Readlist – The Durdane Duology and more

– The Durdane Trilogy (The Faceless Man, The Brave Free Men, The Asutra) – Jack Vance. This is a trilogy that really, really should have ended with the second book. Or at least, had a hard-handed editor crack down on Vance, who allowed his cynicism and (apparent) dislike of the main character invalidate that hero’s entire arc, work, and struggles.

Books 1 and 2 set up a subtle parallel between the main hero, Gastel Etzwane, and the two most prominent supporting leads: the mysterious and neutral Ifness, and the fraught Jerd Finnerack. When Etzwane is a young boy, fleeing from mortal danger, he encounters Ifness–who (bound by a strict policy of neutrality!) refuses to help. Later, when Etzwane encounters Ifness again as an adult, Ifness–ostensibly for reasons of sheer pragmatism but, potentially, also as a subconscious or semi-conscious atonement–makes Etzwane his accomplice and sets the reins of power in his hands, before exiting stage left in the fashion of mysterious mentors.

Meanwhile, when Etzwane was also a boy, he did a great harm to Jerd Finnerack, who was attempting to help him; and when he is able to, recruits Finnerack as his assistant…and sets the reins of power in his hands.

Etzwane is not particularly bitter against the man who harmed him, or at least can control the desire to act on his dislike; Finnerack is, and might–or might not. The conflict between the two grows throughout book 2 as they both increase their abilities–Finnerack more so than Etzwane, and Finnerack with decreasing stability. It is one of the driving sources of tension in Book 2, as our heroes  clash even while they are attempting to unify the planet and destroy the barbarian hordes of invaders. –with heroic, protagonistic success, but not without incident–

And then, Ifness comes back and takes over (the neutrality policy has changed! Now his actions are, it is revealed, motivated by a desire to embarass and displace his superiors), and Gastel Etzwane’s time, efforts, sacrifice, struggles, worries, plans, and battles are completely forgotten or negated; Jerd Finnerack is destroyed as a character with an almost cruel abruptness. Several fairly important plot threads are completely abandoned in order to make this work. Worse still, this is all done together with a bait-and-switch moment that was aggravating just on the surface of it.

Still, Book 2 provides an overall satisfactory conclusion to the problems of the world Durdane and its leadership, and the journey of the boy Mur, aka Gastel Etzwane, the musician who became its leader.

The way Book 3 ends makes me assume Vance was forced to write another chapter just for the sake of it, disliked the obligation, and decided to deliberately make the readers suffer. Here’s how: he takes a bunch of standard SF tropes and our hero…and then (with malicious intent!) applies “Except Now Reality Happens” to what should be very simple tropes. Planetary barbarians capture spaceship to rescue their womenfolk!….ship is recaptured after a brief siege because the barbarians can’t make it go anywhere, up down or around, and all survivors (did we mention they started killing each other after a week or so, including the named characters that were specifically pointed out as knowing the odds and the risks of a rescue mission and went for it anyway because they loved their daughters) are enslaved along with the girls. Again, it’s not in the content–it’s in the execution; and it’s in the denouement, which is infuriating all on its own without adding the additional insult that it does have.

Will you look at that, turns out I did have something to say about this book. I think it sucked.

As far as the good stuff goes: Books 1 and 2 for the most part are standard and I did like them: they have characters, character arcs, development, motives, and a plot that allows the characters to be proactive and effective. Book 1 Etzwane is largely motivated by trying to redeem his mother’s slave-indenture, making his mother one of the more prominent female characters in the pulp scifi galaxy. And she’s a rather good character as well. Might have to make a “mothers in SF” post one of these days. And I will say that that’s an OK cover to book 3. If only it had a good book to cover. Damnit.

– The Blue World – Jack Vance – See, Vance did know how to write pulp-action scifi. He just had to layer it in elaborate worldbuilding and add sly layers of humorous backstory. I read this one as a palate cleanser. (Literally: I stayed awake another two hours to read it, just to get The Asutra out of my head.)

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik – This one has definitely entered the rotation as one of my go-to relax reads, and I’m glad to say it’s held up on each repeat.

– The Fifth Elephant – Terry Pratchett – “Vimes in Uberwald will be more amusing than an amorous armadillo in a bowling alley.”

Review: The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF – Parts 2 and 3

As mentioned, Part I is the stuff I actually read (and most of it, liked enormously.) Part II is stories I didn’t bother reading before.

Davy Jones’ Ambassador – Ramond Z. Gallun – This is one of the very few stories you will ever read where “They’ll put you in a box and study you!” is met with a calm, “Yes. I intend to study them, as well. It will be interesting.” So in this case there are two steely-eyed resourceful engineer heroes….and one of them is a Deep Thing.

The Weather Man – It’s actually a three-fer, as it has a smug politician, a mad (female) scientist, an elderly retired scientist (I was waiting for him to be consulted about the developments, but this did not transpire) and an invincible space engineer.

The Singing Diamond – Eh. This is what I have against most space babes: they’re kind of wimpy and will, at the drop of an ultradense gravity bomb, give up on space exploration and hover around Earth to listen to microscopic alien motes buzz. Sing. Whatever.

Exposures – Greg Bear – This one is quite good once you get to the meat of it, but it’s slow and dense and it took some effort to get into.

Down and Out on Ellfive Prime – Dean Ing – This one’s quite good in theory (and has two Competent Space Heroes), but it’s sloppily executed.

Prima Belladona – Uh. Okay.

The Land Ironclads – H. G. Wells invents tank warfare. He doesn’t quite get it all right, but he got the snivelling journalists bang-on.

Procreation – Gene Wolfe: Okay. This one misses out on being straight lit fic mostly because it involves parallel universes and the ingress and egress of the protagonists from them. Nevertheless….

Atomic Power – John W. Campbell: For someone who repeatedly insisted Tom Godwin not rescue the girl in The Cold Equations, Campbell is pretty cavalier about hitting the reset button after life on Earth as we know it is irreparably altered and untold billions of people have died horribly.

GiANTS – Edward Bryant – guess what this one’s about. No, go on. Guess. No, you were actually wrong, because it’s a philosophical romance shot through with elements of science and morbidity. Also, the square-cube law is weaponized.

Day Million – Frederik Pohl – Dude, freaking chill. Seriously.

Weyr Search – Anne McCaffrey – Why are the Pern books regarded as either scifi or good? This story sucked, the characters were repulsive, and the writing was bland.

The Hungry Guinea Pig – Miles J. Breuer, M. D. – I read this story and I regretted it. You have two guesses as to why, and here are three hints to help. One is the title, and the second is the fact that the mad scientist also won a medal in WW2 in the artillery. The last hint is that the square-cube law is gleefully violated and no one seems to really care.

Kyrie – Poul Anderson – Ugh. See, I can handle alien star systems being supernova’d. I can handle the Earth getting blown up. I can handle the girl getting spaced, because that’s a quick death. I can even handle the Earth being torn apart atom from atom and life as we know it being slowly and painfully extinguished. But being crushed to death in a black hole while your dilated sense of time registers it for eternity and you are telepathically linked to someone on the outside who is going be to hearing your screams for eternity–that’s a no from me, dawg.

Dolphin’s Way – Gordon R. Dickson – I read this, or I must have, because it’s Gordon R. Dickson. But I can’t really remember it and I don’t particularly want to try.

The Life and Times of Multivac – Isaac Asimov – I think I read this one. It was aight.

Drode’s Equations – This is goddamn lit fic, what the hell. Get outa here.

Making Light – James P Hogan – Hehhhhhh.

The Last Question – Isaac Asimov – Also heh.

And then there’s Part III – These sound boring, and their first few paragraphs don’t help, and I didn’t read them ever and probably never will.

The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats – James Tiptree, Jr. – Oh, no. I read the guinea pig story. You are NOT getting me on this one.
Cage of Sand – J. G. Ballard. Considering this is where not one but two bookmarks have ended up, it gets to stay on this list. Also the title sounds like Rope of Sand, a vaguely homoerotic film noir starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Henreid (not a bad film, BTW.)
No, No, Not Rogov! – Cordwainer Smith – I vaguely remember skim-reading this one–the title is the last line–but everything Cordwainer Smith has always left a bad taste in my mouth.
Mammy Morgan Played the Organ, Her Daddy Beat the Drum – Michael F Flynn – Is there, possibly, anywhere, somehow, a title less likely to attract a scifi reader’s attention? I mean, I’m not demanding “Blood Swords of the Gods of Death Against the Dying Suns,” but if you’re writing in the genre at least try. At least Carnacki the Ghost-Finder knew to be properly evocative. “The Thing Invisible,” “The Gateway of the Monster.” “The House Among the Laurels.” Refer to the monster, not to what the monster does…especially if the monster/ghost is doing something as mundane as playing piano. Organ. Whatever.
The Pi Man – Alfred Bester – Bester is a complete meh at the best of times.
– A bunch more that I’m not bothering to list out because….they sound boring.

Her Brother’s Keeper – Mike Kupari (repost review)

51f83jc4-flHer Brother’s Keeper by Mike Kupari of Correia-and-Kupari mil-thrillers is a 2016 Baen SF novel, and that’s about the aptest way to describe it that I know.

Where it’s good, it’s…well, it’s Baen. There’s a tough, Honor Harrington / Heris Serrano-esque ship captain, a weaselly but ultimately honorable aristocrat, an extremely intelligent and extremely socially inept xenoarchaeologist who might be about to stumble over the discovery of the millennia–if it doesn’t get sold on the black market first–there’s a spooky ghost ship interlude that hits every AARGH GUYS GET OUT OF THERE button there is, there’s ground and space action, some perfunctory romance, a couple of heartwarming reunions, and a happy part-1 ending.

On the other hand, where it’s bad, it’s eyerollingly bad. Look, we get it, you love the great state of Texas, good for you. Now shut up. And take that hat off, you look STOOPID with it over your space helmet.

What really knocks any chance this book might have of moving past its flaws is the fact that a) its tone isn’t SF, and b) its overall writing style isn’t SF. What do I mean by this? That this book could have had the word “-space” excised from all scenes and been set on present-day Earth with no change in tone or format. There’s no sense of vaster scope. There’s no iota of widened imagination.

There’s no sense of wonder.

So, starting at the beginning:

Captain Catherine Blackwood returns to her ancestral home at her estranged father’s request. Her feckless younger brother, the heir and the child actually valued by their family, is being held for ransom on the furthest human world, Zanzibar. Her father will spare no expense–even though it would be more cost-effective just to have another son (lol)–to get him back. Captain Blackwood’s light patrol ship is highly trained and professional, but understaffed for what might turn out to be a military operation instead of just a straight prisoner exchange, so a stopover at the Lone Star System AKA Planet Texas (sheesh) collects some hired muscle: hero named Marcus, who also is blandly muscular enough to be played by Mark Wahlberg; sidekick with a sexbot, sniper girl, some other people, and Marcus Wahlberg’s teenage daughter, who needs to get off planet after punching a drugged-up rodeo queen who poisoned her barrel-racing horse Sparkles. I’m not making that up.

OK, well, whatever.

So they set off. Meanwhile, in captivity, feckless brother Cecil and his two sidekicks are being forced to excavate space-archaeological sites for the ruthless but not very interesting warlord Aristotle Lang. Aristotle Lang plans to Take Over The World with the money he will earn selling them on the black market. We are told that this is a bad thing, but he’s such a nonentity in this book it’s open to interpretation. I mean, really, who cares if a place like Zanzibar gets taken over by a warlord? Can he at least make the space shuttles run on time?

Despite the lack of a solid antagonist, this book is actually at its strongest when dealing with the Zanzibar-archaeology plot. There’s some kind of mysterioust secret about the planet Zanzibar which our heroes are on the cusp of discovering. Who were the humanoids who inhabited it millions of years before? How were they able to produce sophisticated technology despite their Bronze Age cultural level? Why did the obligatory-bug alien war go to such lengths to keep the planet intact when they happily used mass drivers on all other human settlements?

Why was was Zanzibar once sterilized down to the molecules of the planetary crust–and how?

Replace “aliens” with “unknown civilization, possibly Atlantis,” and “sterilized” with “volcano,” etc, etc–and you get a perfectly decent current thriller that would entertain on an airplane flight and probably be useful afterwards, if you’re traveling somewhere with no free toilet paper.

Unfortunately, Mike Kupari chose to make this book Science Fiction with a capital SF, but he doesn’t have the imagination or the writing ability to answer the questions he raises, make his heroes interesting, make his antagonists threatening, make his worlds alien, or his spaceships memorable.

Even more unfortunately, this particular plot made me compare this book to another with a very similar plot: Edmund Hamilton’s The Closed Worlds (Starwolf #2). Feckless younger sibling + treasure hunt on an unwelcoming and deadly alien planet + mercenaries…except that Hamilton added: Way Cool Stuff, Big Ideas, Big Scenes, Big Reveals, Scary Villains, Memorable Characters. Morgan Chane would kick the snot out of Marky Mark, laugh while doing so, and have pointed words about Planet Texas vis-a-vis Varna.

In Hamilton’s book, the unwelcoming nature of the alien planet is shown by clear, forceful action on the part of characters with a motivation to act in the way they do: Helmer, who dies as he lives–trying to protect his people from something that destroys the strong and makes the weak vile. Its dangers are even more vividly drawn out with the flitting, white-bodied, laughing, mouthless nanes (brrrrr).

In Kupari’s…Zanzibar is just kinda there. There’s no way of distinguishing the planet from any other by any kind of scene or scenery. Aristotle Lang is just kind of there, devoid of any personality save a vague, theatrical, villainous menace. He doesn’t actually twirl a moustache while threatening the helpless academics. That would be absurd. But it would probably have helped.

In Hamilton’s book, there’s a reveal of the great mystery of the Closed Worlds–and it’s a reveal that’s worth the wait.

In Kupari’s….it’s Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, but, eh, it’s okay, they’re gone now.

I could go on in this vein for a while, but I think that that’s sufficient.

Rated: I think I’m going to go read Starwolf over again.

Son of the Black Sword – Larry Correia – Book Review

sons-of-the-dark-sword-send-to-larry-c.-2Son of the Black Sword is Book 1 of the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior trilo…oh wait no people actually like this so let’s make it a five…wait are they still buying it? What, after book 3 didn’t wrap everything up? Multi-part series instead.

I complain, but it’s in good humor. This series showcases Correia’s strongest writing, because it plays to his strengths: exciting combat scenes; honorable men; fight scenes; violent men; battle scenes; emotionless but charismatic men; chase scenes; beautiful women, and you may have gotten the gist at this point: he writes fight scenes really, really well. There’s a one-vs-many fight at the end of this book that is just a work of art. What’s more, this book avoids his weaknesses: self-insert characters, silly humor, and bashing of political opponents in juvenilely amusing ways.

It’s a damn good book. Fight scenes with a purpose are exciting, charismatic protagonists with inner depths and meaningful journeys are memorable and enjoyable, and beautiful women who have personalities, motivations, and effect on the plot, are good characters regardless of what they’re wearing. Son of the Black Sword has all of those. (Note: with the exception of a ditzy librarian who tries using a romance novel as a how-to spy manual, all female characters are dressed quite appropriately for their circumstances.)

As mentioned, SoTBS was originally #1 of 3 books, before Trilogy Creep Syndrome set in. I hope the story doesn’t get stretched out too far, because I want to find out how it ends, damn it! There is the distinct impression that the story Correia is telling is going to be epic enough to withstand the expansion, but…I really like this story. What is the story?

So.

20-year veteran, Senior Protector Ashok Vadal is one of if not the most dangerous men on Lok. Not only is he a scion of the powerful and respected Vadal House, a Protector gifted with superhuman abilities, not only trained to the peak of physical ability and combat skill, not only above the law and tasked with enforcing it as the most famous member of an order of right hard bastards–Ashok is also the wielder of the mighty ancestor blade Angruvadal. Ancestor blades, made of the mysterious black steel, can cut through steel and demon hide, cleave all four legs off a galloping horse, and, moreover contain the memories and instincts of every warrior who has borne them previously and can guide the muscles and mind of its present wielder to victory….or can savagely punish the unworthy who dare set hand on it.

Ashok was judged worthy as a small child and has lived his life in the Protector Order ever since. How could a man who never lies, who never feels fear, who is wholly devoted to the Law, be unworthy? And why could his mentor, the man whom he trusted and loved as more than his own father, tell him that his life is a shameful falsehood, a disgraceful lie.

Ashok is given a choice: become Lord Protector, head of the Order and continue to live a life of fame, valor, and value…or open a letter that will reveal his past to him and reveal the truth.

Ashok chooses honesty. (Ashok, it transpires, didn’t have a choice).

The disgraceful secret the Protectors have kept for twenty years? Ashok isn’t a man. Ashok isn’t even a human being. Far from being son of the First Caste, the rulers, movers, and shakers…he is actually a casteless. Legally, less than the tools used to till the fields; practically, of less value than the animals used to pull the plow. Although Angruvadal chose him, the utter shame of the choice meant that House Vadal had his mind magically wiped to remove all memory of his casteless origins, deep compulsions implanted in him–rendering him literally fearless and utterly devoted to the law–and he was sent to the Protectors as a mere child in hopes that he would soon die. Oh, and his mother was murdered as part of the cover-up.

Ashok, after delivering a fairly gory reckoning to the people who have committed this injustice and this sin, checks himself into the nearest prison to await trial and sentencing. (Remember what we said about devoted to the Law? Ashok walks the walk…not only because he’s been brainwashed for his entire life.)

Unfortunately, what Ashok gets instead of justice is Omand, the Chief Inquisitor. Omand is seriously bad news. For one, he’s planning a genocide against the casteless…as a stepping stone to whatever his evil plan actually is. Step 1 involves creating a reason for his genocide to continue. Step 2 is ordering Ashok to join with the casteless rebellion and make it into enough of a threat to justify continent-wide genocide.

The implication is that Omand is going to get a horrible surprise about just how clever he isn’t a book or two down the road.

Ashok obediently escapes from prison to find and join the rebellion. He finds–or is found–by Keta, Keeper of Names, and his hostile bodyguard Thera. They have been sent to judge his worthiness before he can be allowed into their ranks, or to meet the mysterious Prophet whom the rebels have rallied about–the Prophet who speaks with the voice of a Forgotten god and testifies that blood, seas and messes of it, are incoming…

But that’s not really a prophecy so much as an accurate observation, really.

And anyhow, yeah. I’m out of time and I need to put some content up that isn’t cat pictures.

Rated: It’s really good. Get it and read it and then tell all your friends.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars – Christopher Paolini – Review

tosleepcover-reducedFirst things first: I liked this book, I didn’t like Eragon that much, Paolini the teenage, homeschooled, best-selling author was nevertheless a childhood hero of mine, and I have a slight fever that might be influencing my judgment.

I liked this book–but every point in its favor also has a counterpoint in its disfavor. Well, except this one: it’s science fiction. And the cover is blue. I like blue.

It’s got spaceship battles. But hardly any radio chatter. I mean, come on, that’s sixty percent of the fun of reading about space battles! Admittedly, this one is pure personal preference. I’m not great at visualizing most authors’ descriptions of space battles, especially fleet-level ones, so having narrator/s talk through what’s going on, with appropriate reactions, helps me. On the whole, the fight scenes were solid, although my personal favorite was the ground fight on planet Bughunt.

It’s a long book: my hardback copy checks in at 825 pages, not counting about sixty-odd more of appendices and made-up vocabulary. And, you know, it’s been a long, long time anybody has had the stones to write and publish a long-ass, stand-alone story in a single volume. Some even go so far as to think that fans wouldn’t stand for such a thing. If for no other reason, it’s immensely satisfying to get to an exciting action scene or a dramatic reveal and then realize that you still have two-thirds of the book, a good several hours’ more reading, to go. And, mercifully and intelligently, this book escaped the editors who would have doubtless preferred to break it into multiple pieces. This book doesn’t have enough story for a series or even, God forbid, a trilogy.

So in almost direct contradiction to my previous statements, I’m going to say: either that this book has enough story for two books, and should have been split roughly in half, right after the twisty reveal on Bughunt; or that about a hundred pages should have been trimmed off of what we got instead. Not even with huge changes to the pacing or with the destruction of individual scenes–I just think that a general tightening up would be an improvement.

It’s got a diverse cast of characters, which term I use in a literal and non-derogatory sense of the word: a large chunk of the cast is female, our POV is female, planetary cultures, skin tones, and religions are present), and a certain amount of time is devoted to fleshing them out and our heroine making personal connections with them. (In the case of at least one religion, it’s via a headbutt, but…) It also has a solidly-written, single-viewpoint protagonist. It also allows its characters to die or be killed.

Problem is, it takes several cycles and reiterations on the theme for the cast to actually settle out, and then once it has established that people can die for the sake of the plot, carefully neuters the threat by not letting it happen again, at least to any of the main characters. While there are at least two main characters who do get badly wounded, their survival is at no point actually uncertain–even when this requires the sudden existence of otherwise-unknown abilities. Deaths or otherwise-debilitating injuries are restricted to military minor characters or civilians. And, large as this cast is, upping the ante on action scenes and increasing tension/pressure on the characters in-universe by letting someone actually die (not to mention the opportunity of trimming some of the dialogue), would not have hurt.

It’s got alien species who are passably alien. Actually, I don’t have much of a counterpoint to add to this one, except that this is where some of the time trimmed by killing off, say, Sparrow or Nielson, could have been added back in. It’s also one of the points in which having a single narrator POV hinders the effort to show-not-tell. Yes, we do see that the Wraunaui / Jellies / graspers have a distinct viewpoint that diverges from Kira’s. No, we do not get to see anybody other than Kira’s take–that there has to be an overarching unifying force in place or else humans and Wranaui Will Not Get Along–on this subject, and Kira isn’t exactly the most politically astute person in the solar system.

It’s got a competently written, sympathetic and understandable, proactive and heroic POV lead. Kira, our heroine, loses, struggles, strives, suffers, and, ultimately, wins. It’s hard to ask for more. Kira is an active, uh, actor in the plot, decides what she will and will not do, and then goes out and does it. More than even this, Kira’s a good person. She has been taken and torture-interrogated by the military; presently, the ship blows up, leaving her in a working shuttle. Kira immediately begins to search for survivors. She accidentally stabs somone….and feels immediate remorse, guilt, a sense of personal responsibility and failure, and later takes the opportunity to ask as to his wellbeing.

On the other hand, there is also a certain amount of Protagonist Syndrome: the heroine is the only person with the plan, only the heroine’s plan will work, only the heroine’s presence guarantees relevance, and nobody else has got a clue. This type of hero works best in a shorter novel with less plot, but to their immense credit, Paolini (and Kira) almost manage to pull it off. I’d hesitate to say that an improvement could be made by splitting the narrative POV between several characters, because that’s a tool that in fast-moving action, or stories with major twists, that very quickly becomes tiresome, and also because I may be alone in thinking that the trope of “the protagonist, only, ever, does the important things” is overused and annoying.

Closely related to this: human antagonists who aren’t completely incompetent dumbasses. They’re only mostly incompetent dumbasses. Mind you, allowing people other than the protagonist to be proactive would have helped….

Oh: and (SPOILER) I will give it this as well. Unlike some authors who write their protagonists ascending to a higher plane of being / physically and mentally tranformed into a new state while losing their old bodies (such as John C Wright or Jack Chalker), Paolini allows the protagonist–you know, the person whom we have followed, sympathized and identified with for the length of the novel–to retain their own personality, identity, and human traits (all things that we liked) afterwards. The ascended Kira, although enormously powerful and distinctly different, still is recognizably herself; there is no sense of horror or loss of humanity, or (in my case), annoyance that the protagonist I’ve followed through the length of this book is now effectively dead. Indeed, the overall impression is that now she’s going to be ready for even more awesome feats in even more dangerous, further-flung adventures. And that takes discipline as well as skill. Chalker would have dove head-first into the loss-of-personality angle and you know that weird sex stuff would have been involved, somehow; while Wright would cheerfully destroy the audience’s rapport with a character if it meant being able to create another disembodied parahuman intelligence of pure logic and rationality (that is also Catholic). My hat’s off to Paolini: he upgraded his character but retained what made her likable and left the door open for a sequel.

So what’s the plot about, anyhow? Start with Alien/Aliens, throw the Venom suit in there from Spider-man, swing over to Prometheus, add Firefly, and I guess Star Trek. Very small trace elements of Starship Troopers kind of exist, but they’re folded into the Aliens melange to begin with. There are a couple of switch-ups which keep things interesting, a few battles, some character reveals and some plot threads that aren’t immediately followed up but which provide background texture. Some tropes even get played with in unexpected ways, such as: the Hive (or the Swarm, in this case) will be completely defeated if only the Queen (or the supreme leader) is killed. Bog-standard bug-hunt procedures, except that the people who suggest it are the swarm-members themselves, who would quite like a revolution but are genetically programmed to be unable to defy their overlord directly.

So, yeah. I liked it, there is room for improvement, and if, in the course of the next few years Paolini publishes another novel, I will check that one out, too.

(The prevailing sentiment in the Amazon 1-star reviews is that this book isn’t suitable for homeschoolers. Speak for yourselves, snowflakes.)

Rated: man still dreams of the stars!

Review: The Dark Archive – Genevieve Cogman

9781529000603
Irene is not a great heroine, Grauniad.

This book was physically painful to read.  

I’ve read all the Invisible Library books so far. I’ve been patiently waiting for them to Get Good. I’ve been waiting for Cogman’s editor to get better at it. I really, really, want to like these books! They’re about people who love books and would walk to the ends of a different Earth to acquire them….right?

They haven’t, she hasn’t, and the dirty secret is that they aren’t

I’ve already written at length how Cogman a) can’t write action, b) struggles with characterization, c) has far too much dialogue. (GOD, you don’t know how much I am not exaggerating with the dialogue. There are maybe two pages in this book which are not comprised of people talking to each other); Cogman demonstrates a positive genius for taking large-scale action setpieces and then disposing of them in a couple of paragraphs; and nobody has a discernable personality. She’s even shuffled the one character who does have a distinct personality offstage for the duration of the book! What the hell, Gen? 

c) is even more of a problem than usual here, because there are two new major characters: Librarian-trainee-hopeful Catherine, and dragon prince Shan Yuan. And the thing is, for BOTH of them, the building blocks were right there. Shan Yuan is a collection of vaguely arrogant and moderately unhelpful actions. He does things and it’s for his own reasons which are annoying and sometimes harmful to the protagonists. That’s actually good, and he’s actually fairly consistent. Problem is, once he’s been set up, a little bit of time was needed to set up why he does the things he does (not, dear God, by talking about it): that is, OTHER than “to be annoying to the protagonists;” and maybe show that he has a reason and the reason is, his personality is that of an arrogant, prejudiced dragon prince who is used to doing this his own way and has no respect for his younger brother’s/the human way of doing things. 


But the really fatal problems with this series, which I finally put my finger on in this book is:

It’s not clever. It’s not imaginative. And it’s not literary. 

This series is supposedly about people who go to different worlds–from the fantastic to the technological–for books. This series started out as straight-up fanfiction, which allowed the author to slip known worlds, characters, and settings in and do fun, off-the-cuff, funny, clever things with them. This by all rights, should have continued when the books actually got published. The process is simple: file the serial numbers off the world, change the names and a few details of the characters you’re stealing borrowing reimagining, give setting and people a few twists–you know, the sort you’d have liked to see in the originals–and write a fun charming story in a world that is almost recognizable but different in a clever and fitting way.

It can be done, it can be done legally, and it can get published, believe me. There’s the Rachel Griffin books by L. Jagi Lamplighter, which riff off of everyone from Narnia to Battlestar Galactica. There’s the Mageworlds series by Debra Doyle, which is Star Wars sequels with the serial numbers filed off and very satisfying they were to read indeed. There are countless opportunities for cameos not only of literary but also historical figures to pop up!

Cogman doesn’t do this. She doesn’t use varied worlds, fresh new settings. Everything is set in a smoggy but weirdly feminist-friendly but still tea-guzzling but racially tolerant but fucking steampunk pseudo-Victorian England. With goggles. Oh God, there are actual goggles in this book and they do nothing except irritate me. And here’s the thing. Cogman doesn’t even use the really easy and helpful cheat of adapting genuine literary characters to her own ends–which would solve her problem of not being able to write people with actual personalities. You don’t need to invent what you can steal! 

At their core, these books were written by someone entirely lacking in imagination. I’d be nasty and say “in familiarity with the fantasy genre,” but that’s an unwonted personal attack. 

But. The real problem. 

The REAL problem is. 

For a series focused on Librarians. Who go to great lengths to acquire new books. Who fetishize books. Who have plot-relevant reasons for wanting to keep books, read books, and acquire knowledge.

No one ever seems to have read a book in their life.

New character Catherine is a teenager who has grown up isolated and lived primarily through reading stories. She wants to be a librarian: you know, one of those ladies who tells you about new authors and helps you find them and discusses them with you and wears glasses on a string. We know this: because she says as much to Irene. Not because she talks about books incessantly. Not because she’s ever got her nose in a book. Not because she’s entirely bored with the “someone’s trying to assassinate us” plot and keeps trying to wander off and buy books. And definitely not because she changes her mind at the end and decides that being a spy-book-thief type Librarian is much better.

At one point Kai mentions Irene always has a book in her nightstand. Irene never mentions anything she’s read in a book; never refers to book-learned knowledge; never thinks about book plots that are similar to this one; never wonders how a favorite hero or heroine would  handle the situation….throughout this entire series…once. The closest she’s ever come to it is complaining that action heroines are generally taller than her own 5’9 (….you moronic bitch) and follows up by whining that it’s hard to kick people (in the shins, presumably) while wearing full skirts. 

I’m legitimately angry at this point. I could write better stories about Librarian Spies, the Library of Babel, dragons, Fae, debauched ambassadors, bookworm trainees, the Language of Truth, super-powered, vengeful bodiless spirits. Maybe I freaking will.


And after all that, is there anything to say about the plot? What plot? Well….I could talk about what there is of plot, but I’d just lose my temper at how stupidly drawn-out this series is. It’s book 7. Irene has just finally found out that the villain whom she has faced in every single book and easily defeated each time is her

(dUn DuN duN)

(DuN dUn DuN)

(dUn DuN duN dUn DuN dUn)

….father.

As if it wasn’t bloody fucking obvious in book 1 and serially reinforced in each book after that. 

And then there’s an epilogue with a fucking mysterious hooded council of mysteriousness that runs the Library except the final line of the book implies that the Library actually runs itself and WHY DID WE SPEND SEVEN BOOKS RUNNING AROUND VICTORIAN STEAMPUNK GOGGLED LONDON, NOT RIFFING OFF OF OTHER BETTER STORIES, IF YOU HAD MAYBE TWO BOOKS’ AND I’M BEING GENEROUS THERE WORTH OF ORIGINAL PLOT YOU COULD HAVE JUST WRITTEN ABOUT INSTEAD?

What the fuck, Genevieve?

Red Rising – Pierce Brown – Book Review

red-risingSo I distinctly remember when I first read this book–it was in 2016, just before I went back to school. Lucky thing for me, too, because I was up all fricking night reading it, and who needs a brain for office work? For an exile from the stars, this was a blast from the past. It has–and revels in–an old-fashioned sense of grandeur and scale; it consciously leans into the pageantry of planetary romance, of decadent empires, mighty warlords, grovelling slaves, passing through the fire, children becoming adults, and the excesses of cruelty, loyalty, and courage that are used to create the next generation of warriors, leaders, servitors–and tyrants.

TLDR: It’s like Ender’s Game, but *hardcore*.

Plot: Sixteen year old Darrow of Lykos thinks he has it made. He’s a Helldiver–the most prestigious and dangerous jobs in the mining business–he’s married to the lovely yet rebellious red-haired Eo, and he’s just managed to raise their unit’s production of Helium-3 to the point where they are all but sure to get the Laurel, a generous bonus of supplies shipped in at great expense to their tiny, underground Martian colony all the way from Earth.

Except that in short order, Darrow’s world is destroyed. The Laurel is given to a different unit (unjustly); he and his wife are flogged for leaving their unit area–and then, at the command of the Governor of Mars, Augustus au Nero himself, Eo is executed for, well, being rebellious. Darrow soon follows her, but is saved by a mysterious terrorist group called the Sons of Ares. And a new world opens up to him instead. Mars is not a new-fledged, struggling colony–it’s a prosperous world which found it more profitable to keep its economic producers (the miners) in complete ignorance of the fact. More, Mars is only a part of the solar Empire; Man has terraformed and colonized almost every part of the solar system. That is, some men have.

Darrow is a Red: one of the mining caste. His overseers are Grays. The feared and dreaded soldiers are Obsidians. Pinks are bred for pleasure and Blues for engineers. The world is strictly divided between Colors, but on the top are the Golds. These are men and women born, engineered, educated, shaped, and molded to be the rulers of a society that stretches from Venus to Pluto and beyond.

The Sons of Ares want Darrow to become a Gold. Specifically, they want him to join the Institute, the highest of the highest…institutions…that produces the actual leaders of their Society. This is the place where the future admirals, governors, administrators, and generals go….and where they send their children. Including the children of Augustus au Nero.

(And yes, indeed, it is a strange plan that requires extensive surgery and biomodification carefully noted by the author; and on re-read, the fact that Darrow can go from a hardscrabble pseudocolonist to hitting the 99th percentile in the intake exams does strain credulity a little. On the other hand, part of this book’s charm is the fact that Darrow is an Awesome Hero in an old-fashioned way: the story follows him because he’s the best there is. Now, he’s not a Gary Stu because we see him suffer, make mistakes, work hard, trust the wrong people, and fall on his face–but overall, he’s the hero because he does incredible, impossible things and because he does incredible things he’s a hero. I like heroes. I think everybody does.)

Anyhow, exactly what the Insitute is and does is kept intensely secret, although you’d think that the casualty rates would offer a clue. Basically, several hundred picked cadets in several groups are dropped on a planet with a varying amount of resources and left to battle it out amongst themselves. House Artemis, for example, gets horses. House Ceres gets a castle with beehives, fields, defensible walls, and bread ovens. Darrow is a member of House Ares. They have weapons, but no home base; the ability to hunt for meat but not to bake bread or store it; and they have….personnel issues.

As I said, Ender’s Game–but with graphic violence and without adult supervision. Or–as it finally turns out–worse than that: the Proctors who are supposed to be supervising and maintaining their Houses have been taking bribes and playing politics. So no matter how brilliant Darrow is, becoming an accepted leader, gathering strong allies, uniting the Houses, taking over the gameboard, he will not be allowed to become First. That prize has been reserved for another. –For The Jackal: the son of Nero au Augustus….the man who killed Darrow’s wife.

The drama, it is evident, no? The book leans heavily into it, too, with Darrow brooding on and emphasizing to himself and the reader the epic scope of the battle he is fighting: the courage, the malice, the terrible power (institutional, societal, and personal) of the enemies he engages. This is cleverer than it sounds, because, as he struggles and ultimately triumphs, the stakes have been laid to raise underdog-hero Darrow to the same larger-than-life level as the men and women who unironically name themselves after the gods of old Olympus.

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Image via red-rising.fandom.com/wiki/Darrow_O’Lykos

This book apparently didn’t make too much of a splash, coming out as it did at the tail end of the YA-novel bubble. (Although there is a sequel series I have thus far declined to read; it looks depressing.) I think there are a few other factors in play: namely, that this is a military scifi (not amenable to the interests of Twilight-loving YA consumers); that it has a heroic male protagonist who undergoes a rite of passage (thus not conducive to the agendas of YA publishers); that it’s competently written and has a distinct authorial style (complete anathema to the YA genre.)

I’m pretty out of touch with current scifi scene, but Mil-SF doesn’t seem to be a very popular publishing choice any more, let alone old-school space opera, let alone pseudo-planetary romances. Sweeping vistas, unexplored frontiers, and larger-than-life characters aren’t fashionable anymore. Male protagonists–even more so, a male who was actually if briefly married–are even stranger. But my greatest liking for this series comes from the last two points: that Darrow is heroic, and that these books are pretty darned well written. But in the interets of time I’ll limit my gushing.

Darrow is a hero because he has a good heart and a good goal and the former mostly prevents the latter from overwhelming him; because he uplifts (or at least tries to) others; and because he feels regret and guilt about the deaths he has caused. Equally importantly, he’s the protagonist–the guy who tells the story, and from whose point of view we follow events–and: he has an active role in shaping events in the story, and he’s cool and does cool things successfully.

The book is well-written. It is. It has a distinct narrative voice–short, rhythmic sentences, first-person narration, present tense–that takes a minute to get used to and then becomes invisible. Mostly though, it’s the worldbuilding that’s impressive, and here’s how.

The concept of the Institute is kind of stupid, but it’s what Pierce Brown wanted to read and so had to write….but he took the time and put in the effort to design a society that legitimately would believe dropping its future leaders on a planet to fight it out with their bare hands is a winning move, and then he portrayed that society faithfully and worked within the boundaries he’d set for himself. The idea of turning a Red miner from a low-gravity planet into a Gold, basically an entirely different human subspecies, is likewise kind of ludicrous; but Brown walks the reader through the process from bone regeneration to eye replacements without skimming over details (although I submit that the sleep-learning was a cheat). He’s thought long and hard about how his universe works, and the verisimilitude, even when not flaunted front and center, shows through the cracks.

Lastly, because I’m running out of time at this point: his characters are good. Darrow’s emphasis on the vividest traits of each person he meets works for the best, because it means that each person has some memorability. Better yet, almost everybody has a distinct and strong personality. Pax is boisterous. Sevro is gross and boisterous. Mustang is idealistic. The Jackal is calm and scary. Antonia is a bitch. Fitchner is getting too old for this sh*t.

But mostly I like Sevro. Wild-haired savage sidekicks are the best.

Rated: Rise

Readlist

Readlist:

  • Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance – Lois McMaster Bujold
    Well, what do you say about someone who once wrote the best science fiction, hands-down, of any author alive but who then went over to the dark side? This is a romance novel. It’s a really good romance novel (sans porn, however), and it plays with genre conventions and it’s expertly written, but it’s a frickking romance novel. Not an SF-military thriller with elements of romance. Not a SF-political thriller with elements of romance and comedy. Not a heist caper with (etc)…
    It’s a romance with a smattering of action. And that’s fine. But it ain’t SF and it shouldn’t have been a novel. Novella at best, maybe.
  • Pistol Pete – Frank Eaton (did I mention my local library is very good?)

Watchlist:

  • Flame of Araby – 1950-something desert opera starring Jeff Chandler and Maureen O’Hara. Also starring: a bunch of those background character actors who pop up in the old westerns, grinning a bunch and going “Si, Senor,” or “Yeah boss,” and menacing fair maidens and innocent farmers a lot. Except in this one they’re going “Aye, my lord” and “By the beard of the Prophet, the girl has spirit!” and have painted-on tans.

    There are also dancing girls.

Dark Avenger’s Sidekick – John C Wright – Repost Review

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Dark Avenger’s Sidekick is the second trilogy in the Moth & Cobweb series by John C Wright, comprising Daughter of Danger, City of Corpses, and Tithe to Tartarus. It is YA novel that straddles the line between science fiction, urban fantasy, and high fantasy and does it effortlessly. It’s written by the one SF/F writer alive who can use prose on the level of Jack Vance and write worlds with the scope of Roger Zelazny. I liked it a lot less than the previous trilogy. I wanted to like this book a lot more than I liked it; caveat: I think part of my problem is that I don’t like Urban Fantasy that comes down too heavily on the Fantasy side.

In short? I was disappointed in the resolution of the plot, and did not feel that the heroine’s characterization worked properly for the genre and her narrative role in it.

Also, not enough respect for my boy Batman/Winged Vengeance.

Plot: an amnesiac woman wakes up in a hospital bedroom, convinced that it is a trap. She’s right. A trio of monsters invade and try to kill her; she fights her way clear and escapes. (The whole five-feet tall, 90 pounds soaking wet = ineffective combatant rule doesn’t apply to mooks, I guess). She’s wearing a hospital gown and a mysterious ring that changes its appearance and has various powers.She doesn’t know her own name.

Long story short, she is Yumiko Moth the Fox Maiden, apprentice of a night-stalking vigilante called Winged Vengeance (he’s basically Batman except hardcore, lol); she lost her memory during a raid and was either left behind by Winged Vengeance (boo), or escaped via the sacrifice of her fiancee, Tom. I forget which. In any case, Tom is being held prisoner by the bad guys and is going to be sent to Hell as teind for the court of the evil faery. Does this sound vaguely familiar yet?

Yumiko, despite her deep reservations about the kind of silly, post-modern, unrealistic story where *girls* rescue *boys* (hmph!), well, has to go rescue him. Part of this involves going undercover. In time-honored tradition for beautiful young female detectives, this involves being scantily clad. (Book 2) I did snicker at the wardrobe mistress assuring Yumiko, with sadistic cheerfulness, that their weight-watching regimen was no more arduous than that of a professional wrestling team.

Book 2 and a chunk of book 3 comprise Yumiko failing at her mission in various humiliating-to-hilarious ways, until she teams up with the hero of the previous trilogy, Gil Moth, is baptized as a Catholic, and stops trying to fight for her love and just to hold on to him. Literally. While being injured in various gross and horrifying ways that are described with sadistic relish.

I found this ending unsatisfactory.

I have three problems with this story overall.

Problem 1: Improper handling of female character archetype. See, authors have limited repertoire of characters. Their expertise is in how they change and modify their own stock of characters by giving them different skillsets, placing them in new settings, or using different, new plots to show them off in different ways.

This is why Roger Zelazny writes of tall, laconic, green-eyed men with many names; but they are differentiated into the tall, ballad-writing, many-named Corwin of Amber, the tall, laconic, many-named hero of My Name is Legion, and the tall, sarcastic Carlton Davits. All have different roles to play. His female characters are either sultry but straightforward or sultry and coy; they are memorable either way. Larry Correia writes big, burly men who are smarter than they look and like guns, handsome antagonistic men who are dumber than they look and like guns, and beautiful women who are not particularly sophisticated, who like guns *a lot*. Gordon R Dickson writes square-jawed space-age heroes who Know How Systems Work, who confidently set forward to make them Work For Me. The confident hero can either not be quite as smart as he thinks he is (Soldier Ask Not), not nearly as smart as he thinks he is (Pro), or dead right (Wolfling). His female characters tend to be: annoying. Well, you can’t do everything all at once. Especially if you’re a nerd. Writing for nerds.

Again: an expert author can have a limited repertoire, it’s fine–but he must know how to use what he’s got.

John C. Wright’s female character repertoire is singular: highly feminine, happy to be so, happy with life in general, cheerful, helpful. (Any similarities to Mrs. Wright, who, as per her blog seems like a lovely person, are purely speculative. But, yeah.) This type of heroine works quite well–as he himself noted in character, in the Golden Oecumeneif the genre is first-person romance (heh). Now, as his skills improve, he is able to vary this somewhat: highly feminine, cheerful, and secretly a femme fatale Trying To Lure Hero Into MORTAL SIN (Iron Chamber of Memory); or, highly feminine, not cheerful because her mission is not going well, and doesn’t particularly like her putative love interest (yet) (Somewhither). Both of these heroines do work and I rate both of those books highly.

Yumiko is an attempt to write a Short Female Badass (an archetype in its own right)…who is also highly feminine, giggly, and revels in male attention. She starts out as the Fox Maiden, the Dark Avenger’s sidekick, someone whose deeds of vengeance strike fear and nausea into the hearts of her victims. Or so we’re told. Yumiko herself has amnesia and, over the course of the story, mostly proves herself to be the kind of girl who, as a presumable adult, still has relations with a large stuffed teddy bear. (not kidding). The dichotomy doesn’t work. Now, while I think there is a way it *could* have worked, (see the Tam Lin section below), as it is, it doesn’t.

Problem 2. Subversion of narrative structure.
Bear with me.
The central tenet of fiction is that heroes win after they lose. Especially after losing in a particular way, with additional humiliation, by showing more prowess, intelligence, technique. Those who completely abandon their initial techniques and try to win without fighting are those who are certain of possession of the moral high ground (Return of the Jedi) (or physical high ground, Revenge of the Sith), and the conflict ceases to be about the fight so much as about the moral and psychological dimensions of it.

The hero’s learning curve has to continue logically forward from whatever has already been shown before. Otherwise, why show it? So if hero lost before by: applying brute force instead of strategy–win by applying superior strategy. If loss was by expecting fair play–win with overwhelming force.

Yumiko doesn’t change her initial technique by Being More Clever. The heroes are outwitted at every single step of the way by What’s-his-name Moth anyhow. She doesn’t change her initial technique by Working On A Team and Trusting Her Allies, either. No: what she *does* change is her violent pagan heart for a new, sinless, Christian (Catholic) one, and then also doesn’t fight. (Not Kidding) Protestants (and atheists) read these damn books too, you know.

This is, I believe, a narrative-level mistake. Changing from a physical battle to a physical struggle that isn’t a battle, without allowing hero to negate their previous failures is highly unsatisfying. Not allowing the hero to make up for previous humiliations caused by being dumb is unsatisfying. If Yumiko had won without fighting by outsmarting the Moths and the forces of Hell, that would have been satisfying. If Yumiko had managed to learn a new fighting technique and suddenly was able to overpower the enemy physically, that would have been satisfying. Instead, Yumiko wins by being passive. (Is it because girls should be passively courageous and not try to fight and (hmph!) rescue boys? I have my suspicions.)

Problem 3:
The climax of the story is a nearly point for point retelling of Tam Lin. For your amusement and/or edification, please follow the link, which is a brief and highly editorialized retelling. In short, though: heroine’s lover is on his way to hell; heroine must identify lover accurately; heroine must physically grab hold of lover; heroine must hold on to lover through various shapeshifts, boom, lover has been saved from hell.

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(Image via wylielise.deviantart.com. Have I mentioned recently that WORDPRESS SUCKS AND THEIR EDITORS ARE NOW FAR LESS USEFUL THAN BEFORE? BECAUSE WORDPRESS SUCKS.)

Ahem. So, anyway: despite being someone so absolutely gifted at reimagining old tales, putting new twists into them, making utterly absurd and illogical things happen in charming and funny ways…Wright nonetheless plays this absolutely, completely, straight. And misses by a mile.

Part of the reason Tam Lin works is that there’s an extra archetypal quality to it, something my liftime as a Pratchett reader insists on calling “myffic.” Janet is pregnant; she needs Tam Lin to live not only for her own sake, but for her child’s. Tam Lin wants to escape Hell, and also to escape the Faerie, to be a father to his child in the world of men. The subtextual meaning of this story is that people who take responsibility for themselves at each step of the way, can, will, and should make great efforts to better their lives and the lives of their children.

This paratext is absent from Wright’s story. And I think that actually putting it back in–making Yumiko knowingly or unknowingly pregnant during her story–would have actually worked at some level. At the very least, it gives Yumiko an out for not being All That, physically. Thus it’d be OK that she can’t defeat the enemy in a hand-to-hand battle; thus, it would add a ticking clock element to her days as a corseted undercover dancing girl.

A second myffic point in Tam Lin is that Tam doesn’t injure Janet even though the enemy turns him into different, scary animals to try and make her let go: things may be weird, appearances may be scary, but he is the same person underneath, worthy to be her husband and the father of her child. He may not be able to control his outside circumstances (shape), but he can control himself and not harm the mother of his child. Here, Yumiko is *horribly* injured as Tom is turned into a variety of porcupines, sword fish, ray fish, sawfish, venomous porcupines, and other nasty things with spikes on them. What’s more, this section goes on for a long time.

Misery porn + the climax of your novel? DO NOT MIX.

(Then she gets healed by drinking the blood of her vampire priest cousin. Not kidding. What??)

Could Yumiko have used her Tom-provided technology nonlethally as it was “intended” to be used, to grapple and hold him? Sure. Does she? No. Could Yumiko have provided the bigwigs of Faerie proof of What’s-his-Name’s treachery and misdeeds, and persuaded them to switch out Tom for him? Sure. Does she? No. Could Yumiko have engaged in one-on-one battle for Tom? Sure (she has a magic ring that is kryptonite to the faery, a magic bow that is kryptonite to the faery, a magic sword that is…yes. If that’s not enough to make it a fair fight, then Tom should have made her some ray guns, too.) Does she? No.

Does this book have any pros? Yes, like all JCW books, it is superbly worded, the worldbuilding is excellent, the descriptions, gadgets, and settings are vivid. There are many good points about this story; I’m just out of time to write about them and it was more fun to complain.

Rated: 2/5 magic swords that are never drawn, magic bows that are never strung, and magic arrows that are never fired.

Hurry Up and Wait Readlist

5e197d9c67a719559307a2f5341444341587343Night of Masks, Andre Norton.
This is a very simple story, despite its genre-blending: it’s a survival story set on an alien planet. Of the events that send our two young heroes there, little is fully explained. Even the narrative touches which elevate this above standard Hatchet-type pulps are just that, touches.
That said, it’s one of the most vividly-written Dangerous Alien Planets I’ve personally encountered, a particularly good trick given that the planet is pitch-black to human eyes and must be seen through infra-red goggles. And yet the persistent atmosphere of heat and oppression, dread and anxiety, fear of the dark and loathing of the unknown is communicated quite well, thank you.
Rated: Don’t read this at night.

Magicians of the Gods, Graham Hancock.
The guy has a couple of very clear points to make: modern science is tribal, clique-ridden and consensus-based. Anyone who goes outside the consensus risks being viciously ostracized. It also is highly politically correct inasmuch as it doesn’t particularly welcome theories that might go against the party lines (Clovis-first, for instance). That’s all totally true.
He also has some interesting theories: that human civilization is older than believed, that climate events such as the Younger Dryas held great influence over humankind/civilization; that dispersal patterns from/throughout Old World are different than the standard model. The overall theory is: that there was a pre-pre-prehistoric, very advanced culture from which all the really ancient civilizations (Egypt, Sumer, Akkad) were descended, but of which only the most tantalizing of circumstantial evidence remains.
Problem is….his arguments tend to a) be way far out, b) undercut his own theory. When the strongest evidence you do have is: “there is an interesting line-up between Plato, the dates for the legend of Atlantis, and the Younger Dryas,” “Gobekli Tepe exists,” and, “That’s a really, really, big stone,” it might be time to accept that your theory has insufficient supporting evidence and go back to your wall with all the bits of paper with strings connecting them.

634471– The Dirdir, and The Pnume, Jack Vance.
These are the third and fourth volumes, respectively, of Vances’ Planet of Adventure cycle. Naturally, I first got hold of them in backwards order and didn’t read the first or second until I got the anthology bundle. Same thing happened with the Demon Princes, for me, with the same result: the last book is my favorite for sentimental reasons, but I think the next-to-last is technically superior.
So, the Planet of Adventure kicks off with space scout Adam Reith shot down and stranded on the alien world Tschai. He is desperate to return to Earth, both because while Tschai is a world of magnificence, grandeur, and adventure, it is also a world of barbaric horrors, and to bring word back of the threat posed by the alien races who dwell there and have already once raided Earth (hence, the Earth-type humans who also live there.)
Books 1 and 2 cover Reith’s attempts to find his own ship (it’s been wrecked and gutted), or steal a working ship. Both fail, so The Dirdir picks up where Servants of the Wankh left off. The next option is to buy a ship…if one has the sequins for it. Sequins, the currency of Tschai, happen to be naturally-occuring products which can be mined only in one region: the Carabas. Which happen to be the Dirdir hunting preserve. There is something like a seventy-five percent death rate for miners, not to mention that most profit margins are very slim. Reith, nevertheless, comes up with a novel plan that results in massive profit, and also the Dirdir howling for his hide.
The only thing I can really say about this book is that it does everything rightEverything in it is done perfectly, from the setting to the prose to the characters, to the dialogue, to the action, the climactic battle, and the confronting-the-villain with delicious irony at the denoument.
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The Pnume takes a slightly different turn, with Reith being separated from his usual companions and plunged into a novel setting: the underground haunts of the Pnume–the only race indigenous to Tschai, who observe the actions of others upon their world as though watching a play. The Pnume have decided that Adam Reith, man of Earth, is a curiousity worth collecting and placing in their museum, Foreverness.
Adam Reith, who has almost gotten his starship ready to fly, has entirely different opinions. Together with his new sidekick, a pnumekin (human servant of the pnume) girl Zap 210, they must journey beneath the surface and across it to return to the Sivishe Spaceports. Hilarity ensues.
What I like about this one? Well, although it has a little less action than the previous book, for some reason, I really like the image of the Pnume–the Silent Critics, the zuzhma kastchai, ancient and all-knowing motherfolk from the dark stuff of Tschai,–walking silently in the dusty darkness.
That said, the book does suffer from only having two characters–Reith and the mousy Zap 210–for most of it’s length; it becomes noticeably better once they emerge into the surface of Tschai and begin to interact with some of Vance’s finest trustworthily philosophical rogues. (Rigging the eel-races is one of my favorite gambling scenes in all fiction.) My other problem is that the eventual Zap 210/Adam Reith romance just doesn’t seem necessary. But, ah well, such is life in pulp scifi.
Rated: Onmale decreed life for Adam Reith.