Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2017-09-17: Consolidation haul

My parents are less fond than I am of filling every available wall in their house with bookshelves and did a pruning of their books. A lot of them duplicated other things that I had, or didn't sound interesting, but I still ended up with two boxes of books (and now have to decide which of my books to prune, since I'm out of shelf space).

Also included is the regular accumulation of new ebook purchases.

Mitch Albom — Tuesdays with Morrie (nonfiction)
Ilona Andrews — Clean Sweep (sff)
Catherine Asaro — Charmed Sphere (sff)
Isaac Asimov — The Caves of Steel (sff)
Isaac Asimov — The Naked Sun (sff)
Marie Brennan — Dice Tales (nonfiction)
Captain Eric "Winkle" Brown — Wings on My Sleeve (nonfiction)
Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths — Algorithms to Live By (nonfiction)
Tom Clancy — The Cardinal of the Kremlin (thriller)
Tom Clancy — The Hunt for the Red October (thriller)
Tom Clancy — Red Storm Rising (thriller)
April Daniels — Sovereign (sff)
Tom Flynn — Galactic Rapture (sff)
Neil Gaiman — American Gods (sff)
Gary J. Hudson — They Had to Go Out (nonfiction)
Catherine Ryan Hyde — Pay It Forward (mainstream)
John Irving — A Prayer for Owen Meany (mainstream)
John Irving — The Cider House Rules (mainstream)
John Irving — The Hotel New Hampshire (mainstream)
Lawrence M. Krauss — Beyond Star Trek (nonfiction)
Lawrence M. Krauss — The Physics of Star Trek (nonfiction)
Ursula K. Le Guin — Four Ways to Forgiveness (sff collection)
Ursula K. Le Guin — Words Are My Matter (nonfiction)
Richard Matheson — Somewhere in Time (sff)
Larry Niven — Limits (sff collection)
Larry Niven — The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton (sff collection)
Larry Niven — The Magic Goes Away (sff)
Larry Niven — Protector (sff)
Larry Niven — World of Ptavvs (sff)
Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle — The Gripping Hand (sff)
Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle — Inferno (sff)
Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle — The Mote in God's Eye (sff)
Flann O'Brien — The Best of Myles (nonfiction)
Jerry Pournelle — Exiles to Glory (sff)
Jerry Pournelle — The Mercenary (sff)
Jerry Pournelle — Prince of Mercenaries (sff)
Jerry Pournelle — West of Honor (sff)
Jerry Pournelle (ed.) — Codominium: Revolt on War World (sff anthology)
Jerry Pournelle & S.M. Stirling — Go Tell the Spartans (sff)
J.D. Salinger — The Catcher in the Rye (mainstream)
Jessica Amanda Salmonson — The Swordswoman (sff)
Stanley Schmidt — Aliens and Alien Societies (nonfiction)
Cecilia Tan (ed.) — Sextopia (sff anthology)
Lavie Tidhar — Central Station (sff)
Catherynne Valente — Chicks Dig Gaming (nonfiction)
J.E. Zimmerman — Dictionary of Classical Mythology (nonfiction)

This is an interesting tour of a lot of stuff I read as a teenager (Asimov, Niven, Clancy, and Pournelle, mostly in combination with Niven but sometimes his solo work).

I suspect I will no longer consider many of these books to be very good, and some of them will probably go back into used bookstores after I've re-read them for memory's sake, or when I run low on space again. But all those mass market SF novels were a big part of my teenage years, and a few (like Mote In God's Eye) I definitely want to read again.

Also included is a random collection of stuff my parents picked up over the years. I don't know what to expect from a lot of it, which makes it fun to anticipate. Fall vacation is coming up, and with it a large amount of uninterrupted reading time.

2017-09-17: Free software log (July and August 2017)

I've wanted to start making one of these posts for a few months but have struggled to find the time. But it seems like a good idea, particularly since I get more done when I write down what I do, so you all get a rather belated one. This covers July and August; hopefully the September one will come closer to the end of September.

Debian

August was DebConf, which included a ton of Policy work thanks to Sean Whitton's energy and encouragement. During DebConf, we incorporated work from Hideki Yamane to convert Policy to reStructuredText, which has already made it far easier to maintain. (Thanks also to David Bremner for a lot of proofreading of the result.) We also did a massive bug triage and closed a ton of older bugs on which there had been no forward progress for many years.

After DebConf, as expected, we flushed out various bugs in the reStructuredText conversion and build infrastructure. I fixed a variety of build and packaging issues and started doing some more formatting cleanup, including moving some footnotes to make the resulting document more readable.

During July and August, partly at DebConf and partly not, I also merged wording fixes for seven bugs and proposed wording (not yet finished) for three more, as well as participated in various Policy discussions.

Policy was nearly all of my Debian work over these two months, but I did upload a new version of the webauth package to build with OpenSSL 1.1 and drop transitional packages.

Kerberos

I still haven't decided my long-term strategy with the Kerberos packages I maintain. My personal use of Kerberos is now fairly marginal, but I still care a lot about the software and can't convince myself to give it up.

This month, I started dusting off pam-krb5 in preparation for a new release. There's been an open issue for a while around defer_pwchange support in Heimdal, and I spent some time on that and tracked it down to an upstream bug in Heimdal as well as a few issues in pam-krb5. The pam-krb5 issues are now fixed in Git, but I haven't gotten any response upstream from the Heimdal bug report. I also dusted off three old Heimdal patches and submitted them as upstream merge requests and reported some more deficiencies I found in FAST support. On the pam-krb5 front, I updated the test suite for the current version of Heimdal (which changed some of the prompting) and updated the portability support code, but haven't yet pulled the trigger on a new release.

Other Software

I merged a couple of pull requests in podlators, one to fix various typos (thanks, Jakub Wilk) and one to change the formatting of man page references and function names to match the current Linux manual page standard (thanks, Guillem Jover). I also documented a bad interaction with line-buffered output in the Term::ANSIColor man page. Neither of these have seen a new release yet.

2017-08-31: Review: Regeneration

Review: Regeneration, by Julie E. Czerneda

Series Species Imperative #3
Publisher DAW
Copyright 2006
ISBN 0-7564-0345-6
Format Hardcover
Pages 543

This is the third book of the Species Imperative trilogy, and this is the type of trilogy that's telling a single story in three books. You don't want to read this out of order, and I'll have to be cautious about aspects of the plot to not spoil the earlier books.

Mac is still recovering from the effects of the first two books of the series, but she's primarily worried about a deeply injured friend. Worse, that friend is struggling to explain or process what's happened, and the gaps in her memory and her very ability to explain may point at frightening, lingering risks to humanity. As much as she wants to, Mac can't give her friend all of her focus, since she's also integral to the team trying to understand the broader implications of the events of Migration. Worse, some of the non-human species have their own contrary interpretations that, if acted on, Mac believes would be desperately risky for humanity and all the other species reachable through the transects.

That set of competing priorities and motivations eventually sort themselves out into a tense and rewarding multi-species story, but they get off to an awkward start. The first 150 pages of Regeneration are long on worry, uncertainty, dread, and cryptic conversations, and short on enjoyable reading. Czerneda's recaps of the previous books are appreciated, but they weren't very smoothly integrated into the story. (I renew my occasional request for series authors to include a simple plot summary of the previous books as a prefix, without trying to weave it into the fiction.) I was looking forward to this book after the excellent previous volumes, but struggled to get into the story.

That does change. It takes a bit too long, with a bit too much nameless dread, a bit too much of an irritating subplot between Fourteen and Oversight that I didn't think added anything to the book, and not enough of Mac barreling forward doing sensible things. But once Mac gets back into space, with a destination and a job and a collection of suspicious (or arrogant) humans and almost-incomprehensible aliens to juggle, Czerneda hits her stride.

Czerneda doesn't entirely avoid Planet of the Hats problems with her aliens, but I think she does better than most of science fiction. Alien species in this series do tend to be a bit all of a type, and Mac does figure them out by drawing conclusions from biology, but those conclusions are unobvious and based on Mac's mix of biological and human social intuition. They refreshingly aren't as simple as biology completely shaping culture. (Czerneda's touch is more subtle than James White's Sector General, for example.) And Mac has a practical, determined, and selfless approach that's deeply likable and admirable. It's fun as a reader to watch her win people over by just being competent, thoughtful, observant, and unrelentingly ethical.

But the best part of this book, by far, are the Sinzi.

They first appeared in the second book, Migration, and seemed to follow the common SF trope of a wise elder alien race that can bring some order to the universe and that humanity can learn from. They, or more precisely the one Sinzi who appeared in Migration, was very good at that role. But Czerneda had something far more interesting planned, and in Regeneration they become truly alien in their own right, with their own nearly incomprehensible way of viewing the universe.

There are so many ways that this twist can go wrong, and Czerneda avoids all of them. She doesn't undermine their gravitas, nor does she elevate them to the level of Arisians or other semi-angelic wise mentors of other series. Czerneda makes them different in profound ways that are both advantage and disadvantage, pulls that difference into the plot as a complicating element, and has Mac stumble yet again into a role that is accidentally far more influential than she intends. Mac is the perfect character to do that to: she has just the right mix of embarrassment, ethics, seat-of-the-pants blunt negotiation skills, and a strong moral compass. Given a lever and a place to stand, one can believe that Mac can move the world, and the Sinzi are an absolutely fascinating lever.

There are also three separate, highly differentiated Sinzi in this story, with different goals, life experience, personalities, and levels of gravitas. Czerneda's aliens are good in general, but her focus is usually more on biology than individual differentiation. The Sinzi here combine the best of both types of character building.

I think the ending of Regeneration didn't entirely work. After all the intense effort the characters put into understanding the complexity of the universe over the course of the series, the denouement has a mopping-up feel and a moral clarity that felt a bit too easy. But the climax has everything I was hoping for, there's a lot more of Mac being Mac, and I loved every moment of the Sinzi twist. Now I want a whole new series exploring the implications of the Sinzi's view of the universe on the whole history of galactic politics that sat underneath this story. But I'll settle for moments of revelation that sent shivers down my spine.

This is a bit of an uneven book that falls short of its potential, but I'll remember it for a long time. Add it on to a deeply rewarding series, and I will recommend the whole package unreservedly. The Species Imperative is excellent science fiction that should be better-known than it is. I still think the romance subplot was unfortunate, and occasionally the aliens get too cartoony (Fourteen, in particular, goes a bit too far in that direction), but Czerneda never lingers too long on those elements. And the whole work is some of the best writing about working scientific research and small-group politics that I've read.

Highly recommended, but read the whole series in order.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2017-07-31: Learning Rust

I'm obviously not spending much time writing here. It's been a rather busy month at work, and I've been doing other things on the weekend that aren't particularly interesting to write about.

This past week, though, I took advantage of our semi-annual Hack Week to finally learn Rust. I have several co-workers who love the language and have been wanting to stretch my programming language knowledge a bit. I was also profoundly disappointed by Go, which has been touted as the new C-style systems language but which I think is awful. All the reasons why is a topic for another post, but the obnoxiously verbose error handling is probably my biggest complaint. (This is the worst property of C; why would you copy it?) Rust was a favorite of a few people who felt the same way I did about Go, which seemed promising.

I made it through the first thirteen chapters of the second edition Rust book and wrote a not-entirely-trivial program (a tool to filter and search trace logs a Dropbox client) with a co-worker, and I think I'm in love with this language. It reminds me of everything I liked about Perl, except with all the weird bolted-on bits of Perl cleaned up and done properly, and with types. Despite having spent most of my career writing Perl and Python (and C, which is typed but not very well), I love strongly-typed languages. I just usually don't like the rest of the syntax of languages like Java and Go. Rust avoids the garbage collection nonsense (and huge performance issues), gives me the level of fine control that I am used to with C, but gets rid of memory allocation errors and provides a much richer type system and type matching. It feels a bit like an approachable Haskell, and I quickly found myself chaining iterators and pushing myself to write in a more functional style.

The lifetime stuff in Rust can be frustrating, and there are a few limitations that can be hard to deal with (like iterating over one field of a struct while modifying another field of a struct, which comes up a lot and which is the sort of thing you have to avoid in Rust). But I like a language with a very picky compiler. And I love programming in a language where my first attempt is clunky and verbose, and then I think about the problem a bit and rewrite it in half as many lines of code, and then I sleep on it and come back and can delete half of the code again.

I sadly don't have a lot of work projects right now where Rust is the right answer. I'm mostly maintaining existing code bases in Python, and Python is more accessible and more maintainable in most situations. But I now would love to find the time to rewrite a bunch of my personal C projects in Rust, and I'm watching for any new opportunity to use Rust.

If you like new programming languages, but you don't have the time or inclination to live on the bleeding edge, Rust has gotten more stable and is at a good point to start. The documentation is fantastic, support for generating documentation is built into the language, the Rust book is a great teaching research, and Rust is available as Debian packages (so you don't have to do the horrifying curl | bash nonsense in the official Rust documentation).

Recommended, particularly for people who love Perl or functional languages (or functional Perl heavy on map and grep), want a more modern language with fewer odd corners, and want low-level control and native speed.

2017-07-31: Review: The Fifth Season

Review: The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

Series The Broken Earth #1
Publisher Orbit
Copyright 2015
ISBN 0-316-22930-X
Format Kindle
Pages 497

The world of The Fifth Season is one of near-constant seismic activity. Volcanoes, massive earthquakes, and all the catastrophes that follow them are a constant threat. Civilization barely survives the turmoil, and only because of two things: strict cultural rules about how to handle a "fifth season" of heavy seismic activity and its aftermath (called stonelore), and the orogenes.

Orogenes are humans (well, there is some debate about that) who have an organ that others don't, a biological ability to manipulate the seismic activity and the earth itself. They can protect others by damping down activity, smoothing faults, and redirecting seismic shock waves, but they can also destroy: pull earth out of shape, set off quakes, and create paths for magma to surface. And, to gather the power to manipulate the earth, they draw energy from everything around them, including from other people, often fatally. Orogenes are feared and hated by the typical person.

The Stillness, the ironically-named continent on which this book is set, is very old and has had numerous civilizations destroyed by some seismic catastrophe. The landscape is scattered with useless or dangerous remnants of previous forgotten civilizations; the history, likewise, with only the stonelore and some muddled mythology available to most people. The current rulers have kept their empire for a surprising length of time, however, due mostly to the stable ground beneath their centrally-located capital. That stability comes from Fulcrum-trained orogenes, who are taken from their family as children and trained harshly to serve their society by suppressing or fixing dangerous seismic events. Fulcrum orogenes don't have an awful life (well, most of them; for some, it is pure torture), but they're effectively slaves, kept under the watchful eye of Guardians who have mysterious powers of their own.

Against this background, The Fifth Season tells three interwoven stories. Essun lives in a small village (comm) at the start of the book, leading a quiet life, until one of her children is beaten to death by her husband following a seismic event that he thinks the child stopped. He's taken their other child and left. Essun, severely traumatized, heads after him to attempt a rescue, or at least revenge. Damaya is a child from another comm who is sold to the Guardians by her parents when she demonstrates orogenic ability, and who goes through Fulcrum training. And Syenite is a Fulcrum orogene, assigned to a field mission with a difficult but very senior orogene named Alabaster.

All of these stories eventually interweave, and eventually reveal where they fit in the somewhat unobvious chronology of the story, but it takes some time to get there. It also takes some time for the primary characters to have much in the way of agency. Essun starts with the most, once she recovers her senses enough to start her hunt for revenge. Syenite is ambitious but junior, and Damaya is a child, trying to navigate an unknown world of student politics and strict rules. And all three of the main characters are orogenes, rogga when one is being insulting, and this world does not like orogenes. At all.

The Fifth Season starts with an unusual narrative style: a conversational narrator who begins with some of the world background and some mysterious scenes that didn't make sense until much later in the book (late enough that I didn't remember them or make sense of them until I re-read them for this review). The book then focuses on Essun, whose scenes are written in second person present. Normally I think second person feels weirdly intrusive and off-putting, but once I got used to it here, I think it works as well as I've seen it work anywhere. I also see why Jemisin did it: Essun starts the story so traumatized that she's partly disassociating. First person wouldn't have worked, and the second-person voice gives that trauma some immediacy and emotional heft that would have been hard to achieve in third person.

The story starts slowly, and builds slowly, as the world is introduced and Jemisin lays down the texture and history of the world. The world-building is ambitious in tracing down the ramifications of the seismic chaos and the implications of orogene ability (although it's best to think of it as pure magic, despite the minor science fiction trappings). But through that world-building, what this story is building is a deep, powerful, frustrated rage. The Fifth Season is an angry book. It's a book about outcasts, about slaves. About people who, even if they're succeeding within the parameters they're given, are channeled and stymied and controlled. It's a story about smiling, kind paternalism hiding lies, control, and abuse, about how hard it is to find enough space from the smothering destructiveness of a totalitarian culture to let yourself relax. It's a story about the horrible things people are willing to do to those they don't consider fully human, and all the ways in which safety, expediency, tradition, culture, and established social roles conspire to keep people within the box where they belong. And it's a story about how being constantly on edge, constantly dreading the next abuse, breaking under it, and being left wanting to burn the whole world to the ground.

I struggled at the start of this book, but it grew on me, and by about halfway through it had me hooked completely. At first, Syenite's part of the story (the most traditionally told) was my favorite, but the coming-of-age stories of her and Damaya were overtaken by Essun's far more complex, cautious, and battle-weary tale. And I loved Jemisin's world-building. There's a lot of depth here, a lot of things going on that are unexplained but clearly important, and a restraint and maturity in how the world is revealed that makes it feel older and more layered than Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

The major drawback of this book is that it is very much the first book of a series, and it doesn't so much have an ending as a hard stop. It's not quite a cliff-hanger, but it's nearly as unsatisfying as one. Most of the major questions of the book — who the stone eaters are and what they want, and the fate of Essun's husband and child, just to name two — are still unresolved at the end of the story. There is a bit of emotional closure, but not a true moment of catharsis for all of the rage. Hopefully that will be coming in a future book.

This is a very unusual story, mixing fantasy and a sort of magic (orogeny) with some science fiction elements and a deep history. It's gritty, textured, emotional, and furious, and very much worth reading. I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

Followed by The Obelisk Gate.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2017-06-30: End of month haul

For some reason, June is always incredibly busy for me. It's historically the most likely month in which I don't post anything here at all except reviews (and sometimes not even that). But I'm going to tell you about what books I bought (or were given to me) on the very last day of the month to break the pattern of no journal postings in June.

Ted Chiang — Arrival (Stories of Your Life) (sff collection)
Eoin Colfer — Artemis Fowl (sff)
Philip K. Dick — The Man Who Japed (sff)
Yoon Ha Lee — Raven Strategem (sff)
Paul K. Longmore — Why I Burned My Book (nonfiction)
Melina Marchetta — The Piper's Son (mainstream)
Jules Verne — For the Flag (sff, sort of)

This is a more than usually eclectic mix.

The Chiang is his Stories of Your Life collection reissued under the title of Arrival to cash in on the huge success of the movie based on one of his short stories. I'm not much of a short fiction reader, but I've heard so many good things about Chiang that I'm going to give it a try.

The Longmore is a set of essays about disability rights that has been on my radar for a while. I finally got pushed into buying it (plus the first Artemis Fowl book and the Marchetta) because I've been reading back through every review Light has written. (I wish I were even close to that amusingly snarky in reviews, and she manages to say in a few paragraphs what usually takes me a whole essay.)

Finally, the Dick and the Verne were gifts from a co-worker from a used book store in Ireland. Minor works by both authors, but nice, old copies of the books.

2017-06-30: Review: Make It Stick

Review: Make It Stick, by Peter C. Brown, et al.

Author Peter C. Brown
Author Henry L. Roediger III
Author Mark A. McDaniel
Publisher Belknap Press
Copyright 2014
ISBN 0-674-72901-3
Format Kindle
Pages 255

Another read for the work book club.

"People generally are going about learning in the wrong ways." This is the first sentence of the preface of this book by two scientists (Roediger and McDaniel are both psychology researchers specializing in memory) and a novelist and former management consultant (Brown). The goal of Make It Stick is to apply empirical scientific research to the problem of learning, specifically retention of information for long-term use. The authors aim to convince the reader that subjective impressions of the effectiveness of study habits are highly deceptive, and that scientific evidence points strongly towards mildly counter-intuitive learning methods that don't feel like they're producing as good of results.

I have such profound mixed feelings about this book.

Let's start with the good. Make It Stick is a book containing actual science. The authors quote the studies, results, and scientific argument at length. There are copious footnotes and an index, as well as recommended reading. And the science is concrete and believable, as is the overlaid interpretation based on cognitive and memory research.

The book's primary argument is that short-term and long-term memory are very different things, that what we're trying to achieve when we say "learning" is based heavily on long-term memory and recall of facts for an extended time after study, and that building this type of recall requires not letting our short-term memory do all the work. We tend towards study patterns that show obvious short-term improvement and that produce an increased feeling of effortless recall of the material, but those study patterns are training short-term memory and mean the knowledge slips away quickly. Choosing learning methods that instead make us struggle a little with what we're learning are significantly better. It's that struggle that leads to committing the material to long-term memory and building good recall pathways for it.

On top of this convincingly-presented foundation, the authors walk through learning methods that feel worse in the moment but have better long-term effects: mixing practice of different related things (different types of solids when doing geometry problems, different pitches in batting practice) and switching types before you've mastered the one you're working on, forcing yourself to interpret and analyze material (such as writing a few paragraphs of summary in your own words) instead of re-reading it, and practicing material at spaced intervals far enough apart that you've forgotten some of the material and have to struggle to recall it. Possibly the most useful insight here (at least for me) was the role of testing in learning, not as just a way of measuring progress, but as a learning tool. Frequent, spaced, cumulative testing forces exactly the type of recall that builds long-term memory. The tests themselves help improve our retention of what we're learning. It's bad news for people like me who were delighted to leave school and not have to take a test again, but viewing tests as a more effective learning tool than re-reading and review (which they are) does cast them in a far more positive light.

This is all solid stuff, and I'm very glad the research underlying this book exists and that I now know about it. But there are some significant problems with its presentation.

The first is that there just isn't much here. The two long paragraphs above summarize nearly all of the useful content of this book. The authors certainly provide more elaboration, and I haven't talked about all of the study methods they mention or some of the useful examples of their application. But 80% of it is there, and the book is intentionally repetitive (because it tries to follow the authors' advice on learning theory). Make It Stick therefore becomes tedious and boring, particularly in the first four chapters. I was saying a lot of "yes, yes, you said that already" and falling asleep while trying to read it. The summaries at the end of the book are a bit better, but you will probably not need most of this book to get the core ideas.

And then there's chapter five, which ends in a train wreck.

Chapter five is on cognitive biases, and I see why the authors wanted to include it. The Dunning-Kruger effect is directly relevant to their topic. It undermines our ability to learn, and is yet another thing that testing helps avoid. Their discussion of Daniel Kahneman's two system theory (your fast, automatic, subconscious reactions and your slow, thoughtful, conscious processing) is somewhat less directly relevant, but it's interesting stuff, and it's at least somewhat related to the short-term and long-term memory dichotomy. But some of the stories they choose to use to illustrate this are... deeply unfortunate. Specifically, the authors decided to use US police work in multiple places as their example of choice for two-system thinking, and treat it completely uncritically.

Some of you are probably already wincing because you can see where this is going.

They interview a cop who, during scenario training for traffic stops, was surprised by the car trunk popping open and a man armed with a shotgun popping out of it. To this day, he still presses down on the trunk of the car as he walks up; it's become part of his checklist for every traffic stop. This would be a good example if the authors realized how badly his training has failed and deconstructed it, but they're apparently oblivious. I wanted to reach into the book and shake them. People have a limited number of things they can track and follow as part of a procedure, and some bad trainer has completely wasted part of this cop's attention in every traffic stop and thereby made him less safe! Just calculate the chances that someone would be curled up in an unlocked trunk with a shotgun and a cop would just happen to stop that car for some random reason, compared to any other threat the cop could use that same attention to watch for. This is exactly the type of scenario that's highly memorable but extremely improbable and therefore badly breaks human risk analysis. It's what Bruce Schneier calls a movie plot threat. The correct reaction to movie plot threats is to ignore them; wasting effort on mitigating them means not having that effort to spend on mitigating some other less memorable but more likely threat.

This isn't the worst, though. The worst is the very next paragraph, also from police training, of showing up at a domestic call, seeing an armed person on the porch who stands up and walks away when ordered to drop their weapon, and not being sure how to react, resulting in that person (in the simulated exercise) killing the cop before they did anything. The authors actually use this as an example of how the cop was using system two and needed to train to use system one in that situation to react faster, and that this is part of the point of the training.

Those of us who have been paying attention to the real world know what using system one here means: the person on the porch gets shot if they're black and doesn't get shot if they're white. The authors studiously refuse to even hint at this problem.

I would have been perfectly happy if this book avoided the unconscious bias aspect of system one thinking. It's a bit far afield of the point of the book, and the authors are doubtless trying to stay apolitical. But that's why you pick some other example. You cannot just drop this kind of thing on the page and then refuse to even comment on it! It's like writing a chapter about the effect of mass transit on economic development, choosing Atlanta as one of your case studies, and then never mentioning race.

Also, some editor seriously should have taken an ax to the sentence where the authors (for no justified reason) elaborate a story to describe a cop maiming a person, solely to make a cliched joke about how masculinity is defined by testicles and how people who lose body parts are less human. Thanks, book.

This was bad enough that it dominated my memory of this chapter, but, reviewing the book for this review, I see it was just a few badly chosen examples at the end of the chapter and one pointless story at the start. The rest of the chapter is okay, although it largely summarizes things covered better in other books. The most useful part that's relevant to the topic of the book is probably the discussion of peer instruction. Just skip over all the police bits; you won't be missing anything.

Thankfully, the rest of the book mostly avoids failing quite this hard. Chapter six does open with the authors obliviously falling for a string of textbook examples of survivorship bias (immediately after the chapter on cognitive biases!), but they shortly thereafter settle down to the accurate and satisfying work of critiquing theories of learning methods and types of intelligence. And by critiquing, I mean pointing out that they're mostly unscientific bullshit, which is fighting the good fight as far as I'm concerned.

So, mixed feelings. The science seems solid, and is practical and directly applicable to my life. Make It Stick does an okay job at presenting it, but gets tedious and boring in places, particularly near the beginning. And there are a few train-wreck examples that had me yelling at the book and scribbling notes, which wasn't really the cure for boredom I was looking for. I recommend being aware of this research, and I'm glad the authors wrote this book, but I can't really recommend the book itself as a reading experience.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2017-06-05: Review: Star Healer

Review: Star Healer, by James White

Series Sector General #6
Publisher Orb
Copyright 1984
Printing 2002
ISBN 0-312-87770-6
Format Trade paperback
Pages 206

Star Healer is the sixth book of the Sector General series, and I think it may be the first novel in the series that was written as a novel instead of a fix-up of short stories. That makes it not a bad place to start in the series if one would rather not deal with fix-ups or barely-disguised short story collections. There isn't a huge amount of character development over the course of this series (at least to this point), so the main thing you would lose by starting here is some built-up reason for caring about the main character.

This is the third book in the Alien Emergencies omnibus (the book referenced in the publication information here).

Most of the previous stories have focused on Conway, a Senior Physician in the sprawling and wonderfully well-equipped multi-species hospital called Sector General and, in recent stories, the head physician in the hospital's ambulance ship. Becoming a Senior Physician at Sector General is quite the accomplishment, and a fine point to reach in the career of any doctor specializing in varied life forms, but there is another tier above: the Diagnosticians, who are the elite of Sector General. The difference is education tapes.

Deep knowledge of even one specific type of life is a lot to ask of a doctor, as shown by the increasing specialization of human medicine. Sector General, which deals with wildly varying ailments of thousands of species including entirely unknown ones (if, admittedly, primarily trauma, at least in the stories shown), would be an impossible task. White realizes this and works around it with education tapes that temporarily embed in a doctor's head the experience of a doctor of another species entirely. This provides the native expertise missing, but it comes with the full personality of the doctor who recorded the tape, including preferences for food and romantic attachment that may be highly disorienting. Senior Physicians use a tape at a time, and then have it erased again when they don't need it. Diagnosticians juggle four or more tapes at the same time, and keep them for long periods or even permanently, allowing them to do ground-breaking original research.

The opening of Star Healer is an offer from the intimidating Chief Psychologist of Sector General: he has a shot at Diagnostician. But it's a major decision that he should think over first, so the next step is to take a vacation of sorts on a quiet world with a small human scientific station. Oh, and there's a native medical problem, although not one with much urgency.

Conway doesn't do a lot of resting, because of course he gets pulled into trying to understand the mystery of an alien species that is solitary to the point of deep and unbreakable social taboos against even standing close to other people. This is a nice cultural puzzle in line with the rest of the series, but it also leaves Conway with a new ally: an alien healer in a society in which being a doctor is difficult to the point of near hopelessness.

It's not much of a spoiler to say that of course Conway decides to try for Diagnostician after his "vacation." The rest of the book is him juggling multiple cases with his new and often conflicting modes of thinking, and tackling problems that require a bit less in the way of puzzle-solving and a bit more in the way of hard trade-off decisions and quick surgical action. Senior Physicians may be able to concentrate on just one puzzle at a time; Diagnosticians have to juggle several. And they're larger, more long-term problems, focusing on how to improve a general problem for a whole species rather than just heal a specific injured alien.

One interesting aspect of this series, which is very much on display here, is that Sector General most definitely does not have a Prime Directive. They are cautious about making contact with particularly primitive civilizations for fear that spacefarers would give them an inferiority complex, but sometimes they do anyway. And if they run into some biological system that offends their sensibilities, they try to fix it, not just observe it. White frequently shows species caught in what the characters call "biological traps," unable to develop farther because of some biological adaptation that gets in their way, and Sector General tries to fix those. It's an interesting ethical problem that I wish they'd think about a bit more. It's not clear they're wrong, and I think it's correct to take an expansive view of the mission to heal, but there's also a sense in which Sector General is modifying culture and biology to make aliens more like them.

(The parallels between this and all the abusive paternalism that human cultures do around disability is a little too close to home to be comfortable, and now I kind of wish it hadn't occurred to me.)

The gender roles, sadly, continue to be dire, although mostly ignorable because the one major female character is generally just shown as another doctor with little attention to sex. But apparently women (of every species!) cannot become Diagnosticians because they have an insurmountable biological aversion to sharing their minds with a learning tape from any doctor who doesn't find them physically attractive, which is just... sigh. It's sad that someone who could write an otherwise remarkably open-minded and pacifist series of stories, in sharp contrast with most of SF history, would still have that large of a blind spot.

Apart from the times gender comes up, I liked this book more than the rest of the series, in part because I strongly prefer novels to short stories. There's more room to develop the story, and while characterization continues to not be White's strong point and that space mostly goes to more puzzles instead, he does provide an interesting set of interlocking puzzles. The problem posed by the aliens Conway meets on his "vacation" isn't fully resolved here (presumably that's for a future book), but he does solve several other significant problems and develops his own problem-solving style in more depth than in previous stories.

Mildly recommended, particularly if you like this series in general.

Followed by Code Blue - Emergency.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2017-05-31: Review: Migration

Review: Migration, by Julie E. Czerneda

Series Species Imperative #2
Publisher DAW
Copyright 2005
ISBN 0-7564-0260-3
Format Hardcover
Pages 453

Migration is the second book of the Species Imperative, and this is the old-fashioned type of trilogy that you very much want to read in order. Start with Survival. There is a (slightly awkward) recap of the previous book at the start, though, if it's been a bit since you read it.

In my review of Survival, I praised Czerneda's ability to capture the feel of academic research and the sense of real scientists doing science. I thought I went out on a bit of a limb, not being a scientist myself (just someone who worked at a university for decades), but Czerneda was still holding back. I'm now completely convinced: whatever else this series is, and it contains a lot of politics and world-building and fascinating (if very human-like) aliens, it's some of the best science fiction about practicing scientists I've ever read.

I cannot express how much I adore the fact that the center of this book is not space combat, not daring adventure across alien landscapes, but getting a bunch of really smart experts in their field together in a room with good equipment and good computers to chase an intellectual problem from their own individual perspectives. And if Mac is perhaps a bit *too* good at quickly overcoming interpersonal conflict and suspicion, I'll forgive that for the deft sense of politics. Mac's success may be a bit unrealistic, but the direction and thrust of her tactics are spot-on. This is how interactions between smart and curious people often work, at least if they're sufficiently motivated to put aside pettier political infighting. This is also how the dynamics of emergency war rooms work: if you can give people a focus and divide up the work, the results can be amazing.

The second best part of the book is Oversight. The first book opened with the latest round of Mac's ongoing war with Charles Mudge III, the oversight board of the neighboring wilderness trust. He shows up again at the start of this book, acting completely consistent to his stubborn idealism shown in Survival, and then develops into one of the best characters in the book. Unexpected allies is one of the tropes I love most in fiction in general, but this one resonates so deeply with the way grudging respect and familiar patterns, even patterns of argument, work on people. Czerneda had me grinning. It's just perfectly in line with Mac's character, her single-minded focus on work that tended to miss a few points of human connection, and the sort of deepening respect that builds up even between adversaries when they know deep inside that they are following different interpretations of the same principles.

I'm going to be rather sketchy on the plot, since Migration follows closely on from Survival and is concerned almost entirely with the aftermath of the climactic events at the end of that book. But as you can tell, this is more of Mac, and she's not managed to separate herself from Dhryn problems or from the Ministry of Extra-Solar Affairs. She does, however, get rather far away from Norcoast for a while, an interlude in the wild northern Canadian wilderness that once again proves Czerneda to be the type of writer who can make the quotidian as engrossing as alien dramatics. She's also suffering from nightmares, anxiety, and a lot of circular thinking, making this one of the series that shows the realistic toll of dramatic events on human psychology.

There was a bit of a nascent love story in Survival; there's a lot more of that here. It's the one bit of the book that I have mixed feelings about, since it feels a touch unnecessary to me, and therefore a bit intrusive. It also involves a fair bit of love at, well, not first sight but surprisingly fast, which is something I know intellectually that other people think happens, but which always undermines my suspension of disbelief. That said, Czerneda gives Mac a clear tendency in how she forms emotional attachments and sticks with it throughout this series to date, which I do like, and she keeps the romance consistent with that. It thankfully does not get too much in the way of the plot, although I could have done with just a few fewer determined proclamations that the characters won't let love get in the way of doing what they need to do.

That quibble aside, this is fantastic stuff that avoids most of the cliches of this sort of story of alien politics and possible war. The focus is firmly on analysis and understanding rather than guns and action, the portrayal of scientists, analysis, and problem-solving is spot on, the aliens are delightfully different (and different from each other within the same alien species, which is important depth), and Mac is a fantastic protagonist. She's vulnerable, wounded, and out of her depth, but she knows how to map new situations to her areas of competence and how to admit when she doesn't know something, and her effectiveness is well-grounded and believable. Oh, and there are some amazing descriptions of the Canadian wilderness that almost make me want to find a secluded cabin without Internet access. (At least if it had all of the convenient technology that Mac's future Earth has.)

It's a rare middle book of a trilogy that's better than the first, but this one is. Much better. And I already liked the first book. Highly recommended; I think this is one of Czerneda's best.

Followed by Regeneration.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2017-05-28: Debian Policy 4.0.0.0

Today, about a month later than I had intended due to having three consecutive work weeks that mostly drained me of energy, I finally uploaded Debian Policy 4.0.0.0 to Debian experimental.

This went to experimental rather than unstable for two reasons:

I expect there to be a few more point-release changes to packaging and formatting uploaded to experimental before uploading to unstable for the start of the buster development cycle. (I've indeed already noticed about six minor bugs, including the missing release date in the upgrading checklist....)

Due to the DocBook conversion, and the resources rightly devoted to the stretch release instead, it may be a bit before the new Policy version shows up properly in all the places it's published.

As you might expect from it having been more than a year since the previous release, there were a lot of accumulated changes. I posted the full upgrading-checklist entries to debian-devel-announce, or of course you can install the debian-policy package from experimental and review them in /usr/share/doc/debian-policy/upgrading-checklist.txt.gz.

2017-05-27: On time management

Last December, the Guardian published a long essay by Oliver Burkeman entitled "Why time management is ruining our lives". Those who follow my book reviews know I read a lot of time management books, so of course I couldn't resist this. And, possibly surprisingly, not to disagree with it. It's an excellent essay, and well worth your time.

Burkeman starts by talking about Inbox Zero:

If all this fervour seems extreme – Inbox Zero was just a set of technical instructions for handling email, after all – this was because email had become far more than a technical problem. It functioned as a kind of infinite to-do list, to which anyone on the planet could add anything at will.

This is, as Burkeman develops in the essay, an important critique of time management techniques in general, not just Inbox Zero: perhaps you can become moderately more efficient, but what are you becoming more efficient at doing, and why does it matter? If there were a finite amount of things that you had to accomplish, with leisure the reward at the end of the fixed task list, doing those things more efficiently makes perfect sense. But this is not the case in most modern life. Instead, we live in a world governed by Parkinson's Law: "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion."

Worse, we live in a world where the typical employer takes Parkinson's Law, not as a statement on the nature of ever-expanding to-do lists, but a challenge to compress the time made available for a task to try to force the work to happen faster. Burkeman goes farther into the politics, pointing out that a cui bono analysis of time management suggests that we're all being played by capitalist employers. I wholeheartedly agree, but that's worth a separate discussion; for those who want to explore that angle, David Graeber's Debt and John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society are worth your time.

What I want to write about here is why I still read (and recommend) time management literature, and how my thinking on it has changed.

I started in the same place that most people probably do: I had a bunch of work to juggle, I felt I was making insufficient forward progress on it, and I felt my day contained a lot of slack that could be put to better use. The alluring promise of time management is that these problems can be resolved with more organization and some focus techniques. And there is a huge surge of energy that comes with adopting a new system and watching it work, since the good ones build psychological payoff into the tracking mechanism. Starting a new time management system is fun! Finishing things is fun!

I then ran into the same problem that I think most people do: after that initial surge of enthusiasm, I had lists, systems, techniques, data on where my time was going, and a far more organized intake process. But I didn't feel more comfortable with how I was spending my time, I didn't have more leisure time, and I didn't feel happier. Often the opposite: time management systems will often force you to notice all the things you want to do and how slow your progress is towards accomplishing any of them.

This is my fundamental disagreement with Getting Things Done (GTD): David Allen firmly believes that the act of recording everything that is nagging at you to be done relieves the brain of draining background processing loops and frees you to be more productive. He argues for this quite persuasively; as you can see from my review, I liked his book a great deal, and used his system for some time. But, at least for me, this does not work. Instead, having a complete list of goals towards which I am making slow or no progress is profoundly discouraging and depressing. The process of maintaining and dwelling on that list while watching it constantly grow was awful, quite a bit worse psychologically than having no time management system at all.

Mark Forster is the time management author who speaks the best to me, and one of the points he makes is that time management is the wrong framing. You're not going to somehow generate more time, and you're usually not managing minutes and seconds. A better framing is task management, or commitment management: the goal of the system is to manage what you mentally commit to accomplishing, usually by restricting that list to something far shorter than you would come up with otherwise. How, in other words, to limit your focus to a small enough set of goals that you can make meaningful progress instead of thrashing.

That, for me, is now the merit and appeal of time (or task) management systems: how do I sort through all the incoming noise, distractions, requests, desires, and compelling ideas that life throws at me and figure out which of them are worth investing time in? I also benefit from structuring that process for my peculiar psychology, in which backlogs I have to look at regularly are actively dangerous for my mental well-being. Left unchecked, I can turn even the most enjoyable hobby into an obligation and then into a source of guilt for not meeting the (entirely artificial) terms of the obligation I created, without even intending to.

And here I think it has a purpose, but it's not the purpose that the time management industry is selling. If you think of time management as a way to get more things done and get more out of each moment, you're going to be disappointed (and you're probably also being taken advantage of by the people who benefit from unsustainable effort without real, unstructured leisure time). I practice Inbox Zero, but the point wasn't to be more efficient at processing my email. The point was to avoid the (for me) psychologically damaging backlog of messages while acting on the knowledge that 99% of email should go immediately into the trash with no further action. Email is an endless incoming stream of potential obligations or requests for my time (even just to read a longer message) that I should normallly reject. I also take the time to notice patterns of email that I never care about and then shut off the source or write filters to delete that email for me. I can then reserve my email time for moments of human connection, directly relevant information, or very interesting projects, and spend the time on those messages without guilt (or at least much less guilt) about ignoring everything else.

Prioritization is extremely difficult, particularly once you realize that true prioritization is not about first and later, but about soon or never. The point of prioritization is not to choose what to do first, it's to choose the 5% of things that you going to do at all, convince yourself to be mentally okay with never doing the other 95% (and not lying to yourself about how there will be some future point when you'll magically have more time), and vigorously defend your focus and effort for that 5%. And, hopefully, wholeheartedly enjoy working on those things, without guilt or nagging that there's something else you should be doing instead.

I still fail at this all the time. But I'm better than I used to be.

For me, that mental shift was by far the hardest part. But once you've made that shift, I do think the time management world has a lot of tools and techniques to help you make more informed choices about the 5%, and to help you overcome procrastination and loss of focus on your real goals.

Those real goals should include true unstructured leisure and "because I want to" projects. And hopefully, if you're in a financial position to do it, include working less on what other people want you to do and more on the things that delight you. Or at least making a well-informed strategic choice (for the sake of money or some other concrete and constantly re-evaluated reason) to sacrifice your personal goals for some temporary external ones.

2017-05-27: Optimistic haul

I never have as much time to read as I wish I did, but I keep buying books, of course. Maybe someday I'll have a good opportunity to take extended time off work and just read for a bit. Well, retirement, at least, right?

Charlie Jane Anders — All the Birds in the Sky (sff)
Peter C. Brown, et al. — Make It Stick (nonfiction)
April Daniels — Dreadnought: Nemesis (sff)
T. Kingfisher — The Halcyon Fairy Book (sff collection)
T. Kingfisher — Jackalope Wives and Other Stories (sff collection)
Margot Lee Shetterly — Hidden Figures (nonfiction)
Cordwainer Smith — Norstrilia (sff)
Kristine Smith — Code of Conduct (sff)
Jonathan Taplin — Move Fast and Break Things (nonfiction)
Sarah Zettel — Fool's War (sff)
Sarah Zettel — Playing God (sff)
Sarah Zettel — The Quiet Invasion (sff)

It doesn't help that James Nicoll keeps creating new lists of books that all sound great. And there's some really interesting nonfiction being written right now.

Make It Stick is the current book for the work book club.

2017-05-21: Review: Sector General

Review: Sector General, by James White

Series Sector General #5
Publisher Orb
Copyright 1983
Printing 2002
ISBN 0-312-87770-6
Format Trade paperback
Pages 187

Sector General is the fifth book (or, probably more accurately, collection) in the Sector General series. I blame the original publishers for the confusion. The publication information is for the Alien Emergencies omnibus, which includes the fourth through the sixth books in the series.

Looking back on my previous reviews of this series (wow, it's been eight years since I read the last one?), I see I was reviewing them as novels rather than as short story collections. In retrospect, that was a mistake, since they're composed of clearly stand-alone stories with a very loose arc. I'm not going to go back and re-read the earlier collections to give them proper per-story reviews, but may as well do this properly here.

Overall, this collection is more of the same, so if that's what you want, there won't be any negative surprises. It's another four engineer-with-a-wrench stories about biological and medical puzzles, with only a tiny bit of characterization and little hint to any personal life for any of the characters outside of the job. Some stories are forgettable, but White does create some memorable aliens. Sadly, the stories don't take us to the point of real communication, so those aliens stop at biological puzzles and guesswork. "Combined Operation" is probably the best, although "Accident" is the most philosophical and an interesting look at the founding principle of Sector General.

"Accident": MacEwan and Grawlya-Ki are human and alien brought together by a tragic war, and forever linked by a rather bizarre war monument. (It's a very neat SF concept, although the implications and undiscussed consequences don't bear thinking about too deeply.) The result of that war was a general recognition that such things should not be allowed to happen again, and it brought about a new, deep commitment to inter-species tolerance and politeness. Which is, in a rather fascinating philosophical twist, exactly what MacEwan and Grawlya-Ki are fighting against: not the lack of aggression, which they completely agree with, but with the layers of politeness that result in every species treating all others as if they were eggshells. Their conviction is that this cannot create a lasting peace.

This insight is one of the most profound bits I've read in the Sector General novels and supports quite a lot of philosophical debate. (Sadly, there isn't a lot of that in the story itself.) The backdrop against which it plays out is an accidental crash in a spaceport facility, creating a dangerous and potentially deadly environment for a variety of aliens. Given the collection in which this is included and the philosophical bent described above, you can probably guess where this goes, although I'll leave it unspoiled if you can't. It's an idea that could have been presented with more subtlety, but it's a really great piece of setting background that makes the whole series snap into focus. A much better story in context than its surface plot. (7)

"Survivor": The hospital ship Rhabwar rescues a sole survivor from the wreck of an alien ship caused by incomplete safeguards on hyperdrive generators. The alien is very badly injured and unconscious and needs the full attention of Sector General, but on the way back, the empath Prilicla also begins suffering from empathic hypersensitivity. Conway, the protagonist of most of this series, devotes most of his attention to that problem, having delivered the rescued alien to competent surgical hands. But it will surprise no regular reader that the problems turn out to be linked (making it a bit improbable that it takes the doctors so long to figure that out). A very typical entry in the series. (6)

"Investigation": Another very typical entry, although this time the crashed spaceship is on a planet. The scattered, unconscious bodies of the survivors, plus signs of starvation and recent amputation on all of them, convinces the military (well, police is probably more accurate) escort that this is may be a crime scene. The doctors are unconvinced, but cautious, and local sand storms and mobile vegetation add to the threat. I thought this alien design was a bit less interesting (and a lot creepier). (6)

"Combined Operation": The best (and longest) story of this collection. Another crashed alien spacecraft, but this time it's huge, large enough (and, as they quickly realize, of a design) to indicate a space station rather than a ship, except that it's in the middle of nowhere and each segment contains a giant alien worm creature. Here, piecing together the biology and the nature of the vehicle is only the beginning; the conclusion points to an even larger problem, one that requires drawing on rather significant resources to solve. (On a deadline, of course, to add some drama.) This story requires the doctors to go unusually deep into the biology and extrapolated culture of the alien they're attempting to rescue, which made it more intellectually satisfying for me. (7)

Followed by Star Healer.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2017-05-13: Review: The Raven and the Reindeer

Review: The Raven and the Reindeer, by T. Kingfisher

Publisher Red Wombat Tea Company
Copyright 2016
ASIN B01BKTT73A
Format Kindle
Pages 191

Once upon a time, there was a boy born with frost in his eyes and frost in his heart.

There are a hundred stories about why this happens. Some of them are close to true. Most of them are merely there to absolve the rest of us of blame.

It happens. Sometimes it's no one's fault.

Kay is the boy with frost in his heart. Gerta grew up next door. They were inseparable as children, playing together on cold winter days. Gerta was in love with Kay for as long as she could remember. Kay, on the other hand, was, well, kind of a jerk.

There are not many stories about this sort of thing. There ought to be more. Perhaps if there were, the Gertas of the world would learn to recognize it.

Perhaps not. It is hard to see a story when you are standing in the middle of it.

Then, one night, Kay is kidnapped in the middle of the night by the Snow Queen while Gerta watches, helpless. She's convinced that she's dreaming, but when she wakes up, Kay is indeed gone, and eventually the villagers stop the search. But Gerta has defined herself around Kay her whole life, so she sets off, determined to find him, totally unprepared for the journey but filled with enough stubborn, practical persistence to overcome a surprising number of obstacles.

Depending on your past reading experience (and cultural consumption in general), there are two things that may be immediately obvious from this beginning. First, it's written by Ursula Vernon, under her T. Kingfisher pseudonym that she uses for more adult fiction. No one else has quite that same turn of phrase, or writes protagonists with quite the same sort of overwhelmed but stubborn determination. Second, it's a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen."

I knew the first, obviously. I was completely oblivious to the second, having never read "The Snow Queen," or anything else by Andersen for that matter. I haven't even seen Frozen. I therefore can't comment in too much detail on the parallels and divergences between Kingfisher's telling and Andersen's (although you can read the original to compare if you want) other than some research on Wikipedia. As you might be able to tell from the quote above, though, Kingfisher is rather less impressed by the idea of childhood true love than Andersen was. This is not the sort of story in which the protagonist rescues the captive boy through the power of pure love. It's something quite a bit more complicated and interesting: a coming-of-age story for Gerta, in which her innocence is much less valuable than her fundamental decency, empathy, and courage, and in which her motives for her journey change as the journey proceeds. It helps that Kingfisher's world is populated by less idealized characters, many of whom are neither wholly bad nor wholly good, but who think of themselves as basically decent and try to do vaguely the right thing. Although sometimes they need some reminding.

The story does feature a talking raven. (Most certainly not a crow.) His name is the Sound of Mouse Bones Crunching Under the Hooves of God. He's quite possibly the best part.

Gerta does not rescue Kay through the power of pure love. But there is love here, of a sort that Gerta wasn't expecting at all, and of a sort that Andersen never had in mind when he wrote the original. There's also some beautifully-described shapeshifting, delightful old women, and otters. (Also, I find the boy who appears at the very end of the story utterly fascinating, with all his implied parallel story and the implicit recognition that the world does not revolve around Kay and Greta.) But I think my favorite part is how clearly different Greta is at the end of her journey than at the beginning, how subtly Kingfisher makes that happen through the course of the story, and how understated but just right her actions are at the very end.

This is really excellent stuff. The next time you're feeling in the mood for a retold and modernized fairy tale, I recommend it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2017-05-07: Review: Chimes at Midnight

Review: Chimes at Midnight, by Seanan McGuire

Series October Daye #7
Publisher DAW
Copyright 2013
ISBN 1-101-63566-5
Format Kindle
Pages 346

Chimes at Midnight is the seventh book of the October Daye series and builds heavily on the previous books. Toby has gathered quite the group of allies by this point, and events here would casually spoil some of the previous books in the series (particularly One Salt Sea, which you absolutely do not want spoiled). I strongly recommend starting at the beginning, even if the series is getting stronger as it goes along.

This time, rather than being asked for help, the book opens with Toby on a mission. Goblin fruit is becoming increasingly common on the streets of San Francisco, and while she's doing all she can to find and stop the dealers, she's finding dead changelings. Goblin fruit is a pleasant narcotic to purebloods, but to changelings it's instantly and fatally addictive. The growth of the drug trade means disaster for the local changelings, particularly since previous events in the series have broken a prominent local changeling gang. That was for the best, but they were keeping goblin fruit out, and now it's flooding into the power vacuum.

In the sort of idealistic but hopelessly politically naive move that Toby is prone to, she takes her evidence to the highest local authority in faerie: the Queen of the Mists. The queen loathes Toby and the feeling is mutual, but Toby's opinion is that this shouldn't matter: these are her subjects and goblin fruit is widely recognized as a menace. Even if she cares nothing for their lives, a faerie drug being widely sold on the street runs the substantial risk that someone will give it to humans, potentially leading to the discovery of faerie.

Sadly, but predictably, Toby has underestimated the Queen's malevolence. She leaves the court burdened not only with the knowledge that the Queen herself is helping with the distribution of goblin fruit, but also an impending banishment thanks to her reaction. She has three days to get out of the Queen's territory, permanently.

Three days that the Luidaeg suggests she spend talking to people who knew King Gilad, the former and well-respected king of the local territory who died in the 1906 earthquake, apparently leaving the kingdom to the current Queen. Or perhaps not.

As usual, crossing Toby is a very bad idea, and getting Toby involved in politics means that one should start betting heavily against the status quo. Also, as usual, things initially go far too well, and then Toby ends up in serious trouble. (I realize the usefulness of raising the stakes of the story, but I do prefer the books of this series that don't involve Toby spending much of the book ill.) However, there is a vast improvement over previous books in the story: one key relationship (which I'll still avoid spoiling) is finally out of the precarious will-they, won't-they stage and firmly on the page, and it's a relationship that I absolutely love. Watching Toby stomp people who deserve to be stomped makes me happy, but watching Toby let herself be happy and show it makes me even happier.

McGuire also gives us some more long-pending revelations. I probably should have guessed the one about one of Toby's long-time friends and companions much earlier, although at least I did so a few pages before Toby found out. I have some strong suspicions about Toby's own background that were reinforced by this book, and will be curious to see if I'm right. And I'm starting to have guesses about the overall arc of the series, although not firm ones. One of my favorite things in long-running series is the slow revelation of more and more world background, and McGuire does it in just the way I like: lots of underlying complexity, reveals timed for emotional impact but without dragging on things that the characters should obviously be able to figure out, and a whole bunch of layered secrets that continue to provide more mystery even after one layer is removed.

The plot here is typical of the plot of the last couple of novels in the series, which is fine by me since my favorite part of this series is the political intrigue (and Toby realizing that she has far more influence than she thinks). It helps that I thought Arden was great, given how central she is to this story. I liked her realistic reactions to her situation, and I liked her arguments with Toby. I'm dubious how correct Toby actually was, but we've learned by now that arguments from duty are always going to hold sway with her. And I loved Mags and the Library, and hope we'll be seeing more of them in future novels.

The one quibble I'll close with, since the book closed with it, is that I found the ending rather abrupt. There were several things I wanted to see in the aftermath, and the book ended before they could happen. Hopefully that means they'll be the start of the next book (although a bit of poking around makes me think they may be in a novella).

If you've liked the series so far, particularly the couple of books before this one, this is more of what you liked. Recommended.

Followed by The Winter Long.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Last modified and spun 2017-09-18