this is part of as days pass by, by Stuart Langridge

Books I acquired (and have reviewed) in 2016

November 2016

Hammers on Bone goodreads

Cassandra Khaw

Weird little novella. Quite a lot shorter than I realised (because I thought it was a novel), and sorta on the edge of Lovecraft if you take out the cosmic bit of the cosmic horror and make a many-tentacled being of Yuggoth also be an unpleasant factory worker who beats his wife. I am unsure what to think of this, but I didn't enjoy it much.

A City Dreaming: A Novel goodreads

Daniel Polansky

Not actually a story. This is a collection of loosely-interconnected short stories about M, magician who gives no shit at all. They're entertaining enough to read -- this is magic, but of the sort that has John Constantine riding the "synchronicity highway" in The Books of Magic, not of Harry Potter shouting "expelliarmus!" at people; think someone who's just sorta generally lucky -- but a bit hollow. I dropped out of the far end not really caring what happened to M next, nor particularly interested in reading more. Urban fantasy, I suppose, but with distinct emphasis on the "urban"; everyone's grungy and constantly hanging out in bars and being unpleasant and it's just not that much fun to read about.

Kill Process goodreads

William Hertling

This reminds me of the Daniel Suarez books. It's written by someone who clearly is a techie -- Hertling describes himself on Twitter as being a Web strategist (which seems OK, since I'd probably call myself the same thing) and a Ruby developer (nobody's perfect). It's from a small press rather than a major, which is nice because it means I can get it DRM-free from Smashwords.

Hertling is writing about today's world, but all the big companies have alternate names. So, the hero of this story works at "Tomo", who are Facebook. Mentioned in passing are "Avogadro" who are clearly Google (and I believe he's written a bunch of other books about this Avogadro Corp as well), "Braeburn" who are Apple, and so on. This tissue-thin disguise requires a tiny amount of decoding, but anyone who is even close to the tech knowledge required here will not have a problem. This book is heavy, heavy on technology. Now, I didn't have a problem with any of it (and it's rare to find something like this which doesn't shy away from the detail while still being real), but it's hard to tell how much someone who isn't me would get lost by all the throwaway talk about SQL injections and so on. But, if you're on my side of the fence, you'll enjoy the detail. That's good stuff. A diversion into the IndieWeb ideas of POSSE is rather excellent too.

I also think that if you're not a techie yourself you'd be pretty shocked by the level of access that "Tomo" have to data; they can root through everything about you, whether you actively use it or not since the app snoops heavily on everything you do, and more importantly they know this and know how to mine their gargantuan database for best results. Again, someone coming from the same place as me is not likely to be particularly shocked; Snowden opened our eyes to this sort of thing.

A warning: the book deals with domestic abuse. No incidents are particularly graphically portrayed, and the abuse isn't actually a centrepiece of the book in itself, but Angie, the hero, is a survivor of abuse and the story is told from her point of view. This does, at times, make it difficult reading, although frankly reading about this sort of thing ought to be difficult and more importantly that shouldn't stop all of us from doing it.

That aside, there are two issues I have with the book as a whole. Neither are enough to invalidate anything I said above, but they do both separately and in combination rather colour my experience reading.

The first is the book's rather ambivalent attitude towards some of Angie's activities. Without spoiling, she takes a set of exceptionally extreme actions at various points. She believes they're justified, but, well... there's little to no attempt either in-universe or at a meta level to put the other side of that case. Even after moving on from the early extremes, she routinely and unblushingly reaches for some exceedingly invasive and unpleasant techniques, only occasionally even bothering to say "the ends justify the means" inside her own head. I'd have liked to have seen more nuance there. Joe Abercrombie's Last Argument of Kings asks whether the Devil knows he is the Devil, and it might be a question worth asking Angie as well.

Now, I'm not necessarily calling for all bad people to be punished -- this isn't a childrens' fairy-tale -- but the book kinda is, and that's my second complaint. It all goes rather Hollywood. In real actual life, there aren't actually that many moustache-twirling Disney villains. Here, the first two thirds of the book are accurately depicting that -- Angie's troubles are real. She's fighting for funding; she's finding it hard to hold everything together; she's alienating friends when she doesn't want to but can't find a way to get everything she wants done to get done. I sympathised with her rather a lot; this is how the world is, where your problems come greyly on a list and the thing you fight is bureaucracy and indifference and being squashed between the spinning wheels of money with little regard or interest paid to your plan and how much you want it. There isn't a Bad Guy who breaks off from tying damsels to the railroad tracks to cackle and individually target you, and that means that you can't win by revealing that the Bad Guy is in fact a Bad Guy and get him arrested. That's what happens in films, where you want a big swelling crescendo of music and we see the hero win through in the end. Life is not like this. We do not live in the universe from The Mighty Ducks. The bad people don't throw children into jet turbines for a laugh. I know it makes for a good story, and if I'm in the mood for that sort of story then it's good reading. Garion beats Torak; Thomas Covenant beats Lord Foul; everyone gets married and lives happily ever after. But Kill Process is not a fantasy story. The majority of the book is relentlessly real; that reality is totally compromised by how Angie wins at the end like she's Simba getting Scar ousted and sent to the hyenas. So I don't know how to feel about it all. Did I like the tech? Yes. Did I learn something about Angie's situation, and how it might be to see life through those eyes, and perhaps sympathise more than I did before? Yes. But her struggles feel cheapened by the childish quality of the total victory where she pulls off the ghost's mask and it turns out to have been Old Man Withers trying to get the orphanage shut down. Real stories don't actually end with the protagonist "winning". Admittedly this is a story and life isn't a story and nobody buys books that just look like the life they live every day -- you don't need a book for that, just read your own diary. Having Angie "win" by fighting off a hostile takeover bid and then getting to 6% of the market and sticking there, never going above that, would have been something like a documentary rather than a thriller. But the book doesn't know what it wants to be; a hard-nosed tale of technological espionage and startups, or a child's book where the hero gets two hundred billion dollars and vindication while the bad guy goes to jail. If anything, it's too easy. If you want to bring down "Tomo" through the power of the IndieWeb (which I am entirely in favour of), you're not gonna get to do it by getting "Lewis" the CEO banged up for procuring murders. It cheapens the message to suggest that that's the way. That would be easy.

There's a good book here though. If you're into tech, recommended. If you aren't, read it and let me know if it makes any sense to

Broken Homes goodreads

Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of London #4)

Fourth in the Rivers of London series, and we finally get to see Nightingale do something other than Know Stuff That We Do Not. Peter Grant continues to learn things, and the level of research and thought that goes into this stuff becomes more apparent: not being an actual Londoner (Birmingham is a way nicer city), I assumed that Skygarden was real and so was its architect until reaching the afterword. I shall continue to read these to find out more: I wouldn't mind some sort of resolution to the whole thing with Lesley's face, mind, although (handwavily, to avoid spoilers) perhaps that's coming, given the end bit. And what's behind the door with the circles?

The Hanging Tree goodreads

Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of London #6)

After the disappointing Foxglove Summer, this has Peter Grant right back on form. I think he's right: he's better in London. More of the same -- Grant snark, accurate-sounding minutiae of Met procedure, distinct lack of heroics -- but I could read stories like that all day and all of the night, and The Hanging Tree has it all in spades. We also get quite a lot of actual plot advancement too, which is good, and Nightingale kicks some more arse when it's required. I'd very much like to read a book from his PoV, but it would be the biggest set of spoilers in all creation and so probably won't ever exist. As with all urban fantasies of this type, you do start to wonder how the masquerade ever gets sustained when it's this thin -- half the coppers in the Met seem to know something about Falcon -- but that's small. And I liked the end bit with Ty. More of this, please, Mr A.

Also, if you're looking for an idea, actually write the Procedures Relating to Special Falcon Incidents Word doc that Peter has to put together, and stick it on your website. That would be an excellent read.

Time of the Twins

Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (Dragonlance Legends #1)

Almost as vital to understanding Dragonlance as the actual Chronicles. Everyone loves Raistlin.

War of the Twins

Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (Dragonlance Legends #2)

The dread middle volume of the trilogy.

Test of the Twins

Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (Dragonlance Legends #3)

Raistlin finally pulls off the last big score, and destroys everything in his attempt to own it. This particular message has stuck in my head and made me wary of such an outcome since I first read this thirty or so years ago.

Return of the Straight Dope goodreads

Cecil Adams & Ed Zotti

Excellent collection of Straight Dope columns, although they're all available online now anyway.

Holy Blood, Holy Grail

3 authors

OK, I know it's all bull. But I care not. It's a fun read: don't read it because you think it might be the truth, read it because it's interesting, and to admire the amount of research they put in. (Even if it's half made up, making up stuff is not easy; ask any fiction author.) They're a bit too fond of two devices: the "there's no evidence for sausage rolls having been brought to us by aliens, but wouldn't it answer a lot of questions, eh?" and "it would take too long to enumerate the reasons but it's clear to us that the Alien/Sausage Roll conspiracy is well-founded in contemporary documents", but that's pretty common in this sort of book (Alternative 3 does it too).

Only Forward goodreads

Michael Marshall Smith

Very excellently quotable for the first half. It goes a bit weird and mystic later on, a trend that future MMS books continued, and after spending the first bit wanting to be Stark you realise that Stark doesn't want to be Stark and explains why and then you're a bit sad about it all. You really ought to read this if you haven't already.

The Mistborn Trilogy goodreads

Brandon Sanderson

Hand on heart? I enjoyed the first book, and I double-enjoyed the annotations that Sanderson has on his website. But...I didn't read the other two. I just couldn't face it, and I'm not sure why. It was more interesting to read about the whole Ruin and Preservation story than it was to actually read the story itself, which is some sort of failure to grab my interest. I am not as keen on Sanderson as I feel like I ought to be.

Cleverly worked out details of how all the magic works, though. I am told that this sort of detailed planning is what Sanderson does well. Still, I'm not sure I'll read others.

October 2016

Rampage

John Sandford & Michele Cook (The Singular Menace #3)

Final book of this YA trilogy. The good team win, not that we're surprised. I've been whipsawed with this whole trilogy between thinking of it as a Sandford book and as a YA book. Like, the characters and the dialogue and the action are Sandford, but the plot is YA: not that young-adult books don't have good plot, but they have to have a cherry on top. It's not enough to save the town, you have to save the world. The plan that the black hats have in this series was bad enough -- take innocent people off the streets and destroy their brains so that the rich can live forever -- without the escalation in this last book. Shay and the gang did manage to stop Singular, good. They also managed to stop the final part of the Singular plan, which to me felt massively uncalled for; a plot twist that was barely even foreshadowed, and felt like it had been pulled out of someone's hat, or perhaps some other place also round and inappropriate to find plots in. And Shay getting the.. opportunity she does at the end is in keeping with the plot, but again a bit overegged. Perhaps that's what defines a YA book? Like a TV but with the contrast turned right up, so all the colours are really bright and all the dark corners are really shadowy and there's no grey bits?

September 2016

The Fall of the House of Cabal goodreads

Jonathan L. Howard (Johannes Cabal #5)

The final Cabal. I really like this series, and I've got a lot more into it since first read; Cabal's gradual reluctant acquiration of the barest edges of humanity has humanised him (ha!) juuuuuust enough that his sardonic approach is excellent. Also, the author recommends you read the short stories before launching into this (he's gone full-bore Snicket in authorial asides now, which is a joy to behold) and he's not kidding, otherwise you'll have no idea who one of the major characters is. A good proportion of previously-appearing faces reappear here, and it's good to see them again. A fitting close to the series, and now I'm going to read them all again.

This has a lot of the same dreamlike mystic qualities as The Fear Institute did, so if you preferred the brass steampunk vibe of Detective then you might not like this as much. I was expecting a couple more Eugenides moments from Cabal where it turns out that He Knew All Along What Was Going On And Ahahaha but I can live without.

Thought: can't they just go through the Ways again? But that would deprive us of the bittersweet ending, which would be a net loss.

The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics

Daniel Abraham

Fun short story by Abraham, who people keep recommending to me and I keep failing to get into. I liked how the world, well-drawn as it was, supported the rather spiritual sort of denouement.

The Elements of Eloquence goodreads

Mark Forsyth

Genuinely entertaining list of the methods of rhetoric, with examples and discussion. Understanding the bones of how this stuff works will make you a better writer. And Forsyth has a nice skill in writing self-demonstrating sentences.

August 2016

Raising Steam goodreads

Terry Pratchett (Discworld #40)

Railways come to the Discworld. This is quite a bit less nuanced than previous Discworld books; the bad guys are just bad guys. There's little to no complexity here. Perhaps influenced by world politics and religious terrorism, of course. And it was nice to see the Simnels back again; a subtle callback for those of us who've been reading Pratchett forever. There are occasional signs that Vetinari is human, too; he's probably more entertaining to read about when he's The Guy With The Plan and basically wins always, but quite a bit less realistic. And I'm not sure how steam trains fit in with the Undertaking being powered by a cube. So, not one of the best, but average Pratchett is still better than most other stuff.

The Shepherd's Crown goodreads

Terry Pratchett (Discworld #41)

An end for Granny Weatherwax. But I never really got on with the Tiffany Aching books, for some reason. And this one wasn't actually finished when Pratchett died, so I feel less conflicted about not liking it all that much.

Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age goodreads

Cory Doctorow

A collection of essays on copyright and so on. More of what you expect from Doctorow, all of which is compelling to me and well written and yet doesn't seem to convince the people who need to actually make a difference here, but it's good to have another book you can give to people so they might understand.

Around the World in Eighty Days goodreads

Jules Verne

Did you know that the Reform Club is real? I didn't. Anyway, Verne is famous for a reason, and the reason is that he's good at this stuff. Not great at character -- Fogg immediately setting off after the opening discussion rings unrealistic today, let alone then -- but his books are fascinating.

The Cygnus Virus goodreads

T.J. Zakreski

A chap on an alternate-but-similar Earth installs SETI and accidentally downloads a powerful lunatic from our Earth who was sent into space to pay for his crimes. Whereupon we follow the story of that chap, who by turns indulges his every whim as made possible by the lunatic and rebels against him.

This is difficult reading at times. It's almost stream-of-consciousness stuff; attempting to follow Joyce works like this sometimes, as well as esoterica like The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons. Entire chapters are written in argot or as thought processes, and there's an underlying thread of the major arcana from the tarot which never really makes it to the fore.

Despite being theoretically sci-fi, this is really a character study presented on the backdrop of a world roughly but not entirely like ours; there's some fun in identifying the parallels (the Cloth is the Shroud of Turin, as Cygnus explicitly calls out, but there are many other small differences thrown in without comment), but it's about how an ordinary person is confronted with huge issues and, essentially, buckles under the pressure. This is realistic, but not necessarily great reading; our hero is no hero, and the conclusion to draw is that life basically sucks. Even if an intelligence from beyond the stars gives you everything you ever wanted.

There's also a fair amount of fairly explicit sex, as a warning to people who don't like that sort of thing.

I read the whole book, and if Zareski tones down the stylistic touches with accents and with stream-of-consciousness (my own brain works like this, certainly, but I'm not sure I want to read it about others; see john Sandford in Broken Prey talking about "Ruffe's Radio" for how to illustrate this in prose in a way that isn't disorienting) then I'd read another as well.

This book was given to me via NetGalley.

Sex, Death, and the End of the World goodreads

Timothy Perper & Martha Cornog

Odd little collection of short stories. Gaiman once wrote one about an old woman who bought the Holy Grail in a junk shop and then just left it on the mantlepiece and kept having Sir Galahad visit her to acquire it. Discombobulating: two types of story which are an uneasy mix, and make you think, huh? what? Well, if you liked that story, you'll like these. There are some nice turns in here -- I liked the ending of the one with the woman and the coffee place the most -- and some which are likely to have you scratching your head a bit, which is not a bad average for a book of short stories. The first story, about a Lord's magnificent organ (which is precisely what those of you with gutter minds will have imagined) does not necessarily set the tone for the others; the afterword notes that both the authors are frequent writers on sexuality and that that populated many of the stories, but to be honest I didn't notice that. Gods show up more than organs do.

I was sent this via NetGalley.

Blue and Gold goodreads

K. J. Parker (Saloninus #1)

The first Saloninus novella; just as clever as the second, The Devil You Know. Saloninus is an ancient philosopher type, something like Socrates, who has a habit of doing tricksy things as part of a big reveal at the end of his stories. I wish there were more of these.

The Devil You Know goodreads

K. J. Parker (Saloninus #2)

Smart novella by, it turns out, Tom Holt! A moral philosopher -- Socrates type, or at least that sort of ancient world era -- makes a deal with the devil, but it becomes apparent that he's up to something; indeed, the devil in question muses that "it was as though he'd put up a big painted sign saying UP TO SOMETHING and was sitting directly beneath it". Pretty clever, all in all. 

July 2016

The Rook goodreads

Daniel O'Malley (Checquy Files #1)

Words. Words are important.

A perfect example of this is The Rook. It's about a secret British semi-governmental organisation responsible for supernatural things. Like the Laundry in the Stross books, except not like the Laundry. They operate at a high level, have been around for hundreds of years, are intimately entwined with the governance of the UK. And they're called the Checquy. That's an excellent name for such a group. By itself, that word summons up a feeling of ancient aristocratic bloodlines, of moving in the circles of the nobility, of history and secrecy. I'd have spelled it "chequy", but it's still fabulous. Choosing le mot juste is a massively underrated skill in authors; the best ones manage to pick every word so that that word puts into your head a whole bunch of associated ideas about what they're describing without ever having to say them. Pratchett could do this. Gaiman. Patrick Rothfuss speaks at length about how he agonises over his "anormal word usements" for exactly this reason; look at how Auri's chambers are called Cricklet or Billows, words that tell you, sorta, what they're about without ever saying it. Words are important. Daniel O'Malley clearly is reasonable at this skill.

This makes the few unBritish wordings harder to bear. Phrasings that grate on the ear if you're actually British. Gaiman talks about how "car parks" become "parking lots" in his American translations; O'Malley, who is after all Australian and therefore shouldn't be expected to be immersed in English in the same way as someone here, is careful with words and with story but occasionally stumbles. At one point a retainer refers to Sir Henry Wattleman as "Sir Wattleman", which is wrong, wrong, wrong -- Sir John Smith might be Sir John Smith or Sir John but never, ever Sir Smith. Someone opines that "none of the people in this room are old enough to have a checking account", which is a peculiarly American phrasing -- nobody British would even recognise what a "checking account" is. Myfanwy, our hero, wonders whether if she "can still drive a manual", but nobody here would refer to "a manual"; cars here are all manual, and "an automatic" is the abnormal thing. A manual-shift car is just a car.

In some other book, these things wouldn't jar as much as something written to be so quintessentially British.

But let's pass over these minor unBritish word usages, which are disconcerting but at worst venial rather than mortal sins. Myfanwy Thomas lost her memory but knew ahead of time it would happen and so wrote a detailed series of letters to her post-amnesia self. I can't help but be reminded of The Raw Shark Texts, where "the first Eric Sanderson" wrote to the second, that being himself after memory loss. It's quite compelling as a storyline and also an undeniably good way to explain to the audience a whole bunch of the back story in the guise of explaining it to the protagonist. And it works well here, too. Thomas is a Rook, one of the eight ruling members of the Checquy, the secretive government agency responsible for the supernatural. O'Malley shows a talent in thinking up weird supernatural occurrences which are the Checquy's responsibility and then throwing them in as side-issues to give us a sense of the breadth of the organisation's responsibilities; the list of inhuman talents exhibited by Checquy personnel is both hugely diverse and hugely illustrative.

It's hard to see how this would be read by someone who isn't British. But if you are, and you like the idea of supernatural talents in this existing world, and that of conspiracies and secret societies with historical pedigree, you'll like this. I do, and I did. The denoument is a bit out of nowhere, but maybe that's just my resentment at failing to recognise who the blue-eyed woman was. Anyway, you should read this. It's really good.

Stiletto goodreads

Daniel O'Malley (Checquy Files #2)

Further adventures in the life of the Checquy. The protagonist of the previous book, Myfanwy Thomas, is a more remote and senior character this time (shades of Alodar in Lyndon Hardy's Master of the Five Magics, which chronicles his rise from apprentice to power and then he shows up in the sequel as a mighty archmage background type). Instead, this centres around the Grafters proposed merger with the Checquy, and all the politics and mistrust that falls out of that. O'Malley's gift for thinking up mad Checquy powers to mention in asides is still very much present and very much welcome, along with a few killer amusing lines, such as "No situation is improved by the presence of a giant anus" which actually made me laugh out loud. But there's also pathos and meaning here; the story explores the hatred that Checquy types have for Grafters and that Grafters have for the Checquy; irrational, but baked into them from centuries of history. There's a particularly moving description of the Grafter invasion of the Isle of Wight centuries ago, including some of the atrocities perpetuated by the invaders, and how the whole Checquy were mobilised to fight including the children still at the Estate. And afterwards most of them were dead, and the ones that weren't made a point of telling the younger ones why they should hate.

"Remember," the older apprentice would say. "And pass the memory on to those who come after you."

Getting past that is not easy, and they haven't really managed it by the end of the book, but they're getting there, on both sides. There's also a (pretty underplayed) plot about rivalry between Thomas and her new boss, a great deal of exposition about how the Grafters work (including their firm conviction that what they do is science while the Checquy are unnatural magical horror-beings, in which they have a point), a mystery I didn't see coming, and the unexpected return of Shantay! Still recommended. Now I need to wait another few years for the next one.

House of Blades goodreads

Will Wight (Traveler's Gate #1)

Uninspired.

Spellwright goodreads

Blake Charlton (Spellwright #1)

Concept: spells actually made of words and language. Not that you speak things and magic happens; magic is the words. You can alter a gargoyle's life by fiddling about with the words that make it up. I had high hopes here; maybe a Wiz Biz that's modernised and with a less whiny Wiz? Libriomancer but about language? But... it's written for kids. That's a pejorative. Actual kids don't have to be written down to like this. I couldn't bear it, after about two chapters.

The Verdant Passage goodreads

Troy Denning (Prism Pentad #1)

I've been meaning to read this series for years; I was reading Dragon magazine when the Dark Sun stuff got released the first time around. And it's interesting; I actually like quite a lot of the TSR books (a liking which started with the Dragonlance books, a long time ago), and Athas is quite a way away from your standard mediaeval Europe setting. There's a bit too much sourcebook in explaining the world, but it's not exactly the only TSR book that's guilty of that. I'll read the rest of the series.

Clean goodreads

Alex Hughes (Mindspace Investigations #1)

Interesting idea -- telepath, working for the police -- but the lead character is so whiny that I just wanted to punch him, very hard indeed. After I got about a third of the way in I skipped to the end and read that, and I don't think I missed much.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August goodreads

Claire North

Recommended by a friend. And... surprisingly good. The conceit here is that some people, after dying, go back to the beginning of their lives and do it over, but keep their memories. So, Groundhog Day but... Groundhog Life. And there are a bunch of people this happens to, and they eventually find one another. It's a good conceit. There is some extremely windy speculation and planning about messages going forward and backward in time, and someone who destroyed all the future generations before it got fixed, and I just let that wash over me without thinking about it too hard. It feels like The Time-Traveller's Wife but it's actually nothing at all like it, apart from involving weird timey-wimey things. Ends... a bit anticlimactically.

Armageddon Bound goodreads

Tim Marquitz (Demon Squad #1)

Started reading. Intrigued by the deal between God and Lucifer. That intriguedness lasted about three paragraphs and then I drowned under the weight of the cliched dialogue and scenes. I am pretty tired of stubbly sub-Marlowe wry badasses who know about the truth behind the masquerade, I think.

Shadowmagic goodreads

John Lenahan (Shadowmagic #1)

Light fluffy stuff. Teen with eccentric sword-fighting father gets pulled into Tir Na Nog where he discovers that his father was king and he's a prince. Evil uncle, the works. It's all pretty cliché; this is what I think of when someone says "YA", even though most YA things aren't actually like this. A mild candy-floss diversion for a bit, perhaps.

Prince of Hazel and Oak goodreads

John Lenahan (Shadowmagic #2)

More of the same in the Shadowmagic series. This time a copper from our world also gets pulled into Tir Na Nog, and ends up being a great fighter and falls in love with Conor's aunt. It seems very unclear how time works between the Land and the Real World; some people seem to have visited our world many hundreds of years ago.

The Once and Future Spy goodreads

Robert Littell

Deeply, deeply odd book. A spy thriller, I suppose, but it's really a psychological journey full of grotesques, and it's left very ambiguous at the end how much of it is actually true and how much isn't. Worth reading, although you may come away with a sense of frustrated anticlimax at not knowing what the hell is actually true. Unreliable narrators are meant to reveal the unreliable bits at the end; that's the twist.

Also discovered that Littell's son is the Jonathan Littell who wrote terrible sci-fi novel Bad Voltage!

June 2016

A Line in the Sand goodreads

K. A. Stewart (Jesse James Dawson #5)

Self-published after Stewart's publisher dropped the series for lack of sales. Credit to the author for continuing; I hope they get enough to write the sixth book. (This was only $4 on Smashwords, which doesn't seem like a lot of money but I'm certainly grateful, not least because Smashwords don't do DRM and therefore I can buy from them; listen up, epub booksellers, stop using DRM. Stop publishers doing it too.)

Anyway, that ain't the point. The point is: this is The One Where We Figure Out What The Deal With Axel is. And Ivan! Which is good. On the other hand, am starting to believe that if JJD were to bump into someone at a bus stop then they'd turn out to have a demon in them.

Want to Play? goodreads

P. J. Tracy (Monkeewrench #1)

Interesting although a tiny bit formulaic police procedural murder mystery in Minneapolis. (I kept expecting a sly reference to Lucas Davenport; no such luck.) I was eerily haunted by terrible old TV show Killer Net which I think from memory had roughly the same plot, and had the same "omg! they're basing the murders on a video game! technology intrudes into Agatha Christie's world!" breathlessness about it (although this has an edge of it and Killer Net was entirely composed of it, like Vesuvius vomiting lava and internet cliche with equal abandon). I worked out who did it, but not why. Have acquired the remaining books in the series.

A Devil in the Details goodreads

K. A. Stewart (Jesse James Dawson #1)

Jesse James Dawson is a demon hunter. This is light-ish stuff, but quite neatly worked out; demons are real, lots of people do deals with them; a demon hunter can offer them a better deal (fight me for the unfortunate's soul and my own besides) and they always take it. JJD is a bit of a whiner, though; he doesn't think he is, he thinks he's a stoic quiet hero who tries as hard as he can to embody bushido while also bringing the snark, but actually when he tries it out he feels to me like he's trying too hard to be Harry Dresden and Dresden's funnier. Nonetheless, worth reading, in a slightly popcorny sort of way.

The Spirit Thief goodreads

Rachel Aaron (Eli Monpress #1)

There have been a great many reviews which accuse The Spirit Thief of being childish, full of deus ex machinae, with a Mary Sue protagonist and rammed full of clichés. They are not wrong.

It's still fun, though. It belongs to a more innocent age, before the grimdark came to take us. Yes, there is way too much of the "he fought harder than he ever had before", like how the latest washing powder cleans whiter than its predecessor which was in its turn the whitest ever. The deus ex machina actually has an actual deus in it. But it's nonetheless light popcorn reading which is enjoyable. Nobody's going to spend a year writing a chapter by chapter breakdown of it like the Kingkiller Chronicles got. The characters are a sixteenth-of-an-inch deep archetypes; all terrifying or all noble or all insouciance. If you want fun and a bit more depth, read the Maradaine books. But sometimes it's nice to just reread the Belgariad or Malory Towers. There's no shame in that. Sometimes I skip dinner entirely and just have the dessert too.

The Spirit Rebellion goodreads

Rachel Aaron (Eli Monpress #2)

Very much more of the same as the previous Spirit book. The Duke is all evil all the time, the good team win through the power of their true trueness, and I still sometimes skip dinner and just eat the pudding.

On the other hand, lightness of touch doesn't necessarily have to mean that thought shouldn't go into the worldbuilding. I'm not expecting everyone to be Rothfuss (tons of worldbuilding which one deduces through subtle clues and Kremlinology) or Sanderson (tons of worldbuilding, all of which is laid out on the page in intricate detail because you're reading a world sourcebook which has some actors wandering around in it) or even Eddings (who had all this planning in his head; that's what The Rivan Codex was). But there's a scene early on where Eli pays five gold standards for advice, and tips another four. So, call it ten, for round numbers. In the first book, the proposed ransom for the king was forty thousand standards, and this kingdom (quoted as having thousands of people in it; it's a duchy, not China) balks at paying it because that's the total revenue of the whole kingdom for a year. So, if there are four thousand taxpayers in the kingdom, Eli paid the whole tax burden of one of them for an entire year for that five minute consultation. Snarky comments about "paying through the nose" aside, that's daft. If you were the pre-eminent information handler in the whole world, maybe. For an old woman who works out of a broken-down warehouse, no. I'd like to think that this is for some better reason than that it just wasn't thought about, though.

Lock In goodreads

John Scalzi

I've never actually read any Scalzi, for some reason. On the strength of this, I shall get more. Part police-procedural, part the old scifi trick of "come up with one neat technology and explore the ramifications of it". Haden politics are well-treated in this novel but it doesn't become a polemic either for or against; the inhabitants of the Agora are to a greater or lesser extent happy with their non-physical world, but this is not Ra. Good characterisation, interesting plotline, well-worked-out and very human-feeling world. I'm glad I read a couple of reviews which say to first read Scalzi's prologue, Unlocked, on Tor.com, otherwise I'd have had much less clue what was going on.

April 2016

Extreme Prey goodreads

John Sandford (Prey #26)

After the slight downturn in Gathering Prey, this has Sandford back on form, and neatly ends up solving the "where does Lucas go from here?" question to boot. This is more drawn from current affairs than most; a couple of motivated left-wingers decide to assassinate a Democratic-and-popular-but-not-left-enough female Presidential candidate in the hope that their preferred more-left-wing male candidate gets to be President. I hope this doesn't turn out to be ripped from the headlines; there was enough of that with Clancy's Debt of Honour. The Prey books tend to live in this actual world; obviously Elmer Henderson isn't the governor of Minnesota in reality, but Obama is president. I wonder if Bowden will become President in the books if Clinton does for real?

Also... John? Buddy? Marlys is not a name. I sat still for Del Capslock and Weather and the Fifteen Hundred Lorens, and Google suggests there are people called Marlys out there, but I spent the whole entire book cudgelling my brain to stop reading it as more-than-one-Marly.

Also also, the author is writing little forewords for the books in new editions, and they're all published on the website and make interesting reading.

The Penitent Damned goodreads

Django Wexler (The Shadow Campaigns #0)

Available for free, much to Wexler's credit. Having read this first, I was pretty surprised that not only this storyline but this whole world basically doesn't intersect much with the main book thread, although it's happening more now as we get into the third book and the underlying structure of the world becomes apparent.

The Shadow Throne goodreads

Django Wexler (The Shadow Campaigns #2)

From war to politics, which Marcus isn't good at. And dealing with female soldiers which he also isn't good at; this is creditably put across without being an arse about it. Jane, however, is an arse, and really annoys me. It's interesting contrasting this fantasy city with, say, Maradaine from the Marshall Ryan Maresca books. They're both convincingly fantasyesque, with newspapers and so on, but Vordan is quite a lot less pleasant to live in. More "ahaha!" moves from Janus.

The Shadow of Elysium goodreads

Django Wexler (The Shadow Campaigns #2)

Novella. Basically a sequel to The Penitent Damned rather than the main plotline, but these things are starting to dovetail a bit more now. The hypocrisy of the Church is ever more apparent, although they are so hypocritically evil that they come across less like a creditable Big Bad and more like Snidely Whiplash twirling his moustaches and tying a damsel to the railroad track. Is there nobody over there with any redeeming features at all?

The Price of Valor goodreads

Django Wexler (The Shadow Campaigns #3)

The French Revolution. Even with my shaky grasp of history, the parallels are not so much parallel as this is just the French Revolution retold with the names filed off and new names written in in crayon. The books keep trying to be menacing about What Janus Is Really Planning; Wexler is on record as saying that he won't do a Janus PoV because it's hard to write from the perspective of a genius character, but honestly I think he won't do it because then we'll actually know whether Janus is really a villain or not. Mother vanishing offscreen was a bit weird, although I like the Steel Ghost's sand approach.

The Thousand Names goodreads

Django Wexler (The Shadow Campaigns #1)

Flintlock wars in fantasy Arabia. I'm sure there's a load of depth I'm missing because I don't know much about history. That aside, all the characters are well-drawn here; Janus is a bit clichéd in that he's a genius who has his plans always work out and is all mysterious and nose-tappy and ahahaha about it, but that's fun to read, and he's nowhere near as egregious at it as, say, Eugenides. You do get the impression that the Redeemers are a bit crap and would have their arses kicked good and hard by, for example, the Krasians from the Desert Spear. Avoiding spoilers, I was not expecting the bad guy reveal at the end, which suggests that it was convincingly written.

Johannes Cabal: The Detective goodreads

Jonathan L. Howard (Johannes Cabal #2)

Snarky necromancer bloke in Murder on the Orient Airship.

Maintains the same uneasy balance of "and then Cabal did this amazing thing" followed by him basically being a snarky humourless bloke that the first book did. The story in this one is better and more believeable, though. Also, much, much more information about the world; Europe seems to be fragmented into Holmes-era little territories which each have princes and whatnot, but that's maintained into roughly the present day. Am sure actual historian people would be all "but but but what about this, and that, and the other, and how does the world look if the two world wars never happen, and, and, and", but I don't care; it makes a good backdrop for stories, and lets Howard (who did Broken Sword, I found out!) indulge himself with a world with guns and swords and airships and things made of brass and everything.

March 2016

Blackbirds goodreads

Wendig, Chuck (Miriam Black #1)

Basically, all the things I didn't like about Stephen Blockmoore's Eric Carter books. A life lived from hand to hand, from diner to diner, this IHoP to that IHoP. But Carter manages to pull off being cool despite this handicap, and, honestly, Miriam doesn't. Is this some sort of American thing I don't understand? A 2010s version of On the Road by Jack Kerouac? Black and Carter are both equally unlikeable if you look at their lifestyles, but Eric is amusing and Miriam's just tiresomely spiky. I'm not sure I followed the dream stuff, either. And it felt like this might be at the end epic, but it was just about meth, which is a peculiarly American drug. So, maybe I should classify this as something full of archetypes that I don't understand. But it's not written as though I shouldn't understand them, which makes me believe that Wendig thinks everyone understands, and thus discourages me from reading more.

Libriomancer goodreads

Jim C. Hines (Magic Ex Libris #1)

Libriomancer, the first in Jim C. Hines's Magic Ex Libris  series, is a fairly interesting read, but I didn't like it. Because it completely shattered my sense of disbelief. To explain why, I need to explain what libriomancy is, which is as spoilery as can be imagined. So look away now if you don't want to know.

Basically, a libriomancer can "reach into" any book and pull out the stuff described. So you could reach into Morte d'Arthur and pull out Excalibur. If your immediate thought on hearing this is anything other than "Gordon Bennett, that's the most overpowered thing I've ever heard", then you just haven't thought it through properly. Isaac, the protagonist, repeatedly and casually pulls healing potions and laser pistols out of books and uses them. It was discovered by Johannes Gutenberg, who is still alive because he pulled the Holy Grail out of the Bible and used it to make himself immortal. And yet... the world, Isaac's world, looks roughly like ours. That's ridiculous.

The book does falteringly attempt to set up some limitations. The physical book itself is the portal by which things are brought out, so they have to be smaller than the book; you can't pull a Challenger tank out of a Tom Clancy novel. Living beings can't be pulled out; written text doesn't describe them properly enough, and so the mind in the body isn't properly formed and they go mad. A book can be "locked" (by Gutenberg, who hasn't told anyone else how to do it) so things can't be pulled from it, which he's done on a whole bunch of titles such as the Bible and Lord of the Rings to stop some joker pulling out the One Ring. Magic mirrors and the like tend to focus on their native (fictional) world and not ours, so you can't pull out scrying devices that work here. Doing it too much gives you headaches and might destroy your mind entirely. A pulled thing should be returned to its book after some nebulous time limit; you can't keep it for ever. And the book has to be a published thing that many people have read: you can't just write "lightsabre" on a Post-It note and yank one into the real world.

But none of these limitations are show-stoppers. We could have a world in which there is limitless energy and luxury. With libriomancy you could make us into the Culture in about half an hour. And yet it hasn't happened. The basic explanation here is: Gutenberg is a dick. He wants -- insists -- that the Masquerade is preserved, that humanity can't know about magic, that it'd be a disaster, that we can't cope with the power. Reed Richards Is Useless, to a limitless degree. Apparently he's exceedingly worried about what a bad person would do with the magic, and that is a legitimate worry; a villain libriomancer or an idiot libriomancer is a global humanity extinction event, which is why you can't pull out the One Ring. But the amount of good that could be done with this power is breathtaking. No disease. No hunger. No death. And it's not allowed.

OK, I get his worry -- the "humanity just can't cope with the power" argument is a pretty long-standing one (see Michael Crichton's Sphere, for example). We're not mature enough as a species. Fine. But it makes the whole book feel like an anticlimax. Isaac spends a bunch of time farting around with Narnian healing elixirs and stopping vampires and all the time I'm thinking, why do we have to live in this crappy world rather than somewhere amazing? Libriomancy isn't used to its full potential in the book, because it would be basically impossible to write a book in which it was so used, and so it shouldn't be written about because any book that contains it is guaranteed to be anticlimactic. The sense of letdown and disappointment is volcanic. I don't think I'll read the rest of the series.

A Murder of Mages goodreads

Marshall Ryan Maresca (Maradaine Constabulary #1)

Police procedural in gang-ridden city, with the maverick cop sneered at by lazy clannish long-timers, and Da Chief in control. Cliche? Cliche. But the Maradaine books with the Thorn are top fun, and this manages the same trick. There are also little crossovers with the Veranix books here; the Brotherhood of the Nine seem to be a thing, and Kalas mentioned failing "The Nine" in Thorn. Do I spy some kind of underlying plot thingy? I believe I do.

The Thorn of Dentonhill goodreads

Marshall Ryan Maresca (Maradaine #1)

Every reviewer has mentioned that Vee is basically Batman, and they're not wrong. (The cover in particular embraces the comparison.) He is pretty hyper-able; having a circus background ought not to mean that you can take on two or three professional assassins in a fight and win, magic or not. But the book is rollocking good fun; it deftly avoids the march towards grim and gritty fantasy, in return for what's actually clearly a well-worked-out world, and some insight into how street gangs work. 

The Alchemy of Chaos goodreads

Marshall Ryan Maresca (Maradaine #2)

More fun in Maradaine. Same vibe as the previous book in this series; Veranix is still basically fantasy Batman (although maybe Robin is a better comparison), and there are lots of fights salted with lots of interesting world stuff. Maradaine is one of the few fantasy cities that I can actually imagine living in, along with Camorr in the Locke Lamora books (I wonder if Scott Lynch, with upcoming The Thorn of Emberlain, was annoyed at the naming of The Thorn of Dentonhill?) Also, there is clearly a whole bunch of stuff about the world that people don't know, to do with interactions between science and magic; ignoring all the big picture stuff that Phadre and Jiarna are clearly going to work on, there's a bit where a wound is completely healed by putting yellow powder and copper in it. This seems like an alarmingly important invention; I assume quite a lot more will be made of this alchemical science-plus-magic mix in future books.

Borderline goodreads

Mishell Baker (Arcadia Project #1)

Well, that's an interesting book. A bit difficult to describe; it's urban fantasy, given that it takes place in contemporary Los Angeles, and the masquerade is plausibly carried off. Some of this might be because I'm prepared to believe almost anything of Hollywood types; that the good ones are good because they've found their fairy muse and work alongside them isn't even in the ten most unlikely things I could think of. This isn't an Erasmus-Fry-capturing-Calliope thing, though; the partnership is free and equal and mediated by the Arcadia project, who offer heroine Millicent Roper a job.

So far, so much like a whole bunch of other urban fantasy. The unusual thing is that Millie suffers from borderline personality disorder, "a pattern of impulsivity and instability of behaviors, interpersonal relationships, and self-image... [with] uncontrollable anger and depression." This is alarmingly convincingly described (and, after a bit of research, it seems that the author is also a sufferer, which explains why it's convincing). However... this makes Millie really quite unlikeable. At one point she screams a whole bunch of fairly unjustified hurtful abuse at the whole set of other characters, and is called out as having carefully stored up accusations in order to use them at the most wounding time. And that seems like a perfectly accurate description to me. Of course, then, I feel guilty about disliking Millie, because I should be sympathetic, and then ridiculous for feeling guilty... and all this gets in the way of enjoyment of the book, a bit. But I'll certainly read the next one; the worldbuilding here is interesting, and there are some truly neat touches such as a warlock being able to suppress her feelings by bundling them off into an invisible dragon construct. Emotionally complex story but without being all grim and gritty, which is a rarity and worthy of celebration by itself, but it's not very escapist, if escapism is what you're looking for.

February 2016

The Beggar and the Diamond

Stephen King

My absolute favourite very short story.

January 2016

The Martian goodreads

Andy Weir

Bought after watching the film, of course. There's a lot in common with the film; a great deal of the dialogue is almost verbatim between the two. The film also maintains the book's "told through log entries" conceit, and most (but not all) of the funny lines.

Essentially, it's The Mysterious Island on Mars. How to jury-rig solutions to technical problems with what you have on hand, although what with this being (very?) near future rather than Victorian, it's mostly about how to couple power supplies rather than how to derive saltpetre from rocks. I think the film's a little tighter, but the scientist in me likes that the book has more space to explain how some of the things actually work; films can't do that anywhere near as well, unless they're incomprehensible non-layman tracts like Primer was. On the other hand, the film is almost entirely composed of majesty and the book is hardly majestic at all, which is something you can much more convincingly pull off with a camera and a David Bowie soundtrack. The film made the right decision in including the Iron Man action, too.

Among Thieves goodreads

Douglas Hulick (A Tale of the Kin #1)

Thief-vs-thief battles in fairly standard mediaeval city. It's all quite interesting, and there are a couple of neat reversals which I didn't actually see coming at all. It's lacking a bit of a sense of fun, though; gritty is good, sometimes, but the Gentlemen Bastard series has quite a bit more enjoyment in it. Also, entirely did not buy the promotion at the end.

Sworn in Steel goodreads

Douglas Hulick (A Tale of the Kin #2)

Drothe now in new promoted state. I've seen the series described as "swords & sorcery meets Goodfellas", and I suppose that's right. However, Drothe is actually quite a dick and I'm not sure I like him. I'll probably read the next one, but with an increasing sense that I don't really care if the bloke wins or not.

The Brotherhood Of the Rose goodreads

David Morrell (Mortalis #1)

Fairly mindless thriller, but OK to read when you fancy that sort of thing. Not convinced at all by the idea of the Abelard sanction, though.

The League Of Night and Fog goodreads

David Morrell (Mortalis #3)

Sequel (sort of) to the two previous (independent) Mortalis books. Still wields the word "professional" like a club.

Broken Souls goodreads

Stephen Blackmoore (Eric Carter #2)

Eric Carter continues to kick some arse while not really knowing what he's doing. The Bruja's secret was pretty obvious, but then it doesn't stay secret long anyway; meanwhile, I do rather like that they'll work together while she still doesn't really _like_ Eric all that much. Also, more backstory where today's villain (who is actually quite worrying) also ties into Carter's past. More of the same, please, Stephen Blackmoore.

Maplecroft goodreads

Cherie Priest (The Borden Dispatches #1)

Started. Read most of, did not finish. It just doesn't grasp me in whatever place that books I like grasp me. Quite Lovecraftian, with the monsters, but without the cosmic horror. They feel rather Innsmouth-y.

Dirty Magic goodreads

Jaye Wells (Prospero's War #1)

Couldn't get into this; read the first third or so and got bored.

Dead Things goodreads

Stephen Blackmoore (Eric Carter #1)

Powerful loner necromancer chap who is actually probably quite a bit more powerful than he thinks kills ghosts and a whole bunch of other people while having the crap beaten out of him on an alarmingly regular basis. This is hard-bitten stuff; Eric Carter's kinda a dick, but in that tobacco-chewin' two-fisted I-do-what-I-must-whatever-you-think-of-it sort of way that makes for good antiheroes. The writing pulls even fewer punches than the bad guys who keep tying Eric to chairs. I was a mite surprised at the bleakness of the ending, but that's not a bad thing. And the trick with the nametags made me actually laugh out loud; Carter can slap a label on a thing describing what he wants people to see it as and then a spell makes that happen, but he's the sort of bloke who would write GRAY HONDA CIVIC TOTALLY NOT A CADILLAC on his Caddy, or THE GUY WHO’S SUPPOSED TO BE HERE on himself. I am waiting for a label saying SOME OLD BOLLOCKS YOU ARE NOT INTERESTED IN which he starts putting on anything. Seems like his style.


Especially recommended for Carter basically not knowing what he's doing, half the time, and just winging it. This is not winging it like Harry Dresden, who thinks he knows what he's doing but often there's a bunch of world out there he doesn't know about. Eric explicitly doesn't know how half the things he does actually work but does it anyway. What this means is that he's quite convincingly close to death (ha!) a lot, more so than most protagonists who might say they nearly died but you know, in that Doylist way, that they didn't. Eric ain't like that. Wouldn't surprise me one bit if he actually blew it two chapters into the next book and the whole rest of the book is blank white paper.

Shattered goodreads

Kevin Hearne (Iron Druid #7)

Granuaile takes on her first big task on her own and... fails. Not through any fault of hers, mind. Meanwhile, Atticus is busy being bossed around by the Secret Cabal (now revealed!) and his old archdruid, who is convincingly a pain in the arse but actually not a bad old git, in a rough-and-tumble sort of way. Also also, more secret agendas. Weirdly, I was convinced entirely by the Morrigan being dead and yet managing to still pass on the occasional message from the other side, but totally not convinced by that also being the case for another character who got killed a few books back (excuse me, I'm avoiding spoilers). Not sure why these two things seem so different, but they do.

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