Monday, November 18, 2019

Dan Reviews Books, Part 3

 Part 1 and Part 2

Who Fears Death and Binti, Nnedi Okorafor

I am pairing these books together because both of them commit the same sin that makes me unlikely to recommend them to folks: overwhelming protagonist-centered morality in two terrible varieties.

Binti has the "character who is responsible for murdering dozens of people in a terrorist attack is now best friends with the main character, who was present during the attack, mind you, and no permanent consequences happen despite there being over a hundred people dead".

Who Fears Death has the "in order to defeat the murderous rapist warlord villain, the main character unleashes a spell that...murders the entire male population of a city-state and impregnates all the women, but she's still totally a savior figure guys please don't think about the horrific consequences of what she just did" thing going on.

The two combined really put me off reading more of Okorafor's stuff in the future.

Autonomous, Annalee Newitz

Also in the category of "wow the morality here is kinda fucked up because the consequences get sidelined", we have Autonomous. To whit: the main antagonist is a man who sees absolutely nothing wrong with murdering and torturing people over copyright infringement. The majority of his arc is about his sexual desire for his robot companion. Fair and fine. Then he gets a happy ending and it really doesn't seem like one of those "evil goes unpunished, the world is unfair and horrible" deals. All the heinous shit he does over the course of the book is effectively dropped and ignored. He gets to go to Mars and fuck his robot.

Otherwise: prose certainly could use more polish, the ideas are great for Mothership theft, and the character with the clearest arc and the most action in solving the conflict of the story isn't the main character, but should have been, least of all for being an autonomous android. You know, like what the book is titled after.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickenson 

This is a book about the brutal grinding machinery of empire and it is exactly as soul-crushing as that entails.I love it. I love how a quarter of the way through I realized that the main character was in over her head and didn't realize it. It's properly tragic. Properly terrifying, too: the Masquerade doesn't need superweapons, they make do just fine with paper money and guns, and alchemy and eugenics and the total erasure of responsibility.

It's haunting. Super high recommendation.

Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

DNF at pg 58/572

Now, I might return to this in the future. Possibly. But a dry opening wasn't cutting it for me at the time and I would like to take the time to say that hard sci-fi should be eminently weird, on the grounds that reality is weird. This book is not weird. I hunger for the novel.

The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

A short, evocative story of a girl who grows up constantly under the threat of doppelgangers showing up and trying to kill her any time she bleeds. Overall quite strong over its 60-some pages, save one little segment that sort-of-but-not-quite-it's-probably-inaccurate gives a possible explanation near the end. Most of the quite strong parts come from the "there is no explanation this is just how things are and it is spooky" aspect, so even a probably-wrong explanation is a momentary stumble.

Please Pass the Guilt, Rex Stout

My first (well, not counting the radio serial I have been listening to) foray into my father's favorite detective series. A nifty little learning experience. I think I am much more favorably-inclined towards detective potboilers over fantasy or sci-fi - they're a comfortable shape you can settle into that presents a detective with a gimmick and a clever puzzle (this one was "a bomb in an office goes off and kills a man...but not the man whose office it was. Who even was the target?") to mull over. I've not got the skills to pick out all the clues and tie them together on my own, so sometimes it felt like logic was being stretched, but overall an enjoyable romp.

Abhorsen, Garth Nix

As with the preceding two installments, I love it. Everything said there applies here. It wraps up Lirael nicely, and is a wonderful showcase of what you can do when breaking from Generic Fantasy Aesthetic. My comparison to FMA continues apace with one sequence in particular even getting the soundtrack thrown in, just for being a fullblown Fullmetal Alchemist Moment (ie: the protagonists have executed a clever plan that you the reader were not aware of, usually involving the drawing together of disparate characters)

The only weak points of note are the villains, who are dreadfully one-dimensional, and the fact that the moment of greatest emotional catharsis is not the actual end of the book and we've still got nearly fifty pages left.

The Interface Series, 9Mother9Horse9Eyes9

This is some straight up outsider art here. Top-tier horror bearing no resemblance to anything but itself (and the added bonus of having an initial dissemination that was creepy-in-itself and a solid Fredrik Knudsen video on it), and then it does that thing that most but not all internet horror series do, which is disappear right up its own asshole. It reminds me of House of Leaves to that extent - frontloaded with scary shit that' sticks with you and ending the show with some sort of wonky journey of self-discovery and addiction recovery. Don't get me wrong, this thing is brutal and powerful with the whole "alcoholism will fuck you up" thing but I was here for enigmatic fragmentary bits of MKULTRA messing around with flesh interfaces. That's where the power is. The  metafictional nonsense that leaks in is inexcusable.

Why the author decided to go with a publisher instead of just hiring an editor and self-publishing is a question that baffles me to no end. The revised version has been delayed long enough with no news of substance that I consider it dead in the water. A shame.

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov

In progress, pg 218/335

This is a very dense book. It's a very Russian book. It is a very good book. I can't recall any book in recent memory that had this sort of mastery of language and comedic timing, but here we are. If you can settle into the groove it bursts to life and then doesn't stop. It overflows, it sings, it swings. And not just with funny wordplay and irony, but actual slapstick and physical comedy. It's got everything you'd want in a farce about Satan bringing chaos to Moscow.

The background of the book itself is also worth some special note: it wasn't published until 26 years after Bulgakov's death, and even then in a censored version that was not repaired until even later The book has outlived its creator and the state that tried to destroy it.

Go read books that authoritarians want to burn, is what I am saying.


  1. No I won't apologize for the spoilers in the first entry - those books are flat-up unpleasant because of those features and to not mention them would be poor form of me.

    1. Yeah,as a fan of amoral protagonists--such as one Cuegal from Dying Earth-- even I balk at the sheer audacity of those actions.

  2. I read the interface series early this year. I agree with you. I wanted more weird sci fi in the back half, not less. I feel like the Vietnam stuff was cool but then just stopped also.

    1. Cold War conspiracy weird science going horribly wrong is an evergreen genre.

  3. The Master and Margerita is an absolute peach. Read that just before a trip to Moscow, and got to hang out with Mephisto in a Russian park. Lucky me!

    I didn't realise you reviewed fiction, this is fantastic. Have you had a look at the literary tribute to David Cronenburg, **The New Flesh**? Seems like it might be up your alley, it also features a story by OSR/RPG editor extraordinaire Fiona Geist. Not read it yet but it's on order.

  4. we gotta do some more book reviews. i should do more book reviews, books is like the only thing i do. spoilers therein

    okorafor: i read like the first two chapters of Who Fears Death and was like, ah, this seems like a lot of rape and genital mutilation for young adult fantasy. pass

    dickinson: i thought The Traitor Baru Cormorant was comedically bad, like to the degree where i would recommend it as a joke. i feel like it was missing the secret final chapter where the evil empire guys are like " you killed her immediately right?". "yeah of course dude, we're not going to promote some random teen from a race that we consider inferior to a position of immense power overnight, that was obviously a bullshit line and it's hilarious she believed it even for a second". also there was a long vaguely libertarian rant in there about the evils of fiat currency which i thought was very funny. and again, way too much rape and genital mutilation for young adult fantasy

    robinson: boring, sorry. didn't actually hate it but it's a book for engineers

    stout: i am reading all the nero wolfe books at the moment and it's the best shit i have read in years. absolutely perfect character dynamics, although it loses a few points for archie being racist. pfui

    bulgakov: exactly as much of a classic as everyone says it is

    1. I wouldn't classify TBC as young adult. Who Fears Death, yes, though the content doesn't become a problem until the ending throws all sense out the window.

      I was okay with the ending of TBC by approaching it as "Baru is a savant with economic strategy but an idiot in all other respects". Knowing that she is far beyond help by even the 1/4 mark and clearly just a throw-away puppet makes everything fit for me. That secret chapter was there in implication, at least for me.

      Archie's attitudes towards several large demographics could use a healthy bit of self-reflection, but I agree wholeheartedly on the dynamic between the two. It's great.