Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2015-07-31: Review: The Pyramid Waltz

Review: The Pyramid Waltz, by Barbara Ann Wright

Series Katya and Starbride #1
Publisher Bold Strokes
Copyright September 2012
ISBN 1-60282-792-3
Format Kindle
Pages 264

Princess Katya Nar Umbriel is publicly a bored, womanizing, and difficult daughter to the rulers of Farraday. It's all an act, though, with the full knowledge of her parents. As the second child, she's the leader of the Order of Vestra: the equivalent of the Secret Service, devoted to protecting the royal family and, by extension, the kingdom, particularly against magical attacks.

Starbride is new to court and entirely out of place. From a northern neighboring country, and far more comfortable in practical clothing than the frilled court dresses that her mother wants her to wear, she has been sent to court to make contacts. Her people are getting the bad side of various trade contracts and desperately need some political maneuvering space of their own. Starbride's best hope for this is to study law in the palace library when she can manage to avoid the other courtiers. But then she and Katya stumble across each other, outside of the roles they're playing, and might have an opportunity for a deeper connection. One that neither of them want to entangle in their personal worries.

This is the last of a set of books I picked up while looking for lesbian romance with fantasy or science fiction elements. On the romance front, it's one of the better entries in that set. Both Katya and Starbride are likeable, in large part due to their mutual exasperation with the trappings of the court. (Making the protagonists more serious, thoughtful, and intelligent than the surrounding characters is an old trick, but it works.) Wright has a good ear for banter, particularly the kind when two people of good will are carefully feeling each other out. And despite Katya's need to keep a deep secret from Starbride for some of the book, The Pyramid Waltz mostly avoids irritating communication failures as a plot driver.

The fantasy portion and the plot drivers, alas, are weaker. The world building is not exactly bad, but it's just not that interesting. There are a couple of moderately good ideas, in the form of pyramid magic and secret (and dangerous) magical powers that run in the royal family, but they're not well-developed. Pyramid magic turns out to look much like any other generic fantasy magic system, with training scenes that could have come from a Valdemar or Wheel of Time novel (and without as much dramatic tension). And the royal family's secret, while better-developed and integral to the plot, still felt rather generic and one-sided.

Maybe that's something Wright develops better in future novels in this series, but that was another problem: the ending of The Pyramid Waltz was rather weak. Partly, I think, this is because the cast is too large and not well-developed. I cared about Katya and Starbird, and to a lesser extent their servants and one of the Order members. (Wright has a moderately interesting bit of worldbuilding about how servants work in Starbride's culture, which I wish we'd seen more of.) But there are a bunch of other Order of Vesta members, Katya's family, and various other bits of history and hinted world views, none of which seemed to get much depth. The ending climax involved a lot of revelations and twists that primarily concerned characters I didn't care about. It lost something in the process.

This book is clearly set up for a sequel. There is an ending, but it's not entirely satisfying. Unfortunately, despite liking Katya and Starbird a lot, the rest of the story wasn't compelling enough to make me want to buy it, particularly since the series apparently goes through another three books before reaching a real ending.

I enjoyed parts of this book, particularly Katya and Starbird feeling each other out and discovering similarities in their outlook. Katya teasing Starbird, and Starbird teasing herself, over her mother's choice of her clothing was probably the best part. It's not bad for what it's trying to do, but I think it's a bit too generic and not satisfying enough to really recommend.

Followed by For Want of a Fiend.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2015-07-06: INN 2.6.0 release candidate

In more INN-related news (and catching up on my substantial backlog), a second release candidate for the INN 2.6.0 release is now available. (The first one was only circulated on the inn-workers mailing list.)

INN 2.6.0 is the next major release of INN, with lots of improvements to the build system, protocol support, and the test suite, among many other things. Changes have been accumulating slowly for quite some time.

There are a lot of changes, so I won't go into all the details here. If you're curious, take a look at the NEWS file. You can get the release candidate from ftp.isc.org. (Note that this link will be removed once INN 2.6.0 is released.)

As always, thanks to Julien ÉLIE for preparing this release and doing most of the maintenance work on INN!

For more information about INN, see the official ISC download page or from my personal INN pages. The latter also has links to the full changelog and the other INN documentation.

2015-07-05: INN 2.5.5

(This release has actually been ready for a while, but there were a few technical difficulties with getting it copied up to the right places, and then I got very distracted by various life stuff.)

This is the first new release of INN in about a year, and hopefully the last in the 2.5.x series. A beta release of INN 2.6.0 will be announced shortly (probably tomorrow).

As is typical for bug-fix releases, this release rolls up a bunch of small bug fixes that have been made over the past year. The most notable changes include new inn.conf parameters to fine-tune the SSL/TLS configuration for nnrpd (generally to tighten it over the OpenSSL defaults), a few new flags to various utilities, multiple improvements to pullnews, and support for properly stopping cnfsstat and innwatch if INN is started and then quickly stopped.

As always, thanks to Julien ÉLIE for preparing this release and doing most of the maintenance work on INN!

You can get the latest version from the official ISC download page or from my personal INN pages. The latter also has links to the full changelog and the other INN documentation.

2015-06-07: Review: Late Eclipses

Review: Late Eclipses, by Seanan McGuire

Series October Daye #4
Publisher DAW
Copyright March 2011
ISBN 1-101-50253-3
Format Kindle
Pages 372

Late Eclipses is the fourth book the October Daye series, and relies heavily on characters introduced in the previous books. I recommend reading this series from the start; jumping into the middle would miss a lot of nuance. Thankfully, though, enough is explained that you don't have to have read the previous books recently. (I wish more series would do that.)

Unsurprisingly, the book opens with Toby's life getting more complicated. Also unsurprisingly, that means getting more entangled in the affairs of the fae court, as Toby gets pushed farther out of her comfort zone. But that quickly takes a back seat to much worse news: Toby's close friend Lily is deathly ill. That isn't supposed to be possible for an undine. And Lily isn't the last person to get deathly ill in this book.

I should note up-front that this book contains one of my least favorite tropes in fiction of this sort: a protagonist who falls under the influence of something mind-altering and has to keep second-guessing her own perceptions. I have this problem with most books about drugs or some equivalent. There was enough of that here to irritate me, but this is just a personal quirk and I'm used to other people liking those books better, so you may need to adjust my rating accordingly.

That said, I liked Late Eclipses better than An Artificial Night, even with that drawback. It's less dark, less bleak, and returns to some of the mystery feel of the first two books of the series. A lot of urban fantasy mixes in a bit of a detective element, usually from the noir tradition, and I think that provides a useful plot driver. There's a lot at stake in this story, but Toby also gets a lot of agency. She's out doing things, making guesses and following up on them, rather than trying to endure vast horror. And she has more trust in her instincts and abilities, and is gathering more allies and respect. There was a bit too much of "abuse the protagonist" for my tastes, but some of the court maneuvering is quite satisfying.

There's always a risk with power curves taking away the risk in stories like this, or of having to constantly invent a bigger bad than the previous one, but McGuire is doing a good job keeping control of that. Toby is getting stronger, and it's obvious that she's more than she appears or realizes. Coming to terms with the edges of that is part of this story. But the dangers in these stories have been very different in kind rather than escalating degree. The complex political machinations of the fae court help here considerably, creating problems that Toby has to navigate through with allies and careful thought.

One of my favorite parts of this series continues to be the supporting cast. We don't get as much of the Luidaeg here, but we get lots of May (who is becoming one of my favorite characters of the series) and several other excellent supporting characters. It's rare that I like the supporting cast of an urban fantasy series this well without feeling like they're overshadowing the protagonist.

Some parts of this story bugged me for idiosyncratic reasons, but I still thought it was a step up from the previous installment. McGuire's world doesn't seem to be running out of steam. I'll definitely keep reading.

Followed by One Salt Sea.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2015-05-31: Review: Hild

Review: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Series Hild #1
Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright 2013
ISBN 0-374-28087-8
Format Hardcover
Pages 539

Hild was born in seventh-century Britain, daughter of Hereric (would-be king of Daria) and Breguswith. Born, her mother said, to be a light to the land. This much is documented by the Venerable Bede, in The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, along with Hild's later rise to become one of the most powerful abbesses in British history. But nearly all of Hild's early life is a cipher.

Hild fills in some of that gap with fiction. Specifically, it takes Hild from a child of three, learning her father has been killed, to a young woman, an advisor of Edwin king. It's a coming of age story in part, following her maturation both physically and mentally, her training in when to speak and how, and the dangers of being close to royalty in a fractious, political, and war-torn land. It's also the story of endless maneuvering and care, initially by her mother Breguswith and then by Hild herself — sometimes in opposition to her mother, sometimes in alliance — as her mother attempts to make a safe place for her daughter and herself in a treacherous court of shifting dangers.

But Hild is also a story about Britain. It's a novel about how it felt and how it sounded. How it was organized, primarily among the high-born but with snippets of perspective from the lower classes. And it's a story about women: about weaving, about medicine, about friendships and partnerships and alliances among women, about the politics of marriage and childbirth, but also about the places women held and made in a time when surviving official history is all about the men. Hild is a painstakingly-researched, sprawling, lush, and sensual immersion in a part of history that gets little formal attention: after the Romans, before what we think of as medieval, before England as a country.

I've been waiting for a new Nicola Griffith novel for quite a while, since Always in 2007. Hild doesn't disappoint, but it's also different than Griffith's previous writing. It has less of the strong narrative drive and clarity of either her SF or Aud Torvingen stories. Instead, the goal of Hild is to immerse and transport you, to help you feel the shape of Hild's world, to understand her days and tasks, her dreams and dangers.

Like all of Griffith's work, it's beautifully written. Griffith puts description at the fore, in the sharp eyes of an observant girl who loves the outdoors, and who has been taught to watch for signs of weather and tools of healing. From early on, Hild's mother sets her up as a seer and prophetess as a way of establishing her value to war leaders and kings, and while some of it is drama and cryptic words, so much of it is careful observation, networks of information-gathering, and sharp deduction about the motives and politics of surrounding kings. Hild is very good at what she does because she has a sharp, quick mind that has been carefully trained, and because she has the aid of her mother's networks and then aid in building her own. Griffith does a wonderful job showing the reader what Hild sees, how she appreciates the world both for its own beauty and for the information she can gather from it, and how to build influence by navigating tense and dangerous moments: waiting for just the right moment and the right word, and taking sudden, impulsive risks and accepting their consequences.

Unfortunately for me, this setting is also rich in complex politics and numerous actors, with older and unfamiliar names, and I got lost. Constantly. That's the drawback to immersion: Griffith doesn't hold the reader's hand. We get Hild's thoughts and analysis, and the reader has to keep up. Sometimes I did; sometimes I didn't. There's a dizzying flurry of names here, both personal and place, and while there is a map and a single family tree, neither helped me as much as I wanted them to. At several points, I found myself skimming through the latest shift in the balance between various petty kings because, while I knew I'd seen all the names before, they had come adrift from their context in the story.

That was my major frustration with this book. It was all interesting enough that I would have kept thumbing back to a detailed dramatis personae, and indeed I kept checking the family tree, but there just wasn't enough detail there. Even better would have been a brief factual history of the political and military conflicts Hild was living through, keyed by chapter. Hild is startlingly intelligent, leaping from insight to insight, which is wonderful for building character, but which occasionally leaves the reader scrambling to catch up with the connections between her thoughts. I felt like, had I the broader context, I could have understood her insight more readily. All this information is likely available, since Griffith is playing off of documented history, but I'm not the sort of reader who likes doing Internet research while engrossed in a book.

So, that's the downside, at least for me. But this book has many strengths, even if you're lost much of the time. Hild as written by Griffith is a fascinating character, full of sharp edges and difficult moods and a powerful belief in what she feels is right. Griffith is at the height of her writing ability when describing Hild making hard choices and taking on burdens that seem too large for her to bear. There are two sections of the book, where Hild is forced by circumstances to lead men in violence, that I think are two of the best bits of writing Griffith has ever published — not just because of those scenes themselves, but because of the aftermath, the lingering echos, the way that they shape and inform everything Hild does afterwards. The mingling of reward and loss, maturation and trauma, the sense that the world has shifted both inside and out and it's nearly impossible to say whether the change is for the better or worse.

Griffith also knows when not to say too much, and while I found that frustrating for the politics, it does wonders for the characters. Hild's complex and fraught relationship with Gwaldus is the best example. We never know exactly what Gwaldus is thinking; Hild can only guess, and at times one is fairly sure that she guesses wrong. But that doesn't lead to sudden revelations, where the characters finally understand each other. Instead, they both adjust, they maneuver around each other, they find space and understanding where they can, and sometimes they just close off. This book is full of relationships like this: loves that are too complicated for words, bonds that are too dangerous to acknowledge, and characters who can't relax even though they wish the best for each other. At times, it's exhausting reading, but it gives Hild a tension that one wouldn't expect from a sprawling novel full of description and scene-building.

Hild is clearly the first book of a series, and leaves quite a lot unresolved. If you want closure in relationships and in politics, there's a lot here that you may find frustrating. And if, like me, you struggle to keep names and politics straight, you're probably going to get lost. But it's well worth the effort for the description, for Hild's thought processes, and for a few haunting scenes that I will be replaying in my head for a very long time. Expect to take your time with this, and wait until you're in the mood for immersion and puzzling out context as you go, but recommended. I suspect it would be even better on a second reading.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2015-05-24: Catch-up haul

As always, even though I've not been posting much, I'm still buying books. This is a catch-up post listing a variety of random purchases.

Katherine Addison — The Goblin Emperor (sff)
Milton Davis — From Here to Timbuktu (sff)
Mark Forster — How to Make Your Dreams Come True (non-fiction)
Angela Highland — Valor of the Healer (sff)
Marko Kloos — Terms of Enlistment (sff)
Angela Korra'ti — Faerie Blood (sff)
Cixin Liu — The Three-Body Problem (sff)
Emily St. John Mandel — Station Eleven (sff)
Sydney Padua — The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (graphic novel)
Melissa Scott & Jo Graham — The Order of the Air Omnibus (sff)
Andy Weir — The Martian (sff)

Huh, for some reason I thought I'd bought more than that.

I picked up the rest of the Hugo nominees that aren't part of a slate, and as it happens have already read all the non-slate nominees at the time of this writing (although I'm horribly behind on reviews). I also picked up the first book of Marko Kloos's series, since he did the right thing and withdrew from the Hugos once it became clear what nonsense was going on this year.

The rest is a pretty random variety of on-line recommendations, books by people who made sense on the Internet, and books by authors I like.

2015-05-23: git-pbuilder 1.34

Long time without a blog post. My time got eaten by work and travel and work-related travel. Hopefully more content soon.

This is just a quick note about the release of version 1.34 of the git-pbuilder script (which at some point really should just be rewritten in Python and incorporated entirely into the git-buildpackage package). Guido Günther added support for creating chroots for LTS distributions.

You can get the latest version from my scripts page.

2015-04-26: lbcd 3.5.2

This is a fairly minor patch release of the lbcd daemon, which is a daemon that listens for and responds to a simple UDP protocol to request information about system load. It's used in conjunction with lbnamed for dyanmic DNS, and can also be used as a lightweight way to remotely query load.

The only real change in this version is to support linking with libsystemd instead of libsystemd-daemon, since systemd upstream has merged the various small support libraries into one. I also did my normal merge of changes from C TAP Harness and rra-c-util.

NOTE: This package is actually orphaned. No one else has picked it up, and I still maintain the Debian package, so I went ahead and did a new release with this fix. But I'm not planning on doing any significant work on it, and am happy to hand it off to another maintainer.

You can get the latest release from the lbcd distribution page.

2015-04-26: rra-c-util 5.7

This release has a somewhat random collection of accumulated fixes.

A couple of them are for the PAM libraries: new support for the Mac OS X PAM implementation, which doesn't use the same options and error codes as the rest of the world. It also uses a different pattern of const declaration, which required some additional Autoconf probing for the fake PAM library for testing.

There are also a few fixes for the systemd probe framework: libsystemd-daemon has been rolled into libsystemd in current versions, and the probe was using $(), which doesn't work on Solaris 10.

The Kerberos Autoconf macros should now hopefully work with the version of Kerberos bundled with Solaris 10.

Finally, this release supports checking for Clang as a compiler and choosing compiler warning flags accordingly, although rra-c-util isn't warning-free with Clang -Weverything yet.

You can get the latest release from the rra-c-util distribution page.

2015-04-26: C TAP Harness 3.3

The primary purpose of this release is to merge work by D. Brashear on making it easier to show verbose test success and failure output. Now, if runtests is run with the -v option, or the C_TAP_VERBOSE environment variable is set, the full output of each test case will be printed. The output is currently pretty messy, and I hope to improve it in the future, but it's a start.

This release also supports compilation with Clang with all warnings enabled, and resolves all warnings shown by -Weverything (except the ones about padding, because that's not actually a useful warning). It includes new machinery to detect the compiler and switch warning flags. I will hopefully get a chance to go through my other projects and make them build cleanly with Clang, but it requires adding casts for any conversion from unsigned to signed or vice versa, so that may take a while.

You can get the latest version from the C TAP Harness distribution page.

2015-04-19: Review: The Girls from Alcyone

Review: The Girls from Alcyone, by Cary Caffrey

Series Girls from Alcyone #1
Publisher Tealy
Copyright 2011
ISBN 1-105-33727-8
Format Kindle
Pages 315

Sigrid is a very special genetic match born to not particularly special parents, deeply in debt in the slums of Earth. That's how she finds herself being purchased by a mercenary corporation at the age of nine, destined for a secret training program involving everything from physical conditioning to computer implants, designed to make her a weapon. Sigrid, her friend Suko, and the rest of their class are a special project of the leader of the Kimura corporation, one that's controversial even among the corporate board, and when the other mercenary companies unite against Kimura's plans, they become wanted contraband.

This sounds like it could be a tense SF thriller, but I'll make my confession at the start of the review: I had great difficulty taking this book seriously. Initially, it had me wondering what horrible alterations and mind control Kimura was going to impose on the girls, but it very quickly turned into, well, boarding school drama, with little of the menace I was expecting. Not that bullying, or the adults who ignore it to see how the girls will handle it themselves, are light-hearted material, but it was very predictable. As was the teenage crush that grows into something deeper, the revenge on the nastiest bully that the protagonist manages to not be responsible for, and the conflict between unexpectedly competent girls and an invasion of hostile mercenaries.

I'm not particularly well-read or informed about the genre, so I'm not the best person to make this comparison, but the main thing The Girls from Alcyone reminded me of was anime or manga. The mix of boarding-school interpersonal relationships, crushes and passionate love, and hypercompetent female action heroes who wear high heels and have constant narrative attention on their beauty had that feel to it. Add in the lesbian romance and the mechs (of sorts) that show up near the end of the story, and it's hard to shake the feeling that one is reading SF yuri as imagined by a North American author.

The other reason why I had a hard time taking this seriously is that it's over-the-top action sequences (it's the Empire Strikes Back rescue scene!) mixed with rather superficial characterization, with one amusing twist: female characters almost always end up being on the side of the angels. Lady Kimura, when she appears, turns into exactly the sort of mentor figure that one would expect given the rest of the story (and the immediate deference she got felt like it was lifted from anime). The villains, meanwhile, are hissable and motivated by greed or control. While there's a board showdown, there's no subtle political maneuvering, just a variety of more or less effective temper tantrums.

I found The Girls from Alcyon amusing, and even fun to read in places, but that was mostly from analyzing how closely it matched anime and laughing at how reliably it delivered characteristic tropes. It thoroughly embraces its action-hero story full of beautiful, deadly women, but it felt more like a novelization of a B-grade sci-fi TV show than serious drama. It's just not well-written or deep enough for me to enjoy it as a novel. None of the characters were particularly engaging, partly because they were so predictable. And the deeper we got into the politics behind the plot, the less believable I found any of it.

I picked this up, along with several other SFF lesbian romances, because sometimes it's nice to read a story with SFF trappings, a positive ending, and a lack of traditional gender roles. The Girls from Alcyone does have most of those things (the gender roles are tweaked but still involve a lot of men looking at beautiful women). But unless you really love anime-style high-tech mercenary boarding-school yuri, want to read it in book form, and don't mind a lot of cliches, I can't recommend it.

Followed by The Machines of Bellatrix.

Rating: 3 out of 10

2015-04-17: Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

Publisher CreateSpace
Copyright 2014
ISBN 1-5004-5330-7
Format Kindle
Pages 503

The Wayfarer is a tunneling ship: one of the small, unremarked construction ships that help build the wormhole network used for interstellar transport. It's a working ship with a crew of eight (although most people would count seven and not count the AI). They don't all like each other — particularly not the algaeist, who is remarkably unlikeable — but they're used to each other. It's not a bad life, although a more professional attention to paperwork and procedure might help them land higher-paying jobs.

That's where Rosemary Harper comes in. At the start of the book, she's joining the ship as their clerk: nervous, hopeful, uncertain, and not very experienced. But this is a way to get entirely away from her old life and, unbeknownst to the ship she's joining, her real name, identity, and anyone who would know her.

Given that introduction, I was expecting this book to be primarily about Rosemary. What is she fleeing? Why did she change her identity? How will that past come to haunt her and the crew that she joined? But that's just the first place that Chambers surprised me. This isn't that book at all. It's something much quieter, more human, more expansive, and more joyful.

For one, Chambers doesn't stick with Rosemary as a viewpoint character, either narratively or with the focus of the plot. The book may open with Rosemary and the captain, Ashby, as focal points, but that focus expands to include every member of the crew of the Wayfarer. We see each through others' eyes first, and then usually through their own, either in dialogue or directly. This is a true ensemble cast. Normally, for me, that's a drawback: large viewpoint casts tend to be either jarring or too sprawling, mixing people I want to read about with people I don't particularly care about. But Chambers avoids that almost entirely. I was occasionally a touch disappointed when the narrative focus shifted, but then I found myself engrossed in the backstory, hopes, and dreams of the next crew member, and the complex ways they interweave. Rosemary isn't the center of this story, but only because there's no single center.

It's very hard to capture in a review what makes this book so special. The closest that I can come is that I like these people. They're individual, quirky, human (even the aliens; this is from more the Star Trek tradition of alien worldbuilding), complicated, and interesting, and it's very easy to care about them. Even characters I never expected to like.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet does have a plot, but it's not a fast-moving or completely coherent one. The ship tends to wander, even when the mission that gives rise to the title turns up. And there are a lot of coincidences here, which may bother you if you're reading for plot. At multiple points, the ship ends up in exactly the right place to trigger some revelation about the backstory of one of the crew members, even if the coincidence strains credulity. Similar to the algae-driven fuel system, some things one just has to shrug about and move past.

On other fronts, though, I found The Long Way to be refreshingly willing to take a hard look at SF assumptions. This is not the typical space opera: humans are a relatively minor species in this galaxy, one that made rather a mess of their planet and are now refugees. They are treated with sympathy or pity; they're not somehow more flexible, adaptable, or interesting than the rest of the galaxy. More fascinatingly to me, humans are mostly pacifists, a cultural reaction to the dire path through history that brought them to their current exile. This is set against a backdrop of a vibrant variety of alien species, several of whom are present onboard the Wayfinder. The history and background of the other species are not, sadly, as well fleshed out as the humans, but each with at least a few twists that add interest to the story.

But the true magic of this book, the thing that it has in overwhelming abundance, is heart. Not everyone in this book is a good person, but most of them are trying. I've rarely read a book full of so much empathy and willingness to reach out to others with open hands. And, even better, they're all nice in different ways. They bring their own unique personalities and approaches to their relationships, particularly the complex web of relationships that connects the crew. When bad things happen, and, despite the overall light tone, a few very bad things happen, the crew rallies like friends, or like chosen family. I have to say it again: I like these people. Usually, that's not a good sign for a book, since wholly likeable people don't generate enough drama. But this is one of the better-executed "protagonist versus nature" plots I've read. It successfully casts the difficulties of making a living at a hard and lonely and political job as the "nature" that provides the conflict.

This is a rather unusual book. It's probably best classified as space opera, but it doesn't fit the normal pattern of space opera and it doesn't have enough drama. It's not a book about changing the universe; at the end of the book, the universe is in pretty much the same shape as we found it. It's not even about the character introduced in the first pages, or really that much about her dilemma. And it's certainly not a book about winning a cunning victory against your enemies.

What it is, rather, is a book about friendships, about chosen families and how they form, about being on someone else's side, about banding together while still being yourself. It's about people making a living in a hard universe, together. It's full of heart, and I loved it.

I'm unsurprised that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet had to be self-published via a Kickstarter campaign to find its audience. I'm also unsurprised that, once it got out there, it proved very popular and has now been picked up by a regular publisher. It's that sort of book. I believe it's currently out of print, at least in the US, as its new publisher spins up that process, but it should be back in print by late 2015. When that happens, I recommend it to your attention. It was the most emotionally satisfying book I've read so far this year.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2015-04-12: Review: Zero Sum Game

Review: Zero Sum Game, by S.L. Huang

Series Russell's Attic #1
Publisher S.L. Huang
Copyright 2014
ISBN 0-9960700-1-X
Format Kindle
Pages 326

Cas Russell finds things for people, often involving some strategic violence. She belongs to that genre of action novel protagonists who have a rough code of ethics, but who don't exactly follow the law. Her friend Rio is much worse: a functioning sociopath with his own code of ethics, the derivation of which is a key plot point. When the book opens, Cas is on a mission to find a person and rescue them from a drug cartel — not her normal mission, but her contact said she was referred by Rio. Oh, and Rio is currently hitting her in the face.

This setup matches any number of present-day thrillers. The SFnal twist is that Cas is very good at numbers, in a completely unrealistic action hero way. (I found it unsurprising that Huang was inspired by the superhero genre; that's the right model to have in mind when reading about Cas.) She can calculate where bullets are going to go, knows just the right angle and velocity with which to throw things (and, even more notably, can get her body to do that), and, in one particularly memorable scene, sets up an eavesdropping sound concentrator by changing the angles of available random surfaces in the neighborhood, like trash cans. This ability is not without drawbacks. When she's not in a middle of a job, with something to focus on, she usually ends up drinking herself into a stupor to get her brain to stop working. But it's an extremely useful ability that requires the villains of this book go to great efforts to try to kill her.

The plot starts out as fairly typical thriller material, involving threats and dire consequences to those Cas loves (or at least likes a lot) and an unfolding sense that this retrieval of a kidnapped woman is the tip of a very deep iceberg. The expected counterpart, a private investigator with a less casual attitude towards killing than Cas, shows up early on. (Rio does not play that role in the story. His role is much more complex.) But the superhero inspirations show up in the villains as well, in a twist that many on-line summaries spoil, but which I will leave unmentioned.

Mostly, Zero Sum Game is a fast-moving story with lots of violence, lots of guns, shadowy conspiracies, and a hypercompetent protagonist. (Female, refreshingly, particularly since she doesn't fall in love with any of the other characters in the book.) It's a recipe for enjoyable brain candy, and I think that's the best attitude to bring to it. However, a couple of things set it apart for me.

First, Cas spends quite a bit of time really thinking about her life and questioning her decisions, rather than just blithely enjoying her world of stress and violence. There's more introspection here than in the typical thriller plot, but she stops short of wallowing in angst and stays decisive. I liked that balance: a bit of inner discomfort, and a few hard ethical decisions, but not to the point of paralyzing her.

Second, her relationship with Rio is something special. Rio himself is a character type that I've seen before in books like this, but I don't think I've seen the dynamic with a character like that handled this well before. I particularly liked that the focus of the book stayed on Cas, not on Rio, and the reader was encouraged to see that relationship as a reflection on Cas and her sense of internal ethics. Seeing Rio through Cas's eyes, and then seeing other characters react to him and react to their relationship, touched some chords that I really enjoyed reading.

Unfortunately, the villains weren't as successful, at least for me. Partly this is a personal quirk: the nature of the threat posed (not revealed for about half the book) is a kind that I dislike reading about. It makes my skin crawl in a way that I don't enjoy. But, even putting that aside, the story ends on a very odd and disturbing anti-climax. It's clearly the first book of an ongoing series, and I hope later books will salvage this. (I certainly liked it well enough to read on.) But the ending left me unsettled and rather irritated at the author. Huang plays fair, and the ending is consistent with what we know by the end of the book, but I read this sort of action-thriller story for catharsis and the glory of competent people doing what they do well.

I got deeply engrossed in this book and had a hard time putting it down. Both Cas and Rio are great characters, as are most of the supporting cast. I wish the ending wasn't quite as much of a letdown so that I could recommend it more strongly. But it's still a fun superhero thriller. If you're looking for something with unrealistic superpowers, a large helping of competence, and a high body count, this may be worth picking up.

(And no, I don't know what the series title means. I know what the series title refers to, but I haven't yet figured out what connection it or the Axiom of Choice has to the plot.)

Followed by Half Life.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2015-03-23: Review: Fukushima

Review: Fukushima, by David Lochbaum, et al.

Author David Lochbaum
Author Edwin Lyman
Author Susan Q. Stranahan
Author Union of Concerned Scientists
Publisher The New Press
Copyright 2014
ISBN 1-59558-927-9
Format Kindle
Pages 320

This is a very interesting book, and I can recommend it, but there are two things you should be aware of up-front. The packaging does not necessarily make clear what expectations you should have of it going in.

First, the subtitle (The Story of a Nuclear Disaster) should have appended to it And Its Implications for US Nuclear Power Policy. This book is very concerned with the impact of the Fukushima disaster on US policy and nuclear regulation, to the point where I think more than half of the book is about US agencies, nuclear regulatory history, and US reaction. There's nothing wrong with that, of course: the US should take a hard look at its own nuclear energy policy given the events at Fukushima, and it's a worthy topic for a book. But if you go into this book expecting a broader perspective, you will be disappointed. For example, I think the fact that France has a lot of nuclear power was mentioned maybe twice in the whole book, and French reaction was never discussed at all. There is a very detailed examination of exactly what happened at Fukushima (more on that in a moment), but most of the policy implications are examined purely from a US perspective. Even Japanese nuclear policy gets somewhat short shrift.

Second, note that the fourth listed co-author is the Union of Concerned Scientists. For those not familiar with US environmental groups, the UCS has a reputation as an anti-nuclear advocacy organization. I don't think that's entirely fair; I think the UCS's position on nuclear power is better summarized as holding that it is theoretically possible to run a nuclear power plant safely, but the actual US nuclear power industry is not very close to that standard, and it would require much tighter regulation and more investment in safety systems to reach that standard. But be aware that the authors of this book have a clear position on the adequacy of current nuclear power safety standards, namely that they aren't. And they don't try to conceal that position in this book. Personally, I prefer authors to be open about their perspective in books like this, but your mileage may vary.

There, disclaimers out of the way. I bought this book for a specific reason: I had followed some of the news coverage at the time of the earthquake and tsunami, and then (like many people, I suspect) lost track of the final outcome as the story fell out of the news and I started ignoring people who didn't understand how large the Pacific Ocean is. Now that we've had the benefit of several years of analysis and thoughtful reconstruction of events, I wanted to know what had actually happened. I'm happy to say that this book delivers quite well on that front. Roughly the first half of the book is a detailed blow-by-blow description of exactly what happened at Fukushima, at least as well as we've been able to reconstruct, told as an engrossing and dramatic narrative. There may be a little too much interleaving of reactions within the US government, which I suspect will particularly annoy non-US readers, but the level of factual detail is excellent, clear, and well-explained.

What I wasn't expecting, but was pleasantly surprised by, is that it's also a great story. There's tension, conflict, heroism, hard choices, and moral quandries, and the authors do a great job conveying factual information while still giving the reader the sense of being in the middle of the unfolding drama. They resist the urge to disclose all the results of later analysis in the middle of the story, which may provide a slightly less clear view of the disaster, but which makes the telling far more compelling. I usually read non-fiction more slowly than fiction, but Fukushima dragged me in. I found myself grabbing moments to read just another few pages.

Unfortunately, this is only about half the book. The other half is a mix of other things that won't have as broad of appeal: an analysis of the challenges of US nuclear regulation, a history of the US nuclear power industry, and a presentation of the authors' opinions about the best path forward for regulation of nuclear power in the US. Since I'm a US citizen and resident with an interest in both nuclear power and regulation of nuclear power in my country, I found this interesting, if not as engrossing as the rest of the book. But it felt a bit oddly tacked on, and I think it's a stretch to say that it's part of the story of Fukushima.

The authors try to draw that link by presenting the Japanese nuclear power industry as heavily influenced by their US counterparts, and their regulatory problems as similar to the problems in the US, but there is nowhere near enough detail about Japanese regulatory practices here to support that conclusion. I think the largest weakness, and the most obvious gap, in this book is the lack of detailed analysis of the history and players in the Japanese nuclear regulatory environment. This is an odd miss. If one is concerned about regulatory inadequacy, Japanese government policy is far more obviously part of the story of Fukushima than US policy. I can only speculate that the authors had inside sources for the US policy discussions but not for the Japanese policy discussions (and, sadly, fall back on painting with a rather broad brush and making unsupported generalizations about Japanese regulatory approaches in a few spots). The result feels like two partly-unrelated books stacked and partly shuffled together.

So, there are parts of Fukushima that are rather disappointing, particularly for non-US readers. But I still recommend it as a great detailed history of the actual incident and a summary of what we now think happened. That summary is unfortunately sketchy and still very unclear, but I don't think that's the fault of the authors. The inside of a nuclear power plant during a meltdown is a very difficult environment to measure or analyze, and there's a lot of data that we will probably never have. Some details may never be known. But what we do know, and how that knowledge unfolded, is told very well.

This is the only book-length treatment on Fukushima I've read, so I can't compare it against other books on the same topic. But it satisfied my curiousity nicely. If you have a similar curiosity, I recommend this book to your attention, although be aware of its approach and its US-centric analysis going in so that you're not surprised by a mismatch of expectations.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2015-03-15: Another haul post

Wow, it's been quite a long time since I've posted something here.

Everything is going well -- I'm just very, very engrossed with the new job, since I'm still in exponential ramp-up mode. It's lasting for longer than I expected, although my expectations didn't have much basis since this is the first time I've started a new job in 17 years. I'm feeling more and more capable every day, but the combination of a very heavily social learning process, a lot of new technical areas to learn, and not having taken a vacation since last June means that my weekends are spent just passively watching things and zoning.

Not sure yet how long that will last, and I don't want to make any predictions, although I do have my first significant vacation coming up next month.

Anyway, book reading and buying has continued, although I'm again far behind on writing reviews. With luck, I'll be writing one of those (for posting later) right after writing this post.

Michelle Alexander — The New Jim Crow (non-fiction)
Elizabeth Bear — Karen Memory (sff)
Becky Chambers — The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (sff)
Fred Clark — The Anti-Christ Handbook (non-fiction)
Charles de Lint — The Very Best of Charles de Lint (sff)
S.L. Huang — A Neurological Study on the Effects... (sff)
S.L. Huang — Half Life (sff)
Kameron Hurley — The Mirror Empire (sff)
Sophie Lack — Dissonance (sff)
Sophie Lack — Imbalance (sff)
Susan R. Matthews — An Exchange of Hostages (sff)
Kaoru Mori — A Bride's Story #1 (graphic novel)
Donald Shoup — The High Cost of Free Parking (non-fiction)
Jo Walton — The Just City (sff)

Pretty nice variety of different stuff from a huge variety of recommendation sources. I've already read the Chambers (and can recommend it). A review will be forthcoming.

Last modified and spun 2015-08-01