Saturday, August 29, 2020

Dan Reviews Books, Part 5

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, the previously cursed Part 4

Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh

A pleasant little novella, breezy to read and enjoyable throughout. The prose is both economic and vivid, the characters are well-sketched for the limited amount of space provided, and there is no chaff to weigh down the flow of events one into the other. My gut feeling of "this feels like fanfiction" - in terms of subject matter and presentation - turned out to be backed up by the acknowledgements in the back, and I will praise the story for that, as the change in style and content from typical far was both enjoyable and welcome.

The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal

DNF at 2%

I feel cruel dropping it after ten pages - I had been looking forward to this one. But, the prose was dry as cardboard, and after those ten pages I had my fill of dull sentences and lifeless dialogue.

Strangest of All (ed. Julie Novakova)

A free ebook of short stories of alien life, put out in conjunction with the European Astrobiology Institute. The aliens within are exotic and excellent fuel for your own inspiration, and the stories themselves are overall of very solid quality. In particular I enjoyed The Island by Peter Watts, War Ice, Egg, Universe by G. David Nordley, and Into the Blue Abyss by Geoffrey Landis, all of which are extremely novel in concept, engaging in execution and put the dunk on a whole lot of other sci-fi.

But, Still, I Smile by D.A. Xiaolin Spires left a bad taste in my mouth (a poor turn for the penultimate story), though this was because the story focused on a character whose defining characteristic was a desire to have children, an inability to do so, and unwillingness to just adopt like a sensible person. For real. Just adopt. Fuck's sake. This makes me more frustrated than it ought but the idea that an adopted child somehow "doesn't count" just because your zygotes weren't involved is reprehensible.

Gulliver of Mars, Edwin Lester Arnold

DNF, 33%

A predecessor to A Princess of Mars, written in those halcyon days when books didn't need to contain plots or characters. Absolutely nothing has happened thus far, and I am certain that nothing is going to happen in the 66% to follow. A few moments worth remembering happen, mostly relegated to the sight of using an ancient theological text as an elaborate mousetrap and a moment (sadly undone soon after) where a character looked to have smashed most of the typical trappings of 1905 gender roles. It doesn't last. 1905 asserts itself everywhere you think it might. 1905 is a dick.

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This is a story about a utopian all-woman civilization on top of a high plateau, and how this utopia interacts with the main characters - a trio of collegiate men gallivanting around on an expedition (They're idiots).
  • One is an aggressive chauvinist who is five seconds away from committing an assault at any given moment.
  • One is a simpering ninny who goes misty eyed at his image of idealized gentle femininity.
  • One is the narrator, who has no personality and rambles on about civilization from a position of quote-unquote neutrality.
It's been 105 years since this was published and nothing has changed. Five minutes on Reddit and you could find all three of these chuckleheads. Likely arguing with each other in the same thread.
The book is generally readable, certainly much more than a lot of the other works of a similar time frame that I have read and much closer to modern sensibilities of pace and paragraph. However, at about the 60% point (when the initial conceit has worn a good niche for itself), it ran out of steam and what remained was skimmed through. It's the issue with utopias: they don't lend themselves much to long stays, as you'll find the supports are rather thin.

Alas, 1915 rears its head eventually. To be expected. The usual suspects are all lined up: casual dismissal of peoples who aren't white, complete no-sell on same-sex relationships, the "this sounds a lot like eugenics" bits, the usage of motherhood as the ironclad, no-alternatives ideal of the all-women society. The last century has proven Gilman to be prescient in some respects, but has roughened the edges considerably.

But hey. Public domain. 

Jingo, Terry Pratchett


I was actually a little worried going back to this one. How well would it hold up, this book about a pastiche of the Euro-American world butting heads with a pastiche of the Middle East? The Ankh-Morpork city watch are cops, can't forget that either.

But then I got to the part where Vimes realizes why the symbol of the Watch is not a sword, and why it should never be a sword, and those worries lifted.

It would be written differently were it written in 2020, but what wouldn't?

Galactic Derelict, Andre Alice Norton 

A short book that just doesn't let up and won't let you down. There's always something happening, no time for filler or dilly-dallying. The characters aren't anything to write home about (in truth, they are hardly discernible) but points are given for having a non-white protagonist (an Apache rancher) in a novel from '59. Extra points for the fact that he is just some guy and the story addresses, at least in some part, that being just some Apache guy in America in the 50s is not a particularly welcoming experience.

I didn't find out until after reading that this was the second book in a longer series, though a rudimentary. Events and characters from the first book are mentioned and appear, but I felt it was actually better this way - establishing that the setting is bigger than I think and has pieces moving outside of my view. I like that.

You will note that I have not included much description of the plot. This is because the ride is much better when you don't know the turns it's going to make.

Also did you know that she wrote the very first D&D novel? She did. Baller.

Heretics of Dune, Frank Herbert

Reread, 50 pages

What the shit is this book. High school me what the fuck were you thinking.

On paper, it's a fantastic setup. The God-Emperor died, human civilization shattered into a zillion pieces, and now all manner of new and strange peoples and cultures from the far reaches of space are returning to the roost to upset the existing factional order. If you read the brief summaries of all the weird factions (which are mostly the old ones, alas), it's cool. This is the part that's cool.

In practice, it is complete gibberish. Herbert has managed to create a universe that operates on a purely alien logic, which seems to . There's a lot of talking about plots and plans and schemes and strategies, and it's all the sort of navel-gazing that would be soundly defeated by literally anyone taking an actual action or applying a single nanosecond of skepticism.

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, The Chinese Bell Murders, Robert Van Gulik

Another pull from my father's detective novels, and a curious one indeed. I read the first one some time ago and have not finished the second one, but if there is a lesson to be had with detective potboilers it is that you know what you are getting into.

There's a whole lot of room for commentary on the scenario of a Dutch diplomat translating / adapting centuries-old  Chinese detective stories and then adding his own material, and that is a space that I do not possess the experience or knowledge base to adequately address.

I appreciate the afterwards in which Van Gulik explains what sources he is adapting, what changes or additions he has made, and the reasoning behind some of the plot elements at play, and it appears that his attempt is a good faith effort to remain true to the spirit of the source material.

As for the stories themselves, I'm mixed. On the one hand, Chinese detective novels of the type he is emulating typically present the detective with three overlapping, but unconnected, cases at once, which I think is a good way of keeping things fresh. They move along at a nice clip, especially when you get all three plots rolling and new information and developments on one overlap with the conclusion of another. In this aspect, they are quite enjoyable. There's less wheel-spinning than in the Wolfe books I read, a more sensible progression of solving the case.

On the other hand there is a certain...tension, in these stories. Not of the central mysteries, but of the central character. In them, we see Judge Dee deal with all manner of investigations - murder, rape, conspiracy, embezzling, fraud and deceit - and in the tribunal chamber he has a certain way of talking down to the accused - blunt, accusatory, the angry thundering voice of a vengeful authoritarian god - but he's real a piece of shit himself.

Dee is a man whose primary issue with torture is the amount of paperwork that it causes him. One of the criminals even calls him on this, saying that no matter how much he protests his innocence, the court will find some crime to pin on him and torture him until he confesses (the tribunal can't sentence without a confession under this system). Nothing comes of it, though. Dee will purchase human beings with alarming casualness (EDIT: he did end up purchasing their freedom but to everyone concerned it looked like he was out for more concubines, which is not grand). He has no real self beyond his position as magistrate. Which is in line with a lot of other detectives, but his other traits make him go a bit beyond folks like Wolfe.

His merry band of lieutenants all carry significantly more character, if they are archetypal - the old one, the big one, the crafty one, etc. I like them. It's simple chemistry, but chemistry all the same.

Can we please get a detective who isn't a gargantuan shit to women that would be great.


  1. For real, what the hell Frank?

    1. Honestly, I think trying to keep up with the sheer scale of the Dune series was too much and it all just got away from him. Crucially, I think it got away from him *just* slowly enough that he felt like he could totally fix it in another book.

    2. I don't think it was the scale that tripped him up - I think it was reluctance to break up the neat little connected puzzle-circles that he had built.

      It's adjacent to the GRRM problem of trying to fit a story that has deviated from the plan back into the plan.