StormRaven's 100 Books for 2014
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Short review: Mma Ramotswe is the only lady detective in Botswana. She uses hard work and cunning to solve cases ranging from insurance fraud to missing and possibly murdered children.
Long review: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is the story of Precious Ramotswe and how she came to be the first (and only) lady detective in Botswana. It is also the story of how she solved several cases along the way, but to a certaine xtent these are almost an afterthought appended to the greater story of exploring who Precious Ramotswe is, what Botswana is like, and how she came to be the person we meet in the book. The story is excellent in so many different ways that it is impossible to list them without sounding overly effusive.
The first thing I will say is that I lived in Africa for nine years, a continent that feels unlike any other place in the world. My experience in Africa was in many ways fairly superficial, as I was a relatively insulated as a result of living on the continent as the dependent of an American diplomat, and it is very difficult to get a feel for a landmass as huge as Africa while only living in a few different countries, but with that said, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency feels authentically African. As I never lived in Botswana, I can't verify that the book feels Botswanan - I have to simply accept that McCall Smith's representation is reasonably accurate - but it does evoke the same feel for me as I remember from my time spent in Tanzania and Zaire. There is no specific element that I can point to in the book that gives this book this authenticity - it is more of an inchoate feeling that can only be described as "rightness".
Early in the book Precious (or as she is referred to in the book Mma Ramotswe) gives an account of the life of her father Obed Ramotswe, a man she says was unable to tell his own story so others must tell it for him. Obed is dead by the time the main events of the book take place, his body finally giving out after a life working in the mines of South Africa, bringing up a daughter as a single father, and raising a respectable herd of cattle. This plain, simple life of a kindly but illiterate farmer would be swallowed up and forgotten by history but for the account given by his daughter. But this sentiment seems to be true for most of the characters of the book. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is filled with shopkeepers, mechanics, rural villagers, secretaries, and all of the other ordinary people who move through life and would normally go almost unnoticed.
And to a certain extent, noticing people who would normally go unnoticed is how Precious Ramotswe makes her small detective agency work. The book doesn't contain murder mysteries or other sweeping and "important" cases - in fact, one suspects that Precious would scoff at the idea that a private detective agency would handle such matters. Those are, she would say, matters for the police to handle. Her clients are people who simply need help with the every day questions that crop up in their lives: A woman who suspects the new car her husband brought home is a stolen vehicle. A women whose husband has gone missing. A business owner who suspects that a former employee is trying to defraud him. And so on. But even though these stories aren't important in the sense that they will change the fortunes of nations, or even the movers and shakers of history, they are important to the people involved in them, a fact that McCall Smith makes painfully clear.
It is this attention to the ordinary that gives this book its magic. While a lesser novelist might be inclined to smirk at the mundane concerns and earnest attitudes of these characters, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency treats them with a respect and honesty that gives them a gentility and dignity. Throughout the books the characters are referred to (and refer to one another) formally, usually with the honorifics "Mma" and "Rra" and are addressed by their last names. Precious Ramotswe is never referred to as Precious once she is an adult, but rather as Mma Ramotswe. Even when Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (who is always referred to in exactly that way) proposes marriage to her, he proposes to her using the formal address and honorific. Mma Ramotswe's somewhat precocious secretary is always referred to as Mma Makutsi. The Detective Agency's clients are always treated with a formal respect, and their concerns, no matter how small or petty they seem, are treated seriously by both Mma Ramotswe and by the author.
It is somewhat emblematic of the theme of the book that the long-running underlying mystery within it involves a client who is a simple villager who considers himself unworthy of Mma Ramostwe's attention, but who despairingly sends her a letter after his child goes missing. But even though he is poor and almost powerless, the story insists that he and his request be regarded with respect as befits his basic humanity. On the other hand, the villainous characters in the book are people who believe themselves to be more important than others to the extent that they think nothing of using those around them to suit their own selfish ends. The government official who uses items of witchcraft, even though he knows that children suffer and die so that it can be provided to him. The witch doctor who inflicts the suffering so as to be able to earn a profit. His wife who assists his grisly work. The brutal husband who beats his wife and turns his back on his dying child. They all share the same characteristics of callousness, self-importance, and selfishness that is the face of evil as presented by McCall Smith.
With engaging and likable characters, some light mysteries, and the stories of the lives of ordinary people told in simple, yet beautiful language, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is a very good book. When one adds in the majestic and serene depiction of Botswana to the mix, the book climbs to being outstanding. Precious Ramotswe and her compatriots are sure to entrance almost any reader with their charming, almost quaintly honest tales.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
I really must get around to the McCall Smith series in due time. They are rather highly rated here on L.T.
Short review: Precious Ramotswe returns, and in addition to the usual array of suspicious husbands and missing persons, she has to deal with a jealous maid and the addition of two young children to her life.
Long review: Tears of the Giraffe is the sequel to The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, which manages to have both deeper mysteries, and spend more time focused on the day-to-day lives of the characters that inhabit the story. This novel has a more substantial detective story than its predecessor, which was mainly a collection of short vignettes, and it also explores the relationships between the characters more extensively. The novel also delves into the questions of selfishness and generosity, and what they mean for Botswanan society.
The novel can be divided into three broad stories. The first is the mystery brought to Mma Ramotswe by a distraught American woman seeking to find out what happened to her son who has been missing for a decade. Despite the time lapse and the fact that the matter had already been unsuccessfully investigated by both the police and previous private investigators, Ramotswe is taken in by the pleadings of a mother with nowhere else to turn for answers and accepts the case. Following the whisper thin trail left behind by the inhabitants of a failed agricultural commune, and using her now familiar method of extracting information by paying attention to the "invisible" people that populate the world - the secretaries, the house maids, the old women - Botswana's leading lady detective burrows her way to the man who knows the answer, and then compels him to tell her what happened so many years before. In the end, Ramotswe is able to provide answers for her client, and even a somewhat happy, although undoubtedly bittersweet resolution.
The second story running through the book concerns Mma Ramotswe's impending marriage to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. The story first deals with the negotiations between Ramotswe and Matekoni over which of their two houses they will settle in as their residence once they are married, and right away McCall Smith begins establishing what may be Matekoni's most prominent character trait other than his kindness: He is exceptionally easy to manipulate. Ramotswe almost immediately declares Matekoni's house unsuitable, and he immediately acquiesces to using her house on Zebra Drive as the couple's permanent home. But this is only the first indication that Matekoni's well-established kindness may simply be a product of wishing to avoid conflict. The reader is introduced to Matekoni's housekeeper, who Ramotswe notices hasn't been doing a very good job keeping the house clean, and who in turn takes an instant dislike to Ramotswe as a threat to her hold upon Matekoni. And it soon becomes clear that Matekoni's housekeeper has been taking advantage of him, and soon the full extent of her jealousy becomes clear when she starts seriously plotting against Mma Ramotswe. The only disappointing part of this thread is that it builds up a moderate head of steam before evaporating in a remarkably convenient manner.
But the manipulation of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is not done only for nefarious purposes, a fact demonstrated when he is maneuvered into adopting two orphaned children by the formidable Mma Potokwane, the matron of the local orphan farm. Almost without realizing what he has done, Matekoni has adopted a disabled girl and her younger brothers and committed himself and his intended bride to becoming parents even before they are married. And without consulting Mma Ramotswe either. This plot line also exposes one of the deficiencies of McCall Smith's writing, as the situation clearly holds the potential for some personal conflict - after all, a man who agrees to adopt two children without consulting his fiance, not matter how well-intentioned his actions are, is likely to find that he has somewhat taxed his intended's tolerance. However, when Mma Ramotswe finds out what has happened via a chance meeting during a shopping trip Matekoni had taken the children on, she immediately accepts that his decision was the correct one, and takes on the role of mother for the pair, even though she had no input into the decision to bring them into her family. But although this almost instant acquiescence to the new situation may seem odd to Western readers, it fits perfectly with Mma Ramotswe's insistence that "Botswanan morality" is a superior means of organizing one's life, because one of the tenets of that morality which is emphasized repeatedly in Tears of the Giraffe is the importance of being selfless and aiding others less fortunate than oneself.
The third story in the book focuses on Mma Makutsi, who Mma Ramotswe promotes to assistant detective at the agency and hands over one of the agency's cases to her. In this case, a man suspects that his wife is cheating on him, although he doesn't have any clue who it might be with. Mma Makutsi relies upon the same sort of methods for solving her case as Mma Ramotswe does for her - following the wife to find out where she goes and then talking to the housekeepers at her destination. The mystery turns out more complex than anyone originally thought, and poses a moral dilemma for Mma Makutsi, who isn't quite sure how to tell her client the news. In the end, she settles upon a solution that is innovative to say the least, although it doesn't seem entirely appropriate, a sentiment Mma Ramotswe vaguely shares, although she is too distracted by other concerns to address the matter.
The repeated theme that runs through all of these stories is what appears to be a fundamental tenet of Botswanan morality: One must act selflessly to a certain degree for the benefit of others. This is most clearly on display in the storyline involving the adoption of the orphaned siblings, but it also comes up in the resolution of Mma Makutsi's case in which she advises her client that he should accept his wife's actions because they allow for his son to gain the benefit of an expensive private education. When Mma Ramotswe arrives at Dr. Ranta's house, her belief that he is a reprehensible man is confirmed by his untidy yard and unswept house - indications that he does not employ a maid or gardener as all reasonably well-to-do Botswanans should so as to provide jobs for those less fortunate then themselves. Over and over the reader is confronted with the simple declaration that selfishness runs counter to Botswanan morality, and generosity, even when painful, is to be lauded and praised - even on the final pages where a metaphor using the tears of a giraffe is used to drive this point home. This thinking falls in line with Mma Ramotswe's general approval of traditional ways of thinking - traditional greetings, traditional deference given to elders, an affinity for traditionally built ladies (like herself), and traditional ways of handling agriculture. Overall, in most cases, Mma Ramotswe is in favor of traditional cultural mores, except where it comes to women's equality, and even there, her views are an amalgam of stereotypical prejudices and forward thinking, perhaps reflecting the views of a nation as a whole trying to find its place in the modern world.
As with its predecessor, Tears of the Giraffe is a set of interesting, although somewhat muted mysteries involving an array of ordinary people. Even the most "exotic" inhabitants in these stories are ultimately mundane: A college professor, a banker's wife, a missing son, a German farmer, and so on. Throughout the book shows how societal and familial bonds can survive even tragedy, and how those same bonds can be rotted and frayed through selfishness and disdain. Some people have criticized The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series as being simplistic, and on that point I must disagree. Though the stories are told in a straightforward manner using simple language, they deal with deep questions concerning human relationships and how they are structured, even though the humans involved are ordinary people doing ordinary things. Especially because the humans involved are ordinary people doing ordinary things.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: A government official enlists Precious Ramotswe's aid to find out who is trying to poison his brother. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni suffers from an illness and Mma Makutsi has to take over running his garage and handle a difficult case at the same time.
Long review: The third installment of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, Morality for Beautiful Girls delves into the thorny issue of mental illness, the vagaries of family relationships, and the fact that even people who pride themselves on being intelligent can still harbor quite foolish ideas. The story also casts some doubt on the morality of "traditional Botswanan morality", at least insofar as it is applied by Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi.
The main plot element of this book is neither of the two mysteries that inhabit its pages. Rather, the primary plot involves the relationship between Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and how it is affected by Matekoni's struggle with depression. Despite this story line centering almost entirely upon him, Matekoni almost doesn't appear in it, showing up in only a few scenes, and some of those he is merely the voice on the other end of a telephone conversation. But as he is afflicted with depression, this seems entirely fitting, as this is a disease that effectively erases people from their own lives. And Mma Ramotswe responds to this behavior by Matekoni with affection and understanding, even though it is clearly outside of her experience. She visits a doctor to find out what could be wrong, gets a book to try to understand this new and disconcerting disease in her life, and works to try to get Matekoni treatment even though he resists. The book could be criticized for making the treatment of depression seem too easy, but that seems like an unfair criticism given that the author took the issue on in such a respectful way to begin with.
The illness of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni does allow for some substantial character development for Mma Makutsi. Already promoted to assistant detective in Tears of the Giraffe, Makutsi is thrust into the position of assistant manager of the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors in conjunction with the move of the detective agency to the garage's offices. Despite her lack of knowledge about automobiles and inability to drive, Mma Makutsi puts the administrative and organizational skills that earned her the oft-mentioned score of 97% at the Botswana Secretarial College to good use, identifying and paying required bills, arranging to get parts delivered from suppliers, and getting the apprentices at the garage to actually work. And soon it becomes clear that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's frequently noted kindness may be more of a liability than one would think, as it seems to be the root cause of the laziness of his two apprentices and the various other problems that seem to have afflicted the garage such as the lack of parts delivery and the petrol supplier's lackadaisical attitude towards keeping the Tlokweng Road's fuel pumps supplied. Under Mma Makutsi's direction, the garage seems to turn all of these problems around, revealing that while it is clear that Matekoni is a superlative mechanic, he has some serious shortcomings as a businessman.
But alongside the everyday stories of the ordinary lives of the characters there are the mysteries. After all, this is a mystery novel, so one would expect that these story lines would be in the book. The primary mystery is handled by Precious Ramotswe, and involves a highly placed government official who is also connected the leadership of the parallel tribal hierarchy that exists in Botswana. This almost dual government that exists in many African nations has been lurking on the outskirts of previous books, but in Morality for Beautiful Girls it comes to the fore in the form of the "government man" (who is never more specifically identified in the book). He has a much younger brother that he says he loves very much, but who has married a woman he believes is trying to poison her husband. After first protesting that such a serious matter should be reported to the police, Mma Ramotswe agrees to go to the large and prosperous farm where the government man's family lives and investigate to find out if his suspicions about his sister-in-law are true. Once there, Mma Ramostwe uncovers the truth using her usual method of paying close attention to the people around her, and treating the staff and servants with respect and getting them to divulge the things they have seen to her. And as usual, the truth isn't quite what anyone thought it would be.
While Mma Ramotswe is away solving her case, Mma Makutsi is required to deal with a case of her own involving the selection of a winner for the Miss Beauty and Integrity contest. After being approached by the organizer of the contest, Mma Makutsi undertakes to make a moral evaluation of the four finalists to ensure that none of them have skeletons in their closet or propensities to behavior that would embarrass the contest should they win, with an implication that Mma Makutsi should pick the "correct" winner and the organizer will make sure she emerges victorious. Though Mma Makutsi seems to stumble to the "correct" answer, her handling of the case reveals that being practical and hard working is no defense against prejudice and pseudoscience, and "Botswanan morality" may not be as benign as the reader had been told in the previous two books. After settling on the possibility the phrenology would help her determine which contestants are "good" girls, Mma Makutsi is foiled by the fact that she can't see the exact shape of their heads due to their hair and has to fall back on her alternative of having them fill out a questionnaire using the ruse of being a newspaper reporter. Though the case reveals Mma Makutsi's ingrained prejudice against the kinds of women she decries as "bad" girls, and her investigation is almost farcical at times, she has the good fortune to find a candidate who we are meant to see as clearly being deserving of victory in the contest, and she is able to make a recommendation to her client.
The core theme of Morality for Beautiful Girls is the intersection of Botswanan culture and morality with the modern world, and how that intersection can find them serving complimentary roles, or find them coming into conflict. Despite the repeated praises bestowed by Mma Ramotswe on traditional Botswanan morality (which seems to encompass Botswanan culture as well), when Mma Makutsi finds herself investigating on her own, the somewhat darker and off-handedly judgmental side of Botswanan morality is revealed. The book also contains an interesting subplot involving a feral child found in the wilderness and transported to Mma Potokwane's orphan farm, but this seems to lead nowhere, left as a mystery to be solved in the future, if ever. The novel shines the most when it brings the African landscape into the story as an often foreboding but sometimes loving character, setting the doings of the book's human characters against its starkly beautiful vista. In the end, this novel, like the others in the series, is a gentle stroll through the ordinary lives of ordinary Africans trying to make their way in a dry and often uncompromising land.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: Delirium wants to find Destruction, so Dream decides to humor her. But Destruction means change, and for the Endless, change is dangerous.
Long review After spending six volumes establishing the permanence and indispensability of the Endless, Gaiman reverses field in Brief Lives with a story that suggests that the Endless may not be necessary at all, and not being necessary, may not be eternal. The story itself takes the form of a travel tale, with Dream and Delirium setting out on the road (literally) in search of their long lost brother Destruction. Along the way, the pair come across some individuals that we might count as extraordinarily long-lived, but for Dream, Death, and the other Endless, are merely ephemeral beings of minor consequence.
The volume starts and ends with Andros, the patriarch of the family charged by Dream with the task of guarding his son Orpheus' severed but immortal head. For him and his clan, their vigil has been interminably long, but it becomes clear that for Dream, their watch has been nothing more than the blink of an eye. The book shifts away from the main story several times to interludes featuring those who walk among mankind living lives that span vast numbers of generations of ordinary people. But as Death remarks when the fifteen thousand year old Bernie Capax finally dies and looks to her for reassurance that he managed to do well by living so long, he only got what everyone else gets - exactly one lifetime. Compared to the supposedly serene and unchanging lives of the Endless, no matter how long a mortal lives, one life is pretty much just as brief as another.
But Dream's journey in this book calls this alleged truth into question. In a moment of odd clarity, Delirium manages to gather her thoughts enough to start trying to seek out the missing member of the Endless, first asking Desire and Despair to help her, and when they refuse her, she turns to Dream for help. Even though she does not expect him to consent to aid her, Dream is in a funk after being dumped by his most recent love, and decides to use the quest to find Destruction as a diversion from his moody misery. And so this odd, but strangely well-matched pair set out on the road in the waking world.
Although Dream is most often matched with Death in the Sandman series, probably as a reference to the Greek myth that posits dreams as the only thing that makes sleep something different than a temporary death, pairing him with Delirium seems to be the natural match-up. The somewhat random free-association that Delirium engages in seems to be very much like the chaotic and bizarre landscape that most people find in their dreams. The two of them together find the mundane waking world to be a strange landscape, and react in very different ways. Dream regards all of those he encounters with disinterest and mild disdain, while Delirium wanders through like a careless child caught up in the excitement of a strange new place. But hidden within their characters is a common callousness, as Dream's concern after the death of their guide Ruby is that some force may be trying to impede their quest rather than remorse for the woman's death, while Delirium's only reaction is the gleeful realization that she will be allowed to drive their car. Later, Delirium's casual cruelty manifests when she off-handedly condemns a police officer who was doing nothing more than his job to a life of torment, an action that Dream does nothing to prevent or ameliorate. To the Endless, mortal lives are of no import.
The key to the story, however, is the mortal characters that populate the story. From the guardian Andros, to the long-lived but ultimately unlucky Capax, to the diminished deities Ferrell and Ishtar, to the ambitious and ill-fated Ruby, to the disembodied Orpheus, and even to the melting chocolate lovers left on Delirium's plate when she decides she isn't hungry, it is the frantic and hurried actions of the mortals that create meaning in the world. And that is the secret that Destruction seems to have discovered, and the truth that Dream knows but does not want to acknowledge - the mortals do not need the Endless, but the Endless need the mortals. Destruction is change, and Dream fears change as evidenced in this volume by his extended brooding over a love-affair gone wrong. Despite this, Dream is forced to acknowledge change, resorting to meeting with his son Orpheus for advice, even after he said he would never see him again.
Ruby, short-lived though she is, serves as a metaphor for the entire book. Despite her very short existence, she is one of the few individuals in the book who express a desire to actually do something more than continue to exist. Despite his fifteen thousand years of life, Capax has left almost no mark on the world. When he senses danger approaching, the Alder Man is content to erase his own existence in order to ensure his personal survival. Ishtar lives on faded memories of a distant past. And so on. Only Ruby wants something more than she has, wants to do something with her life, because she realizes that she only has so much time to accomplish something, and that gives her actions a sense of urgency. Despite her untimely death, she is one of the few characters in the book who seems to have truly lived instead of merely existing.
And this is what Destruction has come to understand - he isn't necessary. Humans can live their lives without the need for him to manifest change and guide their destinies. This reality is what disturbs and unnerves Dream, because if Destruction is not needed for change to happen, then Dream is not needed to make humans dream. Similarly, without Death things would still die, and without Desire, humans would still indulge their passions. But if the Endless are not necessary, that means that they can be eliminated without damaging the fabric of the universe. And this fact serves to turn the entire series upon its head, because it means that the Endless might not be as endless as the reader had been led to believe to this point.
This volume marks an important turn in the Sandman series. Dream ends up killing his own son - at his son's request - but in doing so he finally kills one of his own family members, which is what some of his siblings have been goading him to do in previous stories. We see what Delirium looked like when she was Delight, and combined with the knowledge that what had been described as the responsibilities of the Endless are not so dependent upon the existence of the Endless, the book foreshadows change in the offing. Not only that, but change that Desire, Despair, and even Dream fear. But most of all, as its title implies this volume highlights that it is not the Endless who are the critical forces in the universe, but rather it is those like Andros, whose lifespans are measured in finite numbers of days, months, and years.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: A beautifully illustrated, but ultimately unsatisfying story exploring the nature of heroism using the Book of Revelations as a framing device.
Long review: There can be no denying that Kingdom Come is a beautifully illustrated book. The artwork that is used to tell this Revelations-inspired story using super-heroes as a metaphor for divine and infernal powers is, in a word, stunning. Unfortunately, the story that these illustrations tell simply isn't worthy of being told with such beautiful images. The subtitle on the cover says that this is "The Greatest Super-Hero Epic of Tomorrow", but while it is clear that the authors intended to write a grand and epic tale, they seem to have been given only enough space to tell a median range story, and the strain of packing the amount of story intended into the space available is apparent on almost every page, to the detriment of the book.
The story, such as it is, is told through the eyes of Norman McCay as he is whisked from event to event by the Spectre to serve as a mostly unseen and unnoticed observer to the doings of the mighty beings that walk across the Earth. In this future world, the cadre of super-powered heroes that DC comic fans are familiar with has mostly died, retired, or withdrawn to the sidelines, and a new crop of meta-humans has risen to replace their forbears. But these new super-powered beings, unlike their predecessors, seem to have almost no regard for the fragile and weak humans they share the world with, and their uncaring demeanor makes their internecine fights terribly dangerous for their mundane neighbors. Against this backdrop of random conflict, the Spectre shows Norman how the chaos is swirling towards a dangerous and destructive conclusion.
But the book simply isn't substantial enough to tell the full story that would do justice to the idea behind it. The story, concerning the return of Superman to the world stage, the resurrection of the defunct Justice League, the taming of the miscreant younger meta-human generation, the plots against the meta-humans as a whole, and all of the other sweeping epic elements, is stuffed into too few pages to actually tell a coherent tale. Not only that, because the story is set into the future, the book must also spend time establishing the landscape of the super-hero world of tomorrow, and at the same time explain how the present DC universe got there. As a result, the book isn't so much a coherent tale as it is a collection of climactic highlights. But without the build up to support them, the climaxes that the reader is treated to simply fall flat. Without needed context, the reader simply doesn't care who Magog is, and it is simply difficult to be concerned when the incarcerated pseudo-hero Von Bach is struck down.
Superman is the centerpiece, and in many ways exemplary of the problems with, this book. Most of the plot hinges upon Superman withdrawing from the public eye for an extended period of time, and then after a crisis occurs, returning to try to set things right again. But while Superman's withdrawal to a virtual farm is talked about several times, it is explained in a brief handful of panels that give only the most cursory outline of the circumstances that led him to turn his back on humanity. And Superman's decision to return is covered in a similarly brief set of panels and is similarly glossed over. Further, the critical interregnum during which Superman is absent from world affairs takes up a relatively tiny portion of the book. As a result of the cursory way that these portentous events are described, Superman's supposedly momentous decisions to leave and then return seem almost to be careless in nature. By covering only the decisions themselves, and failing to provide more than an outline of the context in which they take place, the book drains any potential weight out of these choices.
In many ways Kingdom Come feels more like a well-illustrated outline of a story than an actual story. Time and again the reader is presented with the end result, often via a brief flashback or one character telling another what happened, rather than being allowed to see the story unfold for themselves. After he returns, Superman goes to visit a retired Bruce Wayne, who is presented as a man confined to an exoskeleton who enforces a draconian order in Gotham via security robots. How Wayne got to this point is never explained. We are told that Wonder Woman had been stripped of her royal status and ambassadorial post by her Amazon sisters, but instead of seeing this as part of the story, we are told of these events by means of a conversation between Clark and Diana. We are told that the new generation of meta-humans has run riot over the world, and we are even shown a little bit of the mayhem they have caused, but the story of how these meta-humans got to the point where nearly all of them felt free to engage in wanton destruction is skipped over. Over and over the book jumps past telling an actual story and simply tells the reader the ending instead.
Even when the book give the reader some actual story to read, it does so in the most perfunctory way. Magog precipitates the crisis that results in Superman's return by devastating and irradiating Kansas, but this entire plot takes up only a few panels. Lex Luthor has organized many of the DC universe's super-villains into the "Mankind Liberation Front", but we only get a scant glimpse of their machinations via a handful of board meetings. Superman restores the Justice League and converts or incarcerates the new generation of meta-humans, almost magically waving a wand to create a prison to keep them in, but this radical transformation of the world is dealt with mostly by offstage fiat. We are shown that Luthor has brainwashed Captain Marvel, but the book takes little more than a single page to show this. Bruce Wayne sides with Luthor, reassuring Luthor of his good intentions by saying little more than "trust me", and then Luthor is shocked (and unprepared) when the former Batman turns on him. There is a lot of plot crammed into this book, but it is unsupported by the amount of story necessary to contain the volume of moving pieces that are presented, and the resulting product is disjointed and unsatisfying.
It is clear that Waid and Ross had an incredibly expansive vision for a story, and for some reason decided to box that story into a contained that was simply too small to tell it properly. And so instead of seeing Superman unable to stop the Joker murdering his way across Metropolis and finally assassinating Lois Lane before the Joker is himself executed by Magog, we are told that these events happened in a flashback to the trial of Magog that followed. Instead of seeing the back and forth cat an mouse game between Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor as they engage in cloak and dagger intrigue, we see Bruce ally with Luthor on one page, and see him announce that he's figured out Luthor's plan and betray his erstwhile ally on another. Instead of giving the reader a story, the authors gave the reader plot points. The book is, in effect, the skeleton of a story entirely lacking in any flesh or muscle.
Even though they confined themselves to nothing more than plot points, the authors gave a short shrift to some of the most interesting questions raised in the volume - even though we are told that Lois died, this is not the catalyst that spurred Superman to withdraw into seclusion. Rather, the acquittal of Magog for the Joker's murder was the crucial event. But given that Lois (along with the presumably deceased Ma and Pa Kent) was a critical humanizing influence on Superman, shouldn't her loss have meant something more to the Man of Steel than it seems to have? Given that Superman dances around the idea of, and eventually enters into a romantic relationship with the stern and warlike Diana, why does this not affect his ideals? Why is it that without Superman the world inexorably devolves into chaos? Kingdom Come wants to cover some of the same territory that Alan Moore covered in The Watchmen, specifically the responsibility of power, and how to keep a nearly omnipotent being from ruling over the world according to their personal moral code - as Superman does in this book once he returns from his self-imposed exile. But although Kingdom Come wants to raise these subjects, unlike The Watchmen, it doesn't want to make any statements about them, or even really explore them, confining itself to saying little more than "Superman is humble and self-critical, so no one would ever have to worry about his unstoppable power". While the story glosses over many of the plot developments that it presents, it completely ignores many others, leaving the reader wondering why such seemingly critical elements were alluded to if they were simply going to be passed over.
Kingdom Come is a masterfully drawn and incredibly ambitious failure. There is an epic story to be told here, and the reader is given a collection of excellent storyboards outlining that story. There are interesting questions involving competing visions of morality and justice that are raised here, but which are never really dealt with in any meaningful way. By attempting to cram this epic story into a two hundred page graphic novel, Waid and Ross created a stunted and incomplete work that doesn't actually tell a story, doesn't allow its plots or characters to develop, and doesn't deal with the huge questions that it raises. There was a really great story to be told using the ideas that are represented in this books. Unfortunately, this book doesn't actually tell that story so much as it merely outlines it, and as a result, it isn't anything more than average.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
I thought that this one might be one I could enjoy but alas, the further I read into your (great BYW, review), the more I realized that I am not ready for it. Sad.
Short review: Twenty-three years of illustrated letters from Father Christmas to the Tolkien children.
Long review: Before The Lord of the Rings, before The Hobbit, when Middle-Earth itself was nothing more than an embryonic idea that manifested as a handful of unpublished poems, Tolkien was writing for an eager audience. Like many children, Tolkien's offspring wrote letters to Father Christmas every year, but unlike the experience of many other children, Tolkien's offspring received letters back. Beautifully written and illustrated letters that tell tales of whimsy, adventure, and love. Most of these letters and all of the paintings and drawings that accompanied them are collected in this volume, meaning that Tolkien's labor of love and affection can be read and enjoyed by everyone else.
The letters themselves span the period between 1920, when Tolkien's oldest son John was three, and 1943, when his youngest child Priscilla was fourteen. In between, Tolkien crafted a masterfully creative series of characters and adventures to delight and entertain his children, starting with simple missives showing Father Christmas and his house next to the North Pole, but quickly escalating to silly tales involving the Great Polar Bear of the North doing well-meaning but rather foolish things and Father Christmas cleaning up the resulting mess. The letters respond to what would seem to be typical concerns expressed by children in their letters to Father Christmas: Letting them know what gifts had been brought for them, answering questions as to Father Christmas' home and appearance, and so on. But Tolkien was not content to write only about such mundane matters, and went on to craft increasingly elaborate stories involving an increasingly large cast of characters. And although the Tolkien children probably mostly looked forward to the model trains, books, and other toys, it is these stories that were the real treasures in their stockings.
The first letter is quite short, more or less just telling John that Father Christmas is on his way to deliver gifts to Oxford and includes a picture of both him and his house at the North Pole. But the letters quickly became more elaborate - within five years the annual letter included a story involving the Great Polar Bear climbing (and breaking) the North Pole to retrieve Father Christmas' hat, and in the process wrecking "Christmas House", prompting the construction of a new dwelling for Father Christmas perched upon a conveniently nearby cliff resulting in the name "Cliff House". And from this beginning the stories and accompanying cast of characters grew every year. Father Christmas soon had a gardener - the Snow Man. The Great Polar Bear soon had a name, Karhu, and mischievous nephews underfoot - Paksu and Valkotukka. Eventually Father Christmas had red gnomes helping him package gifts and fend off goblins, and enlisted an elvish secretary named Ilbereth to help him manage his household. Eventually even penguins briefly join the menagerie, having swum from the South Pole to see if there is anything they could do to help out.
An interesting element to these letters is that they were written before the modern mythology surrounding Father Christmas has solidified, giving Tolkien a little bit of room to define the character as he wished. Hence, Father Christmas is aided by Karhu the polar bear, and the reindeer, while needed to pull his sleigh, aren't named at all, and for the most part do not show up in the stories as active characters. Even the count of reindeer is not set, as the letters suggest that Father Christmas varies the number of reindeer hitched to his sleigh, and that he prepares several different sleighs for Christmas so as to be able to handle the enormous volume of presents to deliver. Eventually Father Christmas had an array of helpers, and also the black goblin adversaries, some of which rode giant bats to attack Cliff House, and while the Polar Bear served as a powerful guardian, Father Christmas also got into battle, firing off gunpowder rockets at his enemies - a decidedly different vision of the character than current lore presents. Many of the elements that show up in Tolkien's vision of Father Christmas and the magical North Pole landscape he inhabits are clearly the seeds of things that ended up in later works such as The Hobbit. As an interesting aside, despite his obvious love for Father Christmas and his attendant mythology, Tolkien, unlike C.S. Lewis with Narnia, resisted inserting the character into his secondary world of Middle-Earth.
The letters end on something of a melancholy note. In addition to the sadness of the last of the Tolkien children growing older and leaving behind the wonders of childhood, the last four years worth of letters were written in the shadow of World War II. Among the most touching letter is a short note dated December 23rd, 1940, in which Karhu assures Priscilla Tolkien that Father Christmas has received her note letting him know that she had moved. Given the timing of the note, it seems possible that the Tolkien's had left their home to escape from the specter of German bombers (although there is no evidence one way or the other that this was the reason for their move). But from 1939 through 1943, the letters are clearly the effort of a parent to reassure a bewildered child who was attempting to make sense of the overwhelming insensibility of a world at war.
From the very first letters and illustrations to the very last, Letters from Father Christmas is a testament to the love of a father for his children. The care, attention, and affection that is evidenced in this collection is touching and endearing. The imagination and creativity that fills the pages shows Tolkien's mastery of myth, language, and storytelling which is all woven together into an adorable and engaging twenty-three year long story. Without even knowing it, merely by trying to entertain his own children, Tolkien ended up writing one of the best Christmas books ever put on paper. Tolkien's children were exceedingly lucky because they got to read this story before anyone else, but now that the letters have been published in this volume, the rest of us are now lucky enough to be able to enjoy them as well.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: Mma Ramotswe tries to help a man set right the things he did wrong in the past, but her life is complicated by a rival detective agency. Mma Makutsi sets up her own business and finds love. Or does she?
Long review: The Kalahari Typing School for Men is the fourth installment of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and involves a mystery that isn't really a mystery, a romance that isn't really a romance, and a competitor that isn't really a competitor. The only story in the book that isn't completely inverted is Mma Makutsi's creation of a new side business to earn extra money, but even that, involving her teaching men the secretarial skill of typing, is something of a cultural reversal.
The primary mystery in the book isn't actually a mystery at all: The reader knows who the culprit in the tale is from the beginning, because he is Mma Ramotswe's client and he tells her of the wrongs he committed years before, making this a kind of inverted mystery where the criminal and crime is identified at the beginning, but the victims must be located. After an epiphany, the client decided that he needed to find the people he had injured as a young man and make amends with them, a choice that led him to hire a private detective to do the leg work. Through the book, Mma Ramotswe uses her usual techniques of calling people on the phone, talking to people over cups of tea, and otherwise pursuing the truth to find both the woman whose radio was stolen, and the woman whose heart was broken and ferret out how their lives had gone since her client knew them. In the end, Mma Ramotswe is able to get the information her client wants, but more importantly, she is able to serve as a kind of confessor for him, patiently guiding him to make the real sacrifices in order to meaningfully atone for the crimes he had committed. And that, I think, is one of the most critical point made in the book - in order to truly seek forgiveness, one has to take actual action. This story line is also the first time that the AIDS epidemic is directly referenced in the book, in the form of a child who has been afflicted with the disease.
The story line that gives the book its title revolves around Mma Makutsi's efforts to earn more money. Although she enjoys the titles of assistant detective and assistant manager that come with her dual roles working for the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Mma Makutsi is aware that neither business can afford to raise her salary by any substantial amount. But, as she both takes care of her brother and sends a portion of her paychecks home to the rest of her family, she realizes that her finances are stretched to the breaking point. After briefly considering opening a driving school (notwithstanding the fact that she cannot drive), Mma Makutsi settles upon the idea of opening a typing school aimed at training men to type based upon the theory that while men are too proud to stoop so low as to attend an institution like the Botswana Secretarial College, they would benefit from learning to type so as to be better able to use the computer keyboards entering office use. Putting her formidable organizational skills to the task, Mma Makutsi soon acquires the typewriters, space, and students she needs to make her business a success. Soon, she is engaged in teaching men how to type, a situation that seems to make some of her students uncomfortable, although in the end they seem reconciled to it, as her obvious expertise shines through.
And while Mma Makutsi's start-up business seems to get off to an almost improbably successful start, and it also leads to another significant plot point as she engages in a dalliance with a well-dressed student of the school named Bernard Seleliping. In the course of her romance, Mma Makutsi is taken to an expensive bar and a fancy restaurant, but unbeknownst to her her relationship is threatened by her suitor's duplicity. Early in the book Mma Ramotswe discovers that a new detective agency has opened in Gabarone - the Satisfaction Guaranteed Detective Agency, run by former police officer Cephas Buthelezi, a man who turns out to be arrogant, overbearingly sexist, and dismissive of both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi. This story line is more or less dropped until substantially later in the book when a disgruntled former client of Mr. Buthelezi's shows up on Mma Ramotswe's door. She believes that her husband has been cheating on her, and is dissatisfied by Buthelezi's finding that her husband has been spending his time in church, a suggestion that she simply does not believe. Before too long, the reader realizes that the church the wayward husband has been going to is the same one Mma Makutsi has been using to give her typing lessons.
This results in yet another moral dilemma for Mma Ramotswe, as she figures out that the romantic suitor she has been hearing about from Mma Makutsi is none other than the wandering husband of her new client. As is typical of the series, the real problem is not unraveling the mystery, which is almost a trivial exercise, but rather trying to figure out how to resolve the situation. Mma Ramotswe likes Mma Makutsi, and doesn't want her to get hurt by the revelation that her paramour is a married man and also feels an obligation to her client who happens to be Mr. Seleliping's wife. As usual, Mma Ramotswe deals with the issue in her direct and fairly forthright manner, and Mma Makutsi unknowingly solves the moral dilemma on her own. But the interesting development in this story line is the transformation of the character of Mma Makutsi, from someone who was mostly just an object of pity renowned for her score of 97% at the Botswana Secretarial College to a fully realized individual who is aware of her own worth both as an employee and as a romantic figure.
Like the previous books in the series, The Kalahari Typing School for Men is a book with a gentle and almost languid sensibility. There is a mystery, but it involves a stolen radio and a broken relationship, not a murder or a bank heist. There is a romance of sorts, but it is a placid one, involving getting drinks at fancy bars and dinner at fancy restaurants before fizzling out from disinterest leavened with a helping of dishonesty. Mma Ramotswe has some trouble with her newly adopted children, but this difficulty fades after a fairly easy prescription is applied. Even the competitor that dominates much of the discussion in the early portion of the book basically blows away like a dead leaf on the wind. The plot-lines all come very close to resolving in ways that are simply too serendipitously convenient, but stop just short of crossing that line. The problems Mma Ramotswe and those around her face are mundane and in some cases almost trivial, but they are solved, not so much by chance, but rather because those facing these problems approach them with common sense, a willingness to engage in hard work, and caring and compassion. The Kalahari Typing School for Men is a quiet book, but it is quiet in the best way.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: Franz Ferdinand evades Gavrilo Princip and World War I never happens. From there, the author envisions two very different worlds in extreme detail.
Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.
Long review: Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! imagines a world in which the titular archduke and his spouse manage to avoid being killed by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. From there, Lebow posits that World War I could have been avoided, resulting in a posited pair of alternative histories, one alleged to be "better", and one described as "worse". Unfortunately, Lebow's hypothesized counterfactuals are poorly supported, tediously overlong, and ultimately unconvincing.
In the opening pages of the book, Lebow discusses the primary point of departure from history that he envisions - Archduke Franz Ferdinand's motorcade does not take a wrong turn, does not pass near where Princep lay in wait, and the Archduke doesn't die with a bullet in his neck. This, Lebow contends, would be sufficient to avert World War I, asserting that without this one incident, the great powers of Europe would behave reasonably and rationally, and, if no similar trigger occurred by 1919 or so, everyone would realize that peace was in their national interest and give up war permanently. This assessment seems, at best, overly optimistic. Even if the provocation of Ferdinand's assassination not happened, the powers of Europe were poised for war, harboring ambitions and grievances that probably would have put them on a collision course.
Lebow contends that it would not have been in the best interests of the European powers to fight a war, but nations often do not act rationally. Germany was hungry for the prestige that came with colonies. That, and Kaiser Wilhelm's obsession with naval power, put Germany on a collision course with Britain. France was still seething over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine forty years earlier, and Austro-Hungary itself had been willing to precipitate an international crisis that almost resulted in war as recently as 1908 when it annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. Italy had territorial ambitions in land that was controlled by Austro-Hungary, and Russia was a dangerous combination of apparently powerful and self-consciously insecure, politically positioned in such a way that it had to respond to almost any provocation to maintain its status as a great power. But Lebow dismisses this and all of the other intertwined tensions with little more than a hand wave.
And this reveals what is essentially the weakness that runs through the book. Lebow takes complex situations and then uses simplistic and reductive assertions to brush reality aside to fit the conclusion he wants. Lebow doesn't come up with reasoned arguments in support of his proffered counterfactuals so much as he simply asserts that his preferred outcome is the most reasonable one and then forges ahead blithely dismissing that there could be counterarguments in an off-hand manner. Between Lebow's wildly optimistic faith in the reasonableness of nations and his raw assertions of how events would play out, the book feels more like a wish-list of fantasies rather than an evaluation of what might happen had history been different.
I don't mean to suggest that all of Lebow's predicted changes are ill-supported: So long as he is dealing with the broad strokes of history he seems to be on reasonably solid ground. Had World War I never happened, the Versailles Treaty would have never happened, which makes World War II less likely. Without World War I, the Russian Revolution would have been far less likely, meaning the Soviet Union would likely not have existed, and the Cold War would have not taken place. And so on. But these sorts of observations are trivial, and even banal, and not the sort of thing that one could build a book upon.
Lebow could have chosen to fill out his book in one of two ways. He could have, for example, focused on the impact of Franz Ferdinand himself, given that in the alternate worlds he envisioned, Ferdinand lives past 1914. Lebow does this to some extent, but it is an altogether one sided analysis - in Lebow's view Ferdinand would have been a liberalizing influence had he survived to become Emperor of the dual monarchy, a position backed up by Ferdinand's historical writings. But the problem is that Lebow doesn't even seem to consider the possibility that Ferdinand would behave differently if he actually ascended to power. History is replete with examples of men who were advocates of political liberalization while they sat on the outside of the corridors of power, but became staunch supporters of the status quo once they were ensconced on the throne. Lebow could have evaluated the differences that would have resulted depending upon which direction Ferdinand took, and provided an interesting analysis of the differences that would result. But Lebow doesn't do that. In both of his proffered scenarios, Ferdinand is a liberal influence, and in both of his proffered scenarios Austro-Hungary offers greater autonomy to the various national groups under its banner.
Instead, Lebow fills up the pages of his book with nearly endless, mind-numbingly tedious detail. But this detail is not only exhausting and dreary, it is often also complete unsupported by anything other than Lebow's assertion that the world would be as he envisions it. For example, in his description of the alternate life of Egon Schiele (who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 along with his wife, and whose work was considered so pornographic that a judge in a trial burned one of Schiele's erotic drawings), Lebow states:
"He responds well to fatherhood and begins a series of paintings of his son. They are initially similar to his paintings of adult nudes: contorted, outlined figures composed of pale, sometimes sickly, flesh tones, accented with res and blues that suggest erotic potential but severe alienation. Gradually his portraits of his son, and to some extent those of other people, become less angular and show more of an inner light, heightening the tension between the human potential and the social situation."
But this isn't a conclusion that is based upon anything more than wishful thinking. There isn't anything in Schiele's life that would suggest that his art would have developed in the direction Lebow confidently asserts that it would. Lebow isn't taking reality, changing an element, and then projecting what consequences would flow from the change. Instead, he is simply indulging in wild speculation without even so much as a cursory nod to actual history. Time and again, Lebow makes very detailed, but almost completely unsupported, and often implausible claims as to the course history would take. Physicists would demand, and be able to enforce, in an international accord to limit the development of nuclear weapons. Humphrey Bogart would become a well-regarded Shakespearean stage actor, but would get involved in the farm labor movement in California, resulting in his getting roughed up by anti-union thugs. Richard Nixon would become a televangelist instead of a politician, but his preaching career would play out almost exactly like his actual political career did. And on and on and on and on.
And on. Most of the book is taken up by these sorts of descriptions. Lebow seems to have taken the position that if two or three representative examples would be good, ten or fifteen would be that much better. So instead of describing the alternate lives of one or two jazz musicians, Lebow gives long and convoluted descriptions of the alternate world careers of almost a dozen. And, as long-winded as these descriptions seem, they amount to nothing more than a collection of flat assertions: Duke Ellington would abandon the Jim Crow South for Britain, play shows there, work with Cole Porter, get praise from Igor Stravinsky, get knighted by the British monarch, and share a Nobel Peace Prize with Louis Armstrong. This seems like a moderately interesting scenario, but this is pretty much all Lebow tells us about it, and all the justification he gives for it as well. But Lebow doesn't bother to explain what Ellington might have done other than move to Europe that would have resulted in a Nobel Prize. Nor does Lebow explain why Armstrong shared the honor with Ellington. It seems easy to believe that the fictional Ellington and Armstrong would be brilliant musicians, as they clearly were in the real world, but Lebow doesn't bother to give any explanation for why he thought they would earn a Nobel Prize in the fictional world. And the problem is that the book is, for the most part, these skeletal fictional biographies, repeated ad nauseum. Filled with prolonged skeletal descriptions of the lives of various noteworthies, the book reads like a highlight catalogue without the substance that would give the entries any significance.
Lebow does present two alternate visions of a world in which World War I never took place: The first is a "better" world where peace breaks out with art, music, and flowers for everyone, and the second is a "worse" world that ends with a limited nuclear exchange between Britain and Germany in the 1970s. But these aren't explorations extrapolating what might happen if World War I had never happened. They are wild flights of fantasy that start with the counterfactual hypothesis that World War I was avoided, and then run off in unsupported directions racing past the line of "extrapolation" and into "self-indulgent daydreams". This sort of unrestrained speculation might support a fictional work, especially if it were fleshed out from the bare bones presentation Lebow provides, but it is entirely unsatisfying when one is expected to take it seriously as an academic evaluation of possible alternative history.
Even in Lebow's "better" world he avers that some things would be worse than in our actual world. Without the impetus provided by two world wars and a cold war, technological development in the "better" world lags. But more troublingly, in the "better" world, colonialism persists much longer, antisemitism is pervasive throughout Europe and the United States, and both racism and sexism remain dominant and unchecked forces for far longer. All of these problems are simply hand-waved away by Lebow with little more than a shrug. It seems that a world is "better" in Lebow's estimation, so long as it is better for white male Christians.
Overall, Franz Ferdinand Lives! is both overly long and tedious, and yet much too short. The predictions that the author makes are mostly obvious and banal, and are leavened with tiresomely detailed skeletons of biographies that lack the muscle that would give them any kind of life. On the whole, this book feels more like an outline for a fictional book of alternate history rather than an actual book in itself. This isn't so much a bad book, as it is merely an unconvincing and forgettable one.
This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: Prince Valiant gets bored in Camelot and sets out on adventures that lead him to Scotland, Iberia, and Africa.
Long review: Before I had read a single fantasy story, before I even really knew what science fiction was, before I had ever rolled a single die in a role-playing game, there was Prince Valiant. From the time I was old enough to read and knew what the Sunday comics in newspapers were, I would look forward to being transported to King Arthur's court to follow the adventures of Prince Valiant of Thule as we waded through anachronistic enemies, won the hand of Aleta of the Misty Isles, and wielded the Singing Sword to bring his particular brand of hack and slash justice to the world. Far from Camelot reprints strips of the Sunday comic that appeared between 2004 and 2008, long after my formative years of religiously reading it, but they capture the same history-be-damned pulpy chain mail and flashing swords adventure that I fell in love with when I was six.
The book opens with Prince Valiant, now serving along with his wife Queen Aleta as regents of England following Arthur's abdication, chafing at the idleness of courtly life. After a brief set of strips in which Valiant takes out his frustrations on those around him, he is encouraged to take his son Nathan as his squire and head out into the country in search of adventure. From there four lengthy stories ensue, one after another, as Valiant ventures further and further away from his home in Camelot. First Valiant befriends a Pict named Borgut who convinces him to head north to deal with dragons that are plaguing Borgut's village. After some adventure, intrigue, treachery, and something of a love interest for Nathan, Valiant and his squire charter passage back to Camelot. Of course, as this is Prince Valiant, their journey home is interrupted by some anachronistic Norse raiders, and Valiant is taken prisoner.
The stories are told in a fairly boisterously implausible style, with Valiant doing manly things and dealing with manly men. The Norse captain Skyrmir humiliates Valiant until Valiant manages to disable him, resulting in his replacement as captain by the even more ruthless Thornwolf. After sailing to Iberia, the Norse crew finds a mysterious tower and learn of a forgotten Carthaginian treasure that turns out to be King Solomon's gold. After adventures involving the hoards otherworldly guardian, Valiant and Skyrmir escape, establish the sort of macho friendship that results when two men beat each other over the head for a while, only to stumble across and rescue an African princess named Makeda. Meanwhile Nathan finds Gawain, who takes him back to Camelot where he can report Valiant's capture to Aleta.
And so the story winds on as Valiant finds himself drawn into a quest to return King Solomon's gold to its African guardians in the city of Ab'Saba, and Aleta sets out to rescue the husband she thinks is still the prisoner of Norse pirates. Instead of trying to return home to his wife and children, Valiant decided that once he was free of his pseudo-Viking captors he would work his way south along the African coast. And so Valiant's adventures continue until he finds himself in the middle of a Ab'Saban civil war, where, serendipitously, Aleta's expedition happens to show up to tie the story up in a neat little bow.
For anyone who has ever read Prince Valiant in the Sunday papers, there isn't really anything in this volume that should be surprising. The artwork is done in the usual realistic style, the text is placed in little boxes - the Valiant strip has never used speech bubbles. The stories are, as one would expect, filled with villains who are at turns nefarious, duplicitous, and jovial, and monsters that are sometimes implausible, and sometimes merely beastly. Throughout, Valiant perseveres with the kind of swashbuckling bravado that only works in the particular kind of comic strip that he lives in, but it is a kind of swashbuckling bravado that is entertaining as well. Readers who don't enjoy Arthurian epic heroism won't get much out of this book. Those who do, on the other hand, will certainly find this to be an enjoyable and exciting read.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: Breq was the ship Justice of Toren, she was also One Esk and she had a favorite officer. One day she was betrayed and all but a tiny piece of her was destroyed. Now she searches an ice planet looking for a tool that will allow her to achieve vengeance.
Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.
Long review: Ancillary Justice is, to put it bluntly, a brilliant science fiction novel that poses questions regarding identity, gender, and the nature of self. On the surface, it is a story of betrayal and revenge centered around the acquisition of a particular weapon, but lurking beneath the surface is a complex layering of social and political conflicts and structures that are interwoven together into a rich tapestry that gives the book substantial heft. The primary characters in the story are all out of place in some way, and each has how they see the world constrained by their limited perspective which drives them to view the same things in different ways (often to their own detriment), or to merely overlook particular possibilities. And lurking in the background are the alien Presger, with their own decidedly strange and poorly understood perspective, who never directly appear in the story, but become more and more of a looming threat as Breq unravels the mystery of the novel.
The story takes place in two different times. In one, Breq is on the planet Nilt seeking a fugitive doctor hoping to acquire the gun that holds the key to all of Breq's plans. Along the way she picks up the Radch citizen Seivarden, herself a thousand years out of her own time and dealing with it by becoming addicted to a drug called kef. In the other, nearly twenty years earlier, Breq doesn't exist as an individual, but rather is both part of, and is, the massive starship Justice of Toren, aware in many locations and through many bodies all at once. And this highlights one of the many interesting elements of the story: The question of identity. Is Breq a person? A malfunctioning piece of equipment? A fragment of a larger whole? An individual subsuming the whole into herself? Leckie manages to accomplish the difficult task of saying both "yes" to all of these, and "no" to all of them as well, because, as becomes clear as the story progresses, the answer depends upon the viewpoint of who is considering the matter.
Though the story doesn't take place entirely within its borders, everything that happens is dominated by the politics of the Radch Empire, the largest, and until recently, most aggressively expansionist human political entity. For centuries, the Radch have annexed other worlds, using their superior weapons and nigh-impenetrable armor to conquer and assimilate entire populations of people. As part of these annexations, Radch divide the subjugated populace - making a lucky few into citizens, killing some of those who resist, and transforming the remainder into mind-wiped bodies kept in cold storage for later use as "ancillaries", living, breathing ship components. Breq was once an ancillary, a component of Justice of Toren before that ship and every other part of her was destroyed. This leaves Breq in an odd position as she is left with just one human body, but she's not human by Radch standards. And with her ship body destroyed, Breq isn't the Justice of Toren any more. She's not a fragment of her former self - she still has all, or at least most, of the memories and knowledge of her ship-self - but she isn't the whole either.
The question of exactly what Breq is, and what she is not, is at the very heart of the novel. Each ship used by the Radchaai is a single mind in many bodies, separated into several groupings, forming what can only be described as deck crews to serve the human officers assigned to the ship's various sections. So while the Justice of Toren is ostensibly a unitary whole, it is also the various groupings of ancillaries that make up the unit known as One Esk, and the unit known as One Var, and so on. In one particularly chilling scene, the components of Justice of Toren recall overseeing the culling of the inhabitants of a subject planet, guarding a collection of noncitizens, some of whom will be killed, others to be spared, but "spared" in this case means that they will be destined for the cold sleep vaults to be used as ancillaries. Essentially, Justice of Toren is overseeing the implacable selection process that will transform human beings into equipment that is not merely under her control, but is in fact her, destroying the personalities that exist within those bodies, and making them just one more piece of her.
And it is situations like these that reveal the fundamental injustice of the Radchaai system, although it is clear that from the perspective of the Radchaai, not only is their system just, deviating from it would be fundamentally unjust. But this is shown to be, at least to a certain extent, because the Radchaai viewpoint is severely restricted, not in small part due to their language. The word "radch" literally means "civilization" in the Radch language, making it almost impossible for the Radchaai to talk about non-Radch civilizations. Those who are outside the Radch polity are, by the terms of the Radch language, defined as uncivilized. Similarly, when trying to express the concept of "tyrant" to Seivarden, Breq has to switch to a different language, because the Radch language has no words that can express it properly. Given the structure of Radch society, one gets the impression that these language quirks many not be accidental. And this is just the most obvious way that the fundamental injustices in Radch society are cast as justice. For example, all Radchaai citizens take the "aptitudes" ostensibly merit based exams used to determine what career is best suited to each individual. But the characters in the story suspect based upon their experiences with the aptitudes that they are not merit based at all, and that the scions of wealthy and politically powerful families get preferential assignments. And, despite the glaring unfairness of this, this is taken as an indication that the system is just, because many Radchaai assume that members of those families are more capable of handling those positions. Granted, most of those saying this are members of families that benefit from such bias in the testing, but once incorporated into the Radch, it seems that newcomers also adopt this view. The Radch, we are shown time and again, hold a myopic viewpoint that is reinforced by their language and culture.
The pivotal act of treachery that destroys the bulk of Justice of Toren is precipitated by Anaander Mianaai's failure to realize that even though Toren was technically a whole entity, she was also composed of various constituent parts, and some of those parts might have formed their own personality quirks and their own affections, however slightly divergent they may be from those of the whole. This oversight is a little ironic, given the nature of the underlying conflict in the Radch and Anaander's role in it, but it does highlight just how difficult it is to overcome the restrictions on one's own viewpoint, especially when the very language you speak gets in the way. This difficulty is reflected time and again in the book, notably when Breq speaked with non-Radchaai and has difficulty assessing their gender. Radch society is gender neutral, referring to every citizen as "she" or "her", to such an extent that those who live inside the Radch are almost gender-blind. But this poses difficulties for Breq when she is on Nilt, as she finds it extremely hard to differentiate between male and female Nilters. Her background and experience simply blind her to the cues that would allow her to easily identify one gender from the other. Even the seemingly egalitarian gender-neutral nature of Radch society is the result of a limitation of perspective (and possibly an intentional one at that), and given how the story developed through Ancillary Justice, I expect this to come back to haunt the Radchaai in the future.
And it is the limitations of viewpoint that loom critical in Breq's plan for revenge. Although she spends a fair portion of the story attempting to acquire a specific firearm to be used for what seems to be an almost futile attempt at assassination, it is not the weapon that is critical to Breq's vengeance. Rather it is information that Breq possesses and how she can use this to upset the carefully restricted viewpoint of her quarry that takes center stage. And this is part of the brilliance of the book - even though the reader thinks they know what direction Breq is taking them, because our viewpoint is also restricted, we don't see things that should have been obvious from the start. And through the novel one sees subtle shifts in Breq's own view of the world as she adjusts from being a fragment of a lost larger whole that has become a dedicated instrument of revenge, to being more and more of an individual in her own right. At the end of the novel Breq is still Justice of Toren, and she is still One Esk, but she increasingly seems to be simply "Breq", an evolution that is both the result of her changed perspective, and requires her to change it as well.
With a story that is both satisfyingly self-contained and a perfect set up for the upcoming novel Ancillary Sword, this book is an almost pitch perfect first novel. The direct story of a ship fragment relentlessly seeking a weapon to allow her to gain revenge is an engaging tale of action and intrigue, while the underlying themes concerning society, politics, and the limitations of one's own experience are intensely interesting and thought-provoking.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: Jake Sullivan is a magically augmented war hero ex-con private eye beholden to the Bureau of Investigation who shoots people a lot. Then he joins up with a magic secret society and shoots more people.
Long review: Hard Magic is a work that is stunning in its overall mediocrity. Taking the idea that magical powers began manifesting themselves among humans in the 1850s and setting his story in the Prohibition-era United States, Correia manages to produce a book that is full of action-packed magically augmented gunfights and is tediously boring at the same time. Full of cardboard cut-out tough guys, two-dimensional damsels in distress, and wooden mustache twirling villains (who often seem to be awful racial stereotypes to boot), Hard Magic desperately wishes it could be a cross between The Maltese Falcon, X-Men, and The Lord of the Rings, but ultimately it amounts to nothing more than a series of combat scenes linked together by a limp and unconvincing plot.
The central conceit of the story is that along about the middle of the Nineteenth century people began to manifest magical powers. Those who do have access to magic seem to have just one power - some people can control fire, others can possess and control animals, others gain superior strength, a few can heal injuries, and still others can teleport. Some people have very weak or limited powers, such a "torch", who can control fire, but only enough to create or douse a flame the size of a pocket lighter. People with usable magical powers are called "Actives", and pretty much just about every character of any note in the book is one.
Oddly, while the presence of magically augmented humans has wrought some political changes, it doesn't seem to have changed the world in many ways otherwise. World War I happened right on schedule with the only substantive changes being that there was a Second Battle of the Somme involving lots of magically inclined combatants and Berlin ends up turned into a walled city of undead creatures. But the Tunguska Event takes place, as does the Oklahoma dust bowl, although in Correia's alternate world both caused by the use of magic. The book also makes clear that Prohibition is in effect in the U.S. and the Great Depression has laid the world economy low. J. Edgar Hoover is the head of the Bureau of Investigation, and the Bonus Army marched on Washington only to be driven out by U.S. Army troops serving under MacArthur. On the technological front, despite the existence of humans with preternatural affinity for invention called "cogs", the only real change that is notable seems to be the prevalence of dirigibles in the place of aircraft, serving both as passenger and freight transports as well as warships. It doesn't seem clear why the existence of magically augmented humans somehow makes wildly impractical aircraft like dirigibles and zeppelins into practical and ubiquitous ships of the sky, but nevertheless, they are and appear several times in the book.
Politically, the biggest change seems to be the expansion of power for Japan, which has taken over China, much of what in our world was the eastern Soviet Union and pretty much all of southeast Asia. Though technically ruled by an Emperor, all actual power is held by the Chairman, a figure who is described as being so magically powerful that he is personally undefeatable and who is served by the fearsome "Iron Guard" of magically powerful warriors and the "Shadow Guard" of magically augmented ninjas. The Imperium is, according to various characters in the book, a fairly hellish place, with "Actives" powerful enough to be useful impressed into service, and those who aren't herded into camps to be experimented with the hope of discovering how to enhance the power of those with magical abilities. Everything about the Imperium is essentially a racist caricature with the worst kind of "yellow peril" overtones throughout.
Jake Sullivan, the hero of the story, is the most hard boiled of private detectives and a magically augmented "gravity spiker" to boot. He is a hardened ex-con with a heart of gold, a decorated war hero of the Second Battle of the Somme sent to prison for saving a young black Active from a racist sheriff in the deep South who spent his time in Rockingham prison mulling over and experimenting with his magical gifts before being set free on a work release agreement where he signed up to help the Bureau of Investigation capture a set number of particularly dangerous magical criminals. His story begins with the attempted arrest of Delilah, an attractive "brute" that he has something of a romantic past with. But she's wanted by the BI, so Sullivan is there to help bring her in. The only trouble is that Delilah has some friends who also have magical powers, and the attempted arrest turns into a long fight sequence that eventually results in Sullivan getting tossed out of an airborne blimp.
And this sets the tone for the entire novel, which amounts to little more than detailed fight scene after fight scene interrupted by just enough plot to allow them to be strung together. Before long, one realizes that neither the plot or the characters matter much. What is important in the book is what kind of powers everyone has, and what kind of lovingly described firearm they carry. Unless they carry a sword, because even though the bullets fly fast and free in the fights, they are remarkably ineffective, with characters absorbing massive quantities of lead with limited ill-effects. After Sullivan's fight with Delilah and her allies, Sullivan turns to his underworld contacts to try to find out where she got her help from. His mobster "friends" then send people to try to kill Sullivan but they are interrupted by members of Delilah's group and a member of the Imperium's "Iron Guard", leading to a long fight sequence. We are introduced to the magical "traveler" Faye Vierra, and given just enough of her background before a group of men show up to kill her adoptive grandfather in another fight sequence. Faye goes to San Francisco and promptly finds herself in the crossfire of another fight scene. The bulk of the book is basically nothing more than preparations for a fight, a description of a fight, or the aftermath of a fight.
At the very least the fight sequences are reasonably creative, although for the most part they have a tendency to be overlong and tedious. But the writing in the book is somewhat weak and frequently repetitive - for example, when Faye Vierra first reaches San Francisco, there is an extended two page description as the country girl marvels at the sights of the railroad station and adjoining city street. This wouldn't be particularly noteworthy except that Corriea uses the word "astounding" to describe the sights no fewer than three times in these two pages. The series the book starts off is called the "Grimnoir Chronicles", clearly an attempt by Correia to evoke the "film noir" style of cinema, which is reasonable enough, but he feels compelled to clumsily try to put a lampshade upon his made-up word not once, but twice, and the end result is to highlight just how silly the neologism is. The whole book is pretty much written this way, with bland prose punctuated with adoring descriptions of weaponry and detailed accounts of the multiple grievous gunshot wounds suffered by the various combatants, although these wounds seem to almost never be fatal.
The plot, to the extent there is one among all of the superpowered characters futilely blasting away at one another, is the conflict between the secret "Grimnoir Society" and the Imperium as they contest ownership of Nicholas Tesla's "Geo-Tel", a MacGuffin that seems to be similar to a nuclear weapon in effect. Years before, the Grimnoir Knights foiled an attempt to use the Geo-Tel to destroy New York City, and instead of destroying it, they broke it into several pieces and had members take them and scatter across the world and seclude themselves. Now, it turns out, someone is tracking them down, killing them, and claiming the parts. The Grimnoir Society quickly figure out that the Imperium is trying to assemble the weapon so they can take over the world, but before they can act, Madi the leader of the Iron Guards (who happens to be Sullivan's estranged brother) launches an attack upon their hideout in San Francisco before melting a chunk of the city with the local "Peace Ray" installation Imperium agents had taken over with a ninja assault. Madi kidnaps Jane, the Grimnoir Society's healer, and then heads off to deliver the Geo-Tel to the Chairman. After all of the Grimnoir are healed up, they set about chasing after Madi while Sullivan goes to find the last piece of the device. Then the huge "twist" in the story is revealed, which only works because the supposedly incredibly crafty and intelligent Chairman acts like an idiot. And of course there is a huge, extended, tedious gunfight and a showdown between Madi and Sullivan that only concludes in Sullivan's favor because both Madi and the Chairman act like idiots. Also, swords are apparently much more damaging to people than getting shot multiple times with rounds of either .30-06 or .45 caliber ammunition.
In the end, both Madi and the Chairman are vanquished, their plots for world domination foiled, and almost all of the heroes return home alive despite being repeatedly shot, stabbed, burned, blown up, and other wise eviscerated. The lone exception is Delilah, who Sullivan establishes a romantic relationship with, and must therefore be sacrificed so that Sullivan can have some tragic character development. And this is really the root of the bland and flavorless mediocrity that pervades Hard Magic: To the extent that there is anything other than descriptions of people mangling one another, it is all worn out cliches and tired tropes. Even the premise - introducing magic into the modern world and creating an alternate history - isn't particularly original or even that interesting. Unless you are intrigued by nearly endless fight scenes and don't mind a paint-by-numbers plot in a standard-issue fantasy world populated by cardboard characters, there's really not much reason to bother reading this book.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds
Short review: The Grimnoir Knights are framed for attempting to murder Franklin Delano Roosevelt and go on the run before rallying to attack the Office of the Coordinator of Information and fighting magical Godzilla through the streets of Washington D.C.
Long review: The second book in the Grimnoir Chronicles, Spellbound aspires to be as mediocre as Hard Magic, and in many ways it succeeds. The book has many extended fight scenes with detailed descriptions of the weaponry everyone uses and the resulting gory, but almost always nonfatal wounds that result. The book also has a mostly identical array of two-dimensional characters living in the same fairly bland setting as its predecessor all going through the motions of a fairly thin plot. Unfortunately, Spellbound suffers from a problem common to many second books in a series: What little plot there is serves merely as a placeholder, delaying the resolution of any of the larger plot points in the series while adding almost nothing at all.
The book opens with a short interlude that amounts to something of a flashback to a time contemporaneous with the Second Battle of the Somme where an unnamed young French girl finds herself the sole surviving member of her family after a mysterious stranger slaughters them and then hunts for her. She is saved by an equally mysterious set of rescuers, who suffer heavy losses at the hands of the original interloper. As usual for this series, not much useful information is provided here, the flashback to World War I serves as little more than an excuse to have an as yet unexplained fight scene so lacking in context that the reader really has no reason to care about the outcome before the story moves back to the "present" of the 1930s and focus on the "hero" Jake Sullivan and the rest of his Grimnoir buddies.
The story proper opens several months after the end of Hard Magic, with Francis Stuyvesant and Heinrich Koenig foiling a magical assassination attempt against President Franklin Roosevelt, and Faye being grilled by the elders of the Grimnoir Society concerning her claim to have killed the Chairman at the end of the previous book. Meanwhile, Sullivan has taken up haunting libraries trying to figure out the secrets of magic. His studies in the New York City Library are interrupted by an attractive woman who he rebuffs, but later comes across outside in an alleyway where she is being menaced by a gang of robbers. Sullivan reluctantly decides to step in to help the mysterious woman out of her predicament, at which point any pretense of his being anything resembling a heroic character is tossed out of the window. It becomes quickly and readily apparent that this gang of small time toughs pose no actual threat whatsoever to Sullivan, and yet he makes sure to go out of his way to maim them - breaking bones, damaging internal organs, and so on. It seems quite obvious that Correia thinks that this is what one should be justified in doing when confronted by criminals, but what it actually seems like is as if a fully grown and perfectly healthy adult were "threatened" by a couple of eight year old children, and the adult's reaction was to pull out a knife and repeatedly stab the kids. Through the main plot of the book, the government takes some rather heavy-handed steps to regulate those imbued with magic powers, and Sullivan's vicious and thuggish behavior in this scene gives good cause as to why. This viciousness on Sullivan's part is only compounded by the fact that Pemberly Hammer, the menaced woman, essentially set up her would-be assailants as patsies in order to figure out if Sullivan was the man she was looking for on behalf of the OCI.
The primary plot of Spellbound revolves around this shadowy organization which is given the name the Office of the Coordinator of Information, which is one of the most clumsily named made-up government agencies in fiction, and which is also known as the "OCI". Despite the fact that the OCI seems to have tentacles of influence that extend across the country, the agency seems to have only three categories of employees: (a) the Coordinator Doctor Bradford Carr, who is also somewhat oddly described as a Senator, (b) the mentally unbalanced summoner who can possess demonic creatures known as Crow, and (c) faceless mooks who appear to exist solely to stumble around ineffectually until the Grimnoir Knights can kill them. This doesn't seem to be much of a foundation upon which to build an agency intended to rival J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation. The apparently sparse nature of the OCI's personnel isn't the only thing that seems underdeveloped about the agency - essentially Correia appears to not really know how government agencies work, and doesn't seem to have bothered to inform himself. Carr is referred to at points as a Senator, but if he is heading up an executive agency, he can't be a Senator, he can only be a former Senator as members of the legislative branch cannot also serve in the executive branch. Early in the book Crow shows up at a police station where Francis is being held due to his proximity to the attempt on President Roosevelt's life, apparently flashing the badge of the then almost entirely unknown OCI to get in to interrogate the playboy turned industrialist. But simply throwing out an unknown badge isn't going to give anyone access to a prisoner being held by state police, let along allow you to have a solo interrogation of them. And so on. There are a myriad of implausible events related to the OCI that simply drain the book's credibility away. And if you are structuring the main plot of your book around the bureaucratic maneuverings of your made-up federal agency, these are details that you should at least try to get right, because if you, and Correia didn't, then your book becomes unintentionally humorous.
In any event, the plot of the book can be split into three broad categories. In one vein, the Knights of the Grimnoir society are on the run, accused as conspiring to kill the President and hounded throughout the book by the mysterious and nefarious OCI. There is a lot of motion in this plot, with Faye Vierra driving cross-country through Oklahoma with a collection of new characters who seem to have been mostly introduced so they could get killed: Ian, Whisper, and Bolander, who is the first black character introduced into the story. Their travels are interrupted when Crow shows up and tries to capture them all, slowly assuming a massive demonic form before Bolander drives Crow off just before he seizes Faye and at the same time kills himself with one mighty blast of electrical energy that coincidentally cures the magical blight that had caused the dust bowl. Someone who was cynical might note that the singular black character introduced into the story becomes an example of the "beneficent magical black man who saves the white folk" trope, and couple this realization with the rather pronounced "yellow peril" themes contained in the story to perhaps find the whole tenor of the book somewhat off-putting. It doesn't really help matters that the reader is given little reason to care about Bolander before he dies, as he is basically a genial black man who accepts segregation with equanimity and can throw lightning bolts. As this story progresses, it becomes clear that Whisper has an ulterior motive for traveling with Faye: She had been sent to determine of Faye had somehow become the new "Spellbound", and if so, to kill her.
In the second story line, Jake Sullivan is lured from New York to New Jersey into a secret government facility where he receives a phone call from a dead man on an invention ascribed to Edison. One has to wonder why Tokugawa insists on only talking to Sullivan; after all, Sullivan had almost no role in Tokugawa's death, and only survived his fight with Madi because Madi kept having Sullivan brought back from the brink of death for Madi could beat him up some more. No matter the reason, Tokugawa informs Sullivan that the "Pathfinder" of the predator hunting the power that creates magic is on its way and that Sullivan has to warn the Iron Guard of the Imperium of the impending threat. Of course, no sequence in Spellbound is complete without gun play, so immediately afterwards government agents try to kill Sullivan, equipped with some sort of device that nullifies Sullivan's magic, although that proves to be only a modest impediment to his escape. After evading the government officers, Sullivan links up with his friends from the first book Dan, Jane, and Lance, and they head over to the Imperial embassy to try to pass on the warning. Things go about as well as one would expect, and they end up lobbing mortar shells at the embassy after Toru, an out of favor Iron Guard and second in command at the embassy, gets orders from a man who appears to be Chairman Tokugawa to kill the ambassador and the Grimnoir Knights. Oddly, even after Toru is given all of the ambassador's memories and knows that the Chairman is an impostor, he kills the ambassador anyway, and then sneaks away to join the Grimnoir Knights to help them against the Pathfinder.
In the final story line, Francis has turned his considerable financial resources to locating the manufacturer of the anti-magic device that both he and Sullivan encountered earlier in the book, eventually purchasing a company run by Buckminster Fuller, who is such a powerful "cog" that he can literally see magical geometry. The device Fuller has created, which he calls a "Dymaxion nullifier" turns out to be essentially a hand-waved device that reveals that the magic system integral to the book is basically nonsensical. Francis attempts to get Fuller to explain how the device works, and Fuller responds with a couple of paragraphs of magic-sounding meaningless arcanobabble. And soon it becomes clear that Fuller isn't going to utter any statements that are anything other than arcanobabble because Correia is not only too lazy to do any research, he's too lazy to come up with anything but gobbledegook as a framework for the magical structure that his entire book series is built upon. This sort of careless hand-waving and confusion runs throughout the book. Somehow the "Spellbound" curse got transferred from its previous holder to Faye, even though she was on an entirely different continent and had no magical powers of her own, but the exact nature of how this happened is hand-waved. Carr has apparently figured out how to drastically enhance the magical potential of people with a magical pattern imprinted on their skin, but exactly how this as figured out, and how it works is hand-waved (not to mention that none of the Grimnoir seem to think that maybe they should look into this sort of enhancement). Industrialists are depicted as both being willing to sell out the United States for a handful of gold, and at the same time portrayed as a potentially staunch and patriotic bulwark against government tyranny. This sort of sloppy, hand-waving and confusion is endemic in the story, probably because for the most part, it is fairly obvious that to the extent there is either a plot or world-building in the book, it is just to have a frame upon which to hang the bone-crunching fight scenes complete with loving descriptions of firearms and detailed accounts of how the protagonists have killed those who oppose them.
All three story lines eventually merge together, climaxing in the Grimnoir Knights launching a night-time assault on the OCI headquarters on Mason Island that eventually results in the destruction of the entire island and the unleashing of a massive Godzilla-sized demonic creature upon the city of Washington D.C. As an aside, Mason Island is, in our world, now named Theodore Roosevelt Island, and is the site of a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt. Given his little regard Correia seems to hold Franklin Roosevelt, I suspect that the selection of Roosevelt Island as the site for the OCI headquarters was intended as something of an oblique insult directed at the Roosevelts given that the island is magically annihilated as a result of the fracas. This also seems like a case in which Correia didn't bother to do much research, as there is a reason why no one has built an office buildings on the island - it is essentially little more than a frequently flooded pile of mud and sand anchored by some large rocks, and would likely be a disastrous site for any substantial construction. In any event, Sullivan and several other Grimnoir storm the island and kill off a bunch of faceless OCI guards before Crow shows up, his kind of magic being one of the few that is unaffected by the large Dymaxion the OCI uses to protect its installation. Meanwhile, Francis and Heinrich, having been captured and imprisoned earlier in the book by the OCI, manage to escape when Sullivan's team manages to knock out said Dymaxion, but not before Francis manages to inscribe a magical rune on the floor of his cell that seems to eat reality. Once the Dymaxion is knocked out, the Grimnoir gain the upper hand in the plodding and tedious fight: capturing Coordinator Carr, seizing incriminating documents, freeing the faceless magically inclined people the OCI was holding as prisoners to experiment upon, and destroying the magical robot-men OCI had purchased as additional guardians.
But an overlong and incredibly detailed firefight involving an assault against a secret government agency and the destruction of an entire island in the Potomac River was apparently not dramatic enough for Correia's tastes, so Crow attempts to possess the most powerful demon he had ever encountered, and is mentally overwhelmed by the creature, who then proceeds to stomp around Washington D.C. like a giant Toho movie monster. This sequence adds almost nothing to the book, but does give the author opportunities to describe all of the weaponry futilely deployed against the monster. In the end, Whisper kills herself to provide additional power for Faye's abilities, telling Faye that the modest amount of additional power she was deriving from the hundreds of non-magically inclined people killed in the grain demon's rampages were simply not enough to give Faye the power needed to defeat the creature. This is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, as with Bolander, the reader really has no reason to care about Whisper's sacrifice, because through the book her character was developed no further than "the pretty French lady with fire powers", although the reader is given a taste of Whisper's apparent vanity in her suicide when she reconsiders shooting herself in the head and instead shoots herself in the chest so that she will look good at her funeral. Second, as far as it is explained, Faye, as the Spellbound, gets the magical power of any person who dies in proximity to her. But how is simply transferring Whisper's power to Faye supposed to improve the situation? Unless the Spellbound somehow multiplies the power (and if it does this, why not skip the step where people have to die), then this seems to be a zero-sum transaction that gains nothing. Finally, Faye's eventually solution - to transport a bomb intended by OCI to be used to kill the members of an anti-Active demonstration into the giant demon - seems like it would be less effective than the massive amount of military ordinance that had been deployed against the monster already.
In the end, the giant demon monster is blown up, but not before the reader must slog through pages and pages of tedious gun-porn in which the guns are, ironically, woefully ineffective at actually doing anything useful. Despite all of the sound and the fury in the book, the only developments of any real importance contained in its pages are Sullivan's conversation with Tokugawa, and the revelation that Faye is the Spellbound. And those are almost trivial footnotes in the book - despite Tokugawa's warning, almost no progress of any kind is made towards finding and stopping the Pathfinder, and not only is Faye only revealed to be the Spellbound near the end of the book, the reader isn't even told what the Spellbound is or what their significance is until a similarly late portion of the story. Everything else in Spellbound is little more than pointless wailing and gnashing of teeth that serves as little more than filler to justify having a middle book in the trilogy. As with Hard Magic, if following the exploits of a collection of characters who are less well-developed than the guns they carry through a paper thin plot set in a standard-issue fantasy world seems enticing to you, then Spellbound is a book you will enjoy. Otherwise, there's not much here worth bothering with.
This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: Jake sets out with a small crew of Grimnoir Knights and pirates to take on the whole Imperium. Meanwhile, Faye figures out the secrets of magic. Then everyone starts shooting each other and Faye saves the world.
Full review: The mediocrity of The Grimnoir Chronicles plods forward to its explosion-filled but still fairly pedestrian conclusion in Warbound. All of the now familiar characters - Jake, Faye, Francis, Heinrich, Toru, and so on - all return to fill their now familiar roles in a thin plot that, as with the previous books, appears to exist solely to give the author an excuse to write fight scenes in which every gun that appears is specifically identified. After basically screwing around for most of Spellbound, this motley collection of characters fund and embark upon an expedition intended to foil the approaching magic consuming Enemy that had been hinted at in previous volumes. This being a Larry Corriea book, it should come as no surprise that their planned method of accomplishing this aim is to attempt to kill the leader of the nefarious Imperium and then shoot, burn, freeze, and club the Imperium's soldiers until they come around to the Grimnoir's way of thinking. Given this, no one should be surprised that the book, and the series, culminates in about seventy pages of near continuous fight sequences.
The first question that must be asked, given that this novel was essentially the flagship work of Correia's somewhat controversial "sad puppy" Hugo nominating ballot, is this: Is Warbound worthy of a Hugo Award? My answer is clear: No. This novel is simply not good enough to win a Hugo. In fact, I don't think it is good enough to deserve to be on the Hugo ballot. This isn't a bad book. It is, when one scrapes away all of the politicking that surrounded it, a competently written, fairly cartoonish adventure tale with a small amount of juvenile-level politics mixed in. The book's plot isn't particularly compelling, the writing isn't more than merely workmanlike, and there aren't any of the kinds of big ideas that one would expect from a Hugo nominated novel, and when one reads it alongside its competition for the honor, it's relatively weak plot, feeble world-building, and poor character development is painfully apparent.
The story in Warbound picks up shortly after the events in Spellbound, and proceeds along three paths. In the first, and most truncated, Francis, Dan, and Jane hold down the home front for the Grimnoir assisted by freshly minted Bureau of Investigations agent Pemberly Hammer. Francis butts heads with President Franklin Roosevelt, who demands that Francis' company turn over all of the Dymaxion Nullifiers in their possession and the plans to make them to the government, a demand that Francis refuses. Roosevelt also pushes for laws requiring Actives (as those who have identifiable magical powers are called) to wear identifying armbands and promotes building special communities for Actives to live in. All of this offends Francis, who decries the "collectivists" in government who want to steal his hard earned (or more accurately, completely inherited) wealth. This perpetual rallying cry of adolescent libertarians everywhere seems to be Corriea's the latest salvo in attempt to draw a nomination for a Prometheus Award, an effort that has proven unsuccessful thus far. This thread doesn't really add much to the story other than to explain where several characters who had appeared in previous books are spending their time in this one, but it is shunted aside and ignored for the bulk of the book. This is something of a disappointment, because if handled reasonably well the political maneuverings seem like they could have been an interesting part of the story.
In the second story thread, Faye Vierra, who was revealed to be the "spellbound" in the previous book and who everyone still thinks is dead, heads to France to witness Whisper's funeral and find the torch's former mentor the Grimoir elder Jacques Montand, who she introduces herself to in the manner that so many of the various characters in the series do: At the point of a gun. They eventually come to a truce and Montand sets about teaching Faye about the previous spellbound Anand Sivarim while alternatively urging Faye to kill herself and agonizing over whether to poison her. Eventually he takes her to Berlin so she can consult with a zombified seer about the shape of the future. After she collects a pile of the seer's artwork, she follows the cryptic clues therein to the Russian countryside where she confronts and kills Rasputin - who is a servant of the Enemy in addition to his unpleasant historical personality quirks. Rasputin turns out to be an Active, apparently with the power of a "Boomer" to make things blow up, but his powers seem to have been enhanced by his alliance with the Enemy such that he has the ability to disassemble matter at the molecular level.
This quasi-physics explanation of Rasputin's power, along with other elements of the story, does raise some questions that are never really answered in the book. In many parts of the story, Correia appears to be trying to create a kind of warped physics explanation for how magic works. "Heavies" can manipulate gravity. "Massives" and "fades" can manipulate density. "Iceboxes" can reduce temperature. And so on. Correia even uses this sort of warped physics as a means by which Fuller and Vierra are able to throw out some arcanobabble and unmask the Enemy and save the day in the climatic battle at the end of the book. But the quasi-physics breaks down when one looks at it in anything more than a perfunctory manner. If a "fade" is able to reduce his density to pass through things, and raise his density to solidify again, why is he unable to raise his density like a "massive" as well? Given that a 'heavy" can both raise and lower the intensity of gravity, why can an "icebox" reduce temperature but not raise it? How do the powers of a torch fit into this at all? Fire is just the rapid oxidation of combustible materials - a simple chemical chain reaction. If a torch can manipulate that, why can't they manipulate other chemical reactions? It seems that Correia wants to have his cake and eat it too: Positing at times a set of magical abilities that kind of fit together into a warped but somewhat recognizable version of physics, and at others a hodge-podge of random powers that seem to follow no underlying principles at all. This sort of lackadaisical approach to world-building is apparent throughout the series, and underscores the fact that everything about The Grimnoir Chronicles exists pretty much entirely to provide a perfunctory framework upon which the many pages of fight scenes can be hung.
This brings us to the third thread running through the book, which follows Jake Sullivan as he gathers some Grimnoir Knights, Pirate Bob's crew, some Stuyvesant employees, and a paroled sociopathic psychologist and heads out looking for trouble in the most advanced airship that Francis could provide. The crew that Jake has selected for this expedition is described as being almost exclusively male, with the only female member being Pirate Bob's long time crew member, the torch "Lady Origami". This exclusion of female members from the crew seems to be out of some sort of sentiment that manly men go to war and women are to be shielded from this sort of activity. But in a world in which magical abilities exist, this seems to be a kind of false chivalry as there is no question but that there are female characters in the Grimoir universe that have skills that make them more than a match for any man, and probably more valuable than many of the men that Sullivan takes along. The expedition brings a healer along, but he gets killed in the early going, leaving the force without medical assistance, which raises the question of why Jane was not brought along as a second healing option. When the mission needs to interrogate prisoners, or deal with underworld figures in Shanghai, or even those Grimnoir native to China, a number of trust issues crop up, a situation in which Pemberly Hammer would have been exceedingly valuable. In short, by chauvinistically excluding most women from his crew, Sullivan seems to have caused himself a fair amount of unnecessary trouble. If one were feeling charitable, one might think that this is an attempt to show the downside of sexism in this world, but given that Sullivan is repeatedly described as being always right, this seems unlikely. The real problem is that even though it seems fairly obvious that Sullivan is supposed to be completely correct in choosing an all-male crew, this sort of attitude doesn't make any sense in a magical world. After all, the existence of someone like Delilah in the first book, Whisper and Hammer in the second book, and Lady Origami in this book, as well as the presumably numerous other people like them would make it very difficult to argue that women are the "weaker" sex. Unless one were to posit that magical ability is unequally distributed by sex (and given the characters who populate these books, that seems to be a possibility, although that would pose an entirely different, albeit no less problematic, set of questions), then the persistence of an attitude such as that displayed by many of the male characters in the book seems to be an instance in which the author simply didn't bother to think through the implications of his setting.
In any event, Jake's expedition takes up the bulk of the book, with the other two previously mentioned story lines providing a sprinkling of variety at the edges. First, Jake heads for an Imperial installation in the Arctic Circle so that there can be a fight scene showing the Grimnoir slicing up their opponents before they recover a MacGuffin and Toru can sneak off to try to tell the Imperial pseudo-Chairman that the "Pathfinder" - the advance scout of the magic-consuming Enemy - is on its way, an effort that backfires. On the other hand, the pseudo-Chairman's response to Toru's efforts provides an assist Buckminster Fuller's arcanobabble-laden efforts to unravel the characteristics of the Enemy, making this something of an own goal on the pseudo-Chairman's part. After using the MacGuffin to determine that the Enemy is spread across the globe, and has infested the Imperium, Jake and his cohorts decide to do what they had planned to do from the start: Try to kill the pseudo-Chariman and get the Imperium to return to its original purpose as the "Dark Ocean" to destroy the Pathfinder and prevent the Enemy from coming to Earth and consuming the creature that bestows magic on humanity. Given that their sojourn in the Arctic didn't really change anything they planned to do, one wonders exactly why they went there other than to surprise and slaughter some Imperial soldiers. So after their Artcic encounter, the expedition heads to Shanghai where they sneak into the city, link up with the Shanghai Grimnoir Knights, make a deal with some underworld gangs, send Toru around town to kill a bunch of people in very public ways, get betrayed by one of their own, have a huge fight with the Shadow Guard in which Lance Talon has a heroic death and Toru gets captured. And then the book moves on to the final set of fight sequences, which, of course, are the entire point of the series.
Around about page 480, the final conflict starts, and between that point and about page 550, the characters are all pretty much continuously fighting with very brief asides to resolve a handful of plot points. Toru fights in a staged contest with the pseudo-Chairman. Pirate Bob takes his airship to the upper stratosphere so that Buckminster Fuller can use his freshly created arcanobabble driven device. Faye shows up just in time to join in the fracas and promptly destroys the Imperial flagship on her own - carrying a sizable bag of firearms that she cycles through mostly, it seems, so that Corriea can specifically identify each and every one of them. Eventually an armored Jake Sullivan and an armored Toru team up to fight enormous numbers of Iron Guard and Shadow Guard, who seem to fall in front of them like so many sheaves of wheat, which seems like something of a precipitous fall for the previously vaunted elite warriors of the Imperium. In Hard Magic the reader was told that the Grimnoir only take on members of the Iron Guard when the odds are at least five to one, and Sullivan's mostly single-handed defeat of one is considered to be a spectacularly amazing feat. Now, Toru and Sullivan armor up and take on a hundred of them plus a sizeable number of Shadow Guard and hundreds of regular troops, all at the same time. Granted, Sullivan is supposed to be magically enhanced by the magical tattoo used by the OCI in Spellbound, but when he is cutting down Iron Guard by the dozen, the book moves from over the top to ridiculously silly.
And the somewhat odd thing about this bloodbath is that it was not only probably not necessary, when one begins to poke at the ultimate resolution of the plot, it was actually counterproductive. It turns out that the Enemy needs a sufficiently large concentration of dead Actives to be corralled by a sufficiently large number of Pathfinder minions to receive the signal to move in to feed on the Power. This, at first glance seems like a result to be avoided, and Sullivan's strategy of attacking the psuedo-Chariman in Shanghai and Faye's efforts to hop about the world preventing massacres of Actives are aimed at preventing this outcome. of course, Faye misses one concentration and the Enemy launches itself towards Earth (through space it turns out, which kind of makes the Enemy seem like a cosmic Galactus and less like the trans-dimensional entity it and the Power were described as in earlier parts of the series). Faye intercepts the creature and, using the insight she gained from looking at an origami creation, sets a trap for it that results in the Enemy being permanently vanquished. But if the Grimnoir had been successful at foiling the Pathfinder, Faye could have never defeated the Enemy because it never would have begun its final approach. Which means that most of the actions taken by the Grimnoir in this book were at best pointless, and at worst, a hindrance that only made it harder to actually defeat the Enemy. In the end, of course, Sullivan is made an elder of the Grimnoir because "they should have been listening to him in the first place" despite his advice actually having not been particularly useful when one stops and thinks about it.
The novel has some other issues - for example, despite the fact that magical powers would presumably be a worldwide phenomenon and the Power has no reason to discriminate on the basis of geography, there isn't a single character in the book from either Africa or South America. Unless one of the English characters like Ian is supposed to hail from Australia, there isn't any "Active" from there in the book either. In fact, neither Africa or South America rates any kind of mention at all in the book. With the exception of a couple of Pacific Islands, the Southern Hemisphere as well not exist in the Grimnoir universe, and this is, yet again, an indication of how little thought was put into the world-building aspects of this story. While there are dozens of male characters running about the story, there are only four female characters in Warbound, and two of them, Jane and Lady Origami (or more accurately, Akune), exist mostly to be a wife or lover of a male character. And so on. In the end, the ultimate question is this: After upwards of 1,700 pages, are the Grimnoir Chronicles worth reading? I guess that depends on whether you are interested in reading an over the top comic book transformed into a novel filled with lots of two-dimensional characters, a facile plot, a lot of guns, and heaping helpings of fighting. If your answer is yes, then these are the books for you. If you care about things like world-building, well-developed characters, and a plot thicker than paper, then you should probably give them a pass.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: Remy's family has fled from the food-dystopia of the Okarian Agricultural Consortium, and Vale Orleán is determined to hunt them down. At least he is until he starts to pull aside the curtain on the Sector's dirty secrets.
Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.
Long review: The Sowing, the first book in the Seeds trilogy, is a young adult work of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction in which agricultural policy is the tool that ruling elite of the Okarian Agricultural Consortium use to impose their will upon their fellow citizens without most of them even knowing it. Against this nefarious ruling elite is pitted a tiny but determined Resistance whose members are desperately trying to solve a secret code that holds the key to topple the oppressive regime. Oddly, both the ruling Okarian elite and the members of the Resistance are drawn from the same social circle, leaving the downtrodden farmers and the shadowy outsiders mostly out of the picture.
The novel shifts between two main viewpoint characters. Remy is a member of the Resistance, living in difficult conditions, separated from her parents while enduring the tough regime of training to be a guerrilla fighter with inadequate food, shelter, or equipment. Not only that, the opening pages of the book detail the pivotal event that caused her family to leave their lives in Okarian society and join the Resistance: The brutal murder of Remy's older sister Tai and the rest of her class as they were in the middle of a lecture on DNA synthesis. Vale, on the other hand, is comfortably ensconced in the elite of Okarian society, and although his position in the Okarian military means that he has to endure rigorous training, he is otherwise comfortable and showered with all of the necessary and unnecessary comforts of life. The contrast between Remy and her circle of young Resistance members and Vale and his crowd of friends and hangers-on is made murky by the fact that prior to her sister's murder, Remy was part of Vale's social circle, and the two were even somewhat linked romantically.
The book is, in large part, carried by this shifting viewpoint which illustrates both the stark contrasts and disturbing similarities between the lives and Remy and Vale live, and where their outlook on the world differs and converges. And the early part of the book needs this, because one minor weakness of the novel is that the dystopian nature of the Okarian Agricultural Consortium is not readily apparent. We are told that the senior members of the Okarian government were behind the attack that killed Tai, and that Remy's parents spend their time educating workers on the Consortium farms of the dangers their government poses to them, but we aren't really told what those dangers are, or what secret someone would arrange to kill a classroom full of college students to protect until well into the book. As a result, it is somewhat difficult to understand the nature of the conflict or what is at stake. Eventually the perfidy is revealed: The Okarian elite have implemented a program in which they have, via genetic engineering, manipulated the diet of the populace so that those on the farms become stupid and strong, while the privileged elite eat food that is designed to make them more intelligent.
But that revelation is fairly deep into the story, and in the mean time, the reader is able to get acquainted with the two main characters and the cast that surrounds each of them. Each story line involves the central characters chasing down a separate goal, with Remy attempting to unravel a piece of encoded DNA left behind by one of her former professors and Vale assigned to plan and lead a mission to capture Elijah Tawfiq, a key member of the Resistance. As might be expected, these two separate plot lines are on a collision course, and eventually Remy and Vale are reunited, although under less than ideal circumstances. At that point, their stories intertwine briefly, and then each character's story then diverges again, with Vale's trajectory, at least, changed fundamentally by their meeting.
One interesting element to the story is that neither Remy or Vale seem much interested in the larger political issues in which they are embroiled. Remy's primary motivation to join the Resistance seems to be the murder of her sister. Vale's primary motivation to excel in his military position seems to be a wish not to disappoint his parents. In fact, until deep into the story, Vale seems completely perplexed as to why anyone would choose to join the Resistance, a stance that betrays a severe lack of self-reflection on his part. This similarity highlights one of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Because almost all of the main characters are drawn from the same social circle of members or former members of the favored elite of the Consortium, there is a kind of bland similarity to the characters and how they view the world. The books has no character who represents the view of the mysterious "Outsiders" until well into its pages, and even that character is only relatively briefly on stage - and is on stage in such a way that really doesn't provide the reader with any substantial information about who the Outsiders are, or what they might want. Similarly, there are almost no characters from the Consortium's farming communities, and the ones who are in the book don't show up until very near to the novel's end. The Sowing is, in some ways, similar to what one would get if you changed all of the viewpoint characters in The Hunger Games to teens from the Capitol.
In one sense, this singularly focused set of viewpoints is a weakness for The Sowing, as the characters attitudes towards the world around them has something of a monochrome aspect. However, this myopic set of viewpoints also works to the story's advantage, as it becomes apparent that everyone represented in the book share some fairly gaping blind spots concerning the world in which they live. Because all of the characters who are ostensibly on "both sides" of the conflict operate under a common set of assumptions, they, and by extension the reader, can be taken by surprise when they encounter a character who doesn't share those assumptions. And once the reader realizes that the conflict as presented is essentially an intra-family dispute between two halves of a single formerly close-knit social circle, the revolutionary nature of the Resistance seems to be somewhat questionable. While life might be somewhat better for the workers on the Consortium's farms should the Resistance prevail, no one seems to have even bothered to consult them on what they might want. And no matter which side wins, things are likely to remain the same for the Outsiders. The realization that the "revolutionaries" don't seem to have really considered interests other than their own gives this book substantially more depth than many other works of young adult dystopian fiction, and provides the possibility of a stronger, richer story in future installments.
Despite the somewhat monochromatic nature of the central characters, they are all likable in the way that only naive, idealistic youths can be. Though the story in the novel presents a fairly simple conflict between heroic freedom fighters and callous tyrants, the elusive hints of a larger and more complex conflict are what raise the novel above the ordinary. In the somewhat crowded field of young adult dystopian fiction, The Sowing is well-ahead of most others, and will be sure to entertain and intrigue anyone who enjoys this genre.
This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: Krina-114 is a bank historian in a post-human world tracking down the greatest banking fraud in history. To do this she needs to find her sister Ana, but along the way she has to deal with the corrupt clergy of the Church of the Fragile, accountant pirates, and and the paranoid ruler of a floating kingdom. After that, things get really dangerous.
Long review: To me, the most amazing thing about Neptune's Brood is that it is interesting. Sure, it is set in the same post-human future as Saturn's Children (although it is not a direct sequel, so not having read the first will not prevent one from enjoying this). Sure, it has killer androids, deranged clergy, paranoid despots, and ruthless space pirates. But the central plot of the story revolves around interstellar banking transactions, a subject that it would seem would be as dry as space dust, but in Stross' hands, this forms the basis for a tense and gripping tale of intrigue, mystery, and danger. Not only that, it is set in a future that is both very alien, and yet familiar enough to make the reader uneasy.
The story follows the travails of Krina Alizond-114, a bank historian who specializes in the history of banking frauds, as she tries to find her sister Ana so they can work together to track down the Atlantis Carbuncle, an item that will unlock vast wealth. As the book opens, Krina has just arrived at Taj Beacon, having beamed in expecting to meet her sister there only to find that Ana has traveled to the nearby water planet of Shin-Tethys without leaving any kind of explanation. This poses something of a problem for Krina, as she had arrived at Taj Beacon without substantial amounts of "fast money", and unwilling to draw the attention that would accompany converting her "slow money" reserve into usable currency. As a result, Krina accepts a working passage under aboard a mobile chapel of the Church of the Fragile under the authority of Deacon Dennett, the temporary leader of the mission.
This delay in Krina's plans allows Stross to discuss the two primary background elements of the novel: The nature of this post-human society, and how interstellar finance is handled in a world in which faster than light travel does not exist. Traveling on the Church of the Fragile - the local representatives of the sect dedicated to preserving and possibly reviving the "fragile" as the androids that populate the universe call humans (due to our easily damaged nature) - reveals just how different this world is from ours. Although Krina wears a human-looking body, this isn't her. In fact, it turns out that the body she wears at the opening of the novel was just created for her on Taj Beacon after she was transmitted from an entirely different star system (apparently as nothing more than a set of code sent on a light beam). One's identity is now stored in a "soul chip" placed inside the head of a body, which is why the high priestess of the Church of the Fragile isn't dead as the result of an on-ship mishap, but is merely incapacitated while Deacon Dennett generates a new body for her.
The other background feature of the story is interstellar banking, which is handled using "slow money", a form of currency that exists almost exclusively to finance interstellar expeditions to found new colonies. This "slow money" is contrasted in the book with "fast money" (which is what we would now normally consider "money") and "medium money" (which covers investments other than building colony ships and funding the needs of new colonies). But slow money is at the root of the interstellar financial system, and at the heart of the story. Because when a new colony is financed, it must go deeply into "slow money" debt, first to pay back the parent colony that sponsored the new one, and then to recruit new colonists to help with the new colony. But the only reasonable path for a colony to get out of slow money debt is to finance the construction of new colonies that will then be financially beholden to it as their parent. In short, slow money is something like a very slow-moving chain letter, and the colonies at the end of the line end up owing a pile of debt they can never hope to repay. The debt-centric nature of this future society even permeates to the personal level, as Krina reveals that people are born (or rather, created) owing a debt to repay their parent for the cost required to incubate and raise them.
One of the interesting unspoken facts about the world that Stross has created is that this "slow money" debt is, almost the sole driving force that for space colonization. In the post-human world where life spans are extremely long, the birth rate is consciously determined, and even if one's body is in a mishap that kills you there is a decent chance you can be brought back, there is no particular demographic reason for humanity to expand to the stars. As trading physical commodities between star systems would be prohibitively expensive, the only transactions between different colonies involve information and not material goods. The only real reason to finance and establish a new colony in another star system is to offload your own debt onto a new venture. This doesn't explain why or how the first extrasolar colony was founded, or how this colony was financed - the system Stross describes requires at least three inhabited star systems to work - but it is the underlying truth of how the system functions at the time the book is set.
It is against this backdrop that Krina's quest to unravel what she suspects to be the largest banking fraud in history is set. In a world in which interstellar banking looms over pretty much everything else, being a bank historian who specializes in studying the history of bank fraud is a relatively interesting subject, and Krina is clearly quite intelligent and understands the financial systems of her society quite well. But she is also an academic, and as a result, she is somewhat naive when it comes to the every day hazards that surround her. This combination of obvious intellect and naivete makes Krina a character that the reader can enjoy following about, but who is not so overly competent that she never makes missteps. And her missteps are often what drive the plot. When she takes passage on the Deacon Dennett's Church of the Fragile ship, Krina is oblivious to the lurking dangers that surround her, which in retrospect seem almost obvious. Krina is oblivious to the danger that pursues her, and even when she is taken in by the piratical "Count" Rudi of the Permanent Crimson Branch Office Five Zero, who is trying to locate Krina's sister Ana as his corporation had rather foolishly underwritten a large insurance policy on Ana, Krina is still more or less clueless concerning the direction from which the hazards to her life and freedom are coming from.
But to a certain extent Krina's story, as filled with intrigue, double-crosses, and misadventures as it is, is only the first layer of what makes Neptune's Brood interesting. When Krina reaches the water planet Shin-Tethys and lands in Nova Ploetsk in the Kingdom of Argos, she finds a nation ruled by the despotic and paranoid Queen Medea. But in a world in which one can make "children" who are little more than copies of oneself, a paranoid ruler can populate her bureaucracy with what amounts to one's own clones, ensuring their loyalty. And Queen Medea has done so, creating a self-reinforcing aura of paranoia in her government. But Medea isn't the only one - Krina's "mother" Sondra has herself created a collection of clones and almost clones to staff her bank, including the line that Krina comes from. Although not fully explored in the book, the idea of a world in which those with power can create clones and near clones of themselves to act as their own foot soldiers is both unsettling and, I would venture, a topic that would make for an interesting book.
This is not to say that the book is so filled with interesting world background that it lacks an equally interesting story. After surviving the intrigues of the Church of the Fragile, an assassination attempt by her own clone, and a kidnapping by a band of accountant-privateers, Krina finds herself pressed into service by the Nova Ploetsk police to assist their investigation into Ana's disappearance and presumed murder. In short order, Krina is abducted again, and this time her entire body is resculpted and she is dropped into the depths below the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Argos - because Shin-Tethys is a water planet, not only do the borders of nations have length and breadth, they also have depth, and the realm below Shin-Tethys is ruled by a communist collective made up of people who have not only adapted their bodies to allow them to live at crushing depths, but altered their minds so that they can function as part of a collective society. The sort of additive world-building in which mind-altered squid-people are integrated into the plot, is what makes this story so intricate and fascinating.
In the end, Krina exposes the largest banking swindle in history, which turns out to have its source a little too close to home to be comfortable. Because of the enormous financial stakes involved, the various players try to claim the prize to the best of their abilities, which range from comical ineptitude to unprecedented violence. In the end, the story wraps up in a satisfying manner with an interesting twist that ties off most of the loose ends. The primary weakness of the story is that Krina somewhat stumbles through many parts of the story as a result of nothing but blind luck, and only survives at several points because those around her think that she is more valuable alive than dead. This is mitigated by the fact that Krina is a likable character, and is clearly an expert in her own field despite lacking in "street smarts". With an oddly fascinating plot and a vividly imagined albeit somewhat disturbing future Neptune's Brood is an enjoyable and engaging book that is sure to entertain.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: Sally Mitchell died. But then she didn't. Now SymboGen pays all of her medical bills so they can study the genetically modified tapeworm inside her. And then things begin to get really creepy.
Long review: Sally Mitchell is a lucky woman. Well, she's not entirely lucky because she was nearly killed in a car accident. In fact, she was so badly injured in the accident that her brain stopped functioning and the doctors caring for her had brought her family in to discuss harvesting her organs for donation. But Sally has a SymboGen Implant - a genetically engineered tapeworm designed to release antibiotics and other medications in order to preserve her life - so she didn't die, but instead woke up right when the doctors were recommending turning off her life support. But now Sally can't remember anything from before the accident, and seems to have a new, entirely different personality. Maybe Sally isn't so lucky after all.
Parasite is a biological terror novel about the dangers that can be unleashed upon humanity as a whole by the hubris of a few. The novel is also about how willing people are to accept without much question a solution to their troubles that is probably too good to be true, and the terrible costs that such unquestioning acceptance can impose. The novel is also about the search for identity, as Sally Mitchell must grapple with the question of who she is now, as she retains no memories of who she was before the accident. These three threads weave together through the novel to the fairly obvious, but still extremely disturbing and unsettling conclusion.
As Sally Mitchell is the character at the center of the novel, the technology at the center of the novel is the genetically modified tapeworm she and millions of others carry in their gut. Manufactured by the biotechnology giant SymboGen, and marketed under the name the Intestinal Bodyguard, these living implants are something of a magic pill - keeping their hosts healthy by secreting chemical assistance to help combat everything from head colds to infected wounds. By the time of the events in the novel, these "intestinal bodyguards" have largely replaced most pills and shots, revolutionizing the field of personal medicine. Those implanted with this new technology no longer need to consult with a doctor when afflicted with an ailment, but instead can proceed with the confident assumption that their benign parasite will take care of the problem.
In the story itself, Sally is brought back from the brink of death, presumably by her implanted tapeworm. Because Sally's medical issues were so severe, her recovery is something of a mystery, and as a result SymboGen agrees to pay her ongoing medical costs so long as they can study her. When she woke up, Sally did not even remember basic life skills such as how to feed herself or how to speak and had to be remanded into the guardianship of her parents even though she was technically an adult. Despite the best care SymboGen's money can buy, six years after the accident, Sally still has no memories of her life from before the moment she woke up in her hospital bed. But if Sally has no memories of the twenty-something years she lived prior to her accident, can she truly be the same person she was before? Even though Sally appears to be a much kinder, nicer, and generally better person now than she had been before her near death experience, these differences still serve to unsettle and disturb her family.
Sally's crisis is set in a world in which other, even more disturbing things are taking place. People, it seems, are falling ill in a very specific way: First behaving erratically, and then falling into a coma from which they never recover. The medical community in the book is stumped, but the cause is fairly evident, at least from the perspective presented to the reader. In short, something is going wrong with the Intestinal Bodyguards, and it is also apparent that SymboGen is covering this fact up. Through the novel, SymboGen, and its charismatic and obviously overconfident CEO Dr. Steven Banks, is presented as a company that has enough power as a result of their unique position as the manufacturer of the Intestinal Bodyguard that they are able to get away with almost anything, including covering up a crisis that is a threat to the life of anyone with one of their products implanted in them.
The story stays focused on Sally while she attempts to deal with her own problems. Accompanied by her incredibly loyal and understanding boyfriend Nathan (who happens to be a medical researcher), Sally follows clues sent to her by a mysterious individual who promises to reveal what is happening, both to her and to the people suffering from the mysterious affliction that turns them into vicious, mindless automatons before they slip into a permanent coma. These clues are accompanied by excerpts from the incredibly creepy and extremely obscure children's book Don't Go Out Alone, a book that Nathan is surprisingly familiar with. The trail leads Sally to Dr. Shanti Cale, one of the missing founders of SymboGen, who had been presumed dead. Dr. Cale also turns out to be Nathan's mother, which is one of the elements of the book that seems a little bit too much of a pat happenstance. When this coincidence is combined with the coincidence that Sally's father is the commander of an Army unit investigating SymboGen, and Sally's sister is a medical researcher with that same unit, the entire book feels like it relies a bit too much serendipity.
One might also criticize the book on the grounds that the "big reveal" at the end of the book is telegraphed to the reader almost from the beginning of the story. But this transparency is not only not a negative element in the book, it is necessary to create the very tension that the story relies upon. The reader knows what has happened to Sally (especially after Dr. Cale's experiments are revealed), and what is happening in the world around her, even if the characters in the book do not. This dichotomy of information between the actors in the story and the reader reading about them serves to create the discordant pressure that builds until it is released in the brutal revelation that takes place in the final pages of the book. It is a mark of Grant's skill as a writer that she can essentially tell the reader what is going to happen almost up front in her story, and yet still craft a book that is still loaded with the high volume of suspense found in Parasite.
In the end, Parasite is a well-written and engaging techno-zombie thriller that approaches the subject from a biotech angle. Featuring a sympathetic and well-drawn central character, the story carries the reader through its somewhat predictable, but always interesting twists and turns, instilling into the read a rising sense of horror until the curtain is finally pulled back and one realizes exactly who one was rooting for through the book's pages. But this revelation really only serves to confirm what the reader probably already knew, leaving a final, deeply disturbing question: How could SymboGen (and, to be honest, Dr. Cale) not have already known what was revealed at the end? Given that there seems to have been almost no way for them not to have known, their silence on this subject through the book seems to be part of some sort of larger plan, a realization that should be disquieting to say the least. If you like stories about biotech induced terror, you will like this book. If you like stories about zombies, you will like this book. If you like stories filled with suspense, you will like this book. If you like all three, you will love this book.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: Dale Morton is an American craftsman, magically gifted and in the service of the U.S. Army. Then a mission assigned by the precognitive Sphinx goes bad and he ends up out of the service and on the run from the corruption within the heart of the Pentagon while trying to protect the Iranian woman he has fallen in love with.
Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.
Long review: Dale Morton is a man with problems. As a magically inclined soldier in service of the United States, he follows a long-standing family tradition. Unfortunately, part of his family history is somewhat checkered, and includes the "left-hand Mortons", a family branch that delved into dark magic in an effort to achieve immortality, and so no one trusts him or any of his relatives any more. More problematically, Dale is no longer able to completely control his own magic due to a dying curse placed on him by an Iranian sorcerer. Now, Morton is out of the Army trying to figure out who set him up on his final mission so he can exact revenge.
Tom Doyle's debut novel, American Craftsmen imagines a world that is similar to our own in most ways except that magic is real and "craftsmen", as the members of a handful of magically-inclined families are called, can manipulate its power. In the United States, these families are supposed to have made a bargain with George Washington to provide their services to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and have served the U.S. armed services ever since with their existence kept a secret from the general public. Craftsmen are given credit for raising the fog that helped Washington's army escape from Brooklyn Heights, and with panicking Confederate troops into accidentally fatally shooting Stonewall Jackson. And, we are told, in the United States craftsmen are prohibited from practicing their craft on their own: They are required to serve the government or forego the use of their sorcerous powers.
Through the pages of the book we are introduced to the scions of several magical families in addition to the Mortons, most notably Endicotts, and the Gideons, as well as the Hutchinsons, and the Attuckses. Each family has its own tradition and array of powers. The Endicotts are austere New Englanders, steeped in Puritanism and gifted with the power of command. The Gideons are magical trackers, employed to locate and hunt down rogue craftsmen. In a clever twist, Doyle asserts that the Gideon bibles found in nearly every hotel room in the United States are actually a magical monitoring system connected to the Gideon family. And then there are the "wild cards" - individuals who manifest magical powers but whose background is shrouded in mystery, perhaps intentionally. Among these is the Appalachian, a figure who inhabits and guards the sanctuary where the soul of America is kept. And then there are the "Sphinx", used by the Central Intelligence Agency to predict future possibilities, and "Chimera", used by the Department of Defense for much the same purpose.
It is in this world that Dale Morton's travails take place. After he is essentially forced out of service and barred from practicing his craft again, Morton retreats to his family home in Rhode Island. There, comforted by the ghost of his grandfather and the spirit of the house itself, Morton tries to figure out who is responsible for the disastrous mission that cursed him and caused him to be forcibly retired from Army service. Along the way, he runs into Scherie Rezvani, an Iranian immigrant, who then seeks his assistance so that she may acquire the skills that will allow her to return to her birth nation and fight against its oppressive regime. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Scherie is much more than she originally appeared to be, and her serendipitous appearance in Dale's life seems just a little too much of a lucky coincidence to be believable. But in the world of American Craftsmen magic is described as being the ability to affect probabilities so that the improbable becomes inevitable, which makes the unlikely seeming connection between Morton and Rezvani an example of the power contained in the the collection of countervailing nudges from Sphinx and Chimera.
Morton's efforts, of course, are not unopposed, and as the layers of intrigue are revealed one by one, the nature of the opposition shifts and changes. The most obvious foil for Dale are the Endicotts, as both the politically powerful General Oliver Endicott, and his son Major Michael Endicott harbor a deep mistrust of the Morton family. Both Endicotts (somewhat justifiably) believe that all Mortons are one step away from taking the "left-hand" way and indulging in unspeakable acts of depravity. But General Morton goes one step further: He's convinced (at least in part by communications from Chimera) that Dale has given in to the "left-hand" already, and that the Morton line must be ended. In the Endicotts Doyle has created a pair of characters of a type that are generally difficult for authors to pull off well - misguided but well-intentioned antagonists. Both General and Major Endicott start the book feeling that their distrust of Dale is entirely justified, and their efforts to work against him are the right thing to do. But in Doyle's hands, these two characters are believable and interesting "good" antagonists, although Major Endicott's character arc is, ultimately, much more interesting than Oliver's.
Though the plot is somewhat convoluted, with multiple twists and turns, apparent betrayals that turn out to be cunning stratagems, and actual betrayals from unexpected places, it flows fairly well, and in a manner that both feels plausible and unpredictable at the same time. Morton and Revzani wend their way through the double-crosses and double-double-crosses, unraveling the threads of the conspiracy they find themselves hunted by, until at the very end they peel back what they believe to be the final layers and emerge apparently triumphant. But even then, while they relax in their victory, the seeds of the next conflict are sown in the final pages of the book. Along the way, Doyle shows the reader glimpses and snippets of the magical world hidden within the real one, pulling back just enough of the curtain veiling the secrets of the craftsmen and their disjointed and heavily regimented society to make the story hang together, but still preserving enough mystery to leave the reader wanting more.
Although the novel is quite satisfying, there are some elements that are mildly bothersome, or at the very least unsettling. One plot hole that runs through the novel involves the contents of the Morton family house's basement. While the basement is the afterlife prison of the "left-hand" Mortons, it turns out that some rather critical members of that line are not present, although everyone, including Dale, his father's ghost, and his grandfather's ghost, are all certain that they are. This seems somewhat unlikely, since all of the Mortons are very concerned about the whereabouts of their nefarious ancestors, and are also very certain that they are safely tucked away in the nether regions of their family dwelling. The fact that they simply aren't there and no one noticed seems almost entirely implausible.
The second issue isn't really a plot hole, but is an unsettling aspect of the world described in the novel: The almost unquestioned complete government control over the lives of the members of the magically-inclined "fighting families". Subjected to mandatory government service, denied the use of their natural abilities in any other form of employment, threatened with arrest and secret trial for treason if they contravene these rules, and so on, the craftsmen live their entire lives beholden to the whims of government. And those whims are carried out behind closed doors, entirely out of the public eye, allowing individuals like General Endicott to make almost arbitrary decisions to assassinate another craftsman heavily colored by his personal dislike of the target. Not only that, but the members of the families are intentionally kept separate from one another, making them vulnerable to being picked off one by one, and allowing distance to permit old feuds to fester. This pervasive secret government control, to me, is more disturbing than the idea that there are people who can magically control the weather. A system that hides from public view is almost certainly a corrupt system, and the system that controls the "fighting families" is rotten to the core. And this goes almost entirely unremarked upon. There is a passing mention that this might not be such a good idea near the end of the book, but the comment is aimed at the policy of keeping the "fighting families" separate from one another, not the all-encompassing influence the government exerts over the craftsmen.
These quibbles aside, American Craftsmen is quite a good urban fantasy story. Set in an engaging world and populated by likable heroes, cantankerous allies, and villains that range from misguided to vile, the book is, all puns aside, a well-crafted tale of intrigue and adventure. It also appears to be the first in a series, which, given the strong nature of this volume, is excellent news. Anyone who likes their fantasy set in the "real" world and mixed with decent helping of military adventure will almost certainly enjoy this book.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.
Short review: Lucky Linderman is a teenager with problems - a father who is a turtle, a mother who is a squid, an aunt who is zoned out on pills, an uncle who hides in his weight room, and a grandfather who he visits in dreams in a POW camp in Laos. And everyone thinks he's the problem.
Long review: My brother maintains that no one can write a teenager as well as J.D. Salinger. I believe that my brother is wrong. No one can write a teenager as well as A.S. King. No one captures the combination of confusion, anger, boredom, and intense, bewildering feelings like she does. And in Everybody Sees the Ants, King's talents are on full display as she recounts the story of Lucky Linderman, a persistently bullied teenager whose morbid investigation into suicide results in a panicked reaction from his school and the adults in his life. Lucky is also afflicted with apparently uncaring parents and haunted by the memory of his grandfather - who disappeared in Vietnam before Lucky's father was even born.
Lucky Linderman is a fairly ordinary high school freshman. He's not big, or strong, or popular, and doesn't possess any of the other attributes that serve to make a high school kid stand out in a way that makes the experience more tolerable, and consequently he gets pushed around by Nader McMillan, a bully who has been tormenting Lucky for years. Lucky's parents don't get along - not so much because they fight, but rather because they both seem so indifferent to one another, and in their cold war, they generally seem to simply neglect Lucky. On the whole, however, Lucky is generally no different than many other teenagers who get dragged to the pool all summer so that their mothers can swim laps to work off their frustration.
Like most teenagers, Lucky makes mistakes out of foolishness and naivité, but in Lucky's case, his mistake is a very public one: As part of an assignment that requires taking a survey and presenting the results, Lucky decides to poll his fellow students about how they would commit suicide if they were to do it. This provokes a reaction from the school administration, which quashes his project and calls in Lucky's parents, both of whom react in very different ways to the supposed crisis. Lucky's mother, who he calls "the squid" presses forward with her regimen of relentlessly swimming laps to avoid dealing with the problems in her life, while his father, a chef whom Lucky calls "the turtle" reacts by spending much more time at work, pulling in his head in the hope that the difficulties will pass him by. Lucky's father tells him to deal with Nader's bullying by simply ignoring it, advice that simply boils down to "hunker down in your shell and it will pass". And everyone has their own idea of what Lucky "should" do, even the ants that speak to him, acting as something of a Greek chorus.
The ordinariness of Lucky's outer life creates a stark contrast with his inner life, which is dominated by the memory of his deceased grandfather. Early in the book Lucky recounts his activist grandmother's dying request to Lucky, asking him to help her missing husband find his way home. This is, obviously, an impossible burden to place on a child, and it profoundly affects Lucky, who has recurring dreams of going to the jungles of southeast Asia on "rescue missions". It is these dreams that skirt the border between fantasy and reality, as Lucky tries to rescue his missing grandfather while receiving advice from a man he has never met in the flesh. One might be tempted to dismiss these dreams as delusions or wishful thinking, but during his sojourns in the Laotian jungle his grandfather always seems to pass along some snippets of wisdom and every time Lucky wakes up, he has something tangible that he "brought back" from the dream world. These artifacts are what adds an intriguing ambiguity to this element of the book: Is Lucky merely imagining himself working to rescue his grandfather, or is he really engaged in a spiritual extrication?
Eventually an act of everyday heroism results in retribution that leaves a visible scar on Lucky's face. despite being willing to endure Nader's bullying himself, Lucky simply cannot stand by while Nader bullies someone else. This precipitates a larger crisis in Lucky's family that results in his mother taking him with her to visit her brother in Arizona, which is, as Lucky explains, the only place she could arrange for them to go on short notice that had a pool. Once there, Lucky discovers that the screwed up nature of his family is not unique. His Uncle Dave spends his time away from home or isolated in his garage weight room while Lucky's Aunt Jodi is addicted to bad food, the Dr. Phil Show, and pills that she may or may not need. Lucky is drawn to Dave's seemingly manly pursuit of muscles and his allegedly sage advice concerning women. He is, at the same time, repulsed by Jodi's intrusive but well-meaning meddlesome attempts to "fix" him. But as the story progresses, Lucky learns that the lives of adults are often just as confusing and screwed up as his.
But Lucky's story really develops when he forms a friendship with Ginny, a beautiful older girl (in the sense that a high school junior is "older" than a high school freshman) who has a career as a model and a contract to advertise shampoo. Lucky is somewhat awestruck by Ginny, considering her worldly and wise in a way that only a high school freshman can consider an upperclass high schooler to be worldly and wise. And while Ginny's life seems to be perfect at first glance, her family is, in its own way just as screwed up as Lucky's and she harbors much of the same confusion and resentment that he does. While she expands Lucky's horizons, in part by introducing him to the clandestine production of The Vagina Monologues she is performing in, and in part by her singular public act of rebellion, she is at best an unreliable guide to adulthood.
Ultimately, Everybody Sees the Ants is thae story of Lucky blindly groping towards his own identity. For much of the book, he is defined by others. The adults around him see him as a suicidal kid. Nader sees him as a target. His grandmother sees him as a means of freeing her long-lost husband. For his dreamed grandfather, he is a means of salvation. For Uncle Dave and Aunt Jodi, he is a project - someone who they can fix. It is only when Lucky realizes that everyone else sees the ants too and are no better equipped to cope with life that he is able to forge his own path. In some ways, the story is about choosing which advice to take and which parts of your past to honor, but it is also a story about letting go of things that keep you from moving forward. No one is able to capture the brutal and glorious paradox of growing up like A.S. King does, and this book is a brilliant, tragic, and touching example of her doing exactly that.
This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds.