“The Control of Nature,” or, “there’s nothing like finding out 100,000 tons of concrete has no foundation left whatsoever”

John McPhee

I’ve actually had this book for quite a while; one of the essays in it was required reading for a class I took, oh, two years ago or so? Something like that. I quite enjoyed the read at the time, but somehow never thought to read the other essays in the book. I found it again in the whole mess of moving out of campus housing after graduation and decided to toss it into the to-read pile, and I finally got around to it.1

And I’m glad I did; while “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” wasn’t quite as fun to reread as it was to read the first time around, the other two essays were both just as enjoyable on first read as I’d hoped. McPhee’s writing style is beautiful; very visually descriptive, deeply informative, and with well-timed flashes of humor throughout.

I’m going to split this review up a bit and include some excerpts from each of the essays, to try to give you a sense of not only McPhee’s voice, but also the content of the essays.


The first essay, “Atchafalaya,” follows the US Army Corps of Engineers and their work on the Mississippi River; it’s far more involved than I’d ever thought, and the project is fascinating.

On the outflow side—where the water fell to the level of the Atchafalaya—a hole had developed that was larger and deeper than a football stadium, and with much the same shape. it was hidden, of course, far beneath the chop of wild water. The Corps had long since been compelled to leave all eleven gates wide open, in order to reduce to the greatest extent possible the force that was shaking the structure, and so there was no alternative to aggravating the effects on the bed of the channel. In addition to the structure’s weight, what was holding it in place was a millipede of stilts—steel H-beams that reached down at various angles, as pilings, ninety feet through sands and silts, through clayey peats and organic mucks. There never was a question of anchoring such a fortress in rock. The shallowest rock was seven thousand feet straight down. In three places below the structure, sheet steel went into the substrate like fins; but the integrity of the structure depended essentially on the H-beams, and vehicular traffic continued to cross it en route to San Luis Rey.

Then, as now, LeRoy Dugas was the person whose hand controlled Old River Control—a thought that makes him smile. “We couldn’t afford to close any of the gates,” he remarked to me one day at Old River. “Too much water was passing through the structure. Water picked up riprap off the bottom in front, and rammed it through to the tail bed.” The riprap included derrick stones, and each stone weighed seven tons. On the level of the road deck, the vibrations increased. The operator of a moving crane let the crane move without him and waited for it at the end of the structure. Dugie continued, “You could get on the structure with your automobile and open the door and it would close the door.” The crisis recalled the magnitude of “the ’27 high water,” when Dugie was a baby. Up the alley somewhere, during the ’27 high water, was a railroad bridge with a train sitting on it loaded with coal. The train had been put there because its weight might help keep the bridge in place, but the bridge, vibrating in the floodwater, produced so much friction that the coal in the gondolas caught fire. Soon the bridge, the train, and the glowing coal fell into the water.

One April evening in 1973—at the height of the flood—a fisherman walked onto the structure. There is, after all, order in the universe, and some things take precedence over impending disasters. On the inflow side, facing the Mississippi, the structure was bracketed by a pair of guide walls that reached out like curving arms to bring in the water. Close by the guide wall at the south end was the swirling eddy, which by now had become a whirlpool. There was other motion as well—or so it seemed. The fisherman went to find Dugas, in his command post at the north end of the structure, and told him the guide wall had moved. Dugie told the fisherman he was seeing things. The fisherman nodded affirmatively.

When Dugie himself went to look at the guide wall, he looked at it for the last time. “It was slipping into the river, into the inflow channel.” Slowly it dipped, sank, broke. Its foundations were gone. There was nothing below it but water. Professor Kazmann likes to say that this was when the Corps became “scared green.” Whatever the engineers may have felt, as soon as the water began to recede they set about learning the dimensions of the damage. The structure was obviously undermined, but how much so, and where? What was solid, what was not? What was directly below the gates and the roadway? With a diamond drill, in a central position, they bored the first of many holes in the structure. When they penetrated to basal levels, they lowered a television camera into the hole. They saw fish. (28-30)

“Cooling the Lava”

The next essay is set in a very different clime: a volcanic eruption in Iceland, with occasional detours to a similar eruption in Hawaii. The way he describes these immense forces is amazing; it feels as if he’s trying to make sure you feel the same sense of awe that he does.

The university installed [the seismometer] on Einar’s farm about a year before the Heimaey eruption, its primary purpose being to sense the threats of Katla, an unusually dangerous volcano only fifteen miles away. Hekla is in the area as well—the stratovolcano that appears in early literature as one of the two mouths of Hell. Groans from dead sinners have been heard in the crater. But Hekla is out in the open, observable under the sky. The baleful Katla is covered with ice It lies under Myrdalsjokull—a glacier field of two hundred and seventy square miles. When Katla erupts, as it has about twice a century, it creates a vast chamber of water under the ice. When the water reaches a critical volume, it lifts the ice cap, and one or two cubic miles bursts out as a violent flood—a blurt of water twenty times the discharge of the Amazon River. The outwash plains these floods have left behind are as desolate as the maria of the moon. A town, villages, and farms lie between Katla and the sea. (113-114)

While I’d probably call “they saw fish” my favorite line of the whole book, probably the best example of his sense of humor comes from this description of a golf course:

In 1801, it came down off Hualalai, a lesser volcano eight thousand feet high, and poured into the sea. There on the leeward side of the island, where rainfall is ten inches a year, the lava has remained essentially unchanged. Resorts have sculpted it like movie sets, landscaped wit imported soils. The bunkers of designer golf courses are not concave and full of sand but—lovely in the green surrounding turf—solid black islands of undisturbed basalt. Use your wedge on that. Your hands sting for a year. If a long approach shot lands on one of those, it bounces to Tahiti. (152)

Finally, from a portion of the book where I could feel myself mentally adding a few things to my bucket list:

The rock, being essentially glass, was very sharp. It was also hot, particularly where a tube lay below and molten lava was running there. We came to a skylight and inched toward it. Steam swirled above it but did not close off the view—of the racing orange currents of an incandescent river. By an order of magnitude, this was the most arresting sight I had ever seen in nature. The time spent gazing into it could not be measured.

Gradually, I began to think. Out of curiosity, I asked Christina if we were looking down into the near side of the tube or were standing over the middle and looking at the far side of the tube.

“The far side,” she said.

If my legs still had knees in them, I was unaware of it. (155)

“Los Angeles Against the Mountains”

The last essay of the book is the first one I read. It was interesting; at the time, I found it fascinating, and since that first reading I’ve come back to it again and again in my mind.

Los Angeles is overmatched on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other by very high mountains. With respect to these principal boundaries, Los Angeles is done sprawling. The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth. Their loose inimical slopes flout the tolerance of the angle of repose. Rising straight up out of the megalopolis, they stand ten thousand feet above the nearby sea, and they are not kidding with this city. Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world. The phalanxed communities of Los Angeles have pushed themselves hard against these mountains, an act of aggression that requires a deep defense budget to contend with the results. (184)

It follows the Los Angeles Flood Control District, or, as the locals call it, Flood. Now, controlling floods seems like it’d be easy in Los Angeles, the city of perpetual doubt, but that’s far from the truth; not only is there the occasional bit of torrential rainfall, but also something much more difficult: rockfall.

Many people regard the debris basins less as defenses than as assaults on nature. They are aesthetic disasters. To impose them on residential neighborhoods has been tantamount to creating a Greenwich full of gravel pits, rock quarries at either end of Sutton Place. The residents below Hook East were bitter when the basin was put in. Months later, the bulldozer tracks were still visible, they said, meaning that nothing had happened—no debris had come, and not even enough rain to obliterate the tracks. So why had the county used taxpayers’ money to build something so obviously unnecessary? A form of answer came when the basin overfilled in one night. Afterward, people criticized the county for not building basins of adequate size. (246)

What was most interesting to me, though, wasn’t just the concept of trying to fight against these rockfalls; it was the interrelationships between everything.

When fire comes, it puts the nutrients back in the ground. It clears the terrain for fresh growth. When chaparral has not been burned for thirty years, about half the thicket will be dry dead stuff—twenty-five thousand tons of it in one square mile. The living plants are no less flammable. The chamise, the manzanita—in fact, most chaparral plants—are full of solvent extractives that burn intensely and ignite easily. Their leaves are glossy with oils and resins that seal in moisture during hot dry periods and serve the dual purpose of responding explosively to flame. (209)

It burns as if it were soaked with gasoline. Chaparral plants typically have multiple stems emerging from a single root crown, and this contributes not only to the density of the thickets but, ultimately, to the surface area of combustible material that stands prepared for flame. Hundreds of acres can be burned clean in minutes. In thick black smoke there is wild orange flame, rising through the canyons like explosion crowns. The canyons serve as chimneys, and in minutes whole mountains are aflame, resembling volcanoes, emitting high columns of fire and smoke. The smoke can rise twenty thousand feet. (210)

If you walk in a rainstorm on a freshly burned chaparral slope, you notice as you step on the wet ground that the tracks you are making are prints of dry dust. In the course of a conflagration, chaparral soil, which is not much for soaking up water in the first place, experiences a chemical change and, a little below its surface, becomes waterproof. In a Forest Service building at the foot of the mountains Wade Wells keeps some petri dishes and soil samples in order to demonstrate this phenomenon to passing unbelievers. In one dish he puts unburned chaparral soil. It is golden brown. He drips water on it from an eyedropper. The water beads up, stands there for a while, then collapses and spreads into the soil. Why the water hesitates is not well understood but is a great deal more credible than what happens next. Wells fills a dish with a dark soil from burned chaparral. He fills the eyedropper and empties it onto the soil. The water stands up in one large dome. Five minutes later, the dome is still there. Ten minutes later, the dome is still there. Sparkling, tumescent, mycophane, the big bead of water just stands there indefinitely, on top of the impermeable soil. Further demonstrating how waterproof this burned soil really is, Wells pours half a pound of it, like loose brown sugar, into a beaker of water. The soil instantly forms a homunculus blob—integral, immiscible—suspended in the water.

In the slow progression of normal decay, chaparral litter seems to give up to the soil what have been vaguely described as “waxlike complexes of long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons.” These waxy substances are what make unburned chaparral soil somewhat resistant to water, or “slightly nonwettable,” as Wells and his colleagues are won’t to describe it. The the wildfires burn, and temperatures at the surface of the ground are six or seven hundred centigrade degrees, the soil is so effective as an insulator that the temperature one centimetre below the surface may not be hot enough to boil water. The heavy waxlike substances vaporize at the surface and reconvenes in the cooler temperatures below. Acting like oil, they coat soil particles and establish the hydrophobic layer—one to six centimetres down. Above that layer, where the waxlike substances are gone ,the veneer of burned soil is “wettable.” When Wells drips water on a dishful of that, the water soaks in as if the dish were full of Kleenex. When rain falls on burned and denuded ground, it soaks the very thing upper layer but can penetrate no further. Hiking boots strike hard enough to break through into the dust, but the rain is repelled and goes down the slope. Of all the assembling factors that eventually send debris flows rumbling down the canyons, none is more detonative than the waterproof soil.

In the first rains after a fire, water quickly saturates the thin permeable layer, and liquefied soil drips downhill like runs of excess paint. These miniature debris flows stripe the mountainsides with miniature streambeds—countless scarlike rills that are soon the predominant characteristic of the burned terrain. As more rain comes, each rill is going to deliver a little more debris to the accumulating load in the canyon below. But, more to the point, each rill—its naturally levees framing its impermeable bed—will increase the speed of the surface water. As rain sheds off a mountainside like water off a tin roof, the rill network, as it is called, may actually triple the peed, and therefore greatly enhance the power of the runoff. The transport capacity of the watershed—how much bulk it can move—may increase a thousandfold. The rill network is prepared to deliver water with enough force and volume to mobilize the deposits lying in the canyons below. With the appearance of the rills, almost all prerequisites have no sequential occurred. The muzzle-loader is charged. For a full-scale flat-out debris flow to burst forth from the mountains, the final requirement is a special-intensity storm. (212-214)

And, again, there’s always that sense of awe, for nature and all the forces involved. But he tempers it well with human stories:

The Harkness house projected from the hillside and had a carport beneath the master bedroom. The debris tore off the master bedroom with Sara and the baby inside. The bedroom fell on the family station wagon. With the bedroom on top of it, the station wagon went down the driveway and on down the street. In what remained of the house, the twins and their sister Claudine were unhurt. Sara and the baby came to the end of their ride unhurt. The station wagon suffered considerably. When the bedroom was taken off it, the car was twenty-six inches high. (263)

At this point, if you’re still reading, I think it’s safe to say you’re as interested by these clips of the essays as I was by the whole things. I can absolutely recommend that you give it a read.

  1. Technically it was the second item on the pile, behind Baldwin’s “Collected Essays”, but that’s a rather dense book that I’ve been working on for a while, and I needed a bit of a break.

“Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives,” or, “less existentially upsetting than you’d think”

David Eagleman
I believe I added this book to my wish list back when CGP Grey talked about it, either on Hello Internet or Cortex. It’s an interesting concept, explained succinctly in the title: a collection of (very) short stories about what happens after you die. I’d actually read one before, way back when it was published as the one-page science fiction short in the back of Science magazine.
To be honest, the book was an enjoyable read, but a very quick one; for the price, I think I’d recommend checking it out from your local library.1

  1. Also, y’know, I recommend supporting your local library in general. They’re a wonderful resource. 

“An American Princess,” or, “how is this woman not a gay icon”

Annejet van der Zijl
I’m not a big history person; if you haven’t noticed from the sort of things I tend to review, I like my books distinctly fiction. This one was a bit of an accident — as a Prime subscriber, I get a free Kindle book a month, and this seemed the most interesting of the available choices. Which, to put it lightly, was pretty accurate.
Since it’s a biography, it’s a bit weird to try to summarize at all, because anything interesting feels like it’d be spoiling a surprise. Rather than doing that, I think I’ll just leave you with the title of this post, the title of the book, and a note that I can happily recommend it, because it was a heck of a read. She had a wild life.

“Automate This,” or, “Wall Street is slightly more terrifying than I thought”

Christopher Steiner
At some point, I’ve probably mentioned that I’m a computer guy. If not, hopefully you’ve been able to figure it out just by reading along; it’s probably a safe bet that only a computer nerd would make an app.1
Fairly often, this means I get to explain things to people in a less incensing way than they’d first heard about it.2 This book… did not do that. It was intended to be calming, but as a person who lives in a capitalist society, it’s a bit unnerving to see how quickly things that used to be jobs are being eaten by computers.3
That said, it was a fascinating read — I’d never heard of some of the things being talked about, not because they failed and disappeared, but because they succeeded but are borderline invisible.4
And, of course, it’s an interesting history of how the finance industry made themselves entirely redundant, all while arguably slowing the pace of human progress. Ah, banks.
Anyways, go read the book.

  1. Yes, I am still in shameless self-promotion mode, thank you for asking 
  2. Looking at you, “Apple is making your iPhone slower” thing 
  3. And yes, I say this as somebody whose entire career path is basically going to be “helping the computers eat more jobs, faster.” 
  4. Call center software that picks which agent to route you to based on your personality type so that you’ll be a happier customer at the end? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t just read its origin story. 

“What Dreams Shadows Cast”, or, “the cave isn’t haunted, but it does hate you”

Barbara J. Webb
So, a year and a half ago, I read the first book in what I assume is an ongoing series. At the time, I was quite clear on the fact that I loved the setting of the book. If you want all the explanation, hit up that link; for now I’ll just say it’s a new take on post-apocalyptic, where the apocalypse was being abandoned by the gods who’d previously been quite happy to intervene on people’s behalf.
That gap between reading the first and the second wasn’t the greatest thing for my enjoyment of the second — I spent a bit too long trying to remember where we’d left off, and some of the references back to the first I gave up on trying to remember. Things are in a slightly better place than they were in the first, though in order to avoid spoilers I’m not going to explain how, but you still get the sense that the world is deeply broken. Which, true, it sorta is; they’d based their entire economy and governmental system around an external force, which one day decided to up and leave. Maybe not the best way to have done things.
Honestly, I’m a bit annoyed with the handling of business in Miroc, the city where the first book took place; in the aftermath of that one, it’s set up to begin recovering from the Abandonment. In this book, we’ve skipped forward six months, and aside from a couple references to tentative recovery, nothing much seems to have changed. Sure, it’s only six months, but it’s also a metropolis that just finished making itself entirely self-sufficient, there should be more happening.
Which is rather the crux of my opinion on the book: “there should be more happening.” There’s background details — mentions of an influx of immigrants, as well as an increase in emigration — that aren’t explored very well.1 Instead, there’s a digression, ignoring the leftover villains from the first book to go have an Indiana Jones adventure in the desert.
This book feels like it was supposed to be either the second of two books, or possibly the second of a trilogy, but halfway through someone decided they wanted it to be an ongoing series. And to match the expansion in scale, they tried to expand the setting — the already compelling villains from the first book are almost entirely ignored, despite having been clearly set up to be the main antagonist throughout the series, and what was set up as the background for the whole setting got awkwardly retconned.
It just didn’t work as well as the first book. Which is a shame, because that first one was amazing, and this, while still captivating, left me disappointed at the end. Nonetheless, here’s the link; that said, if you haven’t yet read the first one, go do that instead.

  1. That specific example is actually a huge plot thread that’s just… entirely dropped partway through. Everyone is all secretive about where they’re emigrating to, and then something new comes up and the characters decide to leave that Chekhov’s Gun just sitting on the table, ignored. 

“The Somniscient,” or, “how has nobody here ever heard of a union?”

Richard Levesque
This book was a wild ride, and it was awesome. There were twists and turns everywhere, but at the end I was like “okay, yeah, that all made sense” – it never hit the “what is even happening” level, y’know?1
It’s set a bit less than 200 years in the future, and I do quite enjoy the way that changes in technology are integrated. Basically, someone went ahead and finished up Elon Musk’s Neuralink technology. It’s a mix of augmented reality interfaces for doing things and the ability to record and replay dreams, with direct control of the body’s sleep cycle built in. Which sounds handy, except it was made in a realistic world, which means it was funded by venture capitalists, which means it was turned into the most horrifyingly capitalist version of the technology possible. After the technology made it possible for people to cheaply entertain themselves, the world’s economy started slowing way down… so the company, with some backing by the government,2 set it up so it costs money to sleep.3
And, as I pointed out in the title of this post, apparently nobody has ever heard of forming a union, because the workplace environment is pretty abusive. The main character starts off in his Cube, which is roughly a dorm room with the aesthetics if a cubicle, where he pays extortionate rates in order to… not die. As a fun bonus, the Cube is owned by, and in the headquarters of, the company he works for – the same company that controls the technology that’s in everybody’s heads. It’s basically straight out of the nightmares of the people who pushed through the first worker’s rights laws.
And… I’m going to leave it there, actually. That’s a good amount of background, and anything else I can say would spoil some of the fascinating plot. I definitely recommend giving it a read, though – I’ve read a couple short stories that Levesque wrote, and I think I liked this one better than either of those, to be honest. Either way, though, go have a read.

  1. that was a terrible sentence, Grey, why are you trying to write a book review after having gotten up at 3 am, Grey 
  2. The book only ever specifies that the US government was involved, but I assume the rest of the world would’ve done something similar, otherwise the geopolitics of the situation would be different. 
  3. The relationship is a bit different, of course – after a while the company realized they could cut out the middleman and wound up replacing all the currencies with ‘Z’s, their own currency that’s just a measure of how many hours of sleep you can get. 

“Wonder City Stories,” or, “it’s like Oprah ran around handing out queerness to everyone”

Jude McLaughlin
I’m going to start off with a quote from the teaser for the sequel that’s in the end of the book:

“How did your mom keep hold of a device like that anyway?” Megan said, tossing the end of her rainbow-patterned scarf – knotted for her by her gay vampire landlord Zoltan – over her shoulder. He told her that vampires have a lot of free time at night, and knitting was one way he used it. I’m not sure I believe that.

This book was delightful. I read it in one day, and I’m genuinely sad that I finished it because I want there to keep being more.1 It’s basically my entire aesthetic rolled into one thing, and I can summarize it with two words: queer superheroes!
Expanding a bit, though, because it’s actually mostly about people other than superheroes. The cast of main characters includes the vehemently-not-a-superhero daughter of an infamous heroine, a retired WWII-era superhero, the (unpowered and) almost-divorced-wife of a comatose current hero, and quite a few other folks around the edges. It’s a delightfully diverse cast, and it does a really fun job of playing around with some of the ways that superheroes interact with a society that isn’t too unlike our own.2
Plus, y’know, it’s Hella Gay. And, as a nice bonus that takes it away from the annoying majority of LGBTQ-inclusive media, the LGBTQ characters get to do things other than be in the background or die!3
So yes, I absolutely recommend it, go have a read.4

  1. There’s some good news, though – evidently it’s the first volume of an ongoing web serial, so I’ll just go ahead and keep reading once I’m done with this review. 
  2. Really, those sorts of interactions are what I want from my superhero media; it’s unrealistic to expect things to be entirely the same, with a layer of cool battle scenes on top, because there’s so many implications in all that- just think of the economics of car insurance in a world where “yeah a villain threw my car at a hero” is a normal occurrence
  3. No, I’m not bitter at all, why do you ask? 
  4. A final note, here because I can’t attach footnotes to the actual title: having a whole group of queer people like this isn’t ‘unrealistic, considering the percentage of the population that’s queer,’ Twitter Rando: we group together. Safety in numbers, and all that – to be honest, the ‘token gay friend’ thing is more unrealistic, especially in a metropolitan area. 

“Bartleby and James,” or, “is… is the Queen a zombie?“

Michael Coorlim

“I may be able to calibrate my Forensic Viewers and attune them to his particular N-Ray signature.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“My science goggles can track him.”

I own a lot of books that are basically riffs on the concept of Sherlock Holmes, and this is another one. But it’s also one of the most fun that I’ve read – the characters interact well with one another, and I rather identify with the narrator-protagonist.

“All we are is meat, Bartleby. Flesh and bone.”
“What of the soul?” Bartleby poured his own cup.
“Oh, do grow up.”
“I’m serious. There’s something indefinable that separates man from the animals.”
I spoke with a slight singsong while pouring a dollop of cream into my cup. “A sense of pretension about it, perhaps. Delusions of gods, of spirits, of magic, and other humbug.”

Beyond that, the story is pretty interesting – it’s written in a sort of anthology style, so it’s more a collection of short stories than anything else, but they’re put together in chronological order, and good lord do they have some fun stuff going on with the background. I spent the whole second story entirely wrong about who did it, muttering “realpolitik” to myself.1
In looking up the link to put here, I see that it’s an ongoing series, and boy am I ever tempted to get the rest of them. I’ll wait until I’ve finished the rest of my bits of reading that I need to do, but oh, these are going on the wish list. I definitely recommend this one.

  1. To be fair, I wasn’t too far off the mark, but still, I was wrong. 

“All These Shiny Worlds II”

I’ve read the first anthology in this now-series, and I’m finally getting around to the second one. As I usually do with anthologies, I’ll be splitting it up so that each short story gets its own short review. And, before we launch into that, I’ll give a quick review here: it’s worth getting. Here’s your link.

Out in the Dark

Meryl Stenhouse
Oh, I’m already enjoying the focus on science fiction in this anthology. And these days, I’m also a big fan of stuff being realistically concerned about the impact of climate change – like the ever-increasing importance of naval superiority as the seas rise, and the sorts of defenses you’d need to keep a city from drowning.

Alter Ego

Russ Linton
See, I kinda get where the whole “fourth person perspective” thing was going… but I’m not sure if it worked for me. I mean, superheroes, so a plus in my book, but still, told a bit oddly.

The Silk of Yesterday’s Gown

Misha Burnett
Oh, that was darker than I was expecting, and the opening paragraph makes it pretty clear that it’s going to be fairly dark. Yikes.

A Rough Spirit

Dave Higgins
For a bit of a ghost story, I do enjoy that I had to stop to laugh at the main character’s obliviousness at one point:

“If it pleases Hiroto-sama, I am called Anew. I have some skill in massage if the noble lord has woken with any stiffness?”
He tried to keep his gaze on the small bowl and not the scrubbed skin beyond it. “A little rice and a sip of water will suffice.”
“My brother has strong fingers if-“
She’d noticed something was wrong too. He needed to distract her. He slid the tray closer. “Tell me of Hayabiro while I eat.”

Other than that, I’ve gotta say, this whole thing is “stuff happens to this guy and he overthinks it,” but it was surprisingly entertaining the whole way through.

The Apprentice Appears

Bryce Anderson

Elsie pressed the trigger, sending a taxidermied squirrel flying through the air.

Need I say more? It’s hilarious, as is everything of Anderson’s that I’ve read. On this one alone, it’s worth reading the entire book.


Simon Cantan
This is the short story version of this comic, and I think it works even better than the actual comic did. To be fair, it’s a bit more hopeful than the comic – there’s robots outside the simulation, so things are still getting done, but still.

Without a Care in the World

Richard Levesque

Then he cleared his throat and said, “I am now officially invoking the Asimov Act – uh, I mean the Sentient Technology Emancipation Act, under the conditions of which you are obligated to release this independent being from servitude immediately.”

The Lancer

David Kristoph
Okay, remember when I said Merge was dark? This was darker. Yikes.

Bodies of Evidence

Jefferson Smith

“Okay Lou, I can squeeze you in. And how will you be paying?”
“On account. Maladein Industries.”
“One moment, please.” She was gone for over a minute. “Hello, Lou? I’m not showing any accounts under that name. The closest match I have is for SKULL International Consortium of Evil, Local Rep: Sheldon Maladein.”
“Damn, I forgot about the merger. That’s us. Sorry.”

I’m a big fan of “daily life in a world with superheroes” kind of things, and this definitely delivered on that.

Borrowed Lives

I.A. Watson
The editor’s note did a good job of covering it: it’s an exploration of how a new technology would fit into everyday lives. (The actual plot contains a bit more intrigue than that, but still.)

“The law hasn’t caught up with this, Mik. Why would there be a law against something nobody knows is possible?”

The Earth Ship

Graham Storrs
Imperialism is always the same, isn’t it?

Digital Commander

J.S. Morin
Oh, I liked this. It’s a pretty possible future, and the way the world-changing advances in technology were being handled as they were being developed? Downright responsible.

The Traveller

Christopher Ruz
Oh, this is not what they should’ve ended on, my heart can’t take it.

“Piranha,” or, “that’s not actually how the Spanish language works”

I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Clive Cussler for a long time. I started reading his books pretty young – distinctly younger than you’re really supposed to be reading his books, I’m sure, but oh well. It’s not like waiting until I was an actual adult was going to make me find the stilted romance subplots less awkward.1 Of his series, the Oregon Files have always been my favorite – at first it was just because it mentioned my home state, and I like when things do that, but after that it’s just because I enjoy the concept more.23
Piranha delivers on what I want from a book in the series; a touch of history, a baddie with a high-tech schtick, and a whole lot of cool fight scenes. Plot-wise, I didn’t really have any problems with it; everything tied together pretty well, I thought, and I had fun trying to figure out what the aforementioned high-tech schtick was before the book revealed it.4
To be honest, I don’t really have a whole lot to say; Cussler books are somewhat formulaic. But so is, say, cooking; it’s the little variations that make it interesting. I enjoyed reading it, and I’m comfortable recommending it to people if you want an airport-bookstore novel.5 Go have a read.6

  1. Seriously why does there have to be a heterosexual romance in everything, it’s ridiculous 
  2. I still occasionally devote some time to mapping out how I’d build it if I were to create my own version of the Oregon
  3. There’s also a good bit of devotion to the series just because it’s how I found one of my favorite authors. ANECDOTE TIME: when the Kindle first came out, I was in the middle of reading Cussler’s Dark Watch. A family friend had a Kindle and offered to let me try it out; rather than dig around in their books, I pulled up the Kindle Store and tried to download the sample of the book I was reading at the time. I misremembered the name, though, and wound up downloading the sample of Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. I read the whole sample and, the next time I went to the library, checked out the book so I could finish reading it. Since then, I’ve read almost every novel Pratchett ever wrote. (I also wound up buying one of those original Kindles; I’m still sad that it broke, the PaperWhite is nice but just isn’t as good as the original was.) 
  4. I also really appreciated the lack of a stilted romance subplot; the book thought about doing it, at one point, but only made it as far as “he thought she looked good in her outfit” and then dropped that whole thing, which was nice. 
  5. That’s not intended as an insult; I think it’s a pretty valid description of the category of books that Cussler writes. 
  6. I just realized I didn’t actually explain the title of this post; long story short, there’s a scene in the book where the difference between “he said” and “she said” is used to move the plot along… except the characters are speaking Spanish, a gendered language, so that kind of slip-up wouldn’t actually happen. It irritated me disproportionately. 

“Oath Keeper,” or, “I was very wrong about where this book was going”

I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t actually intend to finish this book so soon after I read the last one, but it sorta just happened. Whoops.1
So, first things first: this is the second book in an ongoing series, and I kinda doubt I can get through a review of it without at least slightly spoiling the first one, so if you, like me, hate having things spoiled, and you haven’t read the first book, go do that.
Now, on to the second: much like the first, it’s got a lot of different plot lines going on at once. One or two got dropped entirely, which I thought would make things a bit easier to follow, but they got replaced with different new ones. Seriously, the cast of this series is spreading like nobody’s business. Which kinda works, I guess – it makes the whole thing feel bigger, but manageably so, to have so many different angles on the same underlying plot.
And that plot, I must say, got more interesting than I was expecting: most of the way through the first book, and a good bit of the way through this one, I thought I had a good grasp of where the series was going. It felt a bit like a Star Wars arc: you get some success in the first book, everything goes to hell in the second, and in the third you’ll pull it all back together, good guys win, fireworks and a party in a forest with a bunch of weird small creatures.2
And boy, was I wrong about that. I still think it’s possible for the arc of the series to be wrapped up in the third book,3 but what actually needs to be wrapped up is very different from what I was expecting to need to be wrapped up.4
It was a very solid addition to the series, though; the first book took a bit to get going, but this one has done a much better job of capturing that Septimus Heap-style “I have no idea what’s going on, so many questions, I can’t stop reading” feeling.5 I definitely recommend it – though, as I said before, read the first one, and then the second one.

  1. I’ve also realized how well I’m doing for reading Jefferson Smith’s books; with this one done, I think there’s only one non-children’s book he’s got published that I haven’t done a review of, and it’s in my To-Read pile. 
  2. There’s definitely a few analogues between the two series, you’ve gotta admit. 
  3. Which, I should note, doesn’t actually exist yet. Not that I’m mad about this or anything. 
  4. But seriously, I really hope there’s going to be a third one, because the ending of the second is such that I could see that being the end of the series, but the sheer amount of unanswered questions would drive me insane. 
  5. I’m referring to it as a ‘Septimus Heap’ thing because that’s the first series I can remember reading that really did that; media-wise, I think it might have been the Atlantis animated film that Disney did as a direct-to-VHS/DVD thing when I was a kid?
    Tangent off this tangent: that was a good movie, and I’m disappointed that the spin-off TV series turned out to be so meh and only got three episodes. What an under-appreciated movie. 

“Strange Places,” or, “I don’t know if it’s the *places* that are the strange part”

In the “books I don’t know how I wound up with” category, we have Strange Places. I actually wound up starting the second book in this series before the first, which was a bit annoying – I’m not a big fan of spoilers, y’know, and accidentally spoiling the ending of the first one wasn’t the best thing that could’ve happened.
Still, I did enjoy the book; the way it begins is definitely interesting, and I think I enjoyed that part the most. About a quarter of the way in1 it jumps off the rails, though, and even a bit of fourth-wall-breaking “this is so weird” from the narrator/protagonist didn’t work to keep me from calling the book out on the suddenness of it all.
Still, the story is interesting, and I’m invested enough that I’m going to go back to the second book and continue reading. From the first book I’ve figured out a bit more about how everything works in the setting, but plot-wise it’s all loose threads still hanging there.2
Which is where I’ll leave this review – fairly short, but I’m supposed to be on vacation right now, and this is ostensibly work,3 so I’m going to cut it off here and go back to getting sunburned on the beaches of southern California. If you’re interested in the book, here’s the link.

  1. Pushing the limit of my ‘no spoilers’ rule here, I know. 
  2. I think there’s three books, but I only have two, so… I’m going to be sad when I finish the second one, aren’t I? 
  3. At least, according to the organizational systems in my task- and time-tracking software it is. 

“Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Have A Nemesis,” or, “seriously just read the series it’s delightful”

First, a disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book (prior to the release) provided I’d write a review of it.1 That said, I was planning to buy the book and write a review of it when it came out, so I’m fairly sure my opinion of it is safe from being affected by the Free Stuff, but still, it’s good to make these things clear.
I’ve reviewed at least one of Roberts’ books before, and a short story or two, but I think my love for this series actually predates my hobby of writing book reviews for everything I read. So, first things first: if you haven’t read any of the other books in the series, go do that. Like, right now. Because, seriously, they’re fun. It’s exactly my aesthetic in what I want from media: young people with superpowers, and some fun exploration of how that world works. This one is one of my favorite: the superhuman community has a self-policing thing going on, with a core rule of “don’t get personal.”2 Which is fascinating, really; I love that sort of stuff, just explorations of how the world would have to be different to not be super different from a bunch of people having superpowers.
This one deals with some leftover plot stuff from earlier in the series, and it was really nice to see those things get wrapped up in a good way.3 And it provides some solid lead-up to the next book in the series, which I’m quite excited for. I think that’s my biggest problem with this one, actually: the rest of the series has had a solid “monster of the week” feel to it – not exactly a ‘monster of the week,’ but that same idea of being a self-contained thing. This one is clearly working to tie together the whole series, instead – the end is really leading into the next book, and the first half is, plot-wise, devoted to wrapping up stuff from earlier in the series.4
Which isn’t precisely a bad thing; the overarching plot has been very slowly working towards something. I guess I’m slightly irritated that the whole “time to tell the parents” plot that the book felt like it was building up to is getting pushed to the next book, at the earliest, but at very least it means I’m guaranteed at least one more book in the series, so I’ll call it a win.
End result: it wasn’t perfect, but it gave me a whole lot of what I love about the series, so I’m quite happy, and I’m quite happy to recommend the book to you, dear reader.

  1. Don’t be too excited for me, this isn’t a ‘you’re a Real Book Reviewer’ moment; I follow the author’s blog, and I’ve read one or two advanced chapters from this book and a couple of the others that get posted there. The publisher wanted a few early reviews, which resulted in a “comment your email address if you’d like an advanced review copy!” post, and I commented my email address. Still, it’s cool! 
  2. As a fun bonus, one of the books in the series covers how this system was created, and while it follows a different group of characters than the rest of the series, it’s just as much fun. 
  3. It’s difficult to do these reviews without giving away spoilers, sometimes, and a lot of the time I feel like I wind up being too vague, but I have a deep hatred for spoilers so I’m fairly okay with that result. 
  4. That said, I specified ‘plot-wise’ because, by volume, most of the first half of the book is devoted to the sort of “this is what superheroes do when they’re not being superheroes” stuff that I love

“The House at Baker Street,” or, “the patriarchy is an even more insidious villain than Moriarty”

A couple weeks ago us Austria students spent two days setting up for and helping at a charity bazaar. The entire first day was devoted to setting up the tables – a couple metric tons of books take a while to lay out nicely, you see. This was a dangerous proposition for me, because in the face of that many books I am weak and I wound up buying several. Which I now have to get home somehow. Whoops.
The books I grabbed were “City of Dark Magic”,1 “The Clockwork Scarab”,2 two others that I haven’t yet read, and “The House at Baker Street”, which I finished just last night.3
I’ll admit, finishing the book last night wasn’t the best decision I’ve made recently – I’m fairly tired and irritable now, having stayed up a bit later than was advisable – but I’d gotten to that point in the book where you just can’t put it down.
The book was written as a take on the Sherlock Holmes story that is entirely compatible with the original novels – one or two of the things that the author treated as canonical aren’t precisely confirmed as such, but even those are based in popular interpretations of the canon.4 The core of the idea is “what do Mrs. Hudson and Mrs. Watson do all day?”
The answer, as it turns out, was generally ‘putter around doing appropriate things for a woman of the time to do’ … right up until the beginning of the book when Sherlock, rather characteristically, rejects a potential client. Mrs. Hudson offers the young woman tea, and winds up hearing her troubles – someone is blackmailing her, not with anything she did but just with the threat of spreading the sort of nasty rumors that can ruin someone’s life. Mrs. Hudson, and Mrs. Watson, being nicer people than Sherlock, decide to take up the case and help the young lady as best they can.
And then it starts to get fun, because it’s just a delightful romp through the world of the background characters of the Sherlock Holmes books. I really don’t want to say anything more, because it’s still a mystery novel, and it’s quite a good one – I didn’t see the ending coming, and I’m usually fairly good at calling how things are going to go.
In sum: Mrs. Hudson and Mary Watson are awesome, go read this book about them.

  1. Which I didn’t finish, so don’t hold out hope for the review of that one. My silence is my review. 
  2. I liked enough to share a link to it, but I was so irritated by the ‘buy the next book!’-ness of the ending that I decided against writing a full review when I finished reading it. 
  3. One of, I should add, three Sherlock Holmes themed books – “The Clockwork Scarab” being the second, and the third I can’t recall the title of but appears to be a Russian riff on the Holmes theme. 
  4. The one I’m referencing here is the idea that Mrs. Hudson’s first name is Martha – my understanding is that it’s never explicitly stated, but the general consensus is that that’s the case. 

The Long Cosmos

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.
Good? Good.
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.
“Join us.”
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.

  1. 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! 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. Aside from a bunch of free stuff from Project Gutenberg 
  5. 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. 
  6. 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… 
  7. As opposed to East – knowing which is which is apparently an instinctive sort of thing for people when they step. 
  8. 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. 

A Short History of Nuclear Folly

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.”
“Seems reasonable.”

I’m going to stop here, because I can’t give away all of the fun parts of the book.2 I quite enjoyed it, so I’m quite happy to recommend it. Have a read.

  1. Fun story: Chase is trying to convince me to write a book about this stuff, because he’s a history nerd and thinks other people should be too. 
  2. And the long-winded blog post on the subject that I might wind up writing in the future, if Chase gets his way. 

Colt Coltrane and the Lotus Killer

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.

  1. 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. 

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids

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

  1. 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. 
  2. Which I am quite sad about, to be fair, magic is a lot of fun. 
  3. And read through the little post-script bit that’s an in-character explanation of the world, because it’s hilarious

The Ables

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.

  1. His mother is a teleporter, and his little brother is apparently going to wind up as a speedster when his powers kick in. 
  2. Points for alliteration 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.” 
  5. 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. 

Lady Knight Volant

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.

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.) 
  4. And no, not the boring ‘everything is dark because the world is dark’ BS that got popularized by the last round of Batman movies. 
  5. ‘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
  6. More of a small fortress-town, really, but it is technically a refugee camp so I’ll continue to refer to it that way. 
  7. 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. 
  8. 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. 
  9. 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. 
  10. 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. 
  11. I’m getting tired of typing, okay? 
  12. 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. 
  13. Including the Beka Cooper ones, because there’s some nice integrations of the commoner perspective that those provided. 
  14. 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.