So you’re fourteen years old, and you’re on a vision quest. It’ll be another hundred years or so before Europeans show up and tell your people that, aSo you’re fourteen years old, and you’re on a vision quest. It’ll be another hundred years or so before Europeans show up and tell your people that, actually, Turtle Island is going to be called “North America” and was empty before they showed up. But I digress. You want to get a vision so you can become a man, but this stupid turtle just won’t shut up … ohhhhh.
Meanwhile, you’re fourteen years old, and you’re walking along the train tracks, even though your dad told you not to, because who listens to their dad? He’s just a police officer with a totally rational fear of his kid getting hit by a train. You’re just minding your own business, avoiding a bully and saving a train from derailing because one of the tracks is out. You didn’t ask to meet Gathering Cloud and help him fight off a wendigo.
It’s always a pleasure to receive as a gift a good book that you would otherwise probably not know about. My friend Carly gave me Out of Time because she was intrigued by the promise of a time travel novel set on the shores of Lake Superior and including Anishinabe mythology. The lives of two fourteen-year-old boys from very different times and places collide, allowing them to work together to vanquish a monster and learn more about themselves in the process. It’s an adventure combined with an after-school special in that most Canadian of storytelling traditions.
Out of Time succeeds largely because David Laderoute keeps it simple. There’s a contained cast of characters, a clear enemy, and a clear goal. The plot is simple too, the arc almost predictable—but that doesn’t mean it’s unfulfilling. The way Laderoute allows the boys to defeat the wendigo temporarily, only for it to come back stronger and with a vengeance, is pretty clever. While the moments of moral clarity, as I want to call them, are a little heavy-handed, I think this is a common problem in YA (and maybe I’m wrong to call them a problem—maybe they should be this way, and it’s only my overexposure to Star Trek: The Next Generation that makes all this moral stuff look obvious to me).
Time travel gimmicks and cultural allusions aside, this is a novel about courage in the face of selfishness. It’s about being prepared to sacrifice, and about knowing when you need to stand up for others even if you’re going to get hurt in the process. It’s about choosing your battles, knowing when to wait instead of rushing forward, and always respecting and listening to the counsel of others. There is plenty of “message” here, but it’s paired with a fairly slick action-adventure. Moreover, the book generally avoids falling into any of the sundry sub-genres that seem to have sprung up in YA in the past decade: it’s not dystopian, or about gangs, or overly-concerned with high school and dating. There are no vampires, werewolves, angels, or ghosts here. Well maybe ghosts. And I’m not trying to disparage those sub-genres or tropes if they are your thing—but if they aren’t, then you’ll find Out of Time that refreshment you want.
And of course, as a Thunder Bay resident, there’s always the thrill of seeing one’s home turf portrayed in a book. In this case it’s the smaller, fictional community of Stone Harbour. But it feels very Thunder Bay at some moments, and that’s what matters.
Gathering Cloud and Riley are both viable, vivid protagonists. They are similar in a lot of ways, as energetic and inquisitive fourteen-year-old boys are wont to be. Laderoute points out their differences across time and culture but doesn’t belabour the point. Handwaving the magic of the time travel and the language barriers aside, there’s the right amount of confusion when the two first meet, and of course the hilarity of Cloud trying to navigate a world of telephones and trains. I sincerely hope that he didn’t catch any diseases while in our time. It would suck if he went back to the past only to communicate something to his entire tribe. We’re going to be optimistic here and say that didn’t happen…. Similarly, Laderoute doesn’t give us much perspective on whether Riley uses this as an opportunity to continue learning about First Nations beliefs and culture. Again, let’s be optimistic.
Although Out of Time features a creature of aboriginal myth as its antagonist, not to mention several other prominent spirits, it actually doesn’t portray any contemporary indigenous people. Riley attempts to pass Cloud off as “an aboriginal kid, you know, from the reserve up the highway,” a dubious proposition at best. And look, it’s great to increase the visibility of aboriginal culture, beliefs, and ideas in this way, and to show someone like Riley interacting positively with an indigenous person from any time. However, I just want to use this opportunity to point out that what we really need in our contemporary Canadian YA market are more books that feature relationships between white and indigenous youth. Moreover, with this approach Laderoute inadvertently perpetuates a common trope: Indigenous peoples are figures of the past and erased or invisible in our present.
I could have done without the smaller-than-normal font size and the spacing between paragraphs. Conventions exist for a reason; break them at your peril. ’Nuff said!
Out of Time has a good plot and great pacing. Other than the protagonists, the rest of the cast isn’t very remarkable. I enjoyed that Jonah was more than a two-dimensional bully. However, your enjoyment of this book is largely going to come from whether you manage to care about Riley and/or Cloud and their battle against an evil spirit.
I’ll end off by saying that I am always a little more than sceptical when approaching books from small presses and by local authors. This probably isn’t fair of me, but I am only human. I’m trying really hard though to convey the fact that I enjoyed Out of Time. Neither the characters nor the subject matter happens to be what I typically read in YA (or elsewhere), despite the inclusion of stuff like time travel, so it’s hard to say this book excited me or left me tingling. All other things considered, though, it’s pretty good, and I’d recommend it if it sounds like something your speed.
Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files universe has a very rich mythology, something I greatly admire about the series. From werewolves to vampires to faerie, BuJim Butcher’s Dresden Files universe has a very rich mythology, something I greatly admire about the series. From werewolves to vampires to faerie, Butcher doesn’t just take one or two types of supernatural creatures and run with it—he takes all-comers. He continues this trend with these three novelettes that involve Bigfoot. Working For Bigfoot is a short but nice little collection that takes the edge off waiting for the next novel in the series.
I liked each story for slightly different reasons. “B is for Bigfoot” is interesting because it lacks much in the way of magic on Harry’s part. He mostly acts as a guide for young Irwin, giving him advice on how to deal with bullies. “I Was a Teenage Bigfoot” puts Harry in a slightly more active role—but there, too, he’s more protector and guardian, putting on his Warden cap, and the antagonist backs down pretty quickly. “Bigfoot on Campus” involves the most action and peril—and even then, it’s ultimately not Harry who intervenes to save the day (and that is rather the point).
None of the stories would impress me on their own. Collected here, though, they form a nice progression. They remove Harry from his element—none of them take place in familiar haunts, and none involve any characters we are familiar with—and, as I mentioned above, Harry doesn’t actually use much magic. Nevertheless, these still feel in all respects like quintessential Dresden Files stories—just proving that it isn’t the way Butcher writes magic that keeps me coming back. It’s Harry Dresden, and his inability to keep his nose out of other people’s business, especially when he’s trying to be a do-gooder.
If I had to pick a favourite, it would be the last one. Firstly, Irwin has a much stronger presence now that he’s a young adult. (In the middle story, being sick, he basically lay around and was far too passive.) Secondly, Butcher brings the theme of fatherhood to the forefront here. In the earlier books there are hints of it, and Harry acts rather like a proxy for River Shoulders. However, Butcher has us come full circle, with Irwin finally meeting his father (and acting extremely cool and mature about it, by the way). Finally, I also liked Connie. I love how Butcher deals with the idea that she doesn’t know she’s a White Court Vampire, and how she might actually be “saved” if they handle the situation properly. Again, Harry is all about having compassion in the strangest of circumstances.
(There’s a curious continuity error in my book—in “Bigfoot on Campus” Harry calls Irwin’s mother “Carol Pounder” even though she is “Helena Pounder” in “B is for Bigfoot.” I don’t know if this error was caught and fixed in other editions, but I just thought I’d point it out for posterity here.)
Otherwise, as always this boutique Subterranean Press edition is lovely. From the paper to the artwork by Vincent Chong, it’s totally worth the added price, even for something as short and quick as Working for Bigfoot. Not what I would recommend for Dresden newbies, of course. But for fans it’s a really cool way to celebrate your enjoyment of the books.
Working for Bigfoot is nothing special or extraordinary, but it was never supposed to be. It hits the spot, does what it’s supposed to do, delivers a little more Dresden to the bloodstream. In those respects, it’s fun but forgettable—until I want to come back and read it again.
It's 2016; can we stop pretending we don't judge books by their cover? Remix has amazing cover art—in particular, the way the back cover copy is arranIt's 2016; can we stop pretending we don't judge books by their cover? Remix has amazing cover art—in particular, the way the back cover copy is arranged is a thing of beauty. Just look at it. If I hadn’t already wanted to read Remix after reading Non Pratt’s debut, Trouble, that back cover would change my mind.
I love that Remix is, at its core, about the best friendship between two girls. Yes, there is sex and romance and relationship drama. At the end of the day, though, this is about Kaz and Ruby. They are such distinctive people who nevertheless care deeply about each other, and even though one weekend at a music festival seems to drive them apart, their friendship is a resilient one. And I'm probably going to spend the rest of this review unpacking that last sentence, because that’s this novel in a nutshell.
Like Trouble, Remix features two narrators. This time the book also changes up the typeface with each narrator: Kaz is your standard serif; Ruby is a smooth, stream-of-consciousness sans-serif. I love this little extra degree of differentiation—regrettably, the fact that almost all books are ordinary serif means that Kaz’s typeface looks “normal” while Ruby’s is more extraordinary. In actuality, Pratt manages to portray both girls as interesting but individual voices. So really, when you read this book, you get two great protagonists for the price of one.
I could go into stereotypes to summarize their differences. Kaz is the sensible, no-nonsense, down-to-earth girl who doesn't see the boys flirting with her and has eyes only for the one guy she loves. Ruby is the wild child who doesn’t do great in school, likes having sex, and knows what she wants. Yet this type of classification is reductive, because each girl has elements of the other in her—Kaz has desires and yearnings she explores here, and Ruby must confront some of her emotional denial.
Although Remix emphasizes friendship, it’s not to the detriment of other important relationships. For example, Pratt illustrates how our interactions with parents influence us: Kaz’s mother is an encouraging, progressive role model when it comes to activities like sex, but she’s hopeless with cooking or home maintenance, forcing Kaz to step up and be more responsible than your average 16-year-old. In contrast, Ruby’s parents have high academic expectations for her that she never seems to meet; they are deliberately unseen and, aside from notes, unheard here, to emphasize their distance from their daughter.
And then, of course, there’s sex and dating. Or “going out with” as Ruby might put it, since she thinks dating is an icky word.
She has a point: dating has two connotations, one far more juvenile than what’s happening here (like you’re in Grade 7 and you have a “girlfriend”) and one far more adult. Another thing I love about Remix is that it holds no illusions about what teens are up to. Kaz and Ruby are 16, and they and their similarly-aged friends are drinking, sexing, and rock-n-rolling. They talk like teenagers, and they have the same flimsy but oh-so-confident worldviews that teenagers have.
The fun, if you will, in this book is watching Kaz and Ruby’s desires and decisions conflict and lead them to make bad choices. There’s an “oh no she didn’t” vibe to much of the story, with one or the other doing something in the heat of the moment that seems to propel the other one further away. Both realize it’s happening and realize it’s stupid, and Pratt perfectly captures that strong-headed teenage attitude that often prevents people (even well into adulthood) from simply stopping and saying, “We're being dumb.” I wanted things to work so badly for Kaz and Ruby, but it’s easy to see why it keeps going wrong. As I mentioned in my review of Trouble, my disinclination towards relationships and sex meant I didn’t experience this type of drama first-hand as a teenager—but I can definitely identify with making stupid decisions and arguments that just spiral further and further out of control.
As far as the sex goes, I just want to highlight a great, frank moment when Ruby recalls having bad sex. It’s awesome to see a YA book not just portraying teenagers having causal sex (like they do) but also acknowledge that it will often be bad sex (or at least, so I am given to understand) instead of fictionalizing sex into some kind of perfect expression of romantic compatibility. On a similar note, Ruby’s sexual attraction to Stu despite her complicated emotional feelings validates the idea that you can be attracted to someone physically but not emotionally, or vice versa.
As far as the relationships go, I want to highlight Lauren, Kaz’s ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. Pratt could easily have made Lauren a haughty bitch. Much to Ruby’s disappointment, Kaz actually likes Lauren. And while I found myself sympathizing quite a bit with Ruby’s disgust over the way Lauren acts, I have to agree with Kaz that Lauren is a good person—and that she deserves better than Tom! I appreciate this sympathetic portrayal of the “replacement” significant other.
The back of the book promises “zero chance of everything working out.” It delivers. It’s not a downer ending, though—quite the contrary. I loved the ending. But it reminds us that you can’t please everyone. Life is messy and is full of mistakes, and things we say or do in the heat of the moment are impossible to take back and difficult to remedy.
I also like how Remix feels very quotidian; it doesn’t pivot on a single, capital-I-Issue, like teenage pregnancy or rape or body shaming, etc. Don’t get me wrong: books that pivot on such issues are essential—but books that don’t are just as necessary. And Remix still has some heavy stuff in it, but it’s part of a larger, overall narrative.
Did I make a mistake reading Remix and Trouble only six months apart, with no idea when Pratt’s next novel is coming out? I don’t think so. We like to badger our favourite authors to finish their next work, because we are eager to read it, of course—but, you know, I actually have a ton of books to read. I’d rather Pratt takes her time polishing her next novel, even if it takes longer, and I will distract myself with other reads while I wait. Looking forward to whatever comes next, however, because so far it has been delightful.
I first heard about this on Quirks & Quarks from CBC Radio. Then Josie, one of my Canadian friends still teaching in England, was filling me in onI first heard about this on Quirks & Quarks from CBC Radio. Then Josie, one of my Canadian friends still teaching in England, was filling me in on how she went to one of Matt Parker’s stand-up events and how awesome it was. When I informed her I had purchased a signed copy of Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension on the Internets, she was suitably envious. Not, however, as envious as I was for her singular stand-up experience—I don’t like stand-up, but I’d probably watch math stand-up.
Here’s my secret when reviewing math books: don’t focus on the math. Because, you know, anyone with a math degree can write about math. Writing about math is not hard. It’s making math accessible that’s hard. Now, that’s not because math is somehow more difficult for the average person to comprehend than any other highly-specialized field. We only have this perception as an unfortunate side-effect of our industrialized education system, which has traditionally insisted that we should learn math through rote memorization of rules.
Matt Parker rightly embraces a much more flexible idea about how we can learn math. Specifically, he champions recreational mathematics. That’s right, people: doing math for fun!
If you’re sceptical, I don’t blame you—see my point above about school systems. It’s really unfortunate we break people and squash their love of math so early like this. If I were better with young children I might consider becoming a primary school teacher to rectify this. As it is, my head stuck up here in the calculus clouds, I can only evangelize recreational math from afar.
See, we mathematicians know what people with a warped idea of math do not: mathematics is a creative discipline. Someone had to find the Fibonacci sequence, and they didn’t do it by looking at nature. Someone had to devise and name different dimensions of shapes. And mathematicians do this by investigating, by looking at what we already know and finding the gaps. Yes, they do this is a systematic way, and they have to do it rigorously before other mathematicians will agree with them. But a lot of mathematical discoveries have literally come about because of mathematicians just playing with numbers and shapes and ideas.
This idea pervades Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension, which is organized in such a way to progress from basic ideas about numbers to very abstract ideas about functions, dimensions, and infinity. You’re not going to understand all of it, and that’s OK. Understanding everything is not the goal of reading a popular math or popular science book—getting a glimpse behind the curtain, understanding why it’s important, piquing your interest to learn more; these are the goals. (I’m trying to pump you up and help you be more resilient here, because I won’t lie to you and pretend it’s easy to follow everything, either in this book or in others like it.) Don’t worry though, because the author will always be around to help you out. Parker writes with a sense of humour that’s only to be expected considering his comedic career. (Britain really does seem to have cornered the market on funny mathematicians….)
There are also lots of practical exercises too. And I don’t mean questions you need to calculate and answer. I mean activities, templates for you to cut out and puzzles for you to consider. Parker is very proactive in demonstrating some of the practical ramifications of even the most esoteric ideas, from calculating digital roots to knitting 3D projections of 4D shapes. I could easily see some of this stuff working in a classroom setting if, you know, you’re not the kind of math teacher that thinks we should just memorize it all.
Really, when it gets down to it, this is how we need to be teaching and learning math. Reading a book about math is all well and good—I love doing it. But you need to learn by doing math. You need to try these things yourself, to investigate a problem until you hit upon interesting and sometimes unexpected results. This is one of the greatest things about mathematics: you can, in theory, verify every math result ever discovered by someone else. And you don’t even need specialized equipment: most of the time you just need a ruler, some scissors, and some paper. (And maybe a calculator or a computer for the recent discoveries!) This is DIY math at its finest.
I learned some neat things in the chapters that Parker devotes to higher-dimensional shapes. This is not an area of math I’ve studied in much detail, and conceptualizing higher-dimensional shapes is, of course, very difficult! Yet he explains it clearly. I also appreciate how much he uses computer programs to help him investigate relationships and ideas. As someone who also enjoys writing Python scripts, I’m always happy to see my interest in math and computers come together.
On the flip side, I know a lot about graph theory and enjoyed his section on that. He doesn’t really do anything new when it comes to talking about old chestnuts like the Four Colour Theorem and its infamous proof. Nevertheless, this is one of those areas of math that people never hear about unless they go into university, despite it being so interesting and widely applicable.
Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension is a lovely and informative book. It’s a great example of how to write well about doing math for fun. Parker is ever-encouraging, ever-understanding, ready to make fun of math, mathematicians, school, and himself—and yes, my dear reader, you as well. This is a safe book in that sense: you’re not going to be judged for not liking math or not having much luck, so far, with it. But thanks to Matt Parker, you can roll your own math and enjoy doing it. We need more books like this! Until then, read this one.
For the three and a half of you who don’t know already, Unlocked is the companion novella to Lock In, John Scalzi’s thriller set in a future where HFor the three and a half of you who don’t know already, Unlocked is the companion novella to Lock In, John Scalzi’s thriller set in a future where Haden’s syndrome leaves millions locked in their bodies, conscious but incapable of voluntary movement. Where as Lock In was a mystery set within this world, Unlocked explains how Haden’s developed and how the technology and culture around Hadens sprang up.
This is billed as an “oral history” and comes across that way. It’s snippets of transcribed interviews. Imagine a documentary featuring mostly expert interviews, minus any connecting narration from a host (which would have been cool). Each part covers a specific aspect of how the world has changed, from the time-course and effects of the disease’s spread to the response of world governments. There are “characters” in the sense that many people get interviewed more than once, and they come across as having somewhat distinct personalities. But I wouldn’t say there are protagonists or antagonists. This is not so much a story as it is a collection of related anecdotes.
Unlocked is more an exercise in glorified worldbuilding than an expansion, prequel, or what-have-you to Lock In. It’s as if Scalzi made a wiki for the Lock In universe and then compressed it into a series of in-character articles. Don’t get me wrong: I love delving into the wikis for favourite series; I’ll spend hours reading TVTropes and Memory Alpha and the Mass Effect wiki. But it’s a different type of reading than reading a novel.
For that reason, I wouldn’t herald Unlocked as an essential companion to Lock In. It’s nice. I bought the Subterranean Press edition, mostly because I like Subterranean Press. Molly Crabapple’s cover is gorgeous, but I’m sad there aren’t any illustrations within the text. Anyway, this book provides more depth into the origins of Haden’s. It gives Scalzi an outlet for showing he Did the Research without infodumping too much in Lock In, and if anything we should just all be grateful for that. I wish more authors took this approach.
If you approach Unlocked with the idea that it’s a companion and an infodump, albeit a cleverly-disguised one, then you’re going to enjoy it. Not on the level that you would enjoy a novel. Similarly, I think you need to retain some interest in the world of Lock In—if you didn’t enjoy the novel, then this isn’t going to change your mind.
There is one thing that makes this stand out from some of its less impressive peers: I got a little teary-eyed. As they were recounting the way that President Haden was grief-stricken for his wife, the way he stayed by her bedside and asked her what he should do, I teared up while reading this at lunchtime at work. I didn’t expect this book to get to me in that way.
So make of that what you will. Unlocked is fun and interesting in its own way. It’s not required reading to enjoy Lock In, but it’s a companion in the same way a fan-wiki might be to other books.
This summer saw the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge splash onto social media. ALS terrifies me. A deadly disease that slowly robs you of your ability to moveThis summer saw the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge splash onto social media. ALS terrifies me. A deadly disease that slowly robs you of your ability to move but doesn’t affect your reasoning? I’m not particularly fond of physical activities, but I like embodiment; I like being able to engage with the world actively. The idea of being unable to do that but remaining sound of mind sounds like a terrible way to go.
Lock In is a thriller set in a world ravaged by a disease superficially similar to ALS. Haden’s syndrome lays waste to the voluntary nervous system, and worse, it isn’t genetic but instead infectious! It’s like a deadly flu that paralyzes some people. The incident rate is high enough to spur research into brain-computer interfaces and cybernetics, resulting in Hadens (people who have become “locked in” as a result of Haden’s syndrome) being able to interact online with each other and in person through personal transports colloquially known as “threeps”. In even rarer cases, someone who contracts Haden’s doesn’t get locked in but instead becomes an Integrator, someone who can host a Haden consciousness for a limited time in their body.
Several other reviews have likened Lock In to Philip K. Dick. I didn’t make that connection myself, but in hindsight it’s apt. Much like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (aka Blade Runner), Lock In is a science-fiction novel that foregrounds a mystery thriller plot. You can’t quite ignore the science-fictional elements; they are essential to the plot. However, this novel exemplifies the idea that science fiction, rather than being a genre, is in fact a setting.
There’s a lot to like about this book, both from a science fiction and a mystery perspective. Haden’s syndrome provides an interesting point of divergence from which Scalzi creates this entire future. One of the major background issues is who foots the bill for Haden care in the United States; a new law has just passed that essentially shuts down government funding for Haden care. (Does this sound at all familiar or topical?) Tensions between the Hadens and non-Hadens are running high. And, of course, various corporations stand to lose or benefit from this new law….
The viewpoint protagonist is Chris Shane, an FBI agent and a famous Haden. Scalzi uses Shane’s “locked in” nature to good effect. Shane is embodied only by a threep, and as such can travel across the country very quickly if there is a threep waiting on the other end to act as host. While Shane’s partner is following up a local lead, Shane often ends up chasing connections in Arizona or LA. One thing I hate about science-fiction thrillers is when the author doesn’t take into account the new capabilities or consequences of a change they have made. Scalzi definitely does this.
In general, Lock In once again demonstrates Scalzi’s versatility. He is comfortable writing so-called military science-fiction adventures for his Old Man’s War universe. But he can also do the near-future thrillers, like The Android’s Dream and now this. And Redshirts was a fun departure as well. I always enjoy seeing a different facet of a writer.
For all these reasons, I want to love Lock In. Alas, I only like it.
In the end, it was a bit of a disappointment, as far as the plot goes. Shane is a great protagonist. I love Vann as well. There is plenty of humour between them; the dialogue is definitely Scalzi’s. But the plot … the villain of the piece is obvious almost from the moment they appear. There is no subtlety, no ingenuity to this mystery. The details of its implementation, sure, that’s clever. But the motives, the human element of the mystery? Predictable. Bland. Uninteresting.
For the entire time I was reading it, I enjoyed Lock In. It’s a good ride, and that includes the conclusion. I think Scalzi is one of the best writers of “unadorned, unapologetic crowning moments of awesome”. But there comes a point where so many such moments together start to feel like overindulging on candy. And just like binging on candy, you’re left feeling both sick and wired. And that’s not a great feeling.
So Lock In is a fun novel. I liked it. I recommend it. But for all the murder and intrigue it contains, it lacks the chewy centre that would make it worth more than an afternoon’s read. The mystery was not all that complex, and the thoughts it provoked were transitory. I don’t find myself ruminating on it much. By all means, pick it up, but it does not quite measure up to what I want to see from Scalzi.
Mmm, it’s good to dip back into the Laundry Files universe for a little while. Charles Stross is in fine form with Equoid, a delightfully creepy takeMmm, it’s good to dip back into the Laundry Files universe for a little while. Charles Stross is in fine form with Equoid, a delightfully creepy take on unicorn mythology guest starring a young H.P. Lovecraft. Bob Howard is itching to get out of the office, and in a classic case of careful-what-you-wish-for, he gets sent to a country farm with a unicorn infestation. Zombies and tactical teams and chaos and destruction ensues.
The Laundry Files is a great series because Stross attempts to tell a monster story where the government knows about the supernatural and has an agency tasked to deal with supernatural threats. But unlike so many other fictional government organizations devoted to fighting the supernatural, the Laundry is not magically exempt from bureaucracy and incompetence. Not only does Bob have to deal with unicorn infestations, but he also has layers of management breathing down his neck as well. This side of the Laundry doesn’t take the foreground here, but Stross still manages some bureaucratic humour in the form of excerpts of requisition orders for unicorn-like shock troops. With each requisition, the refusal and cancellation by the Cabinet Office becomes terser and more irate.
No, Bob spends most of his time in the field here. His only intel comes from an outdated file with bits of H.P. Lovecraft’s private correspondence, in which he relates his encounter with an equoid brood queen during his adolescence. This is enough to give Bob an idea of the magnitude of the equoid threat. In typical Stross fashion, the situation is described in clinical, scientific terms. The Laundry might be fantasy, but it is hard fantasy, if such a thing exists.
Bob’s brief trip into rural England allows Stross to poke fun at some of the stereotypes of the country as well. Bob’s partner for this mission is Greg, a local Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs inspector with a Land Rover and an over-animated beard. He’s chummy with the people who own the farm under investigation, and from there Stross extrapolates all sorts of interesting country and village dynamics involving the owners of the farm and the local police. In some ways the village seems a little underpopulated—this being a novella, most of the action focuses on Bob at the cost of failing to flesh out many of the minor characters. But you get the sense that this is a close-knit community, which makes the horror in its midst all the more devastating.
The best and worst part of Equoid, however, is its pace. “Nonstop” does not accurately describe how fast this story goes. This makes for an exciting read. However, there is also a lot here, and while Stross is a dab hand at the exposition, sometimes it goes over my head simply from how fast it goes. This could have been a novel in another life—it works great as a novella, especially because the story stands alone and requires no knowledge of the Laundry Files. But even for a novella it is quite densely packed. It’s exactly what one might want from a novella on occasion: an immersive, powerful story with a sympathetic protagonist and a quirky supporting cast. Stross fans will recognize his usual, analytical style, and newcomers will find the setting accessible. Equoid is an equitable novella of Lovecraftian horror and unicorn nightmare.
My roommate, Julie, got this for me as a birthday gift. (She also gave me a rather nifty silicone baking pan with Doctor Who–themed moulds in each ofMy roommate, Julie, got this for me as a birthday gift. (She also gave me a rather nifty silicone baking pan with Doctor Who–themed moulds in each of the cups.) We share an affinity for Doctor Who; I feel particularly lucky to be living in England during the 50th anniversary year. I’ll get to go watch the anniversary special in theatres on the night it premieres (in Canada, because my city is not particularly blessed, I’d have to wait until Monday to see it in theatres, and then what’s the point?). More generally, living in England has given me a different perspective on Doctor Who by exposing me to elements of culture that have helped shaped the show. Of course, it goes the other way too—elements of Doctor Who have seeped into British life, and arguably the success of the show affected the lifestyles of families in Britain.
So I was quite excited to read Fifty Years in Time and Space: A Short History of Doctor Who. It’s from an independent publisher out of the way and is, in fact, signed by the author. And this provenance shows in some aspects of its production: the typesetting is very minimalist, with no running headers or footers aside from page numbers, and a few typos here and there that more careful copy-editing might have spotted; I am sceptical that much editing of any sort happened, which I’ll address shortly. However, Frank Danes delivers exactly what he promises on the cover: it is a history of the show, and it is relatively short. Indeed, he goes somewhat beyond that, delivering a very detailed history despite its brevity.
Danes takes the show mostly in chronological order. He expresses his hope in the introduction that readers will "forgive me for jumping around and pursuing the bits I’m most interested in", adding that his analysis "coloured by my own critical preferences". And, fair enough. So are my reviews. So Danes starts with the origins of Doctor Who, the First Doctor, the concept of regeneration, and each Doctor thereafter. He points out some of the most significant episodes, explains why certain companions or Doctors chose to stay or go, and gives interesting behind-the-scenes information on costume and prop designs, production and script development, and the show’s reception in the eyes of fans and the BBC itself.
This chronological order makes a lot of sense at face value, but it also leads to problems. Danes claims his secondary objective is to chart the way Doctor Who’s attitudes towards politics and the presentation of current events changes. One would think that a chronological approach would be the most conducive to such a survey. Yet the staggering amount of history to Doctor Who belies such a simplistic method. It results in much repetition from Danes, and what he doesn’t end up repeating, the reader needs to retain and recall when it becomes important again, fifty pages on.
A more ambitious yet more effective approach would involve a more deliberate organization based on themes, characters, and issues that recur throughout the fifty years of the show. Instead of a chapter, roughly, for each Doctor, Danes could have tracked the evolution of humour, of the monsters, of the role of the companion, etc., within each chapter. He could have spent a chapter talking about regeneration and the various ways the Doctors have been cast, and a chapter devoted solely to the series’ tumultuous relationship with its parent company. There would inevitably be some overlap and repetition, but with some careful authorial choices, it would be manageable. And the result would likely be a more coherent book than this.
For, regardless of its considerably informational value, Fifty Years in Time and Space is pages upon pages of a wall of text. Open the book to any page, and you are confronted with truly massive, back-breaking paragraphs. Danes wrings every detail out of his discussions, carefully noting story titles, dates, actor names, etc. I commend his commitment to such fidelity, but it comes at the cost of readability. It took me several days to read this book, and while I’m used to non-fiction taking longer, I felt noticeably slowed down by slogging through the writing here.
Having finished all 272 pages of this, I rather feel like I’ve spent several hours trapped in an elevator with a Doctor Who fan with encyclopedic knowledge of the show. He knows a lot about the show, so much so that he can’t resist sharing it with you in a long, rambling, unbroken series of lectures that you just can’t stop. You learn lots of interesting things along the way, but once you escape from the elevator and the fan (who follows you once you leave the elevator, because you regained your freedom in the middle of his dissertation on the production problems of Colin Baker’s last season, so you have to lose him by doubling-back and hiding in a nearby restaurant) you realize that you will probably forget most of it, and that you really want to watch some Doctor Who.
No regrets whatsoever about swallowing this walrus, but it’s left me interested in seeing what someone can do with a little more consideration and more careful editing.
I really need to stop going into bookstores. With a title like Why Rousseau Was Wrong, how could I not buy it? It didn’t help that the author, is theI really need to stop going into bookstores. With a title like Why Rousseau Was Wrong, how could I not buy it? It didn’t help that the author, is the dean of the local cathedral, was sitting behind the table with the last two or three copies, and engaged me in a nice conversation before offering to sign the book for me. I didn’t quite mention that I was an atheist. Perhaps she suspected from my tone or body language—at least, probably, she suspected I was irreligious or agnostic. So, I was a little sceptical that a book about the importance of the Church to modern day Britain would be for me. But I do make a point of reading books that challenge my preconceived notions and engage me, and I suspected this book would do so.
The title of the book, as well as its subtitle, Christianity and the Secular Soul, hints at Ward’s thesis. She is arguing against the received notions of individuality handed down from Enlightenment thinkers (she targets mainly the long line of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau but spares some time for a sideline exploration of Hegel, Nietszche, and Foucault later in the book) and taken as an integral part of the secular soul. Ward argues that this emphasis on individuality, coupled with an intense devotion to utilitarian ends rather means, has made a significant contribution to a sense of cultural and spiritual impoverishment that fuels events like the 2011 London riots. Ward believes the Christian faith—and, to be specific, the type of community predicated upon a Christian Church, like the Church of England—holds the solution to this spiritual impoverishment. I hate books that point out flaws in society but don’t actually offer any solutions, so I’m quite happy to read about how Ward thinks the Church can succeed where she believes secular humanism has failed.
In Part One, Ward takes care of some definitions—what exactly she means by the secular soul, secular humanism, etc.—and takes aim at liberal egalitarianism. In her view, this approach to thinking is too simplistic in its definition of equality:
In Western culture individuals are led to believe that each “has the right” to consider herself equal to everyone else. However, she soon learns that she is not equal: there are people who are greater and lesser than her—in all sorts of ways: more beautiful, less intelligent, poorer, more friendly, healthier, less patient. Bauman argues that in a society where worth is measured primarily in materialist terms, then that sense of “equality” can quickly turn sour, fostering resentment against those who have more material goods.
Secular humanism ditches the concept of faith in a deity, leaving a void—spiritual impoverishment. We fill this void with physical goods—materialism. But because wealth is not equally distributed, not to mention all sorts of other attributes, we can’t be equal on a materialist level, causing the sort of resentment that can result in rioting. Hence, Ward argues that Britain has become “brittle” as a consequence of this impoverishment. She wants to re-focus the notion of equality by grounding it in the Church: we are all equal under God.
I think Ward makes several valid observations about the dangers of materialism and the somewhat nihilistic obsession with wealth, fame, and status that permeates a lot of Western culture. The “American dream” of riches resulting from simple hard work and perseverance largely a myth fed to the masses. Media help to keep us caught in a constant negative feedback loop of self-image: buy this to look like that; eat like this to feel like that; do this to be regarded like that. I can understand the appeal of the simple, spiritually-based egalitarianism that Ward is proposing.
While Ward makes the case, then, that the Church might be a sufficient vector for egalitarianism (and there are all sorts of deeper issues with the inherent discrimination of the institutional ideological praxis that I’m just ignoring right now), I don’t agree that it is a necessary vector. I think it’s possible to have a secular soul that is still rich in spirit, in a moral if not religious sense. I don’t agree that morality is informed only by religion, and I think it’s possible to arrive a state of society where we are secular, moral, and spiritually rich. (That state of spiritual richness, though, requires an awareness and appreciation of our religious—and predominantly Christian, in the Western world—heritage that some secular humanists don’t always acknowledge.)
In Part Two, Ward seizes upon Edmund Burke as her heroic sceptic of Rousseau and his Enlightenment buddies. She examines the Enlightenment’s gradual departure from the Christian philosophy that dominated prior to the seventeenth century, and she links the Enlightenment’s well-meaning conclusions and endorsement of democracy to the terrors of the Terror, the Jacobins, and later, communist dictatorships. She links the secular soul that emerged from the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the individualist fulfilment of “forced” liberty at the expense of social cohesion, to the dangers of a direct and unchecked democracy. As far as I can tell, her argument is that we need a certain configuration of bodies of authority within our governance structure—and in her view, the Church is an essential such body.
It’s hard to argue with some of these conclusions, in the sense that, yeah, the Enlightenment did cause lots of people in France to go off the rails for a little bit. It seems a little equivocal to focus on these failings of the movement, however, while acknowledging but dismissing the comparable failings of Christianity as an institution. Ward is happy to admit that numerous bloody actions have been commmitted in the name of the Christian faith, but she doesn’t draw the same conclusion that she does from her critique of the Enlightenment thinkers. In both cases, political activists have seized upon a conveniently popular philosophy for their own ends. The Enlightenment and the Terror are both products of a larger dissatisfaction with the corrupt state of absolute monarchy in Europe at the time.
Ward also succumbs, briefly, to a somewhat romantic view of other cultures—primarily “Eastern”, Asian ones—and their notions of family and society. She lauds the corporate nature of such families, with more than two generations living under one roof, and a healthy respect and veneration of one’s elders. Fair enough—Western society could make it easier for elderly people to maintain their dignity as they age, and this is a problem we will confront in the next few decades as the Boomers start to retire. I would agree that our emphasis on individualism bears some of the blame. That being said, Ward employs a stereotype of the wise, serene Asian culture when she implies that the vast network of diverse traditions and corporate philosophies that seem to permeate Asia is as holistic or beneficent as it would appear to the outsider. China v. Tibet anyone?
Part Three of Why Rousseau Was Wrong focuses mainly on the Anglian Church as Ward’s metre-stick for what a Church community can offer. And I get it. I really do. I understand what makes the Church awesome. I recognize that, regardless of what one actually believes, church congregations are an excellent source of community and friendship. They provide a reassuring sense of stability and understanding. And the Church offers what we all need at some point or another: forgiveness. So, if Ward’s premise that society needs to become more corporate to be less brittle is true, I agree that the Church could a sufficient source of that spirit, albeit not a necessary one.
This is the central point of my resistance to Ward’s attack on secular humanism: it’s not done yet. Christianity took thousands of years to become what it is today—it is still in flux, still evolving and adapting to the changing needs of its flocks. Why can’t we extend the same tolerance towards secular humanism? By this I mean that it’s unrealistic to expect people to develop new philosophies that somehow spring fully formed from the head of Zeus without so much as a flaw. Ward is very quick to argue that religion is an essential component of being human. I’d argue we’re still trying to figure that one out, and these centuries are just growing pains in that larger experiment. It’s backward to assume that just because certain applications or derivations of secular humanism haven’t produced the best results that the only or best course of action is to retreat back into religion. We are bound to stumble and make more mistakes in our search for alternative social paradigms.
I’m less resistant to Ward’s overarching argument regarding corporatism versus individualism. I think she makes some good points about our obsession with utilitarian thinking and ends versus means. Part Four of Why Rousseau Was Wrong is all about education and how Ward thinks it should change. I’m very ambivalent about this part of the book.
On one hand, I have now been exposed to two different types of education systems. In my home province of Ontario, we shuffle students along until high school, at which point they need pass a certain number of courses to earn a diploma and graduate. The marks they get in those courses are less important, relevant really for scholarships and post-secondary applications than they are for job opportunities. Here in England, education is much more standardized and test-driven. Students get shuffled along with their year group, regardless of their achivement each year, then sit standardized tests. Consequently, unless there is any kind of coursework involved in the subject, the teacher has no determination in the student’s grade: the teacher exists merely to prepare the student to sit the examination. And the tests are so dry, so boring, that such preparation and revision often seems like a thankless and dull task—it’s no wonder students check out and become uninterested in school!
So I’m sick and tired of telling my students they need to learn something or do something because “it will be on your test” (and there is plenty on those tests that they learn because it is on the test, and only because it is on the test). I try, when possible, to provide other, extrinsic explanations of the value of their knowledge. But in the end, it’s the same: an instrumental approach to education instead of an attempt to foster an intrinsic love for learning. Le sigh.
On the other hand, the way Ward describes her discontent with the education system makes me somewhat leery. I think she is approprating the term child-centred education to criticize particular facets of the education system that I don’t view as essential to its child-centredness. To me, child-centred education begins with the basic notion that children are different—and this does not have to be associated with ideas of individuality. To facilitate learning, teachers must be aware of these differences and employ different strategies that make sense for different groups of children. Finally, child-centred education is usually constructivist, in that it prefers to allow children to experiment and discover knowledge instead of simply wrapping it up and presenting it to them as a gift. In my view, this better fulfils Ward’s desire for an intrinsic love of learning anyway.
I’m also uncomfortable with Ward’s emphasis on education’s role in teaching character and moral values. In particular, she naturally advocates for Church-run schools or schools that provide English students with a grounding in Christian traditions. While England does have an established church, unlike many other Western democracies, I don’t think this should mean that students need a “church education”. I’m still not sure to what extent educators should be shaping youth in terms of moral values and character. By all means, teach citizenship and an appreciation for religions, including Christianity and its historical impact on English society. However, I worry about distinguishing between teaching an appreciation for Christianity and teaching that it is some kind of authority.
As for the overall philosophical argument of corporatism versus individualism and the Church’s ability to foster the former, I think Ward has highlighted several pressing problems with British society, and while I am not fully on board with her solutions, I appreciate her attempts to provide them. Why Rousseau Was Wrong is a very detailled and high-level analysis of these issues. It contains the type of balanced and considered argument I would expect from an academic, and for that reason I’d happily recommend it to people who share my lack of faith (Darth Vader finds this disturbing). However, her arguments often seem over-broad compared to conclusions that are somewhat narrow; in her attempts to pitch the Church as the best solution to this problem, she chooses to approach secular humanism from a very specific epistemological starting point. It seems to me that there are more alternatives, that Rousseau was certainly wrong about many things, but that the secular soul still has some life left in it.
P.S. This book is inexplicably on a list of “Awful Authors”, which seems upon further investigation merely to be a list of books critical of rationalism or humanism. At the time of this writing, I am the only one who has reviewed or even rated this book on Goodreads. I contacted the person who added this book to the list, imploring them to remove it from the list or at least read the book and rate it before judging it prematurely. To date, I have not received a response. I’m disappointed that someone committed to secular humanism would take such a dogmatic approach rather than keep an open mind.
I admit there was a bit of a high-pitched shriek on Twitter the day I found out Neil Gaiman had a new novel coming out. Mind you, this is about on schI admit there was a bit of a high-pitched shriek on Twitter the day I found out Neil Gaiman had a new novel coming out. Mind you, this is about on schedule for him—he seems to have one steeped and ready every four or five years. Gaiman is a prolific author but has never confined himself to any one genre or form. Indeed, as I glanced over his bibliography page on Wikipedia, I was surprised to see that he has written much more in the way of juvenile fiction than adult novels. I guess, since I became more aware of Gaiman as an adult, I’ve always thought of him as a writer of adult novels that happen to also have an audience in children. The Ocean at the End of the Lane carries on in this tradition, though there are some additional nuances to this idea that I’d like to explore later on.
My original plan had been to buy this book right away (because I couldn’t wait) but save it for my flight home at the end of July—I like to take a book I’m confident of enjoying and savouring, and this seemed like just the thing. I severely underestimated my willpower. I rationalize my decision after the fact by pointing out that at this edition’s 248 pages, it would not last very long on my eight-hour flight. In any event, I dug into The Ocean at the End of the Lane over the weekend and enjoyed almost every minute of it.
The narrator is a middle-aged man who “makes art” and has returned to the village of his childhood for a funeral. This awakens memories probably best left forgotten, memories of a time when he was seven years old. A misadventure with Lettie Hempstock, an ostensible 11-year-old living with her mother and ancient grandmother at the end of the lane, results in them letting something loose into the world, something that isn’t meant to be here. The narrator (whose name we never learn) is the door; he is integral to getting the creature to return from where it came, and the creature doesn’t want to go back.
I just love how Gaiman explains things in the seven-year-old’s voice:
I wished I had never let go of Lettie’s hand. Ursula Monkton was my fault, I was certain of it, and I would not be able to get rid of her by flushing her down a plughole, or putting frogs in her bed.
Having gone on an adventure, the children fail to follow the golden rule—whether it’s to stay on the path, or not to look back, or not to let go—and this results in something very bad happening indeed. In this case, as is often the case it isn’t really the narrator’s fault; he’s just a scared little kid who is too far out of his depth. Sometimes, these problems are inevitable.
The creature takes on the form of Ursula Monkton and insinuates herself into the narrator’s household as a housekeeper, ingratiating herself with everyone else except the narrator. He sees through her thin disguise right away, which causes the creature to panic and think up new and inventive ways to make his life miserable. They engage in the classical arena between monster and child: a battle of wits and will. No one except the child recognizes the monster for what it is, and the monster promises that nothing can ever save the child. Ursula slowly twists the child’s family members, turning them away from him. The mother is out all the time, working a second job or raising money for a charity; the sister loves Ursula and is all-too-ready to side with her against her brother; the father becomes smitten with Ursula, and we get to watch that progress through a child’s eyes.
Gaiman refers to this as “a novel about survival” (the back cover of this edition gives him space for a brief statement), and I can see why. This is not a typical childhood adventure; there is no quest or journey here. It’s a raw, primal fight against an external force that amplifies the mundane concerns of childhood: the loss of attention/affection from one’s parents, the loss of hope against seemingly impossible odds, the vague sense that actually attaining the future seems to be more difficult with each passing year. Children, as the Maurice Sendak epigraph reminds us at the beginning of the book, experience some impressive nadirs of fear and uncertainty that adults, in our quest to idealize the supposed innocence of the past, are so eager to forget or marginalize. Gaiman takes these experiences and puts them front and centre.
The sense of dread builds palpably during Ursula’s reign of terror. The fact that the narrator obviously survives into adulthood doesn’t undercut the tension; we don’t know how, or what price he pays. We don’t know if he vanquishes Ursula or if he has merely run away, only to have to face her now, as an adult. Gaiman demonstrates the power that flashback has to frame and provide context for a story, even while it keeps the ultimate resolution ambiguous right until the end. It’s a very well-plotted, exquisitely crafted endeavour.
I think it would be a mistake to call this a children’s novel, or a young adult novel, just because of the age of the narrator. It’s no such thing. It is, perhaps, a novel that could appeal to a certain age and attitude of young adult. Simply put, though, The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t about childhood; it’s about the relationship we, as adults, have with our childhoods. That’s why the story is told as a flashback, bookended by the narrator’s contemporary presence at the Hempstocks’ farm. That’s why the emphasis is on memory. The complex, ever-changing solution to the unbalanced equation of identity, of what it means to be “a child” or “an adult”, is at the centre of this book.
It’s there in the very first sentence. The adult narrator describes his presence at the funeral: “I wore a black suite and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult.” Despite being grown and having kids of his own, he still feels like wearing such adult clothing marks him as an imposter. This theme, that we never really “grow up”, continues throughout the book. It’s the reason the narrator can’t seek help from any adults (aside from the Hempstocks, who are exempt):
Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.
The idea that you “grow up” and somehow life gets easier is a lie. Childhood has its pitfalls, and I quite like being able to eat as much candy as I want and stay up as late as I want. But getting older doesn’t mean I’m any more sure of what I’m doing than I was when I was seven. If anything, I’m even less sure: the awesome reality of the obstacles in my way is now a solid, dense wall instead of the diaphanous, hardly remarkable fence that it was back in the day. We all have dreams, but those dreams are far less tangible—and therefore much easier to entertain—when you haven’t paid for years of schooling to make them happen. When the narrator says, at one point, that “Adults follow paths. Children explore”, he means more than just walking. There is a sense of playfulness that most of us have as children, and that playfulness tends to atrophy as we get older. I think some of the happiest, most well-adjusted adults are those who manage to hold on to that playfulness even as they nurture the maturity and self-control that age hopefully conveys.
So, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is decidedly an adult novel about childhood. Gaiman plays with the conceits of having a child narrator. His prose, although always packed with interesting turns of phrase and dazzling description, has the spare, lean quality of someone recounting a fuzzy, faded memory. It meanders slightly and is sparse in some areas. I really enjoyed the act of reading this book for these reasons—a lot of books about childhood have an intrusive, adult narrator who tends to inject so much of their own hindsight into proceedings.
And then there’s the Hempstocks: Old Mrs., Ginnie, and Lettie, in order of generations. It’s significant that the Hempstocks are named while the narrator and his parents are not. They are that important, not just to the story but to this entire world. They seem to be, at least as far as we know, unique entities—not quite gods, but something more than human. Hence the clipped references to world-walking and reality-shaping, the all-too-on-the-nose “wormholes” and, of course, Lettie’s deceptive, eponymous ocean. Lettie appears to be a child but is also implied to be very old, once again emphasizing the notion that childhood and adulthood are more closely related and far less binary notions than we might believe.
If Ursula is the Big Bad Monster of the story, then the Hempstocks are definitely the Forces for Good. They are just comforting in the way that only a knowledgeable grandmother like Old Mrs. Hempstock can be. When the narrator finally makes it to them for help, you just want to run into their embrace with him, relieved in the knowledge that you are, at least for the moment, safe. They bear much resemblance to many of Gaiman’s similar supernatural creations, such as certain gods from American Gods, or some of the beings who populate the world of the Sandman series. (For all we know, the Hempstocks are somewhere, out there, and have run into the Endless once or twice.)
I don’t want to get too far into spoiler territory discussing the climax of the book. I am very intrigued by the relative responsibility that the narrator and Lettie have for the narrator’s survival. In this battle, the narrator is hopelessly outmatched: he has none of the knowledge, none of the power that the Hempstocks can bring to bear against these other beings. The only thing he can trade on is himself—his life, his soul. And perhaps the willingness to sacrifice that is the proof that he is worthy of being saved….
Anyway, I suppose you should take all this with a grain of salt, since I can’t deny being an avid fan of Neil Gaiman’s work. I love all of his books and stories that I’ve read, even those I didn’t feel that I could give five stars to. In this case, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is worth those five stars. I should mention, I suppose, that the short length doesn’t bother me. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I found out it wasn’t four- or five-hundred pages. But it’s just the right length for the story that Gaiman tells, and with any book, such serendipity of writing and editing is a gift.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane fulfils all my expectations, but in utterly surprising ways. Gaiman fills a comfortable niche in the intersection between modern-day fantasy and literary fiction, providing a story that is enchanting and deep but also very familiar. The fantastic, here, is simply a dimension to our lives that is particularly prominent in childhood. Exposing it in effect exposes the changes that we undergo during that tenuous transition into the adult world. Uncovering it helps uncover those memories we have lost, or chosen to forget, simply because it’s easier. The best thing that a book can do for me is make me think. The Ocean at the End of the Lane has given me a lot to think about when it comes to childhood, memories, and our own uncertain past.
Full disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author. Yes, authors, you heard that right: you can send me your book, and I will read and reFull disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author. Yes, authors, you heard that right: you can send me your book, and I will read and review it. Hey, I’ll make it even easier for you: it doesn’t even have to be your book. You can send me any book! I have just a few suggestions if you aren’t sure what I would like. This message brought to you be the Organization for Ben Likes to Read Books.
So here we are again. The Epic series had kind of fallen off my radar for a while. I read the previous book, Hero way back in 2009! So it has been quite some time since I last hung out with Scott Remington and the Fourteenth of Novosibirsk. That’s a shame; I don’t exactly have time to re-read Hero, so I had to rely on any kind of recap available in Glorious Becoming to remember what was going on. Some of it came back easily, while other parts are probably still missing. The tight arc for this series’ plot and characters means that you are better off starting with the first book.
Four books in and Scott and his comrades are fighting a war that doesnt make sense. Aliens—the Bakma, Ceratopians, and Ithini—attack Earth intermittently, and the Earth Defense Network (EDEN) repels them. Why would aliens send down ground troops when they can just wipe us out with some carefully-placed tactical nukes? Or devastate our communications by detonating nuclear devices in the upper atmosphere? Or sneeze on us with their alien germs? Ground invasions make no sense.
But Lee Stephen knows this. It’s part of the plan. The war is a facade, a means to an end, and in Glorious Becoming, that end starts becoming clearer. (It is not, at least from the human perspective, all that glorious.) Up until now we’ve only had the fuzziest notion that what Judge Benjamin Archer and his co-conspirators are doing is not above board. Now the specifics of the situation are coming into focus, and it’s not good. The Bakma and Ithini are pawns; the Ceratopians might be good guys; there’s another alien species out there that holds one sex of each species hostage to ensure their obedience … I won’t go into spoiler territory here, but suffice it to say that if the previous books left you frustrated by the vagueness of the conspiracy angle, Glorious Becoming delivers some much-needed information.
I’m loving the conspiracy, not so much the uncovering of it. At times, Scott and the Fourteenth resemble the kids from Scooby-Doo, though they don’t so much split up and look for clues as they do sit around carefully honing their theories. Except that, from a few disparate pieces of information and some suspicions, they manage to close in on the truth rather easily. To be fair, Stephen lampshades this, with Svetlana pointing out that one can’t just jump to conclusions … but they kind of do. Moreover, the entire scene struck me as a clumsy way to advance the plot and move our protagonists from ignorance to enlightenment. Four books in, I’m glad we’re starting to get traction on this, but I could have gone for something more subtle, something as stylish and cleverly executed as the devious plot against Novosibirsk orchestrated by Archer. That was cool.
So Archer, Blake, and the other conspiring judges are bad guys, right? Yes. Maybe. I don’t know … they’re lying, certainly, but it also seems like they genuinely believe what they are do is in humanity’s best interests. It’s a fine line, and maybe they’ve crossed it—but we don’t have all the information yet. This moral ambiguity is what keeps Glorious Becoming’s antagonists from slipping down the steep slope of nefarious villainery right down to the moustache-twirling bottom. They are probably doing the wrong thing—but maybe they are doing it for the right reasons?
Isn’t that, after all, what Scott and his crew spend most of their time doing? Glorious Becoming really kicks off after Scott, Esther, Jay, Auric, and Boris are sent to Cairo on a clandestine operation. That’s right: EDEN operations being sent to spy on another EDEN base. That General Thoor is one messed up dude. The trouble is, Scott, despite all the things he has done during his fall into the Nightmen, is still a nice guy. He likes (maybe more than likes) his new commanding officer, Captain Natalie Rockwell. She likes (probably more than likes) him. So he wrestles with the ethics of lying to her, pretending to be the genuine article when in fact he is planning to betray her and orchestrate a Ceratopian jailbreak before returning to Novosibirsk. At the same time, he has to deal with the fractures within his squad as a result of conflict between him and Esther and Varvara’s cuckolding of Jay from the previous book. Oh, and Thoor keeps holding Svetlana over Scott’s head like a … well, like a hostage.
The acronym for the situation is “FUBAR”. Or, in this case, “VUBAR”, since Stephen insists on using made-up profanity. But it is messed up: ethically, politically, and personally. War is hell.
While we’re on the matter of personal problems and Scott and Esther and Scott and Natalie (and Scott and Svetlana, for that matter) … can we please stop having all these women fall for Scott? I know he’s rugged and handsome and has that Midwestern All-American Heart-of-Gold Good-Soldier Award grafted to his chest … but it’s just awkward. It’s not that Scott’s a Mary Sue—he certainly has his flaws—but he can’t go for a walk without stumbling over a chick who’s hot for him.
Glorious Becoming also adds an unconventional cast member: Tauthin the Bakma has an expanded role. Scott makes some progress communicating/interrogating him, and Svetlana does even better. Not only does his alien perspective provide a valuable source of exposition, but I always enjoy when we get to know “the enemy” better. Svetlana’s compassion, and Tauthin’s decision towards the end of the book despite everything else he does, provide an intriguing set up for things to come even as they demonstrate that not all is black and white. Some enemies are enemies, some could be allies, and some are probably a fair way in between.
It’s difficult for me to compare this book to its predecessors because of the large gap—but I’ll try. Whereas the previous books have focused a lot on action and chronicling Scott’s rise through the ranks to a position of leadership, Glorious Becoming puts on the brakes in that respect. There are a few action scenes—particularly the harrowing sequence after Scott’s team’s cover is blown in Cairo—but the bulk of this book consists of suspense and the gradual unspooling of mystery. Thanks to the clandestine operation at Cairo, Archer’s plot against Novosibirsk, and yes, the romantic shenanigans, Glorious Becoming is a solid story in its own right. On the other hand, in many ways it also feels like a bridge into the next book, where I presume the new political reality in which Scott finds himself will require dramatic changes in tactics and priorities.
Military science fiction, particularly near-future stuff, isn’t always my cup of tea. I’m more about the technology and its implications, and aside from some cool fighter jets and an alien spaceship, that’s largely absent from the Epic series. Fighting a war against extraterrestrials has led to a few advances, but from what we get to see, life outside the military is pretty much like it is in the present day. What the series lacks in gadgets, though, it makes up for in story—intriguing ideas about wars that aren’t really wars and alien chess games in which Earth, and humanity, are just a tiny corner of a galactic gambit.
The Last Colony was the triumphant conclusion to the trilogy of John Perry and Jane Sagan vs. the Universe. Reluctant leaders of the new Roanoke colonThe Last Colony was the triumphant conclusion to the trilogy of John Perry and Jane Sagan vs. the Universe. Reluctant leaders of the new Roanoke colony, John and Jane manage to stave off a couple of deadly attacks and do an end-run around the Colonial Union brinksmanship that would otherwise have proved deadly for the colony in the long term. And they do this all while being the adoptive parents of a sixteen-year-old who is also beloved of a terrifying efficient alien species.
Zoë is one of the best things about The Last Colony, so she is a good choice for a spin-off/tie-in book. Scalzi also hints that she has significant adventures of her own—and that’s even before John sends her off on an Obin ship to pay a visit to General Gau and somehow she returns with a Consu sapper field generator. Zoe’s Tale is more than just a retelling, then; it adds new, “deleted scenes” that were not in the original.
I highly recommend Zoe’s Tale if you’ve read The Last Colony. I suspect which one you like better will largely be a matter of taste (as in, if you have taste, you will agree with me that this one is better). However, I don’t think this book will be as satisfying if you haven’t already experienced The Last Colony. I left a nearly ideal gap in between reading that book and this one: long enough that my memories of the events had begun to fade, but not so long that I was a little lost when Scalzi didn’t spell things out explicitly.
As he mentions in his afterword, writing a “retelling” book is more difficult than it might seem. I like to think of it as breaking the fifth wall, like when I try to poke around into the houses and lives of NPCs in video games. In the good ol’ days of PC gaming Star Trek: Elite Force and whatnot, I’d use the console commands to turn off clipping and explore the map for hidden areas, discovering enemies just waiting until they were transported onto the map. Breaking this fifth wall reminds you that storytelling is a perspective-dependent illusion: shift the perspective a little, and suddenly things start to break down. The secondary characters are not independent beings; they don’t have lives and timelines separate from whatever the requirements of the narrative demand. So when you try to turn things around and explore their lives, you run into interesting conundrums of continuity and motivation that you have to address.
For the most part, Scalzi does pretty well here. Zoë is an interesting departure from the previous characters of the Old Man’s War series. Unlike John and Jane, she has never served as a soldier in the Colonial Defense Force. She is, at heart, a teenage girl. This makes for a radically different narrator (or it should—once again, Scalzi seems unable to keep a minimum level of sardonic smugness out of his characters) with very different priorities. Having spent several years living on Huckleberry with John and Jane, now, Zoë has of course acquired certain traits from them. But Zoe’s Tale allows us to get a much better idea of how much she has become her own person.
In particular, Scalzi has more time to explore Zoë’s complex relationship with the Obin and what this signifies for her and for them. Though this relationship is a huge plot point in The Last Colony, it’s always mediated through John’s limited understanding of the situation. Now we see it through the eyes of its object: Zoë is a kind of idol for the Obin, as well as a role model. It’s something she is never comfortable with, yet events force her to adjust to this status and learn how to wield it, when necessary.
This culminates with Zoë’s trip to Gau, which involves a sideline where she agrees to let Obin fight Consu convicts to the death. (Don’t ask.) Up until this point, I was enjoying the book, but reading it was mostly the sensation of coasting through a comfortable story. The moral dilemmas inherent in Zoë’s use of the Obin here, however, got my attention. I love the way she agonizes over what’s happening, then makes her decision and manipulates the Consu. And then when the Obin demonstrate what I can only describe as loyalty to Zoë, I was nearly in tears. It’s touching, and wonderful, and I love that Scalzi manages to pull it off with making Zoë like a Mary Sue—she beats the Consu, yes, but only in a limited arena.
Indisputably a companion novel in this series, Zoe’s Tale nevertheless has plenty to offer on its own. If you’re still reading these novels, there’s no reason to skip over this one. And there’s so much potential here for more stories about Zoë: what does she do as a young adult? How does her relationship with the Obin involve? I’d be happy to read another book told from her perspective.
Full disclosure: I received this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. Loves me the free books.
In Wikinomics, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. WilliamsFull disclosure: I received this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. Loves me the free books.
In Wikinomics, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams argue that the Internet has irrevocably altered the way corporations and businesses will interact and develop new products and services. The proprietary, closed models of research and design are obsolete and must be replaced by mass collaboration with outside talent. Companies that do not embrace this new ethic of economics, the eponymous wikinomics, will be left behind, their innovation too glacial for a world where news moves at the speed of the trending topics on Twitter.
As I said in my review of Wikinomics, I am biased because of my generation. A lot of what Tapscott and Williams argue just feels right to me because this is how I have grown up using technology; I don't really understand any other model. My criticisms of Wikinomics were mostly directed toward the authors' style and rhetoric, and the same is true for Macrowikinomics. The books share the same effusive tone that makes me wince for how it must sound to the truly sceptical. However, this sequel has managed to win me over in a way the business-oriented Wikinomics did not. One thing I noticed with Wikinomics was how dated it felt, even though it was written only in 2006. In contrast, Macrowikinomics is a lot more topical and much more embedded within the current events of 2008-2010, yet it paradoxically feels like it will age more slowly. It owes this success to its expanded scope and more ambitious premises. By applying wikinomics in a more general setting, Tapscott and Williams make a more convincing case for its relevance.
Macrowikinomics covers several topics of contemporary importance. The CBC Spark interview covers some of them with Tapscott. After introducing their concept and bringing those who did not read the first book up to speed, Tapscott and Williams briefly cover how they think wikinomics will help to avoid any repeats of the 2008 financial crisis (more open data means more watchdogs). However, the book really hits its stride in part III: "Reindustrializing the Planet." Here, Macrowikinomics does what Wikinomics didn't: it makes me angry.
Oh, not angry at the book! No, Tapscott and Williams blithely discuss how wikinomics is beneficial for the transition away from fossil fuels, and although their conclusions and futuristic scenarios often err on the side of optimism, much of their analysis is valid. And so, the normally level-headed and mellow Ben feels the first signs of rage simmering beneath his placid surface. It's those darn global warming deniers! We know the effects of carbon dioxide emissions on the atmosphere. I am convinced by the evidence that humans are a significant contributor to global warming—however, even if one is not, doesn't it make sense to curb our emissions anyway? At some point, whether or not one agrees that we have already passed it, we'll be emitting too much carbon dioxide, and the Earth will not be a happy place to live. The same goes for our dependence on fossil fuels. Maybe the opponents of the transition to clean energy are right, and there are vast, untapped reserves of oil. That does not change the fact that oil is a finite, non-renewable resource; we are using it faster than it can be replenished by several oils of magnitude. Eventually we're going to have to kick our oil habit—isn't it better to do it now, while we can phase out oil gradually?
Of course, the people who deny human culpability in global warming and the danger of our dependence on fossil fuels often do so out of a particularly insidious version of myopia. We humans are notoriously bad at our long-range planning, preferring to jump from crisis to crisis as our evolution has conditioned us to do. The result is a sort of "not in my lifetime" deferral of the problems of global warming, fossil fuel dependency, etc.—and this, of course, is where my generational bias rears its head. My generation rather worries we're the ones who will ultimately have to deal with these problems (or else)! Yet we are only just beginning to come of age and exert an influence on the conventional halls of power—corporations, governments, NGOs, etc. So understand that for us, the distributed approach to solving these problems that wikinomics champions feels natural and effective because it's largely all we have. Our governments mumble about "emissions targets" and "carbon taxes" even as our world leaders fly off on expensive jets to international summits where they talk about treaties that, if ever signed, are never really honoured. Our poor politicians are trapped between the rock of the powerful, well-funded corporate lobbyists and the increasingly-vocal youth calling out for change. Change, however, is slow in coming. And if our governments are slow in implementing clean energy, designing intelligent electrical grids, and subsidizing automobile innovation, then we are going to do it ourselves.
Our methods are as various and diverse as our demographic: we might generate our own electricity and sell it back to the grid, we might help design vehicles that are more efficient, or maybe we'll develop and contribute to apps that track our carbon footprints. One of the more reassuring points that Tapscott and Williams make is that, contrary to how I sometimes feel, one does not have to be an expert in everything. Sometimes, with all of the issues that seem to be clamouring for my attention, I am just overwhelmed by the amount of information available to me. It's impossible to become an expert in everything, so I must rely on other experts to tell me what I should think, and that always opens me up to the danger of being misled—one Andrew Wakefield, and suddenly I'm running around, not vaccinating my children! Tapscott and Williams have a suggestion to help mitigate such problems: openness and participation. Just as they believe that being open about the methods for calculating derivatives and risks will prevent repeats of the 2008 financial crisis, they are very adamant about opening up R&D for transportation and encouraging innovation in the clean energy sector. I don't need to be an expert in car design, because there are plenty of other car design experts out there who can focus on helping to build better cars. Meanwhile, I can contribute where I feel most comfortable. And that brings me to Macrowikinomics' take on education.
I am almost finished my undergraduate education. This was the last year of my honours bachelors degree in mathematics; next year I take "professional year" education courses and complete two sessions of student-teaching in schools. If all goes well, I'll be certified to teach grades 7-12 in Ontario, specifically in math and English. I've always wanted to be a teacher, even when I was a child. As I approach the attainment of that goal, I ruminate often on how I will teach. I have so many new options available to me, new technology and new strategies. As a new teacher, it threatens to be a little overwhelming, since I still have no experience. I'm sure I will find my way and develop strategies that work for me, as well as for my students. For now, I think about how I can bring my comfort and familiarity with current technology into the classroom and apply it to my teachables.
If Macrowikinomics made me angry about global warming, it made me excited about education. Tapscott and Williams tackle mostly the "ivory tower" of universities in the first chapter of part VI: "Learning, Discovery, and Well-Being", but they also mention projects in elementary and secondary schools of which they approve. Many of their proposals are controversial, and many of them seem obvious, and there is plenty of overlap between these two categories. It should come as no surprise that they want pedagogy to shift away from one-to-many delivery methods, such as the traditional professorial lecture, toward collaborative learning environments where teachers guide students toward making discoveries. They quote Seymour Papert: "The scandal of education is that every time you teach something, you deprive a [student] of the pleasure and benefit of discovery." This resonates with me. As a student, I have always loved learning, and that has made it easier for me than many of my peers. I know that I can't make every student love learning, but I can do my best. I can recognize that everyone learns differently and try to foster that difference rather than ignore it as I deliver the same lesson in the same style to the same bored faces.
Mostly, Macrowikinomics calls for a flexibility in the education system that would be as awesome as it is, at present, unattainable. Oh, I think components of their vision are very achievable—for example, I certainly hope to see open textbooks and additional platforms modelled after MIT's OpenCourseWare become more common. The success of OpenCourseWare and Khan Academy suggest that there is a niche traditional textbook and lecture-style learning is not satisfying. Some of Tapscott and Williams' suggestions are less likely to pass, at least in the near future: I think as long as universities are competing for government grants and corporate investments, it will be more difficult to collect credits from disparate institutions (through distance learning) and cobble them into a degree. Of course, Tapscott and Williams would like to see those institutions become collaborative at every level, not just when it comes to accreditation, and that would solve the problem—but the problem is a deep one, embedded with the very system itself. And I'm not going to tackle it myself … I'll be in high school, preparing the minds who probably will.
In the last two parts of the book prior to the conclusion, Macrowikinomics turns first to the dying newspaper industry and then to the effect of wikinomics on freedom and democracy. The former contains little that will be new if one has been paying any sort of attention to the news in the past five years: newspapers are dying, free is killing them, bits are cheaper than atoms, etc. It is a solid enough analysis, but it is not the strongest part of the book. I am pleased by the inclusion of the latter part, because it addresses some of the concerns I voiced in my review of Wikinomics about the absence of any perspectives from less developed nations. Again, it's not perfect, and sometimes I had to flip to the end notes to find the caveats about how the Internet can be used to the advantage of authoritarian regimes as well as a tool to fight against them. I'm still pleased by the inclusion of these topics, however, and for readers less familiar with how social networking has interacted with political activism, this part will hopefully be enlightening.
And yes, I get it: BMWs run Linux. The repetitive style that sometimes irked me in Wikinomics returns in all its glory. Also, if you have read Wikinomics, and especially if you read these in quick succession, some sections of this book will feel very familiar—in fact, some are reproduced verbatim from the first book. While I understand the need to familiarize newcomers with these ideas, and while it might be economical to save some time and effort by reusing older material, I found my attention wandering during these parts, because I had heard it all before.
Tapscott and Williams are at their best when they are discussing the new and amazing opportunities for innovation that the Internet and mass collaboration offer. They are, in a sense, charting the new techniques made possible by our new technology, both by interviewing the people who are setting trends and blazing trails and by making their own diagnoses and suggestions for how we can innovate using wikinomics. As with the previous books, they run into more trouble when they attempt to wax philosophical—their enthusiasm undermines their frequent reminders that wikinomics, the Internet, etc., are not panaceas. Similarly, their attempts to refute criticism of wikinomics and macrowikinomics are noble but unimpressive. Macrowikinomics is thorough, well-researched, and very much a manifesto.
Whether you consider this a good thing I will leave up to you. I, for one, plan to recommend this to people who I think will find it interesting, even if they might not agree with Tapscott and Williams' views. Unless you are an entrepreneur, investor, or corporate executive, I would advise you just to skip Wikinomics and go right to this book: it's everything Wikinomics is and more, and it's definitely worth reading. Macrowikinomics is neither the most insightful nor the most persuasive book about technology I've read, but it is provocative. It made me angry, and it made me inspired.
Jay Lake has been hovering around the edge of my observable SF/fantasy universe for a while now, finally entering that universe when I read his ClockwJay Lake has been hovering around the edge of my observable SF/fantasy universe for a while now, finally entering that universe when I read his Clockwork Earth series. Unfortunately, Mainspring disappointed me, and while the other two books in the trilogy were a big improvement on it, I was not much impressed. Sometime between acquiring Mainspring and reading it, however, I decided to buy this anthology from Subterranean Press.
I like novels more than I like short stories. Odd, I know: a bad short story takes much less time to read than a bad novel, so it should be less of a waste of time. But a great novel is a proportionally greater reward—what can I say? I’m a gambler! Single-author anthologies excel, however, in exposing the reader to a wide range of that author’s work. The Sky That Wraps is an excellent survey of Jay Lake, from the familiar surrounds of his fantasy milieux—including a story from his Clockwork Earth universe, and I confess I skimmed that one—to the exotic locales of a far-future, posthuman universe.
Even though I still can’t quite bring myself to love his voice the way I do some of his contemporary luminaries, I don’t begrudge Lake his standing in the field: his is a singular, creative mind. That’s obvious in all of the stories in this collection. Lake seems to thrive in an ambiguity that suits the short story form well: he doesn’t establish more of the world than he needs to. And he frustratingly sets up boxes we never get to open. So in the eponymous “The Sky That Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black”, we learn that the narrator destroyed a piece of alien technology that could have revealed the purpose of alien artifacts he now paints to sell as trinkets. It’s a lugubrious tale. And as much as I’d like to know what the artifact was, what those trinkets do, Lake never tells us. He chortles explicitly about this in his preface to “Journal of an Inmate”, telling us how the writer’s circle to whom he first showed the story demanded to know what was in the letter that the narrator destroys, unopened, at the conclusion of the tale. Lake is comfortable not taking the reader into his confidence in a way that few authors seem to be—I suspect this is one of the reasons Mainspring grated on me, because it always seemed like elements of the story were coming out of nowhere. For his short stories, however, this sleight of authorial hand is quite effective.
The two stories I mentioned above are both told from the perspective of a narrator who is a prisoner—or, in so many words, an exile. In fact, many of the characters in The Sky That Wraps are exiles in one form or another: in “Coming for Green” Samma is an exile in all but name as she traces Green’s footsteps; the Befores in Lake’s two Sunspin stories are very old, very special types of psychological exiles. Most of the protagonists in these stories are unique and usually lonely individuals walking through a world that doesn’t quite fit them. These stories of exile were, for the most part, really interesting. I really liked “To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves”, and I would love to see Lake’s planned space opera novels come to fruition. It tapped into some of my favourite posthuman tropes, like shipminds, in a stylized, high-stakes setting. I’m very interested in seeing that universe developed as a novel.
Then there are the weird stories, ones that verge on what I might call experimental. This includes “Achilles Sulking in His Buick”, the sort of one-off joke that begins as a title and doesn’t get much better than that. There’s also “Skinhorse Goes to Mars”, which has an excellent but confusing plot. I’d also include “Little Pig, Berry Brown and the Hard Moon” as well, even though that one isn’t so bad if you follow it carefully. I guess I’m just lazy; I prefer my stories to be more linear and easy to parse, and Lake doesn’t always let me off with such fare. These are the stories that will please the connoisseur of short SF and fantasy fiction.
Finally, like Stephen King or some of Orson Scott Card’s work, Lake also enjoys writing about weird stuff happening in small American towns. So “Dogs in the Moonlight” and “Fat Man” will please those of you who do. And while Portland isn’t quite a small town, I’d probably throw the Portland wizard series in here—intriguing urban fantasy though it is. These stories were no less creative than others in the collection, just less to my liking.
And that’s the key to this anthology: it has breadth. It was good for me, as someone who wanted to read something by Lake that I could enjoy. I suspect that fans of Lake will probably have seen most of these stories already (although there are two brand new ones), but this is still a lovely collection to own. There were no stories that really blew my mind, alas, but neither were there any that made me groan. It’s a solid anthology where your enjoyment will vary with your tastes.
All right, I have recovered from my temporary insanity and am now ready to get down to business. I have never before read anything by Ian R. MacLeod. I have a terrible and impoverishing addiction to purchasing titles from specialty publisher Subterranean Press, and during an all-too-common binge (this time it was Charles Stross titles), I saw this on offer, shrugged, said, "What the hell?" and added it to my cart.
I don't recall hearing much about Ian R. MacLeod either. His name is almost criminally similar to Ian McDonald, however, whose The Dervish House is my pick for this year's Hugo Award for Best Novel. Indeed, their names are so similar that I am afraid I will confuse these two authors. I assume that with a name like MacLeod, Ian R. must be immortal, and therefore I shall refer to him as "the Highlander" for the rest of this review. Wikipedia tells me that he was actually born in Birmingham and not the Scottish highlands, but I am too smart to fall for that small bit of trickery, Highlander.
Journeys is an anthology but not a slapdash one. At nine stories it feels short, but the stories themselves are quite long for short stories. And, for the most part, the stories are good. As someone who much prefers novel-length stories, I took a risk in introducing myself to the Highlander through an anthology. I would do it again though, because Journeys was an enjoyable, even magical experience.
Wikipedia also mentions that another of the Highlander's series is an alternate universe affair where the use of aether has preserved the trade guild structure in England and "has retarded technological progress". In hindsight, then, the common theme running through Journeys makes a lot of sense. Several of these stories are set in a similar (if not the same) universe, an alternate England where magic is much more in evidence. The first story, "The Master Miller's Tale", seems to take place near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Nathan watches steam-driven mills slowly supersede his traditional mill, which is held together by song spells. He gets mixed up in a group of Luddite-like terrorists who go around sabotaging steam-driven installations. For Nathan, there is also a personal component: the woman he had an adolescent crush on is now a champion of steam technology. Another story, "Elementals", is set a bit later, toward the Victorian end of the century. Its narrator is acquainted with an amateur scientist who is convinced he can harness elemental beings as an alternative energy source. The truth turns out to be much more complicated—and much more metaphysical.
Most of the stories in Journeys also involve the narrators losing themselves, physically or psychologically, and the above two stories are good examples. Nathan is so attached to his mill that it becomes difficult for him to realize his business is dying. Eventually he becomes obsessed with finding the windseller, a merchant who used to come by and sell bagged winds for him to release and use at his mill. Nathan's own obsessions offer a kind of opening for magic to enter him and consume him, and it's a similar story in "Elementals". The narrator learns that elementals are not tied to one element, that they are not the Other; rather, everything and everyone are elementals in a sense. Everything is powered by belief, his example being that it is more difficult to notice people who are down on their luck when you are at the same parties as them—they sort of fade into the background.
Not all of the stories in this collection fit comfortably into my framework. Two in particular—"The Camping Wainwrights" and "On the Sighting of Other Islands"—are quite different, and another, "Taking Care of Myself", is science fiction rather than fantasy but also deals with questions of identities. That being said, those first two stories certainly fit in with the title: the former is, surprisingly enough, about camping and family tribulations; the latter is told in a collective voice by the inhabitants of one island on a sea of moving islands. All of the stories in Journeys are weird in the sense that they are not quite grokkable the first time around—there are certain twists in the Highlander's narrative style that make the stories feel very original—but those two stories in particular among the weirdest.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that two of the intertwined motifs that seem most prevalent in Journeys—alternative worlds where magic has replaced or remains a rival to technological progress, as well as stories where the use of magic leads to a personal crisis of identity—appeal very much to me. So if the rest of the Highlander's work is like this, I look forward to reading more of it. Looks like this edition is sold out on the Subterranean Press website, so unless they print more or you can pick up a copy used, you'll have to be content with finding these stories elsewhere as you can. Alone, none of them really stand out, but together they form a very unified corpus of works. For a new reader like me, Journeys was a good introduction. Although I obviously can't say for sure, I suspect fans of the Highlander will find it familiar and comfortable.
Ever discover an author through another medium, like TV or Twitter or the author’s blog, and realize you want to read everything this author has writtEver discover an author through another medium, like TV or Twitter or the author’s blog, and realize you want to read everything this author has written and you want to read it yesterday? That’s how I feel about Charles Stross. It’s similar to my evaluation of William Gibson in my last review; Stross writes about the present changes facing humanity in such an interesting way. I don’t always agree with him, and his stories don’t always grab me as narratives, but he is definitely near the top of the heap when it comes to authors of posthuman fiction.
Toast is an intense but somewhat uneven collection of Stross stories. Perhaps the introduction, “After the Future Imploded” is the most valuable part of the book: it has exactly the type of lucid futurist speculation I was talking about above. Stross plays his “what if” game fancifully but also with some sincerity. He sees not only the capabilities that we have today but the capabilities we might have tomorrow, and where that might lead us—not only the issues that we’ll confront, like the rights of uploaded personalities, but what will happen when the present becomes our past.
The two technologies that Stross emphasizes in most of his fiction are nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. The former will be a revolution in computing, because we’ll truly free computers from the “dumb terminal” model we use now. In Toast stories, people’s clothing and coffee cups—everything—are computers. Humanity is wetwired, part of the grid and the Web in an entirely new way. The latter technology is a lot more controversial and amorphous in its definition. Trying to determine what exactly “artificial” intelligence denotes is a difficult chore. But if it, too, happens, then it will be another revolution—and not just because of the possibility of the Singularity. As far as we know, we are the only intelligent beings on the Earth—and perhaps in the observable universe. An artificial intelligence would be something new, something alien and strange. That would be fascinating and frightening.
After coming off the high of Toast’s introduction, I was excited by the first story, “Antibodies”. The moment a character exclaimed, “Someone’s come up with a proof that NP-complete problems lie in P!” I grinned and knew the story would be good. Many science fiction authors are also physicists, or have a strong science background, which makes them comfortable talking about the physics that underlies their plots. Stross’ background is in computers, and it shows in these stories. He speaks the hacker lingo, but more interesting for me, he draws in the deeper mathematics upon which algorithms rely. Plenty of science fiction stories talk about neutrinos and exotic matter, but how many reference P versus NP in a meaningful way? So “Antibodies” was a big hit with me.
I wish I could say I was as impressed with the rest of the stories. I was really excited when I started reading, and some of the stories are good, but they don’t hit my buttons the way “Antibodies” did. “Bear Trap” is set in Stross’ Eschaton universe (best known for Singularity Sky). It’s good, but the conflict and the way Stross depicts the wider universe are both so vague and ill-defined that I never got invested. Similarly, “Extracts from the Club Diary” was enjoyable—despite Stross’ questionable faux-Victorian diction—but its direction was somewhat predictable and never quite paid off. “Lobsters” is slightly better, because it raises the intriguing questions surrounding uploaded personalities—both human and non-human. I also like the main character, who is a study in how the Internet is changing the role of the deal broker. Finally, “Big Brother Iron” examines what might happen to the world of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four if Big Brother invented a computer to run the government. Like the other stories I’ve mentioned, it has a really neat premise against which the story doesn’t quite measure up.
Stross writes mostly in the first person, and as a consequence his narrators often sound the same to me. (That might just be me or the mood I was in while reading the book.) It probably doesn’t help that his characters are often the same mould: middle-aged male stuck in a mid-level position, usually has some technology expertise of some kind, who gets into trouble because of external events and has to use his wits to survive. I really need to read one of his novels with a female protagonist, like Halting State. But I suspect my complaint emerges from the similarity in themes among the stories of Toast. They are, in a sense, about looking back during or just after the transition between our current era and whatever comes next (Singularity or not).
Toast isn’t the book I would recommend for a newcomer to Charles Stross (Singularity Sky is pretty good in that respect). Yet if, like me, you are fascinated by ruminations upon our potential posthuman prospects, this anthology might be right for you. It isn’t as amazing as I had hoped. However, it still has that dose of lucid speculation that I’ve come to regard as a hallmark of Stross and of great science fiction in general.
It has been ages since I read The Ghost Brigade and over a year since I read The Human Division, which chronologically takes place after the eventsIt has been ages since I read The Ghost Brigade and over a year since I read The Human Division, which chronologically takes place after the events in The Last Colony but doesn’t spoil a lot of it. I guess it’s a testament to my terrible memory (and the reason why I write these reviews) that I remembered almost nothing about either books when I started reading this one. I couldn’t really recall who the Obin were, or who Zoë Boutin or her father Charles were, or why any of this mattered. Rather than worry or fret about these gaps, I just sat back and let John Scalzi’s writing persuade me.
If I wanted to be lazy, I could say that this is typical Scalzi. And for those who haven’t read Scalzi before—and if you haven’t, you should start with Old Man’s War—that means it is full of humour, particularly sarcasm and irony, of an irreverent variety, punctuated by lulls of intense, brooding seriousness. Scalzi writes a kind of postmodern space opera—it’s not quite as absurd as Monty Python, but you have a feeling that they would be comfortable selling their records in the lobby at intermission.
This book is clearly set up as the concluding volume of a trilogy. John Perry and Jane Sagan, the protagonists of the previous two books, unite to take on all-comers in this book. It has a tone of finality to it that is only bolstered by the author’s note at the end, in which Scalzi bids adieu to John and Jane even while leaving the door open to continuing on in this universe, as he eventually does. This structure works well: Scalzi allows himself a lot of freedom with The Last Colony, because he doesn’t have to worry about putting all the toys back in the box. Mindful of the arc of his characters, however, he still strives to provide emotional closure on John and Jane and what they have been through these past three books.
As with the previous books, the antagonists of the series are both the Colonial Union and alien species. Though the Colonial Union is human and therefore ostensibly “the good guys,” from the perspective of the colonists on Roanoke, “the good guys” are not so good. Although a dark part of this universe, the idea that humanity achieving space travel results in a second age of colonialism and imperialism is an intriguing one. The CU essentially treats the galaxy like a big land grab—and it’s not the only species doing this. There isn’t room for a United Federation of Planets; even the Conclave, which appears to be striving towards such a goal, is really more of a loose alliance of self-interest.
It’s clear, though, that we should be cheering for Roanoke, for John and Jane. They are fighting the Man in all his forms, and they are doing it with the power of rock and roll. They call in favours—or sometimes, as in Jane’s case, favours are granted without their consent—and constantly adapt to the latest news and threats. This is not a long book, but a lot happens; the pace is breathless at some points, and just when it seems like Roanoke has a chance, Scalzi drops a new bomb—sometimes literally.
The writing, as I said, is typical Scalzi. And as such, it also has the typical Scalzi flaw, which I talked at length about in my review of The Human Division: all his characters sound the same. John, Jane, Zoë, Savitri, Gau … they are all snarky bastards who enjoy witty repartée. Scalzi is a dialogue machine; most of this book is probably fun conversation. Alas, the one-note-ness of it is noticeable and occasionally grating.
Similarly, Scalzi can’t resist what I call “the smug reversal.” It goes like this: big bad aliens show up to take the planet. They magnanimously demand surrender. The human who responds doesn’t just say no; they smugly offer the attackers a chance to surrender instead. The first time this happens, it’s charming and fun. The second time … well, it falls flat, because now I’m left wondering if it’s going to keep happening. The whole point of a crowning moment of awesome is that it is the crowning moment. If your characters are prepared and have a trick up their sleeve all the time, suddenly your story loses all sense of tension, because there’s no need to worry about how they’ll get out of their latest predicament.
Those are really my only quibbles with The Last Colony. Otherwise, it’s another fun science-fiction story that blends aspects of military SF and colonial SF. It operates under the hypothesis that we get to the stars … and we basically keep behaving like the collective dicks we tend to behave like here on planet Earth. Which isn’t all that much a leap, I guess. But it makes for some good stories.
This review contains spoilers for the ending of Changes and possibly other books in the Dresden Files series. It does not, however, contain spoilers fThis review contains spoilers for the ending of Changes and possibly other books in the Dresden Files series. It does not, however, contain spoilers for the short stories themselves in Side Jobs, so I have not marked the review with a spoiler alert.
This is how much I love the Dresden Files: not only will I buy every book as it is released, a practice I eschew for a great many other authors I still adore, but I will go to great lengths to buy that book on release day if at all possible. My experience buying Side Jobs testifies to this determination. It was a stormy Tuesday morning when I woke up and realized it was the release day for this book. By stormy, I mean torrential rain and wind that managed to knock down power lines in several places throughout the city. So not only did I make a special trip to Chapters in the rain for Side Jobs, but I negotiated around closed off streets and braved intersections where the traffic lights had no power. That is how much faith I put in Jim Butcher and Harry Dresden. When I sit down with one of these books, I know I'm going to enjoy it, and that is a nice type of anticipation to have once in a while.
So the question with Side Jobs, as it is with every Dresden Files book, is not if I like it, but how much. And let's be honest with ourselves: if you are a Dresden Files fangirl or fanboy as I am, you're going to buy this book even if it sucks. Fortunately for you, this book is a must-have for any collector of the Dresden Files, be ye fanatic or simply a casual connoisseur of the Dresden.
A few of the stories—particularly the first two, "A Restoration of Faith" and "Vignette"—are not that good, and I'm not going to talk about them. Instead, let me discuss some of the stories I liked, the story I loved, and that final novella, "Aftermath," in which we learn what Murphy goes through immediately following the events of Changes.
Some of these stories are funny. Not just snarky and entertaining in Harry's trademark, sarcastic way, but outright comedic. Part of this comes from the reasons Butcher wrote each story, such as the comedic sci-fi/fantasy anthology for which he wrote "Day Off." Yet I think it's also a side effect of Butcher writing Harry for a shorter length of story. Humour is a nice route to exploring a character, and character studies can make for great short stories, especially when paired with fantastic action sequences or descriptions, as we see in "Day Off" and "Last Call." Despite the often serious consequences in his adventures, Harry is still a very funny guy.
The stories that really shine, however, are those where Harry displays his heroism in the face of those serious consequences, even if it's sometimes chivalrous to the point of chauvinism. Two of the stories collected here, "Something Borrowed" and "Heorot," involve a fiancée or wife, respectively, being kidnapped by a monster. The monsters have different motivations (one has revenge on the mind, while the other wants to breed), and the resolutions are different as well (I loved seeing Harry team up with Gard, and I loved the action sequence in "Heorot.") But I can see how this concentrated dose of chivalry might make one uncomfortable with Harry or with Butcher; why does the wizard always have to rescue damsels in distress? Recall that even when Butcher seems to be yielding to one trope, he's subverting or averting another. Almost all of the female characters in the series are strong, either physically, emotionally, or both. You've got metaphorical Valkyries like Murphy, who shines in "Love Hurts" and "Aftermath," and literal Valkyries like Gard, who kicks ass in the same "Heorot" that pulls a damsel-in-distress on us.
One way in which the short stories deviate from the novel formula is in their perspective, which isn't always Harry's. There are two such stories in Side Jobs: "Aftermath" is one, and the other is "Backup," a novelette from Thomas' point of view. The latter is interesting for two reasons: for Thomas' viewpoint, naturally, but also because it adds to the mythology of the Dresdenverse in a way a Harry Dresden story cannot. As Butcher explains in the preface, Harry can't know about the Oblivion War, but it's a plot point that fits perfectly with other Dresdenverse lore (and tickles that part of my brain dedicated to speculating about the Outsiders, such as He Who Walks Behind, who seems to have a plan in mind for Harry). I love the mythology around the Dresdenverse, which is both creative and enduring in a way that only makes me want more.
Speaking of more, the cliffhanger in Changes definitely left me wanting more, and Side Jobs teases us with a new story set forty-five minutes after the end of Changes. The appropriately named "Aftermath," however, doesn't quite live up to the hype. This is completely understandable, because "Aftermath" is a story about Murphy and her role in Harry's life, not a story about Harry told from Murphy's point of view. So what we get is much better, actually: we get to see Murphy snap into action when she realizes there is a possibility that Harry won't be coming back from this one. And her reaction demonstrates how much Murphy has changed over twelve Dresden Files novels, how much she has grown as a character. Even as she refuses to admit Harry is dead—"There's this voice inside me that keeps pointing out that we haven't seen a body. Until I have …"—she steps into to take his place, to carry the torch, as it were, "Until Dresden gets back."
And I can think of no way more fitting to celebrate Harry Dresden and his life than that. To see so clearly how Harry has affected so many people's lives, to see Murphy and the Alphas step up and say, "It's on us now," is so moving. We have come such a long way from Storm Front, when Murphy was a detective who tolerated Harry and certainly didn't trust him. In the last ten years, they have formed a bond that is deeper than friendship (even if, as we see in "Love Hurts," it can never quite be more than that on the surface). And to see her honour and remember Harry by fighting the good fight, despite all she's been through, is awesome.
Still, "Aftermath" pales in comparison to the single best story in Side Jobs, one which surprised me. Damn you, Jim Butcher, for making me laugh and cry at the same time. When I began reading "The Warrior," I actually thought I would dislike it. Firstly, Michael has always grated on me as a character, and it's not just his constant faith in God. I love him for giving us Molly, who is one of my favourite characters, but he never quite seemed as round or complex. And then Butcher hits me with "The Warrior," which not only made me love Michael and laugh at Harry but, despite being an atheist, choke up at Uriel's homily about how Harry's actions have made the world a better place and Michael is still fighting the good fight:
I just stared at him for a moment. "But … I didn't actually mean to do any of that."
He smiled. "But you chose the actions that led to it. No one forced you to do it. And to those people, what you did saved t hem from danger as real as any creature of the night." He turned to look down at the church below and pursed his lips. "People have far more power than they realize, if they would only choose to use it. Michael might not be cutting demons with a sword anymore, Harry. But don't think for a second that he isn't still fighting the good fight. It's just harder for you to see the results from down here."
That's not all that's great about "The Warrior." There are intriguing tidbits in Uriel and Harry's conversation, doors opened that I hope are later explored more thoroughly:
Jake shrugged. "But if you hadn't, you'd have died in that harness, and he'd have died on that island."
I scowled. "What?"
Jake waved a hand. "I won't bore you with details, but suffice to say that your choice in that moment changed everything."
Finally, we have what may be my favourite moment in Side Jobs. Harry has come to the park, where Michael is coaching his daughter's softball team. And one of the girls has gone off by herself, upset because she doesn't think she's a good enough player. Harry suggests that no one can be perfect, that you can't just retreat into your house and live in Bubble Wrap. And he explains why:
I snorted. "They still make you read Dickens in school? Great Expectations?'
"You can stay at home and hide if you want—and wind up like Miss Havisham," I said. "Watching life through a window and obsessed with how things might have been."
"Dear God," she said. "You've just made Dickens relevant to my life."
I'm pretty sure there are English teachers who would kill to hear a student say that, and to watch Harry cause that to happen was both pleasant and sensational.
Side Jobs isn't perfect. It is hard for an anthology to be perfect. Still, as I said before, if you are a Dresden Files fan, you should read this. If you are a collector, you should buy this. It's a wonderful addition to the series, with some truly great stories you might not have had a chance to read, particularly "The Warrior." Although "Aftermath" might not have any of the resolution you were hoping for after Changes, I think it's an excellent story about how Murphy deals with the shock of losing one of the most important people in her life. And it's a foreshadowing of how difficulty the days are going to become—for Harry, and for those left behind.
I can't believe I have to wait until April for Ghost Story!
The God Engines opens with what, along with the opening line of JPod, is now one of my favourite first lines: "It was time to whip the god."
ImmediatelThe God Engines opens with what, along with the opening line of JPod, is now one of my favourite first lines: "It was time to whip the god."
Immediately, John Scalzi establishes a sense of difference between our universe and the one in which this book is set. In this universe, monolatrism is the order of the day. Captain Tephe and the crew of the Righteous worship a god, conveniently called "Our Lord." Captured gods serve as engines for their starships; bound by iron, the gods warp space-time to deliver ships to their destinations.
What a twist on religion and one's relationship with one's god! Faith quite literally empowers gods—this is not a new idea, but turning captive gods into starship engines is pretty nifty. And Scalzi uses the situation to write all sorts of interesting conversations between Tephe and the god that powers the Righteous, mostly about the nature of faith, gods, and one's devotion to one's god.
The most interesting motif of The God Engines is faith. Not only does faith empower gods, but it comes in various flavours of diminished quality. Tephe's faith is the weakest, for it has been handed down to him over the generators. By contrast, "first-made faith" of new converts is the strongest. And with several gods aiming to take a bite out of His Lord, Tephe is sent to a planet untouched by gods and ignorant of the theological conflict taking place in the universe at large.
The idea that converts are more fanatically devout in their belief makes sense. Theirs is a raw belief, one that inspired them to choose to worship their god. Believers who were raised (or indoctrinated) to believe, on the other hand, do it by rote. Many of them are devout, but their minds have been moulded into faithfulness not by a god, but by a parent.
Considering the somewhat predictable twist that leads into a downer ending, it would be easy to label The God Engines anti-religious in nature. After all, it portrays gods as capricious creatures who essentially enslave societies. Science and engineering have been erased, replaced with faith-on-demand. It's not that Tephe and his people use gods to power starships because that is a superior form of power—it's because they know of no other way, although such ways do exist. That deception on the part of His Lord is an essential part of Tephe's crisis of faith, which ultimately demonstrates that this book isn't about religion at all, and thus isn't anti-religious. It's all about faith.
Let us not conflate the two, for although religion often involves faith, faith does not always mean religion. The religious parts of the society in this book are dismal, almost dystopian. The rulers are called the Bishopry Militant, a terrible juxtaposition of two authoritarian terms. Although it does not come up per se, we get the idea that this is not the sort of society that kindly tolerates freedom of expression. Blasphemy is high on the list of forbidden acts. Obedience is the second-most prized virtue, especially from ship captains. The most-prized virtue, of course, is faith.
If religion is the stern, morally-hidebound uncle who's no fun at family reunions, faith is the spunky cousin everyone loves, even though she makes everyone just a little bit uncomfortable. Faith is the more fervent sibling of confidence; they are really the same feeling, only one is reserved for special occasions. What Scalzi does is literalize what we all, internally, understand about faith, because we all have faith in something, even if we are not religious. And faith, true faith, that unconditional and utter belief, is powerful. It can capture the imagination, inspire acts of unfathomable beauty or untenable ugliness, and result in the most amazing events. We have fought wars because of faith. We went to the moon because of faith. So in that context, using faith to power a starship is not all that strange.
And in the darkest hour, after Tephe has learned the awful truth, what sustains him? What gives him the ability to keep going, knowing that he and his crew are doomed? Well, super-sleuth that you are, guessed it: faith. For the sake of spoilers, I won't say faith in what. Maybe one's god, maybe one's humanity, or maybe just faith in some generic sense. But it's enough to keep Tephe going even in the face of certain destruction.
Lest I mislead you in my positive discussion of the Power of Faith, let me be clear: this is not a warm-fuzzy book. Without going into detail, there is not much Happily Ever After happening here. The God Engines is about terrible revelation and unrecoverable betrayal. And maybe it could have gone differently for Tephe and the Righteous. Part of me wishes it did, of course.
There is an intriguing sense of minimalism about The God Engines. As a novella, it is short, and Scalzi wastes no time in crafting a tantalizing glimpse at this world. It left me wanting more, and that frustrated me for a time. Then I realized I was being silly: books should leave you wanting more (in a good, curious way). So the more I consider it, the more I feel that a novella suits this story.
Sometimes the plot is rushed. Once the Righteous arrives at the untouched planet, it takes no time at all for the story to skip to the conversion of one of its tribes. Another story, another writer, might have drawn this out, added characters and relationships, really turned this into a novel. And if I were being lazy, I could call this poor writing and call it a day, review over.
But then I would be ignoring the fact that Scalzi chose to write this as a novella. That is what I mean by minimialism. He intended these elisions, and they are as integral to the book as the commentary on faith.
The only place where The God Engines suffers as a result is its characterization, which is lacking. None of the characters truly stand out in my mind as three-dimensional. But as fans of the short story know, length is not a necessary condition for good characterization—but sometimes it can make poor characterization a little more adequate. Tephe, Andso, and Shalle are all fairly stock roles with fairly conventional relationships. As much as I enjoyed reading The God Engines, I keep coming back to this flaw; it is all the more glaring for everything else that is right about this book.
Some books are like that: one small detail mars the rest. Some books can bear the flaw, others unravel . . . The God Engines survives, but only just. Only because, for some reason, I managed to see its potential, if not its actuality. And so even though it did not quite deliver, I still had faith.
I must confess that, as a kid and an adolescent, I never shared the ardour for comic books many of my peers did. I collected Archie comics and read thI must confess that, as a kid and an adolescent, I never shared the ardour for comic books many of my peers did. I collected Archie comics and read the odd Superman comic, but that was about it. So unlike most, who come for the superheroes, I came to The Physics of Superheroes for the physics.
As an aspiring teacher, I love to hear about new ways of teaching difficult or boring topics to students. While I don't find physics boring, I can see it being difficult—and, depending on how it's presented, perhaps dull. There's no chance of that happening when the likes of Superman, Iron Man, and the Flash are involved. Even those like me, who aren't diehard comic book fans, will enjoy this innovative approach to freshman physics. I admit I was surprised to see Professor Kakalios derive examples from comic books for every major topic. From a pedagogical perspective, The Physics of Superheroes deserves high praise.
Because I am impatient, I powered through this book in three days. I do not recommend you do the same. This is, after all, a physics book—cunningly disguised as a discussion of superheroics, but a physics book nonetheless. There is a reason that freshman physics courses take up the entire school year: the brain is just not meant to absorb so much so fast. My math and physics background allowed me to keep afloat, but I can see many people buying this book for its attractive premise but then panning it for getting too difficult.
For the first few sections, Kakalios has no problem. Newtonian mechanics might be daunting at first, but its deterministic nature makes it reassuring: if you put the same variables in, you'll also get the same result. It's the probabilistic, indeterministic nature of quantum mechanics that leaves some people uncomfortable. If you have trouble visualizing an electron as matter wavefunction in a "probability cloud" about the atomic nucleus instead of the simpler "solar system" model we learn in high school, don't feel bad. Many of physics' most brilliant minds objected to quantum mechanics on similar grounds when it was in its infancy.
Modern physics is quite complex, and that's reflected in any book on the subject, no matter how well-written. Kakalios does not always succeed in the later chapters, and he often doesn't make enough connections to his superhero examples as he explains a physics concept. I'm willing to cut him slack, however, because this is a survey book. For those interested in more depth, there's a lengthy list of recommended reading in the back.
Still, I learned plenty. Certainly I won't forget what Kakalios taught me about the relationship between mass, density, and volume, thanks to the Atom, Ant-Man, and Mr. Fantastic. Density is mass divided by volume, and if you want to shrink yourself or grow larger, you're best to increase your mass and hold your density constant. On a related note, perhaps Kakalios' most impressive feat is one he accomplishes at the beginning of the book. First he calculates how much force Golden Age Superman's legs must provide to allow him to jump 1/8th of a mile in the air. From this, Kakalios deduces the acceleration due to gravity on Krypton and concludes that Krypton likely had matter from a neutron star in its core—hence why the planet exploded! Kakalios' love for his topics, both physics and comics, is obvious in the writing.
I should also mention that I went to see Professor Kakalios when he gave a talk at Lakehead University (when I subsequently bought this book). If you have a chance to attend a talk, do so. You can also see some videos on the book's website. Certain examples, and much of Kakalios' humour, are better experienced in lecture instead of literary form. Nevertheless, The Physics of Superheroes joins Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Bus in teaching science as it is meant to be taught: with levity....more
Full disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
Reviewing series always poses a challenge. I've reviewed the two previous books in LeeFull disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
Reviewing series always poses a challenge. I've reviewed the two previous books in Lee Stephen's Epic series: Dawn of Destiny and Outlaw Trigger, and I don't think it's demeaning to Hero to call it "more of the same." Most of what I said regarding the first two books stands for this book as well: there's plenty of action, great dialogue, and the plot, as they say, thickens to a pleasing viscosity.
Hero begins in a much darker place than either of the first two books did. Scott Remington, once the Golden Lion, is now a feared Nightman of Novosibirsk. He's lost his fiancée, murdered an innocent man, and pretty much shut himself off from anyone who cares about him. This all happened in Outlaw Trigger and makes the direction of Hero obvious: this is a story of redemption—and not just redemption for Scott—and rediscovery of what it means to be a hero.
Try as I might (and I tried really, really hard), I could not enjoy Scott's redemption as much as I'd like to enjoy it. Scott's arc is so technically precise from a literary viewpoint, and that's the problem. There's a little meta-cynic inside me puncturing my suspension of disbelief as it comments on Scott's progression from anti-hero back to hero, Nightman to Black Lion. It happens exactly as I expect, and for that reason, it fell flat. There are some things that work excellently when they meet expectations rather than defy them—but Scott's redemption isn't one of those things.
For me, the best part of Hero is the parallel development that happens for Esther, Svetlana, and Dostoevsky. It's the intersection of these characters' quests that coheres the motif of redemption. Even though I found Scott's personal issues dull, these three characters had more than enough going on to distract me.
In Outlaw Trigger, the Fourteenth company gets a tactical scout by the name of Esther Brooking. On her first big mission, she mistakenly comms the wrong unit and sends most of its members into the waiting arms of the enemy—a costly beginner's mistake. Now Esther's trying to do everything she can to make up for that misstep and is more than ever driven to excel. At the same time, she's one of several of Scott's comrades who refuse to give up on him, even when he seems unreachable. Interestingly enough, she resents the arrival of Svetlana, who proclaims herself the saviour of both Scott and the Fourteenth, leading to a bit of rivalry. Also, I was critical of the earlier books' lack of combat-driven heroines. Finally, in Hero, Esther earns her redemption and shows that she can use a gun. I was quite pleased.
I eagerly awaited the return of Svetlana. She may be Scott's link to his past life, but she herself needs redemption. In her time away, she's realized that her relationship with Scott was as aborted as her relationship with the ill-fated Anatoly Baranov. Svetlana blames herself for setting Scott on the path to becoming a Nightman (a charge I find spurious, but that's neither here nor there) and thus feels responsible, in part, for his current state. She returns out of a sense of guilt and duty and finds her task entirely an uphill one. I also appreciate the ambiguous nature of Svetlana and Scott's relationship: she could be a potential future love interest, but they could also just remain good friends.
Dostoevsky, a Nightman, is the Fourteenth's executive officer, and he played a crucial role in Scott's coerced recruitment into the Nightmen. Beginning with Outlaw Trigger, however, that pesky conscience has been rearing its small, persistent head, and finally Dostoevsky begins to listen. This is perhaps the most poignant redemption arc, in my opinion. Scott became a Nightman out of guilt; he wears the armour as a weighty symbol that he took an innocent life. Doestoevsky became a Nightman by active choice; presumably he rose to the rank of fulcrum through dedication to his duty. He accepted General van Thoor as, if not a god, a messianic figure to whom he pledged his life. Compared to Dostoevsky, Scott's just having a bad couple of months.
It's the comparison, however, that's the best part. Watching these four characters go through their personal tribulations toward the same goal is literary harmony at its best. And these individual plots come together to form an important theme about war. These are soldiers, humans at war, and that takes a psychological toll. People under pressure make mistakes, have regrets, and there's no such thing as "making up for one's mistakes"—there's only "doing better." Even a good man, like Scott Remington, can't avoid being scarred by war.
There were a couple of quaint, humourous parts of Hero. Firstly, the Fourteenth adopted a dog whom Svetlana named Flopper. Secondly, Will "BBQ Sauce" Harbinger and Derrick Cole, formerly of the Eighth, join the Fourteenth and immediately marvel at their good fortune to be in the only unit where women dump porridge on each other (I kid you not). Now, these weren't my favourite moments: I'm just not a dog person, and while I did find Will's stunned reactions funny asides, that's all they are, asides. However, I mention them not to criticize them, but to praise their inclusion: this is a war story, and in a time of war, soldiers always need outlets for their frustration. A little frivolity and levity is necessary to keep everyone sane. Asides though they are, these scenes are important asides that strengthen Stephen's universe and further emphasizes the seriousness of the war going on between humanity and extraterrestrials.
Speaking of which, we still don't know why aliens are attacking Earth in utterly illogical ways. I'm going to limit what I say here so I can keep the review spoiler free. In the prologue chapter, we witness the shadowy Judge Archer recording a message for someone (Intelligence Director Kang?) that reveals Archer knows more about the cause of the war than we previously thought. Apparently, the Bakma, Ithini, and the Ceratopians aren't the only ones interested in Earth—there are other species out there, who haven't arrived yet, but whose coming apparently won't mean cake and candles.
I stand by my opinion that Archer, and most of the other judges, are cardboard characters. I do enjoy their machinations, however. Stephen puts us in a nice moral conundrum. As far as we know, Archer and his cadre still have the best interests of humanity in mind—well, they think they have the greater good in mind; for all I know, they could turn out to be Knights Templar. However, it seems evident, at least so far, that Archer isn't working against humanity. Still, he's skulking around behind the backs of the legitimate authorities. Not exactly laudable behaviour.
Then again, much of the book consists of less-than-laudable behaviour. Hero is greyer than a bucket of dirty mop water—to good effect. We even see some humanization of the enemy aliens, particularly the Bakma. In the first two books, the Bakma were little more than external threats; none of them were even one-dimensional characters. That changes in Hero, where Scott personally rescues a Bakma prisoner from execution and establishes a hesitant rapport. This is an important step in the evolution of both Scott and the series.
And there I shall end: the evolution of the series. My opinion of the Epic series has continually improved with each book, not in leaps and bounds but by steady increments. This series, and each component book for that matter, is easy to read but not light reading, consisting of a well-paced mixture of action, emotion, and intrigue. It's solid, with both its flaws and its virtues in the best places for each.
**spoiler alert** Full disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
The Epic series opened strongly, but it doesn't hit its stride until**spoiler alert** Full disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
The Epic series opened strongly, but it doesn't hit its stride until the second book. While Dawn of Destiny had some of the best heart-pounding action I've read recently, it still felt preliminary, like a too-small appetizer at a restaurant. Only because I knew there was more coming did it feel like enough. The next course was certainly worth it, however.
Set almost three months after the end of the first book, Outlaw Trigger still has heart-pounding action scenes, but Lee Stephen has balanced them this time with heart-breaking events closer to home. Scott Remington is settling into his role as lieutenant and eagerly awaiting the arrival of his fiancée, Nicole. But when another base operative murders Nicole as his final test to enter the Nightmen—General Ignatius van Thoor's elite, amoral warriors—Scott is utterly devastated. From that moment on, he is a different person, and the only thing that matters to him is revenge. Stephen explores the consequences of this desire, both for Scott and for the people closest to him. Meanwhile, behind the lines, EDEN's high command debates what to do about General Thoor's consolidation of his power base....
Stephen displays masterful plotting. Almost from the first page, I read with a sense of impending doom, as every scene built up to that final, inevitable moment at the climax when Scott's worldview changes forever. Unlike the first book, Outlaw Trigger focuses less on the Alien War and more on character development, particularly Scott's. Anyone worried that Scott was going to turn out a cakewalking action hero should fear no more; if anything, he has executed almost a U-turn onto the road of antihero. His quest for vengeance predictably skews his judgement; it gets people killed, including someone close to him. And one by one, even his friends begin to turn away.
Despite its dramatic logic, however, I was kind of disappointed that Scott became a Nightman—not because I dislike this descent to the nadir of his existence, but because it was just so obvious so early in the book. Stephen has managed to elevate his writing to the level where I dread what I know will happen, what I know must happen in order for the story to make sense. Now he has to take it to the next level, beyond the mere inevitable. I love anticipation and suspense, but I also want to be surprised. The well-executed expected turns a book from good to great; the unexpected is what can make it outstanding. Even a smidgen of doubt, a glimmer of hope that Scott might actually manage to rise above all this, would have been enough to make the story feel less singularly driven toward Scott's descent.
There were times, too, when Scott's brooding was a little too intense. Stephen's descriptions of Scott's feelings tend to belabour the point. There's a fine line between a properly-weighted amount of dramatic one-liners and a corny overabundance; depending on where you happen to draw your line, this book may cross it more than once. It's not a deal-breaker, and again, your mileage may vary. It annoys me more for the fact that the plot is strong enough to stand on its own and communicate the severity of the situation through its atmosphere without a surfeit of sinisterly-toned chapter-ending sentences.
That same heavy-handedness comes across in the scenes set among EDEN's judges. This subplot gives us a distant perspective on General Thoor's long-term game plan, in which recruiting Scott to the Nightmen was only a small—but indubitably integral—part. The newest judge on the block, Benjamin Archer, spearheads an investigation into Thoor's actions, and discovers that Thoor's been silently reducing EDEN influence at his base for years. I thoroughly enjoyed Archer's snakeoil sincerity, with which he wins over the rest of the council, even the president, who has always been reluctant to even consider challenging Thoor's authority. I also liked the reveal at the end that Archer is the mastermind behind the actions of the two conspiring judges from Dawn of Destiny. However, the dialogue among the judges was lacklustre, and the characters were correspondingly dull. There seemed to be conflict for the sake of conflict, and more stating of the obvious.
Characters other than Scott get their times in the limelight as well. David is cast in the light of both father figure and the surrogate leader for the group while Scott is out of commission—but after Scott's actions lead to Galina getting killed, David doesn't know if he can stand up for Scott anymore. I value the contrast between Scott's inner strength, which is utterly shattered along with its sources (Nicole and his faith), with David's, which is tempered by his years of experience as a police officer.
Becan, the Irish rogue, seems like he has a more reduced role in this book, providing little more than some quips and the occasional helpful observation. He's not my favourite of the supporting cast, though, so I didn't mind that much.
Galina's death was, in a way, more tragic than the murder of Nicole. It was really the first time Scott contributed to his fall. Nicole's death was the theft of Scott's happiness, but it was a theft; he was not at fault. By indirectly causing Galina's death through his own recklessness, Scott becomes complicit. And Galina had to die as much as Nicole did. As long as she was there, her closeness to Scott was a lifeline to sanity. There was still hope for a way back out of the pit. Her death was necessary to make Scott's misdirected murder at the climax possible. Now he has truly reached the point of no return, because he feels that there's no one left who can redeem him.
I'm really looking forward to the promised return of Svetlana. This is going to be good.
And just like that, I'm sold. Well, mostly. The demanding reader in me would like to haggle for a lighter touch, and a few more twists. But there's no denying that Outlaw Trigger is a sound sequel to Dawn of Destiny, building on the best elements of the first book and continuing to raise the stakes. It promises, it delivers, and it leaves me wanting more.
Full disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
There's something refreshing about a boots-on-the-ground alien invasion of Earth. WhenFull disclosure: I received this book as a gift from the author.
There's something refreshing about a boots-on-the-ground alien invasion of Earth. When aliens darken our doorstep, they seldom need to send troops down to pacify the population, probably because any species advanced enough to have interstellar spaceflight capability will also have some pretty terrible weapons. Why send wave after wave of soldiers when some well-placed bombs and a few destroyed satellites will accomplish the same goal? That's the conundrum at the core of Dawn of Destiny, the first book in the Epic series. Three alien species—the Bakma, the Ceratopians, and the Ithini—and their minions have been haranguing the Earth Defense Network (EDEN) for nine years now, but to what end?
Scott Remington, the protagonist, rises quickly through the ranks after facing several pitched battles from which he manages to emerge the hero (or at least not die). This earns him the admiration of his fellow grunts and begrudging respect from most officers—but not all. Scott's competence could quickly grow annoying; thankfully, Stephen compensates by including plenty of people who think that, "Remington is overestimated by everyone." And when Scott does save the day, it's always with a plan that makes sense in the context of the situation, managing to make fantastic battle scenes seem realistic. This balanced perspective keeps Scott from becoming a larger-than-life action hero and plays counterpoint to the book's science fiction conflict of human versus alien.
In general, I loved Stephen's characterization. Scott's companions have diverse background stories and interesting but not one-dimensional personalities and quirks. Some of them, like Jayden, start out stoic and gradually warm up, even manage to find a girl. Others, like the experienced cop, David, and Scott himself, already have signficant others and must struggle to balance their long-distance relationships with their lives in EDEN. And then you've got Becan, who verges on succumbing to the "lovable Irish rascal" trope except that he has genuine moments of weakness—and tenderness too.
As antagonists, the Bakma aren't characters so much as character devices. We really only get to interact with one, and it has a bit part. Indeed, although this book concerns an "Alien War," the aliens play a small role in it. This perplexes even the main characters, who spend a great deal of time speculating on the motives of the Bakma and their fellow aliens—why wage a ground war when they clearly have the ability to simply wipe out humanity from orbit? Dawn of Destiny sets the stage for the rest of the series to explore this all-too-important question, but at the expense of reducing the primary villain to an abstraction. As a result, throughout the numerous combat scenes I couldn't shake the comparison with Starship Troopers out of my head, unfair though it is.
There are a couple of humans who serve as articulate antagonists in the aliens' stead, however. EDEN's highest level is a council of "judges," who are desperately searching for a technological edge over the highly-advanced aliens. Intrigue among the council causes the death of one judge after he stumbles onto a secret his colleague apparently wants to keep secret. I'm looking forward to discovering what this secret is, and what ramifications it's going to have for Scott and his friends. Also, there's the taciturn and unapologetically brutal General Thoor. Borderline psychotic, and definitely a sociopath, he's one piece of bad road, doing whatever it takes to ensure victory. The order to promote Scott to epsilon comes from Thoor himself, pointing toward a creepy, and rocky, future relationship between these two.
Aside from its presentation of the Bakma, Dawn of Destiny falls short in one more aspect of characterization: there's a dearth of badass female heroines. Yes, there's a couple of developed female characters, but they always seem to have support roles—combat medic and wife. And we all know doctors can't fight (wives sure can, but that's neither here nor there...). I wouldn't mind seeing a couple of capable women added to the roster alongside Scott and his current cadre.
I don't want to make a big deal out of this, but also absent are major expletives, which have been downsized and replaced with less profane alternatives, such as "flick" and "veck." This blatant attempt to avoid profanity sticks out like a sore thumb against the otherwise honest and gritty landscape of war. Characters get their fingers blown off, but they don't swear (or at least, Jim, it's not swearing as we know it). Set in the far future, or far far away (BSG and Farscape, I'm looking at you) this would be acceptable and even clever. As it is, it got distracting, particularly during some of the scenes that were supposed to evoke suspense and dread. In one scene, the protagonists are hunting flesh-eating bug aliens in an abandoned school—no power, no plans, no backup. It's the perfect recipe for horror, old-school B-movie alien horror, and then suddenly the characters start saying things like, "I hope to flickin' God" and the moment is gone.
Stephen could also work on his exposition. Occasionally, it's oddly-timed and awkwardly-poised as paragraphs dumped by the narrator after the subject comes up in dialogue. Although this is subjective, I actually prefer it when the exposition is light in the first half the book and then gets heavier later on, once my attention has been captivated by the characters and the story itself. Drop me just enough hints to keep me interested, but I don't need to know about, say, the comparative xenobiology of the Bakma, Ceratopians, and Ithini. It's not a big issue, in that it never compromises the story's unity or breaks up the frequent action scenes that tend to crop up once every couple of chapters. Still, it's something I hope improves as the series continues.
In that same vein, I would have liked to learn more about Earth's culture in this universe. We get some minimal glimpses at what the media is like when Scott does a press conference after winning a prestigious military award; beyond that, we get precious little idea of what civilian life is like on war-torn Earth. How are people coping with nine years of constant alien attacks on major cities? What's this doing to the global unity supposedly in place when the aliens first showed up? Did world peace come with a three-for-one deal, bringing us solutions to world poverty and world hunger as well? Or does humanity face more than just the threat of alien invasion? Certainly, I don't expect Dawn of Destiny to spell everything out for me. In some areas, however, it's rather sparse.
By far, the best part of this book is its action. Stephen writes a mean combat scene. Eschewing overly-flowery descriptions of scenery in favour of clear, crisp tactical overviews of a situation, Stephen's action scenes are always fast paced and high stake. From the moment Scott and his comrades enter the combat zone, we know they're in danger; with each new mission, however, Stephen manages to keep the challenges varied enough that it doesn't get boring. I've been known to get lost during combat scenes because I don't have a good conception of how the battle is unfolding ... not so here; I feel like I'm there, watching through someone's HUD. In many ways, Dawn of Destiny is a favourable mix of movie and video game, a little bit cutscene and a little bit rock and roll—er, I mean action. It's intense and everything you expect from a book in a series called Epic.
So far, the Alien War is more an excuse for conflict, which provides a backdrop for combat scenes and character development. Dawn of Destiny comes in a shiny sci-fi package, but it's more properly a military thriller than thought-provoking science fiction. Did Dawn of Destiny wow me? No. But it did make me laugh at times, and it did provide me with a good afternoon read.
This is the sequel to Demons of the Past, and immediately I liked Stones of Time better. Although Demons of the Past was OK, I felt that its plot did not delve deep enough into the social ramifications of this neo-medieval America, nor was the plot complex enough to make up for the dearth of dimension in Durante's characters. Stones of Time went a long way toward both improving the plot and increasing the complexity of its characters.
Three years have passed since the end of the first book, and Nadia is now a prisoner of the devious Ordi ex Machina. They plan to return Earth to the pastoral times of advanced technology and fast food franchises, but in order to do this, they need Nadia's eggs! Nadia, now a "demon" who can shift into the form of a puma, manages to convince her new guard to help her escape. She meets up with her old flame, Prince Andrew, rescues her other old flame, Vestro the Kelpie, and they and sundry characters flee Colorado Springs and head for Andrew's kingdom, the Pearl Isles (actually the now-island of California). Their goal: detonate an orbital nuclear bomb to set off an electromagnetic pulse that will disable electronics across America, levelling the playing field for the technology-inept forces of good. I must say, that's a fair step up from "rescue the magic ocarina and keep the demons imprisoned."
Indeed, the main characters' increasing tech savvy was refreshing. Nadia now casually mentions things like computers and cameras, although she's still surprised by some modern things, such as flashlights and paper money. She even tries to use a gun once or twice (rubbish at it so far). My predictions in my last review, that Nadia would mature from a petulant princess into a truly worthy Action Girl, have largely come true—and I'm quite glad. It made the story so much more enjoyable. Moreover, there are genuine moments of emotional turmoil for Nadia, as opposed to the manufactured love triangle we got in the first book. It helps, I think, that she has a fellow female companion on this trip; Andrew's new hotness, Anna, is a foil to Nadia, a nemesis and potential ally. I loved how Nadia discovered Anna was pregnant and then later she had to confront the fact that her own coupling with Vestro (her second time having sex, as far as we're aware) has left her pregnant and is complicating her ability to shift into the form of an animal—although, this keeps up, I may start thinking that this is a horror series instead of a fantasy series, and only the virgins are safe....
Speaking of virgins, the guard who helps Nadia escape is one of the first demons bred from Nadia's eggs. Shaden, part-human, part-dragon, can't but help bonding with Nadia and seeing her in a maternal light, even before he knows that she is, biologically, his mother. I applaud the twisted moral gradient here. It's just the right amount of disconcerting without skewing over the line to downright wrong. Also, it emphasizes the cold, clinical nature of the Ordi Ex Machina, who will go so far as to offer up their own bodies if it helps the breeding program—Shaden wasn't grown in a test tube but matured in a surrogate mother, who later acted as Nadia's "therapist" during her incarceration. Yeah, it's all one big twisted family....
Stones of Time, like Demons of the Past, is chock full of action scenes. Its action is even better, in part because Nadia is more combat-capable, but also because the fights are more varied. There's some urban warfare against Ordi Ex Machina guards as well as woodland combat and a chase sequence in a minefield. What's not to like?
Well, the book again doggedly adheres to quest-style fantasy's travel motif: book begins in point A and ends at point B, with a largely linear journey in between. The characters must hack and slash their way from A to B, once and a while pausing for some exposition or a little conflict among the protagonists, but the majority of the book is spent getting to the Pearl Isles so that they can find the launch facility. Although Durante's writing is smooth enough that I never felt like abandoning the book, I still get the sense that, in some ways, Stones of Time is just Demons of the Past redux with new-and-improved characters and extra special effects—I get story déjà vu.
For the most part, I enjoyed the new characters (particularly Shaden and Anna), and I praised Nadia's changes above. Andrew is still pretty variable, unfortunately; his unsavoury habits tend to come and go as the story requires. Vestro, although not as annoying as he was in the first book, also has a conceit that crops up only when the plot requires it (and I'm not sure I follow why "kelpie107" was the password for the bomb detonator...). As much as Stones of Time tries to give us interesting character development, however, it lacks something that Demons of the Past also lacked: a compelling and personable villain.
I don't mean the Ordi Ex Machina or its flunkies, Maurdruik the Ex-Wizard and Dr. Reichard. Yes, the Ordi Ex Machina is the story's organizational antagonist and serves that purpose well. But evil needs a face, someone who is plotting and scheming behind the scenes to dispose of the good guys before they run everything. We don't see enough of evil's face, in my opinion. Although our protagonists occasionally encountered some resistance, it seemed a safe bet they would reach the Pearl Isles and succeed in their mission—sometimes, you need a cackling villain to instill a little concern over the hero's survival. It's a shame, too, because the Ordi Ex Machina could create such a powerful villain or group of villains to oppose Nadia; so far, the most opposition she gets is from her temperamental two-year-old son and his unwitting kelpie father.
Stones of Time is a good step forward for the Damewood trilogy. I'd even go so far as it recommend it even if you don't want to read the first book—I seldom advocate this, but it's sufficient to read a plot synopsis for Demmons of the Past and then skip directly to this one....more
Four hundred years have passed since the fall of civilization As We Know It, society has reverted to a series of medieval monarchies, where technologyFour hundred years have passed since the fall of civilization As We Know It, society has reverted to a series of medieval monarchies, where technology has become magic and the genetic mutant experiments who now roam the Earth are the eponymous "demons of the past." Our protagonists are on a quest for a magical ocarina needed to refresh the magical barrier keeping more demons from escaping their four-hundred-year-old prison. Of course, soon we learn that things are not as simple as they seem....
The Days of Future Past setting of the book worked well. Erin Durante's talent lies in description, and whether it's geography or gore, she puts the right words in the right places (I loved Nadia's reactions to what we would consider ordinary technology, such as video cameras, and her descriptions of them in terms she understood). And to her credit, we learn about how the world got this way in an infodump, but only toward the end of the book. I only wish we had seen more of the setting—we get a good sense of the scenery as the protagonists take their cross-country trip to save the world, but aside from a couple of interactions with guests at a ball and innkeepers, we don't get a good sense of what society is like in this neo-medieval world. Women are evidently the fairer sex again, if Nadia's complex is any indication. What about religion? Those cross-species diseases that are mentioned near the climax of the book? Sports? The weather? In essence, The Demons of the Past has a lack of the mundane—which is always better than a lack of sensation.
Action and sensation pervade this book. Amidst steamy dialogue, Nadia is always fighting, kicking, arguing, etc. This helps keep the story—which is quite plot-driven—interesting and moving forward; there's always another conflict around the corner. In addition to classic hand-to-hand sword fighting and slightly-less classic hand-to-claw demon slaying, our protagonists battle against the elements and manipulative wizards/scientists. I truly enjoyed most of these scenes. There's almost never a dull moment—except where Nadia's concerned.
Demons of the Past really only has three characters worth discussing: Nadia, Vestro, and Andrew. I'll talk about the last two first and save my evaluation of the narrator last. Vestro and Andrew are also the competing love interests, but by the end of the book I wasn't too excited about either of them winning Nadia's heart.
Vestro is a 400-year-old kelpie (a mutant who can change into a horse). He befriends Nadia when she's a child and serves as her loyal steed in her clandestine demon-slaying adventures; in return, she doesn't tell anyone he's a "demon." He knows more than he tells Nadia, up until the end of the book, and although at first it seems like he might have betrayed her, he remains ever the loyal friend. In a way, Vestro is one of the more fleshed-out characters; he's suffered for hundreds of years and has real motives for his actions. I didn't enjoy the moodiness he exhibited for the last half of the book, however; after Nadia's petulance, it just seemed redundant.
Andrew, in many ways Vestro's opposite, is the prince and new king of the Pearl Isles. A childhood playmate of Nadia's, he spends most of the book asking Nadia to marry him in alternatively romantic and boorish ways. Whereas Vestro's is experienced and deft, Andrew is immature and heavy-handed, but we get the sense that he means well. Unfortunately, I liked Andrew much less than Vestro. He has a lot less of an excuse for being a jerk—yes, his father just died, but he's enough of a king to saddle up, lock and load, and go off on a quest for a mystical ocarina, but he can't handle being snubbed by a girl?
When it comes to the girl, I think I'd want to be snubbed by her. Try as I might, I could not get past Nadia's self-centred, childish nature. She's supposedly twenty-three, but she acts like she's twelve. I get that she's a gung ho gal who just wants to fight demons instead of playing princess—what girl wouldn't? Durante lays on the Rebellious Princess trope a little thick. Nadia's constant complaints about how the men perceive her and her ambivalence regarding Andrew and Vestro are probably my least favourite parts of this book. She has a heart of gold and tries to do the right thing (often screwing up in the process, although sometimes saving Andrew's life), which are redeeming characteristics, but her persistent whining undermines our vision of a badass Lady of War. My one caveat is that Nadia's tribulation at the very end of Demons of the Past foreshadows a possible maturation of her character in a very realistic, dramatic way; if that's the case, then I'll be mollified—but only then.
Demons of the Past is like a meal too rich in dessert; it has plenty of action sequences and tasty descriptions, but it lacks the meat of three-dimensional characters. While I enjoyed the secret society/conspiracy theory component of the plot, the machinations and divisions of loyalty could stand to be more complex and morally ambiguous than they were depicted. This is a good book in that it serves its purpose to lay the ground for the rest of the Damewood trilogy, but the next two books will need to improve if Durante hopes to elevate Damewood beyond average adventure fantasy....more
Faeries are even better than vampires. Firstly, you can actually make a deal with faeries and compel them to honour the deal. Secondly, that makes theFaeries are even better than vampires. Firstly, you can actually make a deal with faeries and compel them to honour the deal. Secondly, that makes them even more deadly, because they're usually clever enough to twist the deal so it ends up harming you anyway. Just as Jim Butcher can't claim credit for vampires, he can't claim credit for faeries, but he sure can claim credit for the characters he creates to personify each species.
I hadn't noticed it before, but the antagonists from both the vampires and the faeries are female. Bianca and Mavra; Titania, Aurora; Mab, Maeve. On one hand, the overabundance of femmes fatales might be worrying. Then again, for the forces of good we have Karrin Murphy. While she's not as powerful as a vampire and certainly can't take on a faerie queen, she still kicks chlorofiend ass. Harry's lucky to have the help he does.
Summer Knight is the debut of another major theme in the Dresden Files. Harry isolates himself from his friends in an attempt to find a cure for Susan's condition. It's obvious that he can't continue in such a state for much longer; withdrawing from society is seldom a solution (unless you're Salinger). Indeed, Butcher ramps up the conflict in this book to remind us just how much Harry needs friends and allies. In Grave Peril, Harry shoulders a lot of the legwork, and the climax is his alone. The conflict in Summer Knight is on another level altogether: this time, instead of war between the Red Court and the White Council, we're talking a war between seasons, between the Faerie Courts. No matter who wins, humanity loses. Harry can't stop that alone.
Although he seems to dodge a bullet here, this isn't the end of Harry's journey. That's most evident in Harry's conversations with the faerie queens: both Mab and Aurora judge Harry by the scars they perceive on his psyche; the two Mothers were equally creepy in their evaluation. The burden of power—and the accompanying responsibility—will continue to weigh heavily upon Harry.
Are mortals meant ever to confront such power? The fates of both the Summer and the Winter Knights seem to suggest not. Easily overlooked are the changelings, the human-fae hybrids who must choose to become one or the other. Meryl chooses to troll up, preferring to sacrifice her humanity and her life to aid the cause. Lily and Fix take a different path.
I know that Harry gets more powerful as the series goes on. His encounters with various non-mortal agencies leave lasting marks on him, and he receives many mantles or grants of magic that prove a serious temptation. I don't think Harry could ever be a Lloyd Slate no matter how much power he has. Yet his weakness is his protective streak, especially for women. As we saw in Grave Peril, there is nothing Harry will not do to try to save someone for whom he cares, right up to instigating bloody war.
Butcher combines faeries with a murder mystery and Harry's own increasing desperation and destitution. It has some of my favourite parts of the Dresdenverse in it: more mythology on the faeries, a very close look at the power structure of the White Council, and great scenes between Harry and Murphy. Summer Knight does what's very difficult, and manages to keep lots of material balanced and use it to deliver lots of story. That makes it exemplary, both as a stand alone novel and as a part of the overall arc of the series.
**spoiler alert** So I don't like werewolves but do like vampires. Some of you will never forgive me, I know. Others will be happy I've taken a side.**spoiler alert** So I don't like werewolves but do like vampires. Some of you will never forgive me, I know. Others will be happy I've taken a side. But if you hold up Fool Moon against Grave Peril, there's no contest. Dresden Files #3 is where it the magic happens. (You may groan.)
With another in media res opening, Jim Butcher plunges us back into the Dresdenverse while simultaneously expanding it even further: Knights of the Cross, ghosts and more spirits, and a look at the fabled Nevernever, complete with a faerie godmother. It sounds like too much, but Butcher makes it work.
There's a trademark cadence to every Dresden Files book that becomes clear if you read enough of them (especially in quick succession). The story takes place over a few days (although the plot extends backward several months to a demon-summoning sorcerer). Harry starts off stressed, gets more so, gets beaten down by every bad guy in sight, then figures out a way to save the day. While the pacing is predictable, the books are far from formulaic, because of the characters. With each new character, Butcher introduces an unknown element, something that changes the way Harry reacts and alters the playing field.
Murphy's role in Grave Peril is as an offscreen damsel in distress. This is one of my complaints about the book, because Murphy is one of my favourite characters, and there is zero Murphy-Dresden banter here. It irks me. Instead, Harry's stand-in sidekick is Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Cross and wielder of Amoracchius, a kick-ass holy sword. I have nothing against Michael; he's a nice guy. But he's not Murphy.
Nevertheless, Michael and his family complicate things for Harry just as Murphy's distress complicates things. Grave Peril is a perfect example of why superheroes don't reveal their secret identities to their loved ones: good villains punch the heroes in the loved ones. Harry lacks a secret identity, so the first dominoes to fall will always be his friends. But because Harry has a darker side to his powers, he can't just isolate himself from friends and family, for that way lies madness. Plus, there's another obstacle: he can't stop caring. When you get down to it, Harry will always do the right thing, even if it's not the smart thing.
Bianca, Red Court vampire with a grudge against Harry the size of a small state, makes this very clear in her gift to Harry at her ball. Oh yes, there's a vampire ball. A masquerade, even. And a dragon shows up. It's pretty awesome, it contains some of the pivotal events in the book. Most importantly, Butcher weaves character conflict and plot conflict together in the form of Harry's faerie godmother, Lea. Not only does Lea take Susan's memories of Harry from her, but the faerie also gives Michael's sword to the vampires for unmaking. The first is a tragedy that seems like a permanent, lasting one (this is not to be, but Butcher doesn't let us down on that count). The second prompts Harry to Do the Right Thing, even when it looks like it will get him and his friends killed.
Even though we know Harry will succeed (this is the Dresden Files after all), we never know the cost of each victory. In the case of Grave Peril, it is surprisingly high. Not only does This Mean War, on a personal level Harry and Susan's relationship has changed forever. I'm not talking about Susan's memory loss; no, just when you think you've figured out the tragedy Butcher plans to exact, he introduces a twist that turns the knife and makes it even more painful.
Harry emerges from this book physically whole but psychically battered. He can no longer be with the woman he loves. He's precipitated a war between the White Council and the Red Court vampires. And all because he dared to take out one sorcerer and do the right thing. Being a hero is tough. Not quitting is even tougher. Since I've read this series before, I know it's only going to get worse. And that just makes the books better and better.