Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2021-09-12: DocKnot 5.00

This release is the culmination of a project that I've been wanting to do for two years, but nearly all the work was done in the past week. That experience made me rethink some of my skepticism, but I'll get to that part of the story later.

In March of 1999, I got tired of writing HTML by hand and wrote a small program called spin that implemented a macro language that translated into HTML. This makes it one of the oldest programs for which I have a continuous development history, predating podlators by three months. I think only News::Gateway (now very dormant) and Term::ANSIColor (still under active development but very stable) are older, as long as I'm not counting orphaned packages like newsyslog.

I've used spin continuously ever since. It's grown features and an ecosystem of somewhat hackish scripts to do web publishing things I've wanted over the years: journal entries like this one, book reviews, a simple gallery (with some now-unfortunate decisions about maximum image size), RSS feeds, and translation of lots of different input files into HTML. But the core program itself, in all those years, has been one single Perl script written mostly in my Perl coding style from the early 2000s before I read Perl Best Practices.

My web site is long overdue for an overhaul. Just to name a couple of obvious problems, it looks like trash on mobile browsers, and I'm using URL syntax from the early days of the web that, while it prompts some nostalgia for tildes, means all the URLs are annoyingly long and embed useless information such as the fact each page is written in HTML. Its internals also use a lot of ad hoc microformats (a bit of RFC 2822 here, a text-based format with significant indentation there, a weird space-separated database) and are supported by programs that extract meaning from human-written pages and perform automated updates to them rather than having a clear separation between structure and data.

This will be a very large project, but it's the sort of quixotic personal project that I enjoy. Maintaining my own idiosyncratic static site generator is almost certainly not an efficient use of my time compared to, say, converting everything to Hugo. But I have 3,428 pages (currently) written in the thread macro language, plus numerous customizations that cater to my personal taste and interests, and, most importantly, I like having a highly customized system that I know exactly how to automate.

The blocker has been that I didn't want to work on spin as it existed. It badly needed a structural overhaul and modernization, and even more badly needed a test suite since every release involved tedious manual testing by pouring over diffs between generations of the web site. And that was enough work to be intimidating, so I kept putting it off.

I've separately been vaguely aware that I have been spending too much time reading Twitter (specifically) and the news (in general). It would be one thing if I were taking in that information to do something productive about it, but I haven't been. It's just doomscrolling. I've been thinking about taking a break for a while but it kept not sticking, so I decided to make a concerted effort this week.

It took about four days to stop wanting to check Twitter and forcing myself to go do something else productive or at least play a game instead. Then I managed to get started on my giant refactoring project, and holy shit, Twitter has been bad for my attention span! I haven't been able to sustain this level of concentration for hours at a time in years. Twitter's not the only thing to blame (there are a few other stressers that I've fixed in the past couple of years), but it's obviously a huge part.

Anyway, this long personal ramble is prelude to the first release of DocKnot that includes my static site generator. This is not yet the full tooling from my old web tools page; specifically, it's missing faq2html, cl2xhtml, and cvs2xhtml. (faq2html will get similar modernization treatment, cvs2xhtml will probably be rewritten in Perl since I have some old, obsolete scripts that may live in CVS forever, and I may retire cl2xhtml since I've stopped using the GNU ChangeLog format entirely.) But DocKnot now contains the core of my site generation system, including the thread macro language, POD conversion (by way of Pod::Thread), and RSS feeds.

Will anyone else ever use this? I have no idea; realistically, probably not. If you were starting from scratch, I'm sure you'd be better off with one of the larger and more mature static site generators that's not the idiosyncratic personal project of one individual. It is packaged for Debian because it's part of the tool chain for generating files (specifically README.md) that are included in every package I maintain, and thus is part of the transitive closure of Debian main, but I'm not sure anyone will install it from there for any other purpose. But for once making something for someone else isn't the point. This is my quirky, individual way to maintain web sites that originated in an older era of the web and that I plan to keep up-to-date (I'm long overdue to figure out what they did to HTML after abandoning the XHTML approach) because it brings me joy to do things this way.

In addition to adding the static site generator, this release also has the regular sorts of bug fixes and minor improvements: better formatting of software pages for software that's packaged for Debian, not assuming every package has a TODO file, and ignoring Autoconf 2.71 backup files when generating distribution tarballs.

You can get the latest version of DocKnot from CPAN as App-DocKnot, or from its distribution page. I know I haven't yet updated my web tools page to reflect this move, or changed the URL in the footer of all of my pages. This transition will be a process over the next few months and will probably prompt several more minor releases.

2021-09-11: Pod::Thread 3.00

This Perl module converts POD documents to thread, the macro language I use for my static site builder (about which, more in another software release coming up shortly). This release fixes a whole ton of long-standing problems.

In brief, a lot of the POD implementation was previously done by chasing bugs rather than testing comprehensively, as reflected by the 65% code coverage in the previous release. The test suite now achieves about 95% code coverage (most of the rest is obscure error handling around encoding) and cleans up a bunch of long-standing problems with internal links.

I had previously punted entirely on section links containing markup, and as a result the section links shown in the navigation bar or table of contents were missing the markup and headings containing thread metacharacters were mangled beyond recognition. That was because I was trying to handle resolving links using regexes (after I got rid of the original two-pass approach that required a driver script). This release uses Text::Balanced instead, the same parsing module used by my static site generator, to solve the problem (mostly) correctly. (I think there may still be a few very obscure edge cases, but I probably won't encounter them.)

The net result should hopefully be better conversion of my software documentation, including INN documentation, when I regenerate my site (which will be coming soon).

You can get the latest release from CPAN or from the Pod::Thread distribution page.

2021-08-30: kstart 4.3

kstart provides the programs k5start and krenew, which are similar to the Kerberos kinit program with some extra support for running programs with separate credentials and running as a daemon.

This is the first full release in nearly six years. The major change is new support for the Linux kafs module, which is a native Linux implementation of the AFS protocol that David Howells and others have been working on for years. It has an entirely different way of thinking about tokens and credential isolation built on Linux keyrings rather than the AFS token concept (which sometimes uses keyrings, but in a different way, and sometimes uses other hacks).

k5start and krenew, when run with the -t option to get AFS tokens, would fail if AFS was not available. That meant -t would fail with kafs even if the AKLOG environment variable were set properly to aklog-kafs. This release fixes that. The programs also optionally link with libkeyutils and use it when used to run a command to isolate the AFS credentials from the calling process. This is done by creating a new session keyring and linking it to the user keyring before running the aklog program.

Thanks to Bill MacAllister, David Howells, and Jeffrey Altman for the help with this feature. I'm not sure that I have it right, so please let me know if it doesn't work for you.

Also in this release is a fix from Aasif Versi to use a smarter exit status if k5start or krenew is running another program and that program is killed with a signal. Previously, that would cause k5start or krenew to exit with a status of 0, which was not helpful. Now it exits with a status formed by adding 128 to the signal number, which matches the behavior of bash.

Since this is the first release in a while, it also contains some other minor fixes and portability updates.

You can get the latest release from the kstart distribution page.

2021-08-18: Review: The Past is Red

Review: The Past is Red, by Catherynne M. Valente

Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright 2021
ISBN 1-250-30112-2
Format Kindle
Pages 151

Tetley is nineteen and is the most hated person in Garbagetown. That's kind of horrible, but life is otherwise great. As she puts it:

I'm awfully lucky when you think about it. Garbagetown is the most wonderful place anybody has ever lived in the history of the world, even if you count the Pyramids and New York City and Camelot. I have Grape Crush and Big Bargains and my hibiscus flower, and I can fish like I've got bait for a heart so I hardly ever go hungry, and once I found a ruby ring and a New Mexico license plate inside a bluefin tuna. Everyone says they only hate me because I annihilated hope and butchered our future, but I know better, and anyway, it's a lie. Some people are just born to be despised. The Loathing of Tetley began small and grew bigger and bigger, like the Thames, until it swallowed me whole.

Garbagetown is a giant floating pile of garbage in the middle of the ocean, and it is, so far as anyone knows, the only "land" left in the world. Global warming has flooded everything until the remaining Fuckwits (as their future descendants call everyone who was alive at the time) took to the Misery Boats and searched hopelessly for land. Eventually they realized they could live on top of the now-massive Pacific Garbage Patch and began the Great Sorting, which is fifty years into Tetley's past. All of the types of garbage were moved into their own areas, allowing small micronations of scavengers to form and giving each area its own character.

Candle Hole is the most beautiful place in Garbagetown, which is the most beautiful place in the world. All of the stubs of candles the Fuckwits threw out piled up into hills and mountains and caverns and dells, votive candles and taper candles and tea lights and birthday candles and big fat colorful pillar candles, stacked and somewhat melted into a great crumbling gorgeous warren of wicks and wax. All the houses are cozy little honeycombs melted into hillside, with smooth round windows and low golden ceilings. At night, from far away, Candle Hole looks like a firefly palace. When the wind blows, it smells like cinnamon, and freesia, and cranberries, and lavender, and Fresh Linen Scent, and New Car Smell.

Two things should be obvious from this introduction. First, do not read this book looking for an accurate, technical projection of our environmental future. Or, for that matter, physical realism of any kind. That's not the book that Valente is writing and you'll just frustrate yourself. This is science fiction as concretized metaphor rather than prediction or scientific exploration. We Fuckwits have drowned the world with our greed and left our descendants living in piles of our garbage; you have to suspend disbelief and go with the premise.

The second thing is that either you will like Tetley's storytelling style or you will not like this book. I find Valente very hit-and-miss, but this time it worked for me. The language is a bit less over-the-top than Space Opera, and it fits Tetley's insistent, aggressive optimism so well that it carries much of the weight of characterization. Mileage will definitely vary; this is probably a love-it-or-hate-it book.

The Past is Red is divided into two parts. The first part is the short story "The Future is Blue," previously published in Clarkesworld and in Valente's short story collection of the same name. It tells the story of Tetley's early life, how she got her name, and how she became the most hated person in Garbagetown. The second part is much longer and features an older, quieter, more thoughtful, and somewhat more cynical Tetley, more life philosophy, and a bit of more-traditional puzzle science fiction. It lacks some of the bubbly energy of "The Future is Blue" but also features less violence and abuse. The overall work is a long novella or very short novel.

This book has a lot of feelings about the environment, capitalism, greed, and the desire to let other people solve your problems for you, and it is not subtle about any of them. It's satisfying in the way that a good rant is satisfying, not in the way that a coherent political strategy is satisfying. What saves it from being too didactic or self-righteous is Tetley, who is happy to record her own emotions and her moments of wonder and is mostly uninterested in telling other people what to do. The setting sounds darkly depressing, and there are moments where it feels that way in the book, but the core of the story and of Tetley's life philosophy is a type of personal resilience: find the things that make you happy, put one foot in front of the other, and enjoy the world for what it is rather than what it could be or what other people want to convince you it might be. It's also surprisingly funny, particularly if you see the humor in bizarrely-specific piles of the detritus of civilization.

The one place where I will argue with Valente a bit is that The Past is Red thoroughly embraces an environmental philosophy of personal responsibility. The devastating critique aimed at the Fuckwits is universal and undistinguished except slightly by class. Tetley and the other inhabitants of Garbagetown make no distinction between types of Fuckits or attempt to apportion blame in any way more granular than entire generations and eras.

This is probably realistic. I understand why, by Tetley's time, no one is interested in the fine points of history. But the story was written today, for readers in our time, and this type of responsibility collapse is intentionally and carefully constructed by the largest polluters and the people with the most power. Collective and undifferentiated responsibility means that we're using up our energy fretting about whether we took two showers, which partly deflects attention from the companies, industries, and individuals that are directly responsible for the vast majority of environmental damage. We don't live in a world full of fuckwits; we live in a world run by fuckwits and full of the demoralized, harried, conned, manipulated, overwhelmed, and apathetic, which is a small but important difference. This book is not the right venue to explore that difference, but I wish the vitriol had not been applied quite so indiscriminately.

The rest, though, worked for me. Valente tends to describe things by piling clauses on top of adjectives, which objectively isn't the best writing but it fits everything about Tetley's personality so well that I think this is the book where it works. I found her strange mix of optimism, practicality, and unbreakable inner ethics oddly endearing. "The Future is Blue" is available for free on-line, so if in doubt, read some or all of it, and that should tell you whether you're interested in the expansion. I'm glad I picked it up.

Content warning for physical and sexual abuse of the first-person protagonist, mostly in the first section.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2021-08-16: Review: Black Sun

Review: Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Series Between Earth and Sky #1
Publisher Saga Press
Copyright October 2020
ISBN 1-5344-3769-X
Format Kindle
Pages 454

Serapio has been crafted and trained to be the vessel for a god. He grew up in Obregi land, far from his ancestral home, but he will return to Tova at the appropriate time and carry the hopes of the Carrion Crow clan with him.

Xiala is a ship captain, a woman, and a Teek. That means she's a target. Teek have magic, which makes them uncanny and dangerous. They're also said to carry that magic in their bones, which makes them valuable in ways that are not pleasant for the Teek. Running afoul of the moral codes of Cuecola is therefore even more dangerous to her than it would be to others, which is why she accepts a bargain to run errands for a local lord for twelve years, paid at the end of that time with ownership of a ship and crew. The first task: ferry a strange man to the city of Tova.

Meanwhile, in Tova, the priestess Naranpa has clawed her way to the top of the Sky Made hierarchy from an inauspicious beginning in the poor district of Coyote's Maw. She's ruthlessly separated herself from her despised beginnings and focused her attention on calming Tova in advance of the convergence, a rare astronomical alignment at the same time as the winter solstice. But Carrion Crow holds a deep-seated grudge at their slaughter by the priesthood during the Night of Knives, and Naranpa's position atop the religious order that partly rules Tova's fractious politics is more precarious than she thinks.

I am delighted that more fantasy is drawing on mythologies and histories other than the genre default of western European. It's long overdue for numerous reasons and a trend to be rewarded. But do authors writing fantasy in English who reach for Mesoamerican cultures have to gleefully embrace the excuse to add more torture? I'm developing an aversion to this setting (which I do not want to do!) because every book seems to feature human sacrifice, dismemberment, or some other horror show.

Roanhorse at least does not fill the book with that (there's lingering child abuse but nothing as sickening as the first chapter), but that makes the authorial choice to make the torture one's first impression of this book even odder. Our introduction to Serapio is a scene that I would have preferred to have never read, and I don't think it even adds much to the plot. Huge warnings for people who don't want to read about a mother torturing her son, or about eyes in that context.

Once past that introduction, Black Sun settles into a two-thread fantasy, one following Xiala and Serapio's sea voyage and the other following Naranpa and the political machinations in Tova. Both the magic systems and the political systems are different enough to be refreshing, and there are a few bits of world-building I enjoyed (a city built on top of rocks separated by deep canyons and connected with bridges, giant intelligent riding crows, everything about the Teek). My problem was that I didn't care what happened to any of the characters. Naranpa spends most of the book dithering and whining despite a backstory that should have promised more dynamic and decisive responses. The other character from Tova introduced somewhat later in the book is clearly "character whose story will appear in the next volume"; here, he's just station-keeping and representing the status quo. And while it's realistic given the plot that Serapio is an abused sociopath, that didn't mean I enjoyed reading his viewpoint or his childhood abuse.

Xiala is the best character in the book by far and I was warming to the careful work she has to do to win over an unknown crew, but apparently Roanhorse was not interested in that. Instead, the focus of Xiala's characterization turns to a bad-boy romance that did absolutely nothing for me. This will be a matter of personal taste; I know this is a plot feature for many readers. But it had me rolling my eyes and turning the pages to get to something more interesting (which, sadly, was not forthcoming). It also plays heavily on magical disabled person cliches, like the blind man being the best fighter anyone has met.

I did not enjoy this book very much, but there were some neat bits of world-building and I could see why other people might disagree. What pushed me into actively recommending against it (at least for now) is the publishing structure.

This is the first book of a trilogy, so one can expect the major plot to not be resolved by the end of the book. But part of the contract with the reader when publishing a book series is that each volume should reach some sense of closure and catharsis. There will be cliffhangers and unanswered questions, but there should also be enough plot lines that are satisfactorily resolved to warrant publishing a book as a separate novel.

There is none of that here. This is the first half (or third) of a novel. It introduces a bunch of plot lines, pulls them together, describes an intermediate crisis, and then simply stops. Not a single plot line is resolved. This is made worse by the fact this series (presumably, as I have only seen the first book) has a U-shaped plot: everything gets worse and worse until some point of crisis, and then presumably the protagonists will get their shit together and things will start to improve. I have soured on U-shaped plots since the first half of the story often feels like a tedious grind (eat your vegetables and then you can have dessert), but it's made much worse by cutting the book off at the bottom of the U. You get a volume, like Black Sun, that's all setup and horror and collapse, with no payoff or optimism.

After two tries, I have concluded that Roanhorse is not for me. This is clearly a me problem rather than a Roanhorse problem, given how many other people love both Black Sun and her Sixth World series, but this is the second book of hers where I mildly enjoyed the world building but didn't care about any of the characters. Ah well, tastes will differ. Even if you get along with Roanhorse, though, I recommend against starting this book until the second half of it is published (currently scheduled for 2022). As it stands, it's a wholly unsatisfying reading experience.

Followed by the not-yet-published Fevered Star.

Rating: 4 out of 10

2021-08-15: Review: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

Review: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers

Series Wayfarers #4
Publisher Harper Voyager
Copyright April 2021
ISBN 0-06-293605-0
Format Kindle
Pages 325

The name of the planet Gora is the Hanto word for useless. It's a bone-dry, resource-poor planet with nothing to recommend it except that it happened to be conveniently located between five other busy systems and had well-established interspacial tunnels. Gora is therefore a transit hub: a place lots of people visit for about half a day while waiting for a departure time, but where very few people stay. It is the interstellar equivalent of an airport.

Ouloo is a Laru, a species physically somewhat similar to a giant dog. She is the owner of the Five-Hop One-Stop in a habitat dome on Gora, where she lives with her child (who is not yet old enough to choose a gender). On the day when this novel begins, she's expecting three ships to dock: one Aeluon, one Quelin, and, to Ouloo's significant surprise and moderate discomfort, an Akarak. But apart from that, it's a normal day.

A normal day, that is, until maintenance work on the solar satellite array leads to a Kessler syndrome collision cascade that destroys most of the communication satellites and makes it unsafe to leave the surface of the planet. Ouloo and her guests are stuck with each other for longer than they expected.

In a typical SF novel, you would expect the characters to have to fix the satellite cascade, or for it to be a sign of something more nefarious. That is not the case here; the problem is handled by the Goran authorities, the characters have no special expertise, and there is no larger significance to the accident. Instead, the accident functions as storm in a very old story-telling frame: three travelers and their host and her child, trapped together by circumstance and forced to entertain each other until they can go on their way.

Breaking from the formula, they do not do that primarily by telling stories to each other, although the close third-person narration that moves between the characters reveals their backgrounds over the course of the book. Instead, a lot of this book is conversation, sometimes prompted by Ouloo's kid Tupo (who I thought was a wonderfully-written tween, complete with swings between curiosity and shyness, random interests, occasionally poor impulse control, and intense but unpredictable learning interest). That leads to some conflict (and some emergencies), but, similar to Record of a Spaceborn Few, this is more of a character study book than a things-happen book.

An interesting question, then, is why is this story science fiction? A similar story could be written (and has been, many times) with human travelers in a mundane inn or boarding house in a storm. None of the aliens are all that alien; despite having different body shapes and senses, you could get more variation from a group of university students. And even more than with Chambers's other books, the advanced technology is not the point and is described only enough to provide some background color and a bit of characterization.

The answer, for me, is that the cognitive estrangement of non-human characters relieves my brain of the baggage that I bring to human characters and makes it easier for me to empathize with the characters as individuals rather than representatives of human archetypes. With human characters, I would be fitting them into my knowledge of history and politics, and my reaction to each decision the characters make would be influenced by the assumptions prompted by that background. I enjoy the distraction of invented worlds and invented histories in part because they're simplified compared to human histories and therefore feel more knowable and less subtle. I'm not trying to understand the political angle from which the author is writing or wondering if I'm missing a reference that's important to the story.

In other words, the science fiction setting gives the narrator more power. The story tells me the important details of the background; there isn't some true history lurking beneath that I'm trying to ferret out. When that's combined with interesting physical differences, I find myself imagining what it would be like to be the various aliens, trying to insert myself into their worlds, rather than placing them in a historical or political context. That puts me in a curious and empathetic mindset, and that, in turn, is the best perspective from which to enjoy Chambers's stories.

The characters in this story don't solve any large-scale problems. They do make life decisions, some quite significant, but only on a personal scale. They also don't resolve all of their suspicions and disagreements. This won't be to everyone's taste, but it's one of the things I most enjoyed about the book: it shows a small part of the lives of a collection of average individuals, none of whom are close to the levers of power and none of whom are responsible for fixing their species or galactic politics. They are responsible for their own choices, and for how their lives touch the lives of others. They can make the people they encounter happier or sadder, they can chose how to be true to their own principles, and they can make hard choices without right answers.

When I describe a mainstream fiction book that way, I often find it depressing, but I came away from The Galaxy, and the Ground Within feeling better about the world and more open-hearted towards other people. I'm not sure what Chambers does to produce that reaction, so I'm not sure if it will have the same effect on other people. Perhaps part of it is that while there is some drama, her characters do not seek drama for its own sake, none of the characters are villains, and she has a way of writing sincerity that clicks with my brain.

There is a scene, about two-thirds of the way through the book, where the characters get into a heated argument about politics, and for me this is the moment where you will either love this book or it will not work for you. The argument doesn't resolve anything, and yet it's one of the most perceptive, accurate, and satisfying portrayals of a political argument among normal people that I've seen in fiction. It's the sort of air-clearing conversation in which every character is blunt with both their opinion and their emotions rather than shading them for politeness. Those positions are not necessarily sophisticated or deeply philosophical, but they are deeply honest.

"And you know what? I truly don't care which of them is right so long as it fixes everything. I don't have an... an ideology. I don't know the right terms to discuss these things. I don't know the science behind any of it. I'm sure I sound silly right now. But I just want everyone to get along, and to be well taken care of. That's it. I want everybody to be happy and I do not care how we get there." She exhaled, her broad nostrils flaring. "That's how I feel about it."

I am not Ouloo, but I think she represents far more people than fiction normally realizes, and I found something deeply satisfying and revealing in seeing that position presented so clearly in the midst of a heated argument.

If you like what Chambers does, I think you will like this book. If it's not for you, this is probably not the book that will change your mind, although there is a bit less hand-wavy technology to distract the people whom that distracts. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within didn't have the emotional resonance that Record of a Spaceborn Few had for me, or the emotional gut punch of A Closed and Common Orbit. But I loved every moment of reading it.

This will apparently be the last novel in the Wayfarers universe, at least for the time being. Chambers will be moving on to other settings (starting with A Psalm for the Wild-Built).

Rating: 8 out of 10

2021-08-08: Review: The Last Battle

Review: The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis

Illustrator Pauline Baynes
Series Chronicles of Narnia #7
Publisher Collier Books
Copyright 1956
Printing 1978
ISBN 0-02-044210-6
Format Mass market
Pages 184

The Last Battle is the seventh and final book of the Chronicles of Narnia in every reading order. It ties together (and spoils) every previous Narnia book, so you do indeed want to read it last (or skip it entirely, but I'll get into that).

In the far west of Narnia, beyond the Lantern Waste and near the great waterfall that marks Narnia's western boundary, live a talking ape named Shift and a talking donkey named Puzzle. Shift is a narcissistic asshole who has been gaslighting and manipulating Puzzle for years, convincing the poor donkey that he's stupid and useless for anything other than being Shift's servant. At the start of the book, a lion skin washes over the waterfall and into the Cauldron Pool. Shift, seeing a great opportunity, convinces Puzzle to retrieve it.

The king of Narnia at this time is Tirian. I would tell you more about Tirian except, despite being the protagonist, that's about all the characterization he gets. He's the king, he's broad-shouldered and strong, he behaves in a correct kingly fashion by preferring hunting lodges and simple camps to the capital at Cair Paravel, and his close companion is a unicorn named Jewel. Other than that, he's another character like Rilian from The Silver Chair who feels like he was taken from a medieval Arthurian story. (Thankfully, unlike Rilian, he doesn't talk like he's in a medieval Arthurian story.)

Tirian finds out about Shift's scheme when a dryad appears at Tirian's camp, calling for justice for the trees of Lantern Waste who are being felled. Tirian rushes to investigate and stop this monstrous act, only to find the beasts of Narnia cutting down trees and hauling them away for Calormene overseers. When challenged on why they would do such a thing, they reply that it's at Aslan's orders.

The Last Battle is largely the reason why I decided to do this re-read and review series. It is, let me be clear, a bad book. The plot is absurd, insulting to the characters, and in places actively offensive. It is also, unlike the rest of the Narnia series, dark and depressing for nearly all of the book. The theology suffers from problems faced by modern literature that tries to use the Book of Revelation and related Christian mythology as a basis. And it is, most famously, the site of one of the most notorious authorial betrayals of a character in fiction.

And yet, The Last Battle, probably more than any other single book, taught me to be a better human being. It contains two very specific pieces of theology that I would now critique in multiple ways but which were exactly the pieces of theology that I needed to hear when I first understood them. This book steered me away from a closed, judgmental, and condemnatory mindset at exactly the age when I needed something to do that. For that, I will always have a warm spot in my heart for it.

I'm going to start with the bad parts, though, because that's how the book starts.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW.

First, and most seriously, this is a second-order idiot plot. Shift shows up with a donkey wearing a lion skin (badly), only lets anyone see him via firelight, claims he's Aslan, and starts ordering the talking animals of Narnia to completely betray their laws and moral principles and reverse every long-standing political position of the country... and everyone just nods and goes along with this. This is the most blatant example of a long-standing problem in this series: Lewis does not respect his animal characters. They are the best feature of his world, and he treats them as barely more intelligent than their non-speaking equivalents and in need of humans to tell them what to do.

Furthermore, despite the assertion of the narrator, Shift is not even close to clever. His deception has all the subtlety of a five-year-old who doesn't want to go to bed, and he offers the Narnians absolutely nothing in exchange for betraying their principles. I can forgive Puzzle for going along with the scheme since Puzzle has been so emotionally abused that he doesn't know what else to do, but no one else has any excuse, especially Shift's neighbors. Given his behavior in the book, everyone within a ten mile radius would be so sick of his whining, bullying, and lying within a month that they'd never believe anything he said again. Rishda and Ginger, a Calormene captain and a sociopathic cat who later take over Shift's scheme, do qualify as clever, but there's no realistic way Shift's plot would have gotten far enough for them to get involved.

The things that Shift gets the Narnians to do are awful. This is by far the most depressing book in the series, even more than the worst parts of The Silver Chair. I'm sure I'm not the only one who struggled to read through the first part of this book, and raced through it on re-reads because everything is so hard to watch. The destruction is wanton and purposeless, and the frequent warnings from both characters and narration that these are the last days of Narnia add to the despair. Lewis takes all the beautiful things that he built over six books and smashes them before your eyes. It's a lot to take, given that previous books would have treated the felling of a single tree as an unspeakable catastrophe.

I think some of these problems are due to the difficulty of using Christian eschatology in a modern novel. An antichrist is obligatory, but the animals of Narnia have no reason to follow an antichrist given their direct experience with Aslan, particularly not the aloof one that Shift tries to give them. Lewis forces the plot by making everyone act stupidly and out of character. Similarly, Christian eschatology says everything must become as awful as possible right before the return of Christ, hence the difficult-to-read sections of Narnia's destruction, but there's no in-book reason for the Narnians' complicity in that destruction. One can argue about whether this is good theology, but it's certainly bad storytelling.

I can see the outlines of the moral points Lewis is trying to make about greed and rapacity, abuse of the natural world, dubious alliances, cynicism, and ill-chosen prophets, but because there is no explicable reason for Tirian's quiet kingdom to suddenly turn to murderous resource exploitation, none of those moral points land with any force. The best moral apocalypse shows the reader how, were they living through it, they would be complicit in the devastation as well. Lewis does none of that work, so the reader is just left angry and confused.

The book also has several smaller poor authorial choices, such as the blackface incident. Tirian, Jill, and Eustace need to infiltrate Shift's camp, and use blackface to disguise themselves as Calormenes. That alone uncomfortably reveals how much skin tone determines nationality in this world, but Lewis makes it far worse by having Tirian comment that he "feel[s] a true man again" after removing the blackface and switching to Narnian clothes.

All of this drags on and on, unlike Lewis's normally tighter pacing, to the point that I remembered this book being twice the length of any other Narnia book. It's not; it's about the same length as the rest, but it's such a grind that it feels interminable. The sum total of the bright points of the first two-thirds of the book are the arrival of Jill and Eustace, Jill's one moment of true heroism, and the loyalty of a single Dwarf. The rest is all horror and betrayal and doomed battles and abject stupidity.

I do, though, have to describe Jill's moment of glory, since I complained about her and Eustace throughout The Silver Chair. Eustace is still useless, but Jill learned forestcraft during her previous adventures (not that we saw much sign of this previously) and slips through the forest like a ghost to steal Puzzle and his lion costume out from the under the nose of the villains. Even better, she finds Puzzle and the lion costume hilarious, which is the one moment in the book where one of the characters seems to understand how absurd and ridiculous this all is. I loved Jill so much in that moment that it makes up for all of the pointless bickering of The Silver Chair. She doesn't get to do much else in this book, but I wish the Jill who shows up in The Last Battle had gotten her own book.

The end of this book, and the only reason why it's worth reading, happens once the heroes are forced into the stable that Shift and his co-conspirators have been using as the stage for their fake Aslan. Its door (for no well-explained reason) has become a door to Aslan's Country and leads to a reunion with all the protagonists of the series. It also becomes the frame of Aslan's final destruction of Narnia and judging of its inhabitants, which I suspect would be confusing if you didn't already know something about Christian eschatology. But before that, this happens, which is sufficiently and deservedly notorious that I think it needs to be quoted in full.

"Sir," said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. "If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?"

"My sister Susan," answered Peter shortly and gravely, "is no longer a friend of Narnia."

"Yes," said Eustace, "and whenever you've tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'"

"Oh Susan!" said Jill. "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up."

"Grown-up indeed," said the Lady Polly. "I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."

There are so many obvious and dire problems with this passage, and so many others have written about it at length, that I will only add a few points. First, I find it interesting that neither Lucy nor Edmund says a thing. (I would like to think that Edmund knows better.) The real criticism comes from three characters who never interacted with Susan in the series: the two characters introduced after she was no longer allowed to return to Narnia, and a character from the story that predated hers. (And Eustace certainly has some gall to criticize someone else for treating Narnia as a childish game.)

It also doesn't say anything good about Lewis that he puts his rather sexist attack on Susan into the mouths of two other female characters. Polly's criticism is a somewhat generic attack on puberty that could arguably apply to either sex (although "silliness" is usually reserved for women), but Jill makes the attack explicitly gendered. It's the attack of a girl who wants to be one of the boys on a girl who embraces things that are coded feminine, and there's a whole lot of politics around the construction of gender happening here that Lewis is blindly reinforcing and not grappling with at all.

Plus, this is only barely supported by single sentences in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Horse and His Boy and directly contradicts the earlier books. We're expected to believe that Susan the archer, the best swimmer, the most sensible and thoughtful of the four kids has abruptly changed her whole personality. Lewis could have made me believe Susan had soured on Narnia after the attempted kidnapping (and, although left unstated, presumably eventual attempted rape) in The Horse and His Boy, if one ignores the fact that incident supposedly happens before Prince Caspian where there is no sign of such a reaction. But not for those reasons, and not in that way.

Thankfully, after this, the book gets better, starting with the Dwarfs, which is one of the two passages that had a profound influence on me.

Except for one Dwarf who allied with Tirian, the Dwarfs reacted to the exposure of Shift's lies by disbelieving both Tirian and Shift, calling a pox on both their houses, and deciding to make their own side. During the last fight in front of the stable, they started killing whichever side looked like they were winning. (Although this is horrific in the story, I think this is accurate social commentary on a certain type of cynicism, even if I suspect Lewis may have been aiming it at atheists.) Eventually, they're thrown through the stable door by the Calormenes. However, rather than seeing the land of beauty and plenty that everyone else sees, they are firmly convinced they're in a dark, musty stable surrounded by refuse and dirty straw.

This is, quite explicitly, not something imposed on them. Lucy rebukes Eustace for wishing Tash had killed them, and tries to make friends with them. Aslan tries to show them how wrong their perceptions are, to no avail. Their unwillingness to admit they were wrong is so strong that they make themselves believe that everything is worse than it actually is.

"You see," said Aslan. "They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out."

I grew up with the US evangelical version of Hell as a place of eternal torment, which in turn was used to justify religious atrocities in the name of saving people from Hell. But there is no Hell of that type in this book. There is a shadow into which many evil characters simply disappear, and there's this passage. Reading this was the first time I understood the alternative idea of Hell as the absence of God instead of active divine punishment. Lewis doesn't use the word "Hell," but it's obvious from context that the Dwarfs are in Hell. But it's not something Aslan does to them and no one wants them there; they could leave any time they wanted, but they're too unwilling to be wrong.

You may have to be raised in conservative Christianity to understand how profoundly this rethinking of Hell (which Lewis tackles at greater length in The Great Divorce) undermines the system of guilt and fear that's used as motivation and control. It took me several re-readings and a lot of thinking about this passage, but this is where I stopped believing in a vengeful God who will eternally torture nonbelievers, and thus stopped believing in all of the other theology that goes with it.

The second passage that changed me is Emeth's story. Emeth is a devout Calormene, a follower of Tash, who volunteered to enter the stable when Shift and his co-conspirators were claiming Aslan/Tash was inside. Some time after going through, he encounters Aslan, and this is part of his telling of that story (and yes, Lewis still has Calormenes telling stories as if they were British translators of the Arabian Nights):

[...] Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me, thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.

So, first, don't ever say this to anyone. It's horribly condescending and, since it's normally said by white Christians to other people, usually explicitly colonialist. Telling someone that their god is evil but since they seem to be a good person they're truly worshiping your god is only barely better than saying yours is the only true religion.

But it is better, and as someone who, at the time, was wholly steeped in the belief that only Christians were saved and every follower of another religion was following Satan and was damned to Hell, this passage blew my mind. This was the first place I encountered the idea that someone who followed a different religion could be saved, or that God could transcend religion, and it came with exactly the context and justification that I needed given how close-minded I was at the time. Today, I would say that the Christian side of this analysis needs far more humility, and fobbing off all the evil done in the name of the Christian God by saying "oh, those people were really following Satan" is a total moral copout. But, nonetheless, Lewis opened a door for me that I was able to step through and move beyond to a less judgmental, dismissive, and hostile view of others.

There's not much else in the book after this. It's mostly Lewis's charmingly Platonic view of the afterlife, in which the characters go inward and upward to truer and more complete versions of both Narnia and England and are reunited (very briefly) with every character of the series. Lewis knows not to try too hard to describe the indescribable, but it remains one of my favorite visions of an afterlife because it makes so explicit that this world is neither static or the last, but only the beginning of a new adventure.

This final section of The Last Battle is deeply flawed, rather arrogant, a little bizarre, and involves more lectures on theology than precise description, but I still love it. By itself, it's not a bad ending for the series, although I don't think it has half the beauty or wonder of the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It's a shame about the rest of the book, and it's a worse shame that Lewis chose to sacrifice Susan on the altar of his prejudices. Those problems made it very hard to read this book again and make it impossible to recommend. Thankfully, you can read the series without it, and perhaps most readers would be better off imagining their own ending (or lack of ending) to Narnia than the one Lewis chose to give it.

But the one redeeming quality The Last Battle will always have for me is that, despite all of its flaws, it was exactly the book that I needed to read when I read it.

Rating: 4 out of 10

2021-08-01: Review: Piranesi

Review: Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Publisher Bloomsbury Publishing
Copyright 2020
ISBN 1-63557-564-8
Format Kindle
Pages 245

Piranesi is a story told in first-person journal entries by someone who lives in a three-floored world of endless halls full of statues. The writing style is one of the most distinctive things about this book (and something you'll have to get along with to enjoy it), so it's worth quoting a longer passage from the introductory description of the world:

I am determined to explore as much of the World as I can in my lifetime. To this end I have travelled as far as the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West, the Eight-Hundred-and-Ninetieth Hall to to the North and the Seven-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Hall to the South. I have climbed up to the Upper Halls where Clouds move in slow procession and Statues appear suddenly out of the Mists. I have explored the Drowned Halls where the Dark Waters are carpeted with white water lilies. I have seen the Derelict Halls of the East where Ceilings, Floors — sometimes even Walls! — have collapsed and the dimness is split by shafts of grey Light.

In all these places I have stood in Doorways and looked ahead. I have never seen any indication that the World was coming to an End, but only the regular progression of Halls and Passageways into the Far Distance.

No Hall, no Vestibule, no Staircase, no Passage is without its Statues. In most Halls they cover all the available space, though here and there you will find an Empty Plinth, Niche or Apse, or even a blank space on a Wall otherwise encrusted with Statues. These Absences are as mysterious in their way as the Statues themselves.

So far as the protagonist knows, the world contains only one other living person, the Other, and thirteen dead ones who exist only as bones. The Other is a scientist searching for Great and Secret Knowledge, and calls the protagonist Piranesi, which is odd because that is not the protagonist's name.

Be warned that I'm skating around spoilers for the rest of this review. I don't think I'm giving away anything that would ruin the book, but the nature of the story takes some sharp turns. If knowing anything about that would spoil the book for you and you want to read this without that knowledge, you may want to stop reading here.

I also want to disclose early in this review that I wanted this to be a different book than it is, and that had a significant impact on how much I enjoyed it. Someone who came to it with different expectations may have a different and more enjoyable experience.

I was engrossed by the strange world, the atmosphere, and the mystery of the halls full of statues. The protagonist is also interested in the same things, and the early part of the book is full of discussion of exploration, scientific investigation, and attempts to understand the nature of the world. That led me to hope for the sort of fantasy novel in which the setting is a character and where understanding the setting is a significant part of the plot.

Piranesi is not that book. The story that Clarke wants to tell is centered on psychology rather than setting. The setting does not become a character, nor do we learn much about it by the end of the book. While we do learn how the protagonist came to be in this world, my first thought when that revelation starts halfway through the book was "this is going to be disappointing." And, indeed, it was.

I say all of this because I think Piranesi looks, from both its synopsis and from the first few chapters, like it's going to be a world building and exploration fantasy. I think it runs a high risk of disappointing readers in the way that it disappointed me, and that can lead to disliking a book one may have enjoyed if one had read it in a different mood and with a different set of expectations.

Piranesi is, instead, about how the protagonist constructs the world, about the effect of trauma on that construction, and about the complexities hidden behind the idea of recovery. And there is a lot to like here: The ending is complex and subtle and does not arrive at easy answers (although I also found it very sad), and although Clarke, by the end of the book, is using the setting primarily as metaphor, the descriptions remain vivid and immersive. I still want the book that I thought I was reading, but I want that book in large part because the fragments of that book that are in this one are so compelling and engrossing.

What did not work for me was every character in the book except for the protagonist and one supporting character.

The relationship between the protagonist and the Other early in the book is a lovely bit of unsettling complexity. It's obvious that the Other has a far different outlook on the world than the protagonist, but the protagonist seems unaware of it. It's also obvious that the Other is a bit of a jerk, but I was hoping for a twist that showed additional complexity in his character. Sadly, when we get the twist, it's not in the direction of more complexity. Instead, it leads to a highly irritating plot that is unnecessarily prolonged through the protagonist being gullible and child-like in the face of blatantly obvious gaslighting. This is a pattern for the rest of the book: Once villains appear on stage, they're one-note narcissists with essentially no depth.

There is one character in Piranesi that I liked as well or better than the protagonist, but they only show up late in the story and get very little character development. Clarke sketches the outline of a character I wanted to learn much more about, but never gives us the details on the page. That leads to what I thought was too much telling rather than showing in the protagonist's relationships at the end of the book, which is part of why I thought the ending was so sad. What the protagonist loses is obvious to me (and lines up with the loss I felt when the book didn't turn out to be what I was hoping it would be); what the protagonist gains is less obvious, is working more on the metaphorical level of the story than the literal level, and is more narrated than shown.

In other words, this is psychological fantasy with literary sensibilities told in a frame that looks like exploration fantasy. Parts of it, particularly the descriptions and the sense of place, are quite skillful, but the plot, once revealed, is superficial, obvious, and disappointing. I think it's possible this shift in the reader's sense of what type of book they're reading is intentional on Clarke's part, since it works with the metaphorical topic of the book. But it's not the existence of a shift itself that is my primary objection. I like psychological fantasy as well as exploration fantasy. It's that I thought the book after the shift was shallower, less interesting, and more predictable than the book before the shift.

The one thing that is excellent throughout Piranesi, though, is the mood. It takes a bit to get used to the protagonist's writing style (and I continue to dislike the Affectation of capitalizing Nouns when writing in English), but it's open-hearted, curious, thoughtful, observant, and capable in a way I found delightful. Some of the events in this book are quite dark, but it never felt horrifying or oppressive because the protagonist remains so determinedly optimistic and upbeat, even when yanked around by the world's most obvious and blatant gaslighting. That persistent hopefulness and lightness is a good feature in a book published in 2020 and is what carried me through the parts of the story I didn't care for.

I wish this had been a different book than it was, or failing that, a book with more complex and interesting supporting characters and plot to fit its complex and interesting psychological arc. I also wish that Clarke had done something more interesting with gender in this novel; it felt like she was setting that up for much of the book, and then it never happened. Ah well.

As is, I can't recommend Piranesi, but I can say the protagonist, atmosphere, and sense of place are very well done and I think it will work for some other readers better than it did for me.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2021-07-31: Review: Fugitive Telemetry

Review: Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells

Series Murderbot Diaries #6
Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright April 2021
ISBN 1-250-76538-2
Format Kindle
Pages 167

Fugitive Telemetry is the fifth Murderbot novella. It is not a sequel to the (as yet) lone novel, Network Effect. Instead, it takes place between Exit Strategy and Network Effect, filling in more of the backstory of the novel. You should not read it before Exit Strategy, but I believe it and Network Effect could be read in any order.

A human has been murdered on Preservation Station. That is not a thing that happens on Preservation Station, which is normally a peaceful place whose crime is limited to intoxication-related stupidity. Murderbot's first worry, and the first worry of his humans, is that this may be one of their enemies getting into position to target them. That risk at least makes the murder worth investigating, rather than leaving it solely to Station Security.

The problem from Murderbot's perspective is that there is an effective and efficient way of doing such an investigation, which starts with hacking into the security systems to get necessary investigative data and may end with the silent disposal of dead bodies of enemy agents. But this is Preservation Station, not the Corporation Rim, and Murderbot agreed to not do things like casually compromise all the station security systems or murder people who are security threats.

There was a big huge deal about it, and Security was all "but what if it takes over the station's systems and kills everybody" and Pin-Lee told them "if it wanted to do that it would have done it by now," which in hindsight was probably not the best response.

Worse, Murderbot's human wants it to work collaboratively with Station Security. That is a challenge, given that Security has a lot of reasons not to trust SecUnits, and Murderbot has a lot of reasons not to trust a security organization (not to mention considers them largely incompetent). Also, the surveillance systems are totally inadequate compared to the Corporation Rim for various financial and civil rights reasons that are doubtless wonderful except in situations where someone has been murdered. But hopefully the humans won't get in the way too much.

This is one of those books (well, novellas) that I finished a while back but then stalled out on reviewing. I think that's because I don't have that much to say about it. Network Effect pushed the world-building and Murderbot's personal storyline forward significantly, but Fugitive Telemetry doesn't pick up those threads. Instead, this is another novella in much the same vein as the first four. If you, like me, are eager to see where Wells takes the story after the events of the novel, this is somewhat disappointing. But if you enjoyed the novellas, this is more of what you enjoyed: snarky comments about humanity, competence porn, Murderbot getting pulled into problems somewhat against its will and then trying to sort them out, and the occasional touching moment of emotional connection that Murderbot escapes from as quickly as possible.

It's quite enjoyable, helped considerably by Wells's wise choice to not make the supporting human characters idiots. Collaboration is not Murderbot's strength; it is certain the investigation will be an endless series of frustrations and annoyances given the level of suspicion Station Security starts with. But some humans (and some SecUnits) are capable of re-evaluating their conclusions when given new evidence, and watching that happen is part of the fun of this novella.

What this novella is missing is the overarching plot structure of the rest of the series, since where this story sits chronologically doesn't leave much room for advancing or even deepening the plot arc. It therefore feels incidental: delightful while I was reading it, probably missable if you have to, and not something I spent time thinking about after I finished it.

If you liked the Murderbot novellas up until now, you will want to read this one. If you haven't started the series yet, this is not a place to start. If you want something more like the Network Effect novel, or a story where Murderbot makes significant decisions about its future, the wait continues.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2021-07-30: Summer haul

July ended up being a very busy month for me catching up on all sorts of things that I'd been putting off for too long, so posts have been a bit scarce recently. So have book reviews; I'm hoping to sneak one in before the end of the month tomorrow, and have a small backlog.

But for tonight, here's another list of random books, mostly new releases, that caught my eye.

Katherine Addison — The Witness for the Dead (sff)
Olivia Atwater — Half a Soul (sff)
Lloyd Biggle, Jr. — The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets (sff)
Judson Brewer — Unwinding Anxiety (nonfiction)
Eliot Brown & Maureen Farrell — The Cult of We (nonfiction)
Becky Chambers — A Psalm for the Wild-Built (sff)
Susanna Clarke — Piranesi (sff)
Eve L. Ewing — Ghosts in the Schoolyard (nonfiction)
Michael Lewis — The Premonition (nonfiction)
Courtney Milan — The Duke Who Didn't (romance)
Kit Rocha — Deal with the Devil (sff)
Tasha Suri — The Jasmine Throne (sff)
Catherynne M. Valente — The Past is Red (sff)

Quite a variety of things recently. Of course, I'm currently stalled on a book I'm not enjoying very much (but want to finish anyway since I like reviewing all award nominees).

2021-06-27: control-archive 1.9.1

This is the set of scripts and configuration files that maintain the Usenet control message archive and newsgroup lists hosted on ftp.isc.org.

This is a data-only update primarily to update the Big Eight control signing key. It also removes some remnant control information about net.* and documents that the hierarchy is abandoned.

You can get the latest release from the control-archive distribution page.

2021-06-27: New Big Eight signing key

For various reasons, I haven't had any time to work on Usenet (or most other personal hobbies other than a few book reviews) for the past few months, so it took me longer than expected to finish this work. But I have finally switched the official, preferred Big Eight signing key to a newly-generated OpenPGP key that isn't incredibly weak.

I put up a basic web page with the new control information and links to the signing keys for the Big Eight hierarchy.

Duplicate control messages will continue to be issued with the old signing key for the indefinite future, but be aware that the old key is quite weak and could probably be brute-forced if someone cared enough. You should switch to only honoring the new key if you are running a news server that honors Big Eight control messages.

The PGP Moose key is almost as ancient as the old control message key and is probably nearly as weak, but we've not yet replaced it. When that happens, that will be noted here and on that web page.

2021-06-20: Review: Demon Lord of Karanda

Review: Demon Lord of Karanda, by David Eddings

Series The Malloreon #3
Publisher Del Rey
Copyright September 1988
Printing February 1991
ISBN 0-345-36331-0
Format Mass market
Pages 404

This is the third book of the Malloreon, which in turn is a sequel trilogy to The Belgariad. Eddings, unlike most series authors, does a great job of reminding you what's happening with prologues in each book, but you definitely do not want to start reading here.

When we last left our heroes, they had been captured. (This is arguably a spoiler for King of the Murgos, but it's not much of one, nor one that really matters.) This turns out to be an opportunity to meet the Emperor of Mallorea, the empire from which their adversary Zandramas (and, from the earlier trilogy, the god Torak) comes. This goes much better than one might expect, continuing the trend in this series of showing the leaders of the enemy countries as substantially similar to the leaders of the supposedly good countries.

This sounds like open-mindedness on Eddings's part, and I suppose it partly is. It's at least a change from the first series, in which the bad guys were treated more like orcs. But the deeper I read into this series, the more obvious how invested Eddings is in a weird sort of classism. Garion and the others get along with Zakath in part because they're all royalty, or at least run in those circles. They just disagree about how to be a good ruler (and not as much as one might think, or hope). The general population of any of the countries is rarely of much significance. Zakath is a bit more cynical than Garion and company and has his own agenda, but he's not able to overcome the strong conviction of this series that the Prophecy and the fight between the Child of Light and the Child of Dark is the only thing of importance that's going on, and other people matter only to the extent that they're involved in that story.

When I first read these books as a teenager, I was one of the few who liked the second series and didn't mind that its plot was partly a rehash of the first. I found, and still find, the blatantness with which Eddings manipulates the plot by making prophecy a character in the novel amusing. What I had forgotten, however, was how much of a slog the middle of this series is. It takes about three quarters of this book before there are any significant plot developments, and that time isn't packed with interesting diversions. It's mostly the heroes having conversations with each other or with Zakath, being weirdly sexist, rehashing their personality quirks, or shrugging about horrific events that don't matter to them personally.

The last is a reference to the plague that appears in this book, and which I had completely forgotten. To be fair to my memory, that's partly because none of the characters seem to care much about it either. They're cooling their heels in a huge city, a plague starts killing people, they give Zakath amazingly brutal and bloodthirsty advice to essentially set fire to all the parts of the city with infected people, and then they blatantly ignore all the restrictions on movement because, well, they're important unlike all those other people and have places to go. It's rather stunningly unempathetic under the best of circumstances and seems even more vile in a 2021 re-read.

Eddings also manages to make Ce'Nedra even more obnoxious than she has been by turning her into a walking zombie with weird fits where she's obsessed with her child, and adding further problems (which would be a spoiler) on top of that. I have never been a Ce'Nedra fan (that Garion's marriage ever works at all appears to be by authorial decree), but in this book she's both useless and irritating while supposedly being a tragic figure.

You might be able to tell that I'm running sufficiently low on patience for Eddings's character quirks that I'm losing my enthusiasm for re-reading this bit of teenage nostalgia.

This is the third book of a five-book series, so while there's a climax of sorts just like there was in the third book of the Belgariad, it's a false climax. One of the secondary characters is removed, but nothing is truly resolved; the state of the plot isn't much different at the end of this book than it was at the start. And to get there, one has to put up with Garion being an idiot, Ce'Nedra being a basket case, the supposed heroes being incredibly vicious about a plague, and one character pretending to have an absolutely dreadful Irish accent for pages upon pages upon pages. (His identity is supposedly a mystery, but was completely obvious a hundred pages before Garion figured it out. Garion isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer.)

The one redeeming merit to this series is the dry voice in Garion's head and the absurd sight of the prophecy telling all the characters what to do, and we barely get any of that in this book. When it wasn't irritating or offensive, it was just a waste of time. The worst book of the series so far.

Followed by Sorceress of Darshiva.

Rating: 3 out of 10

2021-06-19: Review: The Magician's Nephew

Review: The Magician's Nephew, by C.S. Lewis

Illustrator Pauline Baynes
Series Chronicles of Narnia #6
Publisher Collier Books
Copyright 1955
Printing 1978
ISBN 0-02-044230-0
Format Mass market
Pages 186

The Magician's Nephew is the sixth book of the Chronicles of Narnia in the original publication order, but it's a prequel, set fifty years before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It's therefore put first in the new reading order.

I have always loved world-building and continuities and, as a comics book reader (Marvel primarily), developed a deep enjoyment of filling in the pieces and reconstructing histories from later stories. It's no wonder that I love reading The Magician's Nephew after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The experience of fleshing out backstory with detail and specifics makes me happy. If that's also you, I recommend the order in which I'm reading these books.

Reading this one first is defensible, though. One of the strongest arguments for doing so is that it's a much stronger, tighter, and better-told story than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and therefore might start the series off on a better foot for you. It stands alone well; you don't need to know any of the later events to enjoy this, although you will miss the significance of a few things like the lamp post and you don't get the full introduction to Aslan.

The Magician's Nephew is the story of Polly Plummer, her new neighbor Digory Kirke, and his Uncle Andrew, who fancies himself a magician. At the start of the book, Digory's mother is bed-ridden and dying and Digory is miserable, which is the impetus for a friendship with Polly. The two decide to explore the crawl space of the row houses in which they live, seeing if they can get into the empty house past Digory's. They don't calculate the distances correctly and end up in Uncle Andrew's workroom, where Digory was forbidden to go. Uncle Andrew sees this as a golden opportunity to use them for an experiment in travel to other worlds.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW.

The Magician's Nephew, like the best of the Narnia books, does not drag its feet getting started. It takes a mere 30 pages to introduce all of the characters, establish a friendship, introduce us to a villain, and get both of the kids into another world. When Lewis is at his best, he has an economy of storytelling and a grasp of pacing that I wish was more common.

It's also stuffed to the brim with ideas, one of the best of which is the Wood Between the Worlds.

Uncle Andrew has crafted pairs of magic rings, yellow and green, and tricks Polly into touching one of the yellow ones, causing her to vanish from our world. He then uses her plight to coerce Digory into going after her, carrying two green rings that he thinks will bring people back into our world, and not incidentally also observing that world and returning to tell Uncle Andrew what it's like. But the world is more complicated than he thinks it is, and the place where the children find themselves is an eerie and incredibly peaceful wood, full of grass and trees but apparently no other living thing, and sprinkled with pools of water.

This was my first encounter with the idea of a world that connects other worlds, and it remains the most memorable one for me. I love everything about the Wood: the simplicity of it, the calm that seems in part to be a defense against intrusion, the hidden danger that one might lose one's way and confuse the ponds for each other, and even the way that it tends to make one lose track of why one is there or what one is trying to accomplish. That quiet forest filled with pools is still an image I use for infinite creativity and potential. It's quiet and nonthreatening, but not entirely inviting either; it's magnificently neutral, letting each person bring what they wish to it.

One of the minor plot points of this book is that Uncle Andrew is wrong about the rings because he's wrong about the worlds. There aren't just two worlds; there are an infinite number, with the Wood as a nexus, and our reality is neither the center nor one of an important pair. The rings are directional, but relative to the Wood, not our world. The kids, who are forced to experiment and who have open minds, figure this out quickly, but Uncle Andrew never shifts his perspective. This isn't important to the story, but I've always thought it was a nice touch of world-building.

Where this story is heading, of course, is the creation of Narnia and the beginning of all of the stories told in the rest of the series. But before that, the kids's first trip out of the Wood is to one of the best worlds of children's fantasy: Charn.

If the Wood is my mental image of a world nexus, Charn will forever be my image of a dying world: black sky, swollen red sun, and endless abandoned and crumbling buildings as far as the eye can see, full of tired silences and eerie noises. And, of course, the hall of statues, with one of the most memorable descriptions of history and empire I've ever read (if you ignore the racialized description):

All of the faces they could see were certainly nice. Both the men and women looked kind and wise, and they seemed to come of a handsome race. But after the children had gone a few steps down the room they came to faces that looked a little different. These were very solemn faces. You felt you would have to mind your P's and Q's, if you ever met living people who looked like that. When they had gone a little farther, they found themselves among faces they didn't like: this was about the middle of the room. The faces here looked very strong and proud and happy, but they looked cruel. A little further on, they looked crueller. Further on again, they were still cruel but they no longer looked happy. They were even despairing faces: as if the people they belonged to had done dreadful things and also suffered dreadful things.

The last statue is of a fierce, proud woman that Digory finds strikingly beautiful. (Lewis notes in an aside that Polly always said she never found anything specially beautiful about her. Here, as in The Silver Chair, the girl is the sensible one and things would have gone better if the boy had listened to her, a theme that I find immensely frustrating because Susan was the sensible one in the first two books of the series but then Lewis threw that away.)

There is a bell in the middle of this hall, and the pillar that holds that bell has an inscription on it that I think every kid who grew up on Narnia knows by heart.

Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.

Polly has no intention of striking the bell, but Digory fights her and does it anyway, waking Jadis from where she sat as the final statue in the hall and setting off one of the greatest reimaginings of a villain in children's literature.

Jadis will, of course, become the White Witch who holds Narnia in endless winter some thousand Narnian years later. But the White Witch was a mediocre villain at best, the sort of obvious and cruel villain common in short fairy tales where the author isn't interested in doing much characterization. She exists to be evil, do bad things, and be defeated. She has a few good moments in conflict with Aslan, but that's about it. Jadis in this book is another matter entirely: proud, brilliant, dangerous, and creative.

The death of everything on Charn was Jadis's doing: an intentional spell, used to claim a victory of sorts from the jaws of defeat by her sister in a civil war. (I find it fascinating that Lewis puts aside his normally sexist roles here.) Despite the best attempts of the kids to lose her both in Charn and in the Wood (which is inimical to her, in another nice bit of world-building), she manages to get back to England with them. The result is a remarkably good bit of villain characterization.

Jadis is totally out of her element, used to a world-spanning empire run with magic and (from what hints we get) vaguely medieval technology. Her plan to take over their local country and eventually the world should be absurd and is played somewhat for laughs. Her magic, which is her great weapon, doesn't even work in England. But Jadis learns at a speed that the reader can watch. She's observant, she pays attention to things that don't fit her expectations, she changes plans, and she moves with predatory speed. Within a few hours in London she's stolen jewels and a horse and carriage, and the local police seem entirely overmatched. There's no way that one person without magic should be a real danger to England around the turn of the 20th century, but by the time the kids manage to pull her back into the Wood, you're not entirely sure England would have been safe.

A chaotic confrontation, plus the ability of the rings to work their magic through transitive human contact, ends up with the kids, Uncle Andrew, Jadis, a taxicab driver and his horse all transported through the Wood to a new world. In this case, literally a new world: Narnia at the point of its creation.

Here again, Lewis translates Christian myth, in this case the Genesis creation story, into a more vivid and in many ways more beautiful story than the original. Aslan singing the world into existence is an incredible image, as is the newly-created world so bursting with life that even things that normally could not grow will do so. (Which, of course, is why there is a lamp post burning in the middle of the western forest of Narnia for the Pevensie kids to find later.) I think my favorite part is the creation of the stars, but the whole sequence is great.

There's also an insightful bit of human psychology. Uncle Andrew can't believe that a lion is singing, so he convinces himself that Aslan is not singing, and thus prevents himself from making any sense of the talking animals later.

Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.

As with a lot in Lewis, he probably meant this as a statement about faith, but it generalizes well beyond the religious context.

What disappointed me about the creation story, though, is the animals. I didn't notice this as a kid, but this re-read has sensitized me to how Lewis consistently treats the talking animals as less than humans even though he celebrates them. That happens here too: the newly-created, newly-awakened animals are curious and excited but kind of dim. Some of this is an attempt to show that they're young and are just starting to learn, but it also seems to be an excuse for Aslan to set up a human king and queen over them instead of teaching them directly how to deal with the threat of Jadis who the children inadvertently introduced into the world.

The other thing I dislike about The Magician's Nephew is that the climax is unnecessarily cruel. Once Digory realizes the properties of the newly-created world, he hopes to find a way to use that to heal his mother. Aslan points out that he is responsible for Jadis entering the world and instead sends him on a mission to obtain a fruit that, when planted, will ward Narnia against her for many years. The same fruit would heal his mother, and he has to choose Narnia over her. (It's a fairly explicit parallel to the Garden of Eden, except in this case Digory passes.)

Aslan, in the end, gives Digory the fruit of the tree that grows, which is still sufficient to heal his mother, but this sequence made me angry when re-reading it. Aslan knew all along that what Digory is doing will let him heal his mother as well, but hides this from him to make it more of a test. It's cruel and mean; Aslan could have promised to heal Digory's mother and then seen if he would help Narnia without getting anything in return other than atoning for his error, but I suppose that was too transactional for Lewis's theology or something. Meh.

But, despite that, the only reason why this is not the best Narnia book is because The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the only Narnia book that also nails the ending. The Magician's Nephew, up through Charn, Jadis's rampage through London, and the initial creation of Narnia, is fully as good, perhaps better. It sags a bit at the end, partly because it tries to hard to make the Narnian animals humorous and partly because of the unnecessary emotional torture of Digory. But this still holds up as the second-best Narnia book, and one I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading. If anything, Jadis and Charn are even better than I remembered.

Followed by the last book of the series, the somewhat notorious The Last Battle.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2021-06-06: Review: Stoneskin

Review: Stoneskin, by K.B. Spangler

Series Deep Witches #0
Publisher A Girl and Her Fed Books
Copyright September 2017
ASIN B075PHK498
Format Kindle
Pages 226

Stoneskin is a prequel to the Deep Witches Trilogy, which is why I have it marked as book 0 of the series. Unlike most prequels, it was written and published before the series and there doesn't seem to be any reason not to read it first.

Tembi Moon is an eight-year-old girl from the poor Marumaru area on the planet of Adhama. Humanity has spread to the stars and first terraformed the worlds and then bioformed themselves to live there. The differences are subtle, but Tembi's skin becomes thicker and less sensitive when damaged (either physically or emotionally) and she can close her ears against dust storms. One day, she wakes up in an unknown alley and finds herself on the world of Miha'ana, sixteen thousand light-years away, where she is rescued and brought home by a Witch named Matindi.

In this science fiction future, nearly all interstellar travel is done through the Deep. The Deep is not like the typical hand-waved science fiction subspace, most notably in that it's alive. No one is entirely sure where it came from or what sort of creature it is. It sometimes manages to communicate in words, but abstract patterns with feelings attached are more common, and it only communicates with specific people. Those people are Witches, who are chosen by the Deep via some criteria no one understands. Witches can use the Deep to move themselves or anything else around the galaxy. All interstellar logistics rely on them.

The basics of Tembi's story are not that unusual; she's been chosen by the Deep to be a Witch. What is remarkable is that she's young and she's poor, completely disconnected from the power structures of the galaxy. But, once chosen, her path as far as the rest of the galaxy is concerned is fixed: she will go to Lancaster to be trained as a Witch. Matindi is able to postpone this for a time by keeping an eye on her, but not forever.

I bought this book because of the idea of the Deep, and that is indeed the best part of the book. There is a lot of mystery about its exact nature, most of which is not resolved in this book, but it mostly behaves like a giant and extremely strange dog, and it's awesome. Replacing the various pseudo-scientific explanations for faster than light travel with interactions with a dream-weird giant St. Bernard with too many paws that talks in swirls of colored bubbles and is very eager to please its friends is brilliant.

This book covers a lot of years of Tembi's life and is, as advertised, a prelude to a story that is not resolved here. It's a coming of age story in which she does eventually end up at Lancaster, learns and chafes at the elaborate and very conservative structures humans have put in place to try to make interactions with the Deep predictable and reliable, and eventually gets drawn into the politics of war and the question of when people have a responsibility to intervene. Tembi, and the reader, also have many opportunities to get extremely upset at how the Deep is treated and how much entitlement the Witches have about their access and control, although how the Deep feels about it is left for a future book.

Not all of this story is as good as the premise. There are some standard coming of age tropes that I'm not fond of, such as Tembi's predictable temporary falling out with the Deep (although the Deep's reaction is entertaining). It's also not at all a complete story, although that's clearly signaled by the subtitle. But as an introduction to the story universe and an extended bit of scene-setting, it accomplishes what it sets out to do. It's also satisfyingly thoughtful about the moral trade-offs around stability and the value of preserving institutions. I know which side I'm on within the universe, but I appreciated how much nuance and thoughtfulness Spangler puts into the contrary opinion.

I'm hooked on the universe and want to learn more about the Deep, enough so that I've already bought the first book of the main trilogy.

Followed by The Blackwing War.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Last spun 2021-09-15 from thread modified 2008-08-13