Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2022-07-16: Review: Trang

Review: Trang, by Mary Sisson

Series Trang #1
Publisher Mary Sisson
Copyright 2011
Printing December 2013
ASIN B004I6DAQ8
Format Kindle
Pages 374

In 2113, a radio mapping satellite near the Titan station disappeared. It then reappeared five days later, apparently damaged and broadcasting a signal that made computers crash. The satellite was immediately sent back to the Space Authority base in Beijing for careful examination, but the techs on the station were able to decode the transmission: a request for the contents of databases. The general manager of the station sent a probe to the same location and it too vanished, returning two days later with a picture of a portal, followed shortly by an alien probe.

Five years later, Philippe Trang has been assigned as the first human diplomat to an alien space station in intergalactic space at the nexus of multiple portals. Humans will apparently be the eighth type of intelligent life to send a representative to the station. He'll have a translation system, a security detail, and the groundwork of five years of audiovisual communications with the aliens, including one that was able to learn English. But he'll be the first official diplomatic representative physically there.

The current style in SF might lead you to expect a tense thriller full of nearly incomprehensible aliens, unexplained devices, and creepy mysteries. This is not that sort of book. The best comparison point I could think of is James White's Sector General novels, except with a diplomat rather than a doctor. The aliens are moderately strange (not just humans in prosthetic makeup), but are mostly earnest, well-meaning, and welcoming. Trang's security escort is more military than he expects, but that becomes a satisfying negotiation rather than an ongoing problem. There is confusion, misunderstandings, and even violence, but most of it is sorted out by earnest discussion and attempts at mutual understanding.

This is, in other words, diplomat competence porn (albeit written by someone who is not a diplomat, so I wouldn't expect too much realism). Trang defuses rather than confronts, patiently sorts through the nuances of a pre-existing complex dynamic between aliens without prematurely picking sides, and has the presence of mind to realize that the special forces troops assigned to him are another culture he needs to approach with the same skills. Most of the book is low-stakes confusion, curiosity, and careful exploration, which could have been boring but wasn't. It helps that Sisson packs a lot of complexity into the station dynamics and reveals it in ways that I found enjoyably unpredictable.

Some caveats: This is a self-published first novel (albeit by an experienced reporter and editor) and it shows. The book has a sort of plastic Technicolor feel that I sometimes see in self-published novels, where the details aren't quite deep enough, the writing isn't quite polished, and the dialog isn't quite as tight as I'm used to. It also meanders in a way that few commercial novels do, including slice-of-life moments and small asides that don't go anywhere. This can be either a bug or a feature depending on what you're in the mood for. I found it relaxing and stress-relieving, which is what I was looking for, but you may have a different experience.

I will warn that the climax features a sudden escalation of stakes that I don't think was sufficiently signaled by the tone of the writing, and thus felt a bit unreal. Sisson also includes a couple deus ex machina twists that felt a bit predictable and easy, and I didn't find the implied recent history of one of the alien civilizations that believable. The conclusion is therefore not the strongest part of the book; if you're not enjoying the journey, it probably won't get better.

But, all that said, this was fun, and I've already bought the second book in the series. It's low-stakes, gentle SF with a core of discovery and exploration rather than social dynamics, and I haven't run across much of that recently. The worst thing in the book is some dream glimpses at a horrific event in Trang's past that's never entirely on camera. It's not as pacifist as James White, but it's close.

Recommended, especially if you liked Sector General. White's series is so singular that I previously would have struggled to find a suggestion for someone who wanted more exactly like that (but without the Bewitched-era sexism). Now I have an answer. Score another one for Susan Stepney, who is also how I found Julie Czerneda. Trang is also currently free for Kindle, so you can't beat the price.

Followed by Trust.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2022-07-16: INN 2.7.0

This is the first major release of the INN news server package since 2015. It incorporates tons of work on just about every part of INN, ranging from a brand new overview backend contributed by Bo Lindbergh through Cancel-Lock support contributed by Julien ÉLIE to numerous smaller changes in configuration files, protocol support, and overall simplification.

Since this represents seven years of development, there are too many major changes to summarize in a short blog post, so I'll simply link to the INN 2.7.0 NEWS file for all of the details, including breaking changes to watch out for when upgrading.

INN 2.7 is now the stable branch, and will be maintained on the 2.7 Git branch. The main branch is now open for development targeting 2.8.0. (I'm still hoping to get to the build system overhaul before 2.8.0 is released.) As of tonight, if all goes well, the nightly stable snapshots will be generated from the 2.7 branch instead of the 2.6 branch, so be aware that you will need to pay close attention to the upgrade if you're using a snapshot.

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

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

2022-07-05: Review: A Master of Djinn

Review: A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark

Series Dead Djinn Universe #1
Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright 2021
ISBN 1-250-26767-6
Format Kindle
Pages 391

A Master of Djinn is the first novel in the Dead Djinn Universe, but (as you might guess from the series title) is a direct sequel to the novelette "A Dead Djinn in Cairo". The novelette is not as good as the novel, but I recommend reading it first for the character introductions and some plot elements that carry over. Reading The Haunting of Tram Car 015 first is entirely optional.

In 1912 in a mansion in Giza, a secret society of (mostly) British men is meeting. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz is devoted to unlocking the mysteries of the Soudanese mystic al-Jahiz. In our world, these men would likely be colonialist plunderers. In this world, they still aspire to that role, but they're playing catch-up. Al-Jahiz bored into the Kaf, releasing djinn and magic into the world and making Egypt a world power in its own right. Now, its cities are full of clockwork marvels, djinn walk the streets as citizens, and British rule has been ejected from India and Africa by local magic. This group of still-rich romantics and crackpots hopes to discover the knowledge lost when al-Jahiz disappeared. They have not had much success.

This will not save their lives.

Fatma el-Sha'arawi is a special investigator for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Her job is sorting out the problems caused by this new magic, such as a couple of young thieves with a bottle full of sleeping djinn whose angry reaction to being unexpectedly woken has very little to do with wishes. She is one of the few female investigators in a ministry that is slowly modernizing with the rest of society (Egyptian women just got the vote). She's also the one called to investigate the murder of a secret society of British men and a couple of Cairenes by a black-robed man in a golden mask.

The black-robed man claims to be al-Jahiz returned, and proves to be terrifyingly adept at manipulating crowds and sparking popular dissent. Fatma and the Ministry's first attempt to handle him is a poorly-judged confrontation stymied by hostile crowds, the man's duplicating bodyguard, and his own fighting ability. From there, it's a race between Fatma's pursuit of linear clues and the black-robed man's efforts to destabilize society.

This, like the previous short stories, is a police procedural, but it has considerably more room to breathe at novel length. That serves it well, since as with "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" the procedural part is a linear, reactive vehicle for plot exposition. I was more invested in Fatma's relationships with the supporting characters. Since the previous story, she's struck up a romance with Siti, a highly competent follower of the old Egyptian gods (Hathor in particular) and my favorite character in the book. She's also been assigned a new partner, Hadia, a new graduate and another female agent. The slow defeat of Fatma's irritation at not being allowed to work alone by Hadia's cheerful competence and persistence (and willingness to do paperwork) adds a lot to the characterization.

The setting felt a bit less atmospheric than The Haunting of Tram Car 015, but we get more details of international politics, and they're a delight. Clark takes obvious (and warranted) glee in showing how the reintroduction of magic has shifted the balance of power away from the colonial empires. Cairo is a bustling steampunk metropolis and capital of a world power, welcoming envoys from West African kingdoms alongside the (still racist and obnoxious but now much less powerful) British and other Europeans. European countries were forced to search their own mythology for possible sources of magic power, which leads to the hilarious scene of the German Kaiser carrying a sleepy goblin on his shoulder to monitor his diplomacy.

The magic of the story was less successful for me, although still enjoyable. The angels from "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" make another appearance and again felt like the freshest bit of world-building, but we don't find out much more about them. I liked the djinn and their widely-varied types and magic, but apart from them and a few glimpses of Egypt's older gods, that was the extent of the underlying structure. There is a significant magical artifact, but the characters are essentially handed an instruction manual, use it according to its instructions, and it then does what it was documented to do. It was a bit unsatisfying. I'm the type of fantasy reader who always wants to read the sourcebook for the magic system, but this is not that sort of a book.

Instead, it's the kind of book where the investigator steadily follows a linear trail of clues and leads until they reach the final confrontation. Here, the confrontation felt remarkably like cut scenes from a Japanese RPG: sudden vast changes in scale, clockwork constructs, massive monsters, villains standing on mobile platforms, and surprise combat reversals. I could almost hear the fight music and see the dialog boxes pop up. This isn't exactly a complaint — I love Japanese RPGs — but it did add to the feeling that the plot was on rails and didn't require many decisions from the protagonist. Clark also relies on an overused plot cliche in the climactic battle, which was a minor disappointment.

A Master of Djinn won the Nebula for best 2021 novel, I suspect largely on the basis of its setting and refreshingly non-European magical system. I don't entirely agree; the writing is still a bit clunky, with unnecessary sentences and stock phrases showing up here and there, and I think it suffers from the typical deficiencies of SFF writers writing mysteries or police procedurals without the plot sophistication normally found in that genre. But this is good stuff for a first novel, with fun supporting characters (loved the librarian) and some great world-building. I would happily read more in this universe.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2022-07-04: Review: A Mirror Mended

Review: A Mirror Mended, by Alix E. Harrow

Series Fractured Fables #2
Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright 2022
ISBN 1-250-76665-6
Format Kindle
Pages 129

This is a direct sequel to A Spindle Splintered and will completely spoil that story, so start there rather than here.

A Mirror Mended opens with a glimpse at yet another version of the Sleeping Beauty story, this one (delightfully) a Spanish telenovela. Zinnia is world-hopping, something that's lost some of the meaning from A Spindle Splintered and become an escape from other problems. She's about ready to leave this world as well when she sees a face that is not hers in the bathroom mirror, pleading for help. Zinnia assumes this is yet another sleeping beauty, albeit an unusual one. Zinnia is wrong.

Readers of A Spindle Splintered are going to groan when I tell you that Zinnia has managed to damage most of the relationships that she made in the first story, which means we get a bit of an episodic reset of unhappiness mixed with an all-new glob of guilt. Not only is this a depressing way to start a new story, it also means there are no snarky text messages and side commentary. Grumble. Harrow is isolating Zinnia to set up a strange and fraught alliance that turns into a great story, but given that Zinnia's friend network was my favorite part of the first novella, the start of this story made me grumpy.

Stick with it, though, since Harrow does more than introduce another fairy tale. She also introduces a villain, one who wishes to be more complicated than her story allows and who knows rather more about the structure of the world than she should. This time, the fairy tale goes off the rails in a more directly subversive way that prods at the bones of Harrow's world-building.

This may or may not be what you want, and I admit I liked the first story better. A Spindle Splintered took fairy tales just seriously enough to make a plot, but didn't poke at its premises deeply enough to destabilize them. It played off of fairy tales themselves; A Mirror Mended instead plays off of Harrow's previous story by looking directly at the invented metaphysics of parallel worlds playing out fairy tale archetypes. Some of this worked for me: Eva is a great character and the dynamic between her and Zinnia is highly entertaining. Some of it didn't: the impact on universal metaphysics of Zinnia's adventuring is a bit cliched and inadequately explained. A Mirror Mended is a character exploration with a bit more angst and ambiguity, which means it isn't as delightfully balanced and free-wheeling.

I will reassure you with the minor spoiler that Zinnia does eventually pull her head out of her ass when she has to, and while there is nowhere near enough Charm in this book for my taste, there is some. In exchange for the relationship screw-ups, we get the Zinnia/Eva dynamic, which I was really enjoying by the end. One of my favorite tropes is accidental empathy, where someone who is being flippant and sarcastic stumbles into a way of truly helping someone else and is wise enough to notice it. There are several great moments of that. I like Zinnia, even this older, more conflicted, and less cavalier version.

Recommended if you liked the first story, although be warned that this replaces the earlier magic with some harder relationship work and the payoff is more hinted at than fully shown.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2022-07-03: Review: She Who Became the Sun

Review: She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan

Series Radiant Emperor #1
Publisher Tor
Copyright 2021
Printing 2022
ISBN 1-250-62179-8
Format Kindle
Pages 414

In 1345 in Zhongli village, in fourth year of a drought, lived a man with his son and his daughter, the last surviving of seven children. The son was promised by his father to the Wuhuang Monastery on his twelfth birthday if he survived. According to the fortune-teller, that son, Zhu Chongba, will be so great that he will bring a hundred generations of pride to the family name. When the girl dares ask her fate, the fortune-teller says, simply, "Nothing."

Bandits come looking for food and kill their father. Zhu goes catatonic rather than bury his father, so the girl digs a grave, only to find her brother dead inside it with her father. It leaves her furious: he had a great destiny and he gave it up without a fight, choosing to become nothing. At that moment, she decides to seize his fate for her own, to become Zhu so thoroughly that Heaven itself will be fooled. Through sheer determination and force of will, she stays at the gates of Wuhuang Monastery until the monks are impressed enough with her stubbornness that they let her in under Zhu's name. That puts her on a trajectory that will lead her to the Red Turbans and the civil war over the Mandate of Heaven.

She Who Became the Sun is historical fiction with some alternate history and a touch of magic. The closest comparison I can think of is Guy Gavriel Kay: a similar touch of magic that is slight enough to have questionable impact on the story, and a similar starting point of history but a story that's not constrained to follow the events of our world. Unlike Kay, Parker-Chan doesn't change the names of places and people. It's therefore not difficult to work out the history this story is based on (late Yuan dynasty), although it may not be clear at first what role Zhu will play in that history.

The first part of the book focuses on Zhu, her time in the monastery, and her (mostly successful) quest to keep her gender secret. The end of that part introduces the second primary protagonist, the eunuch general Ouyang of the army of the Prince of Henan. Ouyang is Nanren, serving a Mongol prince or, more precisely, his son Esen. On the surface, Ouyang is devoted to Esen and serves capably as his general. What lies beneath that surface is far darker and more complicated.

I think how well you like this book will depend on how well you get along with the characters. I thought Zhu was a delight. She spends the first half of the book proving herself to be startlingly competent and unpredictable while outwitting Heaven and pursuing her assumed destiny. A major hinge event at the center of the book could have destroyed her character, but instead makes her even stronger, more relaxed, and more comfortable with herself. Her story's exploration of gender identity only made that better for me, starting with her thinking of herself as a woman pretending to be a man and turning into something more complex and self-chosen (and, despite some sexual encounters, apparently asexual, which is something you still rarely see in fiction). I also appreciated how Parker-Chan varies Zhu's pronouns depending on the perspective of the narrator.

That said, Zhu is not a good person. She is fiercely ambitious to the point of being a sociopath, and the path she sees involves a lot of ruthlessness and some cold-blooded murder. This is less of a heroic journey than a revenge saga, where the target of revenge is the entire known world and Zhu is as dangerous as she is competent. If you want your protagonist to be moral, this may not work for you. Zhu's scenes are partly told from her perspective and partly from the perspective of a woman named Ma who is a good person, and who is therefore intermittently horrified. The revenge story worked for me, and as a result I found Ma somewhat irritating. If your tendency is to agree with Ma, you may find Zhu too amoral to root for.

Ouyang's parts I just hated, which is fitting because Ouyang loathes himself to a degree that is quite difficult to read. He is obsessed with being a eunuch and therefore not fully male. That internal monologue is disturbing enough that it drowned out the moderately interesting court intrigue that he's a part of. I know some people like reading highly dramatic characters who are walking emotional disaster zones. I am not one of those people; by about three quarters of the way through the book I was hoping someone would kill Ouyang already and put him out of everyone's misery.

One of the things I disliked about this book is that, despite the complex gender work with Zhu, gender roles within the story have a modern gloss while still being highly constrained. All of the characters except Zhu (and the monk Xu, who has a relatively minor part but is the most likable character in the book) feel like they're being smothered in oppressive gender expectations. Ouyang has a full-fledged case of toxic masculinity to fuel his self-loathing, which Parker-Chan highlights with some weirdly disturbing uses of BDSM tropes.

So, I thought this was a mixed bag, and I suspect reactions will differ. I thoroughly enjoyed Zhu's parts despite her ruthlessness and struggled through Ouyang's parts with a bad taste in my mouth. I thought the pivot Parker-Chan pulls off in the middle of the book with Zhu's self-image and destiny was beautifully done and made me like the character even more, but I wish the conflict between Ma's and Zhu's outlooks hadn't been so central. Because of that, the ending felt more tragic than triumphant, which I think was intentional but which wasn't to my taste.

As with Kay's writing, I suspect there will be some questions about whether She Who Became the Sun is truly fantasy. The only obvious fantastic element is the physical manifestation of the Mandate of Heaven, and that has only a minor effect on the plot. And as with Kay, I think this book needed to be fantasy, not for the special effects, but because it needs the space to take fate literally. Unlike Kay, Parker-Chan does not use the writing style of epic fantasy, but Zhu's campaign to assume a destiny which is not her own needs to be more than a metaphor for the story to work.

I enjoyed this with some caveats. For me, the Zhu portions made up for the Ouyang portions. But although it's clearly the first book of a series, I'm not sure I'll read on. I felt like Zhu's character arc reached a satisfying conclusion, and the sequel seems likely to be full of Ma's misery over ethical conflicts and more Ouyang, neither of which sound appealing.

So far as I can tell, the sequel I assume is coming has not yet been announced.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2022-07-02: Review: The Haunting of Tram Car 015

Review: The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark

Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright February 2019
ASIN B07H796G2Z
Format Kindle
Pages 65

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a novella and the second story in the Dead Djinn universe, after "A Dead Djinn in Cairo". While there are a few references to the previous story, it's not a direct sequel and has different main characters. Order of reading is not important.

Agents Hamed and Onsi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities have been called by the Superintendent of Tram Safety & Maintenance at Ramses Station because one of the tram cars is haunted. The aerial tram system of Cairo (technically a telpher system since the cars move independently) is one of the modern wonders of the 1912 city after al-Jahiz breached the boundaries between universes and allowed djinn to return to the world. The trams are elaborate magical clockwork machines created by djinn to travel their routes, but tram car 015 had to be taken out of service after a magical disturbance. Some supernatural creature has set up residence in its machinery and has been attacking passengers.

Like "A Dead Djinn in Cairo," this is a straightforward police procedural in an alternate history with magic and steampunk elements. There isn't much in the way of mystery, and little about the plot will come as a surprise. The agents show up, study the problem, do a bit of research, and then solve the problem with some help. Unlike the previous story, though, it does a far better job at setting.

My main complaint about Clark's first story in this universe was that it had a lot of infodumps and not much atmosphere. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is more evocative, starting with the overheated, windowless office of the superintendent and its rattling fan and continuing with a glimpse of the city's aerial tram network spreading out from the dirigible mooring masts of Ramses Station. While the agents puzzle through identifying the unwanted tram occupant, they have to deal with bureaucratic funding fights and the expense of djinn specialists. In the background, the women of Cairo are agitating for the vote, and Islam, Coptic Christianity, and earlier Egyptian religions mingle warily.

The story layered on top of this background is adequate but not great. It's typical urban fantasy fare built on random bits of obscure magical trivia, and feels akin to the opening problem in a typical urban fantasy novel (albeit with a refreshingly non-European magical system). It also features an irritatingly cliched bit of costuming at the conclusion. But you wouldn't read this for the story; you read it to savor the world background, and I thought that was successful.

This is not a stand-out novella for me and I wouldn't have nominated it for the various awards it contended for, but it's also not my culture and by other online accounts it represents the culture well. The world background was interesting enough that I might have kept reading even if the follow-on novel had not won a Nebula award.

Followed by the novel A Master of Djinn, although the continuity link is not strong.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2022-07-01: Review: Overdue

Review: Overdue, by Amanda Oliver

Publisher Chicago Review Press
Copyright 2022
ISBN 1-64160-534-0
Format Kindle
Pages 190

Like many lifetime readers, I adored the public library. I read my way through three different children's libraries at the rate of a grocery sack of books per week, including numerous re-readings, and then moved on to the adult section as my introduction to science fiction. But once I had a regular job, I discovered the fun of filling shelves with books without having to return them or worry about what the library had available. I've always supported my local library, but it's been decades since I spent much time in it. When I last used one heavily, the only computers were at the checkout desk and the only books were physical, normally hardcovers.

Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library therefore caught my eye when I saw a Twitter thread about it before publication. It promised to be a picture of the modern public library and its crises from the perspective of the librarian. The author's primary topic was the drafting of public libraries as de facto homeless service centers, but I hoped it would also encompass technological change, demand for new services, and the shifting meaning of what a public library is for.

Overdue does... some of that. The author was a children's librarian in a Washington DC public school and then worked at a downtown branch of the Washington DC public library, and the book includes a few anecdotes from both experiences. Most of the book, though, is Oliver's personal memoir of how she got into field, why she chose to leave it, and how she is making sense of her feelings about the profession. Intermixed with that memoir is wide-ranging political commentary on topics ranging from gentrification to mental health care. This material is relevant to the current challenges libraries face, but it wandered far afield from what I was hoping to get from the book.

I think of non-fiction books as coming in a few basic shapes. One is knowledge from an expert: the author has knowledge about a topic that is not widely shared, and they write a book to share it. Another is popularization: an author, possibly without prior special expertise in the topic, does research the reader could have done but doesn't have time to do and then summarizes the results in a format that's easier to understand than the original material. And a third is memoir, in which the author tells the story of their own life. This is a variation of the first type, since the author is obviously an expert in their own life, but most people's lives are not interesting. (Mine certainly isn't!) Successful memoir therefore depends on either having an unusual life or being a compelling storyteller, and ideally both.

Many non-fiction books fall into multiple categories, but it's helpful for an author to have a clear idea of which of these goals they're pursuing since they result in different books. If the author is writing primarily from a position of special expertise, the book should focus on that expertise. I am interested in librarians and libraries and would like to know more about that job, so I will read with interest your personal stories about being a librarian. I am somewhat interested in your policy suggestions for how to make libraries work better, although more so if you can offer context and analysis beyond your personal experiences. I am less interested in your opinions on, say, gentrification. That's not because I doubt it is a serious problem (it is) or that it impacts libraries (it does). It's because working in a library doesn't provide any special expertise in gentrification beyond knowing that it exists, something that I can see by walking around the corner. If I want to know more, I will read books by urban planners, sociologists, and housing rights activists.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I wish Overdue had about four times as many stories about libraries, preferably framed by general research and background that extended beyond the author's personal experience, or at least more specific details of the politics of the Washington DC library system. The personal memoir outside of the library stories failed to hold my interest.

This is not intended as a slam on the author. Oliver seems like a thoughtful and sincere person who is struggling with how to do good in the world without burning out, which is easy for me to sympathize with. I suspect I broadly agree with her on many political positions. But I have read all of this before, and personally lived through some of the same processing, and I don't think Oliver offered new insight. The library stories were memorable enough to form the core of a good book, but the memoir structure did nothing for them and they were strangled by the unoriginal and too-general political analysis.

At the risk of belaboring a negative review, there are two other things in Overdue that I've also seen in other writing and seem worth commenting on.

The first is the defensive apology that the author may not have the best perspective to write the book. It's important to be clear: I am glad that the Oliver has thought about the ways her experiences as a white woman may not be representative of other people. This is great; the world is a better place when more people consider that. I'm less fond of putting that observation in the book, particularly at length.

As the author, rather than writing paragraphs vaguely acknowledging that other people have different experiences, she could instead fix the problem: go talk to librarians of other ethnic and social backgrounds and put their stories in this book. The book would then represent broader experiences and not require the apology. Overdue desperately needed more library-specific content, so that would have improved the book in more than one way. Or if Oliver is ideologically opposed to speaking for other people (she makes some comments to that effect), state up-front, once, that this is a personal memoir and, as a memoir, represents only her own experience. But the author should do something with this observation other than dump its awkwardness on the reader, if for no other reason than that lengthy disclaimers about the author's limited perspective are boring.

The second point is about academic jargon and stock phrasing. I work in a field that relies on precise distinctions of meaning (between identity, authentication, and authorization, for example), and therefore I rely on jargon. Its purpose is to make those types of fine distinctions. But authors who read heavily in fields with jargon tend to let that phrasing slip into popular writing where it's not necessary. The result is, to quote Orwell, "gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else." The effect may be small in a single sentence but, when continued throughout a book, the overuse of jargon is leaden, belabored, and confusing.

Any example I choose will be minor since the effect is cumulative, but one of several I noticed in Overdue is "lived experience." This is jargon from philosophy that, within the field, draws a useful distinction between one's direct experiences of living in the world, and academic or scientific experience with a field. Both types of experience are valuable in different situations, but they're not equivalent. This is a useful phrase when the distinction matters and is unclear. When the type of experience one is discussing is obvious in context (the case in at least three of the four uses in this book), the word "lived" adds nothing but verbosity. If too much of this creeps into writing, it becomes clunky and irritating to read.

The best (and not coincidentally the least clunky) part of this book is Oliver's stories of the patrons and other employees of the Northwest One branch of the Washington DC library system and her experiences with them. The picture was not as vivid as I was hoping for, but I came away with some new understanding of typical interactions and day-to-day difficulties. The same was true to a lesser extent for her experiences as a school librarian. For both, I wish there had been more context and framing so that I could see how her experiences fit into a whole system, but those parts of the book were worth reading.

Unfortunately, they weren't enough of those parts in the book for me to recommend Overdue. But I'm still interested in reading the book I hoped I was getting!

Rating: 5 out of 10

2022-06-27: Tie::ShadowHash 2.00

This is a small Perl module that combines multiple key/value sources of data into a "shadow hash" that acts as if all of the underlying data sources have been merged. Any modifications made to the shadow hash are stored in an overlay and reflected in further accesses to the shadow hash, but the underlying data sources are read-only and are not changed.

It had been 12 years since the last release of this small module, so it was overdue for some modernization and cleanup. I also removed the new() class method since shadow hashes should always be created with tie(), and documented a few more edge cases.

You can get the latest version from CPAN or from the Tie::ShadowHash distribution page.

2022-06-26: Review: Light from Uncommon Stars

Review: Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki

Publisher Tor
Copyright 2021
ISBN 1-250-78907-9
Format Kindle
Pages 371

Katrina Nguyen is an young abused transgender woman. As the story opens, she's preparing to run away from home. Her escape bag is packed with meds, clothes, her papers, and her violin. The note she is leaving for her parents says that she's going to San Francisco, a plausible lie. Her actual destination is Los Angeles, specifically the San Gabriel Valley, where a man she met at a queer youth conference said he'd give her a place to sleep.

Shizuka Satomi is the Queen of Hell, the legendary uncompromising violin teacher responsible for six previous superstars, at least within the limited world of classical music. She's wealthy, abrasive, demanding, and intimidating, and unbeknownst to the rest of the world she has made a literal bargain with Hell. She has to deliver seven souls, seven violin players who want something badly enough that they'll bargain with Hell to get it. Six have already been delivered in spectacular fashion, but she's running out of time to deliver the seventh before her own soul is forfeit. Tamiko Grohl, an up-and-coming violinist from her native Los Angeles, will hopefully be the seventh.

Lan Tran is a refugee and matriarch of a family who runs Starrgate Donut. She and her family didn't flee another unstable or inhospitable country. They fled the collapsing Galactic Empire, securing their travel authorization by promising to set up a tourism attraction. Meanwhile, she's careful to give cops free donuts and to keep their advanced technology carefully concealed.

The opening of this book is unlikely to be a surprise in general shape. Most readers would expect Katrina to end up as Satomi's student rather than Tamiko, and indeed she does, although not before Katrina has a very difficult time. Near the start of the novel, I thought "oh, this is going to be hurt/comfort without a romantic relationship," and it is. But it then goes beyond that start into a multifaceted story about complexity, resilience, and how people support each other.

It is also a fantastic look at the nuance and intricacies of being or supporting a transgender person, vividly illustrated by a story full of characters the reader cares about and without the academic abstruseness that often gets in the way. The problems with gender-blindness, the limitations of honoring someone's gender without understanding how other people do not, the trickiness of privilege, gender policing as a distraction and alienation from the rest of one's life, the complications of real human bodies and dysmorphia, the importance of listening to another person rather than one's assumptions about how that person feels — it's all in here, flowing naturally from the story, specific to the characters involved, and never belabored. I cannot express how well-handled this is. It was a delight to read.

The other wonderful thing Aoki does is set Satomi up as the almost supernaturally competent teacher who in a sense "rescues" Katrina, and then invert the trope, showing the limits of Satomi's expertise, the places where she desperately needs human connection for herself, and her struggle to understand Katrina well enough to teach her at the level Satomi expects of herself. Teaching is not one thing to everyone; it's about listening, and Katrina is nothing like Satomi's other students. This novel is full of people thinking they finally understand each other and realizing there is still more depth that they had missed, and then talking through the gap like adults.

As you can tell from any summary of this book, it's an odd genre mash-up. The fantasy part is a classic "magician sells her soul to Hell" story; there are a few twists, but it largely follows genre expectations. The science fiction part involving Lan is unfortunately weaker and feels more like a random assortment of borrowed Star Trek tropes than coherent world-building. Genre readers should not come to this story expecting a well-thought-out science fiction universe or a serious attempt to reconcile metaphysics between the fantasy and science fiction backgrounds. It's a quirky assortment of parts that don't normally go together, defy easy classification, and are often unexplained. I suspect this was intentional on Aoki's part given how deeply this book is about the experience of being transgender.

Of the three primary viewpoint characters, I thought Lan's perspective was the weakest, and not just because of her somewhat generic SF background. Aoki uses her as a way to talk about the refugee experience, describing her as a woman who brings her family out of danger to build a new life. This mostly works, but Lan has vastly more power and capabilities than a refugee would normally have. Rather than the typical Asian refugee experience in the San Gabriel valley, Lan is more akin to a US multimillionaire who for some reason fled to Vietnam (relative to those around her, Lan is arguably even more wealthy than that). This is also a refugee experience, but it is an incredibly privileged one in a way that partly undermines the role that she plays in the story.

Another false note bothered me more: I thought Tamiko was treated horribly in this story. She plays a quite minor role, sidelined early in the novel and appearing only briefly near the climax, and she's portrayed quite negatively, but she's clearly hurting as deeply as the protagonists of this novel. Aoki gives her a moment of redemption, but Tamiko gets nothing from it. Unlike every other injured and abused character in this story, no one is there for Tamiko and no one ever attempts to understand her. I found that profoundly sad. She's not an admirable character, but neither is Satomi at the start of the book. At least a gesture at a future for Tamiko would have been appreciated.

Those two complaints aside, though, I could not put this book down. I was able to predict the broad outline of the plot, but the specifics were so good and so true to characters. Both the primary and supporting cast are unique, unpredictable, and memorable.

Light from Uncommon Stars has a complex relationship with genre. It is squarely in the speculative fiction genre; the plot would not work without the fantasy and (more arguably) the science fiction elements. Music is magical in a way that goes beyond what can be attributed to metaphor and subjectivity. But it's also primarily character story deeply rooted in the specific location of the San Gabriel valley east of Los Angeles, full of vivid descriptions (particularly of food) and day-to-day life. As with the fantasy and science fiction elements, Aoki does not try to meld the genre elements into a coherent whole. She lets them sit side by side and be awkward and charming and uneven and chaotic. If you're the sort of SF reader who likes building a coherent theory of world-building rules, you may have to turn that desire off to fully enjoy this book.

I thought this book was great. It's not flawless, but like its characters it's not trying to be flawless. In places it is deeply insightful and heartbreakingly emotional; in others, it's a glorious mess. It's full of cooking and food, YouTube fame, the disappointments of replicators, video game music, meet-cutes over donuts, found family, and classical music drama. I wish we'd gotten way more about the violin repair shop and a bit less warmed-over Star Trek, but I also loved it exactly the way it was. Definitely the best of the 2022 Hugo nominees that I've read so far.

Content warning for child abuse, rape, self-harm, and somewhat explicit sex work. The start of the book is rather heavy and horrific, although the author advertises fairly clearly (and accurately) that things will get better.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2022-06-25: Review: Feet of Clay

Review: Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #19
Publisher Harper
Copyright October 1996
Printing February 2014
ISBN 0-06-227551-8
Format Mass market
Pages 392

Feet of Clay is the 19th Discworld novel, the third Watch novel, and probably not the best place to start. You could read only Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms before this one, though, if you wanted.

This story opens with a golem selling another golem to a factory owner, obviously not caring about the price. This is followed by two murders: an elderly priest, and the curator of a dwarven bread museum. (Dwarf bread is a much-feared weapon of war.) Meanwhile, assassins are still trying to kill Watch Commander Vimes, who has an appointment to get a coat of arms. A dwarf named Cheery Littlebottom is joining the Watch. And Lord Vetinari, the ruler of Ankh-Morpork, has been poisoned.

There's a lot going on in this book, and while it's all in some sense related, it's more interwoven than part of a single story. The result felt to me like a day-in-the-life episode of a cop show: a lot of character development, a few largely separate plot lines so that the characters have something to do, and the development of a few long-running themes that are neither started nor concluded in this book. We check in on all the individual Watch members we've met to date, add new ones, and at the end of the book everyone is roughly back to where they were when the book started.

This is, to be clear, not a bad thing for a book to do. It relies on the reader already caring about the characters and being invested in the long arc of the series, but both of those are true of me, so it worked. Cheery is a good addition, giving Pratchett an opportunity to explore gender nonconformity with a twist (all dwarfs are expected to act the same way regardless of gender, which doesn't work for Cheery) and, even better, giving Angua more scenes. Angua is among my favorite Watch characters, although I wish she'd gotten more of a resolution for her relationship anxiety in this book.

The primary plot is about golems, which on Discworld are used in factories because they work nonstop, have no other needs, and do whatever they're told. Nearly everyone in Ankh-Morpork considers them machinery. If you've read any Discworld books before, you will find it unsurprising that Pratchett calls that belief into question, but the ways he gets there, and the links between the golem plot and the other plot threads, have a few good twists and turns.

Reading this, I was reminded vividly of Orwell's discussion of Charles Dickens:

It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong's school being as different from Creakle's "as good is from evil." Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a "change of heart" — that, essentially, is what he is always saying.

If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A "change of heart" is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.

and later:

His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, "Behave decently," which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, "an expression on the human face."

I think Pratchett is, in that sense, a Dickensian writer, and it shows all through Discworld. He does write political crises (there is one in this book), but the crises are moral or personal, not ideological or structural. The Watch novels are often concerned with systems of government, but focus primarily on the popular appeal of kings, the skill of the Patrician, and the greed of those who would maneuver for power. Pratchett does not write (at least so far) about the proper role of government, the impact of Vetinari's policies (or even what those policies may be), or political theory in any deep sense. What he does write about, at great length, is morality, fairness, and a deeply generous humanism, all of which are central to the golem plot.

Vimes is a great protagonist for this type of story. He's grumpy, cynical, stubborn, and prejudiced, and we learn in this book that he's a descendant of the Discworld version of Oliver Cromwell. He can be reflexively self-centered, and he has no clear idea how to use his newfound resources. But he behaves decently towards people, in both big and small things, for reasons that the reader feels he could never adequately explain, but which are rooted in empathy and an instinctual sense of fairness. It's fun to watch him grumble his way through the plot while making snide comments about mysteries and detectives.

I do have to complain a bit about one of those mysteries, though. I would have enjoyed the plot around Vetinari's poisoning more if Pratchett hadn't mercilessly teased readers who know a bit about French history. An allusion or two would have been fun, but he kept dropping references while having Vimes ignore them, and I found the overall effect both frustrating and irritating. That and a few other bits, like Angua's uncommunicative angst, fell flat for me. Thankfully, several other excellent scenes made up for them, such as Nobby's high society party and everything about the College of Heralds. Also, Vimes's impish PDA (smartphone without the phone, for those younger than I am) remains absurdly good commentary on the annoyances of portable digital devices despite an original publication date of 1996.

Feet of Clay is less focused than the previous Watch novels and more of a series book than most Discworld novels. You're reading about characters introduced in previous books with problems that will continue into subsequent books. The plot and the mysteries are there to drive the story but seem relatively incidental to the characterization. This isn't a complaint; at this point in the series, I'm in it for the long haul, and I liked the variation. As usual, Pratchett is stronger for me when he's not overly focused on parody. His own characters are as good as the material he's been parodying, and I'm happy to see them get a book that's not overshadowed by another material.

If you've read this far in the series, or even in just the Watch novels, recommended.

Followed by Hogfather in publication order and, thematically, by Jingo.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2022-06-23: Review: A Dead Djinn in Cairo

Review: A Dead Djinn in Cairo, by P. Djèlí Clark

Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright May 2016
ASIN B01DJ0NALI
Format Kindle
Pages 47

Fatma el-Sha'arawi is a special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities in an alternate 1912 Egypt. In Fatma's world, the mystic al-Jahiz broke through to the realm of the djinn in the late 1800s, giving Egypt access to magic and the supernatural and the djinn access to Egypt. It is now one of the great powers of the world, able to push off the Europeans and control its own politics.

This is a Tor.com original novelette, so you can read it on-line for free or drop $2 on a Kindle version for convenience. It's the first story in the "Dead Djinn" universe, in which Clark has also written a novella and a novel (the latter of which won the Nebula Award for best novel in 2022).

There are three things here I liked. Fatma is a memorable character, both for her grumpy demeanor as a rare female investigator having to put up with a sexist pig of a local police liaison, and for her full British attire (including a bowler hat) and its explanation. (The dynamics felt a bit modern for a story set in 1912, but not enough to bother me.) The setting is Arabian-inspired fantasy, which is a nice break from the normal European or Celtic stuff. And there are interesting angels (Fatma: "They're not really angels"), which I think have still-underused potential, particularly when they can create interesting conflicts with Coptic Christianity and Islam. Clark's version are energy creatures of some sort inside semi-mechanical bodies with visuals that reminded me strongly of Diablo III (which in this context is a compliment). I'm interested to learn more about them, although I hope there's more going on than the disappointing explanation we get at the end of this story.

Other than those elements, there's not much here. As hinted by the title, the story is structured as a police investigation and Fatma plays the misfit detective. But there's no real mystery; the protagonists follow obvious clue to obvious clue to obvious ending. The plot structure is strictly linear and never surprised me. Aasim is an ass, which gives Fatma something to react to but never becomes real characterization. The world-building is the point, but most of it is delivered in infodumps, and the climax is a kind-of-boring fight where the metaphysics are explained rather than discovered.

I'm possibly being too harsh. There's space for novelettes that tell straightforward stories without the need for a twist or a sting. But I admit I found this boring. I think it's because it's not tight enough to be carried by the momentum of a simple plot, and it's also not long enough for either the characters or the setting to breathe and develop. The metaphysics felt rushed and the characterization cramped. I liked Siti and the dynamic between Siti and Fatma at the end of the story, but there wasn't enough of it.

As a world introduction, it does its job, and the non-European fantasy background is interesting enough that I'd be willing to read more, even without the incentive of reading all award winning novels. But "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" doesn't do more than its job. It might be worth skipping (I'll have to read the subsequent works to know for certain), but it won't take long to read and the price is right.

Followed by The Haunting of Tram Car 015.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2022-06-11: Review: The Shattered Sphere

Review: The Shattered Sphere, by Roger MacBride Allen

Series Hunted Earth #2
Publisher Tor
Copyright July 1994
Printing September 1995
ISBN 0-8125-3016-0
Format Mass market
Pages 491

The Shattered Sphere is a direct sequel to The Ring of Charon and spoils everything about the plot of the first book. You don't want to start here. Also be aware that essentially everything you can read about this book will spoil the major plot driver of The Ring of Charon in the first sentence. I'm going to review the book without doing that, but it's unlikely anyone else will try.

The end of the previous book stabilized matters, but in no way resolved the plot. The Shattered Sphere opens five years later. Most of the characters from the first novel are joined by some new additions, and all of them are trying to make sense of a drastically changed and far more dangerous understanding of the universe. Humanity has a new enemy, one that's largely unaware of humanity's existence and able to operate on a scale that dwarfs human endeavors. The good news is that humans aren't being actively attacked. The bad news is that they may be little more than raw resources, stashed in a safe spot for future use.

That is reason enough to worry. Worse are the hints of a far greater danger, one that may be capable of destruction on a scale nearly beyond human comprehension. Humanity may be trapped between a sophisticated enemy to whom human activity is barely more noticeable than ants, and a mysterious power that sends that enemy into an anxious panic.

This series is an easily-recognized example of an in-between style of science fiction. It shares the conceptual bones of an earlier era of short engineer-with-a-wrench stories that are full of set pieces and giant constructs, but Allen attempts to add the characterization that those books lacked. But the technique isn't there; he's trying, and the basics of characterization are present, but with none of the emotional and descriptive sophistication of more recent SF. The result isn't bad, exactly, but it's bloated and belabored. Most of the characterization comes through repetition and ham-handed attempts at inner dialogue.

Slow plotting doesn't help. Allen spends half of a nearly 500 page novel on setup in two primary threads. One is mostly people explaining detailed scientific theories to each other, mixed with an attempt at creating reader empathy that's more forceful than effective. The other is a sort of big dumb object exploration that failed to hold my attention and that turned out to be mostly irrelevant. Key revelations from that thread are revealed less by the actions of the characters than by dumping them on the reader in an extended monologue. The reading goes quickly, but only because the writing is predictable and light on interesting information, not because the plot is pulling the reader through the book. I found myself wishing for an earlier era that would have cut about 300 pages out of this book without losing any of the major events.

Once things finally start happening, the book improves considerably. I grew up reading large-scale scientific puzzle stories, and I still have a soft spot for a last-minute scientific fix and dramatic set piece even if the descriptive detail leaves something to be desired. The last fifty pages are fast-moving and satisfying, only marred by their failure to convince me that the humans were required for the plot. The process of understanding alien technology well enough to use it the right way kept me entertained, but I don't understand why the aliens didn't use it themselves.

I think this book falls between two stools. The scientific mysteries and set pieces would have filled a tight, fast-moving 200 page book with a minimum of characterization. It would have been a throwback to an earlier era of science fiction, but not a bad one. Allen instead wanted to provide a large cast of sympathetic and complex characters, and while I appreciate the continued lack of villains, the writing quality is not sufficient to the task.

This isn't an awful book, but the quality bar in the genre is so much higher now. There are better investments of your reading time available today.

Like The Ring of Charon, The Shattered Sphere reaches a satisfying conclusion but does not resolve the series plot. No sequel has been published, and at this point one seems unlikely to materialize.

Rating: 5 out of 10

2022-05-31: Review: The Seeress of Kell

Review: The Seeress of Kell, by David Eddings

Series The Malloreon #5
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright May 1991
Printing May 1992
ISBN 0-345-37759-1
Format Mass market
Pages 374

The Seeress of Kell is the conclusion of the five-book Malloreon series and a direct sequel to Sorceress of Darshiva. You do not want to begin the series here (or, to be honest, at all).

We have finally finished the relaxed tour of Mallorea, the second continent of Eddings's remarkably small two-continent world. The heroes have gathered all of their required companions and are headed for Kell, where the seeress Cyradis awaits. From there, they and the new Child of Dark must find their way to the Place Which Is No More for the final confrontation.

By "find," I mean please remain seated with your hands, arms, feet, and legs inside the vehicle. The protagonists have about as much to do with the conclusion of this series as the passengers of a roller coaster have control over its steering.

I am laughing at my younger self, who quite enjoyed this series (although as I recall found it a bit repetitive) and compared it favorably to the earlier Belgariad series. My memory kept telling me that the conclusion of the series was lots of fun. Reader, it was not. It was hilariously bad.

Both of Eddings's first two series, but particularly this one, take place in a fantasy world full of true prophecy. The conceit of the Malloreon in particular (this is a minor spoiler for the early books, but not one that I think interferes with enjoyment) is that there are two competing prophecies that agree on most events but are in conflict over a critical outcome. True prophecy creates an agency problem: why have protagonists if everything they do is fixed in prophecy? The normal way to avoid that is to make the prophecy sufficiently confusing and the mechanism by which it comes true sufficiently subtle that everyone has to act as if there is no prophecy, thus reducing the role of the prophecy to foreshadowing and a game the author plays with the reader.

What makes the Malloreon interesting (and I mean this sincerely) is that Eddings instead leans into the idea of a prophecy as an active agent leading the protagonists around by the nose. As a meta-story commentary on fantasy stories, this can be quite entertaining, and it helps that the prophecy appears as a likable character of sorts in the book. The trap that Eddings had mostly avoided before now is that this structure can make the choices of the protagonists entirely pointless. In The Seeress of Kell, he dives head-first into the trap and then pulls it shut behind him.

The worst part is Ce'Nedra, who once again spends an entire book either carping at Garion in ways that are supposed to be endearing (but aren't) or being actively useless. The low point is when she is manipulated into betraying the heroes, costing them a significant advantage. We're then told that, rather than being a horrific disaster, this is her important and vital role in the story, and indeed the whole reason why she was in the story at all. The heroes were too far ahead of the villains and were in danger of causing the prophecy to fail. At that point, one might reasonably ask why one is bothering reading a novel instead of a summary of the invented history that Eddings is going to tell whether his characters cooperate or not.

The whole middle section of the book is like this: nothing any of the characters do matters because everything is explicitly destined. That includes an extended series of interludes following the other main characters from the Belgariad, who are racing to catch up with the main party but who will turn out to have no role of significance whatsoever.

I wouldn't mind this as much if the prophecy were more active in the story, given that it's the actual protagonist. But it mostly disappears. Instead, the characters blunder around doing whatever seems like a good idea at the time, while Cyradis acts like a bizarre sort of referee with a Calvinball rule set and every random action turns out to be the fulfillment of prophecy in the most ham-handed possible way. Zandramas, meanwhile, is trying to break the prophecy, which would have been a moderately interesting story hook if anyone (Eddings included) thought she were potentially capable of doing so. Since no one truly believes there's any peril, this turns into a series of pointless battles the reader has no reason to care about.

All of this sets up what has been advertised since the start of the series as a decision between good and evil. Now, at the least minute, Eddings (through various character mouthpieces) tries to claim that the decision is not actually between good and evil, but is somehow beyond morality. No one believes this, including the narrator and the reader, making all of the philosophizing a tedious exercise in page-turning. To pull off a contention like that, the author has to lay some sort of foundation to allow the reader to see the supposed villain in multiple lights. Eddings does none of that, instead emphasizing how evil she is at every opportunity.

On top of that, this supposed free choice on which the entire universe rests and for which all of history was pointed depends on someone with astonishing conflicts of interest. While the book is going on about how carefully the prophecy is ensuring that everyone is in the right place at the right time so that no side has an advantage, one side is accruing an absurdly powerful advantage. And the characters don't even seem to realize it!

The less said about the climax, the better. Unsurprisingly, it was completely predictable.

Also, while I am complaining, I could never get past how this entire series starts off with and revolves around an incredibly traumatic and ongoing event that has no impact whatsoever on the person to whom the trauma happens. Other people are intermittently upset or sad, but not only is that person not harmed, they act, at the end of this book, as if the entire series had never happened.

There is one bright spot in this book, and ironically it's the one plot element that Eddings didn't make blatantly obvious in advance and therefore I don't want to spoil it. All I'll say is that one of the companions the heroes pick up along the way turns out to be my favorite character of the series, plays a significant role in the interpersonal dynamics between the heroes, and steals every scene that she's in by being more sensible than any of the other characters in the story. Her story, and backstory, is emotional and moving and is the best part of this book.

Otherwise, not only is the plot a mess and the story structure a failure, but this is also Eddings at his most sexist and socially conservative. There is an extended epilogue after the plot resolution that serves primarily as a showcase of stereotypes: baffled men having their habits and preferences rewritten by their wives, cast-iron gender roles inside marriage, cringeworthy jokes, and of course loads and loads of children because that obviously should be everyone's happily ever after. All of this happens to the characters rather than being planned or actively desired, continuing the theme of prophecy and lack of agency, although of course they're all happy about it (shown mostly via grumbling). One could write an entire academic paper on the tension between this series and the concept of consent.

There were bits of the Malloreon that I enjoyed, but they were generally in spite of the plot rather than because of it. I do like several of Eddings's characters, and in places I liked the lack of urgency and the sense of safety. But I think endings still have to deliver some twist or punch or, at the very least, some clear need for the protagonists to take an action other than stand in the right room at the right time. Eddings probably tried to supply that (I can make a few guesses about where), but it failed miserably for me, making this the worst book of the series.

Unless like me you're revisiting this out of curiosity for your teenage reading habits (and even then, consider not), avoid.

Rating: 3 out of 10

2022-05-30: Review: Maskerade

Review: Maskerade, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #18
Publisher Harper
Copyright 1995
Printing February 2014
ISBN 0-06-227552-6
Format Mass market
Pages 360

Maskerade is the 18th book of the Discworld series, but you probably could start here. You'd miss the introduction of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, which might be a bit confusing, but I suspect you could pick it up as you went if you wanted. This is a sequel of sorts to Lords and Ladies, but not in a very immediate sense.

Granny is getting distracted and less interested in day-to-day witching in Lancre. This is not good; Granny is incredibly powerful, and bored and distracted witches can go to dark places. Nanny is concerned. Granny needs something to do, and their coven needs a third. It's not been the same since they lost their maiden member.

Nanny's solution to this problem is two-pronged. First, they'd had their eye on a local girl named Agnes, who had magic but who wasn't interested in being a witch. Perhaps it was time to recruit her anyway, even though she'd left Lancre for Ankh-Morpork. And second, Granny needs something to light a fire under her, something that will get her outraged and ready to engage with the world. Something like a cookbook of aphrodisiac recipes attributed to the Witch of Lancre.

Agnes, meanwhile, is auditioning for the opera. She's a sensible person, cursed her whole life by having a wonderful personality, but a part of her deep inside wants to be called Perdita X. Dream and have a dramatic life. Having a wonderful personality can be very frustrating, but no one in Lancre took either that desire or her name seriously. Perhaps the opera is somewhere where she can find the life she's looking for, along with another opportunity to try on the Perdita name. One thing she can do is sing; that's where all of her magic went.

The Ankh-Morpork opera is indeed dramatic. It's also losing an astounding amount of money for its new owner, who foolishly thought owning an opera would be a good retirement project after running a cheese business. And it's haunted by a ghost, a very tangible ghost who has started killing people.

I think this is my favorite Discworld novel to date (although with a caveat about the ending that I'll get to in a moment). It's certainly the one that had me laughing out loud the most. Agnes (including her Perdita personality aspect) shot to the top of my list of favorite Discworld characters, in part because I found her sensible personality so utterly relatable. She is fascinated by drama, she wants to be in the middle of it and let her inner Perdita goth character revel in it, and yet she cannot help being practical and unflappable even when surrounded by people who use far too many exclamation points. It's one thing to want drama in the abstract; it's quite another to be heedlessly dramatic in the moment, when there's an obviously reasonable thing to do instead. Pratchett writes this wonderfully.

The other half of the story follows Granny and Nanny, who are unstoppable forces of nature and a wonderful team. They have the sort of long-standing, unshakable adult friendship between very unlike people that's full of banter and minor irritations layered on top of a deep mutual understanding and respect. Once they decide to start investigating this supposed opera ghost, they divvy up the investigative work with hardly a word exchanged. Planning isn't necessary; they both know each other's strengths.

We've gotten a lot of Granny's skills in previous books. Maskerade gives Nanny a chance to show off her skills, and it's a delight. She effortlessly becomes the sort of friendly grandmother who blends in so well that no one questions why she's there, and thus manages to be in the middle of every important event. Granny watches and thinks and theorizes; Nanny simply gets into the middle of everything and talks to everyone until people tell her what she wants to know. There's no real doubt that the two of them are going to get to the bottom of anything they want to get to the bottom of, but watching how they get there is a delight.

I love how Pratchett handles that sort of magical power from a world-building perspective. Ankh-Morpork is the Big City, the center of political power in most of the Discworld books, and Granny and Nanny are from the boondocks. By convention, that means they should either be awed or confused by the city, or gain power in the city by transforming it in some way to match their area of power. This isn't how Pratchett writes witches at all. Their magic is in understanding people, and the people in Ankh-Morpork are just as much people as the people in Lancre. The differences of the city may warrant an occasional grumpy aside, but the witches are fully as capable of navigating the city as they are their home town.

Maskerade is, of course, a parody of opera and musicals, with Phantom of the Opera playing the central role in much the same way that Macbeth did in Wyrd Sisters. Agnes ends up doing the singing for a beautiful, thin actress named Christine, who can't sing at all despite being an opera star, uses a truly astonishing excess of exclamation points, and strategically faints at the first sign of danger. (And, despite all of this, is still likable in that way that it's impossible to be really upset at a puppy.) She is the special chosen focus of the ghost, whose murderous taunting is a direct parody of the Phantom. That was a sufficiently obvious reference that even I picked up on it, despite being familiar with Phantom of the Opera only via the soundtrack.

Apart from that, though, the references were lost on me, since I'm neither a musical nor an opera fan. That didn't hurt my enjoyment of the book in the slightest; in fact, I suspect it's part of why it's in my top tier of Discworld books. One of my complaints about Discworld to date is that Pratchett often overdoes the parody to the extent that it gets in the way of his own (excellent) characters and story. Maybe it's better to read Discworld novels where one doesn't recognize the material being parodied and thus doesn't keep getting distracted by references.

It's probably worth mentioning that Agnes is a large woman and there are several jokes about her weight in Maskerade. I think they're the good sort of jokes, about how absurd human bodies can be, not the mean sort? Pratchett never implies her weight is any sort of moral failing or something she should change; quite the contrary, Nanny considers it a sign of solid Lancre genes. But there is some fat discrimination in the opera itself, since one of the things Pratchett is commenting on is the switch from full-bodied female opera singers to thin actresses matching an idealized beauty standard. Christine is the latter, but she can't sing, and the solution is for Agnes to sing for her from behind, something that was also done in real opera. I'm not a good judge of how well this plot line was handled; be aware, going in, if this may bother you.

What did bother me was the ending, and more generally the degree to which Granny and Nanny felt comfortable making decisions about Agnes's life without consulting her or appearing to care what she thought of their conclusions. Pratchett seemed to be on their side, emphasizing how well they know people. But Agnes left Lancre and avoided the witches for a reason, and that reason is not honored in much the same way that Lancre refused to honor her desire to go by Perdita. This doesn't seem to be malicious, and Agnes herself is a little uncertain about her choice of identity, but it still rubbed me the wrong way. I felt like Agnes got steamrolled by both the other characters and by Pratchett, and it's the one thing about this book that I didn't like. Hopefully future Discworld books about these characters revisit Agnes's agency.

Overall, though, this was great, and a huge improvement over Interesting Times. I'm excited for the next witches book.

Followed in publication order by Feet of Clay, and later by Carpe Jugulum in the thematic sense.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2022-05-29: Review: Steles of the Sky

Review: Steles of the Sky, by Elizabeth Bear

Series Eternal Sky #3
Publisher Tor
Copyright April 2014
ISBN 0-7653-2756-2
Format Hardcover
Pages 429

Steles of the Sky is the third book of the Eternal Sky trilogy and a direct sequel to Shattered Pillars. You should not start here, and ideally you should read all three books close together. They form a single story, and Elizabeth Bear is somewhat notorious for not adding extra explanation to her novels.

By the end of Shattered Pillars, Bear was (mostly) finished adding new factions to this story. Temur is returning home to fight for his people and his clan. His allies are mostly in place, as are his enemies. The hissable villain has remained hissable and boring, but several of his allies are more ambiguous and therefore more interesting (and get considerably more page time). All that remains is to see how Bear will end the story, and what last-minute twists will be thrown in.

Well, that and getting the characters into the right positions, which occupies roughly the first half of the book and dragged a bit. There is an important and long-awaited reunion, Brother Hsiung gets his moment of focus, and the dowager empress gets some valuable character development, all of which did add to the story. But there's also a lot of plodding across the countryside. I also have no idea why the extended detour to Kyiv, began in Shattered Pillars and completed here, is even in this story. It tells us a few new scraps about Erem and its implications, but nothing vital. I felt like everything that happened there could have been done elsewhere or skipped entirely without much loss.

The rest of the book is build-up to the epic conclusion, which is, somewhat unsurprisingly, a giant battle. It was okay, as giant battles go, but it also felt a bit like a fireworks display. Bear makes sure all the guns on the mantle go off by the end of the series, but a lot of them go off at the same time. It robs the plot construction of some of its power.

There's nothing objectionable about this book. It's well-written, does what it sets out to do, brings the story to a relatively satisfying conclusion, provides some memorable set pieces, and is full of women making significant decisions that shape the plot. And yet, when I finished it, my reaction was "huh, okay" and then "oh, good, I can start another book now." Shattered Pillars won me over during the book. Steles of the Sky largely did not.

I think my biggest complaint is one I've had about Bear's world-building before. She hints at some fascinating ideas: curious dragons, skies that vary with the political power currently in control, evil ancient magic, humanoid tigers with their own beliefs and magical system independent from humans, and a sky with a sun so hot that it would burn everything. Over the course of the series, she intrigued me with these ideas and left me eagerly awaiting an explanation. That explanation never comes. The history is never filled in, the tiger society is still only hints, Erem remains a vast mystery, the dragons appear only fleetingly to hint at connections with Erem... and then the book ends.

I'm not sure whether Bear did explain some details and I wasn't paying close enough attention, or if she never intended detailed explanations. (Both are possible! Bear's books are often subtle.) But I wanted so much more. For me, half the fun of SFF world-building is the explanation. I love the hints and the mystery and the sense of lost knowledge and hidden depths... but then I want the characters to find the knowledge and plumb the depths, not just solve their immediate conflict.

This is as good of a book as the first two books of the series on its own merits, but I enjoyed it less because I was hoping for more revelations before the story ended. The characters are all fine, but only a few of them stood out. Hrahima stole every scene she was in, and I would happily read a whole trilogy about her tiger people. Edene came into her own and had some great moments, but they didn't come with the revelations about Erem that I was hungry for. The rest of the large cast is varied and well-written and features a refreshing number of older women, and it wouldn't surprise me to hear that other readers had favorite characters who carried the series for them. But for me the characters weren't compelling enough to overcome my disappointment in the lack of world-building revelations.

The series sadly didn't deliver the payoff that I was looking for, and I can't recommend it given the wealth of excellent fantasy being written today. But if you like Bear's understated writing style and don't need as much world-building payoff as I do, it may still be worth considering.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Last spun 2022-07-23 from thread modified 2008-08-13