Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2023-05-30: Review: Night Watch

Review: Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #29
Publisher Harper
Copyright November 2002
Printing August 2014
ISBN 0-06-230740-1
Format Mass market
Pages 451

Night Watch is the 29th Discworld novel and the sixth Watch novel. I would really like to tell people they could start here if they wanted to, for reasons that I will get into in a moment, but I think I would be doing you a disservice. The emotional heft added by having read the previous Watch novels and followed Vimes's character evolution is significant.

It's the 25th of May. Vimes is about to become a father. He and several of the other members of the Watch are wearing sprigs of lilac for reasons that Sergeant Colon is quite vehemently uninterested in explaining. A serial killer named Carcer the Watch has been after for weeks has just murdered an off-duty sergeant. It's a tense and awkward sort of day and Vimes is feeling weird and wistful, remembering the days when he was a copper and not a manager who has to dress up in ceremonial armor and meet with committees.

That may be part of why, when the message comes over the clacks that the Watch have Carcer cornered on the roof of the New Hall of the Unseen University, Vimes responds in person. He's grappling with Carcer on the roof of the University Library in the middle of a magical storm when lightning strikes. When he wakes up, he's in the past, shortly after he joined the Watch and shortly before the events of the 25th of May that the older Watch members so vividly remember and don't talk about.

I have been saying recently in Discworld reviews that it felt like Pratchett was on the verge of a breakout book that's head and shoulders above Discworld prior to that point. This is it. This is that book.

The setup here is masterful: the sprigs of lilac that slowly tell the reader something is going on, the refusal of any of the older Watch members to talk about it, the scene in the graveyard to establish the stakes, the disconcerting fact that Vetinari is wearing a sprig of lilac as well, and the feeling of building tension that matches the growing electrical storm. And Pratchett never gives into the temptation to explain everything and tip his hand prematurely. We know the 25th is coming and something is going to happen, and the reader can put together hints from Vimes's thoughts, but Pratchett lets us guess and sometimes be right and sometimes be wrong. Vimes is trying to change history, which adds another layer of uncertainty and enjoyment as the reader tries to piece together both the true history and the changes. This is a masterful job at a "what if?" story.

And, beneath that, the commentary on policing and government and ethics is astonishingly good. In a review of an earlier Watch novel, I compared Pratchett to Dickens in the way that he focuses on a sort of common-sense morality rather than political theory. That is true here too, but oh that moral analysis is sharp enough to slide into you like a knife. This is not the Vimes that we first met in Guards! Guards!. He has has turned his cynical stubbornness into a working theory of policing, and it's subtle and complicated and full of nuance that he only barely knows how to explain. But he knows how to show it to people.

Keep the peace. That was the thing. People often failed to understand what that meant. You'd go to some life-threatening disturbance like a couple of neighbors scrapping in the street over who owned the hedge between their properties, and they'd both be bursting with aggrieved self-righteousness, both yelling, their wives would either be having a private scrap on the side or would have adjourned to a kitchen for a shared pot of tea and a chat, and they all expected you to sort it out.

And they could never understand that it wasn't your job. Sorting it out was a job for a good surveyor and a couple of lawyers, maybe. Your job was to quell the impulse to bang their stupid fat heads together, to ignore the affronted speeches of dodgy self-justification, to get them to stop shouting and to get them off the street. Once that had been achieved, your job was over. You weren't some walking god, dispensing finely tuned natural justice. Your job was simply to bring back peace.

When Vimes is thrown back in time, he has to pick up the role of his own mentor, the person who taught him what policing should be like. His younger self is right there, watching everything he does, and he's desperately afraid he'll screw it up and set a worse example. Make history worse when he's trying to make it better. It's a beautifully well-done bit of tension that uses time travel as the hook to show both how difficult mentorship is and also how irritating one's earlier naive self would be.

He wondered if it was at all possible to give this idiot some lessons in basic politics. That was always the dream, wasn't it? "I wish I'd known then what I know now"? But when you got older you found out that you now wasn't you then. You then was a twerp. You then was what you had to be to start out on the rocky road of becoming you now, and one of the rocky patches on that road was being a twerp.

The backdrop of this story, as advertised by the map at the front of the book, is a revolution of sorts. And the revolution does matter, but not in the obvious way. It creates space and circumstance for some other things to happen that are all about the abuse of policing as a tool of politics rather than Vimes's principle of keeping the peace. I mentioned when reviewing Men at Arms that it was an awkward book to read in the United States in 2020. This book tackles the ethics of policing head-on, in exactly the way that book didn't.

It's also a marvelous bit of competence porn. Somehow over the years, Vimes has become extremely good at what he does, and not just in the obvious cop-walking-a-beat sort of ways. He's become a leader. It's not something he thinks about, even when thrown back in time, but it's something Pratchett can show the reader directly, and have the other characters in the book comment on.

There is so much more that I'd like to say, but so much would be spoilers, and I think Night Watch is more effective when you have the suspense of slowly puzzling out what's going to happen. Pratchett's pacing is exquisite. It's also one of the rare Discworld novels where Pratchett fully commits to a point of view and lets Vimes tell the story. There are a few interludes with other people, but the only other significant protagonist is, quite fittingly, Vetinari. I won't say anything more about that except to note that the relationship between Vimes and Vetinari is one of the best bits of fascinating subtlety in all of Discworld.

I think it's also telling that nothing about Night Watch reads as parody. Sure, there is a nod to Back to the Future in the lightning storm, and it's impossible to write a book about police and street revolutions without making the reader think about Les Miserables, but nothing about this plot matches either of those stories. This is Pratchett telling his own story in his own world, unapologetically, and without trying to wedge it into parody shape, and it is so much the better book for it.

The one quibble I have with the book is that the bits with the Time Monks don't really work. Lu-Tze is annoying and flippant given the emotional stakes of this story, the interludes with him are frustrating and out of step with the rest of the book, and the time travel hand-waving doesn't add much. I see structurally why Pratchett put this in: it gives Vimes (and the reader) a time frame and a deadline, it establishes some of the ground rules and stakes, and it provides a couple of important opportunities for exposition so that the reader doesn't get lost. But it's not good story. The rest of the book is so amazingly good, though, that it doesn't matter (and the framing stories for "what if?" explorations almost never make much sense).

The other thing I have a bit of a quibble with is outside the book. Night Watch, as you may have guessed by now, is the origin of the May 25th Pratchett memes that you will be familiar with if you've spent much time around SFF fandom. But this book is dramatically different from what I was expecting based on the memes. You will, for example see a lot of people posting "Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably Priced Love, And a Hard-Boiled Egg!", and before reading the book it sounds like a Pratchett-style humorous revolutionary slogan. And I guess it is, sort of, but, well... I have to quote the scene:

"You'd like Freedom, Truth, and Justice, wouldn't you, Comrade Sergeant?" said Reg encouragingly.

"I'd like a hard-boiled egg," said Vimes, shaking the match out.

There was some nervous laughter, but Reg looked offended.

"In the circumstances, Sergeant, I think we should set our sights a little higher—"

"Well, yes, we could," said Vimes, coming down the steps. He glanced at the sheets of papers in front of Reg. The man cared. He really did. And he was serious. He really was. "But...well, Reg, tomorrow the sun will come up again, and I'm pretty sure that whatever happens we won't have found Freedom, and there won't be a whole lot of Justice, and I'm damn sure we won't have found Truth. But it's just possible that I might get a hard-boiled egg."

I think I'm feeling defensive of the heart of this book because it's such an emotional gut punch and says such complicated and nuanced things about politics and ethics (and such deeply cynical things about revolution). But I think if I were to try to represent this story in a meme, it would be the "angels rise up" song, with all the layers of meaning that it gains in this story. I'm still at the point where the lilac sprigs remind me of Sergeant Colon becoming quietly furious at the overstep of someone who wasn't there.

There's one other thing I want to say about that scene: I'm not naturally on Vimes's side of this argument. I think it's important to note that Vimes's attitude throughout this book is profoundly, deeply conservative. The hard-boiled egg captures that perfectly: it's a bit of physical comfort, something you can buy or make, something that's part of the day-to-day wheels of the city that Vimes talks about elsewhere in Night Watch. It's a rejection of revolution, something that Vimes does elsewhere far more explicitly.

Vimes is a cop. He is in some profound sense a defender of the status quo. He doesn't believe things are going to fundamentally change, and it's not clear he would want them to if they did.

And yet. And yet, this is where Pratchett's Dickensian morality comes out. Vimes is a conservative at heart. He's grumpy and cynical and jaded and he doesn't like change. But if you put him in a situation where people are being hurt, he will break every rule and twist every principle to stop it.

He wanted to go home. He wanted it so much that he trembled at the thought. But if the price of that was selling good men to the night, if the price was filling those graves, if the price was not fighting with every trick he knew... then it was too high.

It wasn't a decision that he was making, he knew. It was happening far below the areas of the brain that made decisions. It was something built in. There was no universe, anywhere, where a Sam Vimes would give in on this, because if he did then he wouldn't be Sam Vimes any more.

This is truly exceptional stuff. It is the best Discworld novel I have read, by far. I feel like this was the Watch novel that Pratchett was always trying to write, and he had to write five other novels first to figure out how to write it. And maybe to prepare Discworld readers to read it.

There are a lot of Discworld novels that are great on their own merits, but also it is 100% worth reading all the Watch novels just so that you can read this book.

Followed in publication order by The Wee Free Men and later, thematically, by Thud!.

Rating: 10 out of 10

2023-05-29: Review: The Mimicking of Known Successes

Review: The Mimicking of Known Successes, by Malka Older

Series Mossa and Pleiti #1
Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright 2023
ISBN 1-250-86051-2
Format Kindle
Pages 169

The Mimicking of Known Successes is a science fiction mystery novella, the first of an expected series. (The second novella is scheduled to be published in February of 2024.)

Mossa is an Investigator, called in after a man disappears from the eastward platform on the 4°63' line. It's an isolated platform, five hours away from Mossa's base, and home to only four residential buildings and a pub. The most likely explanation is that the man jumped, but his behavior before he disappeared doesn't seem consistent with that theory. He was bragging about being from Valdegeld University, talking to anyone who would listen about the important work he was doing — not typically the behavior of someone who is suicidal. Valdegeld is the obvious next stop in the investigation.

Pleiti is a Classics scholar at Valdegeld. She is also Mossa's ex-girlfriend, making her both an obvious and a fraught person to ask for investigative help. Mossa is the last person she expected to be waiting for her on the railcar platform when she returns from a trip to visit her parents.

The Mimicking of Known Successes is mostly a mystery, following Mossa's attempts to untangle the story of what happened to the disappeared man, but as you might have guessed there's a substantial sapphic romance subplot. It's also at least adjacent to Sherlock Holmes: Mossa is brilliant, observant, somewhat monomaniacal, and very bad at human relationships. All of this story except for the prologue is told from Pleiti's perspective as she plays a bit of a Watson role, finding Mossa unreadable, attractive, frustrating, and charming in turn. Following more recent Holmes adaptations, Mossa is portrayed as probably neurodivergent, although the story doesn't attach any specific labels.

I have no strong opinions about this novella. It was fine? There's a mystery with a few twists, there's a sapphic romance of the second chance variety, there's a bit of action and a bit of hurt/comfort after the action, and it all felt comfortably entertaining but kind of predictable. Susan Stepney has a "passes the time" review rating, and while that may be a bit harsh, that's about where I ended up.

The most interesting part of the story is the science fiction setting. We're some indefinite period into the future. Humans have completely messed up Earth to the point of making it uninhabitable. We then took a shot at terraforming Mars and messed that planet up to the point of uninhabitability as well. Now, what's left of humanity (maybe not all of it — the story isn't clear) lives on platforms connected by rail lines high in the atmosphere of Jupiter. (Everyone in the story calls Jupiter "Giant" for reasons that I didn't follow, given that they didn't rename any of its moons.) Pleiti's position as a Classics scholar means that she studies Earth and its now-lost ecosystems, whereas the Modern faculty focus on their new platform life.

This background does become relevant to the mystery, although exactly how is not clear at the start.

I wouldn't call this a very realistic setting. One has to accept that people are living on platforms attached to artificial rings around the solar system's largest planet and walk around in shirt sleeves and only minor technological support due to "atmoshields" of some unspecified capability, and where the native atmosphere plays the role of London fog. Everything feels vaguely Edwardian, including to the occasional human porter and message runner, which matches the story concept but seems unlikely as a plausible future culture. I also disbelieve in humanity's ability to do anything to Earth that would make it less inhabitable than the clouds of Jupiter.

That said, the setting is a lot of fun, which is probably more important. It's fun to try to visualize, and it has that slightly off-balance, occasionally surprising feel of science fiction settings where everyone is recognizably human but the things they consider routine and unremarkable are unexpected by the reader.

This novella also has a great title. The Mimicking of Known Successes is simultaneously a reference a specific plot point from late in the story, a nod to the shape of the romance, and an acknowledgment of the Holmes pastiche, and all of those references work even better once you know what the plot point is. That was nicely done.

This was not very memorable apart from the setting, but it was pleasant enough. I can't say that I'm inspired to pre-order the next novella in this series, but I also wouldn't object to reading it. If you're in the mood for gender-swapped Holmes in an exotic setting, you could do worse.

Followed by The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2023-05-28: Book haul

I think this is partial because I also have a stack of other books that I missed recording. At some point, I should stop using this method to track book acquisitions in favor of one of the many programs intended for this purpose, but it's in the long list of other things I really should do one of these days.

As usual, I have already read and reviewed a few of these. I might be getting marginally better at reading books shortly after I acquire them? Maybe?

Steven Brust — Tsalmoth (sff)
C.L. Clark — The Faithless (sff)
Oliver Darkshire — Once Upon a Tome (non-fiction)
Hernan Diaz — Trust (mainstream)
S.B. Divya — Meru (sff)
Kate Elliott — Furious Heaven (sff)
Steven Flavall — Before We Go Live (non-fiction)
R.F. Kuang — Babel (sff)
Laurie Marks — Dancing Jack (sff)
Arkady Martine — Rose/House (sff)
Madeline Miller — Circe (sff)
Jenny Odell — Saving Time (non-fiction)
Malka Older — The Mimicking of Known Successes (sff)
Sabaa Tahir — An Ember in the Ashes (sff)
Emily Tesh — Some Desperate Glory (sff)
Valerie Valdes — Chilling Effect (sff)

2023-05-22: Review: A Half-Built Garden

Review: A Half-Built Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys

Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright 2022
ISBN 1-250-21097-6
Format Kindle
Pages 340

The climate apocalypse has happened. Humans woke up to the danger, but a little bit too late. Over one billion people died. But the world on the other side of that apocalypse is not entirely grim. The corporations responsible for so much of the damage have been pushed out of society and isolated on their independent "aislands," traded with only grudgingly for the few commodities the rest of the world has not yet learned how to manufacture without them. Traditional governments have largely collapsed, although they cling to increasingly irrelevant trappings of power. In their place arose the watershed networks: a new way of living with both nature and other humans, built around a mix of anarchic consensus and direct democracy, with conservation and stewardship of the natural environment at its core.

Therefore, when the aliens arrive near Bear Island on the Potomac River, they're not detected by powerful telescopes and met by military jets. Instead, their waste sets off water sensors, and they're met by the two women on call for alert duty, carrying a nursing infant and backed by the real-time discussion and consensus technology of the watershed's dandelion network. (Emrys is far from the first person to name something a "dandelion network," so be aware that the usage in this book seems unrelated to the charities or blockchain network.)

This is a first contact novel, but it's one that skips over the typical focus of the subgenre. The alien Ringers are completely fluent in English down to subtle nuance of emotion and connotation (supposedly due to observation of our radio and TV signals), have translation devices, and in some cases can make our speech sounds directly. Despite significantly different body shapes, they are immediately comprehensible; differences are limited mostly to family structure, reproduction, and social norms. This is Star Trek first contact, not the type more typical of written science fiction. That feels unrealistic, but it's also obviously an authorial choice to jump directly to the part of the story that Emrys wants to write.

The Ringers have come to save humanity. In their experience, technological civilization is inherently incompatible with planets. Technology will destroy the planet, and the planet will in turn destroy the species unless they can escape. They have reached other worlds multiple times before, only to discover that they were too late and everyone is already dead. This is the first time they've arrived in time, and they're eager to help humanity off its dying planet to join them in the Dyson sphere of space habitats they are constructing. Planets, to them, are a nest and a launching pad, something to eventually abandon and break down for spare parts.

The small, unexpected wrinkle is that Judy, Carol, and the rest of their watershed network are not interested in leaving Earth. They've finally figured out the most critical pieces of environmental balance. Earth is going to get hotter for a while, but the trend is slowing. What they're doing is working. Humanity would benefit greatly from Ringer technology and the expertise that comes from managing closed habitat ecosystems, but they don't need rescuing.

This goes over about as well as a toddler saying that playing in the road is perfectly safe.

This is a fantastic hook for a science fiction novel. It does exactly what a great science fiction premise should do: takes current concerns (environmentalism, space boosterism, the debatable primacy of humans as a species, the appropriate role of space colonization, the tension between hopefulness and doomcasting about climate change) and uses the freedom of science fiction to twist them around and come at them from an entirely different angle.

The design of the aliens is excellent for this purpose. The Ringers are not one alien species; they are two, evolved on different planets in the same system. The plains dwellers developed space flight first and went to meet the tree dwellers, and while their relationship is not entirely without hierarchy (the plains dwellers clearly lead on most matters), it's extensively symbiotic. They now form mixed families of both species, and have a rich cultural history of stories about first contact, interspecies conflicts and cooperation, and all the perils and misunderstandings that they successfully navigated. It makes their approach to humanity more believable to know that they have done first contact before and are building on a model. Their concern for humanity is credibly sincere. The joining of two species was wildly successful for them and they truly want to add a third.

The politics on the human side are satisfyingly complicated. The watershed network may have made first contact, but the US government (in the form of NASA) is close behind, attempting to lean on its widely ignored formal power. The corporations are farther away and therefore slower to arrive, but the alien visitors have a damaged ship and need space to construct a subspace beacon and Asterion is happy to offer a site on one of its New Zealand islands. The corporate representatives are salivating at the chance to escape Earth and its environmental regulation for uncontrolled space construction and a new market of trillions of Ringers. NASA's attitude is more measured, but their representative is easily persuaded that the true future of humanity is in space. The work the watershed networks are doing is difficult, uncertain, and involves a lot of sacrifice, particularly for corporate consumer lifestyles. With such an attractive alien offer on the table, why stay and work so hard for an uncertain future? Maybe the Ringers are right.

And then the dandelion networks that the watersheds use as the core of their governance and decision-making system all crash.

The setup was great; I was completely invested. The execution was more mixed. There are some things I really liked, some things that I thought were a bit too easy or predictable, and several places where I wish Emrys had dug deeper and provided more detail. I thought the last third of the book fizzled a little, although some of the secondary characters Emrys introduces are delightful and carry the momentum of the story when the politics feel a bit lacking.

If you tried to form a mental image of ecofeminist political science fiction with 1970s utopian sensibilities, but updated for the concerns of the 2020s, you would probably come very close to the politics of the watershed networks. There are considerably more breastfeedings and diaper changes than the average SF novel. Two of the primary characters are transgender, but with very different experiences with transition. Pronoun pins are an ubiquitous article of clothing. One of the characters has a prosthetic limb. Another character who becomes important later in the story codes as autistic. None of this felt gratuitous; the characters do come across as obsessed with gender, but in a way that I found believable. The human diversity is well-integrated with the story, shapes the characters, creates practical challenges, and has subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) political ramifications.

But, and I say this with love because while these are not quite my people they're closely adjacent to my people, the social politics of this book are a very specific type of white feminist collaborative utopianism. When religion makes an appearance, I was completely unsurprised to find that several of the characters are Jewish. Race never makes a significant appearance at all. It's the sort of book where the throw-away references to other important watershed networks includes African ones, and the characters would doubtless try to be sensitive to racial issues if they came up, but somehow they never do. (If you're wondering if there's polyamory in this book, yes, yes there is, and also I suspect you know exactly what culture I'm talking about.)

This is not intended as a criticism, just more of a calibration. All science fiction publishing houses could focus only on this specific political perspective for a year and the results would still be dwarfed by the towering accumulated pile of thoughtless paeans to capitalism. Ecofeminism has a long history in the genre but still doesn't show up in that many books, and we're far from exhausting the space of possibilities for what a consensus-based politics could look like with extensive computer support. But this book has a highly specific point of view, enough so that there won't be many thought-provoking surprises if you're already familiar with this school of political thought.

The politics are also very earnest in a way that I admit provoked a bit of eyerolling. Emrys pushes all of the political conflict into the contrasts between the human factions, but I would have liked more internal disagreement within the watershed networks over principles rather than tactics. The degree of ideological agreement within the watershed group felt a bit unrealistic. But, that said, at least politics truly matters and the characters wrestle directly with some tricky questions. I would have liked to see more specifics about the dandelion network and the exact mechanics of the consensus decision process, since that sort of thing is my jam, but we at least get more details than are typical in science fiction. I'll take this over cynical libertarianism any day.

Gender plays a huge role in this story, enough so that you should avoid this book if you're not interested in exploring gender conceptions. One of the two alien races is matriarchal and places immense social value on motherhood, and it's culturally expected to bring your children with you for any important negotiation. The watersheds actively embrace this, or at worst find it comfortable to use for their advantage, despite a few hints that the matriarchy of the plains aliens may have a very serious long-term demographic problem. In an interesting twist, it's the mostly-evil corporations that truly challenge gender roles, albeit by turning it into an opportunity to sell more clothing.

The Asterion corporate representatives are, as expected, mostly the villains of the plot: flashy, hierarchical, consumerist, greedy, and exploitative. But gender among the corporations is purely a matter of public performance, one of a set of roles that you can put on and off as you choose and signal with clothing. They mostly use neopronouns, change pronouns as frequently as their clothing, and treat any question of body plumbing as intensely private. By comparison, the very 2020 attitudes of the watersheds towards gender felt oddly conservative and essentialist, and the main characters get flustered and annoyed by the ever-fluid corporate gender presentation. I wish Emrys had done more with this.

As you can tell, I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of quibbles. Another example: computer security plays an important role in the plot and was sufficiently well-described that I have serious questions about the system architecture and security model of the dandelion networks. But, as with decision-making and gender, the more important takeaway is that Emrys takes enough risks and describes enough interesting ideas that there's a lot of meat here to argue with. That, more than getting everything right, is what a good science fiction novel should do.

A Half-Built Garden is written from a very specific political stance that may make it a bit predictable or off-putting, and I thought the tail end of the book had some plot and resolution problems, but arguing with it was one of the more intellectually satisfying science fiction reading experiences I've had recently. You have to be in the right mood, but recommended for when you are.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2023-05-21: Review: Tsalmoth

Review: Tsalmoth, by Steven Brust

Series Vlad Taltos #16
Publisher Tor
Copyright 2023
ISBN 1-4668-8970-5
Format Kindle
Pages 277

Tsalmoth is the sixteenth book in the Vlad Taltos series and (some fans of the series groan) yet another flashback novel to earlier in Vlad's life. It takes place between Yendi and the interludes in Dragon (or, perhaps more straightforwardly, between Yendi and Jhereg. Most of the books of this series stand alone to some extent, so you could read this book out of order and probably not be horribly confused, but I suspect it would also feel weirdly pointless outside of the context of the larger series.

We're back to Vlad running a fairly small operation as a Jhereg, who are the Dragaeran version of organized crime. A Tsalmoth who owes Vlad eight hundred imperials has rudely gotten himself murdered, thoroughly enough that he can't be revived. That's a considerable amount of money, and Vlad would like it back, so he starts poking around. As you might expect if you've read any other book in this series, things then get a bit complicated. This time, they involve Jhereg politics, Tsalmoth house politics, and necromancy (which in this universe is more about dimensional travel than it is about resurrecting the dead).

The main story is... fine. Kragar is around being unnoticeable as always, Vlad is being cocky and stubborn and bantering with everyone, and what appears to be a straightforward illegal business relationship turns out to involve Dragaeran magic and thus Vlad's highly-placed friends. As usual, they're intellectually curious about the magic and largely ambivalent to the rest of Vlad's endeavors. The most enjoyable part of the story is Vlad's insistence on getting his money back while everyone else in the story cannot believe he would be this persistent over eight hundred imperials and is certain he has some other motive. It's otherwise a fairly forgettable little adventure.

The implications for the broader series, though, are significant, although essentially none of the payoff is here. Brust has been keeping a major secret about Vlad that's finally revealed here, one that has little impact on the plot of this book (although it causes Vlad a lot of angst) but which I suspect will become very important later in the series. That was intriguing but rather unsatisfying, since it stays only a future hook with an attached justification for why we're only finding out about it now.

If one has read the rest of the series, it's also nice to see Vlad and Cawti working together, bantering with each other and playing off of each other's strengths. It's reminiscent of the best parts of Yendi. As with many of the books of this series, the chapter introductions tell a parallel story; this time, it's Vlad and Cawti's wedding.

I think previous books already mentioned that Vlad is narrating this series into some sort of recording device, and a bit about why he's doing that, but this is made quite explicit here. We get as much of the surrounding frame as we've ever seen before. There are no obvious plot consequences from this — it's still all hints and guesswork — but I suspect this will also become important by the end of the series.

If you've read this much of the series, you'll obviously want to read this one as well, but unfortunately don't get your hopes up for significant plot advancement. This is another station-keeping book, which is a bit of a disappointment. We haven't gotten major plot advancement since Hawk in 2014, and I'm getting impatient. Thankfully, Lyorn has a release date already (April 9, 2024), and assuming all goes according to the grand plan, there are only two books left after Lyorn (Chreotha and The Last Contract). I'm getting hopeful that we're going to get to see the entire series.

Meanwhile, I am very tempted to do a complete re-read of the series to date, probably in series chronological order rather than in publication order (as much as that's possible given the fractured timelines of Dragon and Tiassa) so that I can see how the pieces fit together. The constant jumping back and forth and allusions to events that have already happened but that we haven't seen yet is hard to keep track of. I'm very glad the Lyorn Records exists.

Followed by Lyorn.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2023-05-20: Review: The Stone Canal

Review: The Stone Canal, by Ken MacLeod

Series Fall Revolution #2
Publisher Tor
Copyright 1996
Printing January 2001
ISBN 0-8125-6864-8
Format Mass market
Pages 339

The Stone Canal is a sort of halfway sequel to The Star Fraction. They both take place in the same universe, but the characters are almost entirely disjoint. Half of The Stone Canal happens (mostly) well before the previous book and the other half happens well after it. This book does contain spoilers for the ending of The Star Fraction if one connects the events of the two books correctly (which was a bit harder than I thought it should be), so I would not read them out of order.

At the start of The Stone Canal, Jon Wilde wakes up on New Mars beside the titular canal, in the middle of nowhere, accompanied only by a robot that says it made him. Wilde remembers dying on Earth; this new life is apparently some type of resurrection. It's a long walk to Ship City, the center of civilization of a place the robot tells him is New Mars.

In Ship City, an android named Dee Model has escaped from her owner and is hiding in a bar. There, she meets an AI abolitionist named Tamara, who helps her flee out the back and down the canal on a boat when Wilde walks into the bar and immediately recognizes her. The abolitionists provide her protection and legal assistance to argue her case for freedom from her owner, a man named Reid.

The third thread of the story, and about half the book, is Jon Wilde's life on Earth, starting in 1975 and leading up to the chaotic wars, political fracturing, and revolutions that formed the background and plot of The Star Fraction. Eventually that story turns into a full-fledged science fiction setting, but not until the last 60 pages of the book.

I successfully read two books in a Ken MacLeod series! Sadly, I'm not sure I enjoyed the experience.

I commented in my review of The Star Fraction that the appeal for me in MacLeod's writing was his reputation as a writer of political science fiction. Unfortunately that's been a bust. The characters are certainly political, in the sense that they profess to have strong political viewpoints and are usually members of some radical (often Trotskyite) organization. There are libertarian anarchist societies and lots of political conflict. But there is almost no meaningful political discussion in any of these books so far. The politics are all tactical or background, and often seem to be created by authorial fiat.

For example, New Mars is a sort of libertarian anarchy that somehow doesn't have corporations or a strongman ruler, even though the history (when we finally learn it) would have naturally given rise to one or the other (and has, in numerous other SF novels with similar plots). There's a half-assed explanation for this towards the end of the book that I didn't find remotely believable. Another part of the book describes the formation of the libertarian microstate in The Star Fraction, but never answers a "why" or "how" question I had in the previous book in a satisfying way. Somehow people stop caring about control or predictability or stability or traditional hierarchy without any significant difficulties except external threats, in situations of chaos and disorder where historically humans turn to anyone promising firm structure.

It's common to joke about MacLeod winning multiple libertarian Prometheus Awards for his fiction despite being a Scottish communist. I'm finding that much less surprising now that I've read more of his books. Whether or not he believes in it himself, he's got the cynical libertarian smugness and hand-waving down pat.

What his characters do care deeply about is smoking, drinking, and having casual sex. (There's more political fire here around opposition to anti-smoking laws than there is about any of the society-changing political structures that somehow fall into place.) I have no objections to any of those activities from a moral standpoint, but reading about other people doing them is a snoozefest. The flashback scenes sketch out enough imagined history to satisfy some curiosity from the previous book, but they're mostly about the world's least interesting love triangle, involving two completely unlikable men and lots of tedious jealousy and posturing.

The characters in The Stone Canal are, in general, a problem. One of those unlikable men is Wilde, the protagonist for most of the book. Not only did I never warm to him, I never figured out what motivates him or what he cares about. He's a supposedly highly political person who seems to engage in politics with all the enthusiasm of someone filling out tax forms, and is entirely uninterested in explaining to the reader any sort of coherent philosophical approach. The most interesting characters in this book are the women (Annette, Dee Model, Tamara, and, very late in the book, Meg), but other than Dee Model they rarely get much focus from the story.

By far the best part of this book is the last 60 pages, where MacLeod finally explains the critical bridge events between Wilde's political history on earth and the New Mars society. I thought this was engrossing, fast-moving, and full of interesting ideas (at least for a 1990s book; many of them feel a bit stale now, 25 years later). It was also frustrating, because this was the book I wanted to have been reading for the previous 270 pages, instead of MacLeod playing coy with his invented history or showing us interminable scenes about Wilde's insecure jealousy over his wife. It's also the sort of book where at one point characters (apparently uniformly male as far as one could tell from the text of the book) get assigned sex slaves, and while MacLeod clearly doesn't approve of this, the plot is reminiscent of a Heinlein novel: the protagonist's sex slave becomes a very loyal permanent female companion who seems to have the same upside for the male character in question.

This was unfortunately not the book I was hoping for. I did enjoy the last hundred pages, and it's somewhat satisfying to have the history come together after puzzling over what happened for 200 pages. But I found the characters tedious and annoying and the politics weirdly devoid of anything like sociology, philosophy, or political science. There is the core of a decent 1990s AI and singularity novel here, but the technology is now rather dated and a lot of other people have tackled the same idea with fewer irritating ticks.

Not recommended, although I'll probably continue to The Cassini Division because the ending was a pretty great hook for another book.

Followed by The Cassini Division.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2023-04-30: Review: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

Review: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #28
Publisher HarperCollins
Copyright 2001
Printing 2008
ISBN 0-06-001235-8
Format Mass market
Pages 351

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is the 28th Discworld novel and the first marketed for younger readers. Although it has enough references to establish it as taking place on Discworld, it has no obvious connections with the other books and doesn't rely on any knowledge of the series so far. This would not be a bad place to start with Terry Pratchett and see if his writing style and sense of humor is for you.

Despite being marketed as young adult, and despite Pratchett's comments in an afterward in the edition I own that writing YA novels is much harder, I didn't think this was that different than a typical Discworld novel. The two main human characters read as about twelve and there were some minor changes in tone, but I'm not sure I would have immediately labeled it as YA if I hadn't already known it was supposed to be. There are considerably fewer obvious pop culture references than average, though; if that's related, I think I'll prefer Pratchett's YA novels, since I think his writing is stronger when he's not playing reference bingo.

Maurice (note to US readers: Maurice is pronounced "Morris" in the UK) is a talking cat and the mastermind of a wandering con job. He, a stupid-looking kid with a flute (Maurice's description), and a tribe of talking rats travel the small towns of Discworld. The rats go in first, making a show of breaking into the food, swimming in the cream, and widdling on things that humans don't want widdled on. Once the townspeople are convinced they have a plague of rats, the kid with the flute enters the town and offers to pipe the rats away for a very reasonable fee. He plays his flute, the rats swarm out of town, and they take their money and move on to the next town. It's a successful life that suits Maurice and his growing hoard of gold very well. If only the rats would stop asking pointed questions about the ethics of this scheme.

The town of Bad Blintz is the next on their itinerary, and if the rats have their way, will be the last. Their hope is they've gathered enough money by now to find an island, away from humans, where they can live their own lives. But, as is always the case for one last job in fiction, there's something uncannily wrong about Bad Blintz. There are traps everywhere, more brutal and dangerous ones than they've found in any other town, and yet there is no sign of native, unintelligent rats.

Meanwhile, Maurice and the boy find a town that looks wealthy but has food shortages, a bounty on rats that is absurdly high, and a pair of sinister-looking rat-catchers who are bringing in collections of rat tails that look suspiciously like bootlaces. The mayor's daughter discovers Maurice can talk and immediately decides she has to take them in hand. Malicia is very certain of her own opinions, not accustomed to taking no for an answer, and is certain that the world follows the logic of stories, even if she has to help it along.

This is truly great stuff. I think this might be my favorite Discworld novel to date, although I do have some criticisms that I'll get to in a moment.

The best part are the rats, and particularly the blind philosopher rat Dangerous Beans and his assistant Peaches. In the middle of daring infiltration of the trapped sewers in scenes reminiscent of Mission: Impossible, the rats are also having philosophical arguments. They've become something different than the unaltered rats that they call the keekees, but what those differences mean is harder to understand. The older rats are not happy about too many changes and think the rats should keep acting like rats. The younger ones are discovering that they're afraid of shadows because now they understand what the shadows hint at. Dangerous Beans is trying to work out a writing system so that they can keep important thoughts. One of their few guides is a children's book of talking animals, although they quickly discover that the portrayed clothing is annoyingly impractical.

But as good as the rats are, Maurice is nearly as much fun in an entirely different way. He is unapologetically out for himself, streetwise and canny in a way that feels apt for a cat, gets bored and mentally wanders off in the middle of conversations, and pretends to agree with people when that's how he can get what he wants. But he also has a weird sense of loyalty and ethics that only shows up when something is truly important. It's a variation on the con man with a heart of gold, but it's a very well-done variation that weaves in a cat's impatience with and inattention to anything that doesn't directly concern them. I was laughing throughout the book.

Malicia is an absolute delight, the sort of character who takes over scenes through sheer force of will, and the dumb-looking kid (whose name turns out to be Keith) is a perfect counterbalance: a laid-back, quiet boy who just wants to play his music and is almost entirely unflappable. It's such a great cast.

The best part of the plot is the end. I won't spoil it, so I'll only say that Pratchett has the characters do the work on the aftermath that a lot of books skip over. He doesn't have any magical solutions for the world's problems, but he's so very good at restoring one's faith that maybe sometimes those solutions can be constructed.

My one complaint with this book is that Pratchett introduces a second villain, and while there are good in-story justifications for it and it's entangled with the primary plot, he added elements of (mild) supernatural horror and evil that I thought were extraneous and unnecessary. He already had enough of a conflict set up without adding that additional element, and I think it undermined the moral complexity of the story. I would have much rather he kept the social dynamics of the town at the core of the story and used that to trigger the moments of sacrifice and philosophy that made the climax work.

The Discworld books by this point have gotten very good, but each book seems to have one element like that where it felt like Pratchett took the easy way out of a plot corner or added some story element that didn't really work. I feel like the series is on the verge of having a truly great book that rises above the entire series to date, but never quite gets there.

That caveat aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this and had trouble putting it down. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh was one of my favorite books as a kid, and this reminded me of it in some good ways (enough so that I think some of the references were intentional). Great stuff. If you were to read only one Discworld book and didn't want to be confused by all the entangled plot threads and established characters, I would seriously consider making it this one. Recommended.

Followed by Night Watch in publication order. There doesn't appear to be a direct plot sequel, more's the pity.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2023-04-29: INN 2.7.1

This is a bug fix and minor feature release over INN 2.7.0, and the upgrade should be painless. You can download the new release from ISC or my personal INN pages. The latter also has links to the full changelog and the other INN documentation.

As of this release, we're no longer generating hashes and signed hashes. Instead, the release is a simple tarball and a detached GnuPG signature, similar to my other software releases. We're also maintaining the releases in parallel on GitHub.

For the full list of changes, see the INN 2.7.1 NEWS file.

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

2023-04-13: Review: Babel

Review: Babel, by R.F. Kuang

Publisher Harper Voyage
Copyright August 2022
ISBN 0-06-302144-7
Format Kindle
Pages 544

Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution, to give it its full title, is a standalone dark academia fantasy set in the 1830s and 1840s, primarily in Oxford, England. The first book of R.F. Kuang's previous trilogy, The Poppy War, was nominated for multiple awards and won the Compton Crook Award for best first novel. Babel is her fourth book.

Robin Swift, although that was not his name at the time, was born and raised in Canton and educated by an inexplicable English tutor his family could not have afforded. After his entire family dies of cholera, he is plucked from China by a British professor and offered a life in England as his ward. What follows is a paradise of books, a hell of relentless and demanding instruction, and an unpredictably abusive emotional environment, all aiming him towards admission to Oxford University. Robin will join University College and the Royal Institute of Translation.

The politics of this imperial Britain are almost precisely the same as in our history, but one of the engines is profoundly different. This world has magic. If words from two different languages are engraved on a metal bar (silver is best), the meaning and nuance lost in translation becomes magical power. With a careful choice of translation pairs, and sometimes additional help from other related words and techniques, the silver bar becomes a persistent spell. Britain's industrial revolution is in overdrive thanks to the country's vast stores of silver and the applied translation prowess of Babel.

This means Babel is also the only part of very racist Oxford that accepts non-white students and women. They need translators (barely) more than they care about maintaining social hierarchy; translation pairs only work when the translator is fluent in both languages. The magic is also stronger when meanings are more distinct, which is creating serious worries about classical and European languages. Those are still the bulk of Babel's work, but increased trade and communication within Europe is eroding the meaning distinctions and thus the amount of magical power. More remote languages, such as Chinese and Urdu, are full of untapped promise that Britain's colonial empire wants to capture. Professor Lowell, Robin's dubious benefactor, is a specialist in Chinese languages; Robin is a potential tool for his plans.

As Robin discovers shortly after arriving in Oxford, he is not the first of Lowell's tools. His predecessor turned against Babel and is trying to break its chokehold on translation magic. He wants Robin to help.

This is one of those books that is hard to review because it does some things exceptionally well and other things that did not work for me. It's not obvious if the latter are flaws in the book or a mismatch between book and reader (or, frankly, flaws in the reader). I'll try to explain as best I can so that you can draw your own conclusions.

First, this is one of the all-time great magical system hooks. The way words are tapped for power is fully fleshed out and exceptionally well-done. Kuang is a professional translator, which shows in the attention to detail on translation pairs. I think this is the best-constructed and explained word-based magic system I've read in fantasy. Many word-based systems treat magic as its own separate language that is weirdly universal. Here, Kuang does the exact opposite, and the result is immensely satisfying.

A fantasy reader may expect exploration of this magic system to be the primary point of the book, however, and this is not the case. It is an important part of the book, and its implications are essential to the plot resolution, but this is not the type of fantasy novel where the plot is driven by character exploration of the magic system. The magic system exists, the characters use it, and we do get some crunchy details, but the heart of the book is elsewhere. If you were expecting the typical relationship of a fantasy novel to its magic system, you may get a bit wrong-footed.

Similarly, this is historical fantasy, but it is the type of historical fantasy where the existence of magic causes no significant differences. For some people, this is a pet peeve; personally, I don't mind that choice in the abstract, but some of the specifics bugged me.

The villains of this book assert that any country could have done what Britain did in developing translation magic, and thus their hoarding of it is not immoral. They are obviously partly lying (this is a classic justification for imperialism), but it's not clear from the book how they are lying. Technologies (and magic here works like a technology) tend to concentrate power when they require significant capital investment, and tend to dilute power when they are portable and easy to teach. Translation magic feels like the latter, but its effect in the book is clearly the former, and I was never sure why.

England is not an obvious choice to be a translation superpower. Yes, it's a colonial empire, but India, southeast Asia, and most certainly Africa (the continent largely not appearing in this book) are home to considerably more languages from more wildly disparate families than western Europe. Translation is not a peculiarly European idea, and this magic system does not seem hard to stumble across. It's not clear why England, and Oxford in particular, is so dramatically far ahead. There is some sign that Babel is keeping the mechanics of translation magic secret, but that secret has leaked, seems easy to develop independently, and is simple enough that a new student can perform basic magic with a few hours of instruction. This does not feel like the kind of power that would be easy to concentrate, let alone to the extreme extent required by the last quarter of this book.

The demand for silver as a base material for translation magic provides a justification for mercantilism that avoids the confusing complexities of currency economics in our actual history, so fine, I guess, but it was a bit disappointing for this great of an idea for a magic system to have this small of an impact on politics.

I'll come to the actual thrust of this book in a moment, but first something else Babel does exceptionally well: dark academia.

The remainder of Robin's cohort at Oxford is Remy, a dark-skinned Muslim from Calcutta; Victoire, a Haitian woman raised in France; and Letty, the daughter of a British admiral. All of them are non-white except Letty, and Letty and Victoire additionally have to deal with the blatant sexism of the time. (For example, they have to live several miles from Oxford because women living near the college would be a "distraction.")

The interpersonal dynamics between the four are exceptionally well done. Kuang captures the dislocation of going away to college, the unsettled life upheaval that makes it both easy and vital to form suddenly tight friendships, and the way that the immense pressure from classes and exams leaves one so devoid of spare emotional capacity that those friendships become both unbreakable and badly strained. Robin and Remy almost immediately become inseparable in that type of college friendship in which profound trust and constant companionship happen first and learning about the other person happens afterwards.

It's tricky to talk about this without spoilers, but one of the things Kuang sets up with this friend group is a pointed look at intersectionality. Babel has gotten a lot of positive review buzz, and I think this is one of the reasons why. Kuang does not pass over or make excuses for characters in a place where many other books do. This mostly worked for me, but with a substantial caveat that I think you may want to be aware of before you dive into this book.

Babel is set in the 1830s, but it is very much about the politics of 2022. That does not necessarily mean that the politics are off for the 1830s; I haven't done the research to know, and it's possible I'm seeing the Tiffany problem (Jo Walton's observation that Tiffany is a historical 12th century women's name, but an author can't use it as a medieval name because readers think it sounds too modern). But I found it hard to shake the feeling that the characters make sense of their world using modern analytical frameworks of imperialism, racism, sexism, and intersectional feminism, although without using modern terminology, and characters from the 1830s would react somewhat differently. This is a valid authorial choice; all books are written for the readers of the time when they're published. But as with magical systems that don't change history, it's a pet peeve for some readers. If that's you, be aware that's the feel I got from it.

The true center of this book is not the magic system or the history. It's advertised directly in the title — the necessity of violence — although it's not until well into the book before the reader knows what that means. This is a book about revolution, what revolution means, what decisions you have to make along the way, how the personal affects the political, and the inadequacy of reform politics. It is hard, uncomfortable, and not gentle on its characters.

The last quarter of this book was exceptional, and I understand why it's getting so much attention. Kuang directly confronts the desire for someone else to do the necessary work, the hope that surely the people with power will see reason, and the feeling of despair when there are no good plans and every reason to wait and do nothing when atrocities are about to happen. If you are familiar with radical politics, these aren't new questions, but this is not the sort of thing that normally shows up in fantasy. It does not surprise me that Babel struck a nerve with readers a generation or two younger than me. It captures that heady feeling on the cusp of adulthood when everything is in flux and one is assembling an independent politics for the first time. Once I neared the end of the book, I could not put it down. The ending is brutal, but I think it was the right ending for this book.

There are two things, though, that I did not like about the political arc.

The first is that Victoire is a much more interesting character than Robin, but is sidelined for most of the book. The difference of perspectives between her and Robin is the heart of what makes the end of this book so good, and I wish that had started 300 pages earlier. Or, even better, I wish Victoire had been the protagonist; I liked Robin, but he's a very predictable character for most of the book. Victoire is not; even the conflicts she had earlier in the book, when she didn't get much attention in the story, felt more dynamic and more thoughtful than Robin's mix of guilt and anxiety.

The second is that I wish Kuang had shown more of Robin's intellectual evolution. All of the pieces of why he makes the decisions that he does are present in this book, and Kuang shows his emotional state (sometimes in agonizing detail) at each step, but the sense-making, the development of theory and ideology beneath the actions, is hinted at but not shown. This is a stylistic choice with no one right answer, but it felt odd because so much of the rest of the plot is obvious and telegraphed. If the reader shares Robin's perspective, I think it's easy to fill in the gaps, but it felt odd to read Robin giving clearly thought-out political analyses at the end of the book without seeing the hashing-out and argument with friends required to develop those analyses. I felt like I had to do a lot of heavy lifting as the reader, work that I wish had been done directly by the book.

My final note about this book is that I found much of it extremely predictable. I think that's part of why reviewers describe it as accessible and easy to read; accessibility and predictability can be two sides of the same coin. Kuang did not intend for this book to be subtle, and I think that's part of the appeal. But very few of Robin's actions for the first three-quarters of the book surprised me, and that's not always the reading experience I want. The end of the book is different, and I therefore found it much more gripping, but it takes a while to get there.

Babel is, for better or worse, the type of fantasy where the politics, economics, and magic system exist primarily to justify the plot the author wanted. I don't think the societal position of the Institute of Translation that makes the ending possible is that believable given the nature of the technology in question and the politics of the time, and if you are inclined to dig into the specifics of the world-building, I think you will find it frustrating. Where it succeeds brilliantly is in capturing the social dynamics of hothouse academic cohorts, and in making a sharp and unfortunately timely argument about the role of violence in political change, in a way that the traditionally conservative setting of fantasy rarely does.

I can't say Babel blew me away, but I can see why others liked it so much. If I had to guess, I'd say that the closer one is in age to the characters in the book and to that moment of political identity construction, the more it's likely to appeal.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2023-04-12: Review: Once Upon a Tome

Review: Once Upon a Tome, by Oliver Darkshire

Publisher W.W. Norton & Company
Copyright 2022
Printing 2023
ISBN 1-324-09208-4
Format Kindle
Pages 243

The full title page of this book, in delightful 19th century style, is:

Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller, wherein the theory of the profession is partially explained, with a variety of insufficient examples, by Oliver Darkshire. Interspersed with several diverting FOOTNOTES of a comical nature, ably ILLUSTRATED by Rohan Eason, PUBLISHED by W.W. Norton, and humbly proposed to the consideration of the public in this YEAR 2023

That may already be enough to give you a feel for this book. Oliver Darkshire works for Sotheran's Rare Books and Prints in London, most notably running their highly entertaining Twitter account. This is his first book.

If you have been hanging out in the right corners of Twitter, you have probably been anticipating the release of this book, and may already have your own copy. If you have not (and to be honest it's increasingly dubious whether there are right corners of Twitter left), you're in for a treat. Darkshire has made Sotheran's a minor Twitter phenomenon due to tweets like this:

CUSTOMER: oh thank heavens I have been searching for a rare book expert with the knowledge to solve my complex problem

ME (extremely and unhelpfully specialized): ok well the words are usually on the inside and I can see that's true here, so that's a good start

I find I know lots of things until anyone asks me about it or there is a question to answer, at which point I know nothing, I am a void, a tragic bucket of ignorance

My hope was that Once Upon a Tome would be the same thing at book length, and I am delighted to report that's exactly what it is. By the time I finished reading the story of Darkshire's early training, I knew I was going to savor every word.

The hardest part, though, lies in recording precisely in what ways a book has survived the ravages of time. An entire lexicon of book-related terminology has evolved over hundreds of years for exactly this purpose — terminology that means absolutely nothing to the average observer. It's traditional to adopt this baroque language when describing your books, for two reasons. The first is that the specific language of the book trade allows you to be exceedingly accurate and precise without using hundreds of words, and the second is that the elegance of it serves to dull the blow a little. Most rare books come with some minor defects, but that doesn't mean one has to be rude about it.

You will learn something about rare book selling in this book, and more about Darkshire's colleagues, but primarily this is a book-length attempt to convey the slightly uncanny experience of working in a rare bookstore in an entertaining way. Also, to be fully accurate, it is an attempt to shift the bookstore sideways in the reader's mind into a fantasy world that mostly but not entirely parallels ours; as the introduction mentions, this is not a strictly accurate day-by-day account of life at the store, and stories have been altered and conflated in the telling.

Rare bookselling is a retail job but a rather strange one, with its own conventions and unusual customers. Darkshire memorably divides rare book collectors into Smaugs and Draculas: Smaugs assemble vast lairs of precious items, Draculas have one very specific interest, and one's success at selling a book depends on identifying which type of customer one is dealing with. Like all good writing about retail jobs, half of the fun is descriptions of the customers.

The Suited Gentlemen turn up annually, smartly dressed in matching suits and asking to see any material we have on Ayn Rand. Faces usually obscured by large dark glasses, they move without making a sound, and only travel in pairs. Sometimes they will bark out a laugh at nothing in particular, as if mimicking what they think humans do.

There are more facets than the typical retail job, though, since the suppliers of the rare book trade (book runners, estate sales, and collectors who have been sternly instructed by spouses to trim down their collections) are as odd and varied as the buyers.

This sort of book rests entirely on the sense of humor of the author, and I thought Darkshire's approach was perfect. He has the knack of poking fun at himself as much as he pokes fun at anyone around him. This book conveys an air of perpetual bafflement at stumbling into a job that suits him as well as this one does, praise of the skills of his coworkers, and gently self-deprecating descriptions of his own efforts. Combine that with well-honed sentences, a flair for brief and memorable description, and an accurate sense of how long a story should last, and one couldn't ask for more from this style of book.

The book rest where the bible would be held (leaving arms free for gesticulation) was carved into the shape of a huge wooden eagle. I’m given to understand this is the kind of eloquent and confusing metaphor one expects in a place of worship, as the talons of the divine descend from above in a flurry of wings and death, but it seemed to alarm people to come face to face with the beaked fury of God as they entered the bookshop.

I've barely scratched the surface of great quotes from this book. If you like rare books, bookstores, or even just well-told absurd stories of working a retail job, read this. It reminds me of True Porn Clerk Stories, except with much less off-putting subject matter and even better writing. (Interestingly to me, it also shares with those stories, albeit for different reasons, a more complicated balance of power between the retail worker and the customer than the typical retail establishment.) My one wish is that I would have enjoyed more specific detail about the rare books themselves, since Darkshire only rarely describes successful retail transactions. But that's only a minor quibble.

This was a pure delight from cover to cover and exactly what I was hoping for when I preordered it. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2023-04-11: Review: The Last Hero

Review: The Last Hero, by Terry Pratchett

Illustrator Paul Kidby
Series Discworld #27
Publisher Harper
Copyright 2001, 2002
ISBN 0-06-050777-2
Format Graphic novel
Pages 176

The Last Hero is the 27th Discworld novel and part of the Rincewind subseries. This is something of a sequel to Interesting Times and relies heavily on the cast that was built up in previous books. It's not a good place to start with the series.

At last, the rare Rincewind novel that I enjoyed. It helps that Rincewind is mostly along for the ride.

Cohen the Barbarian and his band of elderly heroes have decided they're tired of enjoying their spoils and are going on a final adventure. They're going to return fire to the gods, in the form of a giant bomb. The wizards in Ankh-Morpork get wind of this and realize that an explosion at the Hub where the gods live could disrupt the magical field of the entire Disc, effectively destroying it. The only hope seems to be to reach Cori Celesti before Cohen and head him off, but Cohen is already almost there. Enter Lord Vetinari, who has Leonard of Quirm design a machine that will get them there in time by slingshotting under the Disc itself.

First off, let me say how much I love the idea of returning fire to the gods with interest. I kind of wish Pratchett had done more with their motivations, but I was laughing about that through the whole book.

Second, this is the first of the illustrated Discworld books that I've read in the intended illustrated form (I read the paperback version of Eric), and this book is gorgeous. I enjoyed Paul Kidby's art far more than I had expected to. His style is what I will call, for lack of better terminology due to my woeful art education, "highly detailed caricature." That's not normally a style that clicks with me, but it works incredibly well for Discworld.

The Last Hero is richly illustrated, with some amount of art, if only subtle background behind the text, on nearly every page. There are several two-page spreads, but oddly I thought those (including the parody of The Scream on the cover) were the worst art of the book. None of them did much for me. The best art is in the figure studies and subtle details: Leonard of Quirm's beautiful calligraphy, his numerous sketches, the labeled illustration of the controls of the flying machine, and the portraits of Cohen's band and the people they encounter. The edition I got is printed on lovely, thick glossy paper, and the subtle art texture behind the writing makes this book a delight to read. I'm not sure if, like Eric, this book comes in other editions, but if so, I highly recommend getting or finding the high-quality illustrated edition for the best reading experience.

The plot, like a lot of the Rincewind books, doesn't amount to much, but I enjoyed the mission to intercept Cohen. Leonard of Quirm is a great character, and the slow revelation of his flying machine design (which I will not spoil) is a delightful combination of Leonardo da Vinci parody, Discworld craziness, and NASA homage. Also, the Librarian is involved, which always improves a Discworld book. (The Luggage, sadly, is not; I would have liked to have seen a richly-illustrated story about it, but it looks like I'll have to find the illustrated version of Eric for that.)

There is one of Pratchett's philosophical subtexts here, about heroes and stories and what it means for your story to live on. To be honest, it didn't grab me; it's mostly subtext, and this particular set of characters weren't quite introspective enough to make the philosophy central to the story. Also, I was perhaps too sympathetic to Cohen's goals, and thus not very interested in anyone successfully stopping him. But I had a lot more fun with this one than I usually do with Rincewind books, helped considerably by the illustrations. If you've been skipping Rincewind books in your Discworld read-through and have access to the illustrated edition of The Last Hero, consider making an exception for this one.

Followed by The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents in publication order and, thematically, by Unseen Academicals.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2023-04-10: Review: Circe

Review: Circe, by Madeline Miller

Publisher Little, Brown and Company
Copyright April 2018
Printing 2020
ISBN 0-316-55633-5
Format Kindle
Pages 421

Circe is the story of the goddess Circe, best known as a minor character in Homer's Odyssey. Circe was Miller's third book if you count the short novella Galatea. She wrote it after Song of Achilles, a reworking of part of the Iliad, but as with Homer, you do not need to read Song of Achilles first.

You will occasionally see Circe marketed or reviewed as a retelling of the Odyssey, but it isn't in any meaningful sense. Odysseus doesn't make an appearance until nearly halfway through the book, and the material directly inspired by the Odyssey is only about a quarter of the book. There is nearly as much here from the Telegony, a lost ancient Greek epic poem that we know about only from summaries by later writers and which picks up after the end of the Odyssey.

What this is, instead, is Circe's story, starting with her childhood in the halls of Helios, the Titan sun god and her father. She does not have a happy childhood; her voice is considered weak by the gods (Homer describes her as having "human speech"), and her mother and elder siblings are vicious and cruel. Her father is high in the councils of the Titans, who have been overthrown by Zeus and the other Olympians. She is in awe of him and sits at his feet to observe his rule, but he's a petty tyrant who cares very little about her. Her only true companion is her brother Aeëtes.

The key event of the early book comes when Prometheus is temporarily chained in Helios's halls after stealing fire from the gods and before Zeus passes judgment on him. A young Circe brings him something to drink and has a brief conversation with him. That's the spark for one of the main themes of this book: Circe slowly developing a conscience and empathy, neither of which are common among Miller's gods. But it's still a long road from there to her first meeting with Odysseus.

One of the best things about this book is the way that Miller unravels the individual stories of Greek myth and weaves them into a chronological narrative of Circe's life. Greek mythology is mostly individual stories, often contradictory and with only a loose chronology, but Miller pulls together all the ones that touch on Circe's family and turns them into a coherent history. This is not easy to do, and she makes it feel effortless. We get a bit of Jason and Medea (Jason is as dumb as a sack of rocks, and Circe can tell there's already something not right with Medea), the beginnings of the story of Theseus and Ariadne, and Daedalus (one of my favorite characters in the book) with his son Icarus, in addition to the stories more directly associated with Circe (a respinning of Glaucus and Scylla from Ovid's Metamorphoses that makes Circe more central). By the time Odysseus arrives on Circe's island, this world feels rich and full of history, and Circe has had a long and traumatic history that has left her suspicious and hardened.

If you know some Greek mythology already, seeing it deftly woven into this new shape is a delight, but Circe may be even better if this is your first introduction to some of these stories. There are pieces missing, since Circe only knows the parts she's present for or that someone can tell her about later, but what's here is vivid, easy to follow, and recast in a narrative structure that's more familiar to modern readers. Miller captures the larger-than-life feel of myth while giving the characters an interiority and comprehensible emotional heft that often gets summarized out of myth retellings or lost in translation from ancient plays and epics, and she does it without ever calling the reader's attention to the mechanics.

The prose, similarly, is straightforward and clear, getting out of the way of the story but still providing a sense of place and description where it's needed. This book feels honed, edited and streamlined until it maintains an irresistible pace. There was only one place where I felt like the story dragged (the raising of Telegonus), and then mostly because it's full of anger and anxiety and frustration and loss of control, which is precisely what Miller was trying to achieve. The rest of the book pulls the reader relentlessly forward while still delivering moments of beauty or sharp observation.

My house was crowded with some four dozen men, and for the first time in my life, I found myself steeped in mortal flesh. Those frail bodies of theirs took relentless attention, food and drink, sleep and rest, the cleaning of limbs and fluxes. Such patience mortals must have, I thought, to drag themselves through it hour after hour.

I did not enjoy reading about Telegonus's childhood (it was too stressful; I don't like reading about characters fighting in that way), but apart from that, the last half of this book is simply beautiful. By the time Odysseus arrives, we're thoroughly in Circe's head and agree with all of the reasons why he might receive a chilly reception. Odysseus talks the readers around at the same time that he talks Circe around. It's one of the better examples of writing intelligent, observant, and thoughtful characters that I have read recently. I also liked that Odysseus has real flaws, and those flaws do not go away even when the reader warms to him.

I'll avoid saying too much about the very end of the book to avoid spoilers (insofar as one can spoil Greek myth, but the last quarter of the book is where I think Miller adds the most to the story). I'll just say that both Telemachus and Penelope are exceptional characters while being nothing like Circe or Odysseus, and watching the characters tensely circle each other is a wholly engrossing reading experience. It's a much more satisfying ending than the Telegony traditionally gets (although I have mixed feelings about the final page).

I've mostly talked about the Greek mythology part of Circe, since that's what grabbed me the most, but it's quite rightly called a feminist retelling and it lives up to that label with the same subtlety and skill that Miller brings to the prose and characterization. The abusive gender dynamics of Greek myth are woven into the narrative so elegantly you'd think they were always noted in the stories. It is wholly satisfying to see Circe come into her own power in a defiantly different way than that chosen by her mother and her sister. She spends the entire book building an inner strength and sense of herself that allows her to defend her own space and her own identity, and the payoff is pure delight. But even better are the quiet moments between her and Penelope.

"I am embarrassed to ask this of you, but I did not bring a black cloak with me when we left. Do you have one I might wear? I would mourn for him."

I looked at her, as vivid in my doorway as the moon in the autumn sky. Her eyes held mine, gray and steady. It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.

"No," I said. "But I have yarn, and a loom. Come."

This is as good as everyone says it is. Highly recommended for the next time you're in the mood for a myth retelling.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2023-04-02: Review: The Nordic Theory of Everything

Review: The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Anu Partanen

Publisher Harper
Copyright 2016
Printing June 2017
ISBN 0-06-231656-7
Format Kindle
Pages 338

Anu Partanen is a Finnish journalist who immigrated to the United States. The Nordic Theory of Everything, subtitled In Search of a Better Life, is an attempt to explain the merits of Finnish approaches to government and society to a US audience. It was her first book.

If you follow US policy discussion at all, you have probably been exposed to many of the ideas in this book. There was a time when the US left was obsessed with comparisons between the US and Nordic countries, and while that obsession has faded somewhat, Nordic social systems are still discussed with envy and treated as a potential model. Many of the topics of this book are therefore predictable: parental leave, vacation, health care, education, happiness, life expectancy, all the things that are far superior in Nordic countries than in the United States by essentially every statistical measure available, and which have been much-discussed.

Partanen brings two twists to this standard analysis. The first is that this book is part memoir: she fell in love with a US writer and made the decision to move to the US rather than asking him to move to Finland. She therefore experienced the transition between social and government systems first-hand and writes memorably on the resulting surprise, trade-offs, anxiety, and bafflement. The second, which I've not seen previously in this policy debate, is a fascinating argument that Finland is a far more individualistic country than the United States precisely because of its policy differences.

Most people, including myself, assumed that part of what made the United States a great country, and such an exceptional one, was that you could live your life relatively unencumbered by the downside of a traditional, old-fashioned society: dependency on the people you happened to be stuck with. In America you had the liberty to express your individuality and choose your own community. This would allow you to interact with family, neighbors, and fellow citizens on the basis of who you were, rather than on what you were obligated to do or expected to be according to old-fashioned thinking.

The longer I lived in America, therefore, and the more places I visited and the more people I met — and the more American I myself became — the more puzzled I grew. For it was exactly those key benefits of modernity — freedom, personal independence, and opportunity — that seemed, from my outsider’s perspective, in a thousand small ways to be surprisingly missing from American life today. Amid the anxiety and stress of people’s daily lives, those grand ideals were looking more theoretical than actual.

The core of this argument is that the structure of life in the United States essentially coerces dependency on other people: employers, spouses, parents, children, and extended family. Because there is no universally available social support system, those relationships become essential for any hope of a good life, and often for survival. If parents do not heavily manage their children's education, there is a substantial risk of long-lasting damage to the stability and happiness of their life. If children do not care for their elderly parents, they may receive no care at all. Choosing not to get married often means choosing precarity and exhaustion because navigating society without pooling resources with someone else is incredibly difficult.

It was as if America, land of the Hollywood romance, was in practice mired in a premodern time when marriage was, first and foremost, not an expression of love, but rather a logistical and financial pact to help families survive by joining resources.

Partanen contrasts this with what she calls the Nordic theory of love:

What Lars Trägårdh came to understand during his years in the United States was that the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.

She sees this as the common theme through most of the policy differences discussed in this book. The Finnish approach is to provide neutral and universal logistical support for most of life's expected challenges: birth, child-rearing, education, health, unemployment, and aging. This relieves other social relations — family, employer, church — of the corrosive strain of dependency and obligation. It also ensures people's basic well-being isn't reliant on accidents of association.

If the United States is so worried about crushing entrepreneurship and innovation, a good place to start would be freeing start-ups and companies from the burdens of babysitting the nation’s citizens.

I found this fascinating as a persuasive technique. Partanen embraces the US ideal of individualism and points out that, rather than being collectivist as the US right tends to assume, Finland is better at fostering individualism and independence because the government works to removes unnecessary premodern constraints on individual lives. The reason why so many Americans are anxious and frantic is not a personal failing or bad luck. It's because the US social system is deeply hostile to healthy relationships and individual independence. It demands a constant level of daily problem-solving and crisis management that is profoundly exhausting, nearly impossible to navigate alone, and damaging to the ideal of equal relationships.

Whether this line of argument will work is another question, and I'm dubious for reasons that Partanen (probably wisely) avoids. She presents the Finnish approach as a discovery that the US would benefit from, and the US approach as a well-intentioned mistake. I think this is superficially appealing; almost all corners of US political belief at least give lip service to individualism and independence. However, advocates of political change will eventually need to address the fact that many US conservatives see this type of social coercion as an intended feature of society rather than a flaw.

This is most obvious when one looks at family relationships. Partanen treats the idea that marriage should be a free choice between equals rather than an economic necessity as self-evident, but there is a significant strain of US political thought that embraces punishing people for not staying within the bounds of a conservative ideal of family. One will often find, primarily but not exclusively among the more religious, a contention that the basic unit of society is the (heterosexual, patriarchal) family, not the individual, and that the suffering of anyone outside that structure is their own fault. Not wanting to get married, be the primary caregiver for one's parents, or abandon a career in order to raise children is treated as malignant selfishness and immorality rather than a personal choice that can be enabled by a modern social system.

Here, I think Partanen is accurate to identify the Finnish social system as more modern. It embraces the philosophical concept of modernity, namely that social systems can be improved and social structures are not timeless. This is going to be a hard argument to swallow for those who see the pressure towards forming dependency ties within families as natural, and societal efforts to relieve those pressures as government meddling. In that intellectual framework, rather than an attempt to improve the quality of life, government logistical support is perceived as hostility to traditional family obligations and an attempt to replace "natural" human ties with "artificial" dependence on government services. Partanen doesn't attempt to have that debate.

Two other things struck me in this book. The first is that, in Partanen's presentation, Finns expect high-quality services from their government and work to improve it when it falls short. This sounds like an obvious statement, but I don't think it is in the context of US politics, and neither does Partanen. She devotes a chapter to the topic, subtitled "Go ahead: ask what your country can do for you."

This is, to me, one of the most frustrating aspects of US political debate. Our attitude towards government is almost entirely hostile and negative even among the political corners that would like to see government do more. Failures of government programs are treated as malice, malfeasance, or inherent incompetence: in short, signs the program should never have been attempted, rather than opportunities to learn and improve. Finland had mediocre public schools, decided to make them better, and succeeded. The moment US public schools start deteriorating, we throw much of our effort into encouraging private competition and dismantling the public school system.

Partanen doesn't draw this connection, but I see a link between the US desire for market solutions to societal problems and the level of exhaustion and anxiety that is so common in US life. Solving problems by throwing them open to competition is a way of giving up, of saying we have no idea how to improve something and are hoping someone else will figure it out for a profit. Analyzing the failures of an existing system and designing incremental improvements is hard and slow work. Throwing out the system and hoping some corporation will come up with something better is disruptive but easy.

When everyone is already overwhelmed by life and devoid of energy to work on complex social problems, it's tempting to give up on compromise and coalition-building and let everyone go their separate ways on their own dime. We cede the essential work of designing a good society to start-ups. This creates a vicious cycle: the resulting market solutions are inevitably gated by wealth and thus precarious and artificially scarce, which in turn creates more anxiety and stress. The short-term energy savings from not having to wrestle with a hard problem is overwhelmed by the long-term cost of having to navigate a complex and adversarial economic relationship.

That leads into the last point: schools. There's a lot of discussion here about school quality and design, which I won't review in detail but which is worth reading. What struck me about Partanen's discussion, though, is how easy the Finnish system is to use. Finnish parents just send their kids to the most convenient school and rarely give that a second thought. The critical property is that all the schools are basically fine, and therefore there is no need to place one's child in an exceptional school to ensure they have a good life.

It's axiomatic in the US that more choice is better. This is a constant refrain in our political discussion around schools: parental choice, parental control, options, decisions, permission, matching children to schools tailored for their needs. Those choices are almost entirely absent in Finland, at least in Partanen's description, and the amount of mental and emotional energy this saves is astonishing. Parents simply don't think about this, and everything is fine.

I think we dramatically underestimate the negative effects of constantly having to make difficult decisions with significant consequences, and drastically overstate the benefits of having every aspect of life be full of major decision points. To let go of that attempt at control, however illusory, people have to believe in a baseline of quality that makes the choice less fraught. That's precisely what Finland provides by expecting high-quality social services and working to fix them when they fall short, an effort that the United States has by and large abandoned.

A lot of non-fiction books could be turned into long articles without losing much substance, and I think The Nordic Theory of Everything falls partly into that trap. Partanen repeats the same ideas from several different angles, and the book felt a bit padded towards the end. If you're already familiar with the policy comparisons between the US and Nordic countries, you will have seen a lot of this before, and the book bogs down when Partanen strays too far from memoir and personal reactions. But the focus on individualism and eliminating dependency is new, at least to me, and is such an illuminating way to look at the contrast that I think the book is worth reading just for that.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2023-03-31: rra-c-util 10.4

rra-c-util is my library of supporting functions, code, Autoconf macros, and similar portability and build machinery helpers. This is a very minor release, made mostly because I haven't done a non-work free software release in rather too long.

This release adds serial numbers to all of the provided Autoconf macros, which enables some features in Automake's aclocal tool. It properly fixes the portable/getnameinfo test that the last release tried to fix (thanks again to Julien ÉLIE). And it incorporates some new perltidy flags into my standard perltidy configuration that were added in the 20230309 release (also thanks to Julien ÉLIE for the heads up).

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

2023-03-24: Review: Thief of Time

Review: Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #26
Publisher Harper
Copyright May 2001
Printing August 2014
ISBN 0-06-230739-8
Format Mass market
Pages 420

Thief of Time is the 26th Discworld novel and the last Death novel, although he still appears in subsequent books. It's the third book starring Susan Sto Helit, so I don't recommend starting here. Mort is the best starting point for the Death subseries, and Reaper Man provides a useful introduction to the villains.

Jeremy Clockson was an orphan raised by the Guild of Clockmakers. He is very good at making clocks. He's not very good at anything else, particularly people, but his clocks are the most accurate in Ankh-Morpork. He is therefore the logical choice to receive a commission by a mysterious noblewoman who wants him to make the most accurate possible clock: a clock that can measure the tick of the universe, one that a fairy tale says had been nearly made before. The commission is followed by a surprise delivery of an Igor, to help with the clock-making.

People who live in places with lots of fields become farmers. People who live where there is lots of iron and coal become blacksmiths. And people who live in the mountains near the Hub, near the gods and full of magic, become monks. In the highest valley are the History Monks, founded by Wen the Eternally Surprised. Like most monks, they take apprentices with certain talents and train them in their discipline. But Lobsang Ludd, an orphan discovered in the Thieves Guild in Ankh-Morpork, is proving a challenge. The monks decide to apprentice him to Lu-Tze the sweeper; perhaps that will solve multiple problems at once.

Since Hogfather, Susan has moved from being a governess to a schoolteacher. She brings to that job the same firm patience, total disregard for rules that apply to other people, and impressive talent for managing children. She is by far the most popular teacher among the kids, and not only because she transports her class all over the Disc so that they can see things in person. It is a job that she likes and understands, and one that she's quite irate to have interrupted by a summons from her grandfather. But the Auditors are up to something, and Susan may be able to act in ways that Death cannot.

This was great. Susan has quickly become one of my favorite Discworld characters, and this time around there is no (or, well, not much) unbelievable romance or permanently queasy god to distract. The clock-making portions of the book quickly start to focus on Igor, who is a delightful perspective through whom to watch events unfold. And the History Monks! The metaphysics of what they are actually doing (which I won't spoil, since discovering it slowly is a delight) is perhaps my favorite bit of Discworld world building to date. I am a sucker for stories that focus on some process that everyone thinks happens automatically and investigate the hidden work behind it.

I do want to add a caveat here that the monks are in part a parody of Himalayan Buddhist monasteries, Lu-Tze is rather obviously a parody of Laozi and Daoism in general, and Pratchett's parodies of non-western cultures are rather ham-handed. This is not quite the insulting mess that the Chinese parody in Interesting Times was, but it's heavy on the stereotypes. It does not, thankfully, rely on the stereotypes; the characters are great fun on their own terms, with the perfect (for me) balance of irreverence and thoughtfulness. Lu-Tze refusing to be anything other than a sweeper and being irritatingly casual about all the rules of the order is a classic bit that Pratchett does very well. But I also have the luxury of ignoring stereotypes of a culture that isn't mine, and I think Pratchett is on somewhat thin ice.

As one specific example, having Lu-Tze's treasured sayings be a collection of banal aphorisms from a random Ankh-Morpork woman is both hilarious and also arguably rather condescending, and I'm not sure where I landed. It's a spot-on bit of parody of how a lot of people who get very into "eastern religions" sound, but it's also equating the Dao De Jing with advice from the Discworld equivalent of a English housewife. I think the generous reading is that Lu-Tze made the homilies profound by looking at them in an entirely different way than the woman saying them, and that's not completely unlike Daoism and works surprisingly well. But that's reading somewhat against the grain; Pratchett is clearly making fun of philosophical koans, and while anything is fair game for some friendly poking, it still feels a bit weird.

That isn't the part of the History Monks that I loved, though. Their actual role in the story doesn't come out of the parody. It's something entirely native to Discworld, and it's an absolute delight. The scene with Lobsang and the procrastinators is perhaps my favorite Discworld set piece to date. Everything about the technology of the History Monks, even the Bond parody, is so good.

I grew up reading the Marvel Comics universe, and Thief of Time reminds me of a classic John Byrne or Jim Starlin story, where the heroes are dumped into the middle of vast interdimensional conflicts involving barely-anthropomorphized cosmic powers and the universe is revealed to work in ever more intricate ways at vastly expanding scales. The Auditors are villains in exactly that tradition, and just like the best of those stories, the fulcrum of the plot is questions about what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, and the surprising alliances these non-human powers make with humans or semi-humans. I devoured this kind of story as a kid, and it turns out I still love it.

The one complaint I have about the plot is that the best part of this book is the middle, and the end didn't entirely work for me. Ronnie Soak is at his best as a supporting character about three quarters of the way through the book, and I found the ending of his subplot much less interesting. The cosmic confrontation was oddly disappointing, and there's a whole extended sequence involving chocolate that I think was funnier in Pratchett's head than it was in mine. The ending isn't bad, but the middle of this book is my favorite bit of Discworld writing yet, and I wish the story had carried that momentum through to the end.

I had so much fun with this book. The Discworld novels are clearly getting better. None of them have yet vaulted into the ranks of my all-time favorite books — there's always some lingering quibble or sagging bit — but it feels like they've gone from reliably good books to more reliably great books. The acid test is coming, though: the next book is a Rincewind book, which are usually the weak spots.

Followed by The Last Hero in publication order. There is no direct thematic sequel.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Last spun 2023-05-31 from thread modified 2008-08-13