Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Man Who Folded Himself, by David Gerrold

Today I'm looking at a science-fiction and time-travel novel, The Man Who Folded Himself, which I have been told by the library website, GoodReads, and the introduction and afterword of this book that a lot of people think this is the best darn time-travel novel to come down the pike in a long time. Unfortunately, I find myself disagreeing rather strenuously with this assertion. The edition that I listened to is a little different than the original 1973 release, being re-released thirty years later and updated with some references, such as to the September 11th attacks, which makes this feel not like a ground-breaker in the field of science fiction but just another, if somewhat weirder, variation of the same tired themes.

The book follows the adventures of Daniel Jameson Eakins, a boy raised by his Uncle Jim and given the very generous allowance of a thousand dollars a week just to go to college and keep his nose clean. One day in 2005, Uncle Jim shows up mysteriously at Danny's apartment and tells Danny to start keeping a diary, just of the important things. The next day, Danny's informed his Uncle Jim is dead and Jim's lawyers inform Danny of a few things. First, his uncle has bequeathed him a package containing a belt, and second, instead of $143 million Danny has a mere six thousand dollars to his name. Rather confused by this turn of events, Danny grows even more confused when he discovers the belt given to him by his uncle is, in fact, a time belt that allows him to travel through the time-space continuum at will.

What follows is Danny having adventures through time and space and beginning to wonder what pronouns such as I really mean and how timestreams really work. As I was listening to this book, which came out in 1973, I couldn't help but compare it to two short stories by Heinlein. In particular By His Bootstraps, first published 1941, and All You Zombies, first published in 1959. By His Bootstraps is story about a man who ends up creating a stable predestination paradox where he ends up emperor of his own little world through time travel. He has pulled himself up by his bootstraps because his future self is helping his past self get to where his future self will be. And that's a significant chunk of The Man Who Folded Himself. Danny uses the benefits of time travel to make himself an insane amount of money, first with horse races and then with timely investments in the stock market. Eventually he does end up worth $143 million, but has access to considerably more money beyond that. So Danny using time travel to benefit himself immensely from a financial standpoint is hardly new and different.

Where The Man Who Folded Himself differs is that while By His Bootstraps is a stable, predestination paradox, The Man Who Folded Himself has lots of outright paradoxes. At multiple points Danny does things differently, like wear a different set of clothing or change a bet slightly, or even go back in time and warn himself out of doing something. Ordinarily you'd think this would create multiple paradoxes, especially the classic grandfather paradox, and Danny would have to untangle these. But instead, Danny doesn't have to deal with the consequences. If he doesn't like them, he can just change them. And if it creates a paradox, he doesn't have to worry about it at all, because every time he changes something in the past, it creates a new timestream that he enters and he's unable to return to the old timestream because the past has been altered. I felt like this was a convenient workaround for Gerrold more than anything else because we could ignore the issue of paradoxes and let Danny do whatever the heck he wanted.

Now, some of you might be familiar with All You Zombies, which is a time travel short story in which all the characters involved are the same person. One individual, through the use of time travel and hermaphroditism, is both their mother and their father and is responsible for conceiving themselves. Oh, and is also the bartender. But that's not important. Point is, somebody decided using time travel to have sex with themselves was a fantastic idea. Gerrold uses the same idea in his book, and I actually saw it coming because it was very heavily foreshadowed. Danny has sex with himself many times, in fact even engages in orgies consisting of just himself. Plus, through the use of time travel and a female version of himself named Diane, manages to conceive himself and ensure his continued existence within the time stream, which was also pretty heavily foreshadowed.

Honestly, I just don't get the appeal of something like this. Apparently there's some people who find this really interesting or even attractive on some level. But I simply do not understand the appeal of using time travel just to have sex with yourself. I understand that it was really forward of Gerrold to have gay romance and sexual activity in a book in 1973, but the fact that it's Danny doing it with himself just feels really darn weird. Plus the way that Danny describes it makes him sound like an insane narcissist who can only love himself and only has sex with himself because he's incapable of loving or being attracted to another person. It just seems very weird to me.

Overall I don't feel like this book really did anything that hadn't been done in a couple of Heinlein short stories before. It's just weird and for a time travel story really predictable. Obviously there are some people who really like this book but I find myself just not understanding the appeal.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In the Labyrinth of Drakes, by Marie Brennan

Today I'm looking at the fourth book in the Lady Trent memoirs and, as of writing, the most current, In the Labyrinth of Drakes. In this book Isabella Camhurst heads with her longtime colleague Tom to manage a Scirling-run dragon breeding program in Akhia.With the secret of preserved dragon bone out, countries are now in a race to acquire sufficient supplies of a material that promises to revolutionize warfare. However, many are also aware that they could acquire a significant short-term gain by slaughtering dragons wholesale, but leave them worse off in the long run with a shortage of dragons. To this end the Scirling Army is trying to breed and domesticate desert drakes so they might have a regular supply of dragonbone. Since Isabella and Tom are Scirling's authorities on dragons, they're the most logical choice to direct this breeding program but it promises to be many years of difficult and possibly fruitless research.

The dragons are of course only part of the story, the titular Labyrinth of Drakes also plays a significant role and is one of the more famous events of Lady Trent's career, as we find out. Akhia is the location of some of the best-preserved ruins of the globe-spanning Draconian civilization. Isabella meets up again with the archaeologist Suhail, a native Akhian, and together they make an absolutely unprecedented discovery.

What concerns me the most in this book is how...incomplete things feel. According to my sources on the internet, this series is scheduled to end with the fifth book, bringing the adventures of Lady Trent to an end. But I feel like there are a great many questions that have yet to be resolved, especially with the Draconian civilization. I will admit it would be very realistic for Brennan to leave some things still unknown. That is, after all, how science works in real life and all the mysteries of the universe never get solved in any one person's lifetime. But there are a lot of things about the Draconians that make me extremely curious. On top of that we did finally get the Rosetta Stone which Isabella discovered in Tropic of Serpents into the hands of Suhail the archaeologist and polyglot who may actually be able to crack the hither-to unknown Draconian script.

So, honestly, my concerns are about how rushed the next, final book may end up being if the Draconian plot is going to be revealed. As I'm by training a historian, and the author herself is an anthropologist, I would have liked and expected far more about this mysterious background civilization which has been a constant theme, as well as dragons, throughout the series. I'm just worried that Brennan hasn't given herself enough space to resolve everything satisfactorily. Even without the Draconian storyline I think there might not be enough space to finish Isabella's story without making it feel rather rushed.

Otherwise, there's not much to write home about. I feel almost like this series is starting to suffer fatigue because it's, ''Isabella goes to foreign location to study dragons. Encounters challenges. Overcomes challenges. Becomes even more famous.'' Not to say that I don't enjoy watching that. Isabella is definitely an interesting character and I quite like following her around. But aside from changes in scenery and tweaks to specifically what challenges Isabella has to overcome, there doesn't seem to be much difference.

Hopefully Brennan can tie everything together satisfactorily in the final book, which is supposed to come out in back in the spring of this year. But until then I'll remain a little reserved about how this series will end.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Please Don't Tell my Parents I Blew Up the Moon, by Richard Roberts

So you may remember way, way back over a year ago, I reviewed a book called Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain, a book about teenager Penelope Akk who develops mad scientist superpowers and, somewhat unintentionally, begins an exciting career as a supervillain known as Bad Penny with her friends Claire, aka E-Claire, and Ray, aka Reviled. I remember it being a fun book that I enjoyed but for whatever reason it took me a year to get around to reading the sequel, Please Don't Tell My Parents I Blew Up the Moon, which was such an intriguing title I thought it would be worth investigating.

In this book, Penny and friends are basking in the success of their latest heist from the last book, but can't wait to get back into the field and get some supervillainy going. Especially since Penelope has the outline of another mad science device in her mind but it's going to need some serious biotech hardware. The Inscrutable Machine also gets a message from Spider, the big supervillain overlord of L.A., inviting them to come to her secret base. There, Spider reveals that mysterious transmissions have been detected coming from the vicinity of Jupiter and would the Inscrutable Machine be interested in investigating Jupiter to see what's going on? Penny and friends of course jump at the opportunity to explore space and are soon tangling with all number of nasties in the outer solar system.

One of the things I liked about the previous book was Penny was a pretty interesting character. She builds tons of neat, reality-warping stuff but has little or no idea how she manages to put it all together. Penny also is genuinely a good person and is trying to be good. Most of the time the stuff the Inscrutable Machine does isn't really evil, just illegal. But any time Penny tries to think about becoming a hero instead, something manages to interfere and keep Bad Penny firmly in the supervillain camp. This book did underline the fact Penny can't control her superpower at all and usually blacks out while she's building her gizmos. Penny also gets serious headaches from all the creativity and she's wondering if it might actually be a health hazard. This doesn't get explored terribly much in this book, so I'm wondering if Roberts is saving it for later installments.

The biggest issue I have with this book is I feel like it's trying to do too many things at once, and we're not given enough explanation to understand the stakes. On some level this makes sense because Penny and friends walk in with no information about what exactly is around Jupiter and they're so awed by everything they see they never spend much time stopping to ask questions. This does come back to bite them in the behind later, but let's not spoil that.

As far as I can tell there seem to be roughly four factions in the moons of Jupiter that are struggling for dominance, two alien races from beyond the solar system and two human groups inhabiting space stations. The alien races consist of the Puppeteers and the Conquerors, who are natural enemies. The Puppeteers are a hive-mind, biotech collective that like to assimilate people and make them slaves. The Conquerors are an entirely mechanical race which exterminate all resistance to pave the way for their masters to take over, however their masters died out long ago so the Conquerors simply keep on destroying things. For whatever reason, both of these aliens hate each other and will ignore humans to attack their enemies.

The humans appear to be divided into the Rotors and the Jets. The Rotors live on a space station orbiting Callisto under the control of the automatons, robots who manage the entire lives of their human charges, down to managing the gene pool through selective breeding. The Jets live mostly on the station orbiting Io and are far more individualistic and free, but also are always struggling at the brink of starvation, scrambling for resources, and their leader appears to be little more than a bully. It's also implied that the Rotors and the Jets have significantly different technology systems, which furthers the differences between the two factions who are in constant low-level hostility with each other.

So we have a lot going on at once and I feel like Roberts could have put in just a tad more exposition than he did. I'm actually okay with humans not knowing a lot about either the Puppeteers or the Conquerors. Both were alien races determined to wipe out humanity in one form or another with single-minded obsession so it makes sense humanity never stopped to try to talk to them. But with the Rotors and the Jets it just raises a bunch of questions and I would have liked a little bit of explanation. Why do they hate each other? What do both sides hope to accomplish? How did they colonize Jupiter in the first place? Was there always this division or did it evolve over time? As corny or frustrating as some exposition would have been, I feel like we really needed that to understand what the heck was going on around Jupiter's moons. Throw in two alien races, about whom very little is known, and it gets even more complicated.

I do like Penelope although as I said, I feel like this book was muddled and could have used more exposition. I also get the feeling there are greater things moving which we haven't fully seen yet and we'll only be made aware of in later books. Personally, this one doesn't feel quite as good as the previous book and I think it's because it lacks direction more than anything else.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Today I'm looking at a book I stumbled across at the library but is actually fairly mundane when you get to the end of the story. Overall I think I was rather disappointed with this book and I'm going to try to explain why in my review. This isn't to say that the book wasn't interesting and it had some good themes, but I think that Sloan didn't capitalize on them as much as he could have.

The book follows Clay, a twenty-something graphic web designer who was working for a bagel company in San Francisco before getting laid off by the Great Recession. Desperately seeking some sort of job just so he can pay rent, Clay takes a job as the night clerk at Mr. Penumbra's bookstore, working from ten pm to six am. However, Penumbra's store is rather odd, even for an independent bookstore. There is only a small selection towards the front of the store and it's eclectic at best. A smattering of science-fiction, fantasy, history, romance, and other subjects are available but Penumbra doesn't seem terribly concerned with making his bookstore profitable. The majority of the bookstore is taken up by shelves upon shelves of mysterious books Clay has never seen before. Furthermore none of these books are ever sold. Instead strange individuals come in, a book in hand, and exchange it for another from the mysterious shelves. When Clay finally investigates these books they all appear to be written in gibberish, suggesting something more serious is going on at Penumbra's store.

I was disappointed with this book for a couple of reasons. First, the book has a definite old tech vs new tech theme and I'm not sure Sloan really knows what side of the argument he was trying to come in on. As Clay gets more involved he discovers that there is conflict in the secret society of cryptographers. On the one hand there are the traditionalists who eschew any ''modern'' technology and advocate using only books, pen, and paper. On the other hand are members more willing to incorporate new technology in their quest and believe that computers may be able to break codes that they've been unable to solve for centuries. Plus there's the fact that Clay, a web designer and programmer of some ability, is working in a store that sells physical books. It seems like the book is almost designed for an old tech vs new tech conflict.

The problem is I feel like Sloan introduces this, but doesn't capitalize on it as much as he could. The strongest advocates of old tech are the antagonists in this book, who want to keep information locked up and sealed away, rather than shared with the whole population. While the protagonists, who want to share information with the world, are advocates of new technology. Computers, e-readers, algorithms. Heck, one of them works for Google for crying out loud. (And in my opinion Sloan practically cheerleads for Google through the book, depicting it as a magical place where anything is possible and brilliant people get to work on the most interesting things all the time. I'm not saying that's impossible, but I'm sure the truth is far more complicated than Sloan paints it.)

And the weirdest thing is it's actually old tech that ends up winning the day. Google and their mighty army of computers are unable to break the cipher which has frustrated an army of cryptographers for centuries. But when it comes to finally solving the code, Clay doesn't have to do anything fancy. He uses a combination of a cryptic hint from someone who broke the code before, and some really low tech to finally break the code and reveal it to the world. And this is where I start to think that Sloan doesn't know a lot about cryptography. Because at the end of the book part of the big reveal is that the secret everyone's been trying to solve has been hidden with a simple substitution cipher all this time.

Let me take a moment to talk a little bit about cryptography. I actually had to go to some friends because I know basically nothing about cryptography and I actually am very bad at pattern recognition so solving puzzles is not exactly my forte. But here's what I was able to glean. First, a substitution is a code so basic it's not even really a code anymore. Every letter is substituted for another within the alphabet. So A might be replaced with N. These codes are very simple to make, but they're also incredibly easy to break as well, this is because certain letters show up with different frequencies in the English language. And the longer the message, the more data you get on which substitutions seem the most common.

If you're given a five letter word in a substitution cipher, such as ALZCU, it's basically impossible to crack. This is because there are a large number of five letter words with no repeating letters it could be. The word could be bagel, stock, plain, phone, nymph, hover, barge, rocky, boxed, or any other number of words that fit the pattern. With no more data, we have no way of verifying whether our guess is correct. But as more letters are added, it becomes much easier to crack a substitution cipher and the longer the message the easier it becomes. Once you get to a manuscript, which is what they're trying to decode in the book, I was told it'd be ridiculously easy to crack a substitution cipher.

There's a scene in the book where Clay, with the help of his girlfriend Kat, who works at Google, manages to get the entire manuscript they're trying to decode digitized and gives it to a bunch of Google programmers to crack. And yet Google, with all their mighty technology, fails at trying to crack this Renaissance era code. Granted, they'd have to be told it was a substitution cipher in the first place, but I'd assume that would be one of the first things anyone would try considering the age of the material. With a simple substitution cipher, any reasonably modern computer should have cracked it so quickly as to be instantaneous. Heck, one of my friends said he could break a substitution cipher with just a graphing calculator. Or if he had to, by hand given enough scrap paper.

All of this makes absolutely no sense considering a dedicated group of cryptographers have been trying for centuries to break this code and have presumably dozens if not hundreds of pages of text to work from. Even with cryptographers you'd think they'd have the sense to try as many variations of substitution ciphers as they could and sooner or later they'd stumble on something.To have an entire society of cryptographers and the computing power of Google stumped by a simple substitution? It beggars the imagination.

There's also some super weird stuff which doesn't make me terribly comfortable with this book as well. A lot of it sounds like a hipster programmer's wildest fantasies come true. There's a lot of people with kale products, all the young protagonists rock-climb, everyone uses Apple computers, stuff like that. (Although it could just be a West Coast thing.) There's also a character who's a millionaire and he's a millionaire because he created the very best jiggle-physics program in the world. Like, literally, the book spends far more time than it should on detailing just how great this guy's program making boobs look realistic in videogames is. And then he goes and tries to get a textile museum to do an exhibit about women in sexy sweaters. I felt like Sloan was trying to make it funny, but it just comes across as really darn creepy.

The result is I was rather disappointed in this book. There was a great opportunity with new technology versus old technology and how maybe the new technology gets you there faster, but do you really understand what you've discovered? And also a theme of people who want to keep information restricted and controlled, versus people who want it to be free and accessible to everyone. But Sloan doesn't really capitalize on those themes in the book. The result is a rather bland mystery that seems to get basic ideas of cryptography wrong. Overall I don't think I'd recommend it.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Last American Vampire, by Seth Grahame-Smith

Some years ago I read the very popular novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which got its own film adaptation. This novel purported to reveal the secret life of the Great Emancipator as a highly skilled and courageous vampire-slayer and the secret that the Civil War was secretly a proxy war between two different ideologies of vampires. When I read it I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. Sure it was downright silly and maybe Grahame-Smith didn't get the actual details of Lincoln's life he incorporated in the book quite right, but overall I thought it was a pretty fun read. When I found the sequel available at the library I decided it was worth a look.

This book talks about the life of Henry Sturges, the vampire who trained Lincoln to become a vampire hunter and helped Lincoln considerably through his career. The novel is not done in strict chronological order and jumps around through Henry's life as both a human and then as a vampire after he gets turned by another vampire living in Roanoke colony. The novel ends with Sturges in semi-retirement, having been worn out by some four hundred years of life before a cliff-hanger ending implying that Sturges will join the fray once more.

Unfortunately, I have to say I don't think this book was very good because it suffers very badly from what I frequently call the ''Forrest Gump Effect. As I've said in my reviews of books like the Sharpe series, one of the weaknesses of historical fiction is it tends to get tied up into important events and main characters, such as Richard Sharpe, find themselves at pivotal events in history. This is partly to give the characters something to do and partly because research materials about famous people and events are simply much more available than ordinary day-to-day life. To an extent I'm willing to tolerate this. Sharpe after all has no business being at the Battle of Trafalgar, being an infantryman. But I feel that The Last American Vampire goes beyond an acceptable level and starts getting into downright crazy territory. For example, here's a list of things Henry Sturges does in the novel:

  1. Carves the mysterious ''CRO'' message found at Roanoke colony.
  2. Gets adopted by Powhatan (Wahunsenacawh), paramount chief of the Tsenacommacah, becomes a foster uncle to Pocahontas, and meets the original Jamestown settlers. 
  3. Solves the Jack the Ripper murders with the help of Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle.
  4. Becomes best friends with real-life best friends Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla.
  5. Gets involved in the assassination of Rasputin, who is also a vampire, and brings Tesla along so he can use his microwave death ray to kill Rasputin.
  6. Teams up with Elliot Ness in Chicago during the 20's and becomes the origin of the name ''Untouchables''.
  7. Is sent by FDR in 1937 to assassinate Hitler, not a vampire, and fails. Also, blows up the Hindenburg on the way home.
  8. Is involved in the hunt for the real people responsible for JFK's assassination.
And this is just stuff that's explicitly laid out in the book. There are references to his activities during the American Revolution and during both World Wars, as well as his involvement in the 1919 Paris peace conference, but we do not see those explicitly and they'd probably make the book considerably longer if we did. But it leaves the impression Henry Sturges is basically responsible for running America behind the scenes.

Another issue I have is that there's an attempt to have a vampire super-villain who is trying to bring America down throughout all of its history. Except the way they go about it doesn't make terribly much sense. This cabal is involved in a significant number of Presidential deaths, such as the assassinations of James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy, as well as the early death of Zachary Taylor in 1850. Which seems a frightfully inefficient way of destroying America, especially in the case of McKinley because it placed a far more dynamic and reform-minded individual (my hero Theodore Roosevelt) in the presidency. I just can't see how bumping off a president every other decade or so really accomplishes the goal of taking down America.

It's also implied that this enemy is behind both World Wars and at least part of the Cold War but World War I, which the enemy is explicitly behind more than the other two, had no guarantee of getting the United States involved at all. And I'm not exactly sure what the enemy is trying to accomplish. Sure, villainous monologues explaining their detailed plans are hackneyed and trite, but it at least tells me what the villain's trying to accomplish and why. Even if it's 1. conquer the world because 2. I'll show you, I'll show all of you . With Last American Vampire I never really understand what the villain is trying to accomplish, much less why they are either. I can kind of guess, but it just seems insufficient.

Overall I'd say this book is kind of a disappointing sequel. In many ways it's a very safe sequel providing more of the same stuff we enjoyed before. And while I'm sure there are people who like that a lot, I was kind of was hoping for something a little different. There are some good parts, but between the presence of Henry Sturges at many important historical events and the rather weak villain I can't really recommend this book.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine

Today I'm looking at a book which I actually read years and years ago, Ella Enchanted. Some of you might even remember a movie adaptation from ages and ages ago which received mixed reviews. Now I haven't actually seen the movie but I remember the book itself being pretty interesting. (Although I remember at the time not knowing it was a re-telling of Cinderella and being unreasonably angry when I finally put two and two together.) But going back and listening to it again I have to conclusively say that this is a really good book and I highly recommend it.

In this re-telling of Cinderella, our heroine Ella is cursed by the fairy Lucinda at birth with the ''gift'' of total obedience. Anything which somebody orders Ella to do, she is magically compelled to obey. With concentration Ella can resist momentarily, and anything phrased as a request she can choose to ignore, but ultimately she finds herself unable to resist a direct command. Although annoying if she's told to do something simple like get almonds from the pantry, if someone tells her to do something dangerous like walk off a cliff Ella would actually have to do it.

As a re-telling of Cinderella I really appreciate the work that Levine does in developing the characters beyond the basic archetypes in the original story. There isn't as much development in the book as I'd like with some of the characters, such as Ella's father Sir Peter, but it's an improvement I appreciate. Levine does a very good job of making Ella's step-sisters an odious and greedy pair, and her father a somewhat unethical and rather avaricious merchant. Even if the book is written for kids, there are a lot of elements of characterization that I think adults will appreciate as well.

There are also a lot of really emotional moments in the book, which I think is another example of Levine's writing ability. It's very easy to get mad or frustrated or even enraged at the unfairness of Ella's circumstances in the book. Reading this again I found myself very emotionally invested in Ella's story, even though I knew how it would end. So I think Levine does a very good job of sucking you into the story and making you unable to wait to find out what happens next.

There are some downsides. It's not a terribly long book so the characters of the story don't grow much beyond two dimensions. It's certainly an improvement over the barest suggestion or non-existence of characters in the original story, but I wouldn't say it's complete either. And I would definitely say that the ending of the book feels a little rushed compared to the amount of groundwork Levine puts in to getting to the finale.

Overall I think this is a really good book that families can enjoy. While Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister put the story into a strictly historical context with no magic at all, Ella Enchanted keeps the magic and remains accessible on what I feel to be a wider level. I think if you enjoy fairy tales like I do it's definitely worth a read.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 6, 2017

White Night, by Jim Butcher

Today I'm looking at the ninth book in the Dresden Files series, White Night. This is also the point where I may have run out of the audiobooks the library has available in this series so it'll probably be some time before I get to the next book, Small Favor.

Usual Disclaimer: As I am nine books into this series, it is difficult to talk meaningfully about this book without mentioning at least some plot spoilers. I will endeavor to keep those at a minimum, but some necessary spoilers will be included in the review. Read at your own peril.

This book begins with Harry being called in by now-Sergeant Murphy on a suicide where something doesn't quite add up. With a little investigation Harry is able to conclude that these apparent suicide is a magical murder, in fact one of several incidents happening in Chicago. Someone is targeting female practitioners of magic with almost surgical precision. Some have been found dead, and many more have disappeared, never to be seen again. What's worse, before many of these women were killed they were seen with a tall man in a gray cloak, the symbol of the White Council's Wardens. This has made many in the magical community suspect that the Wardens themselves, including Harry Dresden, are behind these murders making it that much more difficult for Harry to investigate.

What unfolds is a plot of intrigue which includes members of the White Vampire Court and an internal power struggle between the three major houses of the White Court. But more chilling is the prospect that the future of wizards and other magical practitioners might be cut off forever by this unofficial genocide campaign by vampires.

Overall much like the other books in this series, I thought this was pretty good and enjoyed myself immensely listening to it. There's just something weirdly compelling about Dresden as a character despite his various flaws and foibles. Plus characters like his half-brother Thomas, Detective Murphy, Bob the Skull, and Harry's super-dog Mouse make me enjoy the series that much more. I will say in this book, there's more evidence of Harry acting intelligently than I've seen in some of the earlier books so I appreciated that. Granted, Harry still can be kind of an idiot sometimes, and some of the decisions of his apprentice, Molly Carpenter, also leave me rolling my eyes with frustration. I almost feel that magic is an evolutionary compensation for wizards being bloody-minded. But without such behavior there isn't sufficient conflict plot-wise so I guess I shouldn't care as much as I do.

There's also the ongoing sub-plot with Lasciel and it turns out that Harry's had a reason the entire time for not giving up the denarius that contains the majority of Lasciel's spirit. I'm not sure if I agree entirely with the logic because I can't quite see how Harry was following it, even in hindsight. But at least it fits with the larger theme of Harry acting fairly intelligently, which I appreciate.

I also like that this book showed how the war between the White Council and the Red Court has effects on people beyond just the White Council. Sure, they've taken an extreme licking and lost the overwhelming majority of their Wardens, but we haven't seen how this has spilled over into other areas of the magical community. With the attack on non-Council wizards, we and Harry begin to see the collateral damage of the war and why working to protect not just the Council but everyone is important.

As I've said before and I'll probably say again, I enjoy this series quite a bit. Harry's definitely a bit of an idiot, but a lovable idiot as far as I'm concerned. It does make me wonder if I should go back and look at the Hollows series again and if Rachel gets any better at her job as well.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Books of the South, by Glen Cook

Some of you may remember years and years ago when I reviewed a book called The Chronicles of the Black Company. This was a book that was pitched to me as kind of like Lord of the Rings but told from the bad guys' side, which I thought would be pretty interesting. If you remember my review, or have just checked that helpful link, you may also recall that while I liked the characters and the setting I had some issues with Cook's writing and a huge problem with Cook telling instead of showing. So while there were parts I enjoyed, it's a little understandable that I was hesitant to come back to the series.

Returning to the series some two and a half or three years later does come with downsides, such as forgetting certain specific details in the narrative. I remembered the broader, important details, but I was unfortunately a little hazy on some other things. So I did have to spend some time reorienting myself, but once I had my feet under me I was happy to be tagging along with Croaker, Lady, Goblin, One-eye and the rest of the gang.

This is actually an anthology of three books, although I think the anthology title is a misnomer because the last book, The Silver Spike, takes place entirely in the north and exists almost independent of the other books so it's a little weird. The first two books follow the Black Company as it heads south, on Croaker's mission to return to the city of Khatovar. Along the way the handful of survivors start rebuilding the Black Company and discovering details about the Company's history. Much to Croaker's frustration, details about Khatovar and the very early days of the Company are frustratingly scarce.

As they head south, the Black Company discovers their way is blocked by mysterious figures known as the Shadowmasters, who seem to have an existing grudge against the Black Company. If they wish to get to Khatovar, the Black Company will have to help the inhabitants of Taglios drive off the Shadowmasters once and for all.

The Silver Spike by contrast deals with characters such as Raven, Silent, and Darling, who were associated with the Company but went their own ways. This book takes place mostly in the north where the Lady's old empire is still running along, despite her absence. The book focuses on the silver spike in which much of the Dominator's power was sealed and then placed within a tree to hopefully keep it sealed for all eternity. Unfortunately some people get the bright idea to steal the spike and a race among every two-bit wizard in the northlands who wants to get their hands on the spike, along with people who want to keep the Dominator's power from being unleashed, turns into a major war. After the plot of the Company in the south gets left at a cliff-hanger, it's entertaining but a little weird to jump back north and see what's going on elsewhere.

What I will say about this book is Cook's writing has definitely improved. I felt like the narrative flowed a lot better and it was easier for me to get invested in the story than it was for me in the first anthology. I was actually really curious about what the big mystery surrounding Khatovar was and started putting the clues together to come to the same conclusion Lady did, maybe only a little ahead of her. There were some plot twists that were a little odd and some things I didn't fully understand, but I think overall these books were an improvement.

Other than that? There's not a lot I can say. These books were good, and I liked them. Cook does a really good job of making his universe realistic while also incorporating fantasy elements and lots of high magic. I can definitely see, especially with Taglios, where he's borrowing from real-life to create cultures for his world, but plenty of authors do that so I'm hardly critiquing him for that.

Cook has definitely left me curious about what will happen to the Black Company and if they'll ever reach Khatovar and discover their past. Hopefully it'll be less than three years before I pick up the next anthology in the series. If you like fantasy, adventure, and something a little different then this is definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar