A few days after posting this review, the Gregoria character has started to lampshade the specific concerns aboUpdate one week later:
A few days after posting this review, the Gregoria character has started to lampshade the specific concerns about sex listed in the above review. These are literally new personality traits grafted onto this character in-story — I’m honestly amazed at the skill with which the authors have pulled off a legitimate inclusion of this point of view into the story while simultaneously making it feel like it could have been planned that way all along.
I like this about the authors. Earlier in the story, a reader asked why a character didn’t just use a teleport spell; a few days later, a reason was given in-story as to why a teleport spell was not used. This level of agility is impressive in any writer, and it is especially appreciated in a story like this.
In my review of The Erogamer, I applauded how the author was taking into account what people in the forum were saying, and how that affected the direction of the story in ways that I can’t say here without spoiling its plot. I’m equally impressed by the authors of mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus for their commitment to taking feedback seriously and updating on it in-text.
Ambivalence gets a bum rap. Who would ever want to read a book that simultaneously delights and frustrates a reader to no end? When the text continually drops the ball on a simple matter and the mistake is repeated over and over again throughout the Ambivalence gets a bum rap. Who would ever want to read a book that simultaneously delights and frustrates a reader to no end? When the text continually drops the ball on a simple matter and the mistake is repeated over and over again throughout the text, to the extent that this core mistake permeates the text in a way that can never be corrected by an editor, how could it ever be that the other content could delight enough to make up for this seemingly fatal deficiency?
I’m ambivalent about mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus. The characters all just care about sex too much. It's distracting. It's annoying. It makes it very difficult for me to place myself in the story seamlessly. But, unbelievably, the core conceit of a subpar dath ilani being isekaied into the Pathfinder universe where the citizenry literally are lawful evil supporters of hell itself and the dath ilani has yet to realize that evil is evil has got to be the most fascinating and exciting story hook I've come across since I was a teenager and wasn't already jaded to the classical canon.
Let me take a step back to explain, because if you're new to all of this, then the aim of this essay is to get you to read this story. Some very light spoilers follow, but honestly they are so light that I expect no one reading them to be bothered by them (the few who would be bothered by the most minimal of spoilers will stop reading here of their own accord).
First: Pathfinder is a role playing game universe with its own unique set of rules for magic, character alignment, governments, and gods. You usually see people playing an RPG in this setting; it's an alternative to the much better known Dungeons & Dragons universe. You don't need to be familiar with Pathfinder to get into this story, even though it's set in the Pathfinder universe. It's sufficient to be aware of general tropes regarding devils that contract for your soul and to realize that in Pathfinder, some governments are themselves lawful evil and enforce all their citizens to contract with devils for their souls. If you don't know Pathfinder, another basic fact you'll need is that demons are distinct from devils. Demons are chaotic evil fiends from the Abyss that exhibit raw fighting strength, while devils are non-chaotic evil contract-lovers who delight in taking unfair advantage of those who dare to sell their soul.
Second, dath ilan is an invention of Elizer Yudkowsky, one of the authors of mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus. Yudkowsky is significant in the rationality movement and has spent a lot of time writing tracts that help to make people think better about various things. dath ilan started out as an April Fools joke, when Yudkowsky started pretending that he was himself a citizen of dath ilan that was isekaied into our world and has been trying ever since to teach us Earthlings the ways of dath ilan. In dath ilan, the sanity waterline is much higher than on Earth. People cooperate there in ways that people here cannot, merely because everyone is much more rational along the dimensions that Yudkowsky cares about. It's a fascinating world, even if I don't personally agree that such a world would look the way that Yudkowsky portrays it. Their tech level is approximately a little beneath our own, mostly because the responsible adults of dath ilan deliberately slowed down (or stopped?) all technological progress along a dimension that will be obvious if you know any of Yudkowsky's other works, but which I won't name here as I expect it to be a further plot point in the text. If you know nothing of Yudkowsky and are going into this blind, the most important thing to know about dath ilan is that they're supposed to be the best that humans can be. Stuff just works there. Schools teach learning, businesses exist to better organize making goods available, politicians do the right thing, etc. It's not heaven — they're all still baseline humans — but they are much smarter than us and they work together to do society correctly.
Third, isekai is a genre where someone from world A suddenly finds themselves in world B. The genre started as a way to take someone from our world and put them in a fantasy world so that we can identify with the straight man and it is justified in-story why we stop to pay attention to details that people from world B wouldn't find interesting. But in mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus, this is turned on its head because we are unfamiliar with both world A and world B: Keltham (the dath ilani) is transported into the Pathfinder universe, where the lawful evil residents of Cheliax immediately start deceiving Keltham for reasons that I won't spoil here. Keltham is a teenager; he's smart, as all dath ilani are, but he's not the shining standard example you might expect from a place like dath ilan; Keltham is a bit weird by his culture's standards.
The resulting story is amazing. So many stories out there fail in my eyes because they insist on having characters hold the idiot ball, or because the characters make dumb decisions that the audience would never make. (It's the trope of a group in a scary mansion at night deciding to split up, but writ large: charatcers overlook obvious clues or make other choices that they definitely would not take if they were sufficiently rational.) mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus doesn't make this mistake. Keltham acts rationally. The adults of Cheliax act as they should, given their knowledge and desires. The story makes sense, and that's a rare treat among most stories told on Earth. mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus is a prime example of rational fiction, a genre that first started being considered a genre of its own in part due to Yudkowsky's Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, one of the best fanfictions ever written. If you end up liking mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus, you'll likely enjoy other rational fiction works; alternatively, if you find yourselves liking shorter ratfics, you'll also likely find this text worth the read.
But, as the opening of this review points out, I don't have nothing but praise for this book. Several parts make me feel strongly ambivalent.
mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus is a glowfic. It's written by two authors, each of whom writes dialogue and setting for the portion that they're responsible for. The text itself is a series of forum posts, where each post is written by one of the authors. It's not clear if they played it straight, but hypothetically, each other doesn't always know in advance what the other author is necessarily going for. In some glowfics, this means you get to see a succession of "yes and" situations, but in this specific glowfic style, you're more likely to see one author putting forth a general idea and the other one pushing back and finding edge cases that may trip them up. Does this make for good writing? Maybe, but not here. That's why I suspect that these two glowfic writers are more in concert than they may at first appear, since it's resulting in writing that more closely corresponds to what a single author may have written on their own. Parts of this feel stumbly where it needn't if this hadn't been a glowfic. I'm especially unhappy with the forum post format, which artificially creates issues not only with mathematical notation but also doesn't allow for graceful chapter headings or appropriate white space.
The strongest thing that puts me off the story, however, is the continued focus on sex. Yes, I get that Keltham is a teenager, and that a lawful evil society like Cheliax would use sex to nefarious ends. But the BDSM stuff is really pushed as a major part of the storyline in what feels like the cringiest thing I've ever started and then continued to read. The Erogamer, which is famously full of sex and yet nevertheless tells a deep story you won't expect (even having given this disclaimer, it will still be unexpected), does a legit better job of making the sex feel important-to-the-story than mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus does. Despite being asexual myself, I really enjoyed The Erogamer, and, in a similar way, I'm really enjoying mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus. But the former feels like the sex stuff is earned, while the latter feels like the authors just really wanted their rational story about math and rationality to also have a bunch of sex in it. I cannot tell you how much this turns me off. When I say I'm ambivalent about this, I don't mean that the sex part is bad but I recommend the story anyway because of its good qualities. No, what I mean is that the sex thing is so bad that I actively want to warn people away from reading this trash. Yet, at the same time, the rest of it is so good that I need others to experience this treasure. That's what I mean by my being ambivalent.
But, as I mentioned, I am asexual. Maybe other people just won't mind this level of BDSM in their stories. I tend to cringe when I see the two leads in a movie kiss (I keep hoping they're just friends!), and yet movie-makers keep using this trope over and over again, so maybe the rest of society just tolerates this kind of thing without cringing in the way I do. Maybe you'll enjoy it. But I remain ambivalent.
Sex isn't the only issue, however. The math is somewhat jumbled; the reader, if they are math literate, will be able to follow only with difficulty because dath ilan uses a different way of teaching and talking about math; the math illiterate will do no better than to skim over these parts. Worse, the format lends itself poorly to mathematical notation: at some points, the authors literally use a series of dashes to create a vinculum (dividing line in a fraction). The html doesn't wrap correctly in some browsers, so this makes the math appear amateurish. Given that I think at least one author really does intend for readers to learn this stuff, I'm guessing this doesn't have any aspect of authorial intent, and if the authors knew how to allow LaTeX to appear, they might use that instead. (I'm only partially sure because the authors insist upon making dath ilan math use different notation and go about describing mathematical relationships in an entirely different way.)
Worse, the author seems to want to teach the reader, even if the reader just wants to enjoy the story. This creates a tension where the author spends way more time on explaining a concept than any other author realistically would, and it may cause some readers to lose interest for a dozen forum posts at a time. I get that the point of the story is to semi-secretly increase the sanity waterline. But it feels like playing an edutainment game at times. Maybe if the teaching sections were shorter, or less dense, then you could stealthily teach while the reader is focused on enjoying the story. But, as written, it's like a story that occasionally takes breaks in order to go in depth and teach a lesson on rationality. Unfortunately, this isn't fixable by editing out the teaching parts, because the teaching parts are integral to the story itself. Fascinatingly, as you learn each lesson, you are supposed to be able to better understand what Keltham was doing in previous parts of the story. In a way, this is like an M. Night Shyamalan twist where when you see the twist at the end, you look back at the beginning and see it in a new light — except the twist is continuous: as you learn more ratonality, you're better able to appreciate how Keltham has been experiencing the situation the entire time, since he's looking at everything with a rational eye.
So even though the teaching parts feel stilted and break up the cadence of the story in unflattering ways, they're nevertheless part of what makes this text great. (Meanwhile, the sex stuff could be removed almost entirely and I suspect the story would be better for it.)
The story itself is ongoing, but I'm a writing a review now anyway because I'm already certain of the five star rating I'm going to give it. You may wonder why a book I'm ambivalent about is getting a perfect rating, but, at the meta level, I think that this is entirely appropriate. I genuinely cringe at sex stuff in this book even when I didn't cringe at more extreme sex stuff in The Erogamer. I actively dislike the sex parts so much that I want to warn people away from reading. I also actively like the other parts so much that I need others to read this. On the meta level I want others to experience this fascinating dissonance, which, when combined with the good object level parts, results in my five star rating.
You can read mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus on glowfic.com. You can learn more about dath ilan on LessWrong, including links to previous stories about dath ilan people isekaied into various locales. If you decide to read this despite never having heard of Yudkowsky or rational fiction before, and you like it, be sure to look up other rational fiction works. Oh, and Eliezer, if you're reading this: good god, man, please stop weaving this much unnecessary sex into your plotlines. It's one thing to write sex into a story about being corrupted by the internet. But when you take what may be the best plot hook of all time (dath ilani isekaied to nation of lawful evil people intent on corrupting them) and then stuff your sex fantasies in there, it ruins what could have been so much better. I'll take it anyway, because it's damn good, and maybe there's no incentive to do otherwise since most of your intended readers won't be asexual like me, but good god that's a lot of sex and masochism for a story supposedly about rationality. Granted, the lawful evil stuff justifies the inclusion of masochism, but not the sex in the first place, no matter how horny a teenage dath ilani might be....more
The problem with most romance stories is that the plot tends to revolve around a conflict that the characters see as big, but that the reader sees as small. This is because romance authors want there to be tension with the characters not being able tThe problem with most romance stories is that the plot tends to revolve around a conflict that the characters see as big, but that the reader sees as small. This is because romance authors want there to be tension with the characters not being able to get together, but for the reader to desire them to be together anyway. The easiest way to achieve this is to set up a comedy of errors: a misunderstanding that would have been resolved had they been truthful, or, if the story is from before the 1990s, a misunderstanding that would have been resolved had they just had access to a mobile phone. Occasionally, the problem is a love triangle, so the conflict is because the characters aren't polyamorous; or the problem is that they live in different worlds. These stories are slightly better because they don't rely on the characters holding the idiot ball, but they never seem to reach the level of rational fiction, where the characters are thinking properly, and the conflict stems not from their errors in thought, but in differences in value.
Angela Castir (or, rather, the two-person-author team that calls itself Angela Castir) expertly navigates this hole by creating a rational romance story where the plot doesn't revolve around silly misunderstandings. (Don't get me wrong: misunderstandings do occur, but they are appropriate to the characters.) Instead, the tension of the romance story comes from the disconnect between the worldview of a baseline human during world war 2 and a very, very old vampire. Their story is realistic and sweet; heartwarming and heartwrenching. I expect fans of general vampire romance to be blown away by the sheer competence of the surrounding story and events; I expect fans of rational fiction to be blown away by the fact that the author was able to create a romance story in the ratfic genre. Regardless of where you come from, I expect you'll enjoy this story.
The remainder of this review has spoilers; please stop reading here and start reading the story itself if you haven't already. It's worth it! [Seriously, spoilers are ahead. Do not read further before reading the story itself.]
I love the themes present in this book. A gay romance in this time period would historically be seen (by humans) as entirely inappropriate in society, but the focus starts on vampire society instead, where the tension is a romance between a vampire and a human being considered inappropriate. The reader starts out thinking that this is the allegory: the inappropriateness from vampire culture's point of view mimics the inappropriateness from human culture's point of view. But by the end this reader expectation gets upended: the more important allegory here is of understanding. Can a relationship where people love each other persist when their values don't match? To what extent must those values change in order for the people to have a meaningful relationship?
The protagonist's sister is not okay with homosexuality, to the extent that she eventually refuses to be close to her brother, even while loving him; this matches the protagonist's refusal to be close to his partner, even while loving him. Seeing this parallel is what causes the character to update toward being more comfortable in his relationship, so that he does not make the same error that his sister does. More importantly, at the reader level, we now see that the value mismatch which we thought was a huge divide for the majority of the book should instead be considered a minor hurdle. It's not just the characters who update on this revelation: the readers are intended to update as well.
The Julius storyline introduces a truly alien alien: a character whose value function seems to be set in the way an AI might. As the reader is given access to Julius' internal thoughts, this seems like the scariest part of the story. A slightly misaligned AI, valuing its expectation of one's happiness rather than a person's stated goals, can easily go wrong. You see this manipulation occur freely and easily with Red (a mere human), and it is only because William (the vampire) is more competent that things do not immediately fall apart. Even so, William's competence is not sufficient to be immune to Julius' machinations; I expect that Julius was given away by their previous owner on purpose for this reason. When the story jumps ahead in the epilogue, we see that Julius has been somewhat reigned in, not by William's competence, but by Red's morals being forced onto Julius. We readers don't see Julius' internal state in the epilogue, so it is left ambiguous whether the situation is actually better or worse here, but its appropriate for the story to end here anyway, as the story we've been following is not Julius' story, but William and Red's story.
I was enthralled by the worldbuilding, but my favorite part of the book was how characters would ask questions that I, too, would ask if I were in that situation. This allowed me to partially self-insert myself into the story, a feat that is exceedingly rare in romance novels, given that I am poly and asexual. I really appreciated the way that characters sought out information. What I didn't like was that so much of that information remained hidden, even to the end! I recognize that further stories in this world are going to be told, and so it is appropriate to leave dangling threads. But it was unsatisfying all the same. I am left wanting more!
One note I would give to the authors for future stories: please consider restricting the reader's point of view to a single character. Although it would have made for a different book, had the entire novel been written from Red's point of view, then that could have included a mystery element for the readers: is William sincere? Should we also want Red to run away? But by letting us see into William's mind, this possibility is lost completely. I recognize that's not what you were going for, so it's unfair to complain about this. But this could have been done at least with Julius and it would not have changed the story too much. By letting us see into Julius' mind, we get access to knowledge that cuts the tension too much. I honestly believe it would have been better to never allow us access to Julius' thoughts, so that readers could be honestly divided on whether Red's or William's point of view were best. This would have added to the tension of the split that occurred. I hope in your next book you take care to only allow the reader access to more limited points of view to allow for more mystery in your story beats.
Even if this weren't an exceedingly well written book, I would still recommend it for the novelty of being in the rational romance genre. However, this book is genuinely well written, with rational characters and tension that realistically flows from the worldbuilding set up by the authors. I enthusiastically recommend this to anyone interested in either rational fiction or vampire romance....more
While definitely not perfect, let me go ahead and recommend that you not google this story and just start reading blindly. Much of the value in this rationalist sci-fi horror story comes from not knowing what will happen next, so if you consider a 4 While definitely not perfect, let me go ahead and recommend that you not google this story and just start reading blindly. Much of the value in this rationalist sci-fi horror story comes from not knowing what will happen next, so if you consider a 4 star review from me sufficient to entice you to read a rationalist sci-fi horror story, then do so now. Spoilers are ahead.
With that said, Zeno Albert Bell is in desperate need of a professional editor. It seems that every idea they’ve come up with has made it into the text, and I don’t just mean this in terms of word choice. Still, the ideas themselves are great, reminiscent at first of Hal Clement-style Needle aliens, but done in a rational hard-sci-fi way. The end result is (and the spoilers start to get heavy here, so stop reading this and go read the book if you’re going to at all) lovecraftiam kaiju hard sci-fi, and that is legitimately hard to do.
Octo is not my favorite story, but its level of uniqueness and excellent presentation make up for the authors seeming unwillingness to edit the story into something half as long with a much tighter narrative arc, with the end result being a hearty recommendation from me. But I may be being too hasty: it's not entirely clear to me, but there is the distinct possibility that the author Bell is trying to make a meta narrative here: the protagonist’s view on patience may be a commentary on the readers' views on patience. Without getting too spoilery, the protagonist is willing to wait, but the text itself does not: as you read at the top of your screen, you start to notice text moving lower down, where you haven't gotten to yet. Later in the book, you start to notice that text is disappearing, or moving away from you, or changing before your very eyes. There starts to be a race between your ability to read and the text's ability to change. Bell is careful to allow you to reset if you refresh the page, so you never really miss out on anything, but there's clearly something going on with rewarding impatient readers more and more — until the final couple of chapters, when everything flips, and suddenly you start to miss out on text if you go too fast. The final chapter really underlines this: after reading, you have to wait several moments if you want to see the last parts of the book.
I'm fascinated by the idea that the connections between what the text itself rewards readers for doing has such consonance with what the protagonist clearly prefers. The points of views of humans are so fast in comparison, and when you get the point of view of a feline, you can just feel the irritation of wanting to go even faster. These points of view at the character level match that of the trained reader, and this makes the alienness of the protagonist even more stark.
And this is why I'm not quite sure of what I said earlier about the author needing a professional editor. This theme of patience — of rushing and not rushing and being rewarded at different times for different things while the characters themselves see reality at different rates — this is echoed and subverted continuously at the literary level by the author including unkilled darlings that the reader dare not fast forward through. I'm not going to claim that this is necessarily intentional; as Plato pointed out in The Republic, many poets will write poetry that has qualities the authors themselves do not always see. But regardless of its intentionality, there is a direct parallel between the unlocking of the library and the written inclusion of scenes that can’t be skipped. The animal scenes are great — be sure to hover over every “meow” — but their inclusion doesn’t have a payoff in future chapters. In any other book, this content would be cut. As great as these ideas are, any author would cut them and put them into a different short story, rather than keep them in Octo. The fact that this author does not cut them is what gives me pause. Is this intentional? Are we including fun and well written chapters that really should be cut on purpose? Is this a commentary on patience, making the reader deliberately have to wait?
I don't know. Maybe the author is just a beginning author and doesn't realize that you can cut great ideas like this and incorporate them into their own short stories, separate from this book. Maybe they have yet to realize that great writing requires major amounts of cutting. But maybe the author is playing a level above me, and these chapters are here on purpose to show you what it means for the protagonist to be okay with waiting. This story has a lot to do with alien thinking, and this might be yet another way to make the reader feel like they are reading about an alien. Seeing events from the points of view of a canine or feline feels alien. That the cat wants to rush through the situation, wants you to skip text and dialogue that you can, if you slow down, also read, has a distinctly alien feel. And that the entire sequence is just dressing, a side story, not relevant to the ongoing plot, feels even more alien still. Maybe I shouldn't give the author credit for this, but including sub-par editorial parts felt almost right to me. It was irritating, but they were well written and entertaining. It felt like reading small short stories occasionally right in the middle of the book. It felt appropriately alien.
With that said, the pacing and narrative structure was terrible due their inclusion. The writing goes through successive sections that are fast and slow, with no regard to what the narrative arc demands. If a movie were made this way, people would walk out. As it is, I imagine most readers may opt out. But if you struggle through — if you are okay with seeing an action scene pause mid-scene while you watch a short entertaining commercial before the action resumes — then you will enjoy Octo. It genuinely puts you into a place where you can start to appreciate something so incomprehensibly alien.
I also want to give a shout-out to that great ending. The IRL aliens take pity and expend resources on letting the instanced beings play out their story, but it’s not at all clear whether the simulation will do anything to help them solve their library problems. I personally read it as a tragedy: this simulation won’t have the humans attack the library, and so can’t possibly show how the humans in the real world destroyed it — but I can also see how someone else might think that the lateral thinking nature of how upraised humans think might be sufficient to help solve the problem of fixing the library without the simulation ever giving rise to the specific acts that humans used the first time around. Either way, the ending is great, because we don’t care: the story follows the protagonists of the simulation, reminding us of who we the readers should truly be concerned with.
I eagerly look forward to Z Albert Bell's next project. Just, please, Bell, if you're reading this: do consider using an editor to help you parse your overly creative brain’s ideas down to what is needed for the story’s own purposes. You can always use the cut ideas in even more stories, you know!...more
Writing reviews can be quite difficult. I serve three masters: the friend or stranger looking up this review on GoodReads to see if they should read this massive book; the googler who finds this entry on my blog because they want to read more about tWriting reviews can be quite difficult. I serve three masters: the friend or stranger looking up this review on GoodReads to see if they should read this massive book; the googler who finds this entry on my blog because they want to read more about this great book that they've just finished; and future me, who wants to remember and keep track of some of the better books that present/past me reads.
So, in the spirit of the metafictional story Worth the Candle, I'll take each of these in order.
Alexander Wales' epic is both the greatest Isekai novel and the greatest LitRPG novel I have ever read. Juniper is rudely transported in media res from school to a strange world of magic and soft fantasy in the opening lines, and his subsequent adventures in the plane of Aerb plays out like a tabletop role-playing game, complete with HP, skills, and leveling up. Juniper is young, but has a passing understanding of rational-adjacent tropes, mostly because his childhood friend was a fan of learning about rationality online (as much as a teenager could). This means that the narrator, Juniper, is able to talk lightly about rationality using rationality language, even when it's clear that it's just a teenage-level understanding of the tropes. This results in a highly exciting adventure with believably flawed characters who try to do their best in the situation they find themselves in. The novel works at the level of the action, at the level of the narration, and at the metafictional level of the author, Alexander Wales, who writes in such a way that we get to see glimpses of what seem to be highly creative nonfictional elements behind the structure of the text.
Worth the Candle is long — very long — but if you're comfortable with reading a sprawling epic that weaves LitRPG with Isekai with metafiction all in the genre of Rational Fiction, then I highly recommend that you read this book.
However, despite my five star rating, I do have several complaints about the book. (It would be hard not to, given its epic length.) What follows from here are spoilers, so if you haven't read Worth the Candle yet, go do that first.
Jesus Christ, Wales. I don't know how much of the text came from working out your personal issues, but Gods damn I hope it helped to write through this story. It's unclear just how much the Dungeon Master in the story should be identified with Wales the author (do you really have a Dice Girls shirt?), but, to the extent that this is played straight, I honestly hope writing this book has been therapeutic.
I get that everyone has their own sex hangups. Maybe it's difficult for me to relate because I'm asexual, but the way that the DM kept pushing things made me feel uncomfortable. Yet this is on purpose; canonically, the author himself seems to be uncomfortable with his own desires of what to put on paper here, which makes for an extremely interesting expression of cognitive dissonance that we can see enacted diegetically.
What I liked most (and what I think the author himself may have liked most) was the setting. Aerb is such a mismatch of all kinds of weird rpg tropes, but it honestly feels like everything ties together well. We read about dangled threads early on which, when later explored, appear to fit in the world properly. Not seamlessly, of course, but that's on purpose: Aerb itself is not seamless, which is itself a plot point. I am disappointed that more of the threads weren't explored, but I wonder if here, too, that is intended: that these aspects only get fleshed out if the text needs them to be, yet ensures that they retain continuity with the whole nevertheless. This says something important, I think, about the ending: that Juniper will not actually get to go on. The life breathed into Juniper's existence, in the end, only happens when we (Thargox?) read it. This is not what the DM claims. It's unclear to me if the intended reading by the author is that the DM is honest here, or if we are supposed to notice that point of view does really matter. (I think it's the latter, but there's additional evidence of the former: the multiple Dahlia copies that we never see, the offscreen fleshsmith fight, and the timeskip post-Fel Seed all point to the diegetic characters experiencing events not in the POV.)
The ending feels rushed. A four year work like this must be hard on the author; I'm sure burnout was a real threat. But when so many threads started getting dropped, I at first blamed the author. Later, I saw that it was partially justified in-story, but even later that started to feel like lampshading to me. Yes, it made sense to skip things, and there were plot-relevant reasons for doing so, but also this is a fig leaf, created so that the author could rush through parts that (IMO) did not deserve to be rushed through.
If I were Wales' editor, there are several parts I would point out as needing additional attention. Some are minor, like both devil Fenn and Grakhuil keeping an arrow displayed in their home. Why the unnecessary callback here? It seems like it is because the weaker version occurred first, then the author decided not to stray from using the stronger version later since it made sense that that's what Fenn would do. If so, then this is a pure drawback of writing serial fiction, and should ideally be fixed. And some issues are major, like deviating from established point of view rules for no good reason. The vast majority of the story is told from Juniper's POV, even to the point where the author himself laments from not being able to write from Larkspur's POV, making him a weaker villain. When we occasionally do get the POV of non-Juniper characters, it always seems to be in the form of a letter than Juniper reads, or a narrator's explicit retelling from after the fact. And yet, at one point, we start to see several scenes (and chapters) from someone other than Juniper, and it's never explained why. Did the author forget? Was it a mistake that wasn't fixed because the author is committed to serial writing? Or perhaps was this another piece of evidence aimed at showing the ending would be as the DM claimed it would be?
I enjoyed the story immensely, even if I did think the harem concept was cringey. I think the author thinks it is cringey, too, which is why I think I'm okay with it. I really liked the exploration of unexpected rape; it felt real to the characters, even if it meant that Bethel got relegated to the background where we couldn't see her progress as much as I would have liked. But most of all I enjoyed the weird combination of explained and unexplained that caused me to tag this book on GoodReads as both hard fantasy and soft fantasy. Alexander Wales is an awesome worldbuilder, just like the DM, even more than he is an awesome narrator, just like the diegetic narrator. Now if only he were willing to write non-serially so we could get some of these amazing texts edited!...more
Jeremy wrote: "“some characters seem to be sexist and homophobic for no real reason”…. You mean, just like people in the real world? Imagine that."
In Jeremy wrote: "“some characters seem to be sexist and homophobic for no real reason”…. You mean, just like people in the real world? Imagine that."
In the real world, prejudice is driven by power dymanics. Men are physically stronger than women, for example. But in the world of Mother of Learning, this power differential doesn't exist. How exactly did 1950s-era ideas about gender relations come about in a world where women commonly have as much power as men?
I'm not against including prejudice in the book. But it seems lazy to just import the exact same prejudices that exist in our world. Shouldn't there instead be a prejudice against people who are unskilled at magic? Or maybe a prejudice against people who don't live near mana?...more
Two days ago, I held Jasper in my arms as he died. My grief at his sudden death has overwhelmed me, and I've struggled to find ways to deal with it.
My latest method, apparently, has been to read this book-length suicide note by Clayton Atreus. I woulTwo days ago, I held Jasper in my arms as he died. My grief at his sudden death has overwhelmed me, and I've struggled to find ways to deal with it.
My latest method, apparently, has been to read this book-length suicide note by Clayton Atreus. I wouldn't say that it has helped much with my reaction to Jasper's passing, but I did find Two Arms and a Head compelling reading. Atreus became paraplegic in a tragic accident, and he ultimately disvalued the resulting life afterward so significantly that he committed suicide.
I doubt that I would have gotten along with Atreus, had I met him in his prime. His experience of life differs greatly from mine, and, to be quite honest, feels a bit shallow. But he is correct when he says that we are our own arbiters of our own value, and the fact that he values differently than I is not a good reason to dismiss his point of view.
Atreus gives a defense of his sanity in choosing to die prematurely, explaining his disagreements with other persons with a similar disability. He provides a cogent argument, even if in the process of doing so he shows just how different his values are from what I would consider the norm. Several times, he makes claims that I completely disagree with; I would certainly, for example, live 25 years in what he called a "head garden", as a full quadriplegic, rather than die immediately, and perhaps I fall prey to the same typical mind fallacy as he does when I say that I believe there are many who would agree with me rather than with him about this. Nevertheless, these disagreements are ultimately ones of personal value, and they do not harm the greater argument that he makes in his suicide note.
His disrespect for the larger community of activists with disabilities like his is tough to read. Rather than just argue against them, he uses derogatory terms for them that I find particularly distasteful. But, in a way, I almost want to forgive him for this, as from his perspective their actions certainly seem to have caused him a lot of unnecessary pain.
It's hard rating a text like this so highly. I can't stress how much I doubt I would have gotten along with someone as shallow as he in his prime. I find it utterly surprising that he can't even admit the possibility that people might not be lying when they say that they honestly can find life fulfilling and meaningful even with a major disability. I wonder if he would have been receptive to the argument that future humans might very well (in a post-singularity existence, for example) have access to abilities and experiences that we cannot currently imagine. Compared to these future specimens, our most thriving exemplars of humanity might be considered severely disabled. Yet we thrive nevertheless! And so could he, if he allowed himself to enjoy other things.
Then again, I imagine Atreus replying: that would not be me. And I suppose he'd be right, as he appears to define himself in just such a way that would make him impervious to this kind of argument. How convenient for him.
Jasper's death a few days ago was done as a form of euthanasia. The doctor put him to sleep, then stopped his heart. My heart broke in the process, too. Maybe it wasn't the best idea to seek out an essay that argues, in part, for allowing euthanasia of this kind. It hasn't helped me in any real way. But reading Atreus' words did help me to connect with Clayton Atreus, in an odd way, at least for the few hours that his text had me spellbound.
If you're interested in also connecting with him, I recommend the book. It's available in full at www.2arms1head.com. Atreus is smart, writes well, is kind of an asshole, and he lacks sufficient epistemic humility. But his suicide note is worth reading, even if it uses unnecessary derogatory terms in several places. I'm going to go ahead and give him a break on that, given the fact that he's doing it while in the process of preparing to end his own life.
There's a rich history of good science fiction that takes contemporary political issues and gives them the trappings of a science fiction setting. It can be helpful for readers to see real-world events reflected in sci-fi, to better understand and idThere's a rich history of good science fiction that takes contemporary political issues and gives them the trappings of a science fiction setting. It can be helpful for readers to see real-world events reflected in sci-fi, to better understand and identify with the characters involved.
Ibyabek follows in this tradition, showcasing the drama of what we might imagine a space-version of North Korea might look like through the eyes of a young boy trapped within its system. I'm not sure it succeeds at helping readers to identify any more strongly with its real-world analogues, but it definitely does an excellent job of telling a compelling tale.
While Ibyabek does include intrigue, with spies and ambassadors, and weaponry so powerful that it can melt a planet's surface to little more than glowing lava, it does all this solely in the background of a much more immediate story of romance as told by Kyeo, a relatively naive but narratively satisfying character who has lived his entire life on a totalitarian world.
In this short story, we follow Kyeo from his perspective as he learns, grows, and heals. The larger direction the story goes in is somewhat predictable, being so analogous to the real-world equivalent of North Korea for the fictional world of Ibyabek, but the details were still surprising and enjoyable to experience alongside Kyeo. Even the background details were pleasurable to go through; the author Alicorn successfully integrated reasonable descriptions of economics, politics, and the social side of futuristic technology into the background of this story, all told from the perspective of someone who has a very different worldview from us as readers. It's not quite a Flowers for Algernon-level difference between the reader and the protagonist in terms of how they see the world, but this story made the much more difficult attempt to truly give rational depictions of society and culture through that minimal viewpoint, and I'd say that, for the most part, the author succeeded.
I do have a few qualms with the story. There are parts that, if I were Alicorn's editor, I'd have them reconsider entirely. But that goes into spoiler territory, so if you haven't yet read this short story yet, stop reading this review and add it to your reading list. I heartily recommend it, especially given how fast a read it is.
If you're still here, then be forewarned: the rest of this review is spoilery.
There are two big objections I have to the story, and both are so large that I don't think they are fixable without significant effort. First: Alicorn has successfully got a story started where the point of view character has a completely different way of looking at things. This is great! When Sarham is introduced, they are reserved in what they say, which is also great. It allows us to learn things from what is deliberately not said, even when Kyeo doesn't. But then, when Sarham returns later in the story, he is allowed to speak freely -- and it turns out that he's highly competent. There isn't anything wrong with including such a character in most stories, but in this particular story we already have this great tension between what we as readers have to figure out and what Kyeo is saying to himself. Yet when Sarham is free to speak later on, he just tells us things that we no longer have to figure out on our own. I realize that reworking Sarham to be less intelligent would completely change the story, and it would no longer be the story that Alicorn wanted to write here, but I find myself wishing that I could read an alternate story that keeps that same divide between the protagonist's POV and the reader's POV all the way to the ending. The latter part of the story lost that special feeling of having to puzzle things out that the earlier parts held.
Second: Reading Sarham's account felt too much like telling instead of showing. I realize that this partially the point: we are trying to go back and see things from Sarham's point of view, after all. But there had been a build up of suspense on what Sarham might have written about, and when we finally get to the point where it is read, it is just... read. Sarham's writing is...explanative. I realize this is on purpose; it's how this Sarham would write. But it slowed the action to a crawl during the book portions. Narratively, it might have been better to show this in a different way, or to not show it at all. In a movie, I can imagine them switching to a flashback from a different character's perspective. In a short story, though, I'm not sure what would have worked better. All I know is that I had a feeling of tension that gripped me throughout the buildup before the book section, and all that tension dropped while I read Sarham's actual text.
I also was not entirely happy with the ending. I like the idea of the specific ending line and its callback to Kyeo's earlier fears, but the six paragraph section felt too rushed to me. Too much happened too quickly. At the end of the previous section, Kyeo was still the most recent arrival to Crane Mountain. In the final section, new arrivals appear, he got used to making plans, he started getting a stipend, he passed a test, and he moved out. This is several months worth of events described n only a few short paragraphs. While I do think the ending line is great, and the line necessitates him being in his new place, the speedup from the previous section was not at all expected and felt too rushed to me. The first three paragraphs of this section, in retrospect, depicts events over the course of months, but as you are reading it for the first time, you can't know this until you get to the line where he passes his "integration test", which you know must be months later. As a result, I had to stop, reinterpret the previous three paragraphs as a big time skip, and then continue to the ending. I would have instead appreciated a line like: "As the months passed, Kyeo met the new people coming in...". While not great, something like this would key in a first time reader to realizing that the events of the next few paragraphs are occurring at a much different pace than the preceding sections. I think that would help with making the steps toward the final line be a little more smooth....more