Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

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 take 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

2021-05-31: Review: The Horse and His Boy

Review: The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis

Illustrator Pauline Baynes
Series Chronicles of Narnia #5
Publisher Collier Books
Copyright 1954
Printing 1978
ISBN 0-02-044200-9
Format Mass market
Pages 217

The Horse and His Boy was the fifth published book in the Chronicles of Narnia, but it takes place during the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in the midst of the golden age of Narnia. It's the only true side story of the series and it doesn't matter much where in sequence you read it, as long as it's after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and before The Last Battle (which would spoil its ending somewhat).

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW.

The Horse and His Boy is also the only book of the series that is not a portal fantasy. The Pevensie kids make an appearance, but as the ruling kings and queens of Narnia, and only as side characters. The protagonists are a boy named Shasta, a girl named Aravis, and horses named Bree and Hwin. Aravis is a Calormene, a native of the desert (and extremely Orientalist, but more on that later) kingdom to the south of Narnia and Archenland. Shasta starts the book as the theoretically adopted son but mostly slave of a Calormene fisherman. The Horse and His Boy is the story of their journey from Calormen north to Archenland and Narnia, just in time to defend Narnia and Archenland from an invasion.

This story starts with a great hook. Shasta's owner is hosting a passing Tarkaan, a Calormene lord, and overhears a negotiation to sell Shasta to the Tarkaan as his slave (and, in the process, revealing that he rescued Shasta as an infant from a rowboat next to a dead man). Shasta starts talking to the Tarkaan's horse and is caught by surprise when the horse talks back. He is a Talking Horse from Narnia, kidnapped as a colt, and eager to return to Narnia and the North. He convinces Shasta to attempt to escape with him.

This has so much promise. For once, we're offered a story where one of the talking animals of Narnia is at least a co-protagonist and has some agency in the story. Bree takes charge of Shasta, teaches him to ride (or, mostly, how to fall off a horse), and makes most of the early plans. Finally, a story that recognizes that Narnia stories don't have to revolve around the humans!

Unfortunately, Bree is an obnoxious, arrogant character. I wanted to like him, but he makes it very hard. This gets even worse when Shasta is thrown together with Aravis, a noble Calormene girl who is escaping an arranged marriage on her own talking mare, Hwin. Bree is a warhorse, Hwin is a lady's riding mare, and Lewis apparently knows absolutely nothing about horses, because every part of Bree's sexist posturing and Hwin's passive meekness is awful and cringe-worthy. I am not a horse person, so will link to Judith Tarr's much more knowledgeable critique at Tor.com, but suffice it to say that mares are not meekly deferential or awed by stallions. If Bree had behaved that way with a real mare, he would have gotten the crap beaten out of him (which might have improved his attitude considerably). As is, we have to put up with rather a lot of Bree's posturing and Hwin (who I liked much better) barely gets a line and acts disturbingly like she was horribly abused.

This makes me sad, because I like Bree's character arc. He's spent his whole life being special and different from those around him, and while he wants to escape this country and return home, he's also gotten used to being special. In Narnia, he will just be a normal talking horse. To get everything else he wants, he also has to let go of the idea that he's someone special. If Lewis had done more with this and made Bree a more sympathetic character, this could have been very effective. As written, it only gets a few passing mentions (mostly via Bree being weirdly obsessed with whether talking horses roll) and is therefore overshadowed by Shasta's chosen one story and Bree's own arrogant behavior.

The horses aside, this is a passable adventure story with some well-done moments. The two kids and their horses end up in Tashbaan, the huge Calormene capital, where they stumble across the Narnians and Shasta is mistaken for one of their party. Radagast, the prince of Calormen, is proposing marriage to Susan, and the Narnians are in the process of realizing he doesn't plan to take no for an answer. Aravis, meanwhile, has to sneak out of the city via the Tisroc's gardens, which results in her hiding behind a couch as she hears Radagast's plans to invade Archenland and Narnia to take Susan as his bride by force. Once reunited, Shasta, Aravis, and the horses flee across the desert to bring warning to Archenland and then Narnia.

Of all the Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy leans the hardest into the personal savior angle of Christianity. Parts of it, such as Shasta's ride over the pass into Narnia, have a strong "Footprints" feel to them. Most of the events of the book are arranged by Aslan, starting with Shasta's early life. Readers of the series will know this when a lion shows up early to herd the horses where they need to go, or when a cat keeps Shasta company in the desert and frightens away jackals. Shasta only understands near the end.

I remember this being compelling stuff as a young Christian reader. This personal attention and life shaping from God is pure Christian wish fulfillment of the "God has a plan for your life" variety, even more so than Shasta turning out to be a lost prince. As an adult re-reader, I can see that Lewis is palming the theodicy card rather egregiously. It's great that Aslan was making everything turn out well in the end, but why did he have to scare the kids and horses half to death in the process? They were already eager to do what he wanted, but it's somehow inconceivable that Aslan would simply tell them what to do rather than manipulate them. There's no obvious in-story justification why he couldn't have made the experience much less terrifying. Or, for that matter, prevented Shasta from being kidnapped as an infant in the first place and solved the problem of Radagast in a more direct way. This sort of theology takes as an unexamined assumption that a deity must refuse to use his words and instead do everything in weirdly roundabout and mysterious ways, which makes even less sense in Narnia than in our world given how directly and straightforwardly Aslan has acted in previous books.

It was also obvious to me on re-read how unfair Lewis's strict gender roles are to Aravis. She's an excellent rider from the start of the book and has practiced many of the things Shasta struggles to do, but Shasta is the boy and Aravis is the girl, so Aravis has to have girl adventures involving tittering princesses, luxurious baths, and eavesdropping behind couches, whereas Shasta has boy adventures like riding to warn the king or bringing word to Narnia. There's nothing very objectionable about Shasta as a character (unlike Bree), but he has such a generic character arc. The Horse and Her Girl with Aravis and Hwin as protagonists would have been a more interesting story, and would have helpfully complicated the whole Narnia and the North story motive.

As for that storyline, wow the racism is strong in this one, starting with the degree that The Horse and His Boy is deeply concerned with people's skin color. Shasta is white, you see, clearly marking him as from the North because all the Calormenes are dark-skinned. (This makes even less sense in this fantasy world than in our world because it's strongly implied in The Magician's Nephew that all the humans in Calormen came from Narnia originally.) The Calormenes all talk like characters from bad translations of the Arabian Nights and are shown as cruel, corrupt slavers with a culture that's a Orientalist mishmash of Arab, Persian, and Chinese stereotypes. Everyone is required to say "may he live forever" after referencing the Tisroc, which is an obvious and crude parody of Islam. This stereotype fest culminates in the incredibly bizarre scene that Aravis overhears, in which the grand vizier literally grovels on the floor while Radagast kicks him and the Tisroc, Radagast's father, talks about how Narnia's freedom offends him and the barbarian kingdom would be more profitable and orderly when conquered.

The one point to Lewis's credit is that Aravis is also Calormene, tells stories in the same style, and is still a protagonist and just as acceptable to Aslan as Shasta is. It's not enough to overcome the numerous problems with Lewis's lazy world-building, but it makes me wish even more that Aravis had gotten her own book and more meaningful scenes with Aslan.

I had forgotten that Susan appears in this book, although that appearance doesn't add much to the general problem of Susan in Narnia except perhaps to hint at Lewis's later awful choices. She is shown considering marriage to the clearly villainous Radagast, and then only mentioned later with a weird note that she doesn't ride to war despite being the best archer of the four. I will say again that it's truly weird to see the Pevensie kids as (young) adults discussing marriage proposals, international politics, and border wars while remembering they all get dumped back into their previous lives as British schoolkids. This had to have had dramatic effects on their lives that Lewis never showed. (I know, the real answer is that Lewis is writing these books according to childhood imaginary adventure logic, where adventures don't have long-term consequences of that type.)

I will also grumble once more at how weirdly ineffectual Narnians are until some human comes to tell them what to do. Calormen is obviously a threat; Susan just escaped from an attempted forced marriage. Archenland is both their southern line of defense and is an ally separated by a mountain pass in a country full of talking eagles, among other obvious messengers. And yet, it falls to Shasta to ride to give warning because he's the human protagonist of the story. Everyone else seems to be too busy with quirky domesticity or endless faux-medieval chivalric parties.

The Horse and His Boy was one of my favorites when I was a kid, but reading as an adult I found it much harder to tolerate Bree or read past the blatant racial and cultural stereotyping. The bits with Aslan also felt less magical to me than they did as a kid because I was asking more questions about why Aslan had to do everything in such an opaque and perilous way. It's still not a bad adventure; Aravis is a great character, the bits in Tashbaan are at least memorable, and I still love the Hermit of the Southern March and want to know more about him. But I would rank it below the top tier of Narnia books, alongside Prince Caspian as a book with some great moments and some serious flaws.

Followed in original publication order by The Magician's Nephew.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2021-05-31: Mostly preorder haul

Some books that I had preordered, plus various other things that I failed to resist. There was a whole wave of new book releases this spring, most of which I have not yet read (in part because of the detour to re-read and review the Chronicles of Narnia).

Becky Chambers — The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (sff)
Richard Ben Cramer — What It Takes (nonfiction)
J.S. Dewes — The Last Watch (sff)
Anand Giridharadas — Winners Take All (nonfiction)
Lauren Hough — Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing (nonfiction)
S.L. Huang — Burning Roses (sff)
Jane McAlevey — A Collective Bargain (nonfiction)
K.B. Spangler — Stoneskin (sff)
K.B. Spangler — The Blackwing War (sff)
Natalie Zina Walschots — Hench (sff)
Martha Wells — Fugitive Telemetry (sff)

2021-05-30: Review: The Relentless Moon

Review: The Relentless Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Series Lady Astronaut #3
Publisher Tor
Copyright 2020
ISBN 1-250-23648-7
Format Kindle
Pages 542

Content note: Discussion of eating disorders in this review and portrayal of an eating disorder in the novel.

The Relentless Moon is the third book of the Lady Astronaut series and the first one that doesn't feature Elma. It takes place simultaneously with The Fated Sky and tells the story of what happened on Earth, and the Moon, while Elma was in transit to Mars. It's meant to be read after The Fated Sky and would be a significant spoiler for that novel.

The protagonist of this novel is Nicole Wargin: wife of the governor of Kansas (a more prestigious state in this universe since the seat of government for the United States was relocated to Kansas City after the Meteor), expert politician's wife, and another of the original group of female astronauts. Kenneth, her husband, is considering a run for president. Nicole is working as an astronaut, helping build out the permanent Moon base. But there are a lot of people on Earth who are not happy with the amount of money and political attention that the space program is getting. They have decided to move beyond protests and political opposition to active sabotage.

Nicole was hoping to land an assignment piloting one of the larger rockets. What she gets instead is an assignment as secretary to the Lunar Colony Administrator, as cover. Her actual job is to watch for saboteurs that may or may not be operating on the Moon. Before she even leaves the planet, one of the chief engineers of the space program is poisoned. The pilot of the translunar shuttle falls ill during the flight to the Moon. And then the shuttle's controls fail during landing and disaster is only narrowly averted.

The story from there is a cloak and dagger sabotage investigation mixed with Kowal's meticulously-researched speculation about a space program still running on 1950s technology but drastically accelerated by the upcoming climate collapse of Earth. Nicole has more skills for this type of mission than most around her realize due to very quiet work she did during the war, not to mention the feel for personalities and politics that she's honed as a governor's wife. But, like Elma, she's also fighting some personal battles. Elma's are against anxiety; Nicole's are against an eating disorder.

I think my negative reaction to this aspect of the book is not the book's fault, but it was sufficiently strong that it substantially interfered with my enjoyment. The specific manifestation of Nicole's eating disorder is that she skips meals until she makes herself ill. My own anxious tendencies hyperfocus on prevention and on rule-following. The result is that once Kowal introduces the eating disorder subplot, my brain started anxiously monitoring everything that Nicole ate and keeping track of her last meal. This, in turn, felt horribly intrusive and uncomfortable. I did not want to monitor and police Nicole's eating, particularly when Nicole clearly was upset by anyone else doing exactly that, and yet I couldn't stop the background thread of my brain that did so. The result was a highly unsettling feeling that I was violating the privacy of the protagonist of the book that I was reading, mixed with anxiety and creeping dread about her calorie intake.

Part of this may have been intentional to give the reader some sense of how this felt to Nicole. (The negative interaction with my own anxiety was likely not intentional.) Kowal did an exceptionally good job at invoking reader empathy (at least in me) for Elma's anxiety in The Calculating Stars. I didn't like the experience much this time, but that doesn't make it an invalid focus for a book. It may, however, make me a poor reviewer for this part of the reading experience.

This was a major subplot, so it was hard to escape completely, but I quite enjoyed the rest of the book. It's not obvious who the saboteurs are or even how the sabotage is happening, and the acts of clear sabotage are complicated by other problems that may be more subtle sabotage, may be bad luck, or may be the inherent perils of trying to survive in space. Many of Nicole's suspicions do not pan out, which was a touch that I appreciated. She has to look for ulterior motives in everything, and in reality that means she'll be wrong most of the time, but fiction often unrealistically short-cuts that process. I also liked how Kowal handles the resolution, which avoids villain monologues and gives Nicole's opposition their own contingency plans, willingness to try to adapt to setbacks, and the intelligence to keep trying to manipulate the situation even when their plans fail.

As with the rest of this series, there's a ton of sexism and racism, which the characters acknowledge and which Nicole tries to resist as much as she can, but which is so thoroughly baked into the society that it's mostly an obstacle that has to be endured. This is not the book, or series, to read if you're looking for triumph over discrimination or for women being allowed to be awesome without having to handle and soothe men's sexist feelings about their abilities. Nicole gets a clear victory arc, but it's a victory despite sexism rather than an end to it.

The Relentless Moon did feel a bit long. There are a lot of scene-setting preliminaries before Nicole leaves for the Moon, and I'm not sure all of them were necessary at that length. Nicole also spends a lot of time being suspicious of everyone and second-guessing her theories, and at a few points I thought that dragged. But once things start properly happening, I thoroughly enjoyed the technological details and the thought that Kowal put into the mix of sabotage, accidents, and ill-advised human behavior that Nicole has to sort through. The last half of the book is the best, which is always a good property for a book to have.

The eating disorder subplot made me extremely uncomfortable for reasons that are partly peculiar to me, but outside of that, this is a solid entry in the series and fills in some compelling details of what was happening on the other end of the intermittent radio messages Elma received. If you've enjoyed the series to date, you will probably enjoy this installment as well. But if you didn't like the handling of sexism and racism as deeply ingrained social forces that can at best be temporarily bypassed, be warned that The Relentless Moon continues the same theme. Also, if you're squeamish about medical conditions in your fiction, be aware that the specific details of polio feature significantly in the book.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2021-05-29: Review: The Silver Chair

Review: The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis

Illustrator Pauline Baynes
Series Chronicles of Narnia #4
Publisher Collier
Copyright 1953
Printing 1978
ISBN 0-02-044250-5
Format Mass market
Pages 217

The Silver Chair is a sequel to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia in original publication order. (For more about publication order, see the introduction to my review of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.) Apart from a few references to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader at the start, it stands sufficiently on its own that you could read it without reading the other books, although I have no idea why you'd want to.

We have finally arrived at my least favorite of the Narnia books and the one that I sometimes skipped during re-reads. (One of my objections to the new publication order is that it puts The Silver Chair and The Last Battle back-to-back, and I don't think you should do that to yourself as a reader.) I was hoping that there would be previously unnoticed depth to this book that would redeem it as an adult reader. Sadly, no; with one very notable exception, it's just not very good.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW.

The Silver Chair opens on the grounds of the awful school to which Eustace's parents sent him: Experiment House. That means it opens (and closes) with a more extended version of Lewis's rant about schools. I won't get into this in detail since it's mostly a framing device, but Lewis is remarkably vicious and petty. His snide contempt for putting girls and boys in the same school did not age well, nor did his emphasis at the end of the book that the incompetent head of the school is a woman. I also raised an eyebrow at holding up ordinary British schools as a model of preventing bullying.

Thankfully, as Lewis says at the start, this is not a school story. This is prelude to Jill meeting Eustace and the two of them escaping the bullies via a magical door into Narnia. Unfortunately, that's the second place The Silver Chair gets off on the wrong foot.

Jill and Eustace end up in what the reader of the series will recognize as Aslan's country and almost walk off the vast cliff at the end of the world, last seen from the bottom in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace freaks out, Jill (who has a much better head for heights) goes intentionally close to the cliff in a momentary impulse of arrogance before realizing how high it is, Eustace tries to pull her back, and somehow Eustace falls over the edge.

I do not have a good head for heights, and I wonder how much of it is due to this memorable scene. I certainly blame Lewis for my belief that pulling someone else back from the edge of a cliff can result in you being pushed off, something that on adult reflection makes very little sense but which is seared into my lizard brain. But worse, this sets the tone for the rest of the story: everything is constantly going wrong because Eustace and Jill either have normal human failings that are disproportionately punished or don't successfully follow esoteric and unreasonably opaque instructions from Aslan.

Eustace is safe, of course; Aslan blows him to Narnia and then gives Jill instructions before sending her afterwards. (I suspect the whole business with the cliff was an authorial cheat to set up Jill's interaction with Aslan without Eustace there to explain anything.) She and Eustace have been summoned to Narnia to find the lost Prince, and she has to memorize four Signs that will lead her on the right path.

Gah, the Signs. If you were the sort of kid that I was, you immediately went back and re-read the Signs several times to memorize them like Jill was told to. The rest of this book was then an exercise in anxious frustration. First, Eustace is an ass to Jill and refuses to even listen to the first Sign. They kind of follow the second but only with heavy foreshadowing that Jill isn't memorizing the Signs every day like she's supposed to. They mostly botch the third and have to backtrack to follow it. Meanwhile, the narrator is constantly reminding you that the kids (and Jill in particular) are screwing up their instructions. On re-reading, it's clear they're not doing that poorly given how obscure the Signs are, but the ominous foreshadowing is enough to leave a reader a nervous wreck.

Worse, Eustace and Jill are just miserable to each other through the whole book. They constantly bicker and snipe, Eustace doesn't want to listen to her and blames her for everything, and the hard traveling makes it all worse. Lewis does know how to tell a satisfying redemption arc; one of the things I have always liked about Edmund's story is that he learns his lesson and becomes my favorite character in the subsequent stories. But, sadly, Eustace's redemption arc is another matter. He's totally different here than he was at the start of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (to the degree that if he didn't have the same name in both books, I wouldn't recognize him as the same person), but rather than a better person he seems to have become a different sort of ass. There's no sign here of the humility and appreciation for friendship that he supposedly learned from his time as a dragon.

On top of that, the story isn't very interesting. Rilian, the lost Prince, is a damp squib who talks in the irritating archaic accent that Lewis insists on using for all Narnian royalty. His story feels like Lewis lifted it from medieval Arthurian literature; most of it could be dropped into a collection of stories of knights of the Round Table without seeming out of place. When you have a country full of talking animals and weirdly fascinating bits of theology, it's disappointing to get a garden-variety story about an evil enchantress in which everyone is noble and tragic and extremely stupid.

Thankfully, The Silver Chair has one important redeeming quality: Puddleglum.

Puddleglum is a Marsh-wiggle, a bipedal amphibious sort who lives alone in the northern marshes. He's recruited by the owls to help the kids with their mission when they fail to get King Caspian's help after blowing the first Sign. Puddleglum is an absolute delight: endlessly pessimistic, certain the worst possible thing will happen at any moment, but also weirdly cheerful about it. I love Eeyore characters in general, but Puddleglum is even better because he gives the kids' endless bickering exactly the respect that it deserves.

"But we all need to be very careful about our tempers, seeing all the hard times we shall have to go through together. Won't do to quarrel, you know. At any rate, don't begin it too soon. I know these expeditions usually end that way; knifing one another, I shouldn't wonder, before all's done. But the longer we can keep off it—"

It's even more obvious on re-reading that Puddleglum is the only effective member of the party. Jill has only a couple of moments where she gets the three of them past some obstacle. Eustace is completely useless; I can't remember a single helpful thing he does in the entire book. Puddleglum and his pessimistic determination, on the other hand, is right about nearly everything at each step. And he's the one who takes decisive action to break the Lady of the Green Kirtle's spell near the end.

I was expecting a bit of sexism and (mostly in upcoming books) racism when re-reading these books as an adult given when they were written and who Lewis was, but what has caught me by surprise is the colonialism. Lewis is weirdly insistent on importing humans from England to fill all the important roles in stories, even stories that are entirely about Narnians. I know this is the inherent weakness of portal fantasy, but it bothers me how little Lewis believes in Narnians solving their own problems. The Silver Chair makes this blatantly obvious: if Aslan had just told Puddleglum the same information he told Jill and sent a Badger or a Beaver or a Mouse along with him, all the evidence in the book says the whole affair would have been sorted out with much less fuss and anxiety. Jill and Eustace are far more of a hindrance than a help, which makes for frustrating reading when they're supposedly the protagonists.

The best part of this book is the underground bits, once they finally get through the first three Signs and stumble into the Lady's kingdom far below the surface. Rilian is a great disappointment, but the fight against the Lady's mind-altering magic leads to one of the great quotes of the series, on par with Reepicheep's speech in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

"Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."

This is Puddleglum, of course. And yes, I know that this is apologetics and Lewis is talking about Christianity and making the case for faith without proof, but put that aside for the moment, because this is still powerful life philosophy. It's a cynic's litany against cynicism. It's a pessimist's defense of hope.

Suppose we have only dreamed all those things like justice and fairness and equality, community and consensus and collaboration, universal basic income and effective environmentalism. The dreary magic of the realists and the pragmatists say that such things are baby's games, silly fantasies. But you can still choose to live like you believe in them. In Alasdair Gray's reworking of a line from Dennis Lee, "work as if you live in the early days of a better nation."

That's one moment that I'll always remember from this book. The other is after they kill the Lady of the Green Kirtle and her magic starts to fade, they have to escape from the underground caverns while surrounded by the Earthmen who served her and who they believe are hostile. It's a tense moment that turns into a delightful celebration when they realize that the Earthmen were just as much prisoners as the Prince was. They were forced from a far deeper land below, full of living metals and salamanders who speak from rivers of fire. It's the one moment in this book that I thought captured the magical strangeness of Narnia, that sense that there are wonderful things just out of sight that don't follow the normal patterns of medieval-ish fantasy.

Other than a few great lines from Puddleglum and some moments in Aslan's country, the first 60% of this book is a loss and remarkably frustrating to read. The last 40% isn't bad, although I wish Rilian had any discernible character other than generic Arthurian knight. I don't know what Eustace is doing in this book at all other than providing a way for Jill to get into Narnia, and I wish Lewis had realized Puddleglum could be the protagonist. But as frustrating as The Silver Chair can be, I am still glad I re-read it. Puddleglum is one of the truly memorable characters of children's literature, and it's a shame he's buried in a weak mid-series book.

Followed, in the original publication order, by The Horse and His Boy.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2021-05-15: Review: A Desolation Called Peace

Review: A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine

Series Teixcalaan #2
Publisher Tor
Copyright 2021
ISBN 1-250-18648-X
Format Kindle
Pages 496

A Desolation Called Peace is a direct sequel to A Memory Called Empire and picks up shortly after that book's ending. It would completely spoil the first book and builds heavily on previous events. This is not a series to read out of order.

It's nearly impossible to discuss anything about the plot of this book without at least minor spoilers for the previous book, so beware. If you've not read A Memory Called Empire, I highly recommend it, and you may want to skip this review until you have.

Mahit Dzmare has returned to Lsel Station and escaped, mostly, the pull of the Teixcalaan Empire in all its seductive arrogance. That doesn't mean Lsel Station is happy to see her. The maneuverings of the station council were only a distant part of the complex political situation she was navigating at the Teixcalaanli capital. Now home, it is far harder to ignore powerful councilors who would be appalled by the decisions she made. The ambassador to a hated foreign empire does not have many allies.

Yaotlek Nine Hibiscus, the empire's newest commander of commanders, is the spear the empire has thrust towards a newly-discovered alien threat. The aliens have already slaughtered all the inhabitants of a mining outpost for no obvious reason, and their captured communications are so strange as to provoke nausea in humans. Their cloaking technology makes the outcome of pitched warfare dangerously uncertain. Nine Hibiscus needs someone who can talk to aliens without mouths, and that means the Information Ministry.

The Information Ministry means a newly promoted Three Seagrass, who is suffering from insomnia, desperately bored, and missing Mahit Dzmare. And who sees in Nine Hibiscus's summons an opportunity to address several of those problems at once.

A Memory Called Empire had an SFnal premise and triggering plot machinery, but it was primarily a city political thriller. A Desolation Called Peace moves onto the more familiar SF ground of first contact with a very alien species, but Martine makes the unusual choice of revealing one of the secrets of the aliens to the reader at the start of the book. This keeps the reader's focus more on the political maneuvering than on the mystery, but with a classic first-contact communication problem as the motivating backdrop.

That's only one of the threads of this book, though. Another is the unfinished business between Three Seagrass and Mahit Dzmare, and between Mahit Dzmare and the all-consuming culture of Teixcalaan. A third is the political education of a very exceptional boy, whose mere existence is a spoiler for A Memory Called Empire and therefore not something I will discuss in detail. And then there are the internal politics of Lsel Station, although I thought that was the least effective part of the book and never reached a satisfying conclusion.

This is a lot to balance, and I think that's one of the reasons why A Desolation Called Peace doesn't replicate the magic that made me love A Memory Called Empire so much. Full-steam-ahead pacing with characters who are thinking on their feet and taking desperate risks has a glorious momentum. Here, there's too much going on (not to mention four major viewpoint characters) to maintain the same pace. Once Mahit and Three Seagrass get into the same room, there are moments that are as good as the highlights of A Memory Called Empire, but it's not as sustained as I was hoping for.

This book also spends more time on Mahit and Three Seagrass's relationship, and despite liking both of the characters, this didn't entirely work for me. Martine uses them to make a subtle and powerful point about relationships across power gradients and the hurt that comes from someone trivializing a conflict that is central to your identity. It took me a while to understand the strength of Mahit's reaction, but it eventually felt right. But that fight wasn't what I was looking for in the book, and there was a bit too much of both of them failing (or refusing) to communicate for my taste. I appreciated what Martine was exploring, but personally I wanted a different sort of catharsis.

That said, this is still a highly enjoyable book. Nine Hibiscus is a solid military SF character who is a good counterweight to the more devious approaches of the other characters. I enjoyed the subplot of the kid in the Teixcalaanli capital more than I expected, although it felt more like setup for future novels than critical to the plot of this one. And then there's Three Seagrass.

Three Seagrass always made decisions wholly and entire. All at once. choosing information as her aptitudes. Choosing the position of cultural liaison to the Lsel Ambassador. Choosing to trust her. choosing to come here, to take this assignment — entirely, completely, and without pausing to look to see how deep the water was that she was leaping into.

Every word of this is true, and it's so much fun to read. Three Seagrass was a bit overshadowed in A Memory Called Empire, a supporting character in someone else's story. Here, she has moments where she can take the lead, and she's so delightfully different than Mahit. I loved every moment of her viewpoint.

A Desolation Called Peace isn't as taut or as coherent as A Memory Called Empire. The plot sags in a few places, and I think there was a bit too much hopeless Lsel politics, nebulous alien horror, and injured silence between characters. But the high points are nearly as good as the high points of A Memory Called Empire and I adore these characters. If you liked the first book, I think you'll like this one too.

More, please!

Rating: 8 out of 10

2021-05-02: Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis

Illustrator Pauline Baynes
Series Chronicles of Narnia #3
Publisher Collier Books
Copyright 1952
Printing 1978
ISBN 0-02-044260-2
Format Mass market
Pages 216

There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the third Narnia book in original publication order (see my review of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for more about reading order). You could arguably start reading here; there are a lot of references to the previous books, but mostly as background material, and I don't think any of it is vital. If you wanted to sample a single Narnia book to see if you'd get along with the series, this is the one I'd recommend.

Since I was a kid, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has held the spot of my favorite of the series. I'm happy to report that it still holds up. Apart from one bit that didn't age well (more on that below), this is the book where the story and the world-building come together, in part because Lewis picks a plot shape that works with what he wants to write about.

The younger two Pevensie children, Edmund and Lucy, are spending the summer with Uncle Harold and Aunt Alberta because their parents are in America. That means spending the summer with their cousin Eustace. C.S. Lewis had strong opinions about child-raising that crop up here and there in his books, and Harold and Alberta are his example of everything he dislikes: caricatured progressive, "scientific" parents who don't believe in fiction or mess or vices. Eustace therefore starts the book as a terror, a whiny bully who has only read boring practical books and is constantly scoffing at the Pevensies and making fun of their stories of Narnia. He is therefore entirely unprepared when the painting of a ship in the guest bedroom turns into a portal to the Narnia and dumps the three children into the middle of the ocean.

Thankfully, they're in the middle of the ocean near the ship in the painting. That ship is the Dawn Treader, and onboard is Caspian from the previous book, now king of Narnia. He has (improbably) sorted things out in his kingdom and is now on a sea voyage to find seven honorable Telmarine lords who left Narnia while his uncle was usurping the throne. They're already days away from land, headed towards the Lone Islands and, beyond that, into uncharted seas.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW.

Obviously, Eustace gets a redemption arc, which is roughly the first half of this book. It's not a bad arc, but I am always happy when it's over. Lewis tries so hard to make Eustace insufferable that it becomes tedious. As an indoor kid who would not consider being dumped on a primitive sailing ship to be a grand adventure, I wanted to have more sympathy for him than the book would allow.

The other problem with Eustace's initial character is that Lewis wants it to stem from "modern" parenting and not reading the right sort of books, but I don't buy it. I've known kids whose parents didn't believe in fiction, and they didn't act anything like this (and kids pick up a lot more via osmosis regardless of parenting than Lewis seems to realize). What Eustace acts like instead is an entitled, arrogant rich kid who is used to the world revolving around him, and it's fascinating to me how Lewis ignores class to focus on educational philosophy.

The best part of Eustace's story is Reepicheep, which is just setup for Reepicheep becoming the best part of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Reepicheep, the leader of Narnia's talking mice, first appears in Prince Caspian, but there he's mostly played for laughs: the absurdly brave and dashing mouse who rushes into every fight he sees. In this book, he comes into his own as the courage and occasionally the moral conscience of the party. Caspian wants to explore and to find the lords of his past, the Pevensie kids want to have a sea adventure, and Eustace is in this book to have a redemption arc, but Reepicheep is the driving force at the heart of the voyage. He's going to Aslan's country beyond the sea, armed with a nursemaid's song about his destiny and a determination to be his best and most honorable self every step of the way, and nothing is going to stop him.

Eustace, of course, takes an immediate dislike to a talking rodent. Reepicheep, in return, is the least interested of anyone on the ship in tolerating Eustace's obnoxious behavior and would be quite happy to duel him. But when Eustace is turned into a dragon, Reepicheep is the one who spends hours with him, telling him stories and ensuring he's not alone. It's beautifully handled, and my only complaint is that Lewis doesn't do enough with the Eustace and Reepicheep friendship (or indeed with Eustace at all) for the rest of the book.

After Eustace's restoration and a few other relatively short incidents comes the second long section of the book and the part that didn't age well: the island of the Dufflepuds. It's a shame because the setup is wonderful: a cultivated island in the middle of nowhere with no one in sight, mysterious pounding sounds and voices, the fun of trying to figure out just what these invisible creatures could possibly be, and of course Lucy's foray into the second floor of a house, braving the lair of a magician to find and read one of the best books of magic in fantasy.

Everything about how Lewis sets this scene is so well done. The kids are coming from an encounter with a sea serpent and a horrifically dangerous magic island and land on this scene of eerily normal domesticity. The most dangerous excursion is Lucy going upstairs in a brightly lit house with soft carpet in the middle of the day. And yet it's incredibly tense because Lewis knows exactly how to put you in Lucy's head, right down to having to stand with her back to an open door to read the book.

And that book! The pages only turn forward, the spells are beautifully illustrated, and the sense of temptation is palpable. Lucy reading the eavesdropping spell is one of the more memorable bits in this series, at least for me, and makes a surprisingly subtle moral point about the practical reasons why invading other people's privacy is unwise and can just make you miserable. And then, when Lucy reads the visibility spell that was her goal, there's this exchange, which is pure C.S. Lewis:

"Oh Aslan," said she, "it was kind of you to come."

"I have been here all the time," said he, "but you have just made me visible."

"Aslan!" said Lucy almost a little reproachfully. "Don't make fun of me. As if anything I could do would make you visible!"

"It did," said Aslan. "Did you think I wouldn't obey my own rules?"

I love the subtlety of what's happening here: the way that Lucy is much more powerful than she thinks she is, but only because Aslan decided to make the rules that way and chooses to follow his own rules, making himself vulnerable in a fascinating way. The best part is that Lewis never belabors points like this; the characters immediately move on to talk about other things, and no one feels obligated to explain.

But, unfortunately, along with the explanation of the thumping and the magician, we learn that the Dufflepuds are (remarkably dim-witted) dwarfs, the magician is their guardian (put there by Aslan, no less!), he transformed them into rather absurd shapes that they hate, and all of this is played for laughs. Once you notice that these are sentient creatures being treated essentially like pets (and physically transformed against their will), the level of paternalistic colonialism going on here is very off-putting. It's even worse that the Dufflepuds are memorably funny (washing dishes before dinner to save time afterwards!) and are arguably too dim to manage on their own, because Lewis made the authorial choice to write them that way. The "white man's burden" feeling is very strong.

And Lewis could have made other choices! Coriakin the magician is a fascinating and somewhat morally ambiguous character. We learn later in the book that he's a star and his presence on the island is a punishment of sorts, leading to one of my other favorite bits of theology in this book:

"My son," said Ramandu, "it is not for you, a son of Adam, to know what faults a star can commit."

Lewis could have kept most of the setup, kept the delightfully silly things the Dufflepuds believe, changed who was responsible for their transformation, and given Coriakin a less authoritarian role, and the story would have been so much stronger for it.

After this, the story gets stranger and wilder, and it's in the last part that I think the true magic of this book lies. The entirety of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a progression from a relatively mundane sea voyage to something more awe-inspiring. The last few chapters are a tour de force of wonder: rejuvenating stars, sunbirds, the Witch's stone knife, undersea kingdoms, a sea of lilies, a wall of water, the cliffs of Aslan's country, and the literal end of the world. Lewis does it without much conflict, with sparse description in a very few pages, and with beautifully memorable touches like the quality of the light and the hush that falls over the ship.

This is the part of Narnia that I point to and wonder why I don't see more emulation (although I should note that it is arguably an immram). Tolkien-style fantasy, with dwarfs and elves and magic rings and great battles, is everywhere, but I can't think of many examples of this sense of awe and discovery without great battles and detailed explanations. Or of characters like Reepicheep, who gets one of the best lines of the series:

"My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan's country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise and Peepiceek shall be the head of the talking mice in Narnia."

The last section of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is one of my favorite endings of any book precisely because it's so different than the typical ending of a novel. The final return to England is always a bit disappointing in this series, but it's very short and is preceded by so much wonder that I don't mind. Aslan does appear to the kids as a lamb at the very end of the world, making Lewis's intended Christian context a bit more obvious, but even that isn't belabored, just left there for those who recognize the symbolism to notice.

I was curious during this re-read to understand why The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is so much better than the first two books in the series. I think it's primarily due to two things: pacing, and a story structure that's better aligned with what Lewis wants to write about.

For pacing, both The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian have surprisingly long setups for short books. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by contrast, it takes only 35 pages to get the kids in Narnia, introduce all the characters, tour the ship, learn why Caspian is off on a sea voyage, establish where this book fits in the Narnian timeline, and have the kids be captured by slavers. None of the Narnia books are exactly slow, but Dawn Treader is the first book of the series that feels like it knows exactly where it's going and isn't wasting time getting there.

The other structural success of this book is that it's a semi-episodic adventure, which means Lewis can stop trying to write about battles and political changes whose details he's clearly not interested in and instead focus wholeheartedly on sense-of-wonder exploration. The island-hopping structure lets Lewis play with ideas and drop them before they wear out their welcome. And the lack of major historical events also means that Aslan doesn't have to come in to resolve everything and instead can play the role of guardian angel.

I think The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has the most compelling portrayal of Aslan in the series. He doesn't make decisions for the kids or tell them directly what to do the way he did in the previous two books. Instead, he shows up whenever they're about to make a dreadful mistake and does just enough to get them to make a better decision. Some readers may find this takes too much of the tension out of the book, but I have always appreciated it. It lets nervous child readers enjoy the adventures while knowing that Aslan will keep anything too bad from happening. He plays the role of a protective but non-interfering parent in a genre that usually doesn't have parents because they would intervene to prevent adventures.

I enjoyed this book just as much as I remembered enjoying it during my childhood re-reads. Still the best book of the series.

This, as with both The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, was originally intended to be the last book of the series. That, of course, turned out to not be the case, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is followed (in both chronological and original publication order) by The Silver Chair.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2021-04-27: Review: Beyond Shame

Review: Beyond Shame, by Kit Rocha

Series Beyond #1
Publisher Kit Rocha
Copyright December 2013
ASIN B00GIA4GN8
Format Kindle
Pages 270

I read this book as part of the Beyond Series Bundle (Books 1-3), which is what the sidebar information is for.

Noelle is a child of Eden, the rich and technologically powerful city of a post-apocalyptic world. As the daughter of a councilman, she had everything she wanted except the opportunity to feel. Eden's religious elite embrace a doctrine of strict Puritanism: Even hugging one's children was frowned upon, let alone anything related to sex. Noelle was too rebellious to settle for that, which is why this book opens with her banished from Eden, ejected into Sector Four. The sectors are the city slums, full of gangs and degenerates and violence, only a slight step up from the horrific farming communes. Luckily for her, she literally stumbles into one of the lieutenants of the O'Kane gang, who are just as violent as their reputations but who have surprising sympathy for a helpless city girl.

My shorthand distinction between romance and erotica is that romance mixes some sex into the plot and erotica mixes some plot into the sex. Beyond Shame is erotica, specifically BDSM erotica. The forbidden sensations that Noelle got kicked out of Eden for pursuing run strongly towards humiliation, which is tangled up in the shame she was taught to feel about anything sexual. There is a bit of a plot surrounding the O'Kanes who take her in, their leader, some political skulduggery that eventually involves people she knows, and some inter-sector gang warfare, but it's quite forgettable (and indeed I've already forgotten most of it). The point of the story is Noelle navigating a relationship with Jasper (among others) that involves a lot of very graphic sex.

I was of two minds about reviewing this. Erotica is tricky to review, since to an extent it's not trying to do what most books are doing. The point is less to tell a coherent story (although that can be a bonus) than it is to turn the reader on, and what turns the reader on is absurdly personal and unpredictable. Erotica is arguably more usefully marked with story codes (which in this case would be something like MF, MMFF, FF, Mdom, Fdom, bd, ds, rom, cons, exhib, humil, tattoos) so that the reader has an idea whether the scenarios in the story are the sort of thing they find hot.

This is particularly true of BDSM erotica, since the point is arousal from situations that wouldn't work or might be downright horrifying in a different sort of book. Often the forbidden or taboo nature of the scene is why it's erotic. For example, in another genre I would complain about the exaggerated and quite sexist gender roles, where all the men are hulking cage fighters who want to control the women, but in male-dominant BDSM erotica that's literally the point.

As you can tell, I wrote a review anyway, primarily because of how I came to read this book. Kit Rocha (which is a pseudonym for the writing team of Donna Herren and Bree Bridges) recently published Deal with the Devil, a book about mercenary librarians in a post-apocalyptic future. Like every right-thinking person, I immediately wanted to read a book about mercenary librarians, but discovered that it was set in an existing universe. I hate not starting at the beginning of things, so even though there was probably no need to read the earlier books first, I figured out Beyond Shame was the first in this universe and the bundle of the first three books was only $2.

If any of you are immediately hooked by mercenary librarians but are back-story completionists, now you know what you'll be getting into.

That said, there are a few notable things about this book other than it has a lot of sex. The pivot of the romantic relationship was more interesting and subtle than most erotica. Noelle desperately wants a man to do all sorts of forbidden things to her, but she starts the book unable to explain or analyze why she wants what she wants, and both Jasper and the story are uncomfortable with that and unwilling to leave it alone. Noelle builds up a more coherent theory of herself over the course of the book, and while it's one that's obviously designed to enable lots of erotic scenes, it's not a bad bit of character development.

Even better is Lex, the partner (sort of) of the leader of the O'Kane gang and by far the best character in the book. She takes Noelle under her wing from the start, and while that relationship is sexualized like nearly everything in this book, it also turns into an interesting female friendship that I would have also enjoyed in a different genre. I liked Lex a lot, and the fact she's the protagonist of the next book might keep me reading.

Beyond Shame also has a lot more female gaze descriptions of the men than is often the case in male-dominant BDSM. The eye candy is fairly evenly distributed, although the gender roles are very much not. It even passes the Bechdel test, although it is still erotica and nearly all the conversations end up being about sex partners or sex eventually.

I was less fond of the fact that the men are all dangerous and violent and the O'Kane leader frequently acts like a controlling, abusive psychopath. A lot of that was probably the BDSM setup, but it was not my thing. Be warned that this is the sort of book in which one of the (arguably) good guys tortures someone to death (albeit off camera).

Recommendations are next to impossible for erotica, so I won't try to give one. If you want to read the mercenary librarian novel and are dubious about this one, it sounds like (although I can't confirm) that it's a bit more on the romance end of things and involves a lot fewer group orgies. Having read this book, I suspect it was entirely unnecessary to have done so for back-story. If you are looking for male-dominant BDSM, Beyond Shame is competently written, has a more thoughtful story than most, and has a female friendship that I fully enjoyed, which may raise it above the pack.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Last spun 2021-08-02 from thread modified 2008-08-13