**spoiler alert** Full disclosure: the author was my landlady when I lived in the UK! Despite our age difference, we got along quite well because of o**spoiler alert** Full disclosure: the author was my landlady when I lived in the UK! Despite our age difference, we got along quite well because of our penchant for watching science fiction and humorous British TV shows, or documentaries with luminaries such as Lucy Worsley. Julia first gave me a copy of Lifesong to take with me on my final flight back home, telling me not to read it until I was on the plane. More recently, I received a final draft copy of Lifesong from her in return for some feedback and then a review. It was good then, and it’s good now.
The unnamed protagonist lives on a world where every living thing has this eponymous quality of the lifesong. Everyone can hear lifesongs, and interacting with these songs is an essential part of everyone’s life and comes as easily as breathing. Our protagonist is renowned as a lifesong sculptor, shaping wood and other objects through their lifesongs. At the start of the story, she has just lost her grandfather, a respected member of her village’s community and surrogate parent for her after her parents died when she was young. While grieving for her grandfather, our protagonist discovers a way to follow the universal lifesong away from her world. She winds up on Earth, at least in a psychic projection kind of way, and is horrified to discover that nothing on this planet has or can hear a lifesong. Nevertheless, she manages to form a close connection with a human who has lost someone close to him—but her frequent visits come with a cost, and she soon finds herself unable to return to her world, where her physical form is at risk of wasting away.
Lifesong is very much a character-driven story in which the main character’s emotions and the depth of her connection to the world are the most important elements. This is where the novella form excels: a short story is not enough to develop the character or her adventure in enough detail, but a novel would require a lot more explanations, more scenes and exposition. This length is perfect, with enough time to build to a climax without getting bogged down in subplots and side-characters. The first two acts of the story are a little slow, but they are steady, with each chapter introducing the reader to new concepts and expanding on what we know about the protagonist’s world and life. That final act though … once she discovers she might be “trapped” on Earth and doomed to die, that’s intense.
This is very much a story along the lines of thought experiment social SF. It reminds me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s short stories, and its environmental themes are quite reminiscent of recurring themes in Le Guin’s work, from Earthsea to Always Coming Home. The lifesongs as a codified embodiment of the Gaia hypothesis directly challenge any Western reader’s conception of the Earth as a set of resources to be extracted, exploited, used, or even just managed. The attitudes of the characters in the protagonist’s world remind me of a lot of the attitudes we find in many Indigenous cultures with regards to caring for and living in balance with the natural world. However, Blake smartly avoids any temptation to draw those direct parallels, and so you won’t see any stereotypical “tribal people” or “noble primitive” tropes in this story.
Blake’s writing style is quite lyrical, with the kind of rich descriptions in roundabout ways that help suggest the alienness of the observer. It’s not a style that always works for me, but I liked it here. I think it helps that it contributes to the theme and this idea that humans are the Other here. Lifesong is definitely a Humans Through Alien Eyes story with an ending that hints at humans being the real monsters (TVTropes alert). In particular, I like the ambivalence of the ending—well, I like that it made me feel ambivalent. I’d enjoy seeing a sequel, because Blake leaves avenues open that would make for a nice follow-up story.
Lifesong will probably feel familiar in the channels it follows to people who have read a lot of SF. But it’s a good familiarity, a nice execution of these ideas. Despite having characters who are distant and ultimately ineffable, the story makes you care and makes you think about what actually matters in this world of ours. And that’s what I like my science fiction to do.
Magical cities are one of my favourite tropes in fantasy novels. I think I could read nothing but magical city fiction for a while and take a long timMagical cities are one of my favourite tropes in fantasy novels. I think I could read nothing but magical city fiction for a while and take a long time to feel sated or bored; there is so much room for variation. Camorr from The Lies of Locke Lamora is an example that readily springs to mind, but this is a very old trope. As its title implies, City of Strife is very much a story about such a city, Isandor, essentially in the path of the ambitious and violent Myrian Empire. Claudie Arsenault skilfully weaves the lives of various characters into this political drama.
This is an ensemble cast situation, so it’s difficult to know where to begin. The novel opens with a human, Arathiel, returning to Isandor after 130 years away. Normally he would have, you know, died in that time, but he went looking for a cure for his sister’s illness, and he ended up at some kind of “Well” that didn’t let him age but robbed him of his tactile senses. Arathiel was a member of one of Isandor’s noble Houses, but he is ambivalent about reclaiming his title and identity. He falls in with a group of philanthropic nobodies trying to run a Shelter in the lower city for Isandor’s least privileged. He spends much of the novel vacillating over how much he should get involved in his nascent friendships with these people—and this decision has a huge impact on the course of the story.
Meanwhile, it what feels like an entirely different city sometimes, Lord Diel Dathirii has insulted the head of the Myrian Enclave, a nasty magician by the name of Master Avenazar. This would normally only be a minor political incident, but Avenazar is the type of person who doesn’t just hold grudges—he nurtures and irrigates them like a hothouse flower. Diel may just have set Isandor teetering on the brink of war, but the other Houses don’t see it that way and refuse to present the Myrians with a united, resistant front.
So there’s a lot happening in this book, but at no point did I feel overwhelmed or pitched into a situation where I had no idea what was happening. At the same time, Arsenault avoids the temptation to bludgeon me to sleep or death with the cudgel of heavy-handed exposition (+1 melee, -2 charisma). She drops in enough occasional references to other geography, etc., that I get the sense there is a wider world out there, one that she has figured out at least to the extent that its politics affect Isandor. But the eponymous City of Strife is the story here, and Arsenault keeps the plot tightly focused on its problems.
I’ve been watching a lot of The Expanse lately, and also replaying Mass Effect 3 in preparation for Mass Effect: Andromeda, so a lot of my thinking has been filtered through these two stories. Particularly in the case of The Expanse, the writers have done such a great job alleviating the feeling like this epic political drama is a narrative on rails: seemingly small actions by characters can have major repercussions that perhaps throw the entire story onto a new, unanticipated course. I really respect it when writers can create this kind of atmosphere in their stories, and it’s something that Arsenault succeeds at here. Every character’s actions flow from their own, deeply personal motivations: Larryn is hell-bent on rescuing Hasryan, damn the consequences; Diel is hell-bent on rescuing Branwen, damn the consequences; Avenazar is hell-bent on vengeance, damn the … huh, I think I see a pattern emerging here.
In any case, it’s nice to see a fantasy novel with an ensemble cast where you actually get to know the various members of the ensemble instead of seeing them reduced to usable, plot-ready archetypes. As the title might imply, too, Arsenault is not afraid to sow as much conflict as she can among the characters. Even so-called friends and allies rub each other the wrong way half the time. For example, Larryn and Cal come to loggerheads over what the former sees as a betrayal of their friendship with Hasryan when Cal gets distracted saving a stranger in need. In this case, I actually found Larryn’s behaviour a little over-the-top—believable, yes, but somewhat melodramatic in its execution—but I enjoyed watching these characters screw things up. The same goes for Varden’s attempts to gain Nevian’s trust and the latter’s bleak cynicism. There was something inside me that was just pushing back against the book and going, “This would all be so much simpler if people trusted each other! It’s so obvious what they should do!” But they don’t, because they are human (or elvish) and therefore flawed and, let’s face it, sometimes rather daft. And as easy as it would be to write a story where everything is a straightforward and linear narrative, that isn’t much fun at all.
That’s the bottom line, basically: City of Strife is a lot of fun. For the first half of the book I was just enjoying the atmosphere; once I hit Chapter 26 or so, and everything went to hell, I literally didn’t want to put the book down. I’m glad I had March Break off and didn’t have to stop to, you know, work.
A final note about the portrayal of sexuality and romance in this book. Arsenault identifies as asexual and aromantic-spectrum and promotes City of Strife in part as boasting a diversely LGBTQIAP+ cast. If you’re going into this book looking for heavy LGBTQIAP+ plotlines you might be disappointed, because they aren’t a thing. Rather, Arsenault just telegraphs various characters’ sexual and romantic orientations as and when that information comes up. There are no explicitly romantic or sexual situations in the book (which is good for any arospec people who don’t like that stuff), although some of the characters meditate on the possibility of using sexual liaisons for political gain. While books that focus on characters’ gender, sexual, and romantic identities are truly important, I also appreciate books like City of Strife that seek to normalize LGBTQIAP+ identities by not foregrounding those struggles. Rather, these identities are simply part of the characters, and various characters are totally fine with that (yay!) or, if they are raging bigoted monsters like Master Avenazar, predictably not so much. In which case, you know, Fireball! (That’s how that works, right?)
Finally a final final note on Isandor’s origin story. The use of humans, halflings, elves, and the generic medieval European-esque fantasy city setting reminded me a great deal of Dungeons & Dragons, and indeed, Arsenault explains in her acknowledgements that this world is based on an RPG she DMed. So … yay me for being perceptive? This origin isn’t really surprising and is, I suspect, a lot more common than authors might admit. Once upon a time I read a truly awful attempt by someone to turn their D&D campaign into a story, so it’s good to see that it is possible to weave a great story out of what was probably a fun campaign.
A word of warning, though: City of Strife ends on a damn delectable cliffhanger, and if I had access to the second book, I would have started it immediately after I finished the last page of this one. This is a book I highly recommend, but if you’re the type of reader who needs closure and certainty, maybe hold off on reading it until the next book is out.
This is what I knew about vaccines prior to reading this book:
* Vaccines work by delivering a killed or live, but weakened, version of a virus into tThis is what I knew about vaccines prior to reading this book:
* Vaccines work by delivering a killed or live, but weakened, version of a virus into the body, stimulating the body’s immune system into producing antibodies without actually causing an infection. * Edward Jenner gets a lot of credit for using cowpox to vaccinate against smallpox, though he wasn’t the first to think about this. * Vaccines are responsible for preventing death, disability, and disfigurement due to such diseases as smallpox, polio, measles, and even the flu. Indeed, we’ve eradicated smallpox and almost completely eradicated polio! * Vaccines do not cause autism.
I love reading books like The Vaccine Race, because they make me realize how much I didn’t know that I don’t know about things! In this case, while I knew what vaccines were, I realized that I didn’t actually know how we make vaccines, the process used to kill or weaken the virus. Meredith Wadman explains this, along with all sorts of related developments in the science of vaccination. The title of this book is somewhat inaccurate, or at least too narrow: The Vaccine Race is really the story of virology and immunology in the 20th century. After all, the central character of this story is Leonard Hayflick, who does not himself develop vaccines but rather a critical line of “normal” human tissue cells that become integral to many vaccine efforts. This story goes far beyond the creation of vaccines, touching broadly on issues of biological research and human health.
This is a story, albeit one supported heavily by research. Wadman begins from Hayflick’s earliest days as a scientist, chronicling his studies and start at the Wistar Institute. Along the way, she takes us on digressions to talk about other important figures and the vaccines they worked on. I love the amount of detail that Wadman goes into with regards to the science being done; equally, though, this is not just a book about science but a book about history. Wadman sets out to examine how social conditions and politics in the United States influenced vaccine development, and vice versa.
The history herein is a mixed bag, and Wadman tries to celebrate the progressive aspects while acknowledging the shameful, harmful parts. She does not ignore the fact that vaccines were often tested on poor children and orphans, intellectually disabled people, prisoners, and military personnel. In so doing, she doesn’t just highlight the ethical problems with this, but the way they were embedded within the society of the time:
In 1950 Koprowski began testing his vaccine on intellectually disabled children at Letchworth Village, a filthy, overcrowded institution for people with physical and mental disabilities in the tiny town of Thiells, New York.
Wadman makes it clear here that Dr. Hilary Koprowski didn’t just happen along some intellectually disabled children—they were warehoused, making them ideal for his experiment. Of course, it’s difficult for me to say that things have gotten any better in the present day, considering we incarcerate our mentally ill when we should be helping them…. Anyway, I think the way that Wadman presents these dubious aspects of vaccine development is an important reminder that science is a human endeavour and therefore vulnerable to human flaws.
It is impossible, in fact, to separate science and politics. We must push back against people who insist this is possible, people who think that scientists have no business commenting on public policy, that the existence of global warming has no bearing on how we conduct our lives. The Vaccine Race is a potent primer on science, but it’s an even better look into the political framework in which science was done in the 20th century United States. The scientists in this book lived and died by funding, which often came in the form of grants from government institutions like the National Institute of Health. Moreover, scientists in positions of power were not above using their influence to spin things their way:
Koprowski had minimized the SV40 monkey virus problem only four months earlier, when his own monkey kidney–based polio vaccine was still in the running for U.S. approval. Now, with Sabin’s vaccine rolling quickly toward being licensed, he sounded more alarmed.
The scientific facts were that the SV40 virus existed and that it could potentially survive the vaccine-making progress—but the potential for harm that this posed was still up in the air, and as you can see, Koprowski was willing to change his tune if he thought he could benefit. Someone who was a brilliant scientist—or, more notably perhaps, had a talent for recognizing, grooming, and enabling the brilliance of other scientists—nevertheless keenly acted in his own self-interests when he should have been safeguarding the public good.
The officials in charge of government institutions could also play a huge role in aiding or standing in the way of progress. Wadman discusses how the Department of Biological Standards dragged its feet on allowing vaccines made with WI-38 cells to be licensed in the US, but the rest of the world wasn’t so conservative:
If the WI-38 cells were ignored in the United States, abroad they were increasingly embraced.… It was a sign of the esteem in which Hayflick’s WI-38 cells were held that the British vaccine authorities … decided, perhaps as a matter of national pride, to derive their own analogous normal, noncancerous human diploid cells.
I appreciate that, although largely about the US vaccine industry, the book acknowledges the global scope of medical research. In many cases, crucial advances in vaccines happened because of testing in other countries, or the participation of scientists from other countries—as is the case of Mrs. X and her aborted fetus shipped from Sweden to Hayflick to donate the cells that would become WI-38. Similarly, Wadman reminded me of the importance of scientific conferences—what might seem like a social occasion is really a chance for scientists to recombine ideas and find new, interesting avenues of exploration. If it weren’t for a meeting at a conference, Elizabeth Blackburn might not have heard of Alexei Olovnikov’s little-known theory of cellular aging and connected them to her work on telomeres. Crazy.
Much of The Vaccine Race’s political treatment emphasizes the ways in which scientific and medical research’s evolution into an industry has shaped that research, for better or for worse. The pressure on scientists to secure lucrative grants, make big discoveries, and then patent those discoveries is intense. Post-secondary institutions have essentially turned into patent machines, in a sense, and this can often have an adverse effect on the quality of teaching and learning at that institution, not to mention the actual science being done and the mental health of the scientists doing it.
Still, while I have been and remain critical of the pharmaceutical industry’s power, influence, and actions, I appreciate how Wadman shows the positive effects of nascent Big Pharma’s embrace of vaccines. At the risk of arguing counterfactually, I’m not sure how effective vaccination would be if it were not for the vaccine production industry. And I have no doubts that vaccines are good. At 27, I am old enough not to have been vaccinated with chicken pox (I have vivid memories of that itch when I was a kid, and then three occurrences of what might have been shingles in my early 20s). But I am too young to remember any kind of developed world scarred by polio, rubella, and measles:
In the end, the rubella epidemic that swept the United States in 1964 and 1965 infected an estimated 12.5 million people, or 1 in 15 Americans. More than 159,000 of these infections included joint pain or arthritis, typically in women. Roughly 2,100 people developed encephalitis, a brain inflammation with a 20 percent mortality rate.
Some 6,250 pregnancies ended in miscarriages or stillbirths. An estimated 5,000 women chose to get abortions. Still another 2,100 babies were born, and survived, with congenital rubella syndrome. Of these, more than 8,000 were deaf; nearly 4,000 were both deaf and blind; and 1,800 were intellectually disabled. About 6,600 babies had other manifestations of congenital rubella, most typically heart defects. Often babies were born with several of these disabilities.
These numbers are, at the very best, approximations. They come from a 1969 CDC report whose authors stressed that it was not until 1966 that physicians were required to report rubella cases to authorities.
Just think about that. It boggles my mind, those numbers—they are approximate, because physicians weren’t keeping track! And that was for one epidemic among a recurring cycle of epidemics every 5 years or so! Vaccines have saved literally millions of people from death or needless suffering, and The Vaccine Race is an up-front reminder of how fortunate we are for these discoveries.
The Vaccine Race is a first-rate example of science communication. Wadman is detailed but clear in her writing. I could have done without some of that detail, I think—she loves to tell me all about the backstories of every minor character in the book, and at points my eyes glazed over—but I love this blending of science and history. Moreover, this book is meticulously research, and it shows! In addition to numerous primary and secondary print sources, Wadman interviewed any key players who were still alive (a benefit to writing about recent history!). As a result, she can provide a comprehensive and intimate look at the topic, while remaining somewhat more journalistic than a book written by someone directly involved, such as Hayflick himself. I learned so many interesting things in here. I am quite thankful for NetGalley and Viking making a copy of this book available to me to review.
Here Douglas Coupland goes again, trying to break our brains and our library cataloguing systems. Is Bit Rot fiction or non-fiction? It’s a collectionHere Douglas Coupland goes again, trying to break our brains and our library cataloguing systems. Is Bit Rot fiction or non-fiction? It’s a collection of both! Oh noes! It contains short stories, including some previously published in Generation A (which I read almost 7 years ago, so I have zero recollection of any of it), and essays and assorted musings. In general, this is Coupland’s most up-to-date published writing on how we’re dealing with the rapid pace of technological progress.
I’m not going to talk about many of the specific entries in this collection, because there are so many. And, to be honest, they tend to blur together. As anyone who is familiar with Coupland’s work knows, his writing has a smooth quality to it: a little bit of prognostication, a little bit of paranoia, a little sideways weirdness. His voice and his ideas are always compelling. I think where he and I part ways, and where I often find myself disappointed, especially in his fiction, is our viewpoints on what constitutes a story or a novel. Coupland has a much looser, much more experimental attitude towards narrative—and that’s fine and valid if that’s what he likes. But it means that when his stories depart from the more conventional modes of storytelling that I enjoy, my brain has to work harder. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?
Before I talk about a few of the high points, I’ll take issue with one particular contention. This is quoted on the back of the Random House hardcover I read and comes from the essay “3 1/2 Fingers” (read it here). Coupland describes his feelings and sensations around having to rewire a handwritten-trained brain to first type on keyboards and then use touchscreen, smartphone keyboards:
But I can see that our species’ entire relationship with words, and their mode of construction, is clearly undergoing a massive rewiring. I bridge an era straddling handwriting and heavy smartphone usage. Young people like my friend’s daughter with her emoticons and rampant acronyms are blessed in having no cursive script to unlearn – with the bonus of having no sense of something having been lost. That’s a kind of freedom, and I’m jealous. Part of accepting the future is acknowledging that some things must be forgotten, and it’s always an insult because it’s always the things you love. We lost handwriting and got Comic Sans in return. That’s a very bad deal.
Although I understand the sensation he’s identify, I have to disagree with the assertion that exchanging handwriting for Comic Sans is in any way a “bad deal”. Yes, I know it is cool to hate on Comic Sans, and I used to be one of those people. But I’ve learned that a lot of people anecdotally like Comic Sans for its readability. And more broadly, what we have gained is not just Comic Sansper se but the ability, with the touch of a button, to alter the display of any piece of writing on our screen—to change its typeface, its size, its line-, letter-, and word-spacing, etc. That’s a superpower! And to do that, all we had to exchange was handwriting? My handwriting sucks! I’m down with that.
Fortunately, there is plenty in this book that doesn’t cause typographical arguments with the reader. One of my favourite stories is the longer entry “Temp”, quite understandably about a temp, Shannon, and her involvement with a company under negotiations to be bought by Chinese investors. I just love Coupland’s portrayal of Shannon, as well as the other characters. It reminded me a lot of his novels like JPod, and it has some great lines in it, such as, “It was a Quentin Tarantino standoff, where everyone holds a gun on everyone else, except there weren’t guns, just words and emotions.” Plus, it has a genuinely upbeat ending. Many of the essays and stories in this collection, while interesting, are not things I’d like to reread. “Temp”, on the other hand, is something I could see myself revisiting.
I also very much enjoyed Coupland’s musings on the economic angle of technology. Some of his writing about paper money and “flushing out” old money is a little absurd. But “World War $”, which you can read in its original form on the Financial Times website, is a succinct summary of how digital capitalism has broken money:
How is money damaged? It is damaged because me having photons faster than yours by a few millionths of a second is enough to make me appallingly rich – again, for doing absolutely nothing except hacking into money itself. It’s hard to have respect for this kind of system. Often the latency issue is presented to the public as a “Wow, isn’t this cool!” moment when, in fact, it’s sickening, and is partially why the world began to feel one-percent-ish five years ago. Reasonably smart people inhabiting the Age of Latency are milking those still stuck in the pre-latent era.
Coupland is talking with reference to the 2008 financial crisis, and he is absolutely right here. Traders have hacked money to make more … well, money … and now this house of cards is crashing down. We shored it up 8 years ago, but that doesn’t mean we made the structure any less fragile.
In at least two instances, Coupland also belies our desire to perceive technology as alien or Other. He reminds us that technology, being by definition a creation of humans, is itself an expression of our humanity—all of it, the good and the bad qualities. So technology is not alien but instead one of the most human things in existence. I really like this perspective and this reminder, since it is very tempting to view technology as a black box or a dehumanizing force.
This is perhaps why I continue to return to Coupland as a writer despite occasionally finding his novels bizarre or less than enjoyable. Unlike some technology writers, Coupland does not evangelize, nor does his condemn. Coupland is not sounding the warning bells, but he hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid either. He is just a tourist in the 21st century—like a man woken from cryogenic sleep being introduced to new ideas far ahead of his time. Coupland possesses a refreshing mixture of cynicism and optimism that makes his analysis feel very genuine and thought-provoking.
I received access to a copy of this from NetGalley, because apparently Blue Rider Press is publishing this on March 7. However, it has been out in hardcover already (in Canada, at least) for a while, and I received a physical copy for Christmas (thanks, Dad!). So I actually read the physical copy. But I appreciate the ARC, if that’s what you would call it, as well!
I’m actually just going to quote stuff I like from her review and add a few thoughts of my own in order to pretend I’m doing work here and justify counting this as a “review” of my own….
Ax's characterisation is pitch-perfect
So much yes! Ax is a fun narrator because of his alien perspective, but in the wrong hands that perspective becomes too loony. Ghostwriter Kimberly Morris keeps the comic tone from become too over-the-top. I like how Ax doesn’t assume the reader is human, so he explains things that non-humans might be confused by. Also, there are some good moments in here that remind us that Ax is a young Andalite and an inexperienced (by some standards) warrior, which is easy to forget when he is the only non-Controller Andalite on the planet.
My opinion of the Andalites drops almost every time we meet more of them.
Exactly, this is one of the great strengths of the Animorphs series. The Andalites are not a stock species of heroes and the Yeerks are not villains. We’ve seen Applegate time and again work to subvert such Saturday-morning-cartoon readings, portraying honourable Yeerks and devious or nefarious Andalites. However, she still succeeds in presenting a set of Andalite cultural norms that is markedly different from humans. One of my pet peeves about SF is when someone writes aliens as “humans who look different”. Aliens are alien, and we get that here with the Andalites. They may be sentient and very good with technology, but they have slightly different moral philosophies from humans, as this book and previous books have shown us. If Ax hadn’t been “corrupted” by the Animorphs, he would be espousing the same philosophy.
Except that I genuinely fell for it and thought that they had fallen apart, because my trust in some of the ghostwriters is that low…
(Emphasis original.) I nearly fell for it too, but I had a vague memory of it being a set-up from when I read this book as a kid, so I kind of suspected that for the rest of the book.
On a related note, though, this is one of those rare Animorphs adventures where only one character features prominently and the rest only appear fleetingly. This is an Ax story and the other Animorphs are support characters.
That being said, Jake standing up to Gonrod? Yes please! Chills down my spine as I saw this human pre-teen (teenager?) telling an adult Andalite how things will go down. But please, keep telling me how teenagers aren’t going to fix this world if we just let them.
The Arrival's plot is emotional, contributes a lot to the worldbuilding and overall arc, and is relevant to the war as a whole, with wonderful characterisations and high-stakes, and even slow horror at times.
What she said!
Much like this book, the next book will pick up on continuity from earlier in the series. Guys, we have officially entered TNG-season-6 mode. As Rachel says, let’s rock and roll.
As with Truthwitch, Windwitch is a great palate cleanser after some less-than-inspiring reads. It has been a rough couple of weeks, reading-wise, anAs with Truthwitch, Windwitch is a great palate cleanser after some less-than-inspiring reads. It has been a rough couple of weeks, reading-wise, and I’m trying to get back on top of my reading and reviewing game. So I grabbed this from near-the-top of the reading pile where it landed after buying it when it was published. Windwitch is not quite as exciting as the first book—it seems to lack a unifying, urgent central plot—and your enjoyment will depend a lot on how you feel about the characters Susan Dennard has paired up for this instalment.
Spoilers for Truthwitch but not this book.
Windwitch picks up very shortly after the first book ends. Safi is in thrall to Empress Vaness of Marstok; Iseult is attempting to cross the continent in order to find her; and Merik is screwing things up, as usual. This time, Merik is presumed dead. If only he had stayed that way. (Can you tell I don’t much like Merik?) Oh, and that Bloodwitch guy is back trying to get you to feel sympathy for him (or Aeduan?).
The main takeaway of this book’s lot is that no character has any idea WTF is going on. If this were Twitter, there would be a lot of confused @ing while everyone argues over which hashtags to use. Unfortunately, Dennard doesn’t quite Storify it all for us.
One interesting dimension is the addition of Vivia, Merik’s sister, to the viewpoint characters. Vivia in the first book was an unseen, distant antagonist-by-proxy. We pretty much had to take Merik’s word for it that she was bad news, and now we can see how his perception distorted her. Yes, Vivia is not all sunshine and puppy dogs and rainbows. But I like her character; I like her a lot better than Merik. I trust that she is trying to find the best way to help her people, just like Merik is, even if she doesn’t always trust other people enough to take them into her confidence. If you hand her a problem, Vivia is the kind of person who is going to seem like she isn’t working on the problem, then come to you long after you think she has forgotten about it and present a fait accompli solution. If you hand Merik a problem, he is going to look at it for a while and then try to fix it with sailing or something. (I’m being a little too harsh on Merik, I admit. In attempting to solve his own murder he does some good investigative legwork.)
I’m struggling, however, to come up with anything about Windwitch that really excites me. Truthwitch excited me because Safi and Iseult had such a great, platonic chemistry going on. Separating them was a bold move, one that I think paid off in that book—but in this book, it just leads to the two subpar-by-comparison pairings of Safi/Vaness and Iseult/Aeduan. Safi and Vaness are fun for about three seconds—it’s nice that Safi is self-aware about how annoying she is being, that she is using that to be deliberately obstructive of either Vaness or, later, their captors. Iseult is a little better; I still don’t know why the second book wasn’t Threadwitch and didn’t follow Iseult more closely, because hers continues to be, in my opinion, the most interesting arc of this entire series.
Iseult is going through some hard times. Her fleeting, unwilling contacts with Esme and her internal conflict over the possibility of being a Cleaving, puppeteering Weaverwitch are very compelling. She is so wrapped up in trying to get to Safi, trying to help Safi, that she is trying to shove these personal concerns on to the backburner—and they won’t let her. In this respect, Dennard pairing Iseult with Aeduan works pretty well. They already have a history together, what with her saving his life, and their powers are relatively incompatible—her cloak protects her from him smelling her blood, and he has no Threads for her to manipulate. It’s fun to see them make a deal to grudgingly work together—but the end result is as messy and inconclusive as the rest of this book.
My refrain in my head throughout reading Windwitch was that it fell into the fantasy novel trap of confusing travel with plot.
Seriously, so much of this story is just characters travelling across the Witchlands, whether of their own free will or at the behest of another set of characters. And then if something happens, they get to backtrack a little! Oh, and there is something nefarious happening with pirates? But it’s largely a background element that only gets shoved into the foreground at the end to provide a kind of tacked-on climax with action sequences that are really confusing if you don’t visualize when you read (hello).
Truthwitch has a forward momentum prompted by Safi’s urgent need to escape her arranged marriage and a Bloodwitch on her tail. Windwitch has little of that. The essential outcomes of this story, which I won’t spoil, feel small enough that they could have been compressed into the first act of the book, and then whatever is in book 3 could have been the rest of this book. Everything else just feels like … well, I don’t want to drop an F-bomb on you, but here I go.
Much of this book feels like filler.
There, I said it. I might as well toss in the dreaded “second-book syndrome” in for good measure.
Really, trying hard not to hate on Windwitch because the setting and characters are still pretty great. It’s just that the story in this one, especially compared to the first book, lacks a unity that I crave in these kinds of epic adventures. For a book ostensibly about Merik, if the title is anything to go by, its focus is scattershot at best. And unlike most books with multiple POVs, I had trouble understanding why we were following certain POVs and not others. While Dennard does her best to suggest underlying arcs that will hopefully come to more prominence over time (the Cahr Awen and the Origin Wells, obviously; Esme, etc.), the POV characters, with one or two exceptions, seem remarkably uninvolved in furthering these arcs.
I like this series and really respect what Dennard is trying to do—trying to do new things and not hitting the mark is always better than falling back on tried-and-true formulae. Nevertheless, Windwitch will go down as “uh, that middle book”—especially if Bloodwitch is a more worthy sequel, which I hope it will be.
**spoiler alert** OK, I tried to write this review without spoilers, but I can’t. I have to talk about the fates of certain characters, because the mo**spoiler alert** OK, I tried to write this review without spoilers, but I can’t. I have to talk about the fates of certain characters, because the more I think about it the angrier I get. Trigger warning for violence against women used as a plot device. Buckle up.
Do you want to live forever? I’m not talking to you, Starship Trooper. I’m talking to you, disposable poor person from 1878. Would you like to be a test subject?
Eric Scott Fishl combines the moral and philosophical quandaries of alchemy’s quest for immortality with the setting of the post–Civil War era Old West United States. It’s a cool idea, and I suspect there is a lot in here for some readers. I don’t, as a general rule, read westerns. Their setting tends not to click with me. There are some exceptions—The Dead of Winter, another Angry Robot book, is one. Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show comes close to being another; ultimately, in this case, it isn’t the setting so much as the characters and the writing that leave me unsatisfied.
The eponymous Dr. Potter is a sham. He’s a snake-oil salesman in a frankly underwhelming travelling circus/freak-show; and he isn’t even in charge. He’s the face of the show, but sinister ringmaster Lyman Rhoades is pulling the strings—and he’s just a minion for the big man back home, the brains of the operation. Dr. Potter is beholden to this benefactor, reliant upon him for the drug that will keep him alive. And so he plays a dark and dirty role in a Faustian bargain, even as Rhoades exercises his power over the people of the show with brutal and violent intensity.
I like a lot of the ideas that Fischl throws into this book. However, the end product doesn’t feel as smooth as it could be. There is a lot of telling rather than showing here. The first few chapters introduce the various groups of characters who will matter in the story, and the narrator spends most of their time describing these characters’ pasts and their current feelings to us. I much prefer it when authors let us piece these things together, let it come out through dialogue and the occasional tidbits of exposition. Big paragraphs might be satisfying to write, but they tank the pace of the story. And while this is a stylistic quibble at its heart, it’s one that stays with me throughout the whole book. Fischl never settles for a one-liner or an implication when a carefully-constructed paragraph, or even page, is possible. As a result, we get a lovely and holistic view of the world of Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show—but for me, this starts to eclipse the action and the actual characters behind these ideas.
And then we get into the problematic bits.
This book has a serious lack of women with agency. It irked me for the first part of the book, with the introduction of Mercy (heavy-handed symbolic name anyone?) as Rhoades’ wife and chew-toy. Literally her only purpose in this plot is to suffer and cry and be a symbol for the men to pity while they hand-wring over how weak they are for not taking Rhoades on. There is a particularly unsettling scene (middle of chapter 4, not going to quote from it here because it’s super disturbing) where Rhoades sexually assaults Mercy. Fischl describes Rhoades’ actions in grotesque detail. I can’t imagine how someone who might be triggered by these depictions would react to reading it; I have no such triggers and I felt viscerally disturbed by what happened. But it’s not even the level of detail—I get that the scene is meant to be unsettling in a book that is meant to disturb. It’s not the way the scene was written so much as its purpose for the plot. It’s the fact that the scene is entirely a gratuitous way of using violence against women to demonstrate that Rhoades is a Very Bad Guy, as if we hadn’t already had that confirmed in half a dozen other ways.
I soldiered on, hoping that Fischl would give us a more positive depiction of women, or maybe even give Mercy an arc that could redeem her beginning. Elizabeth McDaniel looked, briefly, like she might be that character—but nope! Both Mercy and Elizabeth are fridged (TVTropes), again, purely it seems for the effect this has on the audience and to demonstrate just how bad Rhoades is.
Look, I know that violence against women has a tried and true history in horror stories. That doesn’t make it right, or good, or acceptable. And it is possible for women to meet grisly ends in manners that are not sexualized. Finally, there are basically four named women in this book (the third is Annabelle, Dr. Hedwith’s wife, who thankfully is not raped or killed as far as I know—she just kind of disappears halfway through the book; the fourth, Mary McDaniel, is fridged and used as the motivation for a short-lived revenge plot before the the book even starts). None of them have any kind of existence, arc, or purpose independent of the male characters; this is fantastically sucky. I am not opposed to bad things happening to characters, of any gender, for the purposes of horrifying the audience (though, to be honest, it isn’t really my bag). But this is not the way to do it at all. So I’m calling it out, and you can like Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show but you also better be ready to acknowledge how problematic this representation of women is.
I also have some reservations about Oliver as a depiction of a Black man in post–Civil War America. Fischl makes some choices of diction, description, and behaviour and then lampshades them with explanations that feel faintly stereotypical to me. Moreover, while Oliver has a more active role in the plot, owing to his gender, it’s a role largely subservient to or in support of white men. This is an area I’m not as well-versed in, though, so I’ll leave my critiques there, and hopefully other (preferably Black) readers could weigh in either way.
It’s a shame, because the ending of this book is very exciting. I like it when good plans go to tatters and we end up in a Battlestar Galactica finale, everything-is-going-to-shit situation. For all my complaints about exposition and pacing earlier in the book, I really like the pacing and intensity of the ending. I just wish I didn’t have to wade through such poor representation to get there.
… the intimations of bigger and better story arcs continue here. Once again we have a direct reference to the face-shifting ghoul terrorizing Ian. (According to the Goodreads series list, the next book is The Ghoul Vendetta, so I’m guessing we’ll soon get some pay-off on that arc!)
I was going to criticize the covers and complain about how they’re all different poses of Mac and Ian waving weapons around …
Plus, it’s nice that the covers acknowledge Mac and Ian’s partnership. Ian has Mac’s back in this book—hopefully in The Ghoul Vendetta we’ll see a little more vulnerability in him and Mac will really have a chance to shine.
*fist pump* Called it.
Is this really the fourth book in this series? I can remember back when Lisa Shearin was turning out the second and third books in Raine’s series! It feels like just yesterday, but here we are … almost exactly one year since I rea dthe last book and well into the SPI Files and apparently a third series on the horizon. Coming upon Shearin when she was a new author and getting to read her books soon after their publication has been a delight, year after year, because she keeps delivering fun stories. The Ghoul Vendetta is no exception. Fans of the series will find what they want in this book, and newcomers won’t feel too lost (though I highly recommend picking up at least the first book!).
It’s June now, and Mac is on another date with Rake Danescu Dark Gobl—er, I mean, dark mage—er, I mean, he’s a goblin, OK? And he does dark magic, but he’s good, and he has the hots for Mac, and she has the hots for him, but things keep attacking them, and it’s just really inconvenient. And so they’re on a date, and things attack them! This turns out to be connected to a wider plot by Old Ones wanting to undo a curse by other Old Ones keeping them from dominating and terrorizing all other species on the planet. To make matters worse, Mac’s work partner, Ian, is intimately connected to this plot, which is masterminded by the face-shifting not-a-ghoul who has taunted Ian in various ways in the previous books.
The Ghoul Vendetta follows a pattern I’ve noticed (which may entirely be a product of my delusional, word-addled mind) of series arcs, at least for ongoing urban fantasy novels like this series, really picking up in the fourth book. That is to say, the first three books of a series might be good, even amazing, but they are often very contained. They lay the groundwork for future books, but they haven’t yet established enough of the characters’ baseline behaviour to really show them growing, changing, and responding to threats from their past or threats newfound. By the time book four comes round, enough pages have elapsed to make this possible. Shearin capitalizes on this opportunity. This book is all about Ian, his past, and it is definitely game-changing for him and his role in SPI.
There are so many good additions to the series lore here!
Vampires do not play a prominent role in the story per se, but they are on the periphery of everything, and Shearin gives us more information on how vampirism works in this world. The exposition is interesting but never overdone—it all relates the main plot. Moreover, Alain Moreau has a bigger role in this book, because he is subbing for Vivienne Sagadraco while she takes a vacation. I liked Moreau from previous books, but his smaller parts made it harder for me to get a read on him. He comes off as much more personable, less “creepy hypnotic vampire lawyer/line manager” than he has previously. Mac even gets to see him in jeans at one point!
With Ian out of commission for large swathes of the book, Mac’s dynamic changes significantly as well. The Ghoul Vendetta is much less about her and her powers/role as a seer. I like how Shearin puts Mac in physically dangerous situations and portrays her has a competent but not overly skilled fighter. Mac certainly seems to have more to do in this book, and although she isn’t necessarily the one who directly initiates something, she tends to be the driving force and instigator in most of the plot developments. Ian’s vulnerability here offers opportunities to affirm their mutual respect and trust for one another as partners.
The antagonists are also quite different from your average monster in an urban fantasy book. Shearin has really dug deep into a less popularly used mythology for some inspiration here, and it works extremely well. I love the way she presents the threat of these monsters: they are simultaneously brutish and overwhelming in their power yet constrained and cunning thanks to their leader (the face-shifting ghoul with a vendetta against Ian). They are also very different from the threats that SPI has dealt with up until this point. However, sometimes the “mystery” element felt flat. So many of the developments come from Ian and his investigation into his past. There are a few dead bodies, but there isn’t quite the same frenetic energy that the previous books have had with Mac and Ian racing around New York trying to stop the baddie. Even the field trip out to Bannerman’s Castle is relatively sedate.
Fortunately, the climax is pretty rewarding. Lots of fighting, an aerial sequence, and plenty of grandstanding from the villain—you know, the usual. I’m very pleased with the resolution and the way that Shearin deals with the immediate threat while letting other threads hang loose, ready to be picked up in later books. She could easily have had Ian just wipe away all the opposition with super-godlike powers or something, but her solution is much more nuanced. The book ends on a somewhat humorous note, reminding us that what might seem strange to mundanes like ourselves is actually just another day at the office for SPI agents. So it goes.
I apologize if this review is a bit vague; I wanted to avoid spoilers so that you can enjoy it as fresh as possible. The Ghoul Vendetta is exactly what I was hoping for from the next SPI Files book. I mean, at this point, I’d pretty much subscribe to Shearin’s series if that were an option.
Who doesn’t like a good controversy in their popular science books? What’s a philosophical theory about the nature of the universe if it doesn’t rufflWho doesn’t like a good controversy in their popular science books? What’s a philosophical theory about the nature of the universe if it doesn’t ruffle some feathers? No one wants to write a book and then have everyone turn around and shrug at you. That doesn’t sell! So it’s not really surprising that Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality is a controversial book by a somewhat controversial physicist. I received this as a Christmas gift a few years ago, and that was the first I’ve heard of Max Tegmark. Since then he has popped up a few times here or there, and now I’ve finally made time to read this long and detailed treatise on the current state of physics and Tegmark’s personal conception of, well, reality.
I don’t actually find it all that controversial, per se—though I should clarify that I’m a mathematician by training, and not a physicist, so maybe the way Tegmark presents these ideas is more insulting or seems more radical when one is a physicist. That being said, I’m also not saying I agree with Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH), because, despite probably being a mathematical realist, Platonism itself strangely makes me uncomfortable….
Oh boy, I think I’ve already used too many strange terms! This review is probably going to get pretty heady and philosophical at some point, much like Our Mathematical Universe does. So let me spend the first part here just discussing the book, its structure and writing, etc., in a more general way, to give you an idea of whether or not it is of interest to you before you read my whole review. I’ll get to my thoughts about Tegmark’s specific claims later.
Firstly, regardless of any reservations I might have, I still recommend this book. This is a really well-written and approachable popular science work. Tegmark’s style is really accessible—despite going heavy on scientific and mathematical terminology, he is careful to proceed in a systematic way. This is not a book you want to be reading just before bed, maybe, or during a busy commute—it took me pretty much a week, albeit a busy week, to work my way through it. Nevertheless, I think it is a worthwhile use of one’s time.
Tegmark first impressed me with a table at the end of Chapter 1 called “How to read this book”. He lists every chapter of the book, along with three columns: Science-curious reader, hard-core reader of popular science, and physicist. Each column lists the chapters that reader would be best to read/skip—i.e., the science-curious reader should read the entire book; the hard-core reader can skip several of the earlier chapters because they presumably will have seen these explanations before; and the physicist can skip all but the controversial chapters (Tegmark also labels each chapter as “mainstream”, “controversial”, or “extremely controversial”). I love this approach and hope more popular science authors use it. Now, I, of course, ignored these suggestions and read the whole book anyway, because I wanted to see how Tegmark explained the Big Bang, inflation, etc. Yet I confess I skimmed some parts and felt better about it because I knew it was sanctioned.
One reason I’ll recommend this book is simply because Tegmark’s explanations for the origins of our universe, as currently understood by “mainstream” cosmology, are really lucid. He clarified several aspects of the Big Bang and inflation that, until now, I not only did not understand but didn’t realize I didn’t understand. He didn’t just improve my comprehension: he actually showed me parts of my comprehension of these theories that were inaccurate. I am not a physicist by training by any stretch of the imagination (I only took physics up to Grade 12 in high school, and they don’t even get into relativity by then, let alone QM); all of this knowledge is entirely autodidactic, and hence it isn’t surprising a lot if it is inaccurately understood. But I think I’ve plateaued a lot lately because I was having trouble finding explanations that were calibrated for my knowledge level: either the explanations get too technical and lose me, or else I just end up reading the same ground-floor “hey have you heard of this thing called the double-slit experiment?” stories over and over again, which isn’t fun either.
In particular, I really enjoyed Chapter 5, in which Tegmark explains inflation and why it is necessary to account for problems with the Big Bang theory. The idea of the Big Bang itself is now probably within the realm of general public knowledge, assuming a half-decent education (and regardless of whether one “accepts” the theory or prefers creationist nonsense). Yet there are probably as many misconceptions about this theory as there are explanations of it in popular science books, and once any two non-cosmologists start talking about it, we inevitably run into quasi-philosophical walls. Tegmark very clearly presents what the theory actually says; why it is compelling given the evidence; the problems with the theory without inflation and why inflation itself solves those problems.
Tegmark refers a lot to data gathered by several satellites and ground-based microwave telescopes that have observed the Cosmic Background Microwave Radiation (CBMR). He himself worked quite a bit on many of these projects, or with the data from these projects, to help sharpen and analyze this evidence. And this is another reason I enjoyed and recommend Our Mathematical Universe: Tegmark provides a great perspective on how science is done. From conferences to international projects poring over satellite data to writing and publishing papers, Tegmark shows us the act of physics research as much as the end result. He shows us how individual physicists’ opinions of theories will evolve over time. He shows us how people have different specializations, which in turn lead to different predilections and levels of knowledge about parts of physics. It’s really fascinating, and it’s an aspect to the discourse around science that I wish more media would cover.
So the first 6 or 7 chapters of this book are excellent, and I recommend reading at least those. After Chapter 8, Tegmark introduces the more “controversial” content. As I said above, I don’t see it as controversial so much as a bundle of claims that are either uninteresting because they are obvious or unappealing because they are largely unintelligible. Now we arrive at the part of the review that gets technical.
Let me refer you to Scott Aaronson’s review. He is a computer scientist and much more well-versed in this stuff than I am, so his review goes into more depth behind the mathematical/physics claims that Tegmark makes. I found myself largely nodding along and agreeing with most of Aaronson’s opinions there.
You might think that I, as a mathematically-inclined person, might seize upon the idea presented here. Tegmark’s MUH says not only that we can describe the universe using mathematics (a notion almost axiomatic to our physics) but that all of our physical reality itself is literally mathematical. That is, our entire subjective human experiences are simply the consequence of certain facets of a certain mathematical structure within a superset of structures, the entirety of which comprise the Level IV multiverse, i.e., the sum total of all existence and anything that could ever possibly exist.
It’s tempting. And yet….
Years ago I read The Grand Design. This was back in my university days, mind, when I was high on philosophy classes of all kinds and armed much more to purpose for these kinds of throw-downs. Nowadays, my memory of the differences between ontological and epistemological arguments requiring jogging from Wikipedia, I’m not so sure I’m up to the task. Yet one idea has stayed with me from Hawking and Mlodinow’s book: that of model-dependent realism. They proposed that the reason we are having so much trouble finding a “theory of everything” to unify the physics of the big (relativity) and the physics of the small (QM) is because no such theory exists. Rather, different theories are required depending on the situation one is trying to model. It is an intriguing idea, one I hadn’t really encountered in a science book before. And I really liked how it short-circuited many anti-realist objections to scientific realism.
Tegmark appears to move in the opposite direction. He backs the ToE horse (which is fine) by insisting that the ToE is reality. And then he kind of dodges the question of whether that means we will ever actually find a ToE (because if we did, wouldn’t that mean we just have … reality?).
That’s what I mean about the MUH being uninteresting and unintelligible. He starts off by talking about how the movement of time is an illusion, all very much standard stuff depending on how you define spacetime, etc. Yawn. When we get into the more “controversial” material, his argument just sort of breaks down. He starts making a whole bunch of probabilistic paradox arguments, like quantum suicide, the doomsday argument, etc.—the kind of thought experiments that are fun to put into a first-year philosophy textbook but that have little connection to, you know, reality. These thought experiments rely explicitly on making assumptions to make up for our near-total lack of knowledge about a situation. The whole point is that, as we acquire more certain knowledge, we are in a better position to see if we are indeed a representative sample or if, perhaps however improbably, we are not.
Tegmark’s MUH is also, despite his claims to the contrary, completely untestable/unfalsifiable. He insists that we will uncover evidence and create theories which logically imply the MUH, and that’s just silly. The MUH is untestable because we currently have no alternative to mathematics as a way of describing physical theories of reality. It is unfalsifiable, because even if we can get past the testing problem, how will we know if we’ve discovered a physical law or property that violates the MUH? Almost by definition, the MUH can take nearly any observational evidence and somehow fit into its framework. Tegmark claims that if the MUH is false, then we will one day run up against an insurmountable “wall” in physics beyond which our knowledge of reality can progress no further, since our mathematics will no longer be able to express reality. I disagree. I think model-dependent realism would be an effective way to counteract such a wall: maybe to progress, all we need do is abandon the search for a ToE and instead create theories of everything.
The last half of Our Mathematical Universe is a wild ride of philosophy of mathematics and science. I loved reading it. I found parts of it very convincing, but I don’t think those parts (combined with the other parts) necessarily add up to the whole that Tegmark calls the Level IV multiverse, the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis. I think he is incredibly enthusiastic about this idea and has clearly spent a lot of time thinking on it—which is great. I loved that I got a chance to read it. But I don’t think his arguments are as sound as he thinks they are. I say this not from a physicist’s position (because I’m not one) nor even a mathematician/logician (because, let’s face it, my memory of higher math dims with each passing day) but as the target demographic for this book, the hard-core popular science reader who is looking for a new hit to bring on that theoretical physics high. It’s a nice try, Tegmark, and you almost had me going.
My friend Julie’s review pretty much nails why #37: The Weakness is, coincidentally, so weak. I’m just going to pile on with a few more observations.
TMy friend Julie’s review pretty much nails why #37: The Weakness is, coincidentally, so weak. I’m just going to pile on with a few more observations.
This is Rachel’s chance to lead while Jake is away. She bungles it, but not as badly as the ghostwriter of this book (Elise Smith) bungles Rachel’s characterization. Her portrayal as an insecure megalomaniac gives me flashbacks, as it did Julie, to aggressive Rachel from #32: The Separation; Rachel’s whole narration just feels so off, such a caricature, that, plot holes aside, the entire book is just an uncomfortable reading experience. If this were a TV show, it would be as if Rachel’s normal actor were replaced by someone else, kind of how Dick York gets replaced by Dick Sargent in Bewitched and no one in the show acknowledges that Darrin is a completely different person (magic!).
Julie’s review goes on to critique the plot holes of this book with an unabashed and entirely justified rant. Reading this story is like reading someone’s really bad Animorph fanfic: all the characters are here; the essential story elements are here; but there are dumb contrivances and terrible story decisions. Why do the Garatrons need to physically resemble the Andalites if that is never relevant to the story (or subsequent stories) in any way? Is it just to drop in a mention of convergent evolution? And I agree that there is so much craziness happening in this book without any of it ever becoming an issue for the Animorphs. They trash a TV station, literally steal an airplane from a military base, and nothing bad comes of it. The level of action in this book is close to Megamorphs, Michael-Bay-style effects level—and it makes just as much sense as a Michael Bay film, i.e., zero.
It’s a shame, because The Weakness does have a few elements with potential. The whole “who would make a better leader” subplot does not interest me, mostly because it is something that this series has spent time on already. But this feels like a wasted opportunity to talk about strategy. Until now, the Animorphs have been very heavy on tactics: how they attack, when they attack, etc. Recent books have shifted this focus from tactics to strategy, with the Animorphs forced to temporarily work with Yeerks like Visser One in order to prevent a “worse” invasion of Earth. The question of whether or not the Animorphs are better off waging war against the Yeerks in secret or exposing them to prompt global resistance is a thorny one, and something that will come to the fore by the end of the series. The fraught, dangerous mission that the Animorphs undertake in this story, and the way they come up against the spectre of exposure, could have led to some interesting discussions among the team. Instead, we just get infighting. Because … conflict?
Every time I encounter a book like this, I have to remind myself that in 54 issues, they can’t all be winners. And young me probably didn’t mind as much. Nevertheless, I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out The Weakness as anything other than what it is: not just a hot mess, but a hot mess left behind by the guy who made you pay for the meal because he “forgot his wallet”.
Truthwitch was an essential palate cleanser. I needed something light, something that is not necessarily a romp but that would not allow me to get bogTruthwitch was an essential palate cleanser. I needed something light, something that is not necessarily a romp but that would not allow me to get bogged down. And that’s what this book is. Susan Dennard’s Witchlands remind me of L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s Recluce saga and others of its ilk; by transitivity, they remind me of my younger days when I could curl up with a thick fantasy novel while it rains outside and just read the afternoon away. In many ways this is your typical Medieval European Fantasy story that could have been written any time in the last thirty years—except that instead of your standard, brooding young-to-middle-aged man, it has two stellar young women as its protagonists.
Safiya, the eponymous Truthwitch, is nobility but not all that interested in being noble. Her Threadsister—read, sidekick—Iseult is a Threadwich, and together they have the fighting training to kick all kinds of ass. We see this from the start, which opens in media res with Safi and Iseult fighting back-to-back while, presumably, cool electronic music plays in the background as they take down tens of well-trained redshirts. It’s the kind of well-choreographed John Woo style action you’d happily watch in a movie, and Dennard has a talent for putting it on the page without making it too confusing, especially to readers like myself who have trouble visualizing scenes. Also, the fact that Safi and Iseult are nascent con artists certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to endearing them to me. I love con artist characters.
The pacing of the book does not let up from that opening, and for the next three hundred pages our protagonists barely get time to breathe. Readers hoping for eye-blurring paragraphs of exposition will be disappointed, because Dennard often errs on the side of confusion for the sake of succinctness. Even with the handy map at the front of the book, I often found myself confused about which nation was which, who belonged or worked for which nation, and why I should care about these conflicts. Similarly, there are aspects of Truthwitch’s plot that are never well developed or dropped in out of left field—and not in a “ooh, what a delightful twist” sort of way. I’m thinking, namely, of Uncle Eron’s Xanatos gambit, or the identity of Aeduan’s father. In the case of the former, we never hear details about this plot to make us understand why Eron acts the way he does. In the case of the latter, the twist lacks much in the way of dramatic weight, because I neither know enough nor care enough about Aeduan’s father to be moved by the revelation.
Indeed, for all its impressive action sequences, Truthwitch has weird moments of telling when it could be showing. We’re told that Safi despises her uncle and really wants to escape from any association with him. But they are together so briefly on page we don’t really see this relationship. Same goes for Safi’s friendship with, say, Leopold. Minor characters to give us some sense of the main character’s background are great and all (I liked, for example, the way Dennard handles Iseult’s relationship with Gretchya and Alma), but when those characters stick around and figure in the larger plot, as Leopold does, I get the sense that I missed something.
Fortunately, Safi and Iseult’s friendship and the way this influences the plot makes up for a lot of these deficiencies. Safi is headstrong, impulsive, and needs Iseult to temper these qualities. In Safi, Iseult finds someone who supports her and stands with her against the discrimination she faces as a result of her ethnicity. Both are very strong characters, but their strengths work along complementary axes. As the title of the novel implies, Safi is the principal protagonist; for much of the novel, Iseult spends her time injured and in and out of consciousness. Nevertheless, I like how Dennard still develops Iseult as a character: we see tantalizing hints that her Threadwitch powers go deeper than they normally should. In fact, Iseult ends up in communication with a shady character, and this perhaps ends up endangering Safi and their other allies. So while Safi is facing external enemies, Iseult’s journal is slightly more personal and introspective.
I cannot stand the “romance” between Safi and Merik, if that’s what it is—belligerent sexual tension (TVTropes) is such a cliché, and Dennard brings nothing new to it here. I ship Safi and Iseult—platonically—instead. I will watch them stand back to back against haters and Bloodwitches and nincompoop Aetherwitches any day of the week!
Although Merik in general is not a great character for me, I have to concede one point: I did enjoy the shipboard scenes far more than I thought I would. Dennard doesn’t waste an opportunity to show us that Merik is, at heart, a sailor. He isn’t just some prince assigned command of a ship. He knows how sailing works; he knows the songs, the rhythm of the movement on the deck. When he issues orders and supervises movement, you really get the sense of the entire crew working as one to making the ship viable, and that’s not something I always feel when reading such scenes in other fantasy novels.
I’ll finish off with some remarks on the magic system in Witchlands. While the naming of the types of witches might be trite, I like the glimpses of codification Dennard provides in things like the tattoos on people’s hands to indicate their witchery and specializations, or the way Witchlands society has integrated certain magic into its practices, as is the case in the bewitched contracts. However, for such an intriguing system, I’d level the charge that it just isn’t used enough—at least, not in the case of Safiya! Being a Truthwitch is supposed to be a big deal, because she is so rare and valuable (or so we are told, again, rather than shown). Yet aside from an internal truth-o-meter pinging every time someone talks to her, we seldom see Safi actually exercise her truthiness powers in a meaningful or significant way. I think the most magic we see comes from Merik and Aeduan, neither of whom are the title characters of this book. And so that disappointed me a little.
You might wonder why, if I’m listing all these criticisms of Truthwitch, I’m claiming to have liked it so much. Because I did. Like it, that is. Indeed, I liked it so much I went out and bought Windwitch the day after finishing it (I thought I would need to pre-order Windwitch, but serendipity would have that it came out three days prior to me reading this one!). To be honest, the cover had a lot to do with that decision too. Normally I don’t remark much on the cover, good or bad—but isn’t this cover gorgeous? Scott Grimando depicts Safiya in an elegant power pose, with a great outfit that isn’t hypersexualized, cool swirly magic stuff around her, and I love the little detail of the sword crossing through the title like that. The Windwitch cover is just as nice, and I want to collect the whole series and have a matching set.
I guess I fall back on this idea that there is a big difference between a book’s quality and a reader’s enjoyment of that book. Truthwitch is a complex and messy book with so many moving parts that it’s fun to pick it apart on a structural level, just to see what makes it tick. Yet when you put those pieces back together and run the plot from start to finish, you end up with a story that, at least in my case, delivers exactly what is wanted: a fast-paced, high-stakes adventure with some great leads and action scenes. This is a summer blockbuster of fantasy novels: yeah, when you put the book down and look back on it, there are glaring problems—but in the moment of reading, there is nowhere else you would rather be and nothing else you could possibly need.