Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

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

2022-05-28: Review: Kleptopia

Review: Kleptopia, by Tom Burgis

Publisher Harper
Copyright 2020
Printing September 2021
ISBN 0-06-323613-3
Format Kindle
Pages 340

Kleptopia is a nonfiction chronicle of international financial corruption and money laundering told via a focus on the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. The primary characters are a British banker named Nigel Wilkins (at the start of the story, the head of compliance in the London office of the Swiss bank BSI), a group of businessmen from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan called the Trio, and a Kazakh oligarch and later political dissident named Mukhtar Ablyazov, although the story spreads beyond them. It is partly a detailed example of what money laundering looks like in practice: where the money comes from, who has it, what they want to do with it, who they hire to move it, and what countries welcome it. But it is more broadly about the use of politics for financial plunder, and what stories we tell about the results.

The title of this book feels a bit like clickbait, and I was worried it would be mostly opinion and policy discussion. It is the exact opposite. Tom Burgis is an investigations correspondent at the Financial Times, and this is a detailed piece of investigative journalism (backed by a hundred pages of notes and detailed attributions). Burgis has a clear viewpoint and expresses it when it seems relevant, but the vast majority of this book is the sort of specific account of people, dates, times, and events that one would expect from a full-length investigative magazine piece, except maintained at book length.

Even aside from the subject matter, I love that writing like this exists. It's often best in magazines, newspapers, and on-line articles for timeliness, since book publishing is slow, but some subjects require the length of a book. Burgis is the sort of reporter who travels the world to meet with sources in person, and who, before publication, presents his conclusions to everyone mentioned for their rebuttals (many of which are summarized or quoted in detail in the notes so that the reader can draw their own credibility conclusions). Whether or not one agrees with his specific conclusions or emphasis, we need more of this sort of journalism in the world.

I knew essentially nothing about Kazakhstan or its politics before reading this book. I also had not appreciated the degree to which exploitation of natural resources is the original source of the money for international money laundering. In both Kazakhstan and Africa (a secondary setting for this book), people get rich largely because of things dug or pumped out of the ground. That money, predictably, does not go to the people doing the hard work of digging and pumping, who work in appalling conditions and are put down with violence if they try to force change. (In one chapter, Burgis tells the harrowing and nightmarish story of Roza Tuletayeva, a striker at the oil field in Zhanaozen.) It's gathered up by the already rich and politically connected, who gained control of former state facilities during the post-Soviet collapse and then maintained their power with violence and corruption. And once they have money, they try to convert it into holdings in European banks, London real estate, and western corporations.

The primary thing I will remember from this book is the degree to which oligarchs rely on being able to move between two systems. They make their money in unstable or authoritarian countries with high degrees of political corruption and violence, and are adept at navigating that world (although sometimes it turns on them; more on that in a moment). But they don't want to leave their money in that world. Someone else could betray them, undermine them, or gain the ear of the local dictator. They rely instead on western countries with strong property rights, stable financial institutions, and vast legal systems devoted to protecting the wealth of people who are already rich. In essence, they play both rule sets against each other: make money through techniques that would be illegal in London, and then move their money to London so that the British government and legal system will protect it against others who are trying to do the same.

What they get out of this is obvious. What London gets out of it is another theme of this book: it's a way for a lot of people to share the wealth without doing any of the crimes. Money laundering is a very lossy activity. Lots of money falls out of the cart along the way, where it is happily scooped up by bankers, lawyers, accountants, public relations consultants, and the rest of the vast machinery of theoretically legitimate business. Everyone wins, except the people the money is being stolen from in the first place. (And the planet; Burgis doesn't talk much about the environment, but I found the image of one-way extraction of irreplaceable natural resources haunting and disturbing.)

Donald Trump does make an appearance here, although not as significant of one as I was expecting given the prominent appearance of Trump crony Felix Sater. Trump is part of the machinery that allows oligarch money to become legally-protected business investment, but it's also clear from Burgis's telling that he is (at least among the money flows Burgis is focused on) a second-tier player with delusions of grandeur. He's more notable for his political acumen and ability to craft media stories than his money-laundering skills.

The story-telling is a third theme of this book. The electorate of the societies into which oligarchs try to move their money aren't fond of crime, mob activity, political corruption, or authoritarian exploitation of workers. If public opinion turns sufficiently strongly against specific oligarchs, the normally friendly mechanisms of law and business regulation may have to take action. The primary defense of laundered money is hiding its origins sufficiently that it's too hard to investigate or explain to a jury, but there are limits to how completely the money can hide given that oligarchs still want to spend it. They need to tell a story about how they are modernizing businessmen, aghast at the lingering poor conditions of their home countries but working earnestly to slowly improve them. And they need to defend those stories against people who might try to draw a clearer link between them and criminal activity.

The competing stories between dissident oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov and the Kazakh government led by Nursultan Nazarbayev are a centerpiece of this book. Ablyazov is in some sense a hero of the story, someone who attempted to expose the corruption of Nazerbayev's government and was jailed by Nazerbayev for corruption in retaliation. But Burgis makes clear the tricky fact that Ablyazov likely is guilty of at least some (and possibly a lot) of the money laundering of which he was accused. It's a great illustration of the perils of simple good or bad labels when trying to understand this world from the outside. All of these men are playing similar games, and all of them are trying to tell stories where they are heroes and their opponents are corrupt thieves. And yet, there is not a moral equivalency. Ablyazov is not a good person, but what Nazerbayev attempted to do to his family is appalling, far worse than anything Ablyazov did, and the stories about Ablyazov that have prevailed to date in British courts are not an attempt to reach the truth.

The major complaint that I have about Kleptopia is that this is a highly complex story with a large number of characters, but Burgis doesn't tell it in chronological order. He jumps forward and backward in time to introduce new angles of the story, and I'm not sure that was the right structural choice. Maybe a more linear story would have been even more confusing, but I got lost in the chronology at several points. Be prepared to put in some work as a reader in keeping the timeline straight.

I also have to warn that this is not in any way a hopeful book. Burgis introduces Nigel Wilkins and his quixotic quest to expose the money laundering activities of European banks early in the book. In a novel that would set up a happy ending in which Wilkins brings down the edifice, or at least substantial portions of it. We do not live in a novel, sadly. Kleptopia is not purely depressing, but by and large the bad guys win. This is not a history of corruption that we've exposed and overcome. It's a chronicle of a problem that is getting worse, and that the US and British governments are failing to address.

Burgis's publishers successfully defended a libel suit in British courts brought by the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, the primary corporate entity of the Trio who are the primary villains of this book. I obviously haven't done my own independent research, but after reading this book, including the thorough notes, this looks to me like the type of libel suit that should serve as an advertisement for its target.

I can't say I enjoyed reading this, particularly at the end when the arc becomes clear. Understanding how little governments and institutions care about stopping money laundering is not a pleasant experience. But it's an important book, well and vividly told (except for the chronology), and grounded in solid investigative journalism. Recommended; I'm glad I read it.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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

Last spun 2022-06-27 from thread modified 2008-08-13