Search Results: "terry"

9 July 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: Raising Steam

Review: Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #40
Publisher: Anchor Books
Copyright: 2013
Printing: October 2014
ISBN: 0-8041-6920-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 365
Raising Steam is the 40th Discworld novel and the third Moist von Lipwig novel, following Making Money. This is not a good place to start reading the series. Dick Simnel is a tinkerer from a line of tinkerers. He has been obsessed with mastering the power of steam since the age of ten, when his father died in a steam accident. That pursuit took him deeper into mathematics and precision, calculations and experiments, until he built Iron Girder: Discworld's first steam-powered locomotive. His early funding came from some convenient family pirate treasure, but turning his prototype into something more will require significantly more resources. That is how he ends up in the office of Harry King, Ankh-Morpork's sanitation magnate. Simnel's steam locomotive has the potential to solve some obvious logistical problems, such as getting fish from the docks of Quirm to the streets of Ankh-Morpork before it stops being vaguely edible. That's not what makes railways catch fire, however. As soon as Iron Girder is huffing and puffing its way around King's compound, it becomes the most popular attraction in the city. People stand in line for hours to ride it over and over again for reasons that they cannot entirely explain. There is something wild and uncontrollable going on. Vetinari is not sure he likes wild and uncontrollable, but he knows the lap into which such problems can be dumped: Moist von Lipwig, who is already getting bored with being a figurehead for the city's banking system. The setup for Raising Steam reminds me more of Moving Pictures than the other Moist von Lipwig novels. Simnel himself is a relentlessly practical engineer, but the trains themselves have tapped some sort of primal magic. Unlike Moving Pictures, Pratchett doesn't provide an explicit fantasy explanation involving intruding powers from another world. It might have been a more interesting book if he had. Instead, this book expects the reader to believe there is something inherently appealing and fascinating about trains, without providing much logic or underlying justification. I think some readers will be willing to go along with this, and others (myself included) will be left wishing the story had more world-building and fewer exclamation points. That's not the real problem with this book, though. Sadly, its true downfall is that Pratchett's writing ability had almost completely collapsed by the time he wrote it. As mentioned in my review of Snuff, we're now well into the period where Pratchett was suffering the effects of early-onset Alzheimer's. In that book, his health issues mostly affected the dialogue near the end of the novel. In this book, published two years later, it's pervasive and much worse. Here's a typical passage from early in the book:
It is said that a soft answer turneth away wrath, but this assertion has a lot to do with hope and was now turning out to be patently inaccurate, since even a well-spoken and thoughtful soft answer could actually drive the wrong kind of person into a state of fury if wrath was what they had in mind, and that was the state the elderly dwarf was now enjoying.
One of the best things about Discworld is Pratchett's ability to drop unexpected bits of wisdom in a sentence or two, or twist a verbal knife in an unexpected and surprising direction. Raising Steam still shows flashes of that ability, but it's buried in run-on sentences, drowned in cliches and repetition, and often left behind as the containing sentence meanders off into the weeds and sputters to a confused halt. The idea is still there; the delivery, sadly, is not. This is the first Discworld novel that I found mentally taxing to read. Sentences are often so overpacked that they require real effort to untangle, and the untangled meaning rarely feels worth the effort. The individual voice of the characters is almost gone. Vetinari's monologues, rather than being a rare event with dangerous layers, are frequent, rambling, and indecisive, often sounding like an entirely different character than the Vetinari we know. The constant repetition of the name any given character is speaking to was impossible for me to ignore. And the momentum of the story feels wrong; rather than constructing the events of the story in a way that sweeps the reader along, it felt like Pratchett was constantly pushing, trying to convince the reader that trains were the most exciting thing to ever happen to Discworld. The bones of a good story are here, including further development of dwarf politics from The Fifth Elephant and Thud! and the further fallout of the events of Snuff. There are also glimmers of Pratchett's typically sharp observations and turns of phrase that could have been unearthed and polished. But at the very least this book needed way more editing and a lot of rewriting. I suspect it could have dropped thirty pages just by tightening the dialogue and removing some of the repetition. I'm afraid I did not enjoy this. I am a bit of a hard sell for the magic fascination of trains I love trains, but my model railroad days are behind me and I'm now more interested in them as part of urban transportation policy. Previous Discworld books on technology and social systems did more of the work of drawing the reader in, providing character hooks and additional complexity, and building a firmer foundation than "trains are awesome." The main problem, though, was the quality of the writing, particularly when compared to the previous novels with the same characters. I dragged myself through this book out of a sense of completionism and obligation, and was relieved when I finished it. This is the first Discworld novel that I don't recommend. I think the only reason to read it is if you want to have read all of Discworld. Otherwise, consider stopping with Snuff and letting it be the send-off for the Ankh-Morpork characters. Followed by The Shepherd's Crown, a Tiffany Aching story and the last Discworld novel. Rating: 3 out of 10

1 July 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: Snuff

Review: Snuff, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #39
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2011
Printing: January 2013
ISBN: 0-06-221886-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 470
Snuff is the 39th Discworld novel and the 8th (and last) Watch novel. This is not a good place to start reading. Sam Vines has been talked, cajoled, and coerced into taking a vacation. Since he is now the Duke of Ankh, he has a country estate that he's never visited. Lady Sybil is insistent on remedying this, as is Vetinari. Both of them may have ulterior motives. They may also be colluding. It does not take long for Vimes to realize that something is amiss in the countryside. It's not that the servants are uncomfortable with him talking to them, the senior servants are annoyed that he talks to the wrong servants, and the maids turn to face the wall at the sight of him. Those are just the strange customs of the aristocracy, for which he has little understanding and even less patience. There's something else going on. The nobility is wary, the town blacksmith is angry about something more than disliking the nobles, and the bartender doesn't want to get involved. Vimes smells something suspicious. When he's framed for a murder, the suspicions seem justified. It takes some time before the reader learns what the local nobility are squirming about, so I won't spoil it. What I will say is that Snuff is Pratchett hammering away at one of his favorite targets: prejudice, cruelty, and treating people like things. Vimes, with his uncompromising morality, is one of the first to realize the depth of the problem. It takes most of the rest longer to come around, even Sybil. It's both painful, and painfully accurate, to contemplate how often recognition of other people's worth only comes once they do something that you recognize as valuable. This is one of the better-plotted Discworld novels. Vimes starts out with nothing but suspicions and stubbornness, and manages to turn Snuff into a mystery novel through dogged persistence. The story is one continuous plot arc with the normal Pratchett color (Young Sam's obsession with types of poo, for example) but without extended digressions. It also has considerably better villains than most Pratchett novels: layers of foot soldiers and plotters, each of which have to be dealt with in a suitable way. Even the concluding action sequences worked for me, which is not always a given in Discworld. The problem, unfortunately, is that the writing is getting a bit wobbly. Pratchett died of early-onset Alzheimer's in 2015, four years after this book was first published, and this is the first novel where I can see some early effects. It mostly shows up in the dialogue: it's just a bit flabby and a bit repetitive, and the characters, particularly towards the end of the book, start repeating the name of the person they're talking to every other line. Once I saw it, I couldn't unsee it, and it was annoying enough to rob a bit of enjoyment from the end of the book. That aside, though, this was a solid Discworld novel. Vimes testing his moral certainty against the world and forcing it into a more ethical shape is always rewarding, and here he takes more risks, with better justification, than in most of the Watch novels. We also find out that Vimes has a legacy from the events of Thud!, which has interesting implications that I wish Pratchett had more time to explore. I think the best part of this book is how it models the process of social change through archetypes: the campaigner who knew the right choice early on, the person who formed their opinion the first time they saw injustice, the person who gets there through a more explicit moral code, the ones who have to be pushed by someone who was a bit faster, the ones who have to be convinced but then work to convince others, and of course the person who is willing to take on the unfair and far-too-heavy burden of being exceptional enough that they can be used as a tool to force other people to acknowledge them as a person. And, since this is Discworld, Vetinari is lurking in the scenery pulling strings, balancing threats, navigating politics, and giving Vimes just enough leeway to try to change the world without abusing his power. I love that the amount of leeway Vimes gets depends on how egregious the offense is, and Vetinari calibrates this quite carefully without ever saying so openly. Recommended, and as much as I don't want to see this series end, this is not a bad entry for the Watch novels to end on. Followed in publication order by Raising Steam. Rating: 8 out of 10

1 June 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: I Shall Wear Midnight

Review: I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #38
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 2010
Printing: 2011
ISBN: 0-06-143306-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 355
I Shall Wear Midnight is the 38th Discworld novel and the 4th Tiffany Aching novel. This is not a good place to start reading. Tiffany has finished her training and has returned to her home on the Chalk, taking up her duties as the local witch. There are a lot of those, because there's a lot that needs doing. In some cases, such as taking away the pain of the old Duke, they involve things that require magic and that only Tiffany can do. In many other cases, other people could pick up some of the work, but they lack Tiffany's sense of duty and willingness to pay attention. The people of the Chalk have always been a bit suspicious of witches, in part because the job was done for so long by Tiffany's grandmother and no one thought she was a witch. (She was a witch.) Of late, however, that suspicion seems to be getting worse. It comes to a head when Tiffany is accused of theft and worse by the old Duke's maid, a woman with very fixed ideas about the evils of witches. Tiffany has to sort out what's going on and clear herself, all while navigating her now-awkward relationship with the Duke's son Roland, his unimpressive fiancee, and his spectacularly annoying aunt. Ah, this is the stuff. This is exactly the Tiffany Aching novel that I have been hoping Pratchett would write. It's pure, snarky competence porn from start to finish.
"I'm a witch. It's what we do. When it's nobody else's business, it's my business."
One of the things that I adore about this series is how well Pratchett shows the different ways in which one can be a witch. Granny Weatherwax out-thinks everyone and nudges (or shoves) people in the right direction, but her natural tendency is to be icy and a bit frightening. Nanny Ogg is that person you can't help but talk to, who may seem happy-go-lucky and hedonistic but who can effortlessly change the mood of a room. And Tiffany is stubborn duty and blunt practicality, which fits the daughter of shepherds. In previous books, we've watched Tiffany as a student, learning the practicalities of being a witch. This is the book where she realizes how much she knows and how much easier the world is to navigate when she's in her own territory. There is a wonderful scene, late in this book, where Pratchett shows Nanny Ogg at her best, doing the kinds of things that only Nanny Ogg can do. Both Tiffany and the reader are in awe.
I should have learned this, she thought. I wanted to learn fire, and pain, but I should have learned people.
And it's true that Nanny Ogg can do things that Tiffany can't. But what makes this book so great is that it shows how Tiffany's personality and her training come together with her knowledge of the Chalk. She may not know people, in general, but she knows her neighbors and how they think. She doesn't manage them the way that Nanny Ogg would; she's better at solving different kinds of problems, in different ways. But they're the right ways, and the right problems, for her home. This is another Discworld novel with a forgettable villain that's more of a malevolent force of nature than a character in its own right. It's also another Discworld novel where Pratchett externalizes a human tendency into a malevolent force that can possess people. I have mixed feelings about this narrative approach. That externalization of evil into (in essence) demons has been repeatedly used to squirm out of responsibility and excuse atrocities, and it neatly avoids having to wrestle with the hard questions of prejudice and injustice and why apparently good people do awful things. I think some of those weaknesses persist even in Pratchett's hands, but I think what he was attempting with that approach in this book is to show how almost no one is immune to nastier ideas that spread through society. Rather than using the externalization of evil as an excuse, he's using it as a warning. With enough exposure to those ideas, they start sounding tempting and partly credible even to people who would never have embraced them earlier. Pratchett also does a good job capturing the way prejudice can start from thoughtless actions that have more to do with the specific circumstances of someone's life than any coherent strategy. Still, the one major complaint I have about this book is that the externalization of evil is an inaccurate portrayal of the world, and this catches up with Pratchett at the ending. Postulating an external malevolent force reduces evil to something that can be puzzled out and decisively defeated, thus resolving the problem. Sadly, this is not how humans actually work. I'll forgive that structural flaw, though, because the rest of this book is so good. It's rare that a plot twist in a Discworld novel surprises me twisty plots are not Pratchett's strength but this one did. I will not spoil the surprise, but one of the characters is not quite who they seem to be, and Tiffany's reactions once she figures that out are one of my favorite parts of this book. Pratchett is making a point about assumptions, observation, and the importance of being willing to change one's mind about someone when you know more, and I thought it was very well done. But, most of all, I enjoyed reading about Tiffany being calm, competent, determined, and capable. There's also a bit of an unexpected romance plot that's one of my favorite types: the person who notices that you're doing a lot of work and quietly steps in and starts helping while paying attention to what's needed and not taking over. And it's full of the sort of pithy moral wisdom that makes Discworld such a delight to read.
"There have been times, lately, when I dearly wished that I could change the past. Well, I can't, but I can change the present, so that when it becomes the past it will turn out to be a past worth having."
This was just what I wanted. Highly recommended. Followed by Snuff in publication order. The next (and last, sadly) Tiffany Aching book is The Shepherd's Crown. Rating: 9 out of 10

25 April 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: Nation

Review: Nation, by Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 2008
Printing: 2009
ISBN: 0-06-143303-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 369
Nation is a stand-alone young adult fantasy novel. It was published in the gap between Discworld novels Making Money and Unseen Academicals. Nation starts with a plague. The Russian influenza has ravaged Britain, including the royal family. The next in line to the throne is off on a remote island and must be retrieved and crowned as soon as possible, or an obscure provision in Magna Carta will cause no end of trouble. The Cutty Wren is sent on this mission, carrying the Gentlemen of Last Resort. Then comes the tsunami. In the midst of fire raining from the sky and a wave like no one has ever seen, Captain Roberts tied himself to the wheel of the Sweet Judy and steered it as best he could, straight into an island. The sole survivor of the shipwreck: one Ermintrude Fanshaw, daughter of the governor of some British island possessions. Oh, and a parrot. Mau was on the Boys' Island when the tsunami came, going through his rite of passage into manhood. He was to return to the Nation the next morning and receive his tattoos and his adult soul. He survived in a canoe. No one else in the Nation did. Terry Pratchett considered Nation to be his best book. It is not his best book, at least in my opinion; it's firmly below the top tier of Discworld novels, let alone Night Watch. It is, however, an interesting and enjoyable book that tackles gods and religion with a sledgehammer rather than a knife. It's also very, very dark and utterly depressing at the start, despite a few glimmers of Pratchett's humor. Mau is the main protagonist at first, and the book opens with everyone he cares about dying. This is the place where I thought Pratchett diverged the most from his Discworld style: in Discworld, I think most of that would have been off-screen, but here we follow Mau through the realization, the devastation, the disassociation, the burials at sea, the thoughts of suicide, and the complete upheaval of everything he thought he was or was about to become. I found the start of this book difficult to get through. The immediate transition into potentially tragic misunderstandings between Mau and Daphne (as Ermintrude names herself once there is no one to tell her not to) didn't help. As I got farther into the book, though, I warmed to it. The best parts early on are Daphne's baffled but scientific attempts to understand Mau's culture and her place in it. More survivors arrive, and they start to assemble a community, anchored in large part by Mau's stubborn determination to do what's right even though he's lost all of his moorings. That community eventually re-establishes contact with the rest of the world and the opening plot about the British monarchy, but not before Daphne has been changed profoundly by being part of it. I think Pratchett worked hard at keeping Mau's culture at the center of the story. It's notable that the community that reforms over the course of the book essentially follows the patterns of Mau's lost Nation and incorporates Daphne into it, rather than (as is so often the case) the other way around. The plot itself is fiercely anti-colonial in a way that mostly worked. Still, though, it's a quasi-Pacific-island culture written by a white British man, and I had some qualms. Pratchett quite rightfully makes it clear in the afterward that this is an alternate world and Mau's culture is not a real Pacific island culture. However, that also means that its starkly gender-essentialist nature was a free choice, rather than one based on some specific culture, and I found that choice somewhat off-putting. The religious rituals are all gendered, the dwelling places are gendered, and one's entire life course in Mau's world seems based on binary classification as a man or a woman. Based on Pratchett's other books, I assume this was more an unfortunate default than a deliberate choice, but it's still a choice he could have avoided. The end of this book wrestles directly with the relative worth of Mau's culture versus that of the British. I liked most of this, but the twists that Pratchett adds to avoid the colonialist results we saw in our world stumble partly into the trap of making Mau's culture valuable by British standards. (I'm being a bit vague here to avoid spoilers.) I think it is very hard to base this book on a different set of priorities and still bring the largely UK, US, and western European audience along, so I don't blame Pratchett for failing to do it, but I'm a bit sad that the world still revolved around a British axis. This felt quite similar to Discworld to me in its overall sensibilities, but with the roles of moral philosophy and humor reversed. Discworld novels usually start with some larger-than-life characters and an absurd plot, and then the moral philosophy sneaks up behind you when you're not looking and hits you over the head. Nation starts with the moral philosophy: Mau wrestles with his gods and the problem of evil in a way that reminded me of Job, except with a far different pantheon and rather less tolerance for divine excuses on the part of the protagonist. It's the humor, instead, that sneaks up on you and makes you laugh when the plot is a bit too much. But the mix arrives at much the same place: the absurd hand-in-hand with the profound, and all seen from an angle that makes it a bit easier to understand. I'm not sure I would recommend Nation as a good place to start with Pratchett. I felt like I benefited from having read a lot of Discworld to build up my willingness to trust where Pratchett was going. But it has the quality of writing of late Discworld without the (arguable) need to read 25 books to understand all of the backstory. Regardless, recommended, and you'll never hear Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in quite the same way again. Rating: 8 out of 10

18 April 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: Unseen Academicals

Review: Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #37
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2009
Printing: November 2014
ISBN: 0-06-233500-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 517
Unseen Academicals is the 37th Discworld novel and includes many of the long-standing Ankh-Morpork cast, but mostly as supporting characters. The main characters are a new (and delightful) bunch with their own concerns. You arguably could start reading here if you really wanted to, although you would risk spoiling several previous books (most notably Thud!) and will miss some references that depend on familiarity with the cast. The Unseen University is, like most institutions of its sort, funded by an endowment that allows the wizards to focus on the pure life of the mind (or the stomach). Much to their dismay, they have just discovered that an endowment that amounts to most of their food budget requires that they field a football team. Glenda runs the night kitchen at the Unseen University. Given the deep and abiding love that wizards have for food, there is both a main kitchen and a night kitchen. The main kitchen is more prestigious, but the night kitchen is responsible for making pies, something that Glenda is quietly but exceptionally good at. Juliet is Glenda's new employee. She is exceptionally beautiful, not very bright, and a working class girl of the Ankh-Morpork streets down to her bones. Trevor Likely is a candle dribbler, responsible for assisting the Candle Knave in refreshing the endless university candles and ensuring that their wax is properly dribbled, although he pushes most of that work off onto the infallibly polite and oddly intelligent Mr. Nutt. Glenda, Trev, and Juliet are the sort of people who populate the great city of Ankh-Morpork. While the people everyone has heard of have political crises, adventures, and book plots, they keep institutions like the Unseen University running. They read romance novels, go to the football games, and nurse long-standing rivalries. They do not expect the high mucky-mucks to enter their world, let alone mess with their game. I approached Unseen Academicals with trepidation because I normally don't get along as well with the Discworld wizard books. I need not have worried; Pratchett realized that the wizards would work better as supporting characters and instead turns the main plot (or at least most of it; more on that later) over to the servants. This was a brilliant decision. The setup of this book is some of the best of Discworld up to this point. Trev is a streetwise rogue with an uncanny knack for kicking around a can that he developed after being forbidden to play football by his dear old mum. He falls for Juliet even though their families support different football teams, so you may think that a Romeo and Juliet spoof is coming. There are a few gestures of one, but Pratchett deftly avoids the pitfalls and predictability and instead makes Juliet one of the best characters in the book by playing directly against type. She is one of the characters that Pratchett is so astonishingly good at, the ones that are so thoroughly themselves that they transcend the stories they're put into. The heart of this book, though, is Glenda.
Glenda enjoyed her job. She didn't have a career; they were for people who could not hold down jobs.
She is the kind of person who knows where she fits in the world and likes what she does and is happy to stay there until she decides something isn't right, and then she changes the world through the power of common sense morality, righteous indignation, and sheer stubborn persistence. Discworld is full of complex and subtle characters fencing with each other, but there are few things I have enjoyed more than Glenda being a determinedly good person. Vetinari of course recognizes and respects (and uses) that inner core immediately. Unfortunately, as great as the setup and characters are, Unseen Academicals falls apart a bit at the end. I was eagerly reading the story, wondering what Pratchett was going to weave out of the stories of these individuals, and then it partly turned into yet another wizard book. Pratchett pulled another of his deus ex machina tricks for the climax in a way that I found unsatisfying and contrary to the tone of the rest of the story, and while the characters do get reasonable endings, it lacked the oomph I was hoping for. Rincewind is as determinedly one-note as ever, the wizards do all the standard wizard things, and the plot just isn't that interesting. I liked Mr. Nutt a great deal in the first part of the book, and I wish he could have kept that edge of enigmatic competence and unflappableness. Pratchett wanted to tell a different story that involved more angst and self-doubt, and while I appreciate that story, I found it less engaging and a bit more melodramatic than I was hoping for. Mr. Nutt's reactions in the last half of the book were believable and fit his background, but that was part of the problem: he slotted back into an archetype that I thought Pratchett was going to twist and upend. Mr. Nutt does, at least, get a fantastic closing line, and as usual there are a lot of great asides and quotes along the way, including possibly the sharpest and most biting Vetinari speech of the entire series.
The Patrician took a sip of his beer. "I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I'm sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature's wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining on mother and children. And that's when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior."
My dissatisfaction with the ending prevents Unseen Academicals from rising to the level of Night Watch, and it's a bit more uneven than the best books of the series. Still, though, this is great stuff; recommended to anyone who is reading the series. Followed in publication order by I Shall Wear Midnight. Rating: 8 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

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.

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

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

23 October 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Going Postal

Review: Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #33
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2004
Printing: November 2014
ISBN: 0-06-233497-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 471
Going Postal is the 33rd Discworld novel. You could probably start here if you wanted to; there are relatively few references to previous books, and the primary connection (to Feet of Clay) is fully re-explained. I suspect that's why Going Postal garnered another round of award nominations. There are arguable spoilers for Feet of Clay, however. Moist von Lipwig is a con artist. Under a wide variety of names, he's swindled and forged his way around the Disc, always confident that he can run away from or talk his way out of any trouble. As Going Postal begins, however, it appears his luck has run out. He's about to be hanged. Much to his surprise, he wakes up after his carefully performed hanging in Lord Vetinari's office, where he's offered a choice. He can either take over the Ankh-Morpork post office, or he can die. Moist, of course, immediately agrees to run the post office, and then leaves town at the earliest opportunity, only to be carried back into Vetinari's office by a relentlessly persistent golem named Mr. Pump. He apparently has a parole officer. The clacks, Discworld's telegraph system first seen in The Fifth Elephant, has taken over most communications. The city is now dotted with towers, and the Grand Trunk can take them at unprecedented speed to even far-distant cities like Genua. The post office, meanwhile, is essentially defunct, as Moist quickly discovers. There are two remaining employees, the highly eccentric Junior Postman Groat who is still Junior because no postmaster has lasted long enough to promote him, and the disturbingly intense Apprentice Postman Stanley, who collects pins. Other than them, the contents of the massive post office headquarters are a disturbing mail sorting machine designed by Bloody Stupid Johnson that is not picky about which dimension or timeline the sorted mail comes from, and undelivered mail. A lot of undelivered mail. Enough undelivered mail that there may be magical consequences. All Moist has to do is get the postal system running again. Somehow. And not die in mysterious accidents like the previous five postmasters. Going Postal is a con artist story, but it's also a startup and capitalism story. Vetinari is, as always, solving a specific problem in his inimitable indirect way. The clacks were created by engineers obsessed with machinery and encodings and maintenance, but it's been acquired by... well, let's say private equity, because that's who they are, although Discworld doesn't have that term. They immediately did what private equity always did: cut out everything that didn't extract profit, without regard for either the service or the employees. Since the clacks are an effective monopoly and the new owners are ruthless about eliminating any possible competition, there isn't much to stop them. Vetinari's chosen tool is Moist. There are some parts of this setup that I love and one part that I'm grumbly about. A lot of the fun of this book is seeing Moist pulled into the mission of resurrecting the post office despite himself. He starts out trying to wriggle out of his assigned task, but, after a few early successes and a supernatural encounter with the mail, he can't help but start to care. Reformed con men often make good protagonists because one can enjoy the charisma without disliking the ethics. Pratchett adds the delightfully sharp-witted and cynical Adora Belle Dearheart as a partial reader stand-in, which makes the process of Moist becoming worthy of his protagonist role even more fun. I think that a properly functioning postal service is one of the truly monumental achievements of human society and doesn't get nearly enough celebration (or support, or pay, or good working conditions). Give me a story about reviving a postal service by someone who appreciates the tradition and social role as much as Pratchett clearly does and I'm there. The only frustration is that Going Postal is focused more on an immediate plot, so we don't get to see the larger infrastructure recovery that is clearly needed. (Maybe in later books?) That leads to my grumble, though. Going Postal and specifically the takeover of the clacks is obviously inspired by corporate structures in the later Industrial Revolution, but this book was written in 2004, so it's also a book about private equity and startups. When Vetinari puts a con man in charge of the post office, he runs it like a startup: do lots of splashy things to draw attention, promise big and then promise even bigger, stumble across a revenue source that may or may not be sustainable, hire like mad, and hope it all works out. This makes for a great story in the same way that watching trapeze artists or tightrope walkers is entertaining. You know it's going to work because that's the sort of book you're reading, so you can enjoy the audacity and wonder how Moist will manage to stay ahead of his promises. But it is still a con game applied to a public service, and the part of me that loves the concept of the postal service couldn't stop feeling like this is part of the problem. The dilemma that Vetinari is solving is a bit too realistic, down to the requirement that the post office be self-funding and not depend on city funds and, well, this is repugnant to me. Public services aren't businesses. Societies spend money to build things that they need to maintain society, and postal service is just as much one of those things as roads are. The ability of anyone to send a letter to anyone else, no matter how rural the address is, provides infrastructure on which a lot of important societal structure is built. Pratchett made me care a great deal about Ankh-Morpork's post office (not hard to do), and now I want to see it rebuilt properly, on firm foundations, without splashy promises and without a requirement that it pay for itself. Which I realize is not the point of Discworld at all, but the concept of running a postal service like a startup hits maybe a bit too close to home. Apart from that grumble, this is a great book if you're in the mood for a reformed con man story. I thought the gold suit was a bit over the top, but I otherwise thought Moist's slow conversion to truly caring about his job was deeply satisfying. The descriptions of the clacks are full of askew Discworld parodies of computer networking and encoding that I enjoyed more than I thought I would. This is also the book that introduced the now-famous (among Pratchett fans at least) GNU instruction for the clacks, and I think that scene is the most emotionally moving bit of Pratchett outside of Night Watch. Going Postal is one of the better books in the Discworld series to this point (and I'm sadly getting near the end). If you have less strongly held opinions about management and funding models for public services, or at least are better at putting them aside when reading fantasy novels, you're likely to like it even more than I did. Recommended. Followed by Thud!. The thematic sequel is Making Money. Rating: 8 out of 10

17 October 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: A Hat Full of Sky

Review: A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #32
Publisher: HarperTrophy
Copyright: 2004
Printing: 2005
ISBN: 0-06-058662-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 407
A Hat Full of Sky is the 32nd Discworld novel and the second Tiffany Aching young adult novel. You should not start here, but you could start with The Wee Free Men. As with that book, some parts of the story carry more weight if you are already familiar with Granny Weatherwax. Tiffany is a witch, but she needs to be trained. This is normally done by apprenticeship, and in Tiffany's case it seemed wise to give her exposure to more types of witching. Thus, Tiffany, complete with new boots and a going-away present from the still-somewhat-annoying Roland, is off on an apprenticeship to the sensible Miss Level. (The new boots feel wrong and get swapped out for her concealed old boots at the first opportunity.) Unbeknownst to Tiffany, her precocious experiments with leaving her body as a convenient substitute for a mirror have attracted something very bad, something none of the witches are expecting. The Nac Mac Feegle know a hiver as soon as they feel it, but they have a new kelda now, and she's not sure she wants them racing off after their old kelda. Terry Pratchett is very good at a lot of things, but I don't think villains are one of his strengths. He manages an occasional memorable one (the Auditors, for example, at least before the whole chocolate thing), but I find most of them a bit boring. The hiver is one of the boring ones. It serves mostly as a concretized metaphor about the temptations of magical power, but those temptations felt so unlike the tendencies of Tiffany's personality that I didn't think the metaphor worked in the story. The interesting heart of this book to me is the conflict between Tiffany's impatience with nonsense and Miss Level's arguably excessive willingness to help everyone regardless of how demanding they get. There's something deeper in here about female socialization and how that interacts with Pratchett's conception of witches that got me thinking, although I don't think Pratchett landed the point with full force. Miss Level is clearly a good witch to her village and seems comfortable with how she lives her life, so perhaps they're not taking advantage of her, but she thoroughly slots herself into the helper role. If Tiffany attempted the same role, people would be taking advantage of her, because the role doesn't fit her. And yet, there's a lesson here she needs to learn about seeing other people as people, even if it wouldn't be healthy for her to move all the way to Miss Level's mindset. Tiffany is a precocious kid who is used to being underestimated, and who has reacted by becoming independent and somewhat judgmental. She's also had a taste of real magical power, which creates a risk of her getting too far into her own head. Miss Level is a fount of empathy and understanding for the normal people around her, which Tiffany resists and needed to learn. I think Granny Weatherwax is too much like Tiffany to teach her that. She also has no patience for fools, but she's older and wiser and knows Tiffany needs a push in that direction. Miss Level isn't a destination, but more of a counterbalance. That emotional journey, a conclusion that again focuses on the role of witches in questions of life and death, and Tiffany's fascinatingly spiky mutual respect with Granny Weatherwax were the best parts of this book for me. The middle section with the hiver was rather tedious and forgettable, and the Nac Mac Feegle were entertaining but not more than that. It felt like the story went in a few different directions and only some of them worked, in part because the villain intended to tie those pieces together was more of a force of nature than a piece of Tiffany's emotional puzzle. If the hiver had resonated with the darker parts of Tiffany's natural personality, the plot would have worked better. Pratchett was gesturing in that direction, but he never convinced me it was consistent with what we'd already seen of her. Like a lot of the Discworld novels, the good moments in A Hat Full of Sky are astonishing, but the plot is somewhat forgettable. It's still solidly entertaining, though, and if you enjoyed The Wee Free Men, I think this is slightly better. Followed by Going Postal in publication order. The next Tiffany Aching novel is Wintersmith. Rating: 8 out of 10

3 October 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Monstrous Regiment

Review: Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #31
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2003
Printing: August 2014
ISBN: 0-06-230741-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 457
Monstrous Regiment is the 31st Discworld novel, but it mostly stands by itself. You arguably could start here, although you would miss the significance of Vimes's presence and the references to The Truth. The graphical reading order guide puts it loosely after The Truth and roughly in the Industrial Revolution sequence, but the connections are rather faint.
There was always a war. Usually they were border disputes, the national equivalent of complaining that the neighbor was letting their hedge row grow too long. Sometimes they were bigger. Borogravia was a peace-loving country in the middle of treacherous, devious, warlike enemies. They had to be treacherous, devious, and warlike; otherwise, we wouldn't be fighting them, eh? There was always a war.
Polly's brother, who wanted nothing more than to paint (something that the god Nuggan and the ever-present Duchess certainly did not consider appropriate for a strapping young man), was recruited to fight in the war and never came back. Polly is worried about him and tired of waiting for news. Exit Polly, innkeeper's daughter, and enter the young lad Oliver Perks, who finds the army recruiters in a tavern the next town over. One kiss of the Duchess's portrait later, and Polly is a private in the Borogravian army. I suspect this is some people's favorite Discworld novel. If so, I understand why. It was not mine, for reasons that I'll get into, but which are largely not Pratchett's fault and fall more into the category of pet peeves. Pratchett has dealt with both war and gender in the same book before. Jingo is also about a war pushed by a ruling class for stupid reasons, and featured a substantial subplot about Nobby cross-dressing that turns into a deeper character re-evaluation. I thought the war part of Monstrous Regiment was weaker (this is part of my complaint below), but gender gets a considerably deeper treatment. Monstrous Regiment is partly about how arbitrary and nonsensical gender roles are, and largely about how arbitrary and abusive social structures can become weirdly enduring because they build up their own internally reinforcing momentum. No one knows how to stop them, and a lot of people find familiar misery less frightening than unknown change, so the structure continues despite serving no defensible purpose. Recently, there was a brief attempt in some circles to claim Pratchett posthumously for the anti-transgender cause in the UK. Pratchett's daughter was having none of it, and any Pratchett reader should have been able to reject that out of hand, but Monstrous Regiment is a comprehensive refutation written by Pratchett himself some twenty years earlier. Polly is herself is not transgender. She thinks of herself as a woman throughout the book; she's just pretending to be a boy. But she also rejects binary gender roles with the scathing dismissal of someone who knows first-hand how superficial they are, and there is at least one transgender character in this novel (although to say who would be a spoiler). By the end of the book, you will have no doubt that Pratchett's opinion about people imposing gender roles on others is the same as his opinion about every other attempt to treat people as things. That said, by 2023 standards the treatment of gender here seems... naive? I think 2003 may sadly have been a more innocent time. We're now deep into a vicious backlash against any attempt to question binary gender assignment, but very little of that nastiness and malice is present here. In one way, this is a feature; there's more than enough of that in real life. However, it also makes the undermining of gender roles feel a bit too easy. There are good in-story reasons for why it's relatively simple for Polly to pass as a boy, but I still spent a lot of the book thinking that passing as a private in the army would be a lot harder and riskier than this. Pratchett can't resist a lot of cross-dressing and gender befuddlement jokes, all of which are kindly and wry but (at least for me) hit a bit differently in 2023 than they would have in 2003. The climax of the story is also a reference to a classic UK novel that to even name would be to spoil one or both of the books, but which I thought pulled the punch of the story and dissipated a lot of the built-up emotional energy. My larger complaints, though, are more idiosyncratic. This is a war novel about the enlisted ranks, including the hazing rituals involved in joining the military. There are things I love about military fiction, but apparently that reaction requires I have some sympathy for the fight or the goals of the institution. Monstrous Regiment falls into the class of war stories where the war is pointless and the system is abusive but the camaraderie in the ranks makes service oddly worthwhile, if not entirely justifiable. This is a real feeling that many veterans do have about military service, and I don't mean to question it, but apparently reading about it makes me grumbly. There's only so much of the apparently gruff sergeant with a heart of gold that I can take before I start wondering why we glorify hazing rituals as a type of tough love, or why the person with some authority doesn't put a direct stop to nastiness instead of providing moral support so subtle you could easily blink and miss it. Let alone the more basic problems like none of these people should have to be here doing this, or lots of people are being mangled and killed to make possible this heart-warming friendship. Like I said earlier, this is a me problem, not a Pratchett problem. He's writing a perfectly reasonable story in a genre I just happen to dislike. He's even undermining the genre in the process, just not quite fast enough or thoroughly enough for my taste. A related grumble is that Monstrous Regiment is very invested in the military trope of naive and somewhat incompetent officers who have to be led by the nose by experienced sergeants into making the right decision. I have never been in the military, but I work in an industry in which it is common to treat management as useless incompetents at best and actively malicious forces at worst. This is, to me, one of the most persistently obnoxious attitudes in my profession, and apparently my dislike of it carries over as a low tolerance for this very common attitude towards military hierarchy. A full expansion of this point would mostly be about the purpose of management, division of labor, and people's persistent dismissal of skills they don't personally have and may perceive as gendered, and while some of that is tangentially related to this book, it's not closely-related enough for me to bore you with it in a review. Maybe I'll write a stand-alone blog post someday. Suffice it to say that Pratchett deployed a common trope that most people would laugh at and read past without a second thought, but that for my own reasons started getting under my skin by the end of the novel. All of that grumbling aside, I did like this book. It is a very solid Discworld novel that does all the typical things a Discworld novel does: likable protagonists you can root for, odd and fascinating side characters, sharp and witty observations of human nature, and a mostly enjoyable ending where most of the right things happen. Polly is great; I was very happy to read a book from her perspective and would happily read more. Vimes makes a few appearances being Vimes, and while I found his approach in this book less satisfying than in Jingo, I'll still take it. And the examination of gender roles, even if a bit less fraught than current politics, is solid Pratchett morality. The best part of this book for me, by far, is Wazzer. I think that subplot was the most Discworld part of this book: a deeply devout belief in a pseudo-godlike figure that is part of the abusive social structure that creates many of the problems of the book becomes something considerably stranger and more wonderful. There is a type of belief that is so powerful that it transforms the target of that belief, at least in worlds like Discworld that have a lot of ambient magic. Not many people have that type of belief, and having it is not a comfortable experience, but it makes for a truly excellent story. Monstrous Regiment is a solid Discworld novel. It was not one of my favorites, but it probably will be someone else's favorite for a host of good reasons. Good stuff; if you've read this far, you will enjoy it. Followed by A Hat Full of Sky in publication order, and thematically (but very loosely) by Going Postal. Rating: 8 out of 10

1 August 2023

Jonathan Dowland: Interzone's new home

IZ #294, the latest issue IZ #294, the latest issue
The long running British1 SF Magazine Interzone has a new home and new editor, Gareth Jelley, starting with issue 294. It's also got a swanky new format ("JB6"): a perfect-bound, paperback novel size, perfect for fitting into an oversize coat or jeans pocket for reading on the train. I started reading Interzone in around 2003, having picked up an issue (#176) from Feb 2002 that was languishing on the shelves in Forbidden Planet. Once I discovered it I wondered why it had taken me so long. That issue introduced me to Greg Egan. I bought a number of back issues on eBay, to grab issues with stories by people including Terry Pratchett, Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, and others.
IZ #194: The first by TTA press IZ #194: The first by TTA press
A short while later in early 2004, after 22 years, Interzone's owner and editorship changed from David Pringle to Andy Cox and TTA Press. I can remember the initial transition was very jarring: the cover emphasised expanding into coverage of Manga, Graphic Novels and Video Games (which ultimately didn't happen) but after a short period of experimentation it quickly settled down into a similarly fantastic read. I particularly liked the move to a smaller, perfect-bound form-factor in 2012. I had to double-check this but I'd been reading IZ throughout the TTA era and it lasted 18 years! Throughout that time I have discovered countless fantastic authors that I would otherwise never have experienced. Some (but by no means all) are Dominic Green, Daniel Kaysen, Chris Beckett, C cile Cristofari, Aliya Whiteley, Tim Major, Fran oise Harvey, Will McIntosh. Cox has now retired (after 100 issues and a tenure almost as long as Pringle) and handed the reins to Gareth Jelley/MYY Press, who have published their first issue, #294. Jelley is clearly putting a huge amount of effort into revitalizing the magazine. There's a new homepage at interzone.press but also companion internet presences: a plethora of digital content at interzone.digital, Interzone Socials (a novel idea), a Discord server, a podcast, and no doubt more. Having said that, the economics of small magazines have been perilous for a long time, and that hasn't changed, so I think the future of IZ (in physical format at least) is in peril. If you enjoy short fiction, fresh ideas, SF/F/Fantastika; why not try a subscription to Interzone, whilst you still can!

  1. Interzone has always been "British", in some sense, but never exclusively so. I recall fondly a long-term project under Pringle to publish a lot of Serbian writer Zoran ivkovi , for example, and the very first story I read was by Australian Greg Egan. Under Jelley, the magazine is being printed in Poland and priced in Euros. I expect it to continue to attract and publish writers from all over the place.

25 June 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Wee Free Men

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

31 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Night Watch

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

1 May 2023

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

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

18 April 2023

Shirish Agarwal: Philips LCD Monitor 22 , 1984, Reaper Man, The Firm.

PHILIPS PHL 221S8L Those who have been reading this blog for a long time would perhaps know that I had bought a Viewsonic 19 almost 12 years ago. The Monitor was functioning well till last week. I had thought to change it to a 24 monitor almost 3-4 years ago when 24 LCD Monitors were going for around 4k/- or thereabouts. But the monitor kept on functioning and I didn t have space (nor do) to have a dual-monitor setup. It just didn t make sense. Apart from higher electricity charges it would have also have made more demands on my old system which somehow is still functioning even after all those years. Then last week, it started to dim and after couple of days completely conked out. I had wanted to buy a new monitor in front of mum so she could watch movies or whatever but this was not to be. Sp I had to buy an LCD Monitor as Government raised taxes enormously after pandemic. Same/similar monitor that used to cost INR 4k/- today costed me almost INR 7k/- almost double the price. Hooking it to Debian I got the following

$ sudo hwinfo --monitor grep Model Model: "PHILIPS PHL 221S8L" FWIW hwinfo is the latest version

~$ sudo hwinfo --version21.82
I did see couple of movies before starting to write this blog post. Not an exceptional monitor but better than before. I had option from three brands, Dell (most expensive), Philips (middle) and & LG (lowest in prices). Interestingly, Viewsonic disappeared from the market about 5 years back and made a comeback just couple of years ago. Even Philips which had exited the PC Monitor almost a decade back re-entered the market. Apart from the branding, it doesn t make much of a difference as almost all the products including the above monitors are produced in China. I did remember her a lot while buying the monitor as I m sure she would have enjoyed it far more than me but that was not to be

1984 During last week when I didn t have the monitor I re-read 1984. To be completely honest, I had read the above book when I was in the 20 s and I had no context. The protagonist seemed like a whiner and for the life of me I couldn t understand why he didn t try to escape. Re-reading after almost 2 decades and a bit more I shat a number of times because now the context is pretty near and pretty real. I can see why the Republicans in the U.S. banned it. I also realized why the protagnist didn t attempt to run away because wherever he would run away it would be the same thing. It probably is one of the most depressing books I have ever read. To willfully accept what is false after all that torture. What was also interesting to me is to find that George Orwell was also a soldier just like Tolkien was. Both took part and wrote such different stories. While Mr. Tolkien writes and shares the pendulum between hope and despair, Mr. Orwell is decidedly dark. Not grey but dark. I am not sure if I would like to read Animal Farm anytime soon.

The Reaper Man Terry Pratchett It is by sheer coincidence or perhaps I needed something to fill me up when I got The Reaper Man from Terry Pratchett. It was practically like a breath of fresh air. And I love Mr. Pratchett for the inclusivity he brings in. We think about skin color, and what not and here Mr. Pratchett writes about an undead gentleman who s extremely polite as he was a wizard. I won t talk more as I don t really want to spoil the surprise but rest assured everybody is gonna love it. I also read Long Utopia but this is for those who believe and think of multiverses long before it became a buzzword that it is today.

The Firm John Grisham Now I don t know what I should write about this book as there aren t many John Grisham books where a rookie wins against more than one party opposite him. I wouldn t go much into depth but simply say it was worth a read. I am currently reading Gray Mountain. It very much shows how the coal Industry is corrupt and what all it does. It also brings to mind the amount of mining that is done in which Iron is the mostly sought after and done. Now if we are mining 94% Iron then wouldn t it make sense to ask to have a circular economy around Iron but we don t even hear a word about it. Even with all the imagined projections of lithium mining, it would hardly be 10% . I could go on but will finish for now, till later.

12 April 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Last Hero

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

25 March 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Thief of Time

Review: Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #26
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: May 2001
Printing: August 2014
ISBN: 0-06-230739-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 420
Thief of Time is the 26th Discworld novel and the last Death novel, although he still appears in subsequent books. It's the third book starring Susan Sto Helit, so I don't recommend starting here. Mort is the best starting point for the Death subseries, and Reaper Man provides a useful introduction to the villains. Jeremy Clockson was an orphan raised by the Guild of Clockmakers. He is very good at making clocks. He's not very good at anything else, particularly people, but his clocks are the most accurate in Ankh-Morpork. He is therefore the logical choice to receive a commission by a mysterious noblewoman who wants him to make the most accurate possible clock: a clock that can measure the tick of the universe, one that a fairy tale says had been nearly made before. The commission is followed by a surprise delivery of an Igor, to help with the clock-making. People who live in places with lots of fields become farmers. People who live where there is lots of iron and coal become blacksmiths. And people who live in the mountains near the Hub, near the gods and full of magic, become monks. In the highest valley are the History Monks, founded by Wen the Eternally Surprised. Like most monks, they take apprentices with certain talents and train them in their discipline. But Lobsang Ludd, an orphan discovered in the Thieves Guild in Ankh-Morpork, is proving a challenge. The monks decide to apprentice him to Lu-Tze the sweeper; perhaps that will solve multiple problems at once. Since Hogfather, Susan has moved from being a governess to a schoolteacher. She brings to that job the same firm patience, total disregard for rules that apply to other people, and impressive talent for managing children. She is by far the most popular teacher among the kids, and not only because she transports her class all over the Disc so that they can see things in person. It is a job that she likes and understands, and one that she's quite irate to have interrupted by a summons from her grandfather. But the Auditors are up to something, and Susan may be able to act in ways that Death cannot. This was great. Susan has quickly become one of my favorite Discworld characters, and this time around there is no (or, well, not much) unbelievable romance or permanently queasy god to distract. The clock-making portions of the book quickly start to focus on Igor, who is a delightful perspective through whom to watch events unfold. And the History Monks! The metaphysics of what they are actually doing (which I won't spoil, since discovering it slowly is a delight) is perhaps my favorite bit of Discworld world building to date. I am a sucker for stories that focus on some process that everyone thinks happens automatically and investigate the hidden work behind it. I do want to add a caveat here that the monks are in part a parody of Himalayan Buddhist monasteries, Lu-Tze is rather obviously a parody of Laozi and Daoism in general, and Pratchett's parodies of non-western cultures are rather ham-handed. This is not quite the insulting mess that the Chinese parody in Interesting Times was, but it's heavy on the stereotypes. It does not, thankfully, rely on the stereotypes; the characters are great fun on their own terms, with the perfect (for me) balance of irreverence and thoughtfulness. Lu-Tze refusing to be anything other than a sweeper and being irritatingly casual about all the rules of the order is a classic bit that Pratchett does very well. But I also have the luxury of ignoring stereotypes of a culture that isn't mine, and I think Pratchett is on somewhat thin ice. As one specific example, having Lu-Tze's treasured sayings be a collection of banal aphorisms from a random Ankh-Morpork woman is both hilarious and also arguably rather condescending, and I'm not sure where I landed. It's a spot-on bit of parody of how a lot of people who get very into "eastern religions" sound, but it's also equating the Dao De Jing with advice from the Discworld equivalent of a English housewife. I think the generous reading is that Lu-Tze made the homilies profound by looking at them in an entirely different way than the woman saying them, and that's not completely unlike Daoism and works surprisingly well. But that's reading somewhat against the grain; Pratchett is clearly making fun of philosophical koans, and while anything is fair game for some friendly poking, it still feels a bit weird. That isn't the part of the History Monks that I loved, though. Their actual role in the story doesn't come out of the parody. It's something entirely native to Discworld, and it's an absolute delight. The scene with Lobsang and the procrastinators is perhaps my favorite Discworld set piece to date. Everything about the technology of the History Monks, even the Bond parody, is so good. I grew up reading the Marvel Comics universe, and Thief of Time reminds me of a classic John Byrne or Jim Starlin story, where the heroes are dumped into the middle of vast interdimensional conflicts involving barely-anthropomorphized cosmic powers and the universe is revealed to work in ever more intricate ways at vastly expanding scales. The Auditors are villains in exactly that tradition, and just like the best of those stories, the fulcrum of the plot is questions about what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, and the surprising alliances these non-human powers make with humans or semi-humans. I devoured this kind of story as a kid, and it turns out I still love it. The one complaint I have about the plot is that the best part of this book is the middle, and the end didn't entirely work for me. Ronnie Soak is at his best as a supporting character about three quarters of the way through the book, and I found the ending of his subplot much less interesting. The cosmic confrontation was oddly disappointing, and there's a whole extended sequence involving chocolate that I think was funnier in Pratchett's head than it was in mine. The ending isn't bad, but the middle of this book is my favorite bit of Discworld writing yet, and I wish the story had carried that momentum through to the end. I had so much fun with this book. The Discworld novels are clearly getting better. None of them have yet vaulted into the ranks of my all-time favorite books there's always some lingering quibble or sagging bit but it feels like they've gone from reliably good books to more reliably great books. The acid test is coming, though: the next book is a Rincewind book, which are usually the weak spots. Followed by The Last Hero in publication order. There is no direct thematic sequel. Rating: 8 out of 10

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