratchett knew he had a good story with Going Postal, so here he runs the same formula again. And yes, I was happy to read it again. Moist knows very little about banking but quite a lot about pretending something will work until it does, which has more to do with banking than it does with running a post office. The bank employs an expert, Mr. Bent, who is fanatically devoted to the gold standard and the correctness of the books and has very little patience for Moist. There are golem-related hijinks. The best part of this book is Vetinari, who is masterfully manipulating everyone in the story and who gets in some great lines about politics.
"We are not going to have another wretched empire while I am Patrician. We've only just got over the last one."
Also, Vetinari processing dead letters in the post office was an absolute delight. Making Money does have the recurring Pratchett problem of having a fairly thin plot surrounded by random... stuff. Moist's attempts to reform the city currency while staying ahead of the Lavishes is only vaguely related to Mr. Bent's plot arc. The golems are unrelated to the rest of the plot other than providing a convenient deus ex machina. There is an economist making water models in the bank basement with an Igor, which is a great gag but has essentially nothing to do with the rest of the book. One of the golems has been subjected to well-meaning older ladies and 1950s etiquette manuals, which I thought was considerably less funny (and somewhat creepier) than Pratchett did. There are (sigh) clowns, which continue to be my least favorite Ankh-Morpork world-building element. At least the dog was considerably less annoying than I was afraid it was going to be. This grab-bag randomness is a shame, since I think there was room here for a more substantial plot that engaged fully with the high weirdness of finance. Unfortunately, this was a bit like the post office in Going Postal: Pratchett dives into the subject just enough to make a few wry observations and a few funny quips, and then resolves the deeper issues off-camera. Moist tries to invent fiat currency, because of course he does, and Pratchett almost takes on the gold standard, only to veer away at the last minute into vigorous hand-waving. I suspect part of the problem is that I know a little bit too much about finance, so I kept expecting Pratchett to take the humorous social commentary a couple of levels deeper. On a similar note, the villains have great potential that Pratchett undermines by adding too much over-the-top weirdness. I wish Cosmo Lavish had been closer to what he appears to be at the start of the book: a very wealthy and vindictive man (and a reference to Cosimo de Medici) who doesn't have Moist's ability to come up with wildly risky gambits but who knows considerably more than he does about how banking works. Instead, Pratchett gives him a weird obsession that slowly makes him less sinister and more pathetic, which robs the book of a competent antagonist for Moist. The net result is still a fun book, and a solid Discworld entry, but it lacks the core of the best series entries. It felt more like a skit comedy show than a novel, but it's an excellent skit comedy show with the normal assortment of memorable Pratchettisms. Certainly if you've read this far, or even if you've only read Going Postal, you'll want to read Making Money as well. Followed by Unseen Academicals. The next Moist von Lipwig book is Raising Steam. Rating: 8 out of 10

15 January 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: The Library of Broken Worlds

Review: The Library of Broken Worlds, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Copyright: June 2023
ISBN: 1-338-29064-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 446
The Library of Broken Worlds is a young-adult far-future science fantasy. So far as I can tell, it's stand-alone, although more on that later in the review. Freida is the adopted daughter of Nadi, the Head Librarian, and her greatest wish is to become a librarian herself. When the book opens, she's a teenager in highly competitive training. Freida is low-wetware, without the advanced and expensive enhancements of many of the other students competing for rare and prized librarian positions, which she makes up for by being the most audacious. She doesn't need wetware to commune with the library material gods. If one ventures deep into their tunnels and consumes their crystals, direct physical communion is possible. The library tunnels are Freida's second home, in part because that's where she was born. She was created by the Library, and specifically by Iemaja, the youngest of the material gods. Precisely why is a mystery. To Nadi, Freida is her daughter. To Quinn, Nadi's main political rival within the library, Freida is a thing, a piece of the library, a secondary and possibly rogue AI. A disruptive annoyance. The Library of Broken Worlds is the sort of science fiction where figuring out what is going on is an integral part of the reading experience. It opens with a frame story of an unnamed girl (clearly Freida) waking the god Nameren and identifying herself as designed for deicide. She provokes Nameren's curiosity and offers an Arabian Nights bargain: if he wants to hear her story, he has to refrain from killing her for long enough for her to tell it. As one might expect, the main narrative doesn't catch up to the frame story until the very end of the book. The Library is indeed some type of library that librarians can search for knowledge that isn't available from more mundane sources, but Freida's personal experience of it is almost wholly religious and oracular. The library's material gods are identified as AIs, but good luck making sense of the story through a science fiction frame, even with a healthy allowance for sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. The symbolism and tone is entirely fantasy, and late in the book it becomes clear that whatever the material gods are, they're not simple technological AIs in the vein of, say, Banks's Ship Minds. Also, the Library is not solely a repository of knowledge. It is the keeper of an interstellar peace. The Library was founded after the Great War, to prevent a recurrence. It functions as a sort of legal system and grand tribunal in ways that are never fully explained. As you might expect, that peace is based more on stability than fairness. Five of the players in this far future of humanity are the Awilu, the most advanced society and the first to leave Earth (or Tierra as it's called here); the Mah m, who possess the material war god Nameren of the frame story; the Lunars and Martians, who dominate the Sol system; and the surviving Tierrans, residents of a polluted and struggling planet that is ruthlessly exploited by the Lunars. The problem facing Freida and her friends at the start of the book is a petition brought by a young Tierran against Lunar exploitation of his homeland. His name is Joshua, and Freida is more than half in love with him. Joshua's legal argument involves interpretation of the freedom node of the treaty that ended the Great War, a node that precedent says gives the Lunars the freedom to exploit Tierra, but which Joshua claims has a still-valid originalist meaning granting Tierrans freedom from exploitation. There is, in short, a lot going on in this book, and "never fully explained" is something of a theme. Freida is telling a story to Nameren and only explains things Nameren may not already know. The reader has to puzzle out the rest from the occasional hint. This is made more difficult by the tendency of the material gods to communicate only in visions or guided hallucinations, full of symbolism that the characters only partly explain to the reader. Nonetheless, this did mostly work, at least for me. I started this book very confused, but by about the midpoint it felt like the background was coming together. I'm still not sure I understand the aurochs, baobab, and cicada symbolism that's so central to the framing story, but it's the pleasant sort of stretchy confusion that gives my brain a good workout. I wish Johnson had explained a few more things plainly, particularly near the end of the book, but my remaining level of confusion was within my tolerances. Unfortunately, the ending did not work for me. The first time I read it, I had no idea what it meant. Lots of baffling, symbolic things happened and then the book just stopped. After re-reading the last 10%, I think all the pieces of an ending and a bit of an explanation are there, but it's absurdly abbreviated. This is another book where the author appears to have been finished with the story before I was. This keeps happening to me, so this probably says something more about me than it says about books, but I want books to have an ending. If the characters have fought and suffered through the plot, I want them to have some space to be happy and to see how their sacrifices play out, with more detail than just a few vague promises. If much of the book has been puzzling out the nature of the world, I would like some concrete confirmation of at least some of my guesswork. And if you're going to end the book on radical transformation, I want to see the results of that transformation. Johnson does an excellent job showing how brutal the peace of the powerful can be, and is willing to light more things on fire over the course of this book than most authors would, but then doesn't offer the reader much in the way of payoff. For once, I wish this stand-alone turned out to be a series. I think an additional book could be written in the aftermath of this ending, and I would definitely read that novel. Johnson has me caring deeply about these characters and fascinated by the world background, and I'd happily spend another 450 pages finding out what happens next. But, frustratingly, I think this ending was indeed intended to wrap up the story. I think this book may fall between a few stools. Science fiction readers who want mysterious future worlds to be explained by the end of the book are going to be frustrated by the amount of symbolism, allusion, and poetic description. Literary fantasy readers, who have a higher tolerance for that style, are going to wish for more focused and polished writing. A lot of the story is firmly YA: trying and failing to fit in, developing one's identity, coming into power, relationship drama, great betrayals and regrets, overcoming trauma and abuse, and unraveling lies that adults tell you. But this is definitely not a straight-forward YA plot or world background. It demands a lot from the reader, and while I am confident many teenage readers would rise to that challenge, it seems like an awkward fit for the YA marketing category. About 75% of the way in, I would have told you this book was great and you should read it. The ending was a let-down and I'm still grumpy about it. I still think it's worth your attention if you're in the mood for a sink-or-swim type of reading experience. Just be warned that when the ride ends, I felt unceremoniously dumped on the pavement. Content warnings: Rape, torture, genocide. Rating: 7 out of 10

8 January 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: The Faithless

Review: The Faithless, by C.L. Clark
Series: Magic of the Lost #2
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: March 2023
ISBN: 0-316-54283-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 527
The Faithless is the second book in a political fantasy series that seems likely to be a trilogy. It is a direct sequel to The Unbroken, which you should read first. As usual, Orbit made it unnecessarily hard to get re-immersed in the world by refusing to provide memory aids for readers who read books as they come out instead of only when the series is complete, but this is not the fault of Clark or the book and you've heard me rant about this before. The Unbroken was set in Qaz l (not-Algeria). The Faithless, as readers of the first book might guess from the title, is set in Balladaire (not-France). This is the palace intrigue book. Princess Luca is fighting for her throne against her uncle, the regent. Touraine is trying to represent her people. Whether and to what extent those interests are aligned is much of the meat of this book. Normally I enjoy palace intrigue novels for the competence porn: watching someone navigate a complex political situation with skill and cunning, or upend the entire system by building unlikely coalitions or using unexpected routes to power. If you are similar, be warned that this is not what you're going to get. Touraine is a fish out of water with no idea how to navigate the Balladairan court, and does not magically become an expert in the course of this novel. Luca has the knowledge, but she's unsure, conflicted, and largely out-maneuvered. That means you will have to brace for some painful scenes of some of the worst people apparently getting what they want. Despite that, I could not put this down. It was infuriating, frustrating, and a much slower burn than I prefer, but the layers of complex motivations that Clark builds up provided a different sort of payoff. Two books in, the shape of this series is becoming clearer. This series is about empire and colonialism, but with considerably more complexity than fantasy normally brings to that topic. Power does not loosen its grasp easily, and it has numerous tools for subtle punishment after apparent upstart victories. Righteous causes rarely call banners to your side; instead, they create opportunities for other people to maneuver to their own advantage. Touraine has some amount of power now, but it's far from obvious how to use it. Her life's training tells her that exercising power will only cause trouble, and her enemies are more than happy to reinforce that message at every opportunity. Most notable to me is Clark's bitingly honest portrayal of the supposed allies within the colonial power. It is clear that Luca is attempting to take the most ethical actions as she defines them, but it's remarkable how those efforts inevitably imply that Touraine should help Luca now in exchange for Luca's tenuous and less-defined possible future aid. This is not even a lie; it may be an accurate summary of Balladairan politics. And yet, somehow what Balladaire needs always matters more than the needs of their abused colony. Underscoring this, Clark introduces another faction in the form of a populist movement against the Balladairan monarchy. The details of that setup in another fantasy novel would make them allies of the Qaz l. Here, as is so often the case in real life, a substantial portion of the populists are even more xenophobic and racist than the nobility. There are no easy alliances. The trump card that Qaz l holds is magic. They have it, and (for reasons explored in The Unbroken) Balladaire needs it, although that is a position held by Luca's faction and not by her uncle. But even Luca wants to reduce that magic to a manageable technology, like any other element of the Balladairan state. She wants to understand it, harness it, and bring it under local control. Touraine, trained by Balladaire and facing Balladairan political problems, has the same tendency. The magic, at least in this book, refuses not in the flashy, rebellious way that it would in most fantasy, but in a frustrating and incomprehensible lack of predictable or convenient rules. I think this will feel like a plot device to some readers, and that is to some extent true, but I think I see glimmers of Clark setting up a conflict of world views that will play out in the third book. I think some people are going to bounce off this book. It's frustrating, enraging, at times melodramatic, and does not offer the cathartic payoff typically offered in fantasy novels of this type. Usually these are things I would be complaining about as well. And yet, I found it satisfyingly challenging, engrossing, and memorable. I spent a lot of the book yelling "just kill him already" at the characters, but I think one of Clark's points is that overcoming colonial relationships requires a lot more than just killing one evil man. The characters profoundly fail to execute some clever and victorious strategy. Instead, as in the first book, they muddle through, making the best choice that they can see in each moment, making lots of mistakes, and paying heavy prices. It's realistic in a way that has nothing to do with blood or violence or grittiness. (Although I did appreciate having the thin thread of Pruett's story and its highly satisfying conclusion.) This is also a slow-burn romance, and there too I think opinions will differ. Touraine and Luca keep circling back to the same arguments and the same frustrations, and there were times that this felt repetitive. It also adds a lot of personal drama to the politics in a way that occasionally made me dubious. But here too, I think Clark is partly using the romance to illustrate the deeper political points. Luca is often insufferable, cruel and ambitious in ways she doesn't realize, and only vaguely able to understand the Qaz l perspective; in short, she's the pragmatic centrist reformer. I am dubious that her ethics would lead her to anything other than endless compromise without Touraine to push her. To Luca's credit, she also realizes that and wants to be a better person, but struggles to have the courage to act on it. Touraine both does and does not want to manipulate her; she wants Luca's help (and more), but it's not clear Luca will give it under acceptable terms, or even understand how much she's demanding. It's that foundational conflict that turns the romance into a slow burn by pushing them apart. Apparently I have more patience for this type of on-again, off-again relationship than one based on artificial miscommunication. The more I noticed the political subtext, the more engaging I found the romance on the surface. I picked this up because I'd read several books about black characters written by white authors, and while there was nothing that wrong with those books, the politics felt a little too reductionist and simplified. I wanted a book that was going to force me out of comfortable political assumptions. The Faithless did exactly what I was looking for, and I am definitely here for the rest of the series. In that sense, recommended, although do not go into this book hoping for adroit court maneuvering and competence porn. Followed by The Sovereign, which does not yet have a release date. Content warnings: Child death, attempted cultural genocide. Rating: 7 out of 10

1 January 2024

Russ Allbery: 2023 Book Reading in Review

In 2023, I finished and reviewed 53 books, continuing a trend of year-over-year increases and of reading the most books since 2012 (the last year I averaged five books a month). Reviewing continued to be uneven, with a significant slump in the summer and smaller slumps in February and November, and a big clump of reviews finished in October in addition to my normal year-end reading and reviewing vacation. The unevenness this year was mostly due to finishing books and not writing reviews immediately. Reviews are much harder to write when the finished books are piling up, so one goal for 2024 is to not let that happen again. I enter the new year with one book finished and not yet reviewed, after reading a book about every day and a half during my December vacation. I read two all-time favorite books this year. The first was Emily Tesh's debut novel Some Desperate Glory, which is one of the best space opera novels I have ever read. I cannot improve on Shelley Parker-Chan's blurb for this book: "Fierce and heartbreakingly humane, this book is for everyone who loved Ender's Game, but Ender's Game didn't love them back." This is not hard science fiction but it is fantastic character fiction. It was exactly what I needed in the middle of a year in which I was fighting a "burn everything down" mood. The second was Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, the 29th Discworld and 6th Watch novel. Throughout my Discworld read-through, Pratchett felt like he was on the cusp of a truly stand-out novel, one where all the pieces fit and the book becomes something more than the sum of its parts. This was that book. It's a book about ethics and revolutions and governance, but also about how your perception of yourself changes as you get older. It does all of the normal Pratchett things, just... better. While I would love to point new Discworld readers at it, I think you do have to read at least the Watch novels that came before it for it to carry its proper emotional heft. This was overall a solid year for fiction reading. I read another 15 novels I rated 8 out of 10, and 12 that I rated 7 out of 10. The largest contributor to that was my Discworld read-through, which was reliably entertaining throughout the year. The run of Discworld books between The Fifth Elephant (read late last year) and Wintersmith (my last of this year) was the best run of Discworld novels so far. One additional book I'll call out as particularly worth reading is Thud!, the Watch novel after Night Watch and another excellent entry. I read two stand-out non-fiction books this year. The first was Oliver Darkshire's delightful memoir about life as a rare book seller, Once Upon a Tome. One of the things I will miss about Twitter is the regularity with which I stumbled across fascinating people and then got to read their books. I'm off Twitter permanently now because the platform is designed to make me incoherently angry and I need less of that in my life, but it was very good at finding delightfully quirky books like this one. My other favorite non-fiction book of the year was Michael Lewis's Going Infinite, a profile of Sam Bankman-Fried. I'm still bemused at the negative reviews that this got from people who were upset that Lewis didn't turn the story into a black-and-white morality play. Bankman-Fried's actions were clearly criminal; that's not in dispute. Human motivations can be complex in ways that are irrelevant to the law, and I thought this attempt to understand that complexity by a top-notch storyteller was worthy of attention. Also worth a mention is Tony Judt's Postwar, the first book I reviewed in 2023. A sprawling history of post-World-War-II Europe will never have the sheer readability of shorter, punchier books, but this was the most informative book that I read in 2023. 2024 should see the conclusion of my Discworld read-through, after which I may return to re-reading Mercedes Lackey or David Eddings, both of which I paused to make time for Terry Pratchett. I also have another re-read similar to my Chronicles of Narnia reviews that I've been thinking about for a while. Perhaps I will start that next year; perhaps it will wait for 2025. Apart from that, my intention as always is to read steadily, write reviews as close to when I finished the book as possible, and make reading time for my huge existing backlog despite the constant allure of new releases. Here's to a new year full of more new-to-me books and occasional old favorites. The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

30 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Hound of Justice

Review: The Hound of Justice, by Claire O'Dell
Series: Janet Watson Chronicles #2
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Copyright: July 2019
ISBN: 0-06-269938-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 325
The Hound of Justice is a near-future thriller novel with Sherlock Holmes references. It is a direct sequel to A Study in Honor. This series is best read in order. Janet Watson is in a much better place than she was in the first book. She has proper physical therapy, a new arm, and a surgeon's job waiting for her as soon as she can master its features. A chance meeting due to an Inauguration Day terrorist attack may even develop into something more. She just needs to get back into the operating room and then she'll feel like her life is back on track. Sara Holmes, on the other hand, is restless, bored, and manic, rudely intruding on Watson's date. Then she disappears, upending Watson's living arrangements. She's on the trail of something. When mysterious destructible notes start appearing in Watson's books, it's clear that she wants help. The structure of this book didn't really work for me. The first third or so is a slice-of-life account of Watson's attempt to resume her career as a surgeon against a backdrop of ongoing depressing politics. This part sounds like the least interesting, but I was thoroughly engrossed. Watson is easy to care about, hospital politics are strangely interesting, and while the romance never quite clicked for me, it had potential. I was hoping for another book like A Study in Honor, where Watson's life and Holmes's investigations entwine and run in parallel. That was not to be. The middle third of the book pulls Watson away to Georgia and a complicated mix of family obligations and spy-novel machinations. If this had involved Sara's fae strangeness, verbal sparring, and odd tokens of appreciation, maybe it would have worked, but Sara Holmes is entirely off-camera. Watson is instead dealing with a minor supporting character from the first book, who drags her through disguises, vehicle changes, and border stops in a way that felt excessive and weirdly out of place. (Other reviews say that this character is the Mycroft Holmes equivalent; the first initial of Micha's name fits, but nothing else does so far as I can tell.) Then the last third of the novel turns into a heist. I like a heist novel as much as the next person, but a good heist story needs a team with chemistry and interplay, and I didn't know any of these people. There was way too little Sara Holmes, too much of Watson being out of her element in a rather generic way, and too many steps that Watson is led through without giving the reader a chance to enjoy the competence of the team. It felt jarring and disconnected, like Watson got pulled out of one story and dropped into an entirely different story without a proper groundwork. The Hound of Justice still has its moments. Watson is a great character and I'm still fully invested in her life. She was pulled into this mission because she's the person Holmes knows with the appropriate skills, and when she finally gets a chance to put those skills to use, it's quite satisfying. But, alas, the magic of A Study in Honor simply isn't here, in part because Sara Holmes is missing for most of the book and her replacements and stand-ins are nowhere near as intriguing. The villain's plan seems wildly impractical and highly likely to be detected, and although I can come up with some explanations to salvage it, those don't appear in the book. And, as in the first book, the villain seems very one-dimensional and simplistic. This is certainly not a villain worthy of Holmes. Fittingly, given the political movements O'Dell is commenting on, a lot of this book is about racial politics. O'Dell contrasts the microaggressions and more subtle dangers for Watson as a black woman in Washington, D.C., with the more explicit and active racism of the other places to which she travels over the course of the story. She's trying very hard to give the reader a feeling for what it's like to be black in the United States. I don't have any specific complaints about this, and I'm glad she's attempting it, but I came away from this book with a nagging feeling that Watson's reactions were a tiny bit off. It felt like a white person writing about racism rather than a black person writing about racism: nothing is entirely incorrect, but the emotional beats aren't quite where black authors would put them. I could be completely wrong about this, and am certainly much less qualified to comment than O'Dell is, but there were enough places that landed slightly wrong that I wanted to note it. I would still recommend A Study in Honor, but I'm not sure I can recommend this book. This is one of those series where the things that I enjoyed the most about the first book weren't what the author wanted to focus on in subsequent books. I would read more about the day-to-day of Watson's life, and I would certainly read more of Holmes and Watson sparring and circling and trying to understand each other. I'm less interested in somewhat generic thrillers with implausible plots and Sherlock Holmes references. At the moment, this is academic, since The Hound of Justice is the last book of the series so far. Rating: 6 out of 10

29 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Afterward

Review: The Afterward, by E.K. Johnston
Publisher: Dutton Books
Copyright: February 2019
Printing: 2020
ISBN: 0-7352-3190-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 339
The Afterward is a standalone young adult high fantasy with a substantial romance component. The title is not misspelled. Sir Erris and her six companions, matching the number of the new gods, were successful in their quest for the godsgem. They defeated the Old God and destroyed Him forever, freeing King Dorrenta from his ensorcellment, and returned in triumph to Cadrium to live happily ever after. Or so the story goes. Sir Erris and three of the companions are knights. Another companion is the best mage in the kingdom. Kalanthe Ironheart, who distracted the Old God at a critical moment and allowed Sir Erris to strike, is only an apprentice due to her age, but surely will become a great knight. And then there is Olsa Rhetsdaughter, the lowborn thief, now somewhat mockingly called Thief of the Realm for all the good that does her. The reward was enough for her to buy her freedom from the Thief's Court. It was not enough to pay for food after that, or enough for her to change her profession, and the Thief's Court no longer has any incentive to give her easy (or survivable) assignments. Kalanthe is in a considerably better position, but she still needs a good marriage. Her reward paid off half of her debt, which broadens her options, but she's still a debt-knight, liable for the full cost of her training once she reaches the age of nineteen. She's mostly made her peace with the decisions she made given her family's modest means, but marriages of that type are usually for heirs, and Kalanthe is not looking forward to bearing a child. Or, for that matter, sleeping with a man. Olsa and Kalanthe fell in love during the Quest. Given Kalanthe's debt and the way it must be paid, and her iron-willed determination to keep vows, neither of them expected their relationship to survive the end of the Quest. Both of them wish that it had. The hook is that this novel picks up after the epic fantasy quest is over and everyone went home. This is not an entirely correct synopsis; chapters of The Afterward alternate between "After" and "Before" (and one chapter delightfully titled "More or less the exact moment of"), and by the end of the book we get much of the story of the Quest. It's not told from the perspective of the lead heroes, though; it's told by following Kalanthe and Olsa, who would be firmly relegated to supporting characters in a typical high fantasy. And it's largely told through the lens of their romance. This is not the best fantasy novel I've read, but I had a fun time with it. I am now curious about the intended audience and marketing, though. It was published by a YA imprint, and both the ages of the main characters and the general theme of late teenagers trying to chart a course in an adult world match that niche. But it's also clearly intended for readers who have read enough epic fantasy quests that they will both be amused by the homage and not care that the story elides a lot of the typical details. Anyone who read David Eddings at an impressionable age will enjoy the way Johnston pokes gentle fun at The Belgariad (this book is dedicated to David and Leigh Eddings), but surely the typical reader of YA fantasy these days isn't also reading Eddings. I'm therefore not quite sure who this book was for, but apparently that group included me. Johnston thankfully is not on board with the less savory parts of Eddings's writing, as you might have guessed from the sapphic romance. There is no obnoxious gender essentialism here, although there do appear to be gender roles that I never quite figured out. Knights are referred to as sir, but all of the knights in this story are women. Men still seem to run a lot of things (kingdoms, estates, mage colleges), but apart from the mage, everyone on the Quest was female, and there seems to be an expectation that women go out into the world and have adventures while men stay home. I'm not sure if there was an underlying system that escaped me, or if Johnston just mixed things up for the hell of it. (If the latter, I approve.) This book does suffer a bit from addressing some current-day representation issues without managing to fold them naturally into the story or setting. One of the Quest knights is transgender, something that's revealed in a awkward couple of paragraphs and then never mentioned again. Two of the characters have a painfully earnest conversation about the word "bisexual," complete with a strained attempt at in-universe etymology. Racial diversity (Olsa is black, and Kalanthe is also not white) seemed to be handled a bit better, although I am not the reader to notice if the discussions of hair maintenance were similarly awkward. This is way better than no representation and default-white characters, to be clear, but it felt a bit shoehorned in at times and could have used some more polish. These are quibbles, though. Olsa was the heart of the book for me, and is exactly the sort of character I like to read about. Kalanthe is pure stubborn paladin, but I liked her more and more as the story continued. She provides a good counterbalance to Olsa's natural chaos. I do wish Olsa had more opportunities to show her own competence (she's not a very good thief, she's just the thief that Sir Erris happened to know), but the climax of the story was satisfying. My main grumble is that I badly wanted to dwell on the happily-ever-after for at least another chapter, ideally two. Johnston was done with the story before I was. The writing was serviceable but not great and there are some bits that I don't think would stand up to a strong poke, but the characters carried the story for me. Recommended if you'd like some sapphic romance and lightweight class analysis complicating your Eddings-style quest fantasy. Rating: 7 out of 10

28 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Nettle & Bone

Review: Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-24403-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 242
Nettle & Bone is a standalone fantasy novel with fairy tale vibes. T. Kingfisher is a pen name for Ursula Vernon. As the book opens, Marra is giving herself a blood infection by wiring together dog bones out of a charnel pit. This is the second of three impossible tasks that she was given by the dust-wife. Completing all three will give her the tools to kill a prince. I am a little cautious of which T. Kingfisher books I read since she sometimes writes fantasy and sometimes writes horror and I don't get along with horror. This one seemed a bit horrific in the marketing, so I held off on reading it despite the Hugo nomination. It turns out to be just on the safe side of my horror tolerance, with only a couple of parts that I read a bit quickly. One of those is the opening, which I am happy to report does not set the tone for the rest of the book. Marra starts the story in a wasteland full of disease, madmen, and cannibals (who, in typical Ursula Vernon fashion, turn out to be nicer than the judgmental assholes outside of the blistered land). She doesn't stay there long. By chapter two, the story moves on to flashbacks explaining how Marra ended up there, alternating with further (and less horrific) steps in her quest to kill the prince of the Northern Kingdom. Marra is a princess of a small, relatively poor coastal kingdom with a good harbor and acquisitive neighbors. Her mother, the queen, has protected the kingdom through arranged marriage of her daughters to the prince of the Northern Kingdom, who rules it in all but name given the mental deterioration of his father the king. Marra's eldest sister Damia was first, but she died suddenly and mysteriously in a fall. (If you're thinking about the way women are injured by "accident," you have the right idea.) Kania, the middle sister, is next to marry; she lives, but not without cost. Meanwhile, Marra is sent off to a convent to ensure that there are no complicating potential heirs, and to keep her on hand as a spare. I won't spoil the entire backstory, but you do learn it all. Marra is a typical Kingfisher protagonist: a woman who is way out of her depth who persists with stubbornness, curiosity, and innate decency because what else is there to do? She accumulates the typical group of misfits and oddballs common in Kingfisher's quest fantasies, characters that in the Chosen One male fantasy would be supporting characters at best. The bone-wife is a delight; her chicken is even better. There are fairy godmothers and a goblin market and a tooth extraction that was one of the creepiest things I've read without actually being horror. It is, in short, a Kingfisher fantasy novel, with a touch more horror than average but not enough to push it out of the fantasy genre. I think my favorite part of this book was not the main quest. It was the flashback scenes set in the convent, where Marra has the space (and the mentorship) to develop her sense of self.
"We're a mystery religion," said the abbess, when she'd had a bit more wine than usual, "for people who have too much work to do to bother with mysteries. So we simply get along as best we can. Occasionally someone has a vision, but [the goddess] doesn't seem to want anything much, and so we try to return the favor."
If you have read any other Kingfisher novels, much of this will be familiar: the speculative asides, the dogged determination, the slightly askew nature of the world, the vibes-based world-building that feels more like a fairy tale than a carefully constructed magic system, and the sense that the main characters (and nearly all of the supporting characters) are average people trying to play the hands they were dealt as ethically as they can. You will know that the tentative and woman-initiated romance is coming as soon as the party meets the paladin type who is almost always the romantic interest in one of these books. The emotional tone of the book is a bit predictable for regular readers, but Ursula Vernon's brain is such a delightful place to spend some time that I don't mind.
Marra had not managed to be pale and willowy and consumptive at any point in eighteen years of life and did not think she could achieve it before she died.
Nettle & Bone won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2023. I'm not sure why this specific T. Kingfisher novel won and not any of the half-dozen earlier novels she's written in a similar style, but sure, I have no objections. I'm glad one of them won; they're all worth reading and hopefully that will help more people discover this delightful style of fantasy that doesn't feel like what anyone else is doing. Recommended, although be prepared for a few more horror touches than normal and a rather grim first chapter. Content warnings: domestic abuse. The dog... lives? Is equally as alive at the end of the book as it was at the end of the first chapter? The dog does not die; I'll just leave it at that. (Neither does the chicken.) Rating: 8 out of 10

27 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: A Study in Scarlet

Review: A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle
Series: Sherlock Holmes #1
Publisher: AmazonClassics
Copyright: 1887
Printing: February 2018
ISBN: 1-5039-5525-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 159
A Study in Scarlet is the short mystery novel (probably a novella, although I didn't count words) that introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes. I'm going to invoke the 100-year-rule and discuss the plot of this book rather freely on the grounds that even someone who (like me prior to a few days ago) has not yet read it is probably not that invested in avoiding all spoilers. If you do want to remain entirely unspoiled, exercise caution before reading on. I had somehow managed to avoid ever reading anything by Arthur Conan Doyle, not even a short story. I therefore couldn't be sure that some of the assertions I was making in my review of A Study in Honor were correct. Since A Study in Scarlet would be quick to read, I decided on a whim to do a bit of research and grab a free copy of the first Holmes novel. Holmes is such a part of English-speaking culture that I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. This was largely true, but cultural osmosis had somehow not prepared me for the surprise Mormons. A Study in Scarlet establishes the basic parameters of a Holmes story: Dr. James Watson as narrator, the apartment he shares with Holmes at 221B Baker Street, the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes's competition with police detectives, and his penchant for making leaps of logical deduction from subtle clues. The story opens with Watson meeting Holmes, agreeing to split the rent of a flat, and being baffled by the apparent randomness of Holmes's fields of study before Holmes reveals he's a consulting detective. The first case is a murder: a man is found dead in an abandoned house, without a mark on him although there are blood splatters on the walls and the word "RACHE" written in blood. Since my only prior exposure to Holmes was from cultural references and a few TV adaptations, there were a few things that surprised me. One is that Holmes is voluble and animated rather than aloof. Doyle is clearly going for passionate eccentric rather than calculating mastermind. Another is that he is intentionally and unabashedly ignorant on any topic not related to solving mysteries.
My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it. "You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it." "To forget it!" "You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you chose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
This is directly contrary to my expectation that the best way to make leaps of deduction is to know something about a huge range of topics so that one can draw unexpected connections, particularly given the puzzle-box construction and odd details so beloved in classic mysteries. I'm now curious if Doyle stuck with this conception, and if there were any later mysteries that involved astronomy. Speaking of classic mysteries, A Study in Scarlet isn't quite one, although one can see the shape of the genre to come. Doyle does not "play fair" by the rules that have not yet been invented. Holmes at most points knows considerably more than the reader, including bits of evidence that are not described until Holmes describes them and research that Holmes does off-camera and only reveals when he wants to be dramatic. This is not the sort of story where the reader is encouraged to try to figure out the mystery before the detective. Rather, what Doyle seems to be aiming for, and what Watson attempts (unsuccessfully) as the reader surrogate, is slightly different: once Holmes makes one of his grand assertions, the reader is encouraged to guess what Holmes might have done to arrive at that conclusion. Doyle seems to want the reader to guess technique rather than outcome, while providing only vague clues in general descriptions of Holmes's behavior at a crime scene. The structure of this story is quite odd. The first part is roughly what you would expect: first-person narration from Watson, supposedly taken from his journals but not at all in the style of a journal and explicitly written for an audience. Part one concludes with Holmes capturing and dramatically announcing the name of the killer, who the reader has never heard of before. Part two then opens with... a western?
In the central portion of the great North American Continent there lies an arid and repulsive desert, which for many a long year served as a barrier against the advance of civilization. From the Sierra Nevada to Nebraska, and from the Yellowstone River in the north to the Colorado upon the south, is a region of desolation and silence. Nor is Nature always in one mood throughout the grim district. It comprises snow-capped and lofty mountains, and dark and gloomy valleys. There are swift-flowing rivers which dash through jagged ca ons; and there are enormous plains, which in winter are white with snow, and in summer are grey with the saline alkali dust. They all preserve, however, the common characteristics of barrenness, inhospitality, and misery.
First, I have issues with the geography. That region contains some of the most beautiful areas on earth, and while a lot of that region is arid, describing it primarily as a repulsive desert is a bit much. Doyle's boundaries and distances are also confusing: the Yellowstone is a northeast-flowing river with its source in Wyoming, so the area between it and the Colorado does not extend to the Sierra Nevadas (or even to Utah), and it's not entirely clear to me that he realizes Nevada exists. This is probably what it's like for people who live anywhere else in the world when US authors write about their country. But second, there's no Holmes, no Watson, and not even the pretense of a transition from the detective novel that we were just reading. Doyle just launches into a random western with an omniscient narrator. It features a lean, grizzled man and an adorable child that he adopts and raises into a beautiful free spirit, who then falls in love with a wild gold-rush adventurer. This was written about 15 years before the first critically recognized western novel, so I can't blame Doyle for all the cliches here, but to a modern reader all of these characters are straight from central casting. Well, except for the villains, who are the Mormons. By that, I don't mean that the villains are Mormon. I mean Brigham Young is the on-page villain, plotting against the hero to force his adopted daughter into a Mormon harem (to use the word that Doyle uses repeatedly) and ruling Salt Lake City with an iron hand, border guards with passwords (?!), and secret police. This part of the book was wild. I was laughing out-loud at the sheer malevolent absurdity of the thirty-day countdown to marriage, which I doubt was the intended effect. We do eventually learn that this is the backstory of the murder, but we don't return to Watson and Holmes for multiple chapters. Which leads me to the other thing that surprised me: Doyle lays out this backstory, but then never has his characters comment directly on the morality of it, only the spectacle. Holmes cares only for the intellectual challenge (and for who gets credit), and Doyle sets things up so that the reader need not concern themselves with aftermath, punishment, or anything of that sort. I probably shouldn't have been surprised this does fit with the Holmes stereotype but I'm used to modern fiction where there is usually at least some effort to pass judgment on the events of the story. Doyle draws very clear villains, but is utterly silent on whether the murder is justified. Given its status in the history of literature, I'm not sorry to have read this book, but I didn't particularly enjoy it. It is very much of its time: everyone's moral character is linked directly to their physical appearance, and Doyle uses the occasional racial stereotype without a second thought. Prevailing writing styles have changed, so the prose feels long-winded and breathless. The rivalry between Holmes and the police detectives is tedious and annoying. I also find it hard to read novels from before the general absorption of techniques of emotional realism and interiority into all genres. The characters in A Study in Scarlet felt more like cartoon characters than fully-realized human beings. I have no strong opinion about the objective merits of this book in the context of its time other than to note that the sudden inserted western felt very weird. My understanding is that this is not considered one of the better Holmes stories, and Holmes gets some deeper characterization later on. Maybe I'll try another of Doyle's works someday, but for now my curiosity has been sated. Followed by The Sign of the Four. Rating: 4 out of 10

26 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: A Study in Honor

Review: A Study in Honor, by Claire O'Dell
Series: Janet Watson Chronicles #1
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Copyright: July 2018
ISBN: 0-06-269932-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 295
A Study in Honor is a near-future science fiction novel by Claire O'Dell, a pen name for Beth Bernobich. You will see some assertions, including by the Lambda Literary Award judges, that it is a mystery novel. There is a mystery, but... well, more on that in a moment. Janet Watson was an Army surgeon in the Second US Civil War when New Confederacy troops overran the lines in Alton, Illinois. Watson lost her left arm to enemy fire. As this book opens, she is returning to Washington, D.C. with a medical discharge, PTSD, and a field replacement artificial arm scavenged from a dead soldier. It works, sort of, mostly, despite being mismatched to her arm and old in both technology and previous wear. It does not work well enough for her to resume her career as a surgeon. Watson's plan is to request a better artificial arm from the VA (the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, which among other things is responsible for the medical care of wounded veterans). That plan meets a wall of unyielding and uninterested bureaucracy. She has a pension, but it's barely enough for cheap lodging. A lifeline comes in the form of a chance encounter with a former assistant in the Army, who has a difficult friend looking to split the cost of an apartment. The name of that friend is Sara Holmes. At this point, you know what to expect. This is clearly one of the many respinnings of Arthur Conan Doyle. This time, the setting is in the future and Watson and Holmes are both black women, but the other elements of the setup are familiar: the immediate deduction that Watson came from the front, the shared rooms (2809 Q Street this time, sacrificing homage for the accuracy of a real address), Holmes's tendency to play an instrument (this time the piano), and even the title of this book, which is an obvious echo of the title of the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. Except that's not what you'll get. There are a lot of parallels and references here, but this is not a Holmes-style detective novel. First, it's only arguably a detective novel at all. There is a mystery, which starts with a patient Watson sees in her fallback job as a medical tech in the VA hospital and escalates to a physical attack, but that doesn't start until a third of the way into the book. It certainly is not solved through minute clues and leaps of deduction; instead, that part of the plot has the shape of a thriller rather than a classic mystery. There is a good argument that the thriller is the modern mystery novel, so I don't want to overstate my case, but I think someone who came to this book wanting a Doyle-style mystery would be disappointed. Second, the mystery is not the heart of this book. Watson is. She, like Doyle's Watson, is the first-person narrator, but she is far more present in the book. I have no idea how accurate O'Dell's portrayal of Watson's PTSD is, but it was certainly compelling and engrossing reading. Her fight for basic dignity and her rage at the surface respect and underlying disinterested hostility of the bureaucratic war machinery is what kept me turning the pages. The mystery plot is an outgrowth of that and felt more like a case study than the motivating thread of the plot. And third, Sara Holmes... well, I hesitate to say definitively that she's not Sherlock Holmes. There have been so many versions of Holmes over the years, even apart from the degree to which a black woman would necessarily not be like Doyle's character. But she did not remind me of Sherlock Holmes. She reminded me of a cross between James Bond and a high fae. This sounds like a criticism. It very much is not. I found this high elf spy character far more interesting than I have ever found Sherlock Holmes. But here again, if you came into this book hoping for a Holmes-style master detective, I fear you may be wrong-footed. The James Bond parts will be obvious when you get there and aren't the most interesting (and thankfully the misogyny is entirely absent). The part I found more fascinating is the way O'Dell sets Holmes apart by making her fae rather than insufferable. She projects effortless elegance, appears and disappears on a mysterious schedule of her own, thinks nothing of reading her roommate's diary, leaves meticulously arranged gifts, and even bargains with Watson for answers to precisely three questions. The reader does learn some mundane explanations for some of this behavior, but to be honest I found them somewhat of a letdown. Sara Holmes is at her best as a character when she tacks her own mysterious path through a rather grim world of exhausted war, penny-pinching bureaucracy, and despair, pursuing an unexplained agenda of her own while showing odd but unmistakable signs of friendship and care. This is not a romance, at least in this book. It is instead a slowly-developing friendship between two extremely different people, one that I thoroughly enjoyed. I do have a couple of caveats about this book. The first is that the future US in which it is set is almost pure Twitter doomcasting. Trump's election sparked a long slide into fascism, and when that was arrested by the election of a progressive candidate backed by a fragile coalition, Midwestern red states seceded to form the New Confederacy and start a second civil war that has dragged on for nearly eight years. It's a very specific mainstream liberal dystopian scenario that I've seen so many times it felt like a cliche even though I don't remember seeing it in a book before. This type of future projection of current fears is of course not new for science fiction; Cold War nuclear war novels are probably innumerable. But I had questions, such as how a sparsely-populated, largely non-industrial, and entirely landlocked set of breakaway states could maintain a war footing for eight years. Despite some hand-waving about covert support, those questions are not really answered here. The second problem is that the ending of this book kind of falls apart. The climax of the mystery investigation is unsatisfyingly straightforward, and the resulting revelation is a hoary cliche. Maybe I'm just complaining about the banality of evil, but if I'd been engrossed in this book for the thriller plot, I think I would have been annoyed. I wasn't, though; I was here for the characters, for Watson's PTSD and dogged determination, for Sara's strangeness, and particularly for the growing improbable friendship between two women with extremely different life experiences, emotions, and outlooks. That part was great, regardless of the ending. Do not pick this book up because you want a satisfying deductive mystery with bumbling police and a blizzard of apparently inconsequential clues. That is not at all what's happening here. But this was great on its own terms, and I will be reading the sequel shortly. Recommended, although if you are very online expect to do a bit of eye-rolling at the setting. Followed by The Hound of Justice, but the sequel is not required. This book reaches a satisfying conclusion of its own. Rating: 8 out of 10

Russ Allbery: krb5-strength 3.3

krb5-strength is a toolkit of plugins and support programs for password strength checking for Kerberos KDCs, either Heimdal or MIT. It also includes a password history mechanism for Heimdal KDCs. This is a maintenance release, since there hadn't been a new release since 2020. It contains the normal sort of build system and portability updates, and the routine bump in the number of hash iterations used for the history mechanism to protect against (some) brute force attacks. It also includes an RPM spec file contributed by Daria Phoebe Brashear, and some changes to the Perl dependencies to track current community recommendations. You can get the latest version from the krb5-strength distribution page.

25 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Blackwing War

Review: The Blackwing War, by K.B. Spangler
Series: Deep Witches #1
Publisher: A Girl and Her Fed Books
Copyright: March 2021
ISBN: blackwing-war
Format: Kindle
Pages: 284
The Blackwing War is the first book of a projected space opera series. I previously reviewed Stoneskin, which was intended as a prelude to this series. In theory you can start here, but I would read Stoneskin first. Tembi is a Witch, which means she can ask the Deep to do things for her. At the start of the book, those things mostly involve disarming bombs. The galaxy is in the middle of a genocidal war between the well-equipped and all-but-officially supported Sagittarius Armed Forces, also known as the Blackwings, and the Sabenta resistance movement. To settle the galaxy, humans fiddled with their genes to adapt themselves to otherwise-hostile planets. The Blackwings take exception, in the tradition of racist humans throughout history, and think it's time to purify human bloodlines again. Both sides are using bombs. The Deep is the brilliant idea of this series. It seems to exist everywhere simultaneously, it's alive, it adores teleporting things, and it's basically a giant cosmic puppy. Humans are nearly incomprehensible to the Deep, and it's nearly incomprehensible to humans, but it somehow picks out specific humans who can (sort of) understand it and whom it gets attached to and somehow makes immortal. These are the Witches, and they have turned the Deep into the logistical backbone of human civilization. Essentially all commerce and travel is now done through Deep teleportation, requested by a Witch and coordinated by Lancaster, the Witches' governing council. The exception is war. Lancaster is strictly neutral; it does not take sides, even in the face of an ongoing genocide, and it refuses to transport military ships, any type of weapons, or even war refugees. Domino, Lancaster's cynically manipulative leader, is determined to protect its special privileges and position at all costs. Tembi is one of the quasi-leaders of a resistance against that position, but even they are reluctant to ask the Deep to take sides in a war. To them, the Deep is a living magical creature that they are exploiting, and which also tends to be a bundle of nerves. Using it as a weapon feels like a step too far. That's how the situation lies at the start of this book when, after a successful bomb defusing, the Deep whisks Tembi away to watch an unknown weapon blow up a moon. A lot of this book consists of Tembi unraveling a couple of mysteries, starting with the apparent experimental bomb and then expanding to include the apparent drugging and disappearance of her former classmate. The low-grade war gets worse throughout, leaving Tembi torn between the justifications for Lancaster's neutrality and her strong sense of basic morality. The moments when Tembi gets angry enough or impatient enough to take action are the best parts, but a lot of this book is quite grim. Do not expect all to be resolved in a happy ending. There is some catharsis, but The Blackwing War is also clearly setup for a longer series. Tembi is a great character and the Deep is even better. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about both of them, and Tembi's relationship with the Deep is a delight. Usually I get frustrated by baffling incomprehensibility as a plot devices, but Spangler pulls it off as well as I've seen it done. But unfortunately, this book is firmly in the "gets worse before it will get better" part of the overall story arc, and the sequels have not yet appeared. The Blackwing War ends on a cliffhanger that portends huge changes for the characters and the setting, and if I had the next book to rush into, I wouldn't mind the grimness as much. As is, it was a somewhat depressing reading experience despite its charms, and despite a somewhat optimistic ending (that I doubt will truly resolve anything). I think the world-building elements were a touch predictable, and I wish Spangler wouldn't have her characters keep trying to justify Domino's creepy, abusive, and manipulative actions. But the characters are so much fun, and the idea of the Deep as a character is such a delight, that I am hooked on this series regardless. Recommended, although I will (hopefully) be able to recommend it more heartily once at least one sequel has been published. Content warnings: genocide, racism, violent death. Rating: 7 out of 10

24 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Liberty's Daughter

Review: Liberty's Daughter, by Naomi Kritzer
Publisher: Fairwood Press
Copyright: November 2023
ISBN: 1-958880-16-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 257
Liberty's Daughter is a stand-alone near-future science fiction fix-up novel. The original stories were published in Fantasy and Science Fiction between 2012 and 2015. Beck Garrison lives on New Minerva (Min), one of a cluster of libertarian seasteads 220 nautical miles off the coast of Los Angeles. Her father brought her to Min when she was four, so it's the only life she knows. As this story opens, she's picked up a job for pocket change: finding very specific items that people want to buy. Since any new goods have to be shipped in and the seasteads have an ambiguous legal status, they don't get Amazon deliveries, but there are enough people (and enough tourists who bring high-value goods for trade) that someone probably has whatever someone else is looking for. Even sparkly high-heeled sandals size eight. Beck's father is high in the informal power structure of the seasteads for reasons that don't become apparent until very late in this book. Beck therefore has a comfortable, albeit cramped, life. The social protections, self-confidence, and feelings of invincibility that come with that wealth serve her well as a finder. After the current owner of the sandals bargains with her to find a person rather than an object, that privilege also lets her learn quite a lot before she starts getting into trouble. The political background of this novel is going to require some suspension of disbelief. The premise is that one of those harebrained libertarian schemes to form a freedom utopia has been successful enough to last for 49 years and attract 80,000 permanent residents. (It's a libertarian seastead so a lot of those residents are indentured slaves, as one does in libertarian philosophy. The number of people with shares, like Beck's father, is considerably smaller.) By the end of the book, Kritzer has offered some explanations for why the US would allow such a place to continue to exist, but the chances of the famously fractious con artists and incompetents involved in these types of endeavors creating something that survived internal power struggles for that long seem low. One has to roll with it for story reasons: Kritzer needs the population to be large enough for a plot, and the history to be long enough for Beck to exist as a character. The strength of this book is Beck, and specifically the fact that Beck is a second-generation teenager who grew up on the seastead. Unlike a lot of her age peers with their Cayman Islands vacations, she's never left and has no experience with life on land. She considers many things to be perfectly normal that are not at all normal to the reader and the various reader surrogates who show up over the course of the book. She also has the instinctive feel for seastead politics of the child of a prominent figure in a small town. And, most importantly, she has formed her own sense of morality and social structure that matches neither that of the reader nor that of her father. Liberty's Daughter is told in first-person by Beck. Judging the authenticity of Gen-Z thought processes is not one of my strengths, but Beck felt right to me. Her narration is dryly matter-of-fact, with only brief descriptions of her emotional reactions, but her personality shines in the occasional sarcasm and obstinacy. Kritzer has the teenage bafflement at the stupidity of adults down pat, as well as the tendency to jump head-first into ideas and make some decisions through sheer stubbornness. This is not one of those fix-up novels where the author has reworked the stories sufficiently that the original seams don't show. It is very episodic; compared to a typical novel of this length, there's more plot but less character growth. It's a good book when you want to be pulled into a stream of events that moves right along. This is not the book for deep philosophical examinations of the basis of a moral society, but it does have, around the edges, is the humans build human societies and develop elaborate social conventions and senses of belonging no matter how stupid the original philosophical foundations were. Even societies built on nasty exploitation can engender a sort of loyalty. Beck doesn't support the worst parts of her weird society, but she wants to fix it, not burn it to the ground. I thought there was a profound observation there. That brings me to my complaint: I hated the ending. Liberty's Daughter is in part Beck's fight for her own autonomy, both moral and financial, and the beginnings of an effort to turn her home into the sort of home she wants. By the end of the book, she's testing the limits of what she can accomplish, solidifying her own moral compass, and deciding how she wants to use the social position she inherited. It felt like the ending undermined all of that and treated her like a child. I know adolescence comes with those sorts of reversals, but I was still so mad. This is particularly annoying since I otherwise want to recommend this book. It's not ground-breaking, it's not that deep, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable day's worth of entertainment with a likable protagonist. Just don't read the last chapter, I guess? Or have more tolerance than I have for people treating sixteen-year-olds as if they're not old enough to make decisions. Content warnings: pandemic. Rating: 7 out of 10

23 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Bookshops & Bonedust

Review: Bookshops & Bonedust, by Travis Baldree
Series: Legends & Lattes #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-250-88611-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 337
Bookshops & Bonedust is a prequel to the cozy fantasy Legends & Lattes. You can read them in either order, although the epilogue of Bookshops & Bonedust spoils (somewhat guessable) plot developments in Legends & Lattes. Viv is a new member of the mercenary troop Rackam's Ravens and is still possessed of more enthusiasm than sense. As the story opens, she charges well ahead of her allies and nearly gets killed by a pike through the leg. She survives, but her leg needs time to heal and she is not up to the further pursuit of a necromancer. Rackam pays for a room and a doctor in the small seaside town of Murk and leaves her there to recuperate. The Ravens will pick her up when they come back through town, whenever that is. Viv is very quickly bored out of her skull. On a whim, and after some failures to find something else to occupy her, she tries a run-down local bookstore and promptly puts her foot through the boardwalk outside it. That's the start of an improbable friendship with the proprietor, a rattkin named Fern with a knack for book recommendations and a serious cash flow problem. Viv, being Viv, soon decides to make herself useful. The good side and bad side of this book are the same: it's essentially the same book as Legends & Lattes, but this time with a bookstore. There's a medieval sword and sorcery setting, a wide variety of humanoid species, a local business that needs love and attention (this time because it's failing instead of new), a lurking villain, an improbable store animal (this time a gryphlet that I found less interesting than the cat of the coffee shop), and a whole lot of found family. It turns out I was happy to read that story again, and there were some things I liked better in this version. I find bookstores more interesting than coffee shops, and although Viv and Fern go through a similar process of copying features of a modern bookstore, this felt less strained than watching Viv reinvent the precise equipment and menu of a modern coffee shop in a fantasy world. Also, Fern is an absolute delight, probably my favorite character in either of the books. I love the way that she uses book recommendations as a way of asking questions and guessing at answers about other people. As with the first book, Baldree's world-building is utterly unconcerned with trying to follow the faux-medieval conventions of either sword and sorcery or D&D-style role-playing games. On one hand, I like this; most of that so-called medievalism is nonsense anyway, and there's no reason why fantasy with D&D-style species diversity should be set in a medieval world. On the other hand, this world seems exactly like a US small town except the tavern also has rooms for rent, there are roving magical armies, and everyone fights with swords for some reason. It feels weirdly anachronistic, and I can't tell if that's because I've been brainwashed into thinking fantasy has to be medievaloid or if it's a true criticism of the book. I was reminded somewhat of reading Jack McDevitt's SF novels, which are supposedly set in the far future but are indistinguishable from 1980s suburbia except with flying cars. The other oddity with this book is that the reader of the series knows Viv isn't going to stay. This is the problem with writing a second iteration of this story as a prequel. I see why Baldree did it the story wouldn't have worked if Viv were already established but it casts a bit of a pall over the cheeriness of the story. Baldree to his credit confronts this directly, weaves it into the relationships, and salvages it a bit more in the epilogue, but it gave the story a sort of preemptive wistfulness that was at odds with how I wanted to read it. But, despite that, the strength of this book are the characters. Viv is a good person who helps where she can, which sounds like a simple thing but is so restful to read about. This book features her first meeting with the gnome Gallina, who is always a delight. There are delicious baked goods from a dwarf, a grumpy doctor, a grumpier city guard, and a whole cast of people who felt complicated and normal and essentially decent. I'm not sure the fantasy elements do anything for this book, or this series, other than marketing and the convenience of a few plot devices. Even though one character literally disappears into a satchel, it felt like Baldree could have written roughly the same story as a contemporary novel without a hint of genre. But that's not really a complaint, since the marketing works. I would not have read this series if it had been contemporary novels, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a slice of life novel about kind and decent people for readers who are bored by contemporary settings and would rather read fantasy. Works for me. I'm hoping Baldree finds other stories, since I'm not sure I want to read this one several more times, but twice was not too much. If you liked Legends & Lattes and are thinking "how can I get more of that," here's the book for you. If you haven't read Legends & Lattes, I think I would recommend reading this one first. It does many of the same things, it's a bit more polished, and then you can read Viv's adventures in internal chronological order. Rating: 8 out of 10

22 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Wintersmith

Review: Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #35
Publisher: Clarion Books
Copyright: 2006
Printing: 2007
ISBN: 0-06-089033-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 450
Wintersmith is the 35th Discworld novel and the 3rd Tiffany Aching novel. You could probably start here, since understanding the backstory isn't vital for following the plot, but I'm not sure why you would. Tiffany is now training with Miss Treason, a 113-year-old witch who is quite different in her approach from Miss Level, Tiffany's mentor in A Hat Full of Sky. Miss Level was the unassuming and constantly helpful glue that held the neighborhood together. Miss Treason is the judge; her neighbors are scared of her and proud of being scared of her, since that means they have a proper witch who can see into their heads and sort out their problems. On the surface, they're quite different; part of the story of this book is Tiffany learning to see the similarities. First, though, Miss Treason rushes Tiffany to a strange midnight Morris Dance, without any explanation. The Morris Dance usually celebrates the coming of spring and is at the center of a village party, so Tiffany is quite confused by seeing it danced on a dark and windy night in late autumn. But there is a hole in the dance where the Fool normally is, and Tiffany can't keep herself from joining it. This proves to be a mistake. That space was left for someone very different from Tiffany, and now she's entangled herself in deep magic that she doesn't understand. This is another Pratchett novel where the main storyline didn't do much for me. All the trouble stems from Miss Treason being maddeningly opaque, and while she did warn Tiffany, she did so in that way that guarantees a protagonist of a middle-grade novel will ignore. The Wintersmith is a boring, one-note quasi-villain, and the plot mainly revolves around elemental powers being dumber than a sack of hammers. The one thing I will say about the main plot is that the magic Tiffany danced into is entangled with courtship and romance, Tiffany turns thirteen over the course of this book, and yet this is not weird and uncomfortable reading the way it would be in the hands of many other authors. Pratchett has a keen eye for the age range that he's targeting. The first awareness that there is such a thing as romance that might be relevant to oneself pairs nicely with the Wintersmith's utter confusion at how Tiffany's intrusion unbalanced his dance. This is a very specific age and experience that I think a lot of authors would shy away from, particularly with a female protagonist, and I thought Pratchett handled it adroitly. I personally found the Wintersmith's awkward courting tedious and annoying, but that's more about me than about the book. As with A Hat Full of Sky, though, everything other than the main plot was great. It is becoming obvious how much Tiffany and Granny Weatherwax have in common, and that Granny Weatherwax recognizes this and is training Tiffany herself. This is high-quality coming-of-age material, not in the traditional fantasy sense of chosen ones and map explorations, but in the sense of slowly-developing empathy and understanding of people who think differently than you do. Tiffany, like Granny Weatherwax, has very little patience with nonsense, and her irritation with stupidity is one of her best characteristics. But she's learning how to blunt it long enough to pay attention, and to understand how people she doesn't like can still be the right people for specific situations. I particularly loved how Granny carries on with a feud at the same time that Tiffany is learning to let go of one. It's not a contradiction or hypocrisy; it's a sign that Tiffany is entitled to her judgments and feelings, but has to learn how to keep them in their place and not let them take over. One of the great things about the Tiffany Aching books is that the villages are also characters. We don't see that much of the individual people, but one of the things Tiffany is learning is how to see the interpersonal dynamics and patterns of village life. Somehow the feelings of irritation and exasperation fade once you understand people's motives and see more sides to their character. There is a lot more Nanny Ogg in this book than there has been in the last few, and that reminded me of how much I love her character. She has a completely different approach than Granny Weatherwax, but it's just as effective in different ways. She's also the perfect witch to have around when you've stumbled into a stylized love story that you don't want to be a part of, and yet find oddly fascinating. It says something about the skill of Pratchett's characterization that I could enjoy a book this much while having no interest in the main plot. The Witches have always been great characters, but somehow they're even better when seen through Tiffany's perspective. Good stuff; if you liked any of the other Tiffany Aching books, you will like this as well. Followed by Making Money in publication order. The next Tiffany Aching novel is I Shall Wear Midnight. Rating: 8 out of 10

21 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Box

Review: The Box, by Marc Levinson
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Copyright: 2006, 2008
Printing: 2008
ISBN: 0-691-13640-8
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 278
The shipping container as we know it is only about 65 years old. Shipping things in containers is obviously much older; we've been doing that for longer than we've had ships. But the standardized metal box, set on a rail car or loaded with hundreds of its indistinguishable siblings into an enormous, specially-designed cargo ship, became economically significant only recently. Today it is one of the oft-overlooked foundations of global supply chains. The startlingly low cost of container shipping is part of why so much of what US consumers buy comes from Asia, and why most complex machinery is assembled in multiple countries from parts gathered from a dizzying variety of sources. Marc Levinson's The Box is a history of container shipping, from its (arguable) beginnings in the trailer bodies loaded on Pan-Atlantic Steamship Corporation's Ideal-X in 1956 to just-in-time international supply chains in the 2000s. It's a popular history that falls on the academic side, with a full index and 60 pages of citations and other notes. (Per my normal convention, those pages aren't included in the sidebar page count.) The Box is organized mostly chronologically, but Levinson takes extended detours into labor relations and container standardization at the appropriate points in the timeline. The book is very US-centric. Asian, European, and Australian shipping is discussed mostly in relation to trade with the US, and Africa is barely mentioned. I don't have the background to know whether this is historically correct for container shipping or is an artifact of Levinson's focus. Many single-item popular histories focus on something that involves obvious technological innovation (paint pigments) or deep cultural resonance (salt) or at least entertaining quirkiness (punctuation marks, resignation letters). Shipping containers are important but simple and boring. The least interesting chapter in The Box covers container standardization, in which a whole bunch of people had boring meetings, wrote some things done, discovered many of the things they wrote down were dumb, wrote more things down, met with different people to have more meetings, published a standard that partly reflected the fixations of that one guy who is always involved in standards discussions, and then saw that standard be promptly ignored by the major market players. You may be wondering if that describes the whole book. It doesn't, but not because of the shipping containers. The Box is interesting because the process of economic change is interesting, and container shipping is almost entirely about business processes rather than technology. Levinson starts the substance of the book with a description of shipping before standardized containers. This was the most effective, and probably the most informative, chapter. Beyond some vague ideas picked up via cultural osmosis, I had no idea how cargo shipping worked. Levinson gives the reader a memorable feel for the sheer amount of physical labor involved in loading and unloading a ship with mixed cargo (what's called "breakbulk" cargo to distinguish it from bulk cargo like coal or wheat that fills an entire hold). It's not just the effort of hauling barrels, bales, or boxes with cranes or raw muscle power, although that is significant. It's also the need to touch every piece of cargo to move it, inventory it, warehouse it, and then load it on a truck or train. The idea of container shipping is widely attributed, including by Levinson, to Malcom McLean, a trucking magnate who became obsessed with the idea of what we now call intermodal transport: using the same container for goods on ships, railroads, and trucks so that the contents don't have to be unpacked and repacked at each transfer point. Levinson uses his career as an anchor for the story, from his acquisition of Pan-American Steamship Corporation to pursue his original idea (backed by private equity and debt, in a very modern twist), through his years running Sea-Land as the first successful major container shipper, and culminating in his disastrous attempted return to shipping by acquiring United States Lines. I am dubious of Great Man narratives in history books, and I think Levinson may be overselling McLean's role. Container shipping was an obvious idea that the industry had been talking about for decades. Even Levinson admits that, despite a few gestures at giving McLean central credit. Everyone involved in shipping understood that cargo handling was the most expensive and time-consuming part, and that if one could minimize cargo handling at the docks by loading and unloading full containers that didn't have to be opened, shipping costs would be much lower (and profits higher). The idea wasn't the hard part. McLean was the first person to pull it off at scale, thanks to some audacious economic risks and a willingness to throw sharp elbows and play politics, but it seems likely that someone else would have played that role if McLean hadn't existed. Container shipping didn't happen earlier because achieving that cost savings required a huge expenditure of capital and a major disruption of a transportation industry that wasn't interested in being disrupted. The ships had to be remodeled and eventually replaced; manufacturing had to change; railroad and trucking in theory had to change (in practice, intermodal transport; McLean's obsession, didn't happen at scale until much later); pricing had to be entirely reworked; logistical tracking of goods had to be done much differently; and significant amounts of extremely expensive equipment to load and unload heavy containers had to be designed, built, and installed. McLean's efforts proved the cost savings was real and compelling, but it still took two decades before the shipping industry reconstructed itself around containers. That interim period is where this history becomes a labor story, and that's where Levinson's biases become somewhat distracting. In the United States, loading and unloading of cargo ships was done by unionized longshoremen through a bizarre but complex and long-standing system of contract hiring. The cost savings of container shipping comes almost completely from the loss of work for longshoremen. It's a classic replacement of labor with capital; the work done by gangs of twenty or more longshoreman is instead done by a single crane operator at much higher speed and efficiency. The longshoreman unions therefore opposed containerization and launched numerous strikes and other labor actions to delay use of containers, force continued hiring that containers made unnecessary, or win buyouts and payoffs for current longshoremen. Levinson is trying to write a neutral history and occasionally shows some sympathy for longshoremen, but they still get the Luddite treatment in this book: the doomed reactionaries holding back progress. Longshoremen had a vigorous and powerful union that won better working conditions structured in ways that look absurd to outsiders, such as requiring that ships hire twice as many men as necessary so that half of them could get paid while not working. The unions also had a reputation for corruption that Levinson stresses constantly, and theft of breakbulk cargo during loading and warehousing was common. One of the interesting selling points for containers was that lossage from theft during shipping apparently decreased dramatically. It's obvious that the surface demand of the longshoremen unions, that either containers not be used or that just as many manual laborers be hired for container shipping as for earlier breakbulk shipping, was impossible, and that the profession as it existed in the 1950s was doomed. But beneath those facts, and the smoke screen of Levinson's obvious distaste for their unions, is a real question about what society owes workers whose jobs are eliminated by major shifts in business practices. That question of fairness becomes more pointed when one realizes that this shift was massively subsidized by US federal and local governments. McLean's Sea-Land benefited from direct government funding and subsidized navy surplus ships, massive port construction in New Jersey with public funds, and a sweetheart logistics contract from the US military to supply troops fighting the Vietnam War that was so generous that the return voyage was free and every container Sea-Land picked up from Japanese ports was pure profit. The US shipping industry was heavily government-supported, particularly in the early days when the labor conflicts were starting. Levinson notes all of this, but never draws the contrast between the massive support for shipping corporations and the complete lack of formal support for longshoremen. There are hard ethical questions about what society owes displaced workers even in a pure capitalist industry transformation, and this was very far from pure capitalism. The US government bankrolled large parts of the growth of container shipping, but the only way that longshoremen could get part of that money was through strikes to force payouts from private shipping companies. There are interesting questions of social and ethical history here that would require careful disentangling of the tendency of any group to oppose disruptive change and fairness questions of who gets government support and who doesn't. They will have to wait for another book; Levinson never mentions them. There were some things about this book that annoyed me, but overall it's a solid work of popular history and deserves its fame. Levinson's account is easy to follow, specific without being tedious, and backed by voluminous notes. It's not the most compelling story on its own merits; you have to have some interest in logistics and economics to justify reading the entire saga. But it's the sort of history that gives one a sense of the fractal complexity of any area of human endeavor, and I usually find those worth reading. Recommended if you like this sort of thing. Rating: 7 out of 10

4 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Cumulative haul

I haven't done one of these in quite a while, long enough that I've already read and reviewed many of these books. John Joseph Adams (ed.) The Far Reaches (sff anthology)
Poul Anderson The Shield of Time (sff)
Catherine Asaro The Phoenix Code (sff)
Catherine Asaro The Veiled Web (sff)
Travis Baldree Bookshops & Bonedust (sff)
Sue Burke Semiosis (sff)
Jacqueline Carey Cassiel's Servant (sff)
Rob Copeland The Fund (nonfiction)
Mar Delaney Wolf Country (sff)
J.S. Dewes The Last Watch (sff)
J.S. Dewes The Exiled Fleet (sff)
Mike Duncan Hero of Two Worlds (nonfiction)
Mike Duncan The Storm Before the Storm (nonfiction)
Kate Elliott King's Dragon (sff)
Zeke Faux Number Go Up (nonfiction)
Nicola Griffith Menewood (sff)
S.L. Huang The Water Outlaws (sff)
Alaya Dawn Johnson The Library of Broken Worlds (sff)
T. Kingfisher Thornhedge (sff)
Naomi Kritzer Liberty's Daughter (sff)
Ann Leckie Translation State (sff)
Michael Lewis Going Infinite (nonfiction)
Jenna Moran Magical Bears in the Context of Contemporary Political Theory (sff collection)
Ari North Love and Gravity (graphic novel)
Ciel Pierlot Bluebird (sff)
Terry Pratchett A Hat Full of Sky (sff)
Terry Pratchett Going Postal (sff)
Terry Pratchett Thud! (sff)
Terry Pratchett Wintersmith (sff)
Terry Pratchett Making Money (sff)
Terry Pratchett Unseen Academicals (sff)
Terry Pratchett I Shall Wear Midnight (sff)
Terry Pratchett Snuff (sff)
Terry Pratchett Raising Steam (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Shepherd's Crown (sff)
Aaron A. Reed 50 Years of Text Games (nonfiction)
Dashka Slater Accountable (nonfiction)
Rory Stewart The Marches (nonfiction)
Emily Tesh Silver in the Wood (sff)
Emily Tesh Drowned Country (sff)
Valerie Vales Chilling Effect (sff)
Martha Wells System Collapse (sff)
Martha Wells Witch King (sff)

21 November 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Thud!

Review: Thud!, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #34
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2005
Printing: November 2014
ISBN: 0-06-233498-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 434
Thud! is the 34th Discworld novel and the seventh Watch novel. It is partly a sequel to The Fifth Elephant, partly a sequel to Night Watch, and references many of the previous Watch novels. This is not a good place to start. Dwarfs and trolls have a long history of conflict, as one might expect between a race of creatures who specialize in mining and a race of creatures whose vital organs are sometimes the targets of that mining. The first battle of Koom Valley was the place where that enmity was made concrete and given a symbol. Now that there are large dwarf and troll populations in Ankh-Morpork, the upcoming anniversary of that battle is the excuse for rising tensions. Worse, Grag Hamcrusher, a revered deep-down dwarf and a dwarf supremacist, is giving incendiary speeches about killing all trolls and appears to be tunneling under the city. Then whispers run through the city's dwarfs that Hamcrusher has been murdered by a troll. Vimes has no patience for racial tensions, or for the inspection of the Watch by one of Vetinari's excessively competent clerks, or the political pressure to add a vampire to the Watch over his prejudiced objections. He was already grumpy before the murder and is in absolutely no mood to be told by deep-down dwarfs who barely believe that humans exist that the murder of a dwarf underground is no affair of his. Meanwhile, The Battle of Koom Valley by Methodia Rascal has been stolen from the Ankh-Morpork Royal Art Museum, an impressive feat given that the painting is ten feet high and fifty feet long. It was painted in impressive detail by a madman who thought he was a chicken, and has been the spark for endless theories about clues to some great treasure or hidden knowledge, culminating in the conspiratorial book Koom Valley Codex. But the museum prides itself on allowing people to inspect and photograph the painting to their heart's content and was working on a new room to display it. It's not clear why someone would want to steal it, but Colon and Nobby are on the case. This was a good time to read this novel. Sadly, the same could be said of pretty much every year since it was written. "Thud" in the title is a reference to Hamcrusher's murder, which was supposedly done by a troll club that was found nearby, but it's also a reference to a board game that we first saw in passing in Going Postal. We find out a lot more about Thud in this book. It's an asymmetric two-player board game that simulates a stylized battle between dwarf and troll forces, with one player playing the trolls and the other playing the dwarfs. The obvious comparison is to chess, but a better comparison would be to the old Steve Jackson Games board game Ogre, which also featured asymmetric combat mechanics. (I'm sure there are many others.) This board game will become quite central to the plot of Thud! in ways that I thought were ingenious. I thought this was one of Pratchett's best-plotted books to date. There are a lot of things happening, involving essentially every member of the Watch that we've met in previous books, and they all matter and I was never confused by how they fit together. This book is full of little callbacks and apparently small things that become important later in a way that I found delightful to read, down to the children's book that Vimes reads to his son and that turns into the best scene of the book. At this point in my Discworld read-through, I can see why the Watch books are considered the best sub-series. It feels like Pratchett kicks the quality of writing up a notch when he has Vimes as a protagonist. In several books now, Pratchett has created a villain by taking some human characteristic and turning it into an external force that acts on humans. (See, for instance the Gonne in Men at Arms, or the hiver in A Hat Full of Sky.) I normally do not like this plot technique, both because I think it lets humans off the hook in a way that cheapens the story and because this type of belief has a long and bad reputation in religions where it is used to dodge personal responsibility and dehumanize one's enemies. When another of those villains turned up in this book, I was dubious. But I think Pratchett pulls off this type of villain as well here as I've seen it done. He lifts up a facet of humanity to let the reader get a better view, but somehow makes it explicit that this is concretized metaphor. This force is something people create and feed and choose and therefore are responsible for. The one sour note that I do have to complain about is that Pratchett resorts to some cheap and annoying "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" nonsense, mostly around Nobby's subplot but in a few other places (Sybil, some of Angua's internal monologue) as well. It's relatively minor, and I might let it pass without grumbling in other books, but usually Pratchett is better on gender than this. I expected better and it got under my skin. Otherwise, though, this was a quietly excellent book. It doesn't have the emotional gut punch of Night Watch, but the plotting is superb and the pacing is a significant improvement over The Fifth Elephant. The parody is of The Da Vinci Code, which is both more interesting than Pratchett's typical movie parodies and delightfully subtle. We get more of Sybil being a bad-ass, which I am always here for. There's even some lovely world-building in the form of dwarven Devices. I love how Pratchett has built Vimes up into one of the most deceptively heroic figures on Discworld, but also shows all of the support infrastructure that ensures Vimes maintain his principles. On the surface, Thud! has a lot in common with Vimes's insistently moral stance in Jingo, but here it is more obvious how Vimes's morality happens in part because his wife, his friends, and his boss create the conditions for it to thrive. Highly recommended to anyone who has gotten this far. Rating: 9 out of 10

20 November 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Exiled Fleet

Review: The Exiled Fleet, by J.S. Dewes
Series: Divide #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-23635-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 421
The Exiled Fleet is far-future interstellar military SF. It is a direct sequel to The Last Watch. You don't want to start here. The Last Watch took a while to get going, but it ended with some fascinating world-building and a suitably enormous threat. I was hoping Dewes would carry that momentum into the second book. I was disappointed; instead, The Exiled Fleet starts with interpersonal angst and wallowing and takes an annoyingly long time to build up narrative tension again. The world-building of the first book looked outward, towards aliens and strange technology and stranger physics, while setting up contributing problems on the home front. The Exiled Fleet pivots inwards, both in terms of world-building and in terms of character introspection. Neither of those worked as well for me. There's nothing wrong with the revelations here about human power structures and the politics that the Sentinels have been missing at the edge of space, but it also felt like a classic human autocracy without much new to offer in either wee thinky bits or plot structure. We knew most of shape from the start of the first book: Cavalon's grandfather is evil, human society is run as an oligarchy, and everything is trending authoritarian. Once the action started, I was entertained but not gripped the way that I was when reading The Last Watch. Dewes makes a brief attempt to tap into the morally complex question of the military serving as a brake on tyranny, but then does very little with it. Instead, everything is excessively personal, turning the political into less of a confrontation of ideologies or ethics and more a story of family abuse and rebellion. There is even more psychodrama in this book than there was in the previous book. I found it exhausting. Rake is barely functional after the events of the previous book and pushing herself way too hard at the start of this one. Cavalon regresses considerably and starts falling apart again. There's a lot of moping, a lot of angst, and a lot of characters berating themselves and occasionally each other. It was annoying enough that I took a couple of weeks break from this book in the middle before I could work up the enthusiasm to finish it. Some of this is personal preference. My favorite type of story is competence porn: details about something esoteric and satisfyingly complex, a challenge to overcome, and a main character who deploys their expertise to overcome that challenge in a way that shows they generally have their shit together. I can enjoy other types of stories, but that's the story I'll keep reaching for. Other people prefer stories about fuck-ups and walking disasters, people who barely pull together enough to survive the plot (or sometimes not even that). There's nothing wrong with that, and neither approach is right or wrong, but my tolerance for that story is usually lot lower. I think Dewes is heading towards the type of story in which dysfunctional characters compensate for each other's flaws in order to keep each other going, and intellectually I can see the appeal. But it's not my thing, and when the main characters are falling apart and the supporting characters project considerably more competence, I wish the story had different protagonists. It didn't help that this is in theory military SF, but Dewes does not seem to want to deploy any of the support framework of the military to address any of her characters' problems. This book is a lot of Rake and Cavalon dragging each other through emotional turmoil while coming to terms with Cavalon's family. I liked their dynamic in the first book when it felt more like Rake showing leadership skills. Here, it turns into something closer to found family in ways that seemed wildly inconsistent with the military structure, and while I'm normally not one to defend hierarchical discipline, I felt like Rake threw out the only structure she had to handle the thousands of other people under her command and started winging it based on personal friendship. If this were a small commercial crew, sure, fine, but Rake has a personal command responsibility that she obsessively angsts about and yet keeps abandoning. I realize this is probably another way to complain that I wanted competence porn and got barely-functional fuck-ups. The best parts of this series are the strange technologies and the aliens, and they are again the best part of this book. There was a truly great moment involving Viator technology that I found utterly delightful, and there was an intriguing setup for future books that caught my attention. Unfortunately, there were also a lot of deus ex machina solutions to problems, both from convenient undisclosed character backstories and from alien tech. I felt like the characters had to work satisfyingly hard for their victories in the first book; here, I felt like Dewes kept having issues with her characters being at point A and her plot at point B and pulling some rabbit out of the hat to make the plot work. This unfortunately undermined the cool factor of the world-building by making its plot device aspects a bit too obvious. This series also turns out not to be a duology (I have no idea why I thought it would be). By the end of The Exiled Fleet, none of the major political or world-building problems have been resolved. At best, the characters are in a more stable space to start being proactive. I'm cautiously optimistic that could mean the series would turn into the type of story I was hoping for, but I'm worried that Dewes is interested in writing a different type of character story than I am interested in reading. Hopefully there will be some clues in the synopsis of the (as yet unannounced) third book. I thought The Last Watch had some first-novel problems but was worth reading. I am much more reluctant to recommend The Exiled Fleet, or the series as a whole given that it is incomplete. Unless you like dysfunctional characters, proceed with caution. Rating: 5 out of 10

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