Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2022-05-21: Review: On a Sunbeam

Review: On a Sunbeam, by Tillie Walden

Publisher Tillie Walden
Copyright 2016-2017
Format Online graphic novel
Pages 544

On a Sunbeam is a web comic that was published in installments between Fall 2016 and Spring 2017, and then later published in dead tree form. I read the on-line version, which is still available for free from its web site. It was nominated for an Eisner Award and won a ton of other awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Mia is a new high school graduate who has taken a job with a construction crew that repairs old buildings (that are floating in space, but I'll get to that in a moment). Alma, Elliot, and Charlotte have been together for a long time; Jules is closer to Mia's age and has been with them for a year. This is not the sort of job one commutes to: they live together on a spaceship that travels to the job sites, share meals together, and are more of an extended family than a group of coworkers. It's all a bit intimidating for Mia, but Jules provides a very enthusiastic welcome and some orientation.

The story of Mia's new job is interleaved with Mia's school experience from five years earlier. As a new frosh at a boarding school, Mia is obsessed with Lux, a school sport that involves building and piloting ships through a maze to capture orbs. Sent to the principal's office on the first day of school for sneaking into the Lux tower when she's supposed to be at assembly, she meets Grace, a shy girl with sparkly shoes and an unheard-of single room. Mia (a bit like Jules in the present timeline) overcomes Grace's reticence by being persistently outgoing and determinedly friendly, while trying to get on the Lux team and dealing with the typical school problems of bullies and in-groups.

On a Sunbeam is science fiction in the sense that it seems to take place in space and school kids build flying ships. It is not science fiction in the sense of caring about technological extrapolation or making any scientific sense whatsoever. The buildings that Mia and the crew repair appear to be hanging in empty space, but there's gravity. No one wears any protective clothing or air masks. The spaceships look (and move) like giant tropical fish. If you need realism in your science fiction graphical novels, it's probably best not to think of this as science fiction at all, or even science fantasy despite the later appearance of some apparently magical or divine elements.

That may sound surrealistic or dream-like, but On a Sunbeam isn't that either. It's a story about human relationships, found family, and diversity of personalities, all of which are realistically portrayed. The characters find their world coherent, consistent, and predictable, even if it sometimes makes no sense to the reader. On a Sunbeam is simply set in its own universe, with internal logic but without explanation or revealed rules.

I kind of liked this approach? It takes some getting used to, but it's an excuse for some dramatic and beautiful backgrounds, and it's oddly freeing to have unremarked train tracks in outer space. There's no way that an explanation would have worked; if one were offered, my brain would have tried to nitpick it to the detriment of the story. There's something delightful about a setting that follows imaginary physical laws this unapologetically and without showing the author's work.

I was, sadly, not as much of a fan of the art, although I am certain this will be a matter of taste. Walden mixes simple story-telling panels with sweeping vistas, free-floating domes, and strange, wild asteroids, but she uses a very limited color palette. Most panels are only a few steps away from monochrome, and the colors are chosen more for mood or orientation in the story (Mia's school days are all blue, the Staircase is orange) than for any consistent realism. There is often a lot of detail in the panels, but I found it hard to appreciate because the coloring confused my eye. I'm old enough to have been a comics reader during the revolution in digital coloring and improved printing, and I loved the subsequent dramatic improvement in vivid colors and shading. I know the coloring style here is an intentional artistic choice, but to me it felt like a throwback to the days of muddy printing on cheap paper.

I have a similar complaint about the lettering: On a Sunbeam is either hand-lettered or closely simulates hand lettering, and I often found the dialogue hard to read due to inconsistent intra- and interword spacing or ambiguous letters. Here too I'm sure this was an artistic choice, but as a reader I'd much prefer a readable comics font over hand lettering.

The detail in the penciling is more to my liking. I had occasional trouble telling some of the characters apart, but they're clearly drawn and emotionally expressive. The scenery is wildly imaginative and often gorgeous, which increased my frustration with the coloring. I would love to see what some of these panels would have looked like after realistic coloring with a full palette.

(It's worth noting again that I read the on-line version. It's possible that the art was touched up for the print version and would have been more to my liking.)

But enough about the art. The draw of On a Sunbeam for me is the story. It's not very dramatic or event-filled at first, starting as two stories of burgeoning friendships with a fairly young main character. (They are closely linked, but it's not obvious how until well into the story.) But it's the sort of story that I started reading, thought was mildly interesting, and then kept reading just one more chapter until I had somehow read the whole thing.

There are some interesting twists towards the end, but it's otherwise not a very dramatic or surprising story. What it is instead is open-hearted, quiet, charming, and deeper than it looks. The characters are wildly different and can be abrasive, but they invest time and effort into understanding each other and adjusting for each other's preferences. Personal loss drives a lot of the plot, but the characters are also allowed to mature and be happy without resolving every bad thing that happened to them. These characters felt like people I would like and would want to get to know (even if Jules would be overwhelming). I enjoyed watching their lives.

This reminded me a bit of a Becky Chambers novel, although it's less invested in being science fiction and sticks strictly to humans. There's a similar feeling that the relationships are the point of the story, and that nearly everyone is trying hard to be good, with differing backgrounds and differing conceptions of good. All of the characters are female or non-binary, which is left as entirely unexplained as the rest of the setting. It's that sort of book.

I wouldn't say this is one of the best things I've ever read, but I found it delightful and charming, and it certainly sucked me in and kept me reading until the end. One also cannot argue with the price, although if I hadn't already read it, I would be tempted to buy a paper copy to support the author. This will not be to everyone's taste, and stay far away if you are looking for realistic science fiction, but recommended if you are in the mood for an understated queer character story full of good-hearted people.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2022-05-08: remctl 3.18

remctl is a simple RPC mechanism using Kerberos GSS-API authentication (or SSH authentication).

The primary change in this release, and the reason for the release, is to add support for PCRE2, the latest version of the Perl-Compatible Regular Expression library, since PCRE1 is now deprecated.

This release also improves some documentation, marks the allocation functions in the C client library with deallocation functions for GCC 11, and fixes some issues with the Python and Ruby bindings that were spotted by Ken Dreyer, as well as the normal update of portability support.

I still do plan to move the language bindings into separate packages, since this will make it easier to upload them to their per-language module repositories and that, in turn, will make them easier to use, but this version doesn't have those changes. I wanted to flush the portability changes and PCRE update out first before starting that project.

You can get the latest version from the remctl distribution page.

2022-05-08: rra-c-util 10.2

rra-c-util is my collection of utility functions, mostly but not entirely for C, that I use with my various software releases.

There are two major changes in this release. The first is Autoconf support for PCRE2, the new version of the Perl-Compatible Regular Expression library (PCRE1 is now deprecated), which was the motivation for a new release. The second is a huge update to the Perl formatting rules due to lots of work by Julien ÉLIE for INN.

This release also tags deallocation functions, similar to the change mentioned for C TAP Harness 4.8, for all the utility libraries provided by rra-c-util, and fixes an issue with the systemd support.

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

2022-05-08: C TAP Harness 4.8

C TAP Harness is my C implementation of the Perl "Test Anything Protocol" test suite framework. It includes test runner and libraries for both C and shell.

This is mostly a cleanup release to resync with other utility libraries. It does fix an installation problem by managing symlinks correctly, and adds support for GCC 11's new deallocation warnings.

The latter is a rather interesting new GCC feature. There is a Red Hat blog post about the implementation with more details, but the short version is that the __malloc__ attribute can now take an argument that specifies the function that should be used to deallocate the allocated object. GCC 11 and later can use that information to catch some deallocation bugs, such as deallocating things with the wrong function.

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

2022-04-28: Review: Interesting Times

Review: Interesting Times, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #17
Publisher Harper
Copyright 1994
Printing February 2014
ISBN 0-06-227629-8
Format Mass market
Pages 399

Interesting Times is the seventeenth Discworld novel and certainly not the place to start. At the least, you will probably want to read The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic before this book, since it's a sequel to those (although Rincewind has had some intervening adventures).

Lord Vetinari has received a message from the Counterweight Continent, the first in ten years, cryptically demanding the Great Wizzard be sent immediately.

The Agatean Empire is one of the most powerful states on the Disc. Thankfully for everyone else, it normally suits its rulers to believe that the lands outside their walls are inhabited only by ghosts. No one is inclined to try to change their minds or otherwise draw their attention. Accordingly, the Great Wizard must be sent, a task that Vetinari efficiently delegates to the Archchancellor. There is only the small matter of determining who the Great Wizzard is, and why it was spelled with two z's.

Discworld readers with a better memory than I will recall Rincewind's hat. Why the Counterweight Continent would demanding a wizard notorious for his near-total inability to perform magic is a puzzle for other people. Rincewind is promptly located by a magical computer, and nearly as promptly transported across the Disc, swapping him for an unnecessarily exciting object of roughly equivalent mass and hurling him into an unexpected rescue of Cohen the Barbarian. Rincewind predictably reacts by running away, although not fast or far enough to keep him from being entangled in a glorious popular uprising. Or, well, something that has aspirations of being glorious, and popular, and an uprising.

I hate to say this, because Pratchett is an ethically thoughtful writer to whom I am willing to give the benefit of many doubts, but this book was kind of racist.

The Agatean Empire is modeled after China, and the Rincewind books tend to be the broadest and most obvious parodies, so that was already a recipe for some trouble. Some of the social parody is not too objectionable, albeit not my thing. I find ethnic stereotypes and making fun of funny-sounding names in other languages (like a city named Hunghung) to be in poor taste, but Pratchett makes fun of everyone's names and cultures rather equally. (Also, I admit that some of the water buffalo jokes, despite the stereotypes, were pretty good.) If it had stopped there, it would have prompted some eye-rolling but not much comment.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of the plot depends on the idea that the population of the Agatean Empire has been so brainwashed into obedience that they have a hard time even imagining resistance, and even their revolutionaries are so polite that the best they can manage for slogans are things like "Timely Demise to All Enemies!" What they need are a bunch of outsiders, such as Rincewind or Cohen and his gang. More details would be spoilers, but there are several deliberate uses of Ankh-Morpork as a revolutionary inspiration and a great deal of narrative hand-wringing over how awful it is to so completely convince people they are slaves that you don't need chains.

There is a depressingly tedious tendency of western writers, even otherwise thoughtful and well-meaning ones like Pratchett, to adopt a simplistic ranking of political systems on a crude measure of freedom. That analysis immediately encounters the problem that lots of people who live within systems that rate poorly on this one-dimensional scale seem inadequately upset about circumstances that are "obviously" horrific oppression. This should raise questions about the validity of the assumptions, but those assumptions are so unquestionable that the writer instead decides the people who are insufficiently upset about their lack of freedom must be defective. The more racist writers attribute that defectiveness to racial characteristics. The less racist writers, like Pratchett, attribute that defectiveness to brainwashing and systemic evil, which is not quite as bad as overt racism but still rests on a foundation of smug cultural superiority.

Krister Stendahl, a bishop of the Church of Sweden, coined three famous rules for understanding other religions:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don't compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for "holy envy."

This is excellent advice that should also be applied to politics. Most systems exist for some reason. The differences from your preferred system are easy to see, particularly those that strike you as horrible. But often there are countervailing advantages that are less obvious, and those are more psychologically difficult to understand and objectively analyze. You might find they have something that you wish your system had, which causes discomfort if you're convinced you have the best political system in the world, or are making yourself feel better about the abuses of your local politics by assuring yourself that at least you're better than those people.

I was particularly irritated to see this sort of simplistic stereotyping in Discworld given that Ankh-Morpork, the setting of most of the Discworld novels, is an authoritarian dictatorship. Vetinari quite capably maintains his hold on power, and yet this is not taken as a sign that the city's inhabitants have been brainwashed into considering themselves slaves. Instead, he's shown as adept at maintaining the stability of a precarious system with a lot of competing forces and a high potential for destructive chaos. Vetinari is an awful person, but he may be better than anyone who would replace him. Hmm.

This sort of complexity is permitted in the "local" city, but as soon as we end up in an analog of China, the rulers are evil, the system lacks any justification, and the peasants only don't revolt because they've been trained to believe they can't. Gah.

I was muttering about this all the way through Interesting Times, which is a shame because, outside of the ham-handed political plot, it has some great Pratchett moments. Rincewind's approach to any and all danger is a running (sorry) gag that keeps working, and Cohen and his gang of absurdly competent decrepit barbarians are both funnier here than they have been in any previous book and the rare highly-positive portrayal of old people in fantasy adventures who are not wizards or crones. Pretty Butterfly is a great character who deserved to be in a better plot. And I loved the trouble that Rincewind had with the Agatean tonal language, which is an excuse for Pratchett to write dialog full of frustrated non-sequiturs when Rincewind mispronounces a word.

I do have to grumble about the Luggage, though. From a world-building perspective its subplot makes sense, but the Luggage was always the best character in the Rincewind stories, and the way it lost all of its specialness here was oddly sad and depressing. Pratchett also failed to convince me of the drastic retcon of The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic that he does here (and which I can't talk about in detail due to spoilers), in part because it's entangled in the orientalism of the plot.

I'm not sure Pratchett could write a bad book, and I still enjoyed reading Interesting Times, but I don't think he gave the politics his normal care, attention, and thoughtful humanism. I hope later books in this part of the Disc add more nuance, and are less confident and judgmental. I can't really recommend this one, even though it has some merits.

Also, just for the record, "may you live in interesting times" is not a Chinese curse. It's an English saying that likely was attributed to China to make it sound exotic, which is the sort of landmine that good-natured parody of other people's cultures needs to be wary of.

Followed in publication order by Maskerade, and in Rincewind's personal timeline by The Last Continent.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2022-04-26: Review: Sorceress of Darshiva

Review: Sorceress of Darshiva, by David Eddings

Series The Malloreon #4
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright December 1989
Printing November 1990
ISBN 0-345-36935-1
Format Mass market
Pages 371

This is the fourth book of the Malloreon, the sequel series to the Belgariad. Eddings as usual helpfully summarizes the plot of previous books (the one thing about his writing that I wish more authors would copy), this time by having various important people around the world briefed on current events. That said, you don't want to start reading here (although you might wish you could).

This is such a weird book.

One could argue that not much happens in the Belgariad other than map exploration and collecting a party, but the party collection involves meddling in local problems to extract each new party member. It's a bit of a random sequence of events, but things clearly happen. The Malloreon starts off with a similar structure, including an explicit task to create a new party of adventurers to save the world, but most of the party is already gathered at the start of the series since they carry over from the previous series. There is a ton of map exploration, but it's within the territory of the bad guys from the previous series. Rather than local meddling and acquiring new characters, the story is therefore chasing Zandramas (the big bad of the series) and books of prophecy.

This could still be an effective plot trigger but for another decision of Eddings that becomes obvious in Demon Lord of Karanda (the third book): the second continent of this world, unlike the Kingdoms of Hats world-building of the Belgariad, is mostly uniform. There are large cities, tons of commercial activity, and a fairly effective and well-run empire, with only a little local variation. In some ways it's a welcome break from Eddings's previous characterization by stereotype, but there isn't much in the way of local happenings for the characters to get entangled in.

Even more oddly, this continental empire, which the previous series set up as the mysterious and evil adversaries of the west akin to Sauron's domain in Lord of the Rings, is not mysterious to some of the party at all. Silk, the Drasnian spy who is a major character in both series, has apparently been running a vast trading empire in Mallorea. Not only has he been there before, he has houses and factors and local employees in every major city and keeps being distracted from the plot by his cutthroat capitalist business shenanigans. It's as if the characters ventured into the heart of the evil empire and found themselves in the entirely normal city next door, complete with restaurant recommendations from one of their traveling companions.

I think this is an intentional subversion of the normal fantasy plot by Eddings, and I kind of like it. We have met the evil empire, and they're more normal than most of the good guys, and both unaware and entirely uninterested in being the evil empire. But in terms of dramatic plot structure, it is such an odd choice. Combined with the heroes being so absurdly powerful that they have no reason to take most dangers seriously (and indeed do not), it makes this book remarkably anticlimactic and weirdly lacking in drama.

And yet I kind of enjoyed reading it? It's oddly quiet and comfortable reading. Nothing bad happens, nor seems very likely to happen. The primary plot tension is Belgarath trying to figure out the plot of the series by tracking down prophecies in which the plot is written down with all of the dramatic tension of an irritated rare book collector. In the middle of the plot, the characters take a detour to investigate an alchemist who is apparently immortal, featuring a university on Melcena that could have come straight out of a Discworld novel, because investigating people who spontaneously discover magic is of arguably equal importance to saving the world. Given how much the plot is both on rails and clearly willing to wait for the protagonists to catch up, it's hard to argue with them. It felt like a side quest in a video game.

I continue to find the way that Eddings uses prophecy in this series to be highly amusing, although there aren't nearly enough moments of the prophecy giving Garion stage direction. The basic concept of two competing prophecies that are active characters in the world attempting to create their own sequence of events is one that would support a better series than this one. It's a shame that Zandramas, the main villain, is rather uninteresting despite being female in a highly sexist society, highly competent, a different type of shapeshifter (I won't say more to avoid spoilers for earlier books), and the anchor of the other prophecy. It's good material, but Eddings uses it very poorly, on top of making the weird decision to have her talk like an extra in a Shakespeare play.

This book was astonishingly pointless. I think the only significant plot advancement besides map movement is picking up a new party member (who was rather predictable), and the plot is so completely on rails that the characters are commenting about the brand of railroad ties that Eddings used. Ce'Nedra continues to be spectacularly irritating. It's not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good book, and yet for some reason I enjoyed it more than the other books of the series so far. Chalk one up for brain candy when one is in the right mood, I guess.

Followed by The Seeress of Kell, the epic (?) conclusion.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2022-04-16: First 2022 haul post

I haven't posted one of these in a while. Here's the (mostly new) stuff that's come out that caught my interest in the past few months. Some of these I've already read and reviewed.

Tom Burgis — Kleptopia (non-fiction)
Angela Chen — Ace (non-fiction)
P. Djèlí Clark — A Dead Djinn in Cairo (sff)
P. Djèlí Clark — The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (sff)
P. Djèlí Clark — A Master of Djinn (sff)
Brittney C. Cooper — Eloquent Rage (non-fiction)
Madeleine Dore — I Didn't Do the Thing Today (non-fiction)
Saad Z. Hossain — The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday (sff)
George F. Kennan — Memoirs, 1925-1950 (non-fiction)
Kiese Laymon — How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (non-fiction)
Adam Minter — Secondhand (non-fiction)
Amanda Oliver — Overdue (non-fiction)
Laurie Penny — Sexual Revolution (non-fiction)
Scott A. Snook — Friendly Fire (non-fiction)
Adrian Tchaikovsky — Elder Race (sff)
Adrian Tchaikovsky — Shards of Earth (sff)
Tor.com (ed.) — Some of the Best of Tor.com: 2021 (sff anthology)
Charlie Warzel & Anne Helen Petersen — Out of Office (non-fiction)
Robert Wears — Still Not Safe (non-fiction)
Max Weber — The Vocation Lectures (non-fiction)

Lots and lots of non-fiction in this mix. Maybe a tiny bit better than normal at not buying tons of books that I don't have time to read, although my reading (and particularly my reviewing) rate has been a bit slow lately.

2022-03-31: Review: Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower

Review: Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower, by Tamsyn Muir

Publisher Subterranean Press
Copyright 2020
ISBN 1-59606-992-9
Format Kindle
Pages 111

A witch put Princess Floralinda at the top of a forty-flight tower, but it wasn't personal. This is just what witches do, particularly with princesses with butter-coloured curls and sapphire-blue eyes. Princes would come from miles around to battle up the floors of the tower and rescue the princess. The witch even helpfully provided a golden sword, in case a prince didn't care that much about princesses. Floralinda was provided with water and milk, two loaves of bread, and an orange, all of them magically renewing, to sustain her while she waited.

In retrospect, the dragon with diamond-encrusted scales on the first floor may have been a mistake. None of the princely endeavors ever saw the second floor. The diary that Floralinda found in her room indicated that she may not be the first princess to have failed to be rescued from this tower.

Floralinda finally reaches the rather astonishing conclusion that she might have to venture down the tower herself, despite the goblins she was warned were on the 39th floor (not to mention all the other monsters). The result of that short adventure, after some fast thinking, a great deal of luck, and an unforeseen assist from her magical food, is a surprising number of dead goblins. Also seriously infected hand wounds, because it wouldn't be a Tamsyn Muir story without wasting illness and body horror. That probably would have been the end of Floralinda, except a storm blew a bottom-of-the-garden fairy in through the window, sufficiently injured that she and Floralinda were stuck with each other, at least temporarily.

Cobweb, the fairy, is neither kind nor inclined to help Floralinda (particularly given that Floralinda is not a child whose mother is currently in hospital), but it is an amateur chemist and finds both Floralinda's tears and magical food intriguing. Cobweb's magic is also based on wishes, and after a few failed attempts, Floralinda manages to make a wish that takes hold. Whether she'll regret the results is another question.

This is a fairly short novella by the same author as Gideon the Ninth, but it's in a different universe and quite different in tone. This summary doesn't capture the writing style, which is a hard-to-describe mix of fairy tale, children's story, and slightly archaic and long-winded sentence construction. This is probably easier to show with a quote:

"You are displaying a very small-minded attitude," said the fairy, who seemed genuinely grieved by this. "Consider the orange-peel, which by itself has many very nice properties. Now, if you had a more educated brain (I cannot consider myself educated; I have only attempted to better my situation) you would have immediately said, 'Why, if I had some liquor, or even very hot water, I could extract some oil from this orange-peel, which as everyone knows is antibacterial; that may well do my hands some good,' and you wouldn't be in such a stupid predicament."

On balance, I think this style worked. It occasionally annoyed me, but it has some charm. About halfway through, I was finding the story lightly entertaining, although I would have preferred a bit less grime, illness, and physical injury.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story didn't work for me. The dynamic between Floralinda and Cobweb turns into a sort of D&D progression through monster fights, and while there are some creative twists to those fights, they become all of a sameness. And while I won't spoil the ending, it didn't work for me. I think I see what Muir was trying to do, and I have some intellectual appreciation for the idea, but it wasn't emotionally satisfying.

I think my root problem with this story is that Muir sets up a rather interesting world, one in which witches artistically imprison princesses, and particularly bright princesses (with the help of amateur chemist fairies) can use the trappings of a magical tower in ways the witch never intended. I liked that; it has a lot of potential. But I didn't feel like that potential went anywhere satisfying. There is some relationship and characterization work, and it reached some resolution, but it didn't go as far as I wanted. And, most significantly, I found the end point the characters reached in relation to the world to be deeply unsatisfying and vaguely irritating.

I wanted to like this more than I did. I think there's a story idea in here that I would have enjoyed more. Unfortunately, it's not the one that Muir wrote, and since so much of my problem is with the ending, I can't provide much guidance on whether someone else would like this story better (and why). But if the idea of taking apart a fairy-tale tower and repurposing the pieces sounds appealing, and if you get along better with Muir's illness motif than I do, you may enjoy this more than I did.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2022-03-31: Updated eyrie Debian archive keyring

For anyone who uses my personal Debian repository (there are fewer and fewer reasons to do that, but there are still some Debian packages there that aren't available anywhere else), I've (finally) refreshed the archive signing key.

The new key is available through the eyrie-archive-keyring package as normal. Both the new and the old keys were provided in that package for a while. As of today, the old key has been removed. The key can also be downloaded from my web site.

2022-03-26: Review: A Song for a New Day

Review: A Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker

Publisher Berkley
Copyright September 2019
ISBN 1-9848-0259-3
Format Kindle
Pages 372

Luce Cannon was touring with a session band when the shutdown began. First came the hotel evacuation in the middle of the night due to bomb threats against every hotel in the state. Then came the stadium bombing just before they were ready to go on stage. Luce and most of the band performed anyway, with a volunteer crew and a shaken crowd. It was, people later decided, the last large stage show in the United States before the congregation laws shut down public gatherings. That was the end of Luce's expected career, and could have been the end of music, or at least public music. But Luce was stubborn and needed the music.

Rosemary grew up in the aftermath: living at home with her parents well away from other people, attending school virtually, and then moving seamlessly into a virtual job for Superwally, the corporation that ran essentially everything. A good fix for some last-minute technical problems with StageHoloLive's ticketing system got her an upgraded VR hoodie and complimentary tickets to the first virtual concert she'd ever attended. She found the experience astonishing, prompting her to browse StageHoloLive job openings and then apply for a technical job and, on a whim, an artist recruiter role. That's how Rosemary found herself, quite nerve-wrackingly, traveling out into the unsafe world to look for underground musicians who could become StageHoloLive acts.

A Song for a New Day was published in 2019 and had a moment of fame at the beginning of 2020, culminating in the Nebula Award for best novel, because it's about lockdowns, isolation, and the suppression of public performances. There's even a pandemic, although it's not a respiratory disease (it's some variety of smallpox or chicken pox) and is only a minor contributing factor to the lockdowns in this book. The primary impetus is random violence.

Unfortunately, the subsequent two years have not been kind to this novel. Reading it in 2022, with the experience of the past two years fresh in my mind, was a frustrating and exasperating experience because the world setting is completely unbelievable. This is not entirely Pinsker's fault; this book was published in 2019, was not intended to be about our pandemic, and therefore could not reasonably predict its consequences. Still, it required significant effort to extract the premise of the book from the contradictory evidence of current affairs and salvage the pieces of it I still enjoyed.

First, Pinsker's characters are the most astonishingly incurious and docile group of people I've seen in a recent political SF novel. This extends beyond the protagonists, where it could arguably be part of their characterization, to encompass the entire world (or at least the United States; the rest of the world does not appear in this book at all so far as I can recall). You may be wondering why someone bombs a stadium at the start of the book. If so, you are alone; this is not something anyone else sees any reason to be curious about. Why is random violence spiraling out of control? Is there some coordinated terrorist activity? Is there some social condition that has gotten markedly worse? Race riots? Climate crises? Wars? The only answer this book offers is a completely apathetic shrug. There is a hint at one point that the government may have theories that they're not communicating, but no one cares about that either.

That leads to the second bizarre gap: for a book that hinges on political action, formal political structures are weirdly absent. Near the end of the book, one random person says that they have been inspired to run for office, which so far as I can tell is the first mention of elections in the entire book. The "government" passes congregation laws shutting down public gatherings and there are no protests, no arguments, no debate, but also no suppression, no laws against the press or free speech, no attempt to stop that debate. There's no attempt to build consensus for or against the laws, and no noticeable political campaigning. That's because there's no need. So far as one can tell from this story, literally everyone just shrugs and feels sad and vaguely compliant. Police officers exist and enforce laws, but changing those laws or defying them in other than tiny covert ways simply never occurs to anyone. This makes the book read a bit like a fatuous libertarian parody of a docile populace, but this is so obviously not the author's intent that it wouldn't be satisfying to read even as that.

To be clear, this is not something that lasts only a few months in an emergency when everyone is still scared. This complete political docility and total incuriosity persists for enough years that Rosemary grows up within that mindset.

The triggering event was a stadium bombing followed by an escalating series of random shootings and bombings. (The pandemic in the book only happens after everything is locked down and, apart from adding to Rosemary's agoraphobia and making people inconsistently obsessed with surface cleanliness, plays little role in the novel.) I lived through 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing in the US, other countries have been through more protracted and personally dangerous periods of violence (the Troubles come to mind), and never in human history has any country reacted to a shock of violence (or, for that matter, disease) like the US does in this book. At points it felt like one of those SF novels where the author is telling an apparently normal story and all the characters turn out to be aliens based on spiders or bats.

I finally made sense of this by deciding that the author wasn't using sudden shocks like terrorism or pandemics as a model, even though that's what the book postulates. Instead, the model seems to be something implicitly tolerated and worked around: US school shootings, for instance, or the (incorrect but widespread) US belief in a rise of child kidnappings by strangers. The societal reaction here looks less like a public health or counter-terrorism response and more like suburban attitudes towards child-raising, where no child is ever left unattended for safety reasons but we routinely have school shootings no other country has at the same scale. We have been willing to radically (and ineffectually) alter the experience of childhood due to fears of external threat, and that's vaguely and superficially similar to the premise of this novel.

What I think Pinsker still misses (and which the pandemic has made glaringly obvious) is the immense momentum of normality and the inability of adults to accept limitations on their own activities for very long. Even with school shootings, kids go to school in person. We now know that parts of society essentially collapse if they don't, and political pressure becomes intolerable. But by using school shootings as the model, I managed to view Pinsker's setup as an unrealistic but still potentially interesting SF extrapolation: a thought experiment that ignores countervailing pressures in order to exaggerate one aspect of society to an extreme.

This is half of Pinsker's setup. The other half, which made less of a splash because it didn't have the same accident of timing, is the company Superwally: essentially "what if Amazon bought Walmart, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Disney, and Live Nation." This is a more typical SF extrapolation that left me with a few grumbles about realism, but that I'll accept as a plot device to talk about commercialization, monopolies, and surveillance capitalism. But here again, the complete absence of formal political structures in this book is not credible. Superwally achieves an all-pervasiveness that in other SF novels results in corporations taking over the role of national governments, but it still lobbies the government in much the same way and with about the same effectiveness as Amazon does in our world. I thought this directly undermined some parts of the end of the book. I simply did not believe that Superwally would be as benign and ineffectual as it is shown here.

Those are a lot of complaints. I found reading the first half of this book to be an utterly miserable experience and only continued reading out of pure stubbornness and completionism. But the combination of the above-mentioned perspective shift and Pinsker's character focus did partly salvage the book for me.

This is not a book about practical political change, even though it makes gestures in that direction. It's primarily a book about people, music, and personal connection, and Pinsker's portrayal of individual and community trust in all its complexity is the one thing the book gets right. Rosemary's character combines a sort of naive arrogance with self-justification in a way that I found very off-putting, but the pivot point of the book is the way in which Luce and her community extends trust to her anyway, as part of staying true to what they believe.

The problem that I think Pinsker was trying to write about is atomization, which leads to social fragmentation into small trust networks with vast gulfs between them. Luce and Rosemary are both characters who are willing to bridge those gulfs in their own ways. Pinsker does an excellent job describing the benefits, the hurt, the misunderstandings, the risk, and the awkward process of building those bridges between communities that fundamentally do not understand each other. There's something deep here about the nature of solidarity, and how you need both people like Luce and people like Rosemary to build strong and effective communities. I've kept thinking about that part.

It's also helpful for a community to have people who are curious about cause and effect, and who know how a bill becomes a law.

It's hard to sum up this book, other than to say that I understand why it won a Nebula but it has deep world-building flaws that have become far more obvious over the past two years. Pinsker tries hard to capture the feeling of live music for both the listener and the performer and partly succeeded even for me, which probably means others will enjoy that part of the book immensely. The portrayal of the difficult dynamics of personal trust was the best part of the book for me, but you may have to build scaffolding and bracing for your world-building disbelief in order to get there.

On the whole, I think A Song for a New Day is worth reading, but maybe not right now. If you do read it now, tell yourself at the start that this is absolutely not about the pandemic and that everything political in this book is a hugely simplified straw-man extrapolation, and hopefully you'll find the experience less frustrating than I found it.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2022-02-25: INN 2.6.5

This is a bit of a sneak preview announcement since I'm waiting for the ISC mirror to update before sending the official announcement to the normal channels, but INN 2.6.5 has been released. (The release was finalized a few days ago, and I'm a bit behind in posting it.)

This is a bug fix and minor feature release over INN 2.6.4, and the upgrade should be painless. You can download the new release from ftp.isc.org (once it updates) or my personal INN pages. The latter also has links to the full changelog and the other INN documentation.

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

Changes in this release:

2022-02-22: Review: Elder Race

Review: Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright November 2021
ISBN 1-250-76871-3
Format Kindle
Pages 199

(It's a shame that a lot of people will be reading this novella on a black-and-white ebook reader, since the Emmanuel Shiu cover is absolutely spectacular. There's a larger image without the words at the bottom of that article.)

When reports arrive at the court about demons deep in the forest that are taking over animals and humans and bending them to their will, the queen doesn't care. It's probably some unknown animal, and regardless, the forest kingdom is a rival anyway. Lynesse Fourth Daughter disagrees vehemently, but she has no power at court. Even apart from her lack of seniority, her love of stories and daring and adventures is a source of endless frustration to her mother. That is why this novella opens with her climbing the mountain path to the Tower of Nyrgoth Elder, the last of the ancient wizards, to seek his help.

Nyr Illim Tevitch is an anthropologist second class of Earth's Explorer Corps, part of the second wave of Earth's outward expansion through the galaxy. In the first wave, colonies were seeded on habitable planets, only to be left stranded when Earth's civilization collapsed in an ecological crisis. Nyr was a member of a team of four, sent to make careful and limited contact with one of those lost colonies as part of Earth's second flourishing with more advanced technology. When the team lost contact with Earth, the other three went back while Nyr stayed to keep their field observations going. It's now 291 years of intermittent suspended animation later. Nyr's colleagues never came back, and there have been no messages from Earth.

Elder Race is a Prime Directive anthropology story, a subgenre so long-standing that it has its own conventions and variations. Variations of the theme have been written by everyone from Eleanor Arnason to Iain M. Banks (linking to the book I have in mind is arguably a spoiler). Per the dedication, Tchaikovsky's take is based on Gene Wolfe's story "Trip, Trap," which I have not read but whose plot looks very similar.

To that story structure, Tchaikovsky brings two major twists. First, Nyr is cut off from his advanced civilization, and has considerable reason to believe that civilization no longer exists. Do noninterference rules still have any meaning if Nyr is stranded and the civilization that made the rules is gone? Second, Nyr has already broken those rules rather spectacularly. More than a hundred years previously, he had ridden with Astresse Regent, a warrior queen and Lynesse's ancestor, to defeat a local warlord who had found control codes for abandoned advanced machinery and was using it as weaponry. In the process, he fell in love and made a rash promise to come to the aid of any of her descendants if he were needed. Lynesse has come to collect on the promise.

Elder Race is told in alternating chapters between Nyr and Lynesse's viewpoints: first person for Nyr and tight third person for Lynesse. The core of the story is this doubled perspective, one from a young woman who wants to live in a fantasy novel and one from a deeply depressed anthropologist torn between wanting human contact, wanting to follow the rules of his profession, and wanting to explain to Lynesse that he is not a wizard. Nyr talks himself into helping with another misuse of advanced technology using the same logic he used a hundred years earlier: he's protecting Lynesse's pre-industrial society from interference rather than causing it. But the demons Lynesse wants him to fight are something entirely unexpected.

This parallel understanding is a great story structure. What worked less for me was Tchaikovsky's reliance on linguistic barriers to prevent shared understanding. Whenever Nyr tries to explain something, Lynesse hears it in terms of magic and high fantasy, and often exactly backwards from how Nyr intended it. This is where my suspension of disbelief failed me, even though I normally don't have suspension of disbelief problems in SF stories. I was unable to map Lynesse's misunderstandings to any realistic linguistic model.

Lynesse's language is highly complex (a realistic development within an isolated population), and Nyr complains about his inability to speak it properly given it's blizzard of complex modifiers. This is entirely believable. What is far less believable is that Lynesse perceives him as fluent in her language, but often saying the precise opposite of what he's trying to say. One chapter in the middle of the book gives Nyr's intended story side-by-side with Lynesse's understanding. This is a brilliant way to show the divide, but I found the translation errors unbelievable. If Nyr is failing that profoundly to communicate his meaning, he should be making more egregious sentence-level errors, occasionally saying something bizarre or entirely nonsensical, referring to a person as an animal or a baby, or otherwise not fluently telling a coherent story that's fundamentally different than the one he thinks he's telling.

If you can put that aside, though, this is a fun story. Nyr has serious anxiety and depression made worse by his isolation, and copes by using an implanted device called a Dissociative Cognition System that lets him temporarily turn off his emotions at the cost of letting them snowball. He has a wealth of other augments and implants, including horns, which Lynesse sees as evidence that he's a different species of magical being and which he sees as occasionally irritating field equipment with annoying visual menus. The key to writing a story like this is for both perspectives to be correct given their own assumptions, and to offer insight that the other perspective is missing. I thought the linguistic part of that was unsuccessful, but the rest of it works.

One of the best parts of novellas is that they don't wear out their welcome. This is a fun spin on well-trodden ground that tells a complete story in under 200 pages. I wish the ending had been a bit more satisfying and the linguistics had been more believable, but I enjoyed the time I spent in this world.

Content warning for some body horror.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2022-02-21: Review: Children of Earth and Sky

Review: Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Publisher New American Library
Copyright 2016
ISBN 0-698-18327-4
Format Kindle
Pages 572

Nine hundred years have passed since the events of Lord of Emperors. Twenty-five years ago, Sarantium, queen of cities, fell to the Osmanlis, who have renamed it Asharias in honor of their Asherite faith. The repercussions are still echoing through the western world, as the Osmanlis attempt each spring to push farther west and the forces of Rodolfo, Holy Emperor in Obravic and defender of the Jaddite faith, hold them back.

Seressa and Dubrava are city-state republics built on the sea trade. Seressa is the larger and most renown, money-lenders to Rodolfo and notorious for their focus on business and profit, including willingness to trade with the Osmanlis. Dubrava has a more tenuous position: smaller, reliant on trade and other assistance from Seressa, but also holding a more-favored trading position with Asharias. Both are harassed by piracy from Senjan, a fiercely Jaddite raiding city north up the coast from Dubrava and renown for its bravery against the Asherites. The Senjani are bad for business. Seressa would love to wipe them out, but they have the favor of the Holy Emperor. They settled for attempting to starve the city with a blockade.

As Children of Earth and Sky opens, Seressa is sending out new spies. One is a woman named Leonora Valeri, who will present herself as the wife of a doctor that Seressa is sending to Dubrava. She is neither his wife nor Seressani, but this assignment gets her out of the convent to which her noble father exiled her after an unapproved love affair. The other new spy is the young artist Pero Villani, a minor painter whose only notable work was destroyed by the woman who commissioned it for being too revealing. Pero's destination is farther east: Grand Khalif Gurçu the Destroyer, the man whose forces took Sarantium, wants to be painted in the western style. Pero will do so, and observe all he can, and if the opportunity arises to do more than that, well, so much the better.

Pero and Leonora are traveling on a ship owned by Marin Djivo, the younger son of a wealthy Dubravan merchant family, when their ship is captured by Senjani raiders. Among the raiders is Danica Gradek, the archer who broke the Seressani blockade of Senjan. This sort of piracy, while tense, should be an economic transaction: some theft, some bargaining, some ransom, and everyone goes on their way. That is not what happens. Moments later, two men lie dead, and Danica's life has become entangled with Dubravan merchants and Seressani spies.

Children of Earth and Sky is in some sense a sequel to the Sarantine Mosaic, and knowing the events of that series adds some emotional depth and significant moments to this story, but you can easily read it as a stand-alone novel. (That said, I recommend the Sarantine Mosaic regardless.) As with nearly all of Kay's work, it's historical fiction with the names changed (less this time than in most of this books) and a bit of magic added. The setting is the middle of the 15th century. Seressa is, of course, Venice. The Osmanlis are the Ottoman Turks, and Asharias is Istanbul, the captured Constantinople. Rodolfo is a Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, holding court in an amalgam of northern cities that (per the afterward) is primarily Prague. Dubrava, which is central to much of this book, is Dubrovnik in Croatia. As usual with Kay's novels, you don't need to know this to enjoy the story, but it may spark some fun secondary reading.

The touch of magic is present in several places, but comes primarily from Danica, whose grandfather resides as a voice in her head. He is the last of her family that she is in contact with. Her father and older brother were killed by Osmanli raiders, and her younger brother taken as a slave to be raised as a djanni warrior in the khalif's infantry. (Djannis are akin to Mamluks in our world.) Damaz, as he is now known, is the remaining major viewpoint character I've not mentioned. There are a couple of key events in the book that have magic at the center, generally involving Danica or Damaz, but most of the story is straight historical fiction (albeit with significant divergences from our world).

I'd talked myself out of starting this novel several times before I finally picked it up. Like most of Kay's, it's a long book, and I wasn't sure if I was in the mood for epic narration and a huge cast. And indeed, I found it slow at the start. Once the story got underway, though, I was as enthralled as always. There is a bit of sag in the middle of the book, in part because Kay didn't follow up on some relationships that I wish were more central to the plot and in part because he overdoes the narrative weight in one scene, but the ending is exceptional.

Guy Gavriel Kay is the master of a specific type of omniscient tight third person narration, one in which the reader sees what a character is thinking but also gets narrative commentary, foreshadowing, and emotional emphasis apart from the character's thoughts. It can feel heavy-handed; if something is important, Kay tells you, explicitly and sometimes repetitively, and the foreshadowing frequently can be described as portentous. But in return, Kay gets fine control of pacing and emphasis. The narrative commentary functions like a soundtrack in a movie. It tells you when to pay close attention and when you can relax, what moments are important, where to slow down, when to brace yourself, and when you can speed up. That in turn requires trust; if you're not in the mood for the author to dictate your reading pace to the degree Kay is attempting, it can be irritating. If you are in the mood, though, it makes his novels easy to relax into. The narrator will ensure that you don't miss anything important, and it's an effective way to build tension.

Kay also strikes just the right balance between showing multiple perspectives on a single moment and spending too much time retelling the same story. He will often switch viewpoint characters in the middle of a scene, but he avoids the trap of replaying the scene and thus losing the reader's interest. There is instead just a moment of doubled perspective or retrospective commentary, just enough information for the reader to extrapolate the other character's experience backwards, and then the story moves on. Kay has an excellent feel for when I badly wanted to see another character's perspective on something that just happened.

Some of Kay's novels revolve around a specific event or person. Children of Earth and Sky is not one of those. It's a braided novel following five main characters, each with their own story. Some of those stories converge; some of them touch for a while and then diverge again. About three-quarters of the way through, I wasn't sure how Kay would manage a satisfying conclusion for the numerous separate threads that didn't feel rushed, but I need not have worried. The ending had very little of the shape that I had expected, focused more on the small than the large (although there are some world-changing events here), but it was an absolute delight, with some beautiful moments of happiness that took the rest of the novel to set up.

This is not the sort of novel with a clear theme, but insofar as it has one, it's a story about how much of the future shape and events of the world are unknowable. All we can control is our own choices, and we may never know their impact. Each individual must decide who they want to be and attempt to live their life in accordance with that decision, hopefully with some grace towards others in the world.

The novel does, alas, still have some of Kay's standard weaknesses. There is (at last!) an important female friendship, and I had great hopes for a second one, but sadly it lasted only a scant handful of pages. Men interact with each other and with women; women interact almost exclusively with men. Kay does slightly less awarding of women to male characters than in some previous books (although it still happens), but this world is still weirdly obsessed with handing women to men for sex as a hospitality gesture. None of this is too belabored or central to the story, or I would be complaining more, but as soon as one sees how regressive the gender roles typically are in a Kay novel, it's hard to unsee.

And, as always for Kay, the sex in this book is weirdly off-putting to me. I think this goes hand in hand with Kay's ability to write some of the best conversations in fantasy. Kay's characters spar and thrust with every line and read nuance into small details of wording. Frequently, the turn of the story rests on the outcome of a careful conversation. This is great reading; it's the part of Kay's writing I enjoy the most. But I'm not sure he knows how to turn it off between characters who love and trust each other. The characters never fully relax; sex feels like another move in ongoing chess games, which in turn makes it feel weirdly transactional or manipulative instead of open-hearted and intimate. It doesn't help that Kay appears to believe that arousal is a far more irresistible force for men than I do.

Those problems did get in the way of my enjoyment occasionally, but I didn't think they ruined the book. The rest of the story is too good. Danica in particular is a wonderful character: thoughtful, brave, determined, and deeply honest with herself in that way that is typical of the best of Kay's characters. I wanted to read the book where Danica's and Leonora's stories stayed more entwined; alas, that's not the story Kay was writing. But I am in awe at Kay's ability to write characters who feel thoughtful and insightful even when working at cross purposes, in a world that mostly avoids simple villains, with a plot that never hinges on someone doing something stupid. I love reading about these people. Their triumphs, when they finally come, are deeply satisfying.

Children of Earth and Sky is probably not in the top echelon of Kay's works with the Sarantine Mosaic and Under Heaven, but it's close. If you like his other writing, you will like this as well. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2022-02-06: Review: Embers of War

Review: Embers of War, by Gareth L. Powell

Series Embers of War #1
Publisher Titan Books
Copyright February 2018
ISBN 1-78565-519-1
Format Kindle
Pages 312

The military leadership of the Outward faction of humanity was meeting on the forest world of Pelapatarn, creating an opportunity for the Conglomeration to win the war at a stroke. Resistance was supposed to be minimal, since the Outward had attempted to keep the conference secret rather than massing forces to protect it. But the Outward resistance was stronger than expected, and Captain Deal's forces would not be able to locate and assassinate the Outward leadership before they could escape. She therefore followed orders from above her and ordered the four incoming Carnivore heavy cruisers to jump past the space battle and bomb the planet. The entire planet.

The Carnivores' nuclear and antimatter weaponry reduced the billion-year-old sentient jungle of Pelapatarn to ash.

Three years later, Sal Konstanz is a ship captain for the House of Reclamation, a strictly neutral search and rescue force modeled after a long-vanished alien fleet that prioritizes preservation of life above all else. Anyone can join Reclamation, provided that they renounce their previous alliances and devote themselves to the Reclamation cause. Sal and her crew member Alva Clay were Outward. The ship medic was Conglomeration. So was the ship: the Trouble Dog, a sentient AI heavy cruiser built to carry an arsenal of weapons and three hundred crew, and now carrying three humans and a Druff mechanic. More precisely, the Trouble Dog was one of the four Carnivores that destroyed Pelapatarn.

Meanwhile, Ona Sudak, a popular war poet, is a passenger on a luxury cruise on the liner Geest van Amsterdam, which is making an unscheduled stop in the star system known as the Gallery. The Gallery is the home of the Objects: seven planets that, ten thousand years earlier, were carved by unknown aliens into immense sculptures for unknown reasons. The Objects appear to be both harmless and mysterious, making them an irresistible tourist attraction for the liner passengers. The Gallery is in disputed space, but no one was expecting serious trouble. They certainly weren't expecting the Geest van Amsterdam to be attacked and brought down on the Object known as the Brain, killing nearly everyone aboard. The Trouble Dog is the closest rescue ship.

This book was... fine. It's a perfectly serviceable science fiction novel that didn't stand out for me, which I think says more about the current excellent state of the science fiction field than about this book. When I was a teenager reading Asimov, Niven, and Heinlein, I would have devoured this. It compares favorably to minor Niven or Heinlein (The Integral Trees, for example, or Double Star), but the bar for excellent science fiction is just so much higher now.

The best character in this book (and the reason why I read it) is the Trouble Dog. I love science fiction about intelligent space ships, and she did not disappoint. The AI ships in this book are partly made from human and dog neurons, so their viewpoint is mostly human but with some interesting minor variations. And the Trouble Dog would be a great character even if she weren't an intelligent ship: ethical, aggressive, daring, and introspective, with a nuanced relationship with her human crew.

Unfortunately, Embers of War has four other viewpoint characters, and Powell chose to write them all in the first person. First person narration depends heavily on a memorable and interesting character because the reader is so thoroughly within their perspective. This works great for the Trouble Dog, and is fine for Nod, the Druff who serves as the ship mechanic. (Nod's perspective is intriguing, short, almost free-verse musings, rather than major story segments.) Sal, the ship captain, is a bit of a default character, but I didn't mind her much. Neither of the other two viewpoint characters are interesting enough to warrant the narrative attention. The Conglomerate agent Ashton Childe has such an uninteresting internal monologue that I would have liked the character better if he'd only been seen through other people's viewpoints, and although Powell needs some way to show Ona Sudak's view of events, I didn't think her thoughts added much to the story.

The writing is adequate but a bit clunky: slightly flat descriptions, a bit too predictable at the sentence level, and rarely that memorable. There is a bit of fun world-building of the ancient artifact variety and a couple of decent set pieces (and one rather-too-obvious Matrix homage that I didn't think was as effective as the author did), but most of the story is focused on characters navigating their lives and processing trauma from the war. The story kept me turning the pages with interest, but I also doubt it will surprise anyone who has read much science fiction. I suspect a lot of it is setup for the following two books of the trilogy, and there are plenty of hooks for more stories in this universe.

I really wanted a first-person story from the perspective of the Trouble Dog, possibly with some tight third-person interludes showing Ona Sudak's story. What I got instead was entertaining but not memorable enough to stand out in the current rich state of science fiction. I think I'm invested enough in this story to want to read the next book, though, so that's still a recommendation of sorts.

Followed by Fleet of Knives.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2022-01-30: Review: The Story of the Treasure Seekers

Review: The Story of the Treasure Seekers, by E. Nesbit

Publisher Amazon
Copyright 1899
Printing May 2012
Format Kindle
Pages 136

The Story of the Treasure Seekers was originally published in 1899 and is no longer covered by copyright. I read the free Amazon Kindle version because it was convenient. My guess is that Amazon is republishing the Project Gutenberg version, but they only credit "a community of volunteers."

There are six Bastable children: Dora, Oswald, Dicky, the twins Alice and Noel, and Horace Octavius (H.O.), the youngest. Their mother is dead and the family's finances have suffered in the wake of her death (or, as the first-person narrator puts it, "the fortunes of the ancient House of Bastable were really fallen"), which means that their father works long hours and is very absorbed with his business. That leaves the six kids largely to fend for themselves, since they can't afford school. Clearly the solution is to find treasure.

This is a fix-up novel constructed from short stories that were originally published in various periodicals, reordered and occasionally rewritten for the collected publication. To be honest, calling it a fix-up novel is generous; there are some references to previous events, but the first fourteen chapters can mostly stand alone. The last two chapters are closely related and provide an ending. More on that in a moment.

What grabs the reader's attention from the first paragraph is the writing style:

This is the story of the different ways we looked for treasure, and I think when you have read it you will see that we were not lazy about the looking.

There are some things I must tell before I begin to tell about the treasure-seeking, because I have read books myself, and I know how beastly it is when a story begins, "Alas!" said Hildegarde with a deep sigh, "we must look our last on this ancestral home" — and then some one else says something — and you don't know for pages and pages where the home is, or who Hildegarde is, or anything about it.

The first-person narrator of The Story of the Treasure Seekers is one of the six kids.

It is one of us that tells this story — but I shall not tell you which: only at the very end perhaps I will.

The narrator then goes on to elaborately praise one of the kids, occasionally accidentally uses "I" instead of their name, and then remembers and tries to hide who is telling the story again. It's beautifully done and had me snickering throughout the book. It's not much of a mystery (you will figure out who is telling the story very quickly), but Nesbit captures the writing style of a kid astonishingly well without making the story poorly written. Descriptions of events have a headlong style that captures a child's sense of adventure and heedless immortality mixed with quiet observations that remind the reader that kids don't miss as much as people think they do.

I think the most skillful part of this book is the way Nesbit captures a kid's disregard of literary convention. The narrator in a book written by an adult tends to fit into a standard choice of story-telling style and follow it consistently. Even first-person narrators who break some of those rules feel like intentionally constructed characters. The Story of the Treasure Seekers is instead half "kid telling a story" and half "kid trying to emulate the way stories are told in books" and tends to veer wildly between the two when the narrator gets excited, as if they're vaguely aware of the conventions they're supposed to be following but are murky on the specifics. It feels exactly like the sort of book a smart and well-read kid would write (with extensive help from an editor).

The other thing that Nesbit handles exceptionally well is the dynamic between the six kids. This is a collection of fairly short stories, so there isn't a lot of room for characterization. The kids are mostly sketched out with one or two memorable quirks. But Nesbit puts a lot of effort into the dynamics that arise between the children in a tight-knit family, properly making the group of kids as a whole and in various combinations a sort of character in their own right. Never for a moment does either the reader or the kids forget that they have siblings. Most adventures involve some process of sorting out who is going to come along and who is going to do other things, and there's a constant but unobtrusive background rhythm of bickering, making up, supporting each other, being frustrated by each other, and getting exasperated at each other's quirks. It's one of the better-written sibling dynamics that I've read.

I somehow managed to miss Nesbit entirely as a kid, probably because she didn't write long series and child me was strongly biased towards books that were part of long series. (One book was at most a pleasant few hours; there needed to be a whole series attached to get any reasonable amount of reading out of the world.) This was nonetheless a fun bit of nostalgia because it was so much like the books I did read: kids finding adventures and making things up, getting into various trouble but getting out of it by being honest and kind, and only occasional and spotty adult supervision. Reading as an adult, I can see the touches of melancholy of loss that Nesbit embeds into this quest for riches, but part of the appeal of the stories is that the kids determinedly refuse to talk about it except as a problem to be solved.

Nesbit was a rather famous progressive, but this is still a book of its time, which means there's one instance of the n-word and the kids have grown up playing the very racist version of cowboys and indians. The narrator also does a lot of stereotyping of boys and girls, although Nesbit undermines that a bit by making Alice a tomboy. I found all of this easier to ignore because the story is narrated by one of the kids who doesn't know any better, but your mileage may vary.

I am always entertained by how anyone worth writing about in a British children's novel of this era has servants. You know the Bastables have fallen upon hard times because they only have one servant. The kids don't have much respect for Eliza, which I found a bit off-putting, and I wondered what this world looks like from her perspective. She clearly did a lot of the work of raising these motherless kids, but the kids view her as the hired help or an obstacle to be avoided, and there's not a lot of gratitude present.

As the stories unfold, it becomes more and more clear that there's a quiet conspiracy of surrounding adults to watch out for these kids, which the kids never notice. This says good things about society, but it does undermine the adventures a little, and by the end of the book the sameness of the stories was wearing a bit thin. The high point of the book is probably chapter eight, in which the kids make their own newspaper, the entirety of which is reproduced in the book and is a note-perfect recreation of what an enterprising group of kids would come up with.

In the last two stories, Nesbit tacks on an ending that was probably obligatory, but which I thought undermined some of the emotional subtext of the rest of the book. I'm not sure how else one could have put an ending on this book, but the ending she chose emphasized the degree to which the adventures really were just play, and the kids are rewarded in these stories for their ethics and their circumstances rather than for anything they concretely do. It's a bit unsatisfying.

This is mostly a nostalgia read, but I'm glad I read it. If this book was not part of your childhood, it's worth reading if only for how well Nesbit captures a child's narrative voice.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Last spun 2022-05-22 from thread modified 2008-08-13