Read Recently — April 2017 — The Rest

The Clown Service by Guy Adams

Adams wrote the interesting but flawed Heaven’s Gate trilogy (still not that Heaven’s Gate). This is a whole different work set in a different world, and set, as sadly too few series have turned out to be, in the cusp between Urban Fantasy and Spy Thriller. Most of those that are, are set in Britain, and this is no exception.

Toby Greene works for British Intelligence, and unfortunately he’s an incompetent. Not a humourous incompetent, but the kind who makes headaches for his section chief, as well as getting himself injured in the Middle East. He is reassigned to Section 37, his chief noting, “If the security service is the Circus, then Section 37 is where we keep the clowns.” 37, under the leadership of one August Shining, protects Britain from “preternatural terrorism”–that is, from supernatural threats. It doesn’t help that the section, now that Toby has joined, has two full-time employees, the rest being contractors that Shining hires and pays in various ways–including an Armenian refugee girl who lives upstairs from Shining’s flat (home to the Section) and provides some security for the older man.

Working Intelligence can be boring, and Section 37 has more potential for boredom than most, but fortunately(?) for Toby, an old foe is about to reactivate: a Russian agent long thought dead but actually surprisingly hard to kill, is about to bring terror to London as the dead rise. Not all the dead, of course, only those who were prepared when the Russian was last in London in the 60s, but those who rise are terribly hard to put down again. Only Section 37 can save the day . . . but at what cost?

As the book starts, this seems likely to be comedic, even though darkly comic (Toby’s section chief muses that he might make Toby no longer his problem by beating him to death) but it quickly becomes more serious, though I would never call it grim or horrific. Adams writes a solid spy adventure, more in line with the bureaucratic mode than the action/superspy mode, and goes in some unexpected directions. All things considered, I’d say this one is recommended, though with one caveat: while the story ends solidly, a major character’s fate is left unexplained and that potential sequel hook could also be seen as a cliffhanger, which I know bothers some people.

Pacific: silicon chips and surfboards, coral reefs and atom bombs, brutal dictators and fading empires by Simon Winchester

Having covered the Atlantic, Winchester turns his attention to the Pacific, though in this case specifically the modern Pacific, starting in 1950 and moving forward (though not without the action look to the past). The first chapter is American Nuclear testing; the second is the making of the first Japanese transistor radios, and what they came to mean for Japan, chapter three is about the rise of surfing, and so on.

Winchester does his usual excellent, entertaining job and I recommend this one highly.


Read Recently — April 2017 — Pratchett

The Fifth Elephant: a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

There is a great deal of tension among the dwarfs of one of the largest dwarf cities on the Disc (which city, Commander Vimes of the City Watch is surprised to learn, is Ankh-Morpork due to the large number of dwarfs who have immigrated to it). This tension is related to politics, which has to do with the largest dwarf community in the world, the dwarfs under the country (actually more of a proto-country; the various individual principalities, dukedoms and baronies that make it up are more like individual countries of their own and the dwarfs and trolls are also their own countries, albeit in the case of the dwarfs a country that claims none of the surface) of Uberwald, where the Low King of the Dwarfs is about to be crowned (dwarfs would hardly have a high king, now would they?). As there is much of value to be mined beneath Uberwald, the crowning of the Low King is an event that Ankh-Morkpork can hardly miss, diplomatically speaking.

Lord Vetinari must send a diplomatic representative. Not only must the city sign a good deal with the dwarfs, but there is also the importance of the clacks (telegraph) towers, which have begun to encroach on Uberwald and which some Uberwaldians are reacting violently to. The importance of the clacks towers for trade makes them important to Ankh-Morpork. However, most of Uberwald could be described as a lawless wilderness (even the civilized parts); they have barely heard of the concept of policemen. Therefor, Vetinari could hardly send the Commander of the City Watch as his representative; instead, he’ll send the Duke of Ankh. It’s a coincidence that they’re the same person.

As Vimes prepares to practise his usual strain of blunt diplomacy, Carrot is left in charge of the City Watch. Unfortunately, he becomes . . . distracted when an old friend of Angua shows up and convinces her to leave the city with him, due to trouble with the werewolves of Uberwald (Angua’s family, in fact). Carrot sets out in pursuit, leaving Sergeant Colon in command. It may be the biggest mistake he ever makes.

I haven’t even touched on half the plot Pratchett has woven here; as usual with the Guards books its a meditation on civilization and what it means, and what its opposite is, wrapped in a funny book about fantasy tropes. One other thing it is, of course, is highly recommended.

I Shall Wear Midnight: a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

A Tiffany Aching story.

For some reason, I’ve become less fond of the Tiffany Aching Saga as she aged and became an adult. Perhaps it’s because we already have the three (four) witches series and Pratchett only has so much to say with witch characters? Perhaps it’s just me. Anyway, this one has Tiffany facing off against a spirit called the Cunning Man, which inflames hatred of witches in the local people. There is a subplot involving the local baron getting married, and since Tiffany rescued him from the Elves when they were younger a lot of people assumed that they would grow up to be more than friends, and they didn’t.

All things considered, it’s a good story and a fine example of its kind, but it feels to me like there’s nothing new here for Tiffany which, as you might recall, was my problem with The Shepherd’s Crown, the next Tiffany book and also the last Pratchett book ever. But still, it is a good book, and therefore recommended.

Read Recently — April 2017 — Cops and Robbers

A Murder of Mages: a novel of the Maradaine Constbulary by Marshall Ryan Maresca

Maradaine is a large, cosmopolitan city in the country of Druthal. Satrine “Tricky” Rainey grew up poor on the streets of South Maradaine but married well, to a constable, and now could be taken for a northern lady with, certainly, no knowledge of the streets. Unfortunately, her husband was crippled in an accident — in the line of duty — and now can’t even take care of himself, never mind her and their two daughters. The only work Satrine has been offered that she’d care to take is working for the constabulary — as a clerk, the wages for which are insufficient to keep the family fed and housed.

But, in addition to her time on the streets, Satrine learned a lot more tricks when she was recruited into Druth Intelligence. She forges a letter of introduction that gets her a job as an Insepctor, Third Class — enough to live on. She is teamed up with Minox “Jinx” Welling, a brilliant detective, most of whose partners have suffered various ills (hence the nickname). This is probably related to the fact that Minox is a mage–most mages in Maradaine are “circled”, that is gathered into a group with several other mages of similar inclinations. Circles provide training and protection to the mages who belong to them, among other things refusing to cooperate with the constabulary (they also provide enemies — other circles that your circle doesn’t get along with). Minox is uncircled, and thus self-trained. However, his family are all into civil service: constables, fire-fighters, river patrol, and the like. Minox closes cases, so he’s an Inspector. He and Satrine seem to get along well, which is good: someone has started murdering circled mages, and it will take all of both their skills to get to the bottom of it. And that’s in addition to the lie that got Satrine her job in the first place. Will she get caught? What will happen if she does?

Once upon a time it was assumed that there could not be fantasy/science-fiction mysteries, because magic and high-tech would make it too easy for the writer to get away with ‘cheating’. Many have proven that wrong since then, though I have a hard time thinking of any other police procedurals set in secondary worlds. Maresca has done a good job setting up the police culture of Maradaine: there are enough similarities to how things are done in modern North America to make the occasional diffference really slap you in the face when he brings them up.

Solid work, and Highly Recommended.

The Redeemers: a Quinn Colson Novel by Ace Atkins

Between the last book and this one, Tibbehah County held an election and voted Quinn Colson out as Sheriff. The new Sheriff, Rusty Wise, is an unknown quality, but Johnny Stagg, the Tibbehah Kingpin of crime, thinks that he might be a more reasonable man than Quinn. On New Year’s Eve, however, just before the transition of power, someone steals the safe out of the back room of a rich mill owner. Using a backhoe. They just remove the whole room.

That’s spectacular enough, but they not only get away with a load of money, jewelry, and such, but they unknowingly take away a bunch of ledgers that could really change things in Tibbehah. The mill owner did business with Johnny Stagg, and he had records of a lot of the corruption in the county. The feds are closing in, and Quinn may be off duty but that doesn’t mean he won’t get involved. Stagg is going to be desperate, and dangerous.

One of my main complaints about this series is that important stuff, like Quinn being voted out, often happens between stories. The stuff that happens in this story is important, what with Stagg being on the ropes and all, but that doesn’t mean that an interesting and important story couldn’t be set around the election, either. Anyway, the increasingly desperate robbery (originally it was a conspiracy between two friends upset at the mill owner; then they have to call in a professional to crack the safe; the pro brings his apprentice; then it turns out they can’t crack the safe; then a deputy sheriff shows up–it just goes on and on with increasing frustration, complicated by basic stupidity) has a nice southern gothic feel to it and several issues in the series are at long last resolved. If, for some reason, you wanted out, the end of this volume would make a good jumping-off point. Me, I’ma hang around Tibbehah a while.

Highly recommended. However, I do not recommend starting the series here. While you should be able to follow most of what happens, I believe you will lack important context that is best supplied by starting from The Ranger.

Read Recently — March 2017 — Lovecraft, yet again

In The Mountains of Madness: the life and extraordinary afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft by W. Scott Poole

There are already three biographies of H. P. Lovecraft out there that I know about: Frank Belknap Long’s Dreamer on the Nightside, Sprague deCamp’s phonebook-thick book, and Joshi’s version (both of the latter, so far as I remember, titled with the subject’s name). All three agree on the basic events and differ only in interpretation of some of them (Long, unlike the other two, actually knew Lovecraft). Since Lovecraft’s life was not long, pretty much all that can be said about the events has got to have been said, so anyone writing a new biography would have to bring some new element to the fray.

While Poole does look at Lovecraft’s life, and also analyses his texts (everybody does that) he also looks at H. P. Lovecraft the phenomenon, examining the effects Lovecraft and his work have had on those who came after him: people such as filmmakers Stuart Gordon and John Carpenter, writers such as Ramsay Campbell and Stephen King, and even Joshi himself. He also looks at the art produced in reaction to Lovecraft.

In terms of Lovecraft’s life, Poole does something that few others have been willing to try: he defends Lovecraft’s Mother from the charges that she screwed up her son’s life, something pretty much taken for granted by other biographers. And in looking at Lovecraft’s own art, he argues interestingly that with “The Picture In The House” Lovecraft introduced “the cabin in the woods”, a uniquely American horror element.

In dealing with non-Lovecraft elements he comes off less well, though. He doesn’t seem to get, for example, Conan; in writing about the comic-book character Dr. Fate he shows that he doesn’t understand the character nor know his history; in writing about Stephen King he makes it plain he doesn’t get King either (he discusses King’s explicitly Lovecraftian short fiction and the novel Revival, but doesn’t even twitch an eyebrow in the direction of It (there are good reasons to dislike It–I, for example, regard it as King’s worst novel–but for all its failures it still has an explicitly Lovecraftian theme) and doesn’t even seem aware of From a Buick 8, which I argue is King’s most Lovecraftian novel, though of course you have to read it to realise that and if you just superficially scan King’s oeuvre you would easily miss that element of it), and in discussing Joshi and the WFA award imbroglio he makes it plain he doesn’t understand any of what happened.

The result of all this is a fascinating book, right enough, but fascinating as much for its failures as its successes and its audacious ideas. It is well-written and well-edited, which counts for a lot. Recommended for Lovecraft fans, who will find a lot to chew over here, some of it savoury and some of it bitter. Mildly recommended for general horror fans, who probably find it less fascinating. There isn’t much here for the general reader.

Read Recently — March 2017 — Lagoon

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

When aliens invade, whether war-like or peaceful, they usually descend over one or more of the big cities of the western world, or Tokyo. There are often sound reasons for this: it’s easier to get filming permits locally, and/or do up a mock-up of or have Toronto stand in for New York because everyone knows what New York looks like. Aliens who were looking for cities would certainly have an easier time finding New York or Tokyo (or Mexico City, but for some reason we rarely talk about that). But what if the aliens were looking for something else? What if they landed, not in America, but in Lagos, Nigeria?

Okorafor’s aliens are not, as one might expect from her other work, typical e-ts. They are shape-shifters, seemingly made up of small particles like ball-bearings. They like the water, which is why they land in the lagoon outside of Lagos (which means, we are told, Lagoon). They change the creatures and the people around them. Of course, people being people, they also change themselves, and not always for the better.

And then, in the middle of this nicely science-fictional scenario, Okorafor throws in a haunted road, and the question of just who — or what — is telling us the story. Things get more confusing from there.

Okorafor is a difficult, but rewarding, writer. Based on a small sample (two books) I’d say this is typical of her work, which means it takes time to read and takes a lot out of you, but is worth it in the end. Highly recommended, but I would include trigger warnings for domestic abuse.

Read Recently — March 2017 — The Broken Crown

The Broken Crown: the Sun Sword book one by Michelle West

Trigger warnings for rape.

This is the sequel series to the Sacred Hunt duology.

After a prologue in which demon-lord Isladar takes a young healer from Averalaan to the Shining Court in the far north, where she can be raped and impregnated by the Dark God (only a healer could possibly carry such a child to term), we spend most of the rest of the book in the Dominion of Annagar, far to the south of the Empire of Essalieyan, where most of the action of the previous books occurred. Annagar is a very different place from Essalieyan; for one thing they worship The Lord of the Day and the Lady of Night, two gods who, as far as can be determined in the north, do not really exist. There is a Lord of the Night, though, and for a long time in the past he ruled Annagar, but they overthrew him and now are firmly opposed to him, and his demons.

The overthrowing involved the Clan Leonne, and the Sun Sword which they — and only they — wield. It was a gift from the Lord of Day (who, you may remember, does not really exist). The Sun Sword, an excellent weapon against demons, demonstrably does exist and is effective. It also consumes in fire anyone who is not a member of clan Leonne who draws it, at least as long as Leonne exists) and led to Leonne ruling the Dominion.

Sendari par di’Marano is a younger son of a noble family of Annagar. For years he was happily married but his wife died and now he is driven by the desire for power. Not political power, at least not at first: Sendari is a mage, but put off taking the dangerous training and testing at the request of his late wife. Now that she is no longer around, he is free to go ahead. Teresa di’Marano is Sendari’s sister; she also loved his wife and in her absence Teresa runs his harem and raises his daughter, Diora. Teresa is considered the epitome of Annagaran womanhood, always proper and polite. She is the ideal person to raise Diora, who will be a rare beauty, both because she can train Diora into a young woman who will bring honour to her father and her clan, but also because, like Diora, Teresa is bardically gifted and can teach her niece how to use the powers that her voice will give her.

As Diora grows up, she attracts the attention of Illara kai di’Leonne, the heir to the Dominion. She marries him and joins his harem; his wives become her wives and, honestly, mean more to her than he does. But then, she sees much more of them than she does of him.

Trouble ensues when Sendari joins Cortano de’Alexes, leader of the Dominion’s mages, and Sendari’s old friend Alesso par di’Marente, General of the Dominion’s armies, in a planned treason against the Leonnes. The shining Court, personified by Isladar again, wants the Dominion to attack Essalieyen for the Lord of Night. Since the Leonnes won’t do that, they must go and Alesso would be willing to turn the Sun Sword against the north, rather than the demons. The Leonne guards are subborned and the Leonnes are killed with their families; Diora is returned to her father’s harem. Her preservation is partly his price for his part in the treason, and partly because she is seen as a prize to be awarded to cement alliances within the Dominion. There is, however, something they have forgotten: Diora is no mere prize to be handed out for good behaviour. She’s a woman with a powerful will of her own, and the conspirators killed her new family, who she loved more than almost anyone. She will have revenge.

This is a re-read. When these books started coming out I passed them by; I had been following West’s earlier books, under the name Michelle Sagara, and hadn’t realised this was the same person. By sheer luck I stumbled across an article in a literary magazine that enlightened me and i started grabbing books to make up for lost time. This is an excellent high fantasy book, with strong characters who face powerful opposition. West’s writing is always excellent, and this is some of her best.

Highly recommended.

Read Recently — February 2017 –The Non-fiction

The Deadly Sisterhood: a story of women, power and intrigue in the Italian Renaissance by Leonie Frieda

Caterina Sforza was awesome. To be honest, that was the main thing I took away from this book. Frieda opens the book (after, of course, several pages of family trees, maps, and an introduction that explains a bit of how we arrived at these events) with Sforza’s defeat of a group of rebels who killed her husband and briefly held her in the city of Forli, where she was duchess. She out-maneuvered them until reinforcements from her family arrived and the rebels had to flee.

Sforza is of course just one of the renaissance women chronicled here, and not all of them are as awesome as she was. Lucrezia Borgia certainly was, though if Frieda is to be believed she was much calumnied. The Borgias in general were, though Cesare was very nearly as bad as his reputation.

Of course, you can’t write about a society’s women only, and the men do get their share of the limelight, even if the main focus is the women and the men are most important when they impact those same women. Overall, though, this is an interesting book about an odd period of European history, seemingly well-researched and, to me at least, eye-opening. There is the occasional error of proof-reading, or possible proofreading anyway (a word maybe missing; maybe just esoteric sentence structure) but nothing major that would affect comprehension.

Highly recommended.

Gold Diggers: striking it rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray

The late 19th century was a period of get-rich-quick schemes, and many involved finding mineral wealth around the little-explored edges of North America. One group of men after another moved from location to location, digging or panninng or mining or making a more reliable fortune providing goods or services to the first group.

The Klondike gold rush, though set in Canada, attracted a lot of Americans, including the 21-year-old Jack London, who failed to find gold but did find the subject to write about that would make him famous and probably richer than the gold would have. He also caught scurvy.

The towns that the gold-diggers built, like those that scattered the American southwest in the earlier parts of the 19th century, were built more on dreams than solid municipal planning. As soon as the next big find occurred elsewhere, everyone cleared out and there were rarely any permanent buildings to leave behind. There was more danger in the Klondike of frostbite, scurvy or dysentry than claim-jumpers or other violence, in no small part thanks to legendary Mountie Sam Steele, who patrolled the area.

Again, this is an interesting read about a part of Canadian history that I rarely thought about in any detail. According to a sticker on the cover of the edition I bought, it was adapted for TV at some point. Well-researched, entertainingly-written, well-edited, and Highly Recommended.