Saturday, March 18, 2017


I'm glad to report that the chess jokes aren't thick on the ground here which I didn't expect while writing about a novel titled The Rook? While the conceit works for the novel - ranks in a fictional organization based upon chess pieces is a quick and clear way to set out your hierarchy, it is not without a downside, and policing the use of puns is of deathly import.

Daniel O'Malley tackles the problem of establishing a secret world behind the real world by introducing his protagonist (Myfanwy Thomas, pronounced Miffany in the novel) after an even has burned away her memory.

Now for a brief tangent. Why when you lose the memory of who you are and what you do can you continue to recall part of things. I accept for the sake of the story that somethings remain, but some rhyme or reason would be nice. You can't recall your PIN, but the concept of a cash point (ATM) isn't an issue, neither is money. I'd be more intellectually accepting of a scenario where everything after the age of X is lost, or you keep a lot of basic information, but some things are stripped away (I know what a car is, but how do you use the steering wheel?) Anyway, as a plot device I think it's a hard sell, and far to often overlooks basic dissonances that can build up in the narrative.

Back to the main thread. Myfanwy has lost her memory, and more importantly for the plot, her entire sense of self. She finds a note in her pocket from her old self with some instructions and help. It appears that she knew that this was coming, and planned to make sure that new Myfanwy would have options. The first set is to get a new identity and go on the run or to stick around and find out what is going on. Like a sane person she chooses to run, until events intervene to prevent her from doing so. I appreciate the humanizing element that this creates, if I suddenly woke up in a field of corpses and didn't know why, I'd want to get away too. 

Myfanwy ultimately can't run away, to the great benefit of the plot. So we get to learn who Myfanwy version 1 (dubbed "Thomas") was, what she did, and all the extended information that comes with it along with the protagonist. There is a magical world, there is a semi-governmental organization that handles the threats it faces (and they're mainly threats) and also recruits children in England who are born "special" and trains them to use their abilities. These special people become the pawns in the organization, from which the ruling council (Rooks, Chevaliers, Bishops, the Lord, the Lady) are chosen. Myfanwy is the titular Rook, who works maintaining domestic security in the UK. 

I'll leave the plot alone from this point forward, if you read the book, the puzzles and the plot are worth discovering for yourself. The only real problem with the book is if the memory loss frame (and the associated prophetic foreshadowing) is a deal breaker. I was not convinced at the start that it would be handled adroitly enough to keep me in the novel. By the end I was happy to find that the treatment of new Myfanwy and old Thomas let me absorb large elements of world building, and make both characters more interesting without creating a massive disruption to the plot.

There's a sequel, we'll see how well it goes.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Hoist upon my own Petard

Several years ago I said I found the Naomi Novik Temeraire series fluff and a lighthearted romp. Mea Culpa.

If you read Dante you get to a point in Purgatorio in the Earthly Paradise where Dante drops a multi leveled allegory which can be read as a wish for political unified Italy, a religious reinterpretation of the book of Revelation, and a personal cleansing of his sin. Keep this in mind.

To start at the end, they are now a complete series. So they can be binged, although there are nine books, so stay hydrated.

Some general things:

Dragons exist in the world, impress upon first feeding/harnessing (thanks Pern!), and come in sizes ranging from flying pony to flying manor home. They're harnessed by riders in the aerial corps of the country which they live in, and feral dragons, the bane of the dark ages (St. George, not fake) have been confined and are fed in return for turning over eggs. The problem is that since they eat meat and are more useful if bigger... France has an aerial advantage!

His Majesties Dragon 

In the beginning the noble born captain of a frigate captures a French ship at sea. He's strict, reasonably well educated, and politically sound. In the hold of the captured ship is a dragon egg!

So when this egg hatches it must be tamed. For England!

Oh, but because riders have to live near the dragons, which sort of terrify everyone else. So they don't get to be in society, are pariahs, and no self respecting lady would marry the captain of one. Still, duty drives, so lots are drawn, and when the egg hatches everyone tries in order. Then the captain tames Temeraire, sees his social world go up in flames, and goes about doing everything out of step with how things are done. Then this causes ripples, disrupts chickens, and leads to all sorts of shifts of world view. Adventure spools out ahead of them....

It looks like a Hornblower-esque cracking good yarn, but let's look at some of the allegorical levels bouncing around...

It contains two discussions of slavery - both as the historical political issue in England , and more subtly in the ongoing discoveries brought on by Lawrence not knowing anything about dragons. This  being free of assumptions about dragons lets Temeraire grow into his own person. Having been raised an abolitionist, and attached to an intelligent dragon (more on that in a second) Lawrence treats Temeraire like a good friend (with an admittedly out of control Id) and not a talkative beast.

There's also a subtle mockery of national character and gender going on - the British dragon known as the Longwing will only allow women to tame it, has a huge reach and spits acid. The best of the British dragon "fleet" is a giant red bulldog like dragon that suns itself. Prussian dragons are meticulous but not always... quick. If there is a subtle national characteristic floating out there, it's made into an amusing side joke and shown to be ridiculous with solid character building and real humanity. Chinese dragons, it should be mentioned are known for being intelligent, but we'll get more on them in book two....

Which will be coming up.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Coldest War's Unnecessary Evil

So it's been a while. But since I only recently finished up the sequels to Bitter Seeds, it feels like a decent time to try to resurrect this blog. [Take self examining whatever as having been written and then deleted.]

So Coldest War and Neccessary Evil, in which Mr. Tregellis takes his alternate history (WW2 + Cthulu and the X-MEN) and adds a spy thriller, a time travel parallax, and the children of the corn. He also screwed up a perfectly good series halfway though. Guess where.

You're correct.

Book two is a thriller starring the saved (by the love of a good woman) warlock out to punish the others of his kind, the scarred by what he had to sacrifice to win the war spy, protecting England, and the three remaining German super soldiers. (Pyro, Shadowcat, and I can't think of one that can see all the branching futures and pick among them the closest thing is from Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series.) They were captured by the Nazi's at the end of book 1, and are back to help the British fight the Soviet super soldiers. Who are super advanced. This actually works out well as a decent thriller with the almost end of the second book bringing us to a nice tied up place for most of the characters, but not the universe as a whole. Had the book ended in mid stride like Our Game or The Night Manager, it would have been a decent point to wrap up the action in some other way, and walk off into a future of possibilities. People would have been happy or unhappy but that's the point of LaCarre, They're people at the start and they're still people at the end. You're just along to watch some events in their lives.

Then the end of book two, and all of book three becomes a rehash of The Proteus Operation, as our (anti?) hero fights to make the cool setting disappear, and we walk back across the period given to us by the first book. Which is a choice, but fighting against the main character are the plans of a precognitive who suddenly stops being able to precog just when the plot needs her to, and that's a damn shame, and a shabby way to treat a character. So we end up with the WW2 which we already know, plus an extra older copy of the spy, and none of the self-reflective character endings that book two offered us.

Hell if the time travel has to happen (and it appears to have been planned given moments in the first book) there wasn't a need to undo the setting itself. I can see the desire to wrap a thing like this up with a bow, but the tighter you tie it, the more stray details slip through. Plus, if you're going to undo the setting, it needed to happen earlier, before you created a hugely powerful precog and wrote yourself into a corner with her powers. Or you need to explain why in this timeline the Cthulu aspects (which we learn are linked to the X-Men like abilities in book 2) are becoming blocked off from reality (which I just made up to make it make more sense). But we don't learn that, so the only reason is plot, and that's not satisfying in and of itself, it's just one damn thing after another.

Sneak preview of the next few: Rivers of London (read the series it's good), Three Parts Dead (ugh, no), and I'm sure I'm behind on Temeraire.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bitter Seeds

Ian Tregillis's first novel is World War two + X-Men + Cthulu.

Now that I've convinced folks to go read the book, let me say that I find the writing good, the plot interesting and the concept... well the concept is a lot of fun. Nazi super-science makes electrical powered mutants, which allows them to crush France, and defeat the British at Dunkirk. England falls back upon it's warlocks, who during Operation Sealion, make the whole channel shift out of phase with reality.

The plot is fairly straightforwardish, but the interesting parts were the discussions of the origins and ethics of magic and science, who cares, and why, and who knows about the existence of such powers, and how they react to these challenges.

The next book is a Cold War spy thriller.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dark Days

Sergei Lukyanenko's second watch book, Day Watch, retains the three part story structure of the first novel, and if anything is more disjoint than novel one. While Night Watch had Anton as the main thread, Day Watch follows two different dark magicians, and then a third person narrator following a tribunal looking into the events of the first two sections. By the end, the common thread has been teased out, and unlike Night Watch, we see our protagonists start pulling on strings themselves, but again the plot itself isn't the interesting part of the book, and frankly shouldn't you go read it yourself?

Like Night Watch was about truth, Day Watch is about love, or maybe Love. It's not a romance, although there are romantic elements throughout, instead it's a practical look at love and conflict, love and power, love and loss, and ultimately love and morality.

Part one lays the groundwork for much of what comes later, but it also drives home one of the main points from the prior book: unbalanced power within a relationship destroys love, or prevents it from accruing. This appears throughout the books and while it's Lukyanenko does not appear to demand equal types of power, he certainly doesn't believe that a love can overcome a power imbalance over time. At the same time, the protagonists throughout the series to date act out of their desire to love and be loved. While a great schemer can accomplish the goals of their ethical affiliation at the same time, those less 'other' are left choosing between duty and love or survival and love, depending on their light/dark classifications.

Part two continues this theme, centering again around a choice that Anton will have to make regarding Sveta, himself, and a dark other new to town, while making the dark one the center of the narrative. This provides us with a good continuing look at the organization of the Day Watch and how it mirrors the Night Watch in nearly every way. There is a chess metaphor running quietly through the book, and while not used (it would have been ham handed to say it) it's obvious in the mirrored structures of the watches, and the way that they act regarding their opponents.

Part three highlights this parallel even more, by following Anton and his opposite number as they travel to Prague for the Inquisition's hearing, and listening in as they move through the same questions, thoughts and conjectures from their own sets of data and their own concerns. Their informal meetings highlight their similarities more than they show their differences. We're left with the impression that they would have been right at home with "The Arrangement" come up with by Aziraphale and Crowley in Good Omens, and gone on reporting successes to their superiors while having quiet lunches in beer gardens and comparing notes on the insanity of their bosses orders.

This happens to lead into book three, which will be up later.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Everything isn't Awesome

When you're part of the Night Watch. Sergei Lukyanenko's first novel in his magic as good and evil series comes in three parts, linked but which could stand alone. The format was the more interesting part so I'll address plot briefly. The plot is good, the concept is fun, good and evil magicians/vampires/werewolves/etc. have a pact of non-intervention with human morality, and this pact is guarded by the Night Watch (good), Day Watch (evil) and Inquisition (who watches the watches). We follow a Night Watch man Anton as he deals with truth and Truth within these parameters.

Minor problem: the translation leaves enough hints of the underlying Russian to make me wish I had an affinity to speak other languages. Alas some things are beyond me. I suspect that I'm missing some idiom and experience that living in Moscow would fill in.

The structure of the novel though was interesting. It's three almost independent short stories, in chronological order, that touch on major events in Anton's development and understanding. This works alright for the plot, but it leaves behind the interludes, and I suspect that a lot of character development happens in those interludes. I'd like to have had a better glance at those interactions, you get hints of them, but they are only echoes. I'm not sure if that is a layer in the book, which is certainly full of those.

Read it, it's good. If you read in Russian, let me know if it's better like that.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Echoes of a Single Sound

I feel the need to start by pointing out that I'm writing these reviews as I encounter a book. I'm probably being silly, but can't get myself to remove that first sentence, so now I must apologize for dithering, and wander into Lois McMaster Bujold. I meant to write this about Shards of Honor, but that will be the next post, because this post is about the Short Story that came with it.


When I was 22, I spent a month traveling around Europe, making an ass of myself, and lucking into perfect timing in nearly everything. Thanks to the people who put up with my insufferable youth. A few days after arriving in London in time for the Queens Jubilee, I got myself south of the river to the Imperial War Museum. It's an interesting place, the exhibits are wonderful, and then there's the section on The War(s)

It's a separate display, and it's entered along a sloping hallway, dimly lit, with 5 pictures on each side, each attached to a quote. I've spent some time online to try to find a public view of this, but to no avail. It's a chilling way to enter the exhibit, the quotes, from first to last, and somewhat unattributed because my camera didn't have that much resolution

"In every parting there is an image of death" with a picture of a old woman embracing a soldier leaving for the front - George Eliot

"The world will little note nor long remember, what we say, but it can never forget what they did" with a picture of a world war two soldier leaping forward - Abraham Lincoln

"One does not pity the people of the town, nor does one hate them. One says 'they did it to us' but one is left just staring. The scene has gone beyond argument." with a picture of an injured boy and an old man in front of the ruins of a bombed town - VS Prichart?

"War is part of God's creation" with a picture of an toddler, with a head injury, in a hospital bed, clinging to a doll - Helmuth von Moltke

"Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be, for without victory, there is no survival" with a picture of an ecstatic young woman clutching a newspaper and thrusting it into the air. - Sir Winston Spencer Churchill

"There were great numbers of young men who had never been in a war and were consequently far from unwilling to join in this one." with a picture of a ANZAC soldier departing for Europe. -Thucydides

"The essence of war is violence and moderation in war is imbecility" with a picture of a young officer urging his men forward, with his men prone in the background - Lord Macaulay

"I pray you to believe what I have said. I reported what I saw and heard but only part of it. For most of it I have no words." with a picture of a young man, sitting outside Buchenwald after it's liberation. - Ed Murrow

"Only the dead have seen the end of war" with a picture of a blinded French soldier being led by another member of his company back from the trenches - Plato

Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won." with a picture of a weeping mother, waving from the siding of a railroad station. - The Duke of Wellington

This is what Aftermath was like. Walking down that hallway.

It's about a two person ship, a pilot and a med-tech, working to recover bodies after a space battle. The pilot got out of flight school 3 days after the end of the war ended, the med-tech has been in the service for years upon years. They recover 4 bodies over the course of the story, each one humanizing conflict for the pilot, giving a face to those from his service who died, removing some of the jingoistic veil of hatred for those the invaders, showing the loss suffered by loved ones, and in the end a willingness to respect the innate humanity in oneself, by not refusing to see the humanity in those who were recovered, regardless.

It's interesting to contrast this sense of loss with those given by other writers in the same genre that I've been reading. Weber for instance jumps right to my mind. In the Honor Harrington novels... which I'll probably have to reread and write up some week, there are deaths, but the sadness is seen. Here the grief is experienced. It's a notable difference. I can't explain it better than to say that in a Weber novel, I wondered how the character was going to deal with/avenge/move on from the grief. Reading Aftermath i felt like I did years ago in London, and like then I wept.