It’s been, like, three whole days since my last post. This probably seems like a long stretch to people who’ve gotten used to my post a day thing, but I can’t exactly keep that pace up now that I’m back in the Real World.1 If I were to hazard a guess, one a week is going to be more realistic an expectation to have.2
Administrative stuff out of the way, though, because it’s time to see some of Vienna. It’s a pretty city, folks! I saw a really cool library the other day, but no pictures for you because I didn’t plan on going there and thus didn’t bring my camera.3
Okay, I’m done teasing you. Today, Anna and I headed out towards the end of the U14 to explore the parks around the Danube.5
It actually took us a while to get started – we were planning to meet at the Donau Zentrum which we were assuming was a park – “Danube Center,” right? But no, it was actually a sprawling mall complex like half a mile from the river. Whoops. Next time we’re meeting at the metro station.
But once we got to the river, hoo boy, was it pretty.
Continue reading Donau
It’s been, like, three whole days since my last post. This probably seems like a long stretch to people who’ve gotten used to my post a day thing, but I can’t exactly keep that pace up now that I’m back in the Real World.1 If I were to hazard a guess, one a week is going to be more realistic an expectation to have.2
Today was the last day of our ‘around Austria’ orientation program.1 We had an early breakfast2 and then hopped aboard a train to Salzburg.
We were met at the platform by our tour guide, who gave us a few minutes to find some lockers to leave our luggage in before we were off. The tour was… I’d say interesting, but to be honest the man had a gift for finding the least interesting thing about all the locations we visited. And while he tried to crack some jokes, they ranged from falling flat to downright cringe-inducing.3 I suspect the tour company is going to be getting some unhappy phone calls tomorrow.
But hey, that aside, Salzburg is a pretty city, and we managed to see a good amount of it despite how tired we all are.4 Have some pictures:
Continue reading Salzburg
Today was a trip up almost as far as yesterday, though this time the climb was done by bus instead of suspended gondola.1 We wound up in Sportgastein, the far end of the Gastein valley, in an area that’s set up for a mix of skiing and farming with no actual permanent residents. It’s an interesting shared space – any of the farmers of the valley can bring their livestock there to graze.
Of course, being a mountain valley in Austria, it’s pretty like you wouldn’t believe. Seriously, the first picture I’m going to show you is titled “Hobbiton” because it kinda makes me feel like I’m in a movie scene.
Continue reading Altitude
We had German class in the morning today1 and then hopped aboard a suspended gondola2 that carried us a couple thousand feet up the side of the mountains over Dorfgastein.3 (For this trip, I just brought my whole backpack, which I wound up pretty happy about as I kept switching out lenses on my camera.4)
The goal of the trip was to attend the Mass on the Mountain, something which I believe takes place once a year and is basically exactly what it sounds like: a Catholic Mass, held on the side of the mountain. It’s a bit of a hike from the gondola station,5 but it was a really cool experience. Have some pictures:
Continue reading Mass on the Mountain
Somehow I’m already writing another blog post, which feels a bit excessive, but everything happens so much. And hey, I’m a Professional Blogger at the moment, so why not?1
Anyhow, today was a trip up to a nearby park, about half an hour’s drive away,2 because if we’ve got nice weather, may as well take advantage of it, right?
And once again, I remembered my camera. Have a look at the pictures I liked:3
Continue reading Liechtensteinklamm
After a rather grueling amount of flying, we’re here in Austria! I’m taking advantage of my body’s confused circadian rhythm to write this at a nice 6:30 in the morning, having already been up for almost an hour.
We landed at about 8:30 in the morning what feels like a couple of weeks ago, but looking at my calendar1 was actually only a couple days ago. From the airport, we went by the hotel we’d be staying at to drop off our bags – the rooms wouldn’t be ready until later in the day – and then took Vienna’s impressive public transit system to the Austro-American Institute of Education for our initial orientation. Getting there was fun – it’s just a couple of trams away, but because Vienna is Vienna, there’s a lot of stuff to see on the way.2
After the orientation, we wandered around a market for a bit to get lunch3 and then made our way back to the hotel.4 I took a bit of an unplanned nap, and then we were off to dinner at an Italian restaurant a short walk away.5
The next morning we were up, bright and early, and off into a longer trek through Vienna’s public transit system. It’s an impressive system, with a lot of well-developed infrastructure.6 And then we were on the train to Dorfgastein, where I finally got my camera out and started taking pictures, because good lord, look at this.
Normally I let the spoiler warnings for these be implicit, but this is the fifth (and final) book in a series, so I’ll go ahead and put it here again, to be clear: spoiler warning.
So, I was a little bit sad to find that, as I’m writing this, I only have a single post tagged ‘Terry Pratchett’ on here. Which makes sense, I suppose – my love of his writing predates my writing book reviews. A bit of a shame, really, because that would be more than 60 reviews – he was a rather prodigious writer.
Now, I mentioned in my previous Pratchett review that it was his last book. That wasn’t entirely accurate – it was his last Discworld book, but the Long Earth series hadn’t wrapped up yet, either. And for this, he had a coauthor – Stephen Baxter.1 I’m going to drop in a chunk of the foreword, written by Baxter, here:
The books have been published annually, but we worked faster than that; time was not on our side, and Terry had other projects he wanted to pursue. Volumes 1 and 2 of the series were published in 2012 and 2013 respectively. But by August 2013 we had presented our publishers with drafts of the final three volumes of the series, including the present book. We did continue to work on the books subsequently. The last time I saw Terry was in the autumn of 2014, when we worked on, among other things, the ‘big trees’ passages of The Long Cosmos (chapter 39 onwards). It has been my duty to see this book through its editorial and publishing stages.
Having just finished reading the book, I know now what the ‘big trees’ passages he references are, and it makes me happy in a quiet, sad way to know that Pratchett had his hands on those directly. My first experience with Terry Pratchett was the Nomes trilogy.2 I’ve no idea where I got them – it was long enough ago that that memory is entirely gone – but I know that it captured my imagination in a wonderful way. The books were silly and sweet, and the characters even more so. But they didn’t quite capture my interest the way the Discworld books would later. I do distinctly remember how I found my way into that series – the Kindle had just come out, and I really wanted one. While we were on vacation, a family friend who had one offered to let me play around with it to see what I thought.
I’ll interrupt this story to reference the fact that I tend to be reading a lot of books at once – one or two paperbacks, something on my Kindle, and something else in the Kindle app on my phone.3 On this vacation, I hadn’t brought the paperback I was reading, but I remembered the title – Dark Watch. Except I didn’t quite remember the title, and put in Night Watch instead. I’m sure the Kindle Store tried to show me the cover, but low-resolution grayscale images aren’t super helpful, so I wound up downloading the sample of the wrong book.
But hey, never look a gift horse in the mouth – I figured I’d read the sample, it’d work just as well for figuring out if I liked the Kindle or not.
And I did – I’ve mentioned before that the original Kindle was, in my opinion, the Best Kindle, and the fact that when it (sadly) died, I replaced it immediately. When I got mine, the first book I downloaded4 was Night Watch. I finished reading it, and I’ve loved Terry Pratchett ever since then.5
Finding out that he was working on a science fiction series? I was intrigued. I’ve read The Dark Side of the Sun and Strata6 They were both characteristically hilarious, but more importantly, interesting takes on the genre.
The Long Earth series is quite a bit more serious than those, but it’s nothing the less for it. It’s also lacking in those characteristic footnotes, which makes it feel less like a Pratchett work than any of his other stuff, but it’s still deeply fascinating. The world building throughout is marvelous, and the degree to which they extend it is, I think, my favorite thing about the series.
It basically starts off with a single premise: stepping. A device is invented, the blueprints published online for all to see, that allows the user to step, moving from one Earth to another in an apparently-infinite chain of Earths. Only ours, referred to as the Datum Earth, has a human population: the rest are pristine, untouched natural wilds. From there, it’s extended: each of these Earths is something akin to a quantum probability mesh, and the further out from the Datum you go, the stranger things can get. One step away, the only difference is that there’s no industrialization-aftereffects from humanity. Go ten million steps away, and you hit worlds where life as we know it never evolved, and instead there are slime colonies the size of small buildings wandering around. Ten million steps in the other direction, and you can climb a tree five miles high and fight giant lizards in the forest of its canopy.
Of course, this does Bad Things to the governments of the world – who’s going to stick around and work a 9-to-5 when they can hop over a couple worlds and have a hunter-gatherer lifestyle? Who’s going to pay taxes if they live on a homestead ten thousand steps West7 that doesn’t see a dime of government services?
And Pratchett and Baxter play with that – as the series goes on, and by the end it’s spanned nearly 400 years of history,8 you can see the way the United States reacts to the paradigm shift that is stepping. It’s fascinating.
And then you get to Book Three, and explore the Long Mars. Because somewhere along the infinite chain of Earths, there’s one where the asteroid impact that formed the moon hit at a different angle and the Earth never formed. Which is a terrifying way to die – you think you’re going to step normally into another world, but instead find yourself suddenly in interplanetary space. But people are creative, and it’s possible to bring materials with you, so the Long Earth’s equivalent to SpaceX forms up on the world just this side of what becomes known as the Gap. Forget about expensive rockets – just hold onto your spacecraft, and then step right out of the gravity well. Once you’re free-floating, step back, and you’re suddenly in orbit, at about a billionth the energy cost. Space exploration is suddenly a lot easier.
And then a bonus twist on the concept: Mars is Long too, but in a different direction. Sure, it’s still stepping East and West, but a step West from Mars gets you to a different reality than a step West from Earth.
Book four is where things get spooky. (Spoiler warning again, because what I’m talking about now is from closer to the end of that book, rather than early-on reveals as above.)
Given a multiply-infinite series of worlds, certain things become inevitable. Von Neumann machines are one of these – somewhere out there along that infinity, there’s going to be a sentient lifeform. Given that it’s truly infinite, there’s probably going to be an infinite number of those. And at least one of them will have been smart enough to come up with the idea of a von Neumann probe, and dumb enough to actually build it. And then the problem with von Neumann probes shows up, one that we here on our Earth have been dealing with for centuries: self-replicating systems will eventually have a problem. For humans, with our self-replicating cells, we call it cancer. A von Neumann probe system will similarly eventually become cancerous, which makes it a massive threat to the entire galaxy.
And that’s all I’m going to say about The Long Utopia. I’m 1,500 words in, I should probably start talking about the book in the title.
The Long Cosmos takes another spin on that “given an infinite universe, there will be sentient life” thing. With the von Neumann probes, we never actually saw their creators, nor even any evidence that they’re still alive. In The Long Cosmos, though, we get proof of life: a signal that blows SETI’s “Wow!” signal out of the water.
And that’s all I’m going to say about the story, I think. Suffice it to say it’s in the same vein of the rest of the Long Earth books – a delightful look at a truly large-scale world, and the people who inhabit it. It’s those characters who really make the story, and it’s a nice way to check in with all of them again.
Overall, it’s a wonderful book. Each one gets larger in scale than the last, and that’s what I like about them – it’s such a huge world to play around in, and the underlying concept is simple and understandable. It’s a veritable playground for the imagination.
As with every single other Terry Pratchett book out there, I highly recommend it. Start with the first, of course, but when you’ve read the rest of the series, read this one too.
- There’s nothing tagged under his name, as of yet, but I figure I’ll link to it anyways. Might read more of his work in the future, you never know! ↩
- I’ve actually still not read the first one in the series, but once I’m home and have access to my library I might go back and reread the second and third. ↩
- And yes, Amazon’s WhisperSync service does function to keep me in one place in the book if I read it on both devices, but I like this way better. ↩
- Aside from a bunch of free stuff from Project Gutenberg ↩
- And been heavily influenced in how I write – I like to say my use of footnotes has a lot to do with David Foster Wallace, and there’s some of him in there, but it’s a lot closer in style to Sir Terry Pratchett’s. ↩
- And I want to get a copy of Strata for myself, but it’s still hard to get in the United States. Ooh, maybe I’ll find a used book store while I’m abroad… ↩
- As opposed to East – knowing which is which is apparently an instinctive sort of thing for people when they step. ↩
- From the actual start point to the end point, it’s closer to 80 years, but there’s a good bit of prequel-type action in the earlier books. ↩
You can’t go to Louisiana without visiting a swamp. It took us until the last couple weeks of the program, but we did eventually get around to it, and boy was it wonderful. Some of the best weather (in my opinion, at least) that we’ve had the whole time – it was a cool summer day, and the brief spat of rain we had while we were out there was very light, of that nice kind where you never get wet enough that it won’t dry off after a couple of minutes. It was wonderful.
I brought my camera, of course, because how could I not? By the end of the tour – it lasted a couple of hours – I’d snapped almost 500 pictures. It was one heck of a trip, and I’m incredibly glad that I went. (It also turned into one heck of a road trip getting back – the Atchafalaya Bridge had a couple accidents in the direction we were heading, and we wound up taking a detour that more than doubled the actual length of the bridge. It was an Adventure.)
As I write this, I have been sitting down for a couple hours, working away at sorting those pictures. By the time this goes up, I’ll have posted a few on my Instagram, because I’m not above a bit of shameless self-promotion. For the ones I kept for this here site, head below the fold.
Continue reading Swamp
So, ever since I heard about this book, I’ve wanted to read it. I’m a sucker for all this Cold War history stuff, okay? This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the books I’ve read on the subject.1
Anyhow, I’ve reached a point where very little of what I read in this book was actually new to me. Which is weird, because I hardly feel like an expert on the subject, but apparently I’m getting close. How strange.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t like it, or that I didn’t get anything new – quite the contrary, there were a couple really interesting bits in there that I found fascinating, and some things that I’d either never heard of or never explored in depth.
For example, while I knew about Project Plowshare, I hadn’t looked into some of the frankly ridiculous things they were trying to do.
Plowshare kicked off with the relatively small “Gnome” test near Carlsbad, New Mexico, on December 10, 1961. It was aimed, among other things, at investigating whether a nuclear explosion could be harnessed to produce energy. But the detonation destroyed the machinery that was supposed to convert the blast into power.
Hold up. They were trying to use a nuclear bomb as a generator? Had… had nobody told them about nuclear reactors? We already had those, folks.
But no, it’s more ridiculous than that, because if you dig into the full reports from the Gnome and Sedan tests, you find this:
GNOME was developed with the idea that a nuclear detonation in a salt deposit would create a large volume of hot melted salt from which heat might be extracted. The possibilities to be investigated for the production of power were the tapping of the steam created by the detonation itself and the generation of high-density, high-pressure steam by the circulation of some heat-absorbing fluid, like water, over the heated salt.
Defense Nuclear Agency, Projects Gnome and Sedan: The Plowshare Program, (Washington D.C.: Defense Nuclear Agency, 1983): 38.
tl;dr: they were going to build a geothermal power plant somewhere with no geothermal activity, and then set off a nuke to create the underground heat.
Gotta love the cold war. Other idiotic things that Plowshare wanted to try, but fortunately, was stopped from doing:
using nuclear bombs to melt the ice from polar ports, to re-channel rivers or to desalinate salt water from the ocean.
That said, the Soviets did even dumber stuff, including my single favorite sentence from the whole book:
Between 1965 and 1989, [the Soviets] carried out 116 civilian explosions . . . five were used to combat fires at oil fields.
“Hey boss, we’ve got a bit of a fire going over here.”
“Alright, we’re just gonna nuke it.”
I’d forgotten how much fun detective novels can be. Who doesn’t like trying to figure out a mystery? It’s a good bit of intellectual fun. And there’s something unique about being the reader – not only do you know what the detective knows, you also know what scenes are important and which ones weren’t. You know the difference between Checkov’s gun and… a regular gun.
Colt Coltrane takes place in an alternate-history setting, with the divergence having taken place sometime during WWII. There’s a brief mention of the fact that the U.S. never actually dropped an atom bomb, despite having the capability, and the Takahashi corporation, formed by someone who managed to escape from Japan to get back to the States, manufactures semi-sentient robots for police and military use. The aesthetic of the book falls somewhere between film noir and Lost in Space. It’s very interesting.
I’m definitely interested in the sequel that apparently exists, because I want to know what’s going on with Petey, and I think there’s plenty of room for expansion on some of the different things that appeared in this. Plus, with some of the stuff that happened with the background characters, it feels almost like the pilot to a TV show – kinda like Odd Thomas, actually.1
So yeah, that’s about all I’ve got to say. A gorgeous alternate-history setting, some fun robotics, and an interesting mystery at the heart of it. I recommend it. Go have a read.
- That’s not the best comparison, as Odd Thomas was a solo movie, but it was based on the first book in a series and it really felt like it could’ve made a nice spin-off TV show. ↩
I got so caught up in everything going on at the end of the month that I nearly forgot to put this post together, oh my. It’s been a busy couple of weeks.
5AM – Amber Run
I Need My Girl – The National
Your Hand In Mine – Explosions in the Sky
Team (Lorde Cover) – Matthew Mayfield
Midnight – Lane 8
Smoke Filled Room (Acoustic) – Mako
Disintegration Anxiety – Explosions in the Sky
SWORD – ΔUGUST1
Home (Tim Palmer Mix) – Blue October
Jericho – Westerman
Hold Me Down – YOKE LORE
Daydream – Leo Kalyan
stard(us)t – johan
Thursday – LostBoyCrow
Shouldn’t Have Done That – Two Another
The Lucky One – Blue October
Lou Lou – Albin Lee Meldau
Sight – Sleeping At Last
Hearing – Sleeping At Last2
Let Me Go – Albin Lee Meldau
Touch – Sleeping At Last3
SeeThroughDreams – Kellen
Lovers – Albin Lee Meldau
Darling – Albin Lee Meldau
Someone Like You – COBRYAMA feat. Gibbz
All I Want – Kodaline
Half Light – BANNERS4
Be Somebody – Kings of Leon
Teardrop – Massive Attack
Withdrawn – White Morning
Big Jet Plane – Angus & Julia Stone
Atlas – Coldplay
Ghosts – BANNERS
Shadow and a Dancer – The Fray
White Square (Demo) – Rebecca McDade
Wona – Mumford & Sons
Mood – Porches
Crimewave – Crystal Castles
9 Crimes – Damien Rice
In the Dark – JUDY
Wake the Dead – Nassau
Remains (Bastille Vs. Rag N Bone Man Vs. Skunk Anansie) (Crossfaded Version) – Bastille, Rag N Bone Man, Skunk Anansie
When The World Sleeps – Lowland Hum5
The Fault In Our Stars (MMXIV) – Troye Sivan
Fly Away For A Summer (Achtaban Mix) – FLAUSEN feat. Ben Cocks
Fast Car – Navarra
I Love You (Quintet Version) – Woodkid6
Three Strikes (feat. Jack McManus) – Afrojack
There Will Be Time – Mumford & Sons
Control – Mountains Like Wax
Untitled – Mountains Like Wax
Sunlight (Jody Wisternoff Remix) – Lane 8
Monster – Mumford & Sons
Fountain of Youth – Local Natives
I Don’t Know You – Uniform Motion
My Ride with the Enemy – Uniform Motion
3-4 Eyes – Uniform Motion
Thinkin Bout You (Frank Ocean Cover) – Midnight Pool Party
The Dawn Has Hit the Summit – Uniform Motion
Walk Away – Uniform Motion
South Seas – Ménage À Trois
Better Man (Feat. Peter Gregson & Iskra String Quartet) – FYFE7
The White Shirt – Uniform Motion
God – House of Heroes
Shots Fired – House of Heroes
We Make Our Stars – House of Heroes
Get Away – House of Heroes
Holocene – Bon Iver
Kill V. Maim – Grimes8
Kusanagi – ODESZA
Clearest Blue – CHVRCHES
Roma Fade – Andrew Bird
The Box – Damien Rice9
Running Up That Hill – Track & Field
Fever – Roosevelt
Live in This Moment – Kakou
- This song is the reason that I’m copy/pasting the links in from last month’s playlist – it is stupid to try to find on Amazon. ↩
- I seriously love this album so much. The songs are beautiful and peaceful and I just really like them, okay? ↩
- “Touch” and “Sight” are actually tied for my favorite of the album, but “Hearing” is close behind. ↩
- Seriously, BANNERS is great. ↩
- I really wish this song was longer, because it’s so fun to sing along to. ↩
- Apparently this is called the ‘acoustic’ version, but I like my label better. It’s got more character. ↩
- This is, I think, my favorite song that I found this month. And that was a tough competition. ↩
- This song is so fun, I actually looked up the lyrics at one point so I could sing along more accurately. I’m gonna have to find some more music by Grimes. ↩
- Another in the “super fun to sing along to” category. ↩
So, if you haven’t heard of StoryBundle, it’s definitely something you should check out. It’s a Humble Bundle type of thing, but focused on indie books, rather than games.
I honestly can’t remember how I came across it the first time, but I do remember buying the first Immerse or Die bundle, and quite enjoying it. Now, I’m subscribed to StoryBundle’s email list, and I’m starting on All These Shiny Worlds, an anthology put together based on the concept of Immerse or Die.1
As with the way I usually do anthology reviews, I’m going to give a short response to each story. I’m doing something new, this time, though, and being a more responsible reader – each short story, in this review, has the author’s name listed. Where applicable, their name is a link to reviews of other books/stories of theirs that I’ve reviewed.2
The First Man in the World
An interesting take on the idea of a generation ship – rather than an AI steward, have an actual human doing it, cloning them a new body when the old one breaks down. I’m not entirely sure if I like that idea, to be honest – sure, AI is tough, but I think the whole thing could’ve been managed with a good set of algorithms that know to wake up a human caretaker from cryo-sleep or whatever if something it’s not programmed to deal with happens.
Three Demon Gambit
Oh, this was fun. Everyone with sense knows you shouldn’t make deals with the devil, or demons in general – they’ve had millennia to become experts in all sorts of tricky little contractual loopholes. But summoning three demons and playing them against one another? Oh, that’s delightful.
Rolling the Bones
Eurgh, the editor’s note at the beginning was right about this one. Not all that dark, but creepy. That poor girl.
And it ended on the worst wordplay I’ve ever read. Bonus points for that.
All the Way
Reminds me of nothing so much as the teleportation problem – continuity of self across iterations. As a counterpoint to the arguments someone was making in this, I’ve got a relevant SMBC comic. Either way, it was a sad little story about transhumanism, I suppose? One of those post-singularity ideals, at least.
This one was darker, and weirder – Egyptian magic, rather than what we see all too much of in most fantasy, and a lot of the different beliefs present in ancient Egyptian religion. I honestly don’t know how I feel about the ending – I can’t quite say if it’s a happy or sad ending.
The Ant Tower
Oh, this one was almost something I’d like. Almost, but not quite, because of course it had to go all dark. Bah, and humbug. Nice character building, at least.
Back to the fun sort of thing – a rather iffy description of CIA operations, with that characteristic disregard for the illegality of CIA operations on US soil, and then breaking into the church of Scientology of all places. What a nice little adventure, and the twist ending? Delightful. Plus, one hell of a hook on this, as it opens with
The sex snail.
Meetings with Walt always ended with the sex snail.
The First Acolyte of the Upshan Berental
She’d once overheard a priest call it “The Sacred Thingy,” which had seemed blasphemous but also accurate.
Go click on that link on Bryce’s name, because he’s a wonderful writer and I’ve loved everything I’ve read that he wrote. This was no different – a funny little story, set in a valley cut off from the rest of the world and guarded by… The Sacred Thingy. And I must say, I don’t disagree with the final decision the protagonist made – in her place, I’d have done the same thing.
It was sweet! The competition scenes had me a little bit nervous – I’m still not entirely sure on what happened with the person who got first, what their actual prize is, but it worked out well for everyone, I suppose.
The Spider and the Darkness
I think the setting this one starts in would definitely qualify it as ‘dark fantasy,’ but it does eventually get out of there. It kinda reminds me of some of the scenes in Battle Magic, Tamora Pierce’s most recent book. Secrets of the earth, and all that.
The Dowager’s Largesse
This… might be my favorite one of the whole book, thus far. I love the setting it’s in, and I want to read more of it. I love the idea of an old Empire with old magics written into the land, somewhat forgotten or ignored by the current government. I love that the Dowager Empress put together this whole complex system of free booze and magic3 as a way of searching for something, and I love the way she checks to see how things have worked out. I really do hope she survives what she started.
There’s some Buffy vibes to this one, but gone all… church-y. Which is a bit weird, and made me almost instinctively disagree with some of the things the main character thought, but it allowed for some really interesting character growth.
The Red Flame of Death
Van Allen Plexico
Again the religious fervor, but this time quite necessary – it’s the best thing for fighting demons, after all. I like the implications in there – that one day mankind will be able to utterly defeat the forces of darkness. When it comes to fighting demons, that’s not the sort of thing you usually see; usually those stories imply that it’s like fighting entropy, and one day the darkness will win.
The Blue Breeze
Oh, this is a fun setting for a story. Two suns, one of which is somehow ring-shaped? That one makes me suspect it’s some sort of science fiction setup, and the ring-sun is an orbiting mirror-station or something. The protagonist lives in the Hell Hollows, which is possibly the most vicious place possible- even the trees are carnivorous.
Aside from that maybe-space-station thing going on, there’s also a Mysterious Ancient Ruin at one point, and it’s basically hitting all my buttons for a setting I’d like to read more of.
Oh, there’s a lot going on here, and I hope there’s a full novel set in this world, because I would love to see more of it. All sorts of fun macrobiology, and there’s something weird going on with the gems. A lot of fun.
And that’s it, for this anthology. I quite enjoyed it, and it’s apparently free as a Kindle book? Oh my. Go read.
- The point of the anthology, per the introduction, was to be a lower opportunity-cost variant of the StoryBundle; it’s easier to read a short story than an entire novel by a new author, so giving a bunch of new authors a chance is easier in short-story format. ↩
- I went through and put in some better tags recently, and I may as well get some use out of them. I also might go back and do this same sort of thing for my other anthology reviews, but no promises, it’d take quite a while. ↩
- It’s a fun mix, really. ↩
This was a lot shorter than I was expecting, so I’ll go ahead and warn you now – it’s short!1
I thought it was going to be some kind of science fiction thing, and there was a part of my brain making 2001 references, but that wasn’t really what it was. It was a character story. Kinda nice.
Like I said, it’s a short little story, so it’s getting a short little review. Go read it, if you’d like.
- My problem with the Kindle’s little ‘length indicator dot’ things is that they don’t scale well. Something like this that is, according to Amazon’s website, 29 pages, shows up as something like 8 dots, but I’ve read things that were fifty thousand words and also showed up as something like 8 dots. ↩
I don’t think this one falls under the purview of ‘dark fantasy,’ because it doesn’t end with “and then everything was awful forever, the end,” but it’s… close. Adjacent to that subgenre, I suppose.
Amra Thetys is a thief, and a pretty good one, at that – she lives in a variety of homes around the crime-ridden city of Lucernis, all of them paid for. Her friends, of course, are also thieves. So there’s nothing much out of the ordinary when one of them shows up at her door, asking her to help him hide something while he goes to sort out the payment for his services.
Unfortunately, he never comes back for it. Instead, he’s murdered pretty brutally, and Amra gets sucked up into the mess because whoever did it is after the strange golden statue she was given to hold on to. And, of course, several other people are also interested in it, because something worth killing for is something worth stealing.
Where it gets interesting, to me at least, is in the magic. Because as Amra goes on in her accidental quest to find out who killed her friend, she starts to get more and more involved in the weirdness going on – a monster with an overwhelming aura of hatred, a mage who’s far too good to be a thief but is nonetheless, a downtrodden inspector who turns out himself to be a mage.
Throw in some ancient gods, a hint of undead, a Protector-spirit that has to be locked in for fear of what it’ll do if it gets out, and a hell mouth, and you’ve got an interesting story to be told. The necromancy was a nice touch.
So, the story itself was really interesting – a sort of magical murder mystery, with an adventure mixed in by the way. No problems with that.
Where I get slightly iffy is the setting. I mentioned above that it seems a bit like a ‘dark fantasy’ kind of thing, and all of that is in the setting. The world was, insofar as I can tell from the various hints that were dropped, of the “formerly occupied by the gods” sort. There was a massive war of the gods, though, something like two thousand years ago, and it cracked open a continent or two, creating a sort of diaspora for the humans that occupied the world. And the various other races that got brief mention – there’s some kind of orc-thing wandering around that makes a hobby of murdering every human they come into contact with, I think? Not very charitable of them.1
That said, it wasn’t depressingly so – the end has some hints that, yes, the leftovers of that Age of the Gods or whatever are coming to an end, and the magic is going to go with them2 – but while it hints at that ending, it points towards the Age of Man. There’s some early precursors of the industrial era showing up – arquebusses being the main one, although the invention of mass transportation is another – so I think it’s more saying “the age of myth and legend is ending, it’s time for the age of man.”
Which is cool, I suppose. I liked it, I’ll keep an eye out for the hinted-at sequels, I suppose. Go have a read.3
- This footnote doesn’t have anything to do with anything, it’s just that I realized I’d gone this entire review without using one and that’s not like me. ↩
- Which I am quite sad about, to be fair, magic is a lot of fun. ↩
- And read through the little post-script bit that’s an in-character explanation of the world, because it’s hilarious. ↩
It’s a running joke, at this point, that I’m a sucker for anything with superheroes in it. It’s, like, my schtick or something.
This was an interesting one. The Ables is set in a world where superhumans exist, people with a variety of superpowers. The main character is telekinetic, a skill he inherited from his father.1 Unlike most of what I read, though, in this one the superhumans keep themselves out of the public eye. Here, they have the advantage of someone named Weatherby, a massively powerful superhuman whose ability is making people forget. All around the world, the actions of the superheroes are forgotten by the normal folk almost instantly. Which is… a really scary amount of power for any one person to have, to be honest.
Fortunately, that’s not going to be a problem for a whole lot longer – Weatherby is apparently the last in a long line of Weatherbys, all of whom have had the same power and have used it towards the same end. It’s implied that he’s rather old and has no plans to have children, so the governing body of this secretive superhero society2 are, it’s mentioned a few times, in negotiations with the governments of the world to help prepare people for the revelation that, surprise, superheroes are real.
Where it gets more off-norm for my reading is in who the main characters are. First off, they’re middle schoolers. Which… is the main reason that I almost did finish this book. The opening bits, where it’s all about being in middle school, with the tiny tweaks necessary for it to be a middle school in what is very nearly a superhero-only city? They’re a pretty good representation of what it’s like to be in middle school. Which is to say… cringe-inducing in every way. It does eventually get away from that, which is, I think, the first time I’ve been happy that a superhero book has gone away from showing how superheroes can be integrated with a modern society.3
That’s not the only bit that’s focused on in the book, though, because the other thing about the main character and his friends is how they all met: in the Special Education class. Which strikes me as a bit of a misnomer in some cases – Henry, for example, doesn’t really have any special educational needs, he’s just in a wheelchair. That said, it’s a key plot point later on that this town doesn’t consider themselves ruled by US law, and so the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t apply. Rather infuriating, that.
All told, it’s an interesting book, once you get into it. I don’t know if I entirely like the context it’s set in, and there’s a few things that happened that made me really mad, but I deeply enjoyed the way the plot actually went. Sure, some of the stuff that was supposed to be a big twist was astonishingly predictable, but I’m a bit more lenient about that sort of thing than I used to be.4
So, I think I’ll give this one a thumbs up. Not my favorite ‘superheroes in middle school’ novel, but then, the first place for that one is a well-developed series that’s rather hard to beat.5 Without further ado, the link.
- His mother is a teleporter, and his little brother is apparently going to wind up as a speedster when his powers kick in. ↩
- Points for alliteration ↩
- The “Please Don’t Tell My Parents” which I’ve reviewed… less of than I thought, actually, is a counterpoint to this. The protagonist there is also in middle school, but manages to dodge most of the cringe worthiness of middle school as a whole. As I’ve said before and will most likely be saying again, that series is a delight to read. ↩
- My stance on the matter is roughly “I’ve spent enough time reading that I’ve probably hit that ’10,000 hours to be an expert’ line, so a lot of stuff seems predictable to me.” ↩
- The fact that I can narrow my categories down this much and still have multiple contenders for first place is one of the reasons I’m comfortable assuming I’ve spent 10,000 hours reading by now. ↩
This is a bit different than my normal book reviews, because the things I review are usually books.1 This one isn’t that – it’s one of the best-written pieces of fanfiction I’ve ever come across.2
For context, I’ve been reading a lot of Tamora Pierce lately. It is, as I told people who asked, something akin to my happy place. I grew up reading Tamora Pierce, and I have a deep love for her characters. If you haven’t read anything she’s written before, I cannot recommend her more highly.3 Her books are the swords-and-sorcerers sort of stuff that I already had a liking for when I first picked them up, but with a notable twist: female leads, and realistic ones at that. While there’s certainly a good amount of battles and spells and honor going on, there’s also gritty realism.4 People have to stop to go to the bathroom. There’s a lovely scene in Alanna: The First Adventure when the titular character, having spent her years since she was 10 pretending to be a boy so she can earn her knighthood, has no idea what’s going on when her period starts for the first time, and rushes to a healer she can trust, thinking something has gone horrible wrong with her body.
That said, I’m not reviewing something written by Tamora Pierce. Like I said, it’s a fanfiction.
Lady Knight Volant is set in the time following the last chapter, but before the epilogue, of Protector of the Small, which I’d call my favorite book in the Tortall series.5 The original book left off with Keladry of Mindelan – Kel, to her friends – having returned from an unauthorized wartime mission into Scanra, Tortall’s enemy in the ongoing slog of a war. Her mission was a massive success – not only did she rescue the kidnapped refugees she’d been charged with protecting in a raided refugee camp, but she killed the necromancer whose creations had made the war a thing of nightmares.
And that’s where Bracketyjack, the writer of Lady Knight Volant, steps in. Because, in the original, the epilogue skips forward a year or so, showing Kel in the rebuilt refugee camp,6 generally living life to its fullest and enjoying herself.
For Bracketyjack, that wasn’t nearly enough. Instead, we’re brought into a world of politics and gods, with a new prophecy delivered: the war will end when Stormwings7 play over New Hope.8 Which is, basically, a warning that there’s going to be a rather massive battle at New Hope.
Kel, being the titular Protector of the Small, isn’t happy about the people she’s trying to take care of being left in harm’s way. With the help of the various immortals who live in the area, she starts turning New Hope into the most impressively fortified refugee camp in history.
And it’s there that I realized I wasn’t going to be able to put this novel-length piece of fiction down. There’s something about these scenes of things being created that I adore. It’s why my favorite book in the Tortall universe is Protector of the Small – it shows Kel and her people building Haven. It’s why my favorite Pratchett books are The Truth and the Moist von Lipwig books – they both follow someone building something new and incredible. And New Hope is definitely that – it’s a besieged warlord’s dream.9
But that’s not all, because why would it be? No, Kel has also found herself embroiled in the politics of Tortall. It’s a fair point – even in the canon, she was already a powerful symbol for change in the country, and a lot of people were making arguments about her without her knowledge. In Lady Knight Volant, she’s given the chance to express her own opinion on the matter, and takes to politics like a fish to water.10 She sets the realm on its ears.
Volant11 is distinctly darker than anything Tamora Pierce wrote, though. The warnings at the opening12 are accurate, and if you’re the sort of person for whom trigger warnings are intended, you should definitely look them over before reading.
That said, I think I’m going to stop here – there’s distinctly more material I could discuss – a lot happens in almost half a million words – but seeing as I just finished reading a few minutes ago, I don’t know that I’d be able to do it without giving more spoilers than I’d like. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and, being a work of internet fiction, it’s available for free.
So, the reading recommendation that I usually end these things with: if you haven’t read the Protector of the Small series, read that first – it’ll provide some necessary context, without which a lot will be confusing. In fact, this has enough references to the other Tortall books that I’d recommend having read the entire series first.13 If you can, you should also pick up whichever short story collection it is that includes “The Dragon’s Tale” – I believe it’s in Tortall and Other Lands.14
Once you’ve done all that reading – and my, I’m assigning more reading than any English teacher I’ve ever had – you can go have a look at Lady Knight Volant. Apparently it has a (slightly) shorter sequel, which I’m going to go have a look at now. What a good day it is.
- I was going to say “published,” but a good chunk of what I’ve reviewed have been indie books that were self-published, and a couple things that people just posted online informally, so it got a bit messy in the definitions. ↩
- Fanfiction is something that fascinates me – the community of writers, as a whole, is deeply interesting. If I were a psychology major, I’d have written more papers about the subject than I already have, and I think I could also get some good linguistics and sociology papers out of it, too. ↩
- As to the order, I’d say you could read them either in order of publishing or the canon order. Choosing between the two series, I’d say start with the Emelan books (Circle of Magic), and once you’re thoroughly in love, which I have no doubt will happen, go to the Tortall books. (Beka Cooper/Provost’s Dog if you’re reading the canon-order, Song of the Lioness if you’re going for publishing order.) ↩
- And no, not the boring ‘everything is dark because the world is dark’ BS that got popularized by the last round of Batman movies. ↩
- ‘Series’ is arguably an incorrect term – the Tortall books (and yes, autocorrect, I do mean ‘Tortall’ and not ‘Tortilla’) are a series of series, starting with Song of the Lioness, going through The Immortals, then Protector of the Small, heading off into the Copper Isles for Tricksters, and ducking back a couple hundred years for Beka Cooper. ↩
- More of a small fortress-town, really, but it is technically a refugee camp so I’ll continue to refer to it that way. ↩
- Stormwings are one of the results of The Immortals, a saga that had the immortal creatures of legend being brought back into the mortal realms. They’re basically a human torso and head, with metal teeth, wrapped up in the body of an iron bird. They were born in nightmares, creatures designed to drive home the horrors of war into the minds of mortals in an attempt to prevent further war. ↩
- Paraphrased, of course, but New Hope is the name for the rebuilt refugee camp. The original, Haven, was burned to the ground, and enough people died there that nobody wants to rebuilt on the site. ↩
- I feel fairly safe in assuming Bracketyjack, in writing this, either did a spectacular amount of research or, what I think more likely, was a history major with a focus on wartime architecture. ↩
- Which makes sense, in a way – as a child, Kel was taken to Yaman with her parents as the first diplomats to the region in quite a while, and herself became an important part of the diplomatic process, befriending the children of the Imperial family. ↩
- I’m getting tired of typing, okay? ↩
Another aspect of the fanfiction community that I find fascinating, and I’d love to see Archive of Our Own’s database schema.
… God, I’m a nerd. ↩
- Including the Beka Cooper ones, because there’s some nice integrations of the commoner perspective that those provided. ↩
- I recommend this because some of the developments in that one are heavily referenced in Volant, and it’s also just a delightfully touching little short story. ↩
Recently, we (the REU group) spent a day in New Orleans, wandering around and basically being Touristy McTouristface.1
Anyhow, I took my camera with me – how can I be a tourist without it?2
So, if you want to see some pictures of New Orleans looking pretty, head below the fold. (And I’ll add that ‘in pictures’ is one of the better ways to experience the French Quarter – it’s old, the water table is very shallow, and that means that it’s a rather fragrant area, even after the invention of sewers.)
Okay, this book was gorgeous. Like, seriously, one of my favorite settings for a fantasy/science-fiction book I’ve read.
The basic gist of it is that this is a world where the gods are real and happily intervened in the world – the best example I can think of is that the whole thing takes place in a mega-city in the middle of an uninhabitable desert, made possible by the occasional rainstorm that just appeared over the city in response to prayers from the priests of the air goddess. And it was a pretty good world, where their Favored Children, something like high priests and priestesses of each of the god’s religions, were celebrities. Right up until, with no warning, the gods vanished. Without them, the world began to fall apart. One of the most immediate problems was that, in response to the fall of the world’s capitol city,1 the various megacities severed ties with one another. And not in the political sense – they destroyed the mass-transit ‘tubes’ that linked them for freight and personnel traffic, and with the tubes went the communications lines. They cut themselves off from each other.
That was years ago, now. The main character, Ash, was once a priest of the Zeus of the world, a trickster spirit who apparently ushered humanity along their evolutionary path out of something like boredom. The other species of the world were created, to varying degrees, in the image of humanity, though each with the unique flavor of their own parent-god. So there’s the shapeshifters, children of the shapeless god of magic, and then there’s the vaguely-elvin Jansynians, the corporate powerhouses of the world. Following the Abandonment,2 priests became rather unpopular, and the majority of his friends were killed. Ash himself was hospitalized for six months, and woke up in the drought-stricken, cut-off city.
He landed on his feet, though, becoming a glorified filling clerk for a private investigator’s firm. It’s there that the plot picks us up – an old friend, one he’d thought dead, came to ask for help.
Of course, it’s never something simple, and suddenly he’s embroiled in all sorts of fun politics. Turns out that someone wasn’t going to take the Abandonment lying down, and had put together plans for a satellite that could do the sort of thing only the gods had done before – it could make it rain in the middle of the desert. It could save the city. They’d handed off the designs to the Jansynians, hoping their resources3 could push the project through before the already-strained water reserves could be depleted. And then, for no apparent reason, progress halted on what should’ve been a simple “launch and press activate” type of process.
Then the assassins came for the inventor, and her sister stepped in to protect her, sending for the slightly-more-than-investigative PI firm.
That’s about enough of the plot, I think – it gets really interesting, there’s a couple of fun twists4 that I’m going to tell you absolutely nothing about.
But I will touch on something else – the setting is, like I said, a gorgeous world. Aside from the magic, it’s also science fiction – the Jansynians, taking advantage of their global business acumen, have built themselves the Crescent, a massive enclave from which all of their companies operate. They’re the ones everyone is jealous of, in the increasingly-parched desert – the Crescent, built 100 stories above the ground, is domed-in and has its own facilities to provide power, water, and food to the inhabitants. Basically, in their gleaming dome above the rest of the populace, they can ride out the apocalypse in comfort. When they deign to visit the city below, they do it in hovercars that they don’t even bother to lock, because nobody is stupid enough to steal from them.
Basically, it’s a delightful blend of fantasy and science fiction, and I loved reading it. Go get it.5
- Named something imaginative like “City of the Gods” ↩
- Which, I’ve gotta say, is probably the best-case scenario for naming something like the events this world had to go through. ↩
- And talent for management, something the inventor wanted nothing to do with. ↩
- And a couple of heartbreaking ones, because why wouldn’t there be? ↩
- And in looking up the link to put here I’ve found out there’s a sequel which I now desperately want to read. ↩
I had fun with this book, y’all. The first few chapters are just seriously silly, there’s a bit of a lull in how interesting it is, but then it picks back up, and I finished the entire second half of the book in one sitting, unable to put it down.
So, the context: you’ve got the Commons, which is something vaguely akin to the United Nations, but at the galactic scale. A rather common trope in science fiction of this specific dint. The “Happy Alien Welcome Committee”1 are preparing to induct humanity into the Commons as the latest member species – a somewhat run-of-the-mill operation, considering that there’s thousands of different species in the Commons by now, and rejection has happened precisely once before.2 Except, us being humanity, we manage to mess it up pretty spectacularly – the first envoy gets hit by a truck. Second one tries to help a crashing Cessna and instead the drunk cowboy flying the thing makes a surprisingly accurate potshot. It goes on from there.3 Ten attempts later, the Committee gives up, having never made contact with their selected Human Ambassador. Instead, the various member species who lost people start planning their various revenges.
So the cast of characters is already a wide-spread group of aliens and one very antisocial human. The chapters alternate back and forth, for the most part, with the first being the Committee planning their first meeting, the second being Jeff, their selected Ambassador, going about his normal life, and then back. It makes for a fun mechanic – there’s one or two chapters where you can see Jeff being his nomadic self, leaving town right after the latest media frenzy in response to another dead alien being found.
And then things start to get weird. The ‘alien’ plot ditches the Committee and starts following Oliop, the Committee’s tech support guy. He’s largely invisible,4 but decides to go take a look at this troublesome human for himself. And makes contact without any trouble.
But then the Plot kicks in, and you realize that, from all the silliness at the start, we wound up with something like ten different groups all trying to achieve different things. And that’s without introducing one of my favorite characters,5 who doesn’t show up until quite a ways into the book. It’s a delight.6
I’m going to stop myself now, though, because there’s just too much fun going on with the plot for me to spoil any of it. I enjoyed the heck out of it, so here’s the link. (It’s a remarkably cheap book, as well, considering how good it was. Seriously, go read it.)
- Or some similarly ridiculous name – a couple of the characters poke fun at it in the book once or twice. ↩
- The Bunnie, described as “as if someone had taken two giant spiders and then glued them back-to-back.” ↩
- The high point, in my opinion, being the trio of flying-squirrel-like aliens who managed to get impaled by a kite. ↩
- Not in an “alien superpower” way, in a “nobody pays attention to the IT guy” way. ↩
- Think “Sam Vimes from the Discworld series” but as a mold colony growing around a robotic endoskeleton. So cool. ↩
- To the degree that I’ve already bookmarked the other book this author has written, for when I’ve worked my way a good bit further through the long list of ‘books to read’ I’ve got going. ↩
I may or may not have stayed up a bit late so I could finish this book in one day. It’s the wrap-up to a series I’ve really enjoyed, and it was a good wrap-up, at that.
So, the Reckoners series is set in a world that has superhumans – they call them Epics. There’s a subgroup of those, High Epics, who’re the real superpowers – some people have, like, “can speak any made-up language” as their superpower. High Epics have things like “can turn anything he touches to steel, can fly, and is borderline immortal.”1
Of course, this is a world where the phrase “power corrupts” is just about a law of physics. The more of their power an Epic uses, the more they lose touch with humanity, becoming arrogant and cruel. There are no superheroes here – it’s just a new age of feudalism, where the lords are not just politically but physically orders of magnitude more powerful than the normal people.
It’s the sort of setting that I wish I could’ve thought of – it captures my interest in a way that very few other books (or media in general) can.2 I love this idea of superpowered beings having their weaknesses drive them to evil, and of the regular people trying to fight back against it. I dunno, I’ve just got weird interests.
Like I said, I really enjoy these books – I’ve got all of them.
Now, in this one, things aren’t going so well for the Reckoners – in the first one, they managed to take down Steelheart, the despotic ruler of Newcago. In the second, they went to Babilar3 to fight the ruler of that down. In the process, they lost their leader – a High Epic himself, he’d managed to stay on the side of the angels by not using his powers. Regalia, the ruler of Babilar, forced his hand, though, and in using his powers to save the city he rather doomed himself.
In the third book, the Reckoners are up against their former leader – with all his knowledge of them and their tactics, and a suite of powers that makes him one of the most powerful High Epics out there.
Oh, and that’s without mentioning that David, the protagonist, has his sights set on killing Calamity, the Epic in low Earth orbit that burns like a misplaced star and is the source of the powers and evil that shattered the world.
That’s about all I’m going to say for now – I enjoy the series a lot, and I think everyone should read it. If you haven’t read any of them, obviously start with the first. If you’ve read the others, I’d say go pick up the third now.4
- Technically speaking, I think the actual distinction of ‘High Epic’ means ‘borderline immortal’ for whatever reason – super-fast healing, indestructibility, able to dodge any attack, whatever. ↩
- The only other contenders I can think of are Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Animated Universes, and Scott Meyer’s Magic 2.0 series. ↩
- The sunken remains of what used to be New York City – an Epic held up the towers with magical trees, basically, and it turned into one of the best places on the planet to live, actually. ↩
- And this is where I have to quietly admit that I just bought this book the day that I read through it – I know, I know, I’m supposed to not be buying more books while I work through the ones I’ve got, but I just got my payout from the Apple antitrust case and how was I supposed to resist, I got a Kindle gift card? C’mon. ↩