“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.

“Atchafalaya”

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.

“The Big Meow,” or, “a better ending than I even bothered to hope for”


Diane Duane
I don’t think I’ve done a review of one of Diane Duane’s books on here before, but that’s not for lack of reading them — it’s just that I’ve been reading them since significantly before I had a habit of writing book reviews, or even a blog at all. The Young Wizards series is something I’ve read and reread and reread again; I’ll pick up one of the books for a reread almost as often as I reread Tamora Pierce.
A quick bit of context, then: the Young Wizards series is set in a universe1 where wizardry is real, and has a very distinctive purpose: slowing down entropy. Wizardry is based on language; wizards learn a special language, the Speech, that was used by the gods to create the universe. With those abilities, they fight the good fight, acknowledging that, yes, one day entropy will win, the universe will die… but they’re not going to let that happen any earlier than it absolutely has to.
The Big Meow is the third in a spin-off trilogy of sorts, following the team of feline wizards that maintain the worldgates at Grand Central Station.2 As in the second book, though, they don’t spend much time on their home turf; most of the book is set in Los Angeles, and there’s some fun to be had as they try to get used to the West Coast style.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the book, though, is how well it handled a certain issue: representation. The protagonist is a cat, and Duane does an excellent job of guiding the reader through that mindspace, through the different perspective given by an interspecies difference. The part that stood out to me, though, was how this, as a side effect, made for a surprising bit of queer representation. Rhiow, the protagonist, was fixed; as a result, this book, written before the word ‘asexual’ had even begun to enter into the public sphere with ‘gay’ and ‘bisexual’ and everything else under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, has an asexual protagonist. The first two books did too, and it feels entirely natural; Rhiow just has a different perspective on certain things, and cracks a few jokes about it with her coworkers. It’s not treated as a big deal at all.
In this book, it becomes a bit more of a focus, as we get a bit of a love interest subplot. And it’s handled quite well: there’s a bit of angst about the whole “I’m fixed and that makes me broken” thing, but her friends are quick to give her a loving whack upside the head, and help her stop seeing that difference as a negative and instead as just a difference. It is, possibly, the best bit of asexual representation I’ve ever read, and it’s quite touching.
Plot-wise, I think I enjoyed this one more than either of the others in the trilogy; the first goes a bit weird in places, and the second has a very cool setting that gets a bit confusing. This, though, doesn’t get lost at all, and the storyline is fun and beautifully creepy. It’s a bit fitting that this book, the one set in and around Hollywood, feels absolutely the most cinematic of the three. I’d totally recommend giving it a read.3
(And, while you’re at it, go read the rest of the series — the Young Wizards books are amazing. Pick up the New Millenium Edition box set, it’s totally worth it.)


  1. Well, technically, a collection of universes, but I digress. 
  2. Public transit: also useful for wizards. 
  3. Normally this would be an Amazon link, but Diane Duane runs her own ebook store, which I’m quite in favor of as it means the majority of the sale goes to her instead of to Amazon. 

“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. 

“Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality,” or, “you could make a drinking game of watching people change the world with these essays”


Edited by Randall Packer & Ken Jordan, with a foreword by William Gibson
As a well-documented computer nerd, I’m honestly kinda amazed I’d never stumbled across this book before. It’s an impressive collection of titans of the field — Alan Kay, Douglas Engelbart, Vannevar Bush, Tim Berners-Lee, and so on.1 Other than the foreword, there’s nothing truly new in this book,2 but the essays are downright formative. Bush’s essay, written in the wake of the Second World War, describes what is recognizably a smartphone; Berners-Lee’s describes the foundation of what would become the internet. Looking back, it’s a fascinating read — hindsight is 20/20, and all that. It’s a cool book, give it a read.


  1. It’s maybe a bit of a stretch to call Bush a titan of the field of computer science, but he did invent the military-industrial complex, which led to a lot of computer tech, so… I’ll let it stand. 
  2. Well, the introductions of each author probably are, but I digress. 

“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. 

“Not Your Sidekick,” or, “if you dropped hints any harder it’d cause an earthquake”


C.B. Lee
My obsession with superhero books continues, and I’m ranking this one second place out of the superhero books I’ve read for interesting worldbuilding. Set in Andover in what used to be the California-Nevada area, it takes place something like 100 years after a massive solar flare kicked off a low-key apocalypse. Between the Cosmic Radiation and the simultaneous failure of the safety systems in every nuclear power plant around the world, the radiation bath triggered a latent gene in the human population, giving some fraction of a percent of the population superpowers.1 World War III cropped up, apparently in a non-nuclear manner, and the various governments of the world ceased to exist.2 New ones sprung up – there’s a South East Asian something-or-other pulling together after a couple decades of civil war, a Global Federation that sounds like “the UN, but better at covering things up,” and NAFTA merged together into the North American Collective.
It gets interesting pretty quick, though, with a few references3 to old fashioned media being banned – presumably, collecting old TVs, books, DVD players, and so on is about conserving resources in a still fairly resource-starved world.4 But the government has done a great job of removing references to those old things at all. There’s just a whiff of fascism, and once you catch that it’s a hard thread to let go of. As background materials go, it’s utterly fascinating.
The story proper is also pretty hilarious – the protagonist is the daughter of Andover’s superhero power couple, which gives her an inside view into their normal lives. They’ve got cover jobs – real estate, the both of them – that they’re varying degrees of terrible at pretending to take part in. Their primary villains, Mr and Mrs Mischief, are more about pranking the population than causing any actual havoc, so even when they have to go in to work, such as it is, it’s not exactly a life-or-death situation.
Without superpowers of her own, though, their daughter Jess is at a bit of a loss about what to do with herself. After her precocious little brother5 makes one too many references to her underachievement in school and lack of powers, she decides to go do something with herself and applies for an internship at Monroe Industries, the high-tech firm that’s apparently Andover’s staple business. After getting the job, she’s a bit shocked to find out that the ‘experimental research’ division she’s working in is a cover for how the Mischiefs are getting their resources – her bosses are her parents’ arch-nemeses.
Hilarity ensues, and I’m quite happy to recommend the book to you. Give it a read.


  1. The degree to which it’s generic feels more tongue-in-cheek than anything else, so it works. 
  2. Except the European Union; apparently all it’ll take to resolve the Brexit mess is the end of the world? 
  3. These aren’t the heavily-dropped hints I’m referring to in the title; the romantic subplot is possibly the single most obvious thing to have happened in the history of ever. Subtlety, thy name is not Jessica Tran. 
  4. There’s some nice references to the fact that meat is a very rare luxury item, and the majority of the population lives on an economical vegetarian diet. 
  5. Now, we’re not going to say ‘super-genius,’ but we’re going to heavily imply it. 

“The Mystic Marriage,” or, “this book changed genre like four times”


Heather Rose Jones
School has begun in earnest, and I’ve suddenly gone from reading a book a day to taking a couple weeks to finish one. I’d call it depressing, but considering that I’m down to only a couple more books that I haven’t yet read, it’s actually working in my favor, keeping me from running out of new material quite so quickly.
“The Mystic Marriage” is set in the fictional European country of Alpennia, a small country that, were I to guess, is somewhere bordering France and, perhaps, Spain? It’s hard to say, as it’s never explicitly explained, but the recent collapse of the French Empire feels more personal than do the interferences from the Austrian Empire.1
There’s two twists that make the book really interesting.
The first is the presence of magic. It’s a different system than I’ve seen before, though – works of thaumaturgy are referred to as ‘mysteries’ and rely on the intervention of the saints. It’s all very Catholic, with some interesting utilitarian aspects. It’s reminiscent of the ways that science would have to be fit into the Catholic canon – tweak the wording a little bit, make sure to express some wonder about the great things God does, and you’re good as long as you don’t get too scandalous.
The other is more scandalous, and where it gets really fun. The core of the cast is, basically, the Lesbian Noblewomen’s Society. There’s a lot of mention of the fact that, as Noted Eccentrics, they’re allowed more strangeness by the high society of Rotenek, which is how they can get away, for example, a pair of unrelated women living together despite both being wealthy enough for their own households. It’s the scandalous nature of it that makes it feel realistic – there’s no “oh, yes, in this fictional country, unlike the rest of the Continent, everyone is totally fine with this!” It’s a “we’re powerful people, and as long as we’re not blatant we can get away with it.” Sort of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” applied to the upper crust of society.
And really, it’s a very enjoyable book. The genre changes were interesting, and allowed it to explore a lot of ground without being predictable, which I quite liked. So I’m quite happy to give it a recommendation – go give it a read.


  1. I think it’s the Austrian Empire; they’re referred to as ‘Austrians’ throughout, and only in glancing references, so it could just as well be the Holy Roman Empire. 

“Ambassador 1: Seeing Red,” or, “the title turns out to be an extremely satisfying pun”


Patty Jansen
I honestly had no idea what this book was about going in, and I think it worked well that way. As it turns out, it was a political thriller: the protagonist is a negotiator between Nations of Earth and gamra. It’s roughly equivalent to, say, being Turkey’s negotiator to the EU for the membership talks. Only Turkey is a stronger version of the UN with full executive powers over the entire planet, and the EU is a trade coalition that regulates FTL interstellar travel.
Where it gets really interesting is the various non-humans involved. The rough layout of the galaxy features something like 95% of the entire population being various humanoids; there are some references to the fact that one of the member races of gamra is far more ancient than the rest and not only developed the FTL technology but used it to seed the galaxy with the various humanities. But each version of humanity had tens of thousands of years to diverge from one another, and you wind up with some really interesting cultural and even biological variations. The Coldi, the majority group within gamra, have some serious differences in how they treat one another and think about the world in general.
And that’s what makes the book so interesting – you’ve got a Eurosceptic-analog President of Nations of Earth, a novice diplomat without his cultural exchange attaché, and a negotiating culture based on a completely different style of interpersonal relationships and loyalty than anyone from Earth is used to. It’s fascinating looking at all the interactions, and the author has done an incredible job of taking one or two differences and seeing what happens when you let those differences influence things for a few hundred years. It’s an excellent read, and I couldn’t put the book down, so if you at all enjoy good science fiction or the occasional political thriller, give it a read.

“Death by Silver,” or, “the landlady has a point, the plant DID try to bite the help”


Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold
I’ll start off by saying that this is definitely within the Sherlock Holmes archetype of stories,1 but it’s got enough differing it from the rest to be interesting.
The first big difference is in the setting: it’s the same Victorianesque time period as the average Sherlock Holmes book, but this is a world with magic of a sort – or, as the locals refer to it, metaphysics. It’s a bit of a complex system, based upon written language and a fairly complex grammar, utilizing a variety of different written squares. I don’t have a great grasp of how it all works, which is okay, because the way it’s written it has a good mix of detail and lack thereof. It’s a good balance, and the way its integrated into the rest of the world is quite nice.
That leads into the second difference: while there’s a clear Sherlock figure, I got the feeling that he’s the secondary of the two narrative main characters.2 While the Sherlock is still the normal Sherlock, albeit using magic instead of opium, the Watson is a metaphysician for hire, rather than a doctor. The story begins with him, in fact: a customer comes to him to remove a curse from the family silver. Finding a lack of a curse, he does a cleansing… and is rather surprised a few days later when he’s hired again to sort out the murder of his previous client, his skull having been bashed in with some of the recently-cleansed silver. It’s at this point that he brings in the Sherlock, as that’s more his area of expertise.
The relationship between the two of them is the third major difference.3 They went to school together, had a bit of a schoolboy dalliance, broke it off in college, and then resumed it in their adulthood. It’s a weird interaction – one of those rom-com style things, where both parties involved want the same thing, but are both convinced the other doesn’t want it. It makes the switching viewpoints mechanic pretty hilarious, to be honest; I spent a lot of time gleefully muttering “you idiot” at the both of them.
It’s the taboo quality of that relationship that I enjoyed the most, I think: the book doesn’t go in for the gloss-over-it style that some take, wherein the Victorian “don’t ask, don’t tell” style4 is stretched to cover openly gay men. Instead, it’s a matter of only being shown or spoken of behind closed doors. Secretive clubs that one must be vouched for by an existing member to get into. Careful remarks that can be said to have been misheard if the wrong response is given. It makes the whole thing realistic – take away the magical aspect of the book, and I could absolutely believe it was someone’s autobiography, hidden away and recently rediscovered and published by a descendant.
All in all, it made for an interesting read, and I’m quite happy to recommend it to you.


  1. I should have a tag for ‘Holmesian books’ by now, I read enough of them. 
  2. Two protagonists, working together; the viewpoint switches off between the two of them throughout. Nonetheless, the Sherlock has the helm slightly less than the Watson. 
  3. Well, insofar as it’s explicitly stated; there’s a lot of queer theory talk about the canonical Holmes/Watson relationship. 
  4. See “a bared ankle is improper, but I’ll meet you at the brothel for some opium later.” 

“Interim Errantry 2: On Ordeal,” or, “origin stories are actually interesting when they’re new”


Diane Duane
And really, that’s the long and short of it: the origin stories for three characters in Diane Duane’s marvelous Young Wizardsseries. And they were very interesting origins – the third, there were hints about in the rest of the series, but the first two were entirely new. The second was very unexpected, as well – more vicious, and sadder, than I’d thought.
But rather than talk about this book specifically, I think I’d be happier talking up the series as a whole. I haven’t really had a chance to write about it here before, but it’s been one of my favorites for ages. I received the first book in the series as a birthday present years and years ago,1 and promptly fell in love.
It’s been mentioned in both college and graduate school application essays. It drifts through the way I look at the world. I can name chunks of my value system that clearly come from these books, and I can trace my interests – up to and including my major and planned career path – back to the way these books taught me to look at the world.
Before I ever read Peter Parker’s thoughts on responsibility, these books were teaching me that having power meant you should use it to help others.
And they taught me that names, and really all words, are very powerful things.
They’ve been hugely influential to my life, and I happily recommend them to everyone. Start at the beginning: the first book, the delightfully-titled So You Want to Be A Wizard, should be in your local library. If not, I’d recommend picking it up directly from the author: she certainly deserves your patronage. Regardless, go start reading.


  1. I don’t remember exactly how many years it was, but I can tell it was sometime that in elementary school, based on where the birthday party was and who I can recall being there. 

“Blood Ties,” or, “nobody will ever convince me these two aren’t married”


Quincy J. Allen
I’m standing by that title, and it makes a good follow-up to my review of the short story prequel to this that was in one of the anthologies I read recently.
It’s still a wonderful take on post-civil-war America, and I quite enjoyed the read; although, being as I’m without internet as I’m writing this, I’m rather annoyed that I don’t have the sequel, because there’s a whole lot left to happen in the plot. Like, to the degree that I’d argue this shouldn’t have been the end of the book, just the end of Part One of the book.
Still, it’s a fun read – the main characters are a delightful pair of cowboys that are basically married with a child,1 and if I want to utterly misrepresent the book I’d call it the story of their vacation to San Francisco. Although, considering how much they enjoy themselves, it sorta is, if a bit more lethal than the average vacation. Hey, the six destroyed buildings won’t cost that much to fix, right?
Basically it’s a fun romp of a book, and I’m quite happy to recommend it. Give it a read.


  1. Canonically this isn’t true, but all of the places where the book makes it clear it isn’t feel a little bit forced in. A word of advice to the author: when your characters are trying this hard to make something happen, just let it happen. 

“Out of This World,” or, “it’s like Fifty Shades and the Chronicles of Narnia had a child”


Catherine Lundoff
The last of my string of anthologies; I’ve run out of them for the moment, and I’ll be going back to reading and reviewing novels for a while, at least.

“Great Reckonings, Little Rooms”

A Shakespearean tragedy, though not in the normal way.

“Medium Méchanique”

And this, folks, is why we leave the dead alone.

“The Egyptian Cat”

There’s something really fun about a staggeringly normal person getting caught up as a side character in an epic story.

“At the Roots of the World Tree”

I wanted this to be a bit happier than it actually was, but I liked it regardless.

“A Scent of Roses”

A happier ending to the Tam Lane story than I really expected it to have.

“At Mother Laurie’s House of Bliss”

Now I want to watch a police procedural that takes place in a medieval kingdom full of knights and magic.

“Spell, Book and Candle”

If I were a TV witch, this would be the point where my chatty familiar would give me sound advice, which I would then ignore. But then, if I were a TV witch, I wouldn’t be a dyke with the hots for her old college sweetie.

“Beauty”

The fact that this whole thing was leading up to a “Beauty and the Beast” joke is just spectacular.

“Red Scare”

An odd twist on the noir detective trope.

“A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace”

I kinda hate body-swap stories, it’s just difficult to keep track of who’s who.

“Vadija”

The city of sorrows has a Diablo sort of feel to it – ancient curses and all that.

All in all, a good collection of stories to end on. Give it a read.

“The Best of Penny Dread Tales,” or, “why is there never a nuclear boiler in the steampunk airship“


Yet another anthology! I’m on a roll.

“Iron Angel”

Cayleigh Hickey
Oh, we’re off to a good start here. I wasn’t expecting to leap into the land of the fae, but here we are.

“The Dirges of Percival Lewand”

Aaron Michael Ritchey
Okay well, this belonged more in the last anthology I read than here, but oh well.

“The Tunnel Rat’s Journey”

J. M. Franklin
Futuristic steampunk! An interesting twist, and one of the more hopeful bits of post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve ever read. I like it.

“The Cutpurse from Mulberry Bend”

Gerry Huntman
Short and sad.

“The Great Dinosaur Roundup of 1903”

Laura Givens

Traveling through time turns out to be loud and flashy but not as uncomfortable as you might think.

Told as a letter from, basically, a background character in an Atomic Robo flashback sequence.

“American Vampire”

Keith Good
Well that’s a rough life, my guy.

“Lasater’s Lucky Left”

Quincy J. Allen
I’m gonna be honest, I was kinda hoping this would turn into a horrid romance noel halfway through. The sequel’s still got room for that, though, so I’ll hold out hope.

“Sinking to the Level of Demons”

David Boop
Well, that got dark.

“Vengeance”

J.R. Boyett & Peter J. Wacks
Oh, that was cool. A variant on vampires, and a retired hunter? Very cool.

“The Noonday Sun”

Vivian Caethe
An exoskeleton-wearing monster hunter, clearing out the Wild West.

“Industrial Melanism”

Aaron Spriggs
If you’re claustrophobic, don’t read this one.

“Today, the Sun Sets in the East”

Peter J. Wacks
Another good story that I’d like to read more of. Tiger is an interesting character, as is Hummingbird.

“The Weather God”

David W. Landrum
Well that war went a bit differently than the British expected, I’d say.

“The Spirit of the Grift”

Sam Knight
A portable X-ray, I think? I wish we had more stories of grifters using some sort of advanced technology to pull it off.

“The Heart of Appricotta”

Mike Cervantes

With a salute, punctuated by a word that sounded like a punch to the stomach in Yiddish, the assembled tossed the raft in the river.

It’s a comedy in a style I’d describe as “British Imperial Braggadocio,” which isn’t exactly to my taste, but a couple lines (the one above, for example) got a laugh out of me.1

“Budapest Will Burn”

Jonathan D. Beer
Why do anthologies end on such weird notes? I’d rather have them end on something happy, which this could be if you squint, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory at best.

Nonetheless, this was another good collection of stories that I’m comfortable recommending. Give it a read.


  1. Another good one:

    In my panic I struggled to remember precisely what the five stages of grief were supposed to be, so I experienced denial, anger, gassiness, and that strange confusion you get when you feel you’ve left a door unlocked before finally achieving acceptance.

“Ghost in the Cogs,” or, “a neutron bomb, but it makes angry zombies, too“


I’m continuing on my anthology kick, I suppose.

“Asmodeus Flight”

Siobhan Carroll

The Great Exhibition had attracted a seething mixture of nationalities—scar-faced Americans, queue-sporting Chinese, green-scaled Inner Earthers—even an odd Frenchman, the latter drawing suspicious glances from John Bull and continental exiles alike.

Ah, Britain.

“Hiss”

Folly Blaine & Randy Henderson
“Imagine that with power.”

“The Misplaced Body of Fitzhugh Alvey”

Jessica Corra
I do enjoy a story where the women are smarter and the men don’t reject that fact.

“The Ghost Pearl”

Howard Andrew Jones
A slight Pirates of the Caribbean vibe to this one, even though the whole thing takes place in London.1

“Frænka Askja’s Silly Old Story”

Emily C. Skaftun
This is the saddest one so far, somehow.

“Edge of the Unknown”

Elsa S. Henry
There’s a slight Pratchett feel here, and it works really well.2

“The Blood on the Walls”

Eddy Webb
Sherlock Holmes investigating actual hauntings, basically; I wish this was a series I could read more of.

“Tipping Point”

Nayad Monroe
Gotta love good old Victorian capitalism.

“T-Hex”

Jonah Buck
While that was a pretty obvious outcome, I’m still annoyed about it.

“The Monster”

Erika Holt
Man, I’m with the narrator, I hope he didn’t actually succeed.

“The Book of Futures”

Wendy Nikel
A locked-room mystery! Oh, I do like those.

“Death Wish”

Parker Goodreau
Another one that I want more of – I’d quite enjoy reading this weird love story.

“City of Spirits”

Christopher Paul Carey
Well, that could’ve gone better. I’m a bit curious as to how a cold-burning fire can be used to generate electricity, although I suppose it’s possible…

“Team 17”

T. Mike McCurley
I think I’m gonna go ahead and call this my favorite from the book, without even reading the rest: it’s set post-WWII, during the cleanup from a war where Germany weaponized life-force and the Blitz was done with something like a neutron bomb. The entire city wiped out… and an army of angry ghosts left behind.

“The Litany of Waking”

Scott Fitzgerald Gray
Another excellent one – feels like a post-apocalyptic version of Girl Genius.

“Labor Costs”

Richard Dansky
And this is why we need unions, folks.

“The Twentieth-Century Man”

Nick Mamatas
A sequel to an earlier story in this anthology, actually, which made it even more interesting.

“Clockwork of Sorrow”

Spencer Ellsworth
I suppose the title should’ve warned me that this one would be a tragedy.

“The Lady in the Ghastlight”

Liane Merciel
Oh, the wick was a nice touch, I didn’t expect that part.

“Cuckoo”

Richard Pett
Forget about the cuckoo, I want to know what happens to the engine.

“The Shadow and the Eye”

James Lowder

Like everyone who had read a newspaper in the past twenty years, I was familiar with Professor Thaxton’s temper. He’d been at the heart of brawls at scientific conferences on six of the seven continents; only Australia has, so far, been spared.

I can only assume he just hasn’t been to a scientific conference in Australia yet, that seems like the most likely place for a brawl at a conference.
That said, we’re also throwing this in the category of “I desperately want a whole series of this.”

“Golden Wing, Silver Eye”

Cat Hellisen
Oh, we’re ending on another sad one.

Quite a few very good reads in here, I definitely recommend it if you’re in the mood for some bite-sized works. Have a read.


  1. Well, I assume it’s London, these things usually happen there. 
  2. Or possibly Diana Wynne Jones. Either way, I strongly recommend it. 

“The SEA is Ours,” or, “is the proper term ‘biopunk’ or ‘genopunk’?”


That’s actually a nice little wordplay in the title there – it’s a steampunk anthology centered around Southeast Asia. From the introduction:

… if in the larger English-language science fiction world straight white men call the shots, then our anthology presents a range of authors and characters that is predominantly women, and hella queer.

“On the Consequence of Sound”

Timothy Dimacali
Man, I’d have been more attentive in violin lessons if being able to play well was going to enable me to fly, dang.

“Chasing Volcanoes”

Marilag Angway
Post-apocalyptic landscapes are usually made that way by nuclear weapons, but this time it was just a ton of volcanoes. Still unclear on what, exactly, they’re trying to extract from the volcanoes, though.

“Ordained”

L.L. Hill
Something about clockwork and holy places just doesn’t mesh in my head; I blame the Luddites.

“The Last Aswang”

Alessa Hinlo
Oh, now that is a story. I like it, and I might have to do a bit more research on the myths behind it, they seem interesting.

“Life Under Glass”

Nghi Vo
I was expecting a very different ending, but I guess that works.

“Between Severed Souls”

Paolo Chikiamco
There’s a trend through all of these – more respect and acknowledgement of ancient things than you get in the mainstream of steampunk. It’s different, and it’s a good contrast.

“The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amoroso”

Kate Osias
A tragedy, and a tale of revenge. Sad and sweet and wonderful.

“Working Woman”

Olivia Ho
I wasn’t really expecting to laugh at a story this grim, but dang was it ever funny towards the end.

“Spider Here”

Robert Liow
Less ‘steampunk’ than it is ‘biopunk,’ and it’s cool.

“The Chamber of Souls”

z.m. quỳnh
There’s a lot going on in this one, and I’m a bit at sea. Which apparently doesn’t exist here?

“Petrified”

Ivanna Mendels
It’s like a superhero team, I’m digging it.

“The Insects and Women Sing Together”

Pear Nuallak
A strong ending to the anthology.

I liked the whole thing- a lot of good stories, and authors that are well worth supporting. Give it a read.

“Black Ocean Mission Pack 1,” or, “the wizard is roughly equivalent to an orbital strike”


J.S. Morin

1: “Salvage Trouble”

Oh, I am absolutely sold on this setting – I was expecting medieval or renaissance level technology paired with magic, and it turns out I got, like, 30th century, space colonies and holograms… paired with magic. And man is it a fun cast of characters, I’m so down for the other novellas in here.

2: “A Smuggler’s Conscience”

This might be the first time I’ve hoped for a government to have a policy for civil forfeiture, but if somebody is gonna pour a couple billion dollars into building a Bond-villain-esque mountain base, they may as well repurpose it after the bad guys are gone.

3: “Poets and Piracy”

I like a good heist, but in all honesty, I’m still not entirely clear on what happened. I may have missed it while I was busy being annoyed that the future’s equivalent to the DEA is apparently named “EIEIO.”

4: “To Err is Azrin”

It took this long to learn that ARGO, the Federation/Empire/Alliance sort of thing that runs the human-control areas, stands for Allied Races of the Galactic Ocean.
Probably my favorite story so far – there was more character development evident than any of the others have had, it was nice.

4.5: “Guardian of the Plundered Tomes”

And a little prequel at the end, showing how the gang got together. I wish there’d been more explanation of the actual contents of the Plundered Tome, though, it was still annoyingly vague.

All in all, a nice little collection of stories that I enjoyed reading. Your turn. 

“Altered America: Steampunk Stories,” or, “one or two good ones and a whole lot of depressing”


Cat Rambo
An anthology, but all the stories are written by one author, so just the one name at the top here. And just the one link, as well, if you’d like to read it. 

“Clockwork Fairies”

The protagonist here, though I feel that may not be the right word, is as if someone heard a quote about “the small-minded man” and wanted to write a character who was the epitome of that epithet. Ugh.

“Rare Pears and Greengages”

I came to London, where the air smells like smoke and despair.

And really that sums this story, and the feel of the book so far, up: smoke and despair.

“Memphis BBQ”

This story was pretty fun, but it’s the second time we’ve had a protagonist I’d describe as some sort of terrible. The lady isn’t interested, dude, leave her alone.

“Laurel Finch, Laurel Finch, Where Do You Wander?”

Abraham Lincoln isn’t above necromancy, it seems, which made the civil war a rather short affair.
That said, I desperately want more of the main character of this one – she deserves a whole novel to herself.

“Snakes on a Train”

Oh, now that’s a neat pairing for a detective movie: a telepath and a robot.

“Rappacini’s Crow”

And we’re back to everything being depressing forever. Cool.

“Her Windowed Eyes, Her Chambered Heart”

I’m reminded of Castle Heterodyne, which can only be a good thing.

“Web of Blood and Iron”

Now I’m disappointed that I’ve never seen a conspiracy theory claiming vampires own the global transportation network.

“Ticktock Girl”

I’m slightly confused by how the ‘moments’ work – are they just an arbitrary segmentation of time? I mean, probably, since they worked well for the structure of the story, but still, I want to know more. I enjoyed this one.

“Seven Clockwork Angels, All Dancing on a Pin”

There’s some serious hand-waving of science going on in here, but I do like the resulting riff on the core concept. I just wish it was all a bit better-explained.

“Vintage: A Ghost Story,” or, “I don’t think this book was intended to be hilarious but IT IS”


Steve Berman
I’ll begin by saying that, just before I read this book, I tried reading one that was about lesbian werewolves,1 and it was bad.2 So it’s not getting reviewed here; instead, I switched to this one, and it was so much better. Like, not only was it better-written, it was also just one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read. Strong vibes of Sixth Sense or Ghost Whisperer, depending on which you used to watch.34
It also gets a strong plus from me for being what I refer to as “queer propaganda” – namely, any book that includes queer characters for purposes other than the “Bury Your Gays” trope. Representation is important, y’all.
That said, the title of this post comes from the fact that I switched to my normal ‘scary movie’ tactic, namely sarcastically commentating all the way through. Which turned it into an oddly hilarious experience, because the main character did a good deal of the scary movie tradition of “making horrible, horrible decisions.” The biggest one goes to “falling in love at first sight,” with the notable kicker being “falling in love with a ghost.” C’mon, man, that’s all sorts of bad choices right there.
And it just goes from there. It’s actually pretty fun, and as I already said, probably my favorite ghost story experience. As is my traditional link for books I like: have a read.


  1. This combination wasn’t a coincidence; I think, in this book, being a lesbian came with being a werewolf? I didn’t actually read far enough to find out for sure. 
  2. Like, I made it about three pages in and I’m betting I could tell you the plot of whole first half of the book with pinpoint accuracy, and the I could call the generalities of the second half. Also, the writing was on the ‘trying to hard’ side of the scale. 
  3. I was a Ghost Whisperer fan, but I also distinctly remember reading the first book of a series based on Sixth Sense and being terrified by the concept of being able to see all those ghosts. 
  4. Additional note to that one: I just found out the author of that book also wrote Boy Meets Boy and I’m having a “small world” moment about an author, this is weird. More entertaining: his Wikipedia page doesn’t mention the Sixth Sense books at all.