Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2024-04-17: Review: Unseen Academicals

Review: Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #37
Publisher Harper
Copyright October 2009
Printing November 2014
ISBN 0-06-233500-6
Format Mass market
Pages 517

Unseen Academicals is the 37th Discworld novel and includes many of the long-standing Ankh-Morpork cast, but mostly as supporting characters. The main characters are a new (and delightful) bunch with their own concerns. You arguably could start reading here if you really wanted to, although you would risk spoiling several previous books (most notably Thud!) and will miss some references that depend on familiarity with the cast.

The Unseen University is, like most institutions of its sort, funded by an endowment that allows the wizards to focus on the pure life of the mind (or the stomach). Much to their dismay, they have just discovered that an endowment that amounts to most of their food budget requires that they field a football team.

Glenda runs the night kitchen at the Unseen University. Given the deep and abiding love that wizards have for food, there is both a main kitchen and a night kitchen. The main kitchen is more prestigious, but the night kitchen is responsible for making pies, something that Glenda is quietly but exceptionally good at.

Juliet is Glenda's new employee. She is exceptionally beautiful, not very bright, and a working class girl of the Ankh-Morpork streets down to her bones. Trevor Likely is a candle dribbler, responsible for assisting the Candle Knave in refreshing the endless university candles and ensuring that their wax is properly dribbled, although he pushes most of that work off onto the infallibly polite and oddly intelligent Mr. Nutt.

Glenda, Trev, and Juliet are the sort of people who populate the great city of Ankh-Morpork. While the people everyone has heard of have political crises, adventures, and book plots, they keep institutions like the Unseen University running. They read romance novels, go to the football games, and nurse long-standing rivalries. They do not expect the high mucky-mucks to enter their world, let alone mess with their game.

I approached Unseen Academicals with trepidation because I normally don't get along as well with the Discworld wizard books. I need not have worried; Pratchett realized that the wizards would work better as supporting characters and instead turns the main plot (or at least most of it; more on that later) over to the servants. This was a brilliant decision. The setup of this book is some of the best of Discworld up to this point.

Trev is a streetwise rogue with an uncanny knack for kicking around a can that he developed after being forbidden to play football by his dear old mum. He falls for Juliet even though their families support different football teams, so you may think that a Romeo and Juliet spoof is coming. There are a few gestures of one, but Pratchett deftly avoids the pitfalls and predictability and instead makes Juliet one of the best characters in the book by playing directly against type. She is one of the characters that Pratchett is so astonishingly good at, the ones that are so thoroughly themselves that they transcend the stories they're put into.

The heart of this book, though, is Glenda.

Glenda enjoyed her job. She didn't have a career; they were for people who could not hold down jobs.

She is the kind of person who knows where she fits in the world and likes what she does and is happy to stay there until she decides something isn't right, and then she changes the world through the power of common sense morality, righteous indignation, and sheer stubborn persistence. Discworld is full of complex and subtle characters fencing with each other, but there are few things I have enjoyed more than Glenda being a determinedly good person. Vetinari of course recognizes and respects (and uses) that inner core immediately.

Unfortunately, as great as the setup and characters are, Unseen Academicals falls apart a bit at the end. I was eagerly reading the story, wondering what Pratchett was going to weave out of the stories of these individuals, and then it partly turned into yet another wizard book. Pratchett pulled another of his deus ex machina tricks for the climax in a way that I found unsatisfying and contrary to the tone of the rest of the story, and while the characters do get reasonable endings, it lacked the oomph I was hoping for. Rincewind is as determinedly one-note as ever, the wizards do all the standard wizard things, and the plot just isn't that interesting.

I liked Mr. Nutt a great deal in the first part of the book, and I wish he could have kept that edge of enigmatic competence and unflappableness. Pratchett wanted to tell a different story that involved more angst and self-doubt, and while I appreciate that story, I found it less engaging and a bit more melodramatic than I was hoping for. Mr. Nutt's reactions in the last half of the book were believable and fit his background, but that was part of the problem: he slotted back into an archetype that I thought Pratchett was going to twist and upend.

Mr. Nutt does, at least, get a fantastic closing line, and as usual there are a lot of great asides and quotes along the way, including possibly the sharpest and most biting Vetinari speech of the entire series.

The Patrician took a sip of his beer. "I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I'm sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature's wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining on mother and children. And that's when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior."

My dissatisfaction with the ending prevents Unseen Academicals from rising to the level of Night Watch, and it's a bit more uneven than the best books of the series. Still, though, this is great stuff; recommended to anyone who is reading the series.

Followed in publication order by I Shall Wear Midnight.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2024-02-24: Review: The Fund

Review: The Fund, by Rob Copeland

Publisher St. Martin's Press
Copyright 2023
ISBN 1-250-27694-2
Format Kindle
Pages 310

I first became aware of Ray Dalio when either he or his publisher plastered advertisements for The Principles all over the San Francisco 4th and King Caltrain station. If I recall correctly, there were also constant radio commercials; it was a whole thing in 2017. My brain is very good at tuning out advertisements, so my only thought at the time was "some business guy wrote a self-help book." I think I vaguely assumed he was a CEO of some traditional business, since that's usually who writes heavily marketed books like this. I did not connect him with hedge funds or Bridgewater, which I have a bad habit of confusing with Blackwater.

The Principles turns out to be more of a laundered cult manual than a self-help book. And therein lies a story.

Rob Copeland is currently with The New York Times, but for many years he was the hedge fund reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He covered, among other things, Bridgewater Associates, the enormous hedge fund founded by Ray Dalio. The Fund is a biography of Ray Dalio and a history of Bridgewater from its founding as a vehicle for Dalio's advising business until 2022 when Dalio, after multiple false starts and title shuffles, finally retired from running the company. (Maybe. Based on the history recounted here, it wouldn't surprise me if he was back at the helm by the time you read this.)

It is one of the wildest, creepiest, and most abusive business histories that I have ever read.

It's probably worth mentioning, as Copeland does explicitly, that Ray Dalio and Bridgewater hate this book and claim it's a pack of lies. Copeland includes some of their denials (and many non-denials that sound as good as confirmations to me) in footnotes that I found increasingly amusing.

A lawyer for Dalio said he "treated all employees equally, giving people at all levels the same respect and extending them the same perks."

Uh-huh.

Anyway, I personally know nothing about Bridgewater other than what I learned here and the occasional mention in Matt Levine's newsletter (which is where I got the recommendation for this book). I have no independent information whether anything Copeland describes here is true, but Copeland provides the typical extensive list of notes and sourcing one expects in a book like this, and Levine's comments indicated it's generally consistent with Bridgewater's industry reputation. I think this book is true, but since the clear implication is that the world's largest hedge fund was primarily a deranged cult whose employees mostly spied on and rated each other rather than doing any real investment work, I also have questions, not all of which Copeland answers to my satisfaction. But more on that later.

The center of this book are the Principles. These were an ever-changing list of rules and maxims for how people should conduct themselves within Bridgewater. Per Copeland, although Dalio later published a book by that name, the version of the Principles that made it into the book was sanitized and significantly edited down from the version used inside the company. Dalio was constantly adding new ones and sometimes changing them, but the common theme was radical, confrontational "honesty": never being silent about problems, confronting people directly about anything that they did wrong, and telling people all of their faults so that they could "know themselves better."

If this sounds like textbook abusive behavior, you have the right idea. This part Dalio admits to openly, describing Bridgewater as a firm that isn't for everyone but that achieves great results because of this culture. But the uncomfortably confrontational vibes are only the tip of the iceberg of dysfunction. Here are just a few of the ways this played out according to Copeland:

In one of the common and all-too-disturbing connections between Wall Street finance and the United States' dysfunctional government, James Comey (yes, that James Comey) ran internal security for Bridgewater for three years, meaning that he was the one who pulled evidence from surveillance cameras for Dalio to use to confront employees during his trials.

In case the cult vibes weren't strong enough already, Bridgewater developed its own idiosyncratic language worthy of Scientology. The trials were called "probings," firing someone was called "sorting" them, and rating them was called "dotting," among many other Bridgewater-specific terms. Needless to say, no one ever probed Dalio himself. You will also be completely unsurprised to learn that Copeland documents instances of sexual harassment and discrimination at Bridgewater, including some by Dalio himself, although that seems to be a relatively small part of the overall dysfunction. Dalio was happy to publicly humiliate anyone regardless of gender.

If you're like me, at this point you're probably wondering how Bridgewater continued operating for so long in this environment. (Per Copeland, since Dalio's retirement in 2022, Bridgewater has drastically reduced the cult-like behaviors, deleted its archive of probings, and de-emphasized the Principles.) It was not actually a religious cult; it was a hedge fund that has to provide investment services to huge, sophisticated clients, and by all accounts it's a very successful one. Why did this bizarre nightmare of a workplace not interfere with Bridgewater's business?

This, I think, is the weakest part of this book. Copeland makes a few gestures at answering this question, but none of them are very satisfying.

First, it's clear from Copeland's account that almost none of the employees of Bridgewater had any control over Bridgewater's investments. Nearly everyone was working on other parts of the business (sales, investor relations) or on cult-related obsessions. Investment decisions (largely incorporated into algorithms) were made by a tiny core of people and often by Dalio himself. Bridgewater also appears to not trade frequently, unlike some other hedge funds, meaning that they probably stay clear of the more labor-intensive high-frequency parts of the business.

Second, Bridgewater took off as a hedge fund just before the hedge fund boom in the 1990s. It transformed from Dalio's personal consulting business and investment newsletter to a hedge fund in 1990 (with an earlier investment from the World Bank in 1987), and the 1990s were a very good decade for hedge funds. Bridgewater, in part due to Dalio's connections and effective marketing via his newsletter, became one of the largest hedge funds in the world, which gave it a sort of institutional momentum. No one was questioned for putting money into Bridgewater even in years when it did poorly compared to its rivals.

Third, Dalio used the tried and true method of getting free publicity from the financial press: constantly predict an upcoming downturn, and aggressively take credit whenever you were right. From nearly the start of his career, Dalio predicted economic downturns year after year. Bridgewater did very well in the 2000 to 2003 downturn, and again during the 2008 financial crisis. Dalio aggressively takes credit for predicting both of those downturns and positioning Bridgewater correctly going into them. This is correct; what he avoids mentioning is that he also predicted downturns in every other year, the majority of which never happened.

These points together create a bit of an answer, but they don't feel like the whole picture and Copeland doesn't connect the pieces. It seems possible that Dalio may simply be good at investing; he reads obsessively and clearly enjoys thinking about markets, and being an abusive cult leader doesn't take up all of his time. It's also true that to some extent hedge funds are semi-free money machines, in that once you have a sufficient quantity of money and political connections you gain access to investment opportunities and mechanisms that are very likely to make money and that the typical investor simply cannot access. Dalio is clearly good at making personal connections, and invested a lot of effort into forming close ties with tricky clients such as pools of Chinese money.

Perhaps the most compelling explanation isn't mentioned directly in this book but instead comes from Matt Levine. Bridgewater touts its algorithmic trading over humans making individual trades, and there is some reason to believe that consistently applying an algorithm without regard to human emotion is a solid trading strategy in at least some investment areas. Levine has asked in his newsletter, tongue firmly in cheek, whether the bizarre cult-like behavior and constant infighting is a strategy to distract all the humans and keep them from messing with the algorithm and thus making bad decisions.

Copeland leaves this question unsettled. Instead, one comes away from this book with a clear vision of the most dysfunctional workplace I have ever heard of, and an endless litany of bizarre events each more astonishing than the last. If you like watching train wrecks, this is the book for you. The only drawback is that, unlike other entries in this genre such as Bad Blood or Billion Dollar Loser, Bridgewater is a wildly successful company, so you don't get the schadenfreude of seeing a house of cards collapse. You do, however, get a helpful mental model to apply to the next person who tries to talk to you about "radical honesty" and "idea meritocracy."

The flaw in this book is that the existence of an organization like Bridgewater is pointing to systematic flaws in how our society works, which Copeland is largely uninterested in interrogating. "How could this have happened?" is a rather large question to leave unanswered. The sheer outrageousness of Dalio's behavior also gets a bit tiring by the end of the book, when you've seen the patterns and are hearing about the fourth variation. But this is still an astonishing book, and a worthy entry in the genre of capitalism disasters.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2024-01-31: Review: System Collapse

Review: System Collapse, by Martha Wells

Series Murderbot Diaries #7
Publisher Tordotcom
Copyright 2023
ISBN 1-250-82698-5
Format Kindle
Pages 245

System Collapse is the second Murderbot novel. Including the novellas, it's the 7th in the series. Unlike Fugitive Telemetry, the previous novella that was out of chronological order, this is the direct sequel to Network Effect. A very direct sequel; it picks up just a few days after the previous novel ended. Needless to say, you should not start here.

I was warned by other people and therefore re-read Network Effect immediately before reading System Collapse. That was an excellent idea, since this novel opens with a large cast, no dramatis personae, not much in the way of a plot summary, and a lot of emotional continuity from the previous novel. I would grumble about this more, like I have in other reviews, but I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Network Effect and appreciated the excuse.

ART-drone said, “I wouldn’t recommend it. I lack a sense of proportional response. I don’t advise engaging with me on any level.”

Saying much about the plot of this book without spoiling Network Effect and the rest of the series is challenging. Murderbot is suffering from the aftereffects of the events of the previous book more than it expected or would like to admit. It and its humans are in the middle of a complicated multi-way negotiation with some locals, who the corporates are trying to exploit. One of the difficulties in that negotiation is getting people to believe that the corporations are as evil as they actually are, a plot element that has a depressing amount in common with current politics. Meanwhile, Murderbot is trying to keep everyone alive.

I loved Network Effect, but that was primarily for the social dynamics. The planet that was central to the novel was less interesting, so another (short) novel about the same planet was a bit of a disappointment. This does give Wells a chance to show in more detail what Murderbot's new allies have been up to, but there is a lot of speculative exploration and detailed descriptions of underground tunnels that I found less compelling than the relationship dynamics of the previous book. (Murderbot, on the other hand, would much prefer exploring creepy abandoned tunnels to talking about its feelings.)

One of the things this series continues to do incredibly well, though, is take non-human intelligence seriously in a world where the humans mostly don't. It perfectly fills a gap between Star Wars, where neither the humans nor the story take non-human intelligences seriously (hence the creepy slavery vibes as soon as you start paying attention to droids), and the Culture, where both humans and the story do.

The corporates (the bad guys in this series) treat non-human intelligences the way Star Wars treats droids. The good guys treat Murderbot mostly like a strange human, which is better but still wrong, and still don't notice the numerous other machine intelligences. But Wells, as the author, takes all of the non-human characters seriously, which means there are complex and fascinating relationships happening at a level of the story that the human characters are mostly unaware of. I love that Murderbot rarely bothers to explain; if the humans are too blinkered to notice, that's their problem.

About halfway into the story, System Collapse hits its stride, not coincidentally at the point where Murderbot befriends some new computers. The rest of the book is great.

This was not as good as Network Effect. There is a bit less competence porn at the start, and although that's for good in-story reasons I still missed it. Murderbot's redaction of things it doesn't want to talk about got a bit annoying before it finally resolved. And I was not sufficiently interested in this planet to want to spend two novels on it, at least without another major revelation that didn't come. But it's still a Murderbot novel, which means it has the best first-person narrative voice I've ever read, some great moments, and possibly the most compelling and varied presentation of computer intelligence in science fiction at the moment.

There was no feed ID, but AdaCol2 supplied the name Lucia and when I asked it for more info, the gender signifier bb (which didn’t translate) and he/him pronouns. (I asked because the humans would bug me for the information; I was as indifferent to human gender as it was possible to be without being unconscious.)

This is not a series to read out of order, but if you have read this far, you will continue to be entertained. You don't need me to tell you this — nearly everyone reviewing science fiction is saying it — but this series is great and you should read it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2024-01-28: Review: Bluebird

Review: Bluebird, by Ciel Pierlot

Publisher Angry Robot
Copyright 2022
ISBN 0-85766-967-2
Format Kindle
Pages 458

Bluebird is a stand-alone far-future science fiction adventure.

Ten thousand years ago, a star fell into the galaxy carrying three factions of humanity, who immediately began fighting and have been at war continuously ever since. The Ascetics, the Ossuary, and the Pyrites each believe that only their god survived and the other two factions are heretics. Between them, they have conquered the rest of the galaxy and its non-human species. The only thing the factions hate worse than each other are those who attempt to stay outside the faction system or meddle in their ongoing war.

Rig used to be a Pyrite weapon designer before she set fire to her office and escaped with her greatest invention. Now she's a Nightbird, a member of an outlaw band that tries to help refugees and protect her fellow Kashrini against Pyrite genocide. On her side, she has her girlfriend, an Ascetic librarian; her ship, Bluebird; and her guns, Panache and Pizzazz. And now, perhaps, the mysterious Ginka, a Zazra empath and remarkably capable fighter who helps Rig escape from an ambush by Pyrite soldiers.

Rig wants to stay alive, help her people, and defy the factions. Pyrite wants Rig's secrets and, as leverage, has her sister. What Ginka wants is not entirely clear even to Ginka.

This book is absurd, but I still had fun with it.

It's dangerous for me to compare things to anime given how little anime that I've watched, but Bluebird had that vibe for me: anime, or maybe Japanese RPGs or superhero comics. The storytelling is very visual, combat-oriented, and not particularly realistic. Rig is a pistol sharpshooter and Ginka is the type of undefined deadly acrobatic fighter so often seen in that type of media. In addition to her ship, Rig has a gorgeous hand-maintained racing hoverbike with a beautiful paint job. It's that sort of book.

It's also the sort of book where the characters obey cinematic logic designed to maximize dramatic physical confrontations, even if their actions make no logical sense. There is no facial recognition or screening, and it's bizarrely easy for the protagonists to end up in the same physical location as high-up bad guys. One of the weapon systems that's critical to the plot makes no sense whatsoever. At critical moments, the bad guys behave more like final bosses in a video game, picking up weapons to deal with the protagonists directly instead of using their supposedly vast armies of agents. There is supposedly a whole galaxy full of civilizations with capital worlds covered in planet-spanning cities, but politics barely exist and the faction leaders get directly involved in the plot.

If you are looking for a realistic projection of technology or society, I cannot stress enough that this is not the book that you're looking for. You probably figured that out when I mentioned ten thousand years of war, but that will only be the beginning of the suspension of disbelief problems. You need to turn off your brain and enjoy the action sequences and melodrama.

I'm normally good at that, and I admit I still struggled because the plot logic is such a mismatch with the typical novels I read. There are several points where the characters do something that seems so monumentally dumb that I was sure Pierlot was setting them up for a fall, and then I got wrong-footed because their plan worked fine, or exploded for unrelated reasons. I think this type of story, heavy on dramatic eye-candy and emotional moments with swelling soundtracks, is a lot easier to pull off in visual media where all the pretty pictures distract your brain. In a novel, there's a lot of time to think about the strategy, technology, and government structure, which for this book is not a good idea.

If you can get past that, though, Rig is entertainingly snarky and Ginka, who turns out to be the emotional heart of the book, is an enjoyable character with a real growth arc. Her background is a bit simplistic and the villains are the sort of pure evil that you might expect from this type of cinematic plot, but I cared about the outcome of her story. Some parts of the plot dragged and I think the editing could have been tighter, but there was enough competence porn and banter to pull me through.

I would recommend Bluebird only cautiously, since you're going to need to turn off large portions of your brain and be in the right mood for nonsensically dramatic confrontations, but I don't regret reading it. It's mostly in primary colors and the emotional conflicts are not what anyone would call subtle, but it delivers a character arc and a somewhat satisfying ending.

Content warning: There is a lot of serious physical injury in this book, including surgical maiming. If that's going to bother you, you may want to give this one a pass.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2024-01-15: Review: Making Money

Review: Making Money, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #36
Publisher Harper
Copyright October 2007
Printing November 2014
ISBN 0-06-233499-9
Format Mass market
Pages 473

Making Money is the 36th Discworld novel, the second Moist von Lipwig book, and a direct sequel to Going Postal. You could start the series with Going Postal, but I would not start here.

The post office is running like a well-oiled machine, Adora Belle is out of town, and Moist von Lipwig is getting bored. It's the sort of boredom that has him picking his own locks, taking up Extreme Sneezing, and climbing buildings at night. He may not realize it, but he needs something more dangerous to do. Vetinari has just the thing.

The Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork, unlike the post office before Moist got to it, is still working. It is a stolid, boring institution doing stolid, boring things for rich people. It is also the battleground for the Lavish family past-time: suing each other and fighting over money. The Lavishes are old money, the kind of money carefully entangled in trusts and investments designed to ensure the family will always have money regardless of how stupid their children are. Control of the bank is temporarily in the grasp of Joshua Lavish's widow Topsy, who is not a true Lavish, but the vultures are circling.

Meanwhile, Vetinari has grand city infrastructure plans, and to carry them out he needs financing. That means he needs a functional bank, and preferably one that is much less conservative.

Moist is dubious about running a bank, and even more reluctant when Topsy Lavish sees him for exactly the con artist he is. His hand is forced when she dies, and Moist discovers he has inherited her dog, Mr. Fusspot. A dog that now owns 51% of the Royal Bank and therefore is the chairman of the bank's board of directors. A dog whose safety is tied to Moist's own by way of an expensive assassination contract.

Pratchett knew he had a good story with Going Postal, so here he runs the same formula again. And yes, I was happy to read it again. Moist knows very little about banking but quite a lot about pretending something will work until it does, which has more to do with banking than it does with running a post office. The bank employs an expert, Mr. Bent, who is fanatically devoted to the gold standard and the correctness of the books and has very little patience for Moist. There are golem-related hijinks. The best part of this book is Vetinari, who is masterfully manipulating everyone in the story and who gets in some great lines about politics.

"We are not going to have another wretched empire while I am Patrician. We've only just got over the last one."

Also, Vetinari processing dead letters in the post office was an absolute delight.

Making Money does have the recurring Pratchett problem of having a fairly thin plot surrounded by random... stuff. Moist's attempts to reform the city currency while staying ahead of the Lavishes is only vaguely related to Mr. Bent's plot arc. The golems are unrelated to the rest of the plot other than providing a convenient deus ex machina. There is an economist making water models in the bank basement with an Igor, which is a great gag but has essentially nothing to do with the rest of the book. One of the golems has been subjected to well-meaning older ladies and 1950s etiquette manuals, which I thought was considerably less funny (and somewhat creepier) than Pratchett did. There are (sigh) clowns, which continue to be my least favorite Ankh-Morpork world-building element. At least the dog was considerably less annoying than I was afraid it was going to be.

This grab-bag randomness is a shame, since I think there was room here for a more substantial plot that engaged fully with the high weirdness of finance. Unfortunately, this was a bit like the post office in Going Postal: Pratchett dives into the subject just enough to make a few wry observations and a few funny quips, and then resolves the deeper issues off-camera. Moist tries to invent fiat currency, because of course he does, and Pratchett almost takes on the gold standard, only to veer away at the last minute into vigorous hand-waving. I suspect part of the problem is that I know a little bit too much about finance, so I kept expecting Pratchett to take the humorous social commentary a couple of levels deeper.

On a similar note, the villains have great potential that Pratchett undermines by adding too much over-the-top weirdness. I wish Cosmo Lavish had been closer to what he appears to be at the start of the book: a very wealthy and vindictive man (and a reference to Cosimo de Medici) who doesn't have Moist's ability to come up with wildly risky gambits but who knows considerably more than he does about how banking works. Instead, Pratchett gives him a weird obsession that slowly makes him less sinister and more pathetic, which robs the book of a competent antagonist for Moist.

The net result is still a fun book, and a solid Discworld entry, but it lacks the core of the best series entries. It felt more like a skit comedy show than a novel, but it's an excellent skit comedy show with the normal assortment of memorable Pratchettisms. Certainly if you've read this far, or even if you've only read Going Postal, you'll want to read Making Money as well.

Followed by Unseen Academicals. The next Moist von Lipwig book is Raising Steam.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2024-01-14: Review: The Library of Broken Worlds

Review: The Library of Broken Worlds, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Publisher Scholastic Press
Copyright June 2023
ISBN 1-338-29064-9
Format Kindle
Pages 446

The Library of Broken Worlds is a young-adult far-future science fantasy. So far as I can tell, it's stand-alone, although more on that later in the review.

Freida is the adopted daughter of Nadi, the Head Librarian, and her greatest wish is to become a librarian herself. When the book opens, she's a teenager in highly competitive training. Freida is low-wetware, without the advanced and expensive enhancements of many of the other students competing for rare and prized librarian positions, which she makes up for by being the most audacious. She doesn't need wetware to commune with the library material gods. If one ventures deep into their tunnels and consumes their crystals, direct physical communion is possible.

The library tunnels are Freida's second home, in part because that's where she was born. She was created by the Library, and specifically by Iemaja, the youngest of the material gods. Precisely why is a mystery. To Nadi, Freida is her daughter. To Quinn, Nadi's main political rival within the library, Freida is a thing, a piece of the library, a secondary and possibly rogue AI. A disruptive annoyance.

The Library of Broken Worlds is the sort of science fiction where figuring out what is going on is an integral part of the reading experience. It opens with a frame story of an unnamed girl (clearly Freida) waking the god Nameren and identifying herself as designed for deicide. She provokes Nameren's curiosity and offers an Arabian Nights bargain: if he wants to hear her story, he has to refrain from killing her for long enough for her to tell it. As one might expect, the main narrative doesn't catch up to the frame story until the very end of the book.

The Library is indeed some type of library that librarians can search for knowledge that isn't available from more mundane sources, but Freida's personal experience of it is almost wholly religious and oracular. The library's material gods are identified as AIs, but good luck making sense of the story through a science fiction frame, even with a healthy allowance for sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. The symbolism and tone is entirely fantasy, and late in the book it becomes clear that whatever the material gods are, they're not simple technological AIs in the vein of, say, Banks's Ship Minds.

Also, the Library is not solely a repository of knowledge. It is the keeper of an interstellar peace. The Library was founded after the Great War, to prevent a recurrence. It functions as a sort of legal system and grand tribunal in ways that are never fully explained.

As you might expect, that peace is based more on stability than fairness. Five of the players in this far future of humanity are the Awilu, the most advanced society and the first to leave Earth (or Tierra as it's called here); the Mahām, who possess the material war god Nameren of the frame story; the Lunars and Martians, who dominate the Sol system; and the surviving Tierrans, residents of a polluted and struggling planet that is ruthlessly exploited by the Lunars. The problem facing Freida and her friends at the start of the book is a petition brought by a young Tierran against Lunar exploitation of his homeland. His name is Joshua, and Freida is more than half in love with him. Joshua's legal argument involves interpretation of the freedom node of the treaty that ended the Great War, a node that precedent says gives the Lunars the freedom to exploit Tierra, but which Joshua claims has a still-valid originalist meaning granting Tierrans freedom from exploitation.

There is, in short, a lot going on in this book, and "never fully explained" is something of a theme. Freida is telling a story to Nameren and only explains things Nameren may not already know. The reader has to puzzle out the rest from the occasional hint. This is made more difficult by the tendency of the material gods to communicate only in visions or guided hallucinations, full of symbolism that the characters only partly explain to the reader.

Nonetheless, this did mostly work, at least for me. I started this book very confused, but by about the midpoint it felt like the background was coming together. I'm still not sure I understand the aurochs, baobab, and cicada symbolism that's so central to the framing story, but it's the pleasant sort of stretchy confusion that gives my brain a good workout. I wish Johnson had explained a few more things plainly, particularly near the end of the book, but my remaining level of confusion was within my tolerances.

Unfortunately, the ending did not work for me. The first time I read it, I had no idea what it meant. Lots of baffling, symbolic things happened and then the book just stopped. After re-reading the last 10%, I think all the pieces of an ending and a bit of an explanation are there, but it's absurdly abbreviated. This is another book where the author appears to have been finished with the story before I was.

This keeps happening to me, so this probably says something more about me than it says about books, but I want books to have an ending. If the characters have fought and suffered through the plot, I want them to have some space to be happy and to see how their sacrifices play out, with more detail than just a few vague promises. If much of the book has been puzzling out the nature of the world, I would like some concrete confirmation of at least some of my guesswork. And if you're going to end the book on radical transformation, I want to see the results of that transformation. Johnson does an excellent job showing how brutal the peace of the powerful can be, and is willing to light more things on fire over the course of this book than most authors would, but then doesn't offer the reader much in the way of payoff.

For once, I wish this stand-alone turned out to be a series. I think an additional book could be written in the aftermath of this ending, and I would definitely read that novel. Johnson has me caring deeply about these characters and fascinated by the world background, and I'd happily spend another 450 pages finding out what happens next. But, frustratingly, I think this ending was indeed intended to wrap up the story.

I think this book may fall between a few stools. Science fiction readers who want mysterious future worlds to be explained by the end of the book are going to be frustrated by the amount of symbolism, allusion, and poetic description. Literary fantasy readers, who have a higher tolerance for that style, are going to wish for more focused and polished writing. A lot of the story is firmly YA: trying and failing to fit in, developing one's identity, coming into power, relationship drama, great betrayals and regrets, overcoming trauma and abuse, and unraveling lies that adults tell you. But this is definitely not a straight-forward YA plot or world background. It demands a lot from the reader, and while I am confident many teenage readers would rise to that challenge, it seems like an awkward fit for the YA marketing category.

About 75% of the way in, I would have told you this book was great and you should read it. The ending was a let-down and I'm still grumpy about it. I still think it's worth your attention if you're in the mood for a sink-or-swim type of reading experience. Just be warned that when the ride ends, I felt unceremoniously dumped on the pavement.

Content warnings: Rape, torture, genocide.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2024-01-07: Review: The Faithless

Review: The Faithless, by C.L. Clark

Series Magic of the Lost #2
Publisher Orbit
Copyright March 2023
ISBN 0-316-54283-0
Format Kindle
Pages 527

The Faithless is the second book in a political fantasy series that seems likely to be a trilogy. It is a direct sequel to The Unbroken, which you should read first. As usual, Orbit made it unnecessarily hard to get re-immersed in the world by refusing to provide memory aids for readers who read books as they come out instead of only when the series is complete, but this is not the fault of Clark or the book and you've heard me rant about this before.

The Unbroken was set in Qazāl (not-Algeria). The Faithless, as readers of the first book might guess from the title, is set in Balladaire (not-France). This is the palace intrigue book. Princess Luca is fighting for her throne against her uncle, the regent. Touraine is trying to represent her people. Whether and to what extent those interests are aligned is much of the meat of this book.

Normally I enjoy palace intrigue novels for the competence porn: watching someone navigate a complex political situation with skill and cunning, or upend the entire system by building unlikely coalitions or using unexpected routes to power. If you are similar, be warned that this is not what you're going to get. Touraine is a fish out of water with no idea how to navigate the Balladairan court, and does not magically become an expert in the course of this novel. Luca has the knowledge, but she's unsure, conflicted, and largely out-maneuvered. That means you will have to brace for some painful scenes of some of the worst people apparently getting what they want.

Despite that, I could not put this down. It was infuriating, frustrating, and a much slower burn than I prefer, but the layers of complex motivations that Clark builds up provided a different sort of payoff.

Two books in, the shape of this series is becoming clearer. This series is about empire and colonialism, but with considerably more complexity than fantasy normally brings to that topic. Power does not loosen its grasp easily, and it has numerous tools for subtle punishment after apparent upstart victories. Righteous causes rarely call banners to your side; instead, they create opportunities for other people to maneuver to their own advantage. Touraine has some amount of power now, but it's far from obvious how to use it. Her life's training tells her that exercising power will only cause trouble, and her enemies are more than happy to reinforce that message at every opportunity.

Most notable to me is Clark's bitingly honest portrayal of the supposed allies within the colonial power. It is clear that Luca is attempting to take the most ethical actions as she defines them, but it's remarkable how those efforts inevitably imply that Touraine should help Luca now in exchange for Luca's tenuous and less-defined possible future aid. This is not even a lie; it may be an accurate summary of Balladairan politics. And yet, somehow what Balladaire needs always matters more than the needs of their abused colony.

Underscoring this, Clark introduces another faction in the form of a populist movement against the Balladairan monarchy. The details of that setup in another fantasy novel would make them allies of the Qazāl. Here, as is so often the case in real life, a substantial portion of the populists are even more xenophobic and racist than the nobility. There are no easy alliances.

The trump card that Qazāl holds is magic. They have it, and (for reasons explored in The Unbroken) Balladaire needs it, although that is a position held by Luca's faction and not by her uncle. But even Luca wants to reduce that magic to a manageable technology, like any other element of the Balladairan state. She wants to understand it, harness it, and bring it under local control. Touraine, trained by Balladaire and facing Balladairan political problems, has the same tendency. The magic, at least in this book, refuses — not in the flashy, rebellious way that it would in most fantasy, but in a frustrating and incomprehensible lack of predictable or convenient rules. I think this will feel like a plot device to some readers, and that is to some extent true, but I think I see glimmers of Clark setting up a conflict of world views that will play out in the third book.

I think some people are going to bounce off this book. It's frustrating, enraging, at times melodramatic, and does not offer the cathartic payoff typically offered in fantasy novels of this type. Usually these are things I would be complaining about as well. And yet, I found it satisfyingly challenging, engrossing, and memorable. I spent a lot of the book yelling "just kill him already" at the characters, but I think one of Clark's points is that overcoming colonial relationships requires a lot more than just killing one evil man. The characters profoundly fail to execute some clever and victorious strategy. Instead, as in the first book, they muddle through, making the best choice that they can see in each moment, making lots of mistakes, and paying heavy prices. It's realistic in a way that has nothing to do with blood or violence or grittiness. (Although I did appreciate having the thin thread of Pruett's story and its highly satisfying conclusion.)

This is also a slow-burn romance, and there too I think opinions will differ. Touraine and Luca keep circling back to the same arguments and the same frustrations, and there were times that this felt repetitive. It also adds a lot of personal drama to the politics in a way that occasionally made me dubious. But here too, I think Clark is partly using the romance to illustrate the deeper political points.

Luca is often insufferable, cruel and ambitious in ways she doesn't realize, and only vaguely able to understand the Qazāl perspective; in short, she's the pragmatic centrist reformer. I am dubious that her ethics would lead her to anything other than endless compromise without Touraine to push her. To Luca's credit, she also realizes that and wants to be a better person, but struggles to have the courage to act on it. Touraine both does and does not want to manipulate her; she wants Luca's help (and more), but it's not clear Luca will give it under acceptable terms, or even understand how much she's demanding. It's that foundational conflict that turns the romance into a slow burn by pushing them apart. Apparently I have more patience for this type of on-again, off-again relationship than one based on artificial miscommunication.

The more I noticed the political subtext, the more engaging I found the romance on the surface.

I picked this up because I'd read several books about black characters written by white authors, and while there was nothing that wrong with those books, the politics felt a little too reductionist and simplified. I wanted a book that was going to force me out of comfortable political assumptions. The Faithless did exactly what I was looking for, and I am definitely here for the rest of the series. In that sense, recommended, although do not go into this book hoping for adroit court maneuvering and competence porn.

Followed by The Sovereign, which does not yet have a release date.

Content warnings: Child death, attempted cultural genocide.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2024-01-01: 2023 Book Reading in Review

In 2023, I finished and reviewed 53 books, continuing a trend of year-over-year increases and of reading the most books since 2012 (the last year I averaged five books a month). Reviewing continued to be uneven, with a significant slump in the summer and smaller slumps in February and November, and a big clump of reviews finished in October in addition to my normal year-end reading and reviewing vacation.

The unevenness this year was mostly due to finishing books and not writing reviews immediately. Reviews are much harder to write when the finished books are piling up, so one goal for 2024 is to not let that happen again. I enter the new year with one book finished and not yet reviewed, after reading a book about every day and a half during my December vacation.

I read two all-time favorite books this year. The first was Emily Tesh's debut novel Some Desperate Glory, which is one of the best space opera novels I have ever read. I cannot improve on Shelley Parker-Chan's blurb for this book: "Fierce and heartbreakingly humane, this book is for everyone who loved Ender's Game, but Ender's Game didn't love them back." This is not hard science fiction but it is fantastic character fiction. It was exactly what I needed in the middle of a year in which I was fighting a "burn everything down" mood.

The second was Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, the 29th Discworld and 6th Watch novel. Throughout my Discworld read-through, Pratchett felt like he was on the cusp of a truly stand-out novel, one where all the pieces fit and the book becomes something more than the sum of its parts. This was that book. It's a book about ethics and revolutions and governance, but also about how your perception of yourself changes as you get older. It does all of the normal Pratchett things, just... better. While I would love to point new Discworld readers at it, I think you do have to read at least the Watch novels that came before it for it to carry its proper emotional heft.

This was overall a solid year for fiction reading. I read another 15 novels I rated 8 out of 10, and 12 that I rated 7 out of 10. The largest contributor to that was my Discworld read-through, which was reliably entertaining throughout the year. The run of Discworld books between The Fifth Elephant (read late last year) and Wintersmith (my last of this year) was the best run of Discworld novels so far. One additional book I'll call out as particularly worth reading is Thud!, the Watch novel after Night Watch and another excellent entry.

I read two stand-out non-fiction books this year. The first was Oliver Darkshire's delightful memoir about life as a rare book seller, Once Upon a Tome. One of the things I will miss about Twitter is the regularity with which I stumbled across fascinating people and then got to read their books. I'm off Twitter permanently now because the platform is designed to make me incoherently angry and I need less of that in my life, but it was very good at finding delightfully quirky books like this one.

My other favorite non-fiction book of the year was Michael Lewis's Going Infinite, a profile of Sam Bankman-Fried. I'm still bemused at the negative reviews that this got from people who were upset that Lewis didn't turn the story into a black-and-white morality play. Bankman-Fried's actions were clearly criminal; that's not in dispute. Human motivations can be complex in ways that are irrelevant to the law, and I thought this attempt to understand that complexity by a top-notch storyteller was worthy of attention.

Also worth a mention is Tony Judt's Postwar, the first book I reviewed in 2023. A sprawling history of post-World-War-II Europe will never have the sheer readability of shorter, punchier books, but this was the most informative book that I read in 2023.

2024 should see the conclusion of my Discworld read-through, after which I may return to re-reading Mercedes Lackey or David Eddings, both of which I paused to make time for Terry Pratchett. I also have another re-read similar to my Chronicles of Narnia reviews that I've been thinking about for a while. Perhaps I will start that next year; perhaps it will wait for 2025.

Apart from that, my intention as always is to read steadily, write reviews as close to when I finished the book as possible, and make reading time for my huge existing backlog despite the constant allure of new releases. Here's to a new year full of more new-to-me books and occasional old favorites.

The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

2023-12-29: Review: The Hound of Justice

Review: The Hound of Justice, by Claire O'Dell

Series Janet Watson Chronicles #2
Publisher Harper Voyager
Copyright July 2019
ISBN 0-06-269938-5
Format Kindle
Pages 325

The Hound of Justice is a near-future thriller novel with Sherlock Holmes references. It is a direct sequel to A Study in Honor. This series is best read in order.

Janet Watson is in a much better place than she was in the first book. She has proper physical therapy, a new arm, and a surgeon's job waiting for her as soon as she can master its features. A chance meeting due to an Inauguration Day terrorist attack may even develop into something more. She just needs to get back into the operating room and then she'll feel like her life is back on track.

Sara Holmes, on the other hand, is restless, bored, and manic, rudely intruding on Watson's date. Then she disappears, upending Watson's living arrangements. She's on the trail of something. When mysterious destructible notes start appearing in Watson's books, it's clear that she wants help.

The structure of this book didn't really work for me. The first third or so is a slice-of-life account of Watson's attempt to resume her career as a surgeon against a backdrop of ongoing depressing politics. This part sounds like the least interesting, but I was thoroughly engrossed. Watson is easy to care about, hospital politics are strangely interesting, and while the romance never quite clicked for me, it had potential. I was hoping for another book like A Study in Honor, where Watson's life and Holmes's investigations entwine and run in parallel.

That was not to be. The middle third of the book pulls Watson away to Georgia and a complicated mix of family obligations and spy-novel machinations. If this had involved Sara's fae strangeness, verbal sparring, and odd tokens of appreciation, maybe it would have worked, but Sara Holmes is entirely off-camera. Watson is instead dealing with a minor supporting character from the first book, who drags her through disguises, vehicle changes, and border stops in a way that felt excessive and weirdly out of place. (Other reviews say that this character is the Mycroft Holmes equivalent; the first initial of Micha's name fits, but nothing else does so far as I can tell.)

Then the last third of the novel turns into a heist.

I like a heist novel as much as the next person, but a good heist story needs a team with chemistry and interplay, and I didn't know any of these people. There was way too little Sara Holmes, too much of Watson being out of her element in a rather generic way, and too many steps that Watson is led through without giving the reader a chance to enjoy the competence of the team. It felt jarring and disconnected, like Watson got pulled out of one story and dropped into an entirely different story without a proper groundwork.

The Hound of Justice still has its moments. Watson is a great character and I'm still fully invested in her life. She was pulled into this mission because she's the person Holmes knows with the appropriate skills, and when she finally gets a chance to put those skills to use, it's quite satisfying.

But, alas, the magic of A Study in Honor simply isn't here, in part because Sara Holmes is missing for most of the book and her replacements and stand-ins are nowhere near as intriguing. The villain's plan seems wildly impractical and highly likely to be detected, and although I can come up with some explanations to salvage it, those don't appear in the book. And, as in the first book, the villain seems very one-dimensional and simplistic. This is certainly not a villain worthy of Holmes.

Fittingly, given the political movements O'Dell is commenting on, a lot of this book is about racial politics. O'Dell contrasts the microaggressions and more subtle dangers for Watson as a black woman in Washington, D.C., with the more explicit and active racism of the other places to which she travels over the course of the story. She's trying very hard to give the reader a feeling for what it's like to be black in the United States. I don't have any specific complaints about this, and I'm glad she's attempting it, but I came away from this book with a nagging feeling that Watson's reactions were a tiny bit off. It felt like a white person writing about racism rather than a black person writing about racism: nothing is entirely incorrect, but the emotional beats aren't quite where black authors would put them. I could be completely wrong about this, and am certainly much less qualified to comment than O'Dell is, but there were enough places that landed slightly wrong that I wanted to note it.

I would still recommend A Study in Honor, but I'm not sure I can recommend this book. This is one of those series where the things that I enjoyed the most about the first book weren't what the author wanted to focus on in subsequent books. I would read more about the day-to-day of Watson's life, and I would certainly read more of Holmes and Watson sparring and circling and trying to understand each other. I'm less interested in somewhat generic thrillers with implausible plots and Sherlock Holmes references.

At the moment, this is academic, since The Hound of Justice is the last book of the series so far.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2023-12-28: Review: The Afterward

Review: The Afterward, by E.K. Johnston

Publisher Dutton Books
Copyright February 2019
Printing 2020
ISBN 0-7352-3190-7
Format Kindle
Pages 339

The Afterward is a standalone young adult high fantasy with a substantial romance component. The title is not misspelled.

Sir Erris and her six companions, matching the number of the new gods, were successful in their quest for the godsgem. They defeated the Old God and destroyed Him forever, freeing King Dorrenta from his ensorcellment, and returned in triumph to Cadrium to live happily ever after. Or so the story goes.

Sir Erris and three of the companions are knights. Another companion is the best mage in the kingdom. Kalanthe Ironheart, who distracted the Old God at a critical moment and allowed Sir Erris to strike, is only an apprentice due to her age, but surely will become a great knight. And then there is Olsa Rhetsdaughter, the lowborn thief, now somewhat mockingly called Thief of the Realm for all the good that does her. The reward was enough for her to buy her freedom from the Thief's Court. It was not enough to pay for food after that, or enough for her to change her profession, and the Thief's Court no longer has any incentive to give her easy (or survivable) assignments.

Kalanthe is in a considerably better position, but she still needs a good marriage. Her reward paid off half of her debt, which broadens her options, but she's still a debt-knight, liable for the full cost of her training once she reaches the age of nineteen. She's mostly made her peace with the decisions she made given her family's modest means, but marriages of that type are usually for heirs, and Kalanthe is not looking forward to bearing a child. Or, for that matter, sleeping with a man.

Olsa and Kalanthe fell in love during the Quest. Given Kalanthe's debt and the way it must be paid, and her iron-willed determination to keep vows, neither of them expected their relationship to survive the end of the Quest. Both of them wish that it had.

The hook is that this novel picks up after the epic fantasy quest is over and everyone went home. This is not an entirely correct synopsis; chapters of The Afterward alternate between "After" and "Before" (and one chapter delightfully titled "More or less the exact moment of"), and by the end of the book we get much of the story of the Quest. It's not told from the perspective of the lead heroes, though; it's told by following Kalanthe and Olsa, who would be firmly relegated to supporting characters in a typical high fantasy. And it's largely told through the lens of their romance.

This is not the best fantasy novel I've read, but I had a fun time with it. I am now curious about the intended audience and marketing, though. It was published by a YA imprint, and both the ages of the main characters and the general theme of late teenagers trying to chart a course in an adult world match that niche. But it's also clearly intended for readers who have read enough epic fantasy quests that they will both be amused by the homage and not care that the story elides a lot of the typical details. Anyone who read David Eddings at an impressionable age will enjoy the way Johnston pokes gentle fun at The Belgariad (this book is dedicated to David and Leigh Eddings), but surely the typical reader of YA fantasy these days isn't also reading Eddings. I'm therefore not quite sure who this book was for, but apparently that group included me.

Johnston thankfully is not on board with the less savory parts of Eddings's writing, as you might have guessed from the sapphic romance. There is no obnoxious gender essentialism here, although there do appear to be gender roles that I never quite figured out. Knights are referred to as sir, but all of the knights in this story are women. Men still seem to run a lot of things (kingdoms, estates, mage colleges), but apart from the mage, everyone on the Quest was female, and there seems to be an expectation that women go out into the world and have adventures while men stay home. I'm not sure if there was an underlying system that escaped me, or if Johnston just mixed things up for the hell of it. (If the latter, I approve.)

This book does suffer a bit from addressing some current-day representation issues without managing to fold them naturally into the story or setting. One of the Quest knights is transgender, something that's revealed in a awkward couple of paragraphs and then never mentioned again. Two of the characters have a painfully earnest conversation about the word "bisexual," complete with a strained attempt at in-universe etymology. Racial diversity (Olsa is black, and Kalanthe is also not white) seemed to be handled a bit better, although I am not the reader to notice if the discussions of hair maintenance were similarly awkward. This is way better than no representation and default-white characters, to be clear, but it felt a bit shoehorned in at times and could have used some more polish.

These are quibbles, though. Olsa was the heart of the book for me, and is exactly the sort of character I like to read about. Kalanthe is pure stubborn paladin, but I liked her more and more as the story continued. She provides a good counterbalance to Olsa's natural chaos. I do wish Olsa had more opportunities to show her own competence (she's not a very good thief, she's just the thief that Sir Erris happened to know), but the climax of the story was satisfying. My main grumble is that I badly wanted to dwell on the happily-ever-after for at least another chapter, ideally two. Johnston was done with the story before I was.

The writing was serviceable but not great and there are some bits that I don't think would stand up to a strong poke, but the characters carried the story for me. Recommended if you'd like some sapphic romance and lightweight class analysis complicating your Eddings-style quest fantasy.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2023-12-27: Review: Nettle & Bone

Review: Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher

Publisher Tor
Copyright 2022
ISBN 1-250-24403-X
Format Kindle
Pages 242

Nettle & Bone is a standalone fantasy novel with fairy tale vibes. T. Kingfisher is a pen name for Ursula Vernon.

As the book opens, Marra is giving herself a blood infection by wiring together dog bones out of a charnel pit. This is the second of three impossible tasks that she was given by the dust-wife. Completing all three will give her the tools to kill a prince.

I am a little cautious of which T. Kingfisher books I read since she sometimes writes fantasy and sometimes writes horror and I don't get along with horror. This one seemed a bit horrific in the marketing, so I held off on reading it despite the Hugo nomination. It turns out to be just on the safe side of my horror tolerance, with only a couple of parts that I read a bit quickly.

One of those is the opening, which I am happy to report does not set the tone for the rest of the book. Marra starts the story in a wasteland full of disease, madmen, and cannibals (who, in typical Ursula Vernon fashion, turn out to be nicer than the judgmental assholes outside of the blistered land). She doesn't stay there long. By chapter two, the story moves on to flashbacks explaining how Marra ended up there, alternating with further (and less horrific) steps in her quest to kill the prince of the Northern Kingdom.

Marra is a princess of a small, relatively poor coastal kingdom with a good harbor and acquisitive neighbors. Her mother, the queen, has protected the kingdom through arranged marriage of her daughters to the prince of the Northern Kingdom, who rules it in all but name given the mental deterioration of his father the king. Marra's eldest sister Damia was first, but she died suddenly and mysteriously in a fall. (If you're thinking about the way women are injured by "accident," you have the right idea.) Kania, the middle sister, is next to marry; she lives, but not without cost. Meanwhile, Marra is sent off to a convent to ensure that there are no complicating potential heirs, and to keep her on hand as a spare.

I won't spoil the entire backstory, but you do learn it all. Marra is a typical Kingfisher protagonist: a woman who is way out of her depth who persists with stubbornness, curiosity, and innate decency because what else is there to do? She accumulates the typical group of misfits and oddballs common in Kingfisher's quest fantasies, characters that in the Chosen One male fantasy would be supporting characters at best. The bone-wife is a delight; her chicken is even better. There are fairy godmothers and a goblin market and a tooth extraction that was one of the creepiest things I've read without actually being horror. It is, in short, a Kingfisher fantasy novel, with a touch more horror than average but not enough to push it out of the fantasy genre.

I think my favorite part of this book was not the main quest. It was the flashback scenes set in the convent, where Marra has the space (and the mentorship) to develop her sense of self.

"We're a mystery religion," said the abbess, when she'd had a bit more wine than usual, "for people who have too much work to do to bother with mysteries. So we simply get along as best we can. Occasionally someone has a vision, but [the goddess] doesn't seem to want anything much, and so we try to return the favor."

If you have read any other Kingfisher novels, much of this will be familiar: the speculative asides, the dogged determination, the slightly askew nature of the world, the vibes-based world-building that feels more like a fairy tale than a carefully constructed magic system, and the sense that the main characters (and nearly all of the supporting characters) are average people trying to play the hands they were dealt as ethically as they can. You will know that the tentative and woman-initiated romance is coming as soon as the party meets the paladin type who is almost always the romantic interest in one of these books. The emotional tone of the book is a bit predictable for regular readers, but Ursula Vernon's brain is such a delightful place to spend some time that I don't mind.

Marra had not managed to be pale and willowy and consumptive at any point in eighteen years of life and did not think she could achieve it before she died.

Nettle & Bone won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2023. I'm not sure why this specific T. Kingfisher novel won and not any of the half-dozen earlier novels she's written in a similar style, but sure, I have no objections. I'm glad one of them won; they're all worth reading and hopefully that will help more people discover this delightful style of fantasy that doesn't feel like what anyone else is doing. Recommended, although be prepared for a few more horror touches than normal and a rather grim first chapter.

Content warnings: domestic abuse. The dog... lives? Is equally as alive at the end of the book as it was at the end of the first chapter? The dog does not die; I'll just leave it at that. (Neither does the chicken.)

Rating: 8 out of 10

2023-12-26: Review: A Study in Scarlet

Review: A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Series Sherlock Holmes #1
Publisher AmazonClassics
Copyright 1887
Printing February 2018
ISBN 1-5039-5525-7
Format Kindle
Pages 159

A Study in Scarlet is the short mystery novel (probably a novella, although I didn't count words) that introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes.

I'm going to invoke the 100-year-rule and discuss the plot of this book rather freely on the grounds that even someone who (like me prior to a few days ago) has not yet read it is probably not that invested in avoiding all spoilers. If you do want to remain entirely unspoiled, exercise caution before reading on.

I had somehow managed to avoid ever reading anything by Arthur Conan Doyle, not even a short story. I therefore couldn't be sure that some of the assertions I was making in my review of A Study in Honor were correct. Since A Study in Scarlet would be quick to read, I decided on a whim to do a bit of research and grab a free copy of the first Holmes novel. Holmes is such a part of English-speaking culture that I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.

This was largely true, but cultural osmosis had somehow not prepared me for the surprise Mormons.

A Study in Scarlet establishes the basic parameters of a Holmes story: Dr. James Watson as narrator, the apartment he shares with Holmes at 221B Baker Street, the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes's competition with police detectives, and his penchant for making leaps of logical deduction from subtle clues. The story opens with Watson meeting Holmes, agreeing to split the rent of a flat, and being baffled by the apparent randomness of Holmes's fields of study before Holmes reveals he's a consulting detective. The first case is a murder: a man is found dead in an abandoned house, without a mark on him although there are blood splatters on the walls and the word "RACHE" written in blood.

Since my only prior exposure to Holmes was from cultural references and a few TV adaptations, there were a few things that surprised me. One is that Holmes is voluble and animated rather than aloof. Doyle is clearly going for passionate eccentric rather than calculating mastermind. Another is that he is intentionally and unabashedly ignorant on any topic not related to solving mysteries.

My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you chose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

This is directly contrary to my expectation that the best way to make leaps of deduction is to know something about a huge range of topics so that one can draw unexpected connections, particularly given the puzzle-box construction and odd details so beloved in classic mysteries. I'm now curious if Doyle stuck with this conception, and if there were any later mysteries that involved astronomy.

Speaking of classic mysteries, A Study in Scarlet isn't quite one, although one can see the shape of the genre to come. Doyle does not "play fair" by the rules that have not yet been invented. Holmes at most points knows considerably more than the reader, including bits of evidence that are not described until Holmes describes them and research that Holmes does off-camera and only reveals when he wants to be dramatic. This is not the sort of story where the reader is encouraged to try to figure out the mystery before the detective.

Rather, what Doyle seems to be aiming for, and what Watson attempts (unsuccessfully) as the reader surrogate, is slightly different: once Holmes makes one of his grand assertions, the reader is encouraged to guess what Holmes might have done to arrive at that conclusion. Doyle seems to want the reader to guess technique rather than outcome, while providing only vague clues in general descriptions of Holmes's behavior at a crime scene.

The structure of this story is quite odd. The first part is roughly what you would expect: first-person narration from Watson, supposedly taken from his journals but not at all in the style of a journal and explicitly written for an audience. Part one concludes with Holmes capturing and dramatically announcing the name of the killer, who the reader has never heard of before. Part two then opens with... a western?

In the central portion of the great North American Continent there lies an arid and repulsive desert, which for many a long year served as a barrier against the advance of civilization. From the Sierra Nevada to Nebraska, and from the Yellowstone River in the north to the Colorado upon the south, is a region of desolation and silence. Nor is Nature always in one mood throughout the grim district. It comprises snow-capped and lofty mountains, and dark and gloomy valleys. There are swift-flowing rivers which dash through jagged cañons; and there are enormous plains, which in winter are white with snow, and in summer are grey with the saline alkali dust. They all preserve, however, the common characteristics of barrenness, inhospitality, and misery.

First, I have issues with the geography. That region contains some of the most beautiful areas on earth, and while a lot of that region is arid, describing it primarily as a repulsive desert is a bit much. Doyle's boundaries and distances are also confusing: the Yellowstone is a northeast-flowing river with its source in Wyoming, so the area between it and the Colorado does not extend to the Sierra Nevadas (or even to Utah), and it's not entirely clear to me that he realizes Nevada exists.

This is probably what it's like for people who live anywhere else in the world when US authors write about their country.

But second, there's no Holmes, no Watson, and not even the pretense of a transition from the detective novel that we were just reading. Doyle just launches into a random western with an omniscient narrator. It features a lean, grizzled man and an adorable child that he adopts and raises into a beautiful free spirit, who then falls in love with a wild gold-rush adventurer. This was written about 15 years before the first critically recognized western novel, so I can't blame Doyle for all the cliches here, but to a modern reader all of these characters are straight from central casting.

Well, except for the villains, who are the Mormons. By that, I don't mean that the villains are Mormon. I mean Brigham Young is the on-page villain, plotting against the hero to force his adopted daughter into a Mormon harem (to use the word that Doyle uses repeatedly) and ruling Salt Lake City with an iron hand, border guards with passwords (?!), and secret police. This part of the book was wild. I was laughing out-loud at the sheer malevolent absurdity of the thirty-day countdown to marriage, which I doubt was the intended effect.

We do eventually learn that this is the backstory of the murder, but we don't return to Watson and Holmes for multiple chapters. Which leads me to the other thing that surprised me: Doyle lays out this backstory, but then never has his characters comment directly on the morality of it, only the spectacle. Holmes cares only for the intellectual challenge (and for who gets credit), and Doyle sets things up so that the reader need not concern themselves with aftermath, punishment, or anything of that sort. I probably shouldn't have been surprised — this does fit with the Holmes stereotype — but I'm used to modern fiction where there is usually at least some effort to pass judgment on the events of the story. Doyle draws very clear villains, but is utterly silent on whether the murder is justified.

Given its status in the history of literature, I'm not sorry to have read this book, but I didn't particularly enjoy it. It is very much of its time: everyone's moral character is linked directly to their physical appearance, and Doyle uses the occasional racial stereotype without a second thought. Prevailing writing styles have changed, so the prose feels long-winded and breathless. The rivalry between Holmes and the police detectives is tedious and annoying. I also find it hard to read novels from before the general absorption of techniques of emotional realism and interiority into all genres. The characters in A Study in Scarlet felt more like cartoon characters than fully-realized human beings.

I have no strong opinion about the objective merits of this book in the context of its time other than to note that the sudden inserted western felt very weird. My understanding is that this is not considered one of the better Holmes stories, and Holmes gets some deeper characterization later on. Maybe I'll try another of Doyle's works someday, but for now my curiosity has been sated.

Followed by The Sign of the Four.

Rating: 4 out of 10

2023-12-25: Review: A Study in Honor

Review: A Study in Honor, by Claire O'Dell

Series Janet Watson Chronicles #1
Publisher Harper Voyager
Copyright July 2018
ISBN 0-06-269932-6
Format Kindle
Pages 295

A Study in Honor is a near-future science fiction novel by Claire O'Dell, a pen name for Beth Bernobich. You will see some assertions, including by the Lambda Literary Award judges, that it is a mystery novel. There is a mystery, but... well, more on that in a moment.

Janet Watson was an Army surgeon in the Second US Civil War when New Confederacy troops overran the lines in Alton, Illinois. Watson lost her left arm to enemy fire. As this book opens, she is returning to Washington, D.C. with a medical discharge, PTSD, and a field replacement artificial arm scavenged from a dead soldier. It works, sort of, mostly, despite being mismatched to her arm and old in both technology and previous wear. It does not work well enough for her to resume her career as a surgeon.

Watson's plan is to request a better artificial arm from the VA (the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, which among other things is responsible for the medical care of wounded veterans). That plan meets a wall of unyielding and uninterested bureaucracy. She has a pension, but it's barely enough for cheap lodging. A lifeline comes in the form of a chance encounter with a former assistant in the Army, who has a difficult friend looking to split the cost of an apartment. The name of that friend is Sara Holmes.

At this point, you know what to expect. This is clearly one of the many respinnings of Arthur Conan Doyle. This time, the setting is in the future and Watson and Holmes are both black women, but the other elements of the setup are familiar: the immediate deduction that Watson came from the front, the shared rooms (2809 Q Street this time, sacrificing homage for the accuracy of a real address), Holmes's tendency to play an instrument (this time the piano), and even the title of this book, which is an obvious echo of the title of the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet.

Except that's not what you'll get. There are a lot of parallels and references here, but this is not a Holmes-style detective novel.

First, it's only arguably a detective novel at all. There is a mystery, which starts with a patient Watson sees in her fallback job as a medical tech in the VA hospital and escalates to a physical attack, but that doesn't start until a third of the way into the book. It certainly is not solved through minute clues and leaps of deduction; instead, that part of the plot has the shape of a thriller rather than a classic mystery. There is a good argument that the thriller is the modern mystery novel, so I don't want to overstate my case, but I think someone who came to this book wanting a Doyle-style mystery would be disappointed.

Second, the mystery is not the heart of this book. Watson is. She, like Doyle's Watson, is the first-person narrator, but she is far more present in the book. I have no idea how accurate O'Dell's portrayal of Watson's PTSD is, but it was certainly compelling and engrossing reading. Her fight for basic dignity and her rage at the surface respect and underlying disinterested hostility of the bureaucratic war machinery is what kept me turning the pages. The mystery plot is an outgrowth of that and felt more like a case study than the motivating thread of the plot.

And third, Sara Holmes... well, I hesitate to say definitively that she's not Sherlock Holmes. There have been so many versions of Holmes over the years, even apart from the degree to which a black woman would necessarily not be like Doyle's character. But she did not remind me of Sherlock Holmes. She reminded me of a cross between James Bond and a high fae.

This sounds like a criticism. It very much is not. I found this high elf spy character far more interesting than I have ever found Sherlock Holmes. But here again, if you came into this book hoping for a Holmes-style master detective, I fear you may be wrong-footed.

The James Bond parts will be obvious when you get there and aren't the most interesting (and thankfully the misogyny is entirely absent). The part I found more fascinating is the way O'Dell sets Holmes apart by making her fae rather than insufferable. She projects effortless elegance, appears and disappears on a mysterious schedule of her own, thinks nothing of reading her roommate's diary, leaves meticulously arranged gifts, and even bargains with Watson for answers to precisely three questions. The reader does learn some mundane explanations for some of this behavior, but to be honest I found them somewhat of a letdown. Sara Holmes is at her best as a character when she tacks her own mysterious path through a rather grim world of exhausted war, penny-pinching bureaucracy, and despair, pursuing an unexplained agenda of her own while showing odd but unmistakable signs of friendship and care.

This is not a romance, at least in this book. It is instead a slowly-developing friendship between two extremely different people, one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I do have a couple of caveats about this book. The first is that the future US in which it is set is almost pure Twitter doomcasting. Trump's election sparked a long slide into fascism, and when that was arrested by the election of a progressive candidate backed by a fragile coalition, Midwestern red states seceded to form the New Confederacy and start a second civil war that has dragged on for nearly eight years. It's a very specific mainstream liberal dystopian scenario that I've seen so many times it felt like a cliche even though I don't remember seeing it in a book before. This type of future projection of current fears is of course not new for science fiction; Cold War nuclear war novels are probably innumerable. But I had questions, such as how a sparsely-populated, largely non-industrial, and entirely landlocked set of breakaway states could maintain a war footing for eight years. Despite some hand-waving about covert support, those questions are not really answered here.

The second problem is that the ending of this book kind of falls apart. The climax of the mystery investigation is unsatisfyingly straightforward, and the resulting revelation is a hoary cliche. Maybe I'm just complaining about the banality of evil, but if I'd been engrossed in this book for the thriller plot, I think I would have been annoyed.

I wasn't, though; I was here for the characters, for Watson's PTSD and dogged determination, for Sara's strangeness, and particularly for the growing improbable friendship between two women with extremely different life experiences, emotions, and outlooks. That part was great, regardless of the ending.

Do not pick this book up because you want a satisfying deductive mystery with bumbling police and a blizzard of apparently inconsequential clues. That is not at all what's happening here. But this was great on its own terms, and I will be reading the sequel shortly. Recommended, although if you are very online expect to do a bit of eye-rolling at the setting.

Followed by The Hound of Justice, but the sequel is not required. This book reaches a satisfying conclusion of its own.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2023-12-25: krb5-strength 3.3

krb5-strength is a toolkit of plugins and support programs for password strength checking for Kerberos KDCs, either Heimdal or MIT. It also includes a password history mechanism for Heimdal KDCs.

This is a maintenance release, since there hadn't been a new release since 2020. It contains the normal sort of build system and portability updates, and the routine bump in the number of hash iterations used for the history mechanism to protect against (some) brute force attacks. It also includes an RPM spec file contributed by Daria Phoebe Brashear, and some changes to the Perl dependencies to track current community recommendations.

You can get the latest version from the krb5-strength distribution page.

2023-12-24: Review: The Blackwing War

Review: The Blackwing War, by K.B. Spangler

Series Deep Witches #1
Publisher A Girl and Her Fed Books
Copyright March 2021
ISBN blackwing-war
Format Kindle
Pages 284

The Blackwing War is the first book of a projected space opera series. I previously reviewed Stoneskin, which was intended as a prelude to this series. In theory you can start here, but I would read Stoneskin first.

Tembi is a Witch, which means she can ask the Deep to do things for her. At the start of the book, those things mostly involve disarming bombs. The galaxy is in the middle of a genocidal war between the well-equipped and all-but-officially supported Sagittarius Armed Forces, also known as the Blackwings, and the Sabenta resistance movement. To settle the galaxy, humans fiddled with their genes to adapt themselves to otherwise-hostile planets. The Blackwings take exception, in the tradition of racist humans throughout history, and think it's time to purify human bloodlines again. Both sides are using bombs.

The Deep is the brilliant idea of this series. It seems to exist everywhere simultaneously, it's alive, it adores teleporting things, and it's basically a giant cosmic puppy. Humans are nearly incomprehensible to the Deep, and it's nearly incomprehensible to humans, but it somehow picks out specific humans who can (sort of) understand it and whom it gets attached to and somehow makes immortal. These are the Witches, and they have turned the Deep into the logistical backbone of human civilization. Essentially all commerce and travel is now done through Deep teleportation, requested by a Witch and coordinated by Lancaster, the Witches' governing council.

The exception is war. Lancaster is strictly neutral; it does not take sides, even in the face of an ongoing genocide, and it refuses to transport military ships, any type of weapons, or even war refugees. Domino, Lancaster's cynically manipulative leader, is determined to protect its special privileges and position at all costs. Tembi is one of the quasi-leaders of a resistance against that position, but even they are reluctant to ask the Deep to take sides in a war. To them, the Deep is a living magical creature that they are exploiting, and which also tends to be a bundle of nerves. Using it as a weapon feels like a step too far.

That's how the situation lies at the start of this book when, after a successful bomb defusing, the Deep whisks Tembi away to watch an unknown weapon blow up a moon.

A lot of this book consists of Tembi unraveling a couple of mysteries, starting with the apparent experimental bomb and then expanding to include the apparent drugging and disappearance of her former classmate. The low-grade war gets worse throughout, leaving Tembi torn between the justifications for Lancaster's neutrality and her strong sense of basic morality. The moments when Tembi gets angry enough or impatient enough to take action are the best parts, but a lot of this book is quite grim. Do not expect all to be resolved in a happy ending. There is some catharsis, but The Blackwing War is also clearly setup for a longer series.

Tembi is a great character and the Deep is even better. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about both of them, and Tembi's relationship with the Deep is a delight. Usually I get frustrated by baffling incomprehensibility as a plot devices, but Spangler pulls it off as well as I've seen it done. But unfortunately, this book is firmly in the "gets worse before it will get better" part of the overall story arc, and the sequels have not yet appeared. The Blackwing War ends on a cliffhanger that portends huge changes for the characters and the setting, and if I had the next book to rush into, I wouldn't mind the grimness as much. As is, it was a somewhat depressing reading experience despite its charms, and despite a somewhat optimistic ending (that I doubt will truly resolve anything).

I think the world-building elements were a touch predictable, and I wish Spangler wouldn't have her characters keep trying to justify Domino's creepy, abusive, and manipulative actions. But the characters are so much fun, and the idea of the Deep as a character is such a delight, that I am hooked on this series regardless. Recommended, although I will (hopefully) be able to recommend it more heartily once at least one sequel has been published.

Content warnings: genocide, racism, violent death.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Last spun 2024-04-18 from thread modified 2008-08-13