Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2015-10-31: Vacation book haul

Reading on vacation always puts me in the mood to buy more books, including a couple that I picked up while on vacation. (I only read one, but that one, Ancillary Mercy, was certainly worth it.)

Ta-Nehisi Coates — Between the World and Me (non-fiction)
Kameron Hurley — Empire Ascendant (sff)
Kameron Hurley — Rapture (sff)
Jenny Lawson — Furiously Happy (non-fiction)
Ann Leckie — Ancillary Mercy (sff)
Kaori Mori — Bride's Story: Volume 2 (graphic novel)
Kaori Mori — Bride's Story: Volume 3 (graphic novel)
Randall Munroe — xkcd: Volume 0 (strip collection)
Jo Walton — The Philosopher Kings (sff)
Fumi Yoshinaga — Ōoku: Volume 3 (graphic novel)

Infidel, the middle book of the Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy by Kameron Hurley, was out of stock, so I'll have to re-order. I might put in another book order shortly to get that plus a few other things, although really I could just take that time to go read more books.

Back from vacation now, so fell out of the reading habit a bit. I've been doing other stuff on the train, but shortly I'll get back into it.

2015-10-25: Review: Hawk

Review: Hawk, by Steven Brust

Series Vlad Taltos #14
Publisher Tor
Copyright October 2014
ISBN 0-7653-2444-X
Format Hardcover
Pages 320

This is the fourteenth book in the Vlad Taltos series (not counting the various associated books and other series), builds directly on the long-term plot arc of the series (finally!), and is deeply entangled with Vlad's friends and former life as a Jhereg boss. As you might imagine from that introduction, this is absolutely not the place to start with this series.

For the past few books, Brust has been following a pattern of advancing the series plot in one book and then taking the next book to fill in past history or tell some side story. That means, following Tiassa, we were due some series advancement, and that's exactly what we get. We also, finally, get some more details about Lady Teldra. Nothing all that revelatory, but certainly intriguing, and more than just additional questions (at last). When Brust finally takes this gun off the wall and fires it, the resulting bits of world-building might be even better than Issola.

At its heart, though, Hawk is a caper novel. If you're like me, you're thinking "it's about time." I think this is the sort of story Brust excels at, particularly with Vlad as his protagonist. Even better, unlike some of the other multi-part novels, this is a book-length caper focused on a very important goal, and with the potential to get rid of some annoyances in Vlad's life that have lingered for rather too long. We see many of Vlad's Dragaeran friends, but (apart from Daymar) mostly in glimpses. This is Vlad's book, with heavy helpings of Loiosh.

The caper is also a nicely twisty one, involving everything from different types of magic to the inner workings of the Jhereg organization. As is typical for Vlad's schemes, there are several false fronts and fake goals, numerous unexpected twists, and a rather fun guest appearance. Oh, and lots and lots of snark, of course. I think my favorite part of the book was the interaction between Vlad and Kragar, which added a lot of emotional depth both to this story and to some of the previous stories of Vlad's life as a Jhereg. And I'm hoping that where Brust leaves things at the end of this book implies a Vlad who is more free to act, to see his friends, and to get entangled in Imperial politics, since I think that leads to the best stories.

Of course, if Brust holds to pattern, the next book will be backfill or side stories and we'll have to wait longer for a continuation of the main story. As much as I like those side stories, I'm hoping Brust will break pattern. I'm increasingly eager to see where this story will go. The all-too-brief interaction with Sethra in this book promises so much for the future.

If you like the Vlad Taltos books overall, you'll probably like this one. It's a return to the old scheming Vlad, but tempered by more experience and different stakes. There's a bit of lore, a bit of world-building, and a lot of Vlad being tricky. This series is still going strong fourteen books in.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2015-10-24: Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, by Sydney Padua

Publisher Pantheon
Copyright 2015
ISBN 0-307-90827-5
Format Hardcover
Pages 317

I seem to be writing a lot of reviews lately where any reader can easily do their own research and see if this is something they'd like. This is another of those, but perhaps a bit more obscure.

As Padua explains in the preface, the first Lovelace and Babbage strip was intended to be a one-off joke. A friend suggested that she draw a comic telling the (short and rather tragic) life of Ada Lovelace, widely considered the first computer programmer even though the computer for which she wrote programs was never built: Charles Babbage's Analytic Engine. Padua found the story of Babbage and Lovelace's collaboration fascinating but too grim, and so wrote an alternate ending involving a pocket universe in which Babbage and Lovelace lived on to fight crime! Or at least fought against street organs and poetry.

Padua meant this as a joke. The Internet took it as a teaser. Quite to her surprise, she found herself writing occasional additional episodes and getting lost in fascinating research about Lovelace and Babbage. The result is all at 2dgoggles.com. This book is a curated collection of those comics, including much of their (extensive) footnotes and research notes, in a very attractive and well-constructed book form. The best review, therefore, would be to go read some of the comics yourself, easily accessible via the Comics tab on the web site, and see if this is the sort of thing you'd enjoy. There is some material in the book that isn't on the web site, but most of it is there (including one full story that didn't make it into the book).

There are a few reasons to buy a collection like this of material that previously appeared on the Internet. One, of course, is out of gratitude to support the author, which is the main reason I bought it. If you want to do that, though, you probably already know you do. Another reason is for additional unpublished material, but that's not really the case here. But a third is that, despite all the technology of the web, books can sometimes provide a more elegant and beautiful presentation. And that's very much the case for The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

The hardcover is a beautiful work of art. It has what you would expect from a hardcover graphic novel, of course: sturdy paper, lovely story headings in the form of Victorian-style posters, and very nice artwork beneath the dust jacket. (I've been so happy to see that in the last few hardcovers I've reviewed.) But, best of all, it presents the primary research notes on each page underneath comic panels.

Those who have been reading Lovelace and Babbage as it appears on the web know Padua's copious research notes. But they're normally presented at the end of each complete part, and I found myself often not reading them in detail. This might not be the case for everyone, but at least for me this presentation works so much better. Historical notes are at the bottom of (nearly) every page, in context. This might sound like it would distract from and break up the flow of the story, but at least for me it does the opposite. The comics feel so much richer when intermixed with the actual history (which in some cases is surprisingly similar to what seemed to be wild, invented scenarios).

The historical notes also have end notes, and quite substantial ones. I found that organization less successful (readers of my reviews will know I have a long-standing antipathy towards end notes for anything other than cross-references), but I have to admit I have no idea how Padua would have fit those on the same page as footnotes. They're also written well enough, and with sufficient detail, that I could usually read a chapter and then read all the end notes and mostly remember what they referred to.

Padua also takes advantage of the format to play a few neat games with frame breaks: characters commenting on the notes, stabbing things into them, or otherwise affecting them. I have to admit to some mild frustration where this makes the notes unreadable, since they're nearly as fascinating as the comics, but the overall effect is still worth it. (And, of course, the full notes are available on the web if one wishes to look them up.)

Rounding out the book version are a few of the best original source documents that Padua found, thankfully excerpted and well-edited to not outlive their welcome for those of us who don't like poring over Victorian letters. And, finally, some beautiful illustrations of the mechanisms of the Analytic Engine with supporting descriptions of how they were supposed to work. I'm not particularly mechanically inclined, nor that fascinated by steampunk, and I still found these diagrams impressive and fun to look at. Someone more interested in such things will be in for a treat.

I've been thoroughly enjoying the (sadly infrequent) installments of Lovelace and Babbage for years now, and am utterly delighted by their hardcover appearance. If you already knew about Padua's work and have any interest in nice hardcovers of such things, I don't think you'll regret the purchase. If you haven't heard of her, or this series, before, some quick reading at the web site should quickly reveal whether this is something you'd enjoy.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2015-10-24: git-pbuilder 1.37

A couple more simple fixes in the continuing failure of this script to get rewritten in Python and integrated properly with the git-buildpackage distribution.... (But hey, I'm caught up on writing book reviews!)

When used with qemubuilder, it was checking for the existence of entirely the wrong file. Thanks to James Clarke for the patch.

Running git-pbuilder with a command requires sudo and an appropriate sudo configuration. There's not much we can do to detect the latter, but Guido Günther suggested at least detecting the former. git-pbuilder now does so and prints out a hopefully informative error. This is also better-documented in the man page.

You can get the latest release from my scripts page.

2015-10-23: Review: Oathbreakers

Review: Oathbreakers, by Mercedes Lackey

Series Vows and Honor #2
Publisher DAW
Copyright January 1989
ISBN 0-88677-454-3
Format Mass market
Pages 318

The Tarma and Kethry stories tend to be stand-alone and are readable out of order, and this isn't an exception. But if you want their background, consider reading Oathblood or (less recommended) The Oathbound before reading this book. (Reading Oathblood first may require a bit of finesse, since some of the stories in that book come after this novel. Unfortunately, there is no good ordering or collection of these stories that maintains internal chronological order.)

This is more like it. This is the Tarma and Kethry story that I remembered when calling them my favorite characters in the Valdemar universe.

Following the short stories merged into The Oathbound fixup novel, Tarma and Kethry are still trying to gather the resources required to start a school and to rebuild Tarma's clan. That's led to them signing with a highly-respected mercenary company: Idra's Sunhawks. Idra renounced her claims to the Rethwellen line of royal succession to lead the Sunhawks, creating a mercenary band that's legendary for their quality and battlefield capabilities. The story opens with a campaign in Jkatha, on one side of a civil war, which is mostly an opportunity to get to know the Sunhawks and to see Tarma and Kethry show their competence. The real story starts later, when Idra is called back to Rethwellen for family business and something goes very wrong.

I think Lackey is best at two types of stories: misunderstood young people who grow into themselves and their place in the world, and competent people displaying their competence. The Tarma and Kethry stories, and particularly Oathbreakers, are of the latter type. This is clearly wish fulfillment: Lackey's stories often lack nuance, there's rarely any doubt as to who the good and bad guys are, and, although very bad things can happen, you're probably going to get some sort of happy ending. But if you're in the mood for that sort of story, it's so satisfying.

The Tarma and Kethry we see here are a mature, experienced fighter and mage team (plus Warrl, who provides vitally important magical and combat assistance, as well as some pointed advice). They know what they're doing, they care deeply for each other, and both their relationship patterns and their capabilities are well-understood. Both do a bit of growing over the course of this novel, but that's not really the point. The point is seeing them take on unfamiliar challenges and tricky investigations while being very good at what they do. In other words, this isn't bildungsroman or high fantasy; it's sword and sorcery, and an excellent example of the genre.

Reading these books as part of the overall Valdemar series provides some enjoyable moments with the first explicit contact between Valdemar and its Heralds and Tarma and Kethry's world. The maps here firmly establish their home regions as well to the south of Valdemar and multiple kingdoms away, but Rethwellen (as previously established in earlier Herald-focused trilogies) is on Valdemar's southern border. Seeing Lackey's very separate magic and divinity systems cross and meet, with a bit of initial mutual suspicion, is a rather fun moment (if, at least, you're in the mood for a story in which the world has a vested interest in making sure all the good people like each other). Although I'm wondering why Kethry didn't get extremely uncomfortable when she crossed the border into Valdemar due to the trick that Vanyel pulled in his trilogy. (I seem to recall this is explained away at some point.)

Be warned that this novel does contain other elements typical of early Lackey. There is, for example, the inevitable rape, although thankfully off-camera and not quite as central to the plot. (Although in a way that makes it worse since it felt gratuitous. I'm unconvinced that the rape was at all necessary to the story that Lackey was telling.) Revenge and eye-for-an-eye justice are hotly defended by the protagonists. This isn't a series to look to for subtle and complex solutions to political problems; instead, everything gets better if you just kill all the evil people. There isn't anything quite as egregious as the actions of the supposed good guys in The Oathbound, but you still have to read past a certain bloodthirstiness in the stated good side of a very black-and-white morality.

That means this isn't a novel for all people or all moods. But within those genre conventions, which aren't that unusual for sword and sorcery, Oathbreakers is a lot of fun. It's one of the few Valdemar novels I've read during this re-read that lived up to my memory of it. Recommended if you like this sort of thing.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2015-10-22: Review: Watchtower

Review: Watchtower, by Elizabeth A. Lynn

Series Chronicles of Tornor #1
Publisher Berkley
Copyright February 1979
Printing November 1982
ISBN 0-425-06195-7
Format Mass market
Pages 226

Ryke is a soldier in service to Athor, lord of Tornor Keep. Or, at least, he was. Shortly before the opening lines of this book, Tornor Keep was taken by a southerner named Col Istor, and Athor was killed. Ryke is about to change sides under duress: his service to Col as a watch commander is the price of keeping Errel, Athor's son, alive. Alive does not mean treated with dignity, however; Errel's new place is to become court jester for Col's small domain.

At the start of this book, I had no idea who Col Istor was or why he'd want to take over one of the border keeps that guard the country of Arun against its northern neighbor Anhard. At the end of this book, I still had little idea. Watchtower's relationship with world-building is not what you'd normally expect from a fantasy novel.

There are only a few locations in this novel, and they're described in close detail but without much historical or strategic context. The narrative, despite being third person, follows Ryke very closely, and Ryke is not interested in thinking much about the history of his world that he knows and the reader doesn't. Or he may not care. Ryke does not come across as a curious or thoughtful person. He's a soldier, he lives to serve his lord, and that service transfers from Athor to Errel and simply stays there, with little discussion or argument.

The opening section of this novel shows Ryke trying to take care of Errel while serving Col and listening to his plans to take over the rest of the northern keeps. I found it slow, claustrophobic, and not very interesting. It reads a bit like a day in the life in some grim medieval military, with little world-building or context. Watchtower is technically fantasy, but mostly because the geography and politics are imaginary. Magic is limited to a very tiny bit of (essentially) Tarot card reading and has little impact on the plot.

The story does get somewhat more interesting when two green clan messengers enter the story, and Ryke and Errel escape. Lynn introduces another community and another way of life into the story than the one Ryke is used to, one that seemed modeled after monastic orders (but with the religion toned down to nearly nonexistent). I think the intended conflict of the story is between those ways of life, their draws and implications, but even that conflict is never clearly stated. Ryke seems to move from one inevitability to another, and while he does question some of his previous views and seems to open his mind a bit, actual growth is limited in this story. I reached the end of the book feeling the world was largely unchanged from its start.

This story won the World Fantasy award for best novel in 1980. I have to admit I'm baffled, although partly that's because this is not really my thing. I prefer my fantasy to have more epic sweep and a lot more world-building. But perhaps the award was for the writing, which is evocative and fills the moments of the story with closely-observed detail. It has a distinctive, choppy feel, full of short declarative sentences:

The wind blew. Like some night creature caught in a trap, Col Istor's banner flapped on its pole. Ryke wondered where his wolfhound was. Sheltering, he hoped, in some warm and windless corner. He thrust his hands beneath his armpits to warm them. He entered the kitchen, nodding at the guard who stood there, and went toward the scullery. The kitchenboys huddled together in sleep like dogs in front of the oven. He stepped over their legs. The iron pots on the walls vibrated softly.

That's a paragraph chosen at random from the start of the book and should give you a good feel for the style.

I think I would have liked this novel better if it had followed anyone other than Ryke. Not only did I not care for him and his simplistic loyalties, he's the least interesting character in this story. Everyone else — Col, Errel, Sorren, Van, and others — is more complex and more thoughtful than he is, and I think many of them would have made a better protagonist. He spends much of the center part of the book being suspicious and closed and incurious, which means the reader can only guess at what's going on between the other characters.

I can't really recommend this book, but the writing is solid and it has some interesting properties for late 1970s fantasy, including both a frank look at the role of women in this society and same-sex relationships. If your taste in fantasy leans towards the gritty and realistic, you might like it more than I did. I may try the later books of the series in the hope that they have more interesting protagonists.

Followed by Dancers of Arun.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2015-10-21: Review: What If?

Review: What If?, by Randall Munroe

Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Copyright 2014
ISBN 0-544-27299-4
Format Hardcover
Pages 295

This is another one of those reviews that's somewhat pointless to write, at least beyond telling people who for some strange reason aren't xkcd readers that this is a thing that exists in the world. What If? is a collection of essays from that feature on the xkcd web site and new essays in the same vein. (Over half are new to this collection.) If you've read them, you know what to expect; if you haven't, and have any liking at all for odd scientific facts or stick figures, you're in for a treat.

So, short review: The subtitle is Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, and it's exactly what it says on the tin, except that "serious" includes a healthy dose of trademark xkcd humor. Go read what-if.xkcd.com for numerous samples of Munroe's essay style. If you like what you see, this is a whole book of that: a nice, high-quality hardcover (at least the edition I bought), featuring the same mix of text and cartoon commentary, and with new (and in some cases somewhat longer) material. You probably now have all the information necessary to make a purchasing decision.

If you need more motivation, particularly to buy a physical copy, the inside of the dust jacket of the hardcover is a detailed, labeled map of the world after a drain in the Marianas Trench has emptied most of the oceans onto Mars. And the book inside the dust jacket is embossed with what happens after the dinosaur on the cover is lowered into, or at least towards, the Great Pit of Carkoon. This made me particularly happy, since too often hardcovers inside the dust jacket look just like every other hardcover except for the spine lettering. Very few of them have embossed Star Wars references.

Personally, I think that's a great reason to buy the hardcover even if, like me, you've been following What If? on the web religiously since it started. But of course the real draw is the new material. There's enough of it that I won't try any sort of comprehensive list, but rest assured that it's of equal or better quality than the web-published essays we know and love. My favorite of the new pieces is the answer to the question "what would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element?" As with so many What If? questions, it starts with killing everyone in the vicinity, and then things get weird.

Another nice touch in this collection is what I'd call "rejected questions": questions that people submitted but that didn't inspire an essay. Most of these (I wish all) get a single cartoon of reaction to the question itself, which include some of the funniest (and most touching) panels in the book.

Ebook formatting has gotten much better, so there's some hope that at least some platforms could do justice to this book with its embedded cartoons. Putting the footnotes properly at the bottom of each page (thank you!) might be a challenge, though. Writing mixed with art is one of the things I think benefits greatly from a physical copy, and the hardcover is a satisfying and beautiful artifact. (I see there's also an audio book, but I'm sure how well that could work; so much of the joy of What If? is the illustrations, and I'm dubious that one could adequately describe them.) Prior web readers will be relieved to know that the mouse-over text is preserved as italic captions under the cartoons, although sadly most cartoons are missing captions. (As I recall, that's also the case for the early web What If? essays, but later essays have mouse-over text for nearly every cartoon.)

Anyway, this is a thing that exists. If you follow xkcd, you probably knew that already, given that the book was published last year and I only now got around to reading it. (My current backlog is... impressive.) If you were not previously aware of What If? or of xkcd itself, now you are, and I envy you the joy of discovery. A short bit of reading will tell you for certain whether this is something you want to purchase. If your relationship to physics is at all similar to mine, I suspect the answer will be yes.

A small personal note: I just now realized how much the style of What If? resembles the mixed text and illustrations of One Two Three... Infinity. Given how foundational that book was to my love of obscure physics facts, my love of What If? is even less surprising.

Rating: 10 out of 10

2015-10-20: Review: The Oathbound

Review: The Oathbound, by Mercedes Lackey

Series Vows and Honor #1
Publisher DAW
Copyright July 1988
ISBN 0-88677-414-4
Format Mass market
Pages 302

This book warrants a bit of explanation.

Before Arrows of the Queen, before Valdemar (at least in terms of publication dates), came Tarma and Kethry short stories. I don't know if they were always intended to be set in the same world as Valdemar; if not, they were quickly included. But they came from another part of the world and a slightly different sub-genre. While the first two Valdemar trilogies were largely coming-of-age fantasy, Tarma and Kethry are itinerant sword-and-sorcery adventures featuring two women with a soul bond: the conventionally attractive, aristocratic mage Kethry, and the celibate, goddess-sworn swordswoman Tarma. Their first story was published, appropriately, in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Swords and Sorceress III.

This is the first book about Tarma and Kethry. It's a fix-up novel: shorter stories, bridged and re-edited, and glued together with some additional material. And it does not contain the first Tarma and Kethry story.

As mentioned in my earlier Valdemar reviews, this is a re-read, but it's been something like twenty years since I previously read the whole Valdemar corpus (as it was at the time; I'll probably re-read everything I have on hand, but it's grown considerably, and I may not chase down the rest of it). One of the things I'd forgotten is how oddly, from a novel reader's perspective, the Tarma and Kethry stories were collected. Knowing what I know now about publishing, I assume Swords and Sorceress III was still in print at the time The Oathbound was published, or the rights weren't available for some other reason, so their first story had to be omitted. Whatever the reason, The Oathbound starts with a jarring gap that's no less irritating in this re-read than it was originally.

Also as is becoming typical for this series, I remembered a lot more world-building and character development than is actually present in at least this first book. In this case, I strongly suspect most of that characterization is in Oathbreakers, which I remember as being more of a coherent single story and less of a fix-up of puzzle and adventure stories with scant time for character growth. I'll be able to test my memory shortly.

What we do get is Kethry's reconciliation of her past, a brief look at the Shin'a'in and the depth of Tarma and Kethry's mutual oath (unfortunately told more than shown), the introduction of Warrl (again, a relationship that will grow a great deal more depth later), and then some typical sword and sorcery episodes: a locked room mystery, a caravan guard adventure about which I'll have more to say later, and two rather unpleasant encounters with a demon. The material is bridged enough that it has a vague novel-like shape, but the bones of the underlying short stories are pretty obvious. One can tell this isn't really a novel even without the tell of a narrative recap in later chapters of events that you'd just read earlier in the same book.

What we also get is rather a lot of rape, and one episode of seriously unpleasant "justice."

A drawback of early Lackey is that her villains are pure evil. My not entirely trustworthy memory tells me that this moderates over time, but early stories tend to feature villains completely devoid of redeeming qualities. In this book alone one gets to choose between the rapist pedophile, the rapist lord, the rapist bandit, and the rapist demon who had been doing extensive research in Jack Chalker novels. You'll notice a theme. Most of the rape happens off camera, but I was still thoroughly sick of it by the end of the book. This was already a cliched motivation tactic when these stories were written.

Worse, as with the end of Arrow's Flight, the protagonists don't seem to be above a bit of "turnabout is fair play." When you're dealing with rape as a primary plot motivation, that goes about as badly as you might expect. The final episode here involves a confrontation that Tarma and Kethry brought entirely on themselves through some rather despicable actions, and from which they should have taken a lesson about why civilized societies have criminal justice systems. Unfortunately, despite an ethical priest who is mostly played for mild amusement, no one in the book seems to have drawn that rather obvious conclusion. This, too, I recall as getting better as the series goes along and Lackey matures as a writer, but that only helps marginally with the early books.

Some time after the publication of The Oathbound and Oathbreakers, something (presumably the rights situation) changed. Oathblood was published in 1998 and includes not only the first Tarma and Kethry story but also several of the short stories that make up this book, in (I assume) something closer to their original form. That makes The Oathbound somewhat pointless and entirely skippable. I re-read it first because that's how I first approached the series many years ago, and (to be honest) because I'd forgotten how much was reprinted in Oathblood. I'd advise a new reader to skip it entirely, start with the short stories in Oathblood, and then read Oathbreakers before reading the final novella. You'd miss the demon stories, but that's probably for the best.

I'm complaining a lot about this book, but that's partly from familiarity. If you can stomach the rape and one stunningly unethical protagonist decision, the stories that make it up are solid and enjoyable, and the dynamic between Tarma and Kethry is always a lot of fun (and gets even better when Warrl is added to the mix). I think my favorite was the locked room mystery. It's significantly spoiled by knowing the ending, and it has little deeper significance, but it's a classic sort unembellished, unapologetic sword-and-sorcery tale that's hard to come by in books. But since it too is reprinted (in a better form) in Oathblood, there's no point in reading it here.

Followed by Oathbreakers.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2015-10-15: Review: Ancillary Mercy

Review: Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

Series Imperial Radch #3
Publisher Orbit
Copyright October 2015
ISBN 0-316-24668-9
Format Trade paperback
Pages 330

This is the third book of the series that starts with Ancillary Justice. Please don't read it out of order. The three books form a rare thing in SF: a trilogy with a clear start and a clear ending. They're ideally read fairly close together so that you can remember the people involved.

By the end of Ancillary Sword, Leckie had apparently resolved most of the plot in the Athoek system, although the Ghost Gate and broader imperial turmoil still lurked. I was expecting this novel to be another change of scene, and probably a broadening of the scope into the more sweeping events set off by earlier books.

That's not what Ancillary Mercy is at all. Leckie caught me by surprise early, and the book kept not going in the direction I was expecting. And the result is brilliant.

It's obviously difficult to talk about this in detail, since there's no way I'm going to spoil this or any of the previous books. This is some of the best SF I've ever read, and I want anyone who's not read the series yet to have the full experience. What I will say is that there was a lot of character growth left, including in some places that I thought would remain setting-mandated blind spots. Leckie tackles some very tricky themes, ones that are hard to do well because of how thoroughly the ground has already been explored, and still manages to find an original take and an even more original tone. And remains true to Breq's characterization throughout, including one critical scene that's masterful in its heart-breaking understatedness.

Breq's flat affect is both very difficult and incredibly rewarding as a first-person protagonist. If I had to call out one thing that makes this series so special to me, it's the way that Leckie puts the reader in the middle of a restrained and very careful culture, centers the book on a character with a very unusual relationship to emotion, nearly completely avoids outward displays of feeling, treats emotions primarily as data to be weighed with other information, and yet provides just the right amount of subtle clues and external reflection to show just how central emotion is to everything that happens. This is an incredibly difficult balancing act, much harder than an openly emotional book (let alone the tough-guy cliches that military SF is normally full of), and it makes the occasional pay-offs so rewarding. I think some people might find Ancillary Mercy too understated, but I thought it was note-perfect throughout. And the ending was spectacular.

For those who are less enamored of Breq and more interested in the plot, don't worry: we do get some resolution to most of the loose threads. There's clearly potential in this universe for more stories (and apparently more books coming!), but this trilogy comes to a definite end. If I had to quibble, I'd say that a few bits of the plot are too convenient: the resolution would have been impossible without one very critical mistake at the start of the second book, and there's at least one perfectly-timed accident. But Leckie's most critical plot resolution tool was properly hung on the wall in the last book and used perfectly. It's hard to manage a satisfying resolution to a twisty political conflict between very sharp antagonists; for me, at least, Leckie pulls it off.

Looking back on the whole series, I find it striking how much more satisfying and believable Leckie's military culture is for her setting than those I normally read. I think we're too often given far-future military stories that are full of impulsive drama, high emotion, and physical feats. But in a world of starships and space stations, advanced computers, careful and systematized roles, and precise engineering, that's not realistic. While there is some physical violence required, problems in that world are more likely to look like operational computer problems than gladiatorial problems. That means the required tools are careful and fast analytical skills, quick iterative decision-making, and precise execution, not physical toughness and grit.

In that world, adrenaline is at best useless and often your enemy. Leckie's world of tea sets and emotional control is partly driven by other world-building factors, but, particularly in this book, I was struck by how well-adapted it is to a military where calm decisions and efficient follow-through are far more important than adrenaline-driven courage. The emotion is absolutely there, but the catharsis doesn't come through bloody battles or feats of physicality. Again, so tricky to pull off, since it plays against the expectations we bring as readers to a war story, but I found it so much more satisfying when written well.

I also love that this series is not about saving the world, at least in any direct sense. It is about justice, and ethics, and about standing up for what's right, but it's just as much about identity, about how to choose and define one's ethics, and how to make the most of the small number of decisions one gets to make. Everyone in this world is operating under sharp constraints: culture, ability, available alliances, physical limitations, and particularly the role into which they were cast. Huge things happen in this series, but not from the dramatic, order-overturning action of Chosen Ones. Rather, change is created by individuals who find small points of leverage and definition, and who make quiet, critical decisions to become better people than they were.

I adore this series, and particularly this conclusion, beyond all rational measure. I'm sure that won't be universal, just as other readers weren't as enamored as I was of the direction Leckie went in Ancillary Sword. But this was a series conclusion that I was not expecting at all, that kept surprising me right up to the climax, and was exactly the conclusion that I wanted. If you liked the previous books, and particularly if you liked Ancillary Sword but thought Breq was a bit too much in control of the plot and a bit too able to make things go her way, I think you'll love Ancillary Mercy.

This is simply the best SF series I've read in a long time.

Rating: 10 out of 10

2015-10-14: Review: Firebird

Review: Firebird, by Jack McDevitt

Series Alex Benedict #6
Publisher Ace
Copyright November 2011
Printing October 2012
ISBN 1-937007-80-4
Format Mass market
Pages 357

Firebird is the sixth book in the Alex Benedict series about an antique hunter in the far future (albeit a far future that looks exactly like 1960s suburbia, but with spaceships). This is a very episodic series, though, and I don't think it would be hurt much by starting in the middle. There are references to earlier investigations, but they're fleeting, and I often didn't map them to remembered plots even though I've read the whole series to this point.

The investigation in this book starts with the heir to an estate coming to Alex to sell some of the possessions of a physicist. Chase (Alex's assistant, and here, as in the last few books, the viewpoint character) doesn't even recognize the name, but Alex does: Christopher Robin disappeared forty-one years earlier, under circumstances that were never fully explained. He was also (and unusually for a physicist) interested in strange and marginal ideas: dark energy, new drive technology, parallel universes one could potentially cross into, and similar fringe concepts.

The normal pattern of this series is that Alex will hear about some mystery, be unable to restrain his curiosity, and start poking around, usually turning up things that people would rather he didn't. It takes a while for that to happen here; instead, the story starts with Alex playing up popular interest in Robin's ideas in a rather mercenary attempt to increase the value of the estate. He stumbles into more mystery mostly by accident. Eventually he can't resist the allure of a revealed link between Christopher Robin and sightings of mysterious disappearing starships and the normal pattern kicks in, but he spends rather more of the book than normal being flippant and slightly unethical.

I didn't much like the shift in tone. Alex is a lot harder to like this book, and not just for his business practices. His tone towards Chase also moves past the slightly superior smugness that's common to many books of this type (think Nero Wolfe) and well into condescending ass. Some of this may be intentional, as McDevitt uses this book to bring out a bit more of Alex and Chase's past and has some story reasons for making Alex less of a saint. But some of it feels accidental, or unnoticed, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

As with a lot of McDevitt, the actual mystery is slow, a bit scattered, and has a fair number of blind alleys. That property makes these books feel more like real investigations, but it works better when the characters are fully engaged in the investigation and are communicating a bit better than they are here. The plot also gets entangled in a subplot about a planet full of abandoned AIs, and while that was moderately interesting, it felt like an extended digression with dubious relevance to the main plot. McDevitt occasionally has trouble with plot focus, and I think I noticed more this time because the characters weren't as fun to spend time with.

The end of Firebird was up to the usual standards of this series, albeit surprisingly traumatic. The rest of the book, though, felt markedly weaker. Alex decided to be obnoxious and play into his (previously mostly inaccurate) public perception as a money and glory hound. Chase seemed too flippant, uninterested, and a bit too much of a foil instead of a partner. And the plot felt like two different story ideas awkwardly smushed together.

I think this was the weakest of the series to date. Hopefully the next book, which looks to be more of a direct sequel to this one, will improve.

Followed by Coming Home.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2015-10-13: Review: Magic's Price

Review: Magic's Price, by Mercedes Lackey

Series Last Herald Mage #3
Publisher DAW
Copyright July 1990
ISBN 0-88677-426-8
Format Mass market
Pages 351

Magic's Price is the conclusion of the Last Herald Mage trilogy (Lackey is from an era of fantasy in which trilogies stopped at three books), but those books are widely spaced and mostly stand alone. You might miss some context around Vanyel's personal life and the politics of the kingdom, but there's a lot of somewhat-awkward in-line summary, so you could read these books out of order if you wanted to. As with the previous two, this is a re-read of a book I've read several times before, but not for more than fifteen years.

This is the book that finally introduces Stefan. On this re-read, that surprised me — I thought of him as a large part of Vanyel's overall arc — but he's only in the third book. He is, of course, key to the grand conclusion of Vanyel's story, beginning as the Bard who has the ability to blunt the pain of the badly-suffering king of Valdemar and then becoming more than that to Van.

It's also a book about Vanyel trying desperately to hold things together as the country falls on hard times and far too much weight is put on his shoulders. And a book about a climactic fight against an arch-villain (awkwardly and retroactively inserted). And Vanyel coming to terms with his own foresight. It's a book about rather a lot of things, and therein lies a problem.

I thought Magic's Promise had a better story than Magic's Pawn, but both had reasonably coherent stories and some internal flow. Magic's Price has three or four interwoven stories and some odd stops and starts. This is still early in Lackey's writing career (three years after her first novel), and I don't think she was entirely successful in what she was trying to do. The climaxes of the different stories don't quite line up and don't get enough separate attention, leaving a book that lacks clear dramatic shape, an engrossing build-up, or a satisfying climax.

The biggest problem I had is that the main threat is not adequately supported. The story is building towards a rather drastic conclusion, one that has been foreshadowed from early in the series, but the threat that creates that conclusion comes out of nowhere. Lackey tries to tie it back to events from earlier in the series, and maybe it was planned all along, but there's little concrete support and no build-up. It feels like a retcon. And the key character in that threat receives almost no characterization whatsoever. I'm a bit grateful for that, since Lackey tends towards total evil in her villains, but to have the cause of all the drama in this story be a complete cipher takes a lot out of the story. (Also, I truly could have done without the rape.)

The other irritation is that Vanyel spends quite a lot of the book being a jackass. This is another occasional problem with Lackey's books: her love stories, at least in her early books, involve a bit too much of people being stupid at each other. But I hadn't remembered just how much Van jerked Stef around and treated him miserably, straight to the end of the book. Love is a bit too ordained and imbued with magical powers in Valdemar, which is lucky for Vanyel: extensive plot support is required to explain why Stef didn't find someone else who was less of an ass. In the real world, when someone insists they have no emotional space for you, the correct reaction is "gotcha, have a nice life" and finding someone else to spend time with. This gets partly sorted out in the end, but I didn't find the reconciliation entirely believable, and certainly not fair to Stef. (And the age difference is just a little creepy, although thankfully Lackey doesn't put much focus on that.)

On my first read of the Valdemar corpus, this was the book during which I started getting interested in the lore and politics of this universe. There's much more of that to come, thankfully, as I think it's my favorite part of the series. At this point in her writing career, Lackey is getting better at avoiding infodumps and making her magic system interesting. The politics is still a bit black and white, but the Tayledras are a lot of fun (and increasingly less like elves, even if that's the obvious initial inspiration), and the areas beyond Valdemar are developing some more coherence. The conclusion loses a lot from the lack of build-up and emotional support, but it still adds an interesting bit of magical history that will be important later.

I wish I'd enjoyed Magic's Price more on re-read, but it was much spottier and more exasperating than I had remembered. That said, it certainly has its moments, particularly around the lore. This is the first book where one starts to realize just how powerful the Companions are, and just how much they're capable of that they're not showing. When I first read it, I loved it. Now, the flaws are too obvious, and Vanyel's behavior is too irritating, for me to unreservedly recommend it, but Magic's Price, and the whole trilogy, is important for building the lore of later books.

When I get to Elspeth's part of the series, the politics and magical system will be developed at much greater length. Next, though, my favorite stories in this universe: Tarma and Kethry.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2015-09-22: Review: Getting Back to Full Employment

Review: Getting Back to Full Employment, by Dean Baker & Jared Bernstein

Publisher CEPR
Copyright 2013
ISBN 0-615-91836-0
Format Kindle
Pages 116

Getting Back to Full Employment is more of a policy paper than a book. The authors both work for economic think tanks; one of those, the Center for Economic and Policy research (co-founded by Baker), is the publisher of this book. It's also free on the Kindle, another sign that the purpose is more about educating and convincing the public than about selling a non-fiction analysis.

I found out about this through Paul Krugman, and if you're a regular reader of Krugman's columns and blog, not much here will be a surprise. Baker and Bernstein are advocating what I would call conventional-liberal economic policy by US standards (which means that it's not really that liberal). The short version is that full employment is vital for improving the economic position of the average person, inflation is nowhere near as much of a risk as people claim, and the best economic action the US government can take at present is to aggressively pursue a full employment strategy without worrying excessively about inflation.

If you're at all familiar with this debate, you probably already have an opinion about everything in that summary. I certainly do. If you follow economics at all, this debate has been raging ever since the 2008 financial crisis (and earlier versions of the debate were raging before then). Since I'm a regular Krugman reader, you probably know my opinion: the people who have been crying wolf about the dangers of inflation have been systematically wrong about everything for seven years solid, and it's amazing that anyone is still giving them the time of day. Baker and Bernstein make a similar argument at greater length, and with a more academic tone.

The risk of any policy paper like this is that reactions will be almost entirely decided by one's pre-existing opinion about the political actions that each economic policy implies. If you (like me) have already decided that government intervention in the economy is useful to prevent concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and provide support for the most vulnerable, everything Baker and Bernstein say here is going to sound quite convincing. If you've already decided that government intervention in the economy almost always leads to tears, and that a large government with the ability to take economic action is far more dangerous than any of the effects of economic downturns and unemployment, it would surprise me if Baker and Bernstein will change your mind. In other words, I'm skeptical that policy papers like this accomplish much.

That said, there are a lot of facts and data here, which at least help ground this ongoing argument in more specifics. The authors show you the math: the evidence for moderate inflation not leading to any serious impact for economies, the very strong correlations between low unemployment rates and rising median wages, the theoretical basis for lower bounds on unemployment rates and our extensive past history of assuming that lower bound is much higher than it actually is, and some pointed comparisons to countries like Germany that have taken many of the specific policy recommendations included here and have a far healthier labor market as a result. All the statistics, charts, and discussion of analysis techniques is fairly dry, but I think the data is compelling. Of course, I was already convinced by earlier reading.

There are a few bits here that I hadn't seen before, or at least hadn't internalized. One is a subtle but very important statistical limitation: any uncertainty in measuring the inflation rate will lead to incorrect statistical findings that inflation slows growth. The explanation for this takes several pages and is somewhat technical: the short and somewhat inaccurate version is that growth is measured in inflation-adjusted GDP, so if you get inflation wrong, you magnify the correlation between GDP and inflation. An inaccurately-high measure of inflation rate simultaneously leads to underestimating GDP growth for that country; an inflation rate that's inaccurate on the low side leads to overestimating GDP growth. This is inherent in how this comparison is done, and it's hard to see how to avoid it. It's therefore worth taking any analysis of the growth impact from higher inflation with a grain of salt. (Please note here that we're talking about moderate inflation — the typical rates between 1% and 8% that you see in developed economics.)

Another bit that was new to me was the analysis of the connection between trade deficits and full employment. I typically dismiss any international trade analysis in macroeconomic policy for the US since international trade is a much smaller part of our economy than most people think it is, and because protectionism has been rightfully discarded as a policy approach. But Baker and Bernstein make an interesting argument here about the effects of a strong currency on increasing unemployment; even with the relatively small amount of trade, reducing the deficit would have a noticeable effect. (Increasing the volume of trade but not changing the balance would not.) The authors certainly don't recommend protectionism; they do recommend being willing to let the value of the dollar drop against other currencies as a good way to reduce the deficit, and to be aware that other central banks have intentional policies of propping up the dollar that we're largely ignoring. They also mention that this is a zero-sum game for the world economy as a whole, although I would have preferred a bit more emphasis on that. You can't get very far via beggar-thy-neighbor economic policy. But it's a good reminder that the obsession in some parts with not "devaluing the currency" is economic nonsense and directly hurts employment.

The end of the book discusses a variety of sensible policy recommendations ranging from international currency policy to Germany's work-sharing program where the government subsidies reduction of worker hours the same way that we already subsidize unemployment. They all seemed reasonable to me, although, sadly, I have little faith that the dysfunctional US government will consider any of them seriously, particularly more direct approaches such as government taking on the role of employer of last resort. But they're fun to read about and imagine a US in which the government actually did sensible things like that.

Getting Back to Full Employment is pretty dry, and it's hard to shake the feeling that writing things like this is basically pointless, so I'm not sure I can really recommend it. But if you like reading Krugman's columns and are interested in similar material from different people at a longer length, that's basically what this is.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2015-09-21: INN 2.6.0

This is the first major release of INN in several years, and incorporates lots of updates to the build system, protocol support, and the test suite. Major highlights and things to watch out for:

There are also tons of accumulated bug fixes, including (of course) all the fixes that were in INN 2.5.5. There are a lot of other changes, so I won't go into all the details here. If you're curious, take a look at the NEWS file.

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.

2015-09-21: Review: Half Life

Review: Half Life, by S.L. Huang

Series Russell's Attic #2
Publisher S.L. Huang
Copyright 2014
ISBN 0-9960700-5-2
Format Kindle
Pages 314

This is a sequel to Zero Sum Game and the second book about Cas Russell, a mercenary superhero (in a world without the concept of superheroes) with preternatural ability to analyze anything about her surroundings with mathematics. While it reuses some personal relationships from the first book and makes a few references to the villains, it's a disconnected story. It would be possible to start here if you wanted to.

Cas is now in the strange and unexpected situation of having friends, and they're starting to complicate her life. First, Arthur has managed to trigger some unexpected storehouse of morals and gotten her to try to stop killing people on jobs. That conscience may have something to do with her willingness to take a job from an apparently crazy man who claims a corporation has stolen his daughter, a daughter who appears nowhere in any official records. And when her other friend, Checker, gets in trouble with the mob, Cas tries to protect him in her own inimitable way, which poses a serious risk of shortening her lifespan.

Even more than the first book, the story in Half Life is a mix of the slightly ridiculous world of superheroes with gritty (and bloody) danger. It features hit men, armed guards, lots of guns, and quite a lot of physical injury and blood. A nasty corporation that's obviously hiding serious secrets shares pages with the matriarch of a mob family who considers Checker sleeping with her daughter to be an abuse of her honor. The story eventually escalates into more outlandish bits of technology, an uncanny little girl, and a plot that would feel at home in a Batman comic. I like books that don't take themselves too seriously, but the contrast between the brutal treatment Cas struggles through and the outrageous mad scientist villain provokes a bit of cognitive whiplash.

That said, the villains of Half Life are neither as freakish nor as disturbing as those in Zero Sum Game, which I appreciated. Huang packs in several plot twists, some inobvious decisions and disagreements between Russell and her friends about appropriate strategy, and Cas's discovery that there are certain things she cares very strongly about other than money and having jobs. Cas goes from a barely moral, very dark hero in the first book to something closer to a very grumbly chaotic good who insists she's not as good as she actually is. It's a standard character type, but Huang does a good job with it.

Huang also adds a couple of supporting cast members in this book that I hope will stick around. Pilar starts as a receptionist at one of the companies Cas breaks into, and at first seems like she might be comic relief. But she ends up being considerably more competent than she first appears (or that she seems to realize); by the end of the book, I had a lot of respect for her. And Miri makes only a few appearances, but her unflappable attitude is a delight. I hope to see more of her.

The biggest drawback to this book for me is that Cas gets hurt a lot. At times, the story falls into one of the patterns of urban fantasy: the protagonist gets repeatedly beaten up and abused until they figure out what's going on, and spends most of the story up against impossible odds and feeling helpless. That's not a plot pattern I'm fond of. I don't enjoy reading about physical pain, and I had trouble at some points in the story with the constant feeling of dread. Parts of the book I read in short bursts, putting it aside to look at something else. But the sense of dread falls off towards the end of the book, as Cas figures out what's actually going on, and none of it is as horrible as it felt it could be. If you have a similar problem with some urban fantasy tropes, I think it's safe to stick with the story.

This was a fun story, but it doesn't develop much in the way of deeper themes in the series. There's essentially no Rio, no further discoveries about the villains of the first book, and no further details on what makes Cas tick or why she seems to be the only, or at least one of the few, super-powered people in this world. The advance publicity for the third book seems to indicate that's coming next. I'm curious enough now that I'll keep reading this series.

Recommended if you liked the first book. Half Life is very similar, but I think slightly better.

Followed by Root of Unity.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2015-09-20: Review: Shady Characters

Review: Shady Characters, by Keith Houston

Publisher W.W. Norton
Copyright 2013
ISBN 0-393-34972-1
Format Trade paperback
Pages 250

Subtitled The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, Shady Characters is one of those delightfully quirky books that examines the history of something you would not normally connect to history. It's an attempt to document, and in some cases reconstruct, the history of several specific punctuation marks. If you've read and enjoyed Lynn Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves, this is a near-perfect complement, focusing on more obscure marks and adding in a more detailed and coherent history.

Houston has some interest in the common and quotidian punctuation marks, with chapters on the hyphen, dash, and quotation mark, but he avoids giving a full-chapter treatment to the most obvious periods and commas. (Although one learns quite a bit about them as asides in other histories.) The rest of the book focuses on the newly-popular (the at symbol), the recognizable but less common (the hash mark, the asterisk and dagger symbols used for footnotes, and the ampersand), and the historical but now obscure (the pilcrow or paragraph mark, and the manicule or pointing finger). He even devotes two chapters to unsuccessful invented punctuation: the interrobang and the long, failed history of irony and sarcasm punctuation.

And this is an actual history, not just a collection of anecdotes and curious facts. Houston does a great job of keeping the text light, engaging, and readable, but he's serious about his topic. There are many reproductions of ancient documents showing early forms of punctuation, several serious attempts to adjudicate between competing theories of origin, a few well-marked and tentative forays into guesswork, and an open acknowledgment of several areas where we simply don't know. Along the way, the reader gets a deeper feel for the chaos and arbitrary personal stylistic choices of the days of hand-written manuscripts and the transformation of punctuation by technology. So much of what we now use in punctuation was shaped and narrowed by the practicalities of typesetting. And then modern technology revived some punctuation, such as the now-ubiquitous at sign, or the hash mark that graces every telephone touchpad.

I think my favorite part of this history was using punctuation as perspective from which to track the changing relationship between people and written material. It's striking how much early punctuation was primarily used for annotations and commentary on the text, as opposed to making the text itself more readable. Much early punctuation was added after the fact, and then slowly was incorporated into the original manuscript, first via recopying and then via intentional authorial choice. Texts started including their own pre-emptive commentary, and brought the corresponding marks along with the notes. And then printing forced a vast simplification and standardization of punctuation conventions.

Full compliments to W.W. Norton, as well, for putting the time and effort into making the paper version of this book a beautiful artifact. Punctuation is displayed in red throughout when it is the focus of the text. Endnotes are properly split from footnotes, with asides and digressions presented properly at the bottom of the page, and numbered endnotes properly reserved solely for citations. There is a comprehensive index, list of figures, and a short and curated list of further readings. I'm curious how much of the typesetting care was preserved in the ebook version, and dubious that all of it would have been possible given the current state of ebook formatting.

Typesetting, obscure punctuation, and this sort of popular history of something quotidian are all personal interests of mine, so it's unsurprising I found this book delightful. But it's so well-written and engaging that I can recommend it even to people less interested in those topics. The next time you're in the mood for learning more about a corner of human history that few people consider, I recommend Shady Characters to your attention.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Last modified and spun 2015-10-31