Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome wasn’t really what I expected, which threw me off while I was reading it, and took me a bit to come to grips with after I finished.
What I was expecting was… a history of ancient Rome. Start at the beginning, proceed through the end, telling the reader what we know and how we know it, explaining along the way the uncertainties that we still have and the gaps in our knowledge and maybe occasionally “things we thought we knew, but we were wrong,” when they’re common-enough misperceptions.
But in fact this is kind of “Mythbusters: Rome Edition.” The book is really organized as series of anecdotes about individual periods of Roman history, in loose chronological order. For most of them, Beard will give a retelling of the old, accepted story of that event, and then freeze frame, pull back the curtain, and here’s why you shouldn’t necessarily believe that, and here’s what we really know nowadays. (Which in many cases is: honestly not a whole lot.)
And so while I was reading it at first, it felt like cotton candy fluff, a bunch of glossy “Did you know…?” blurbs all connected together. I kept waiting for the actual meat of the book to really kick in, and—in the sense I was expecting—it never did. Frustrating.
But as I’ve had a chance to think about it, my reaction has grown more positive. Yeah, okay, it’s a high-level history—it’s a relatively short volume that covers 1000 years, it almost has to be. And yes, it’s not the comprehensive history I wanted. But there’s legitimate value in unteaching the mythology of history, in explaining why sources that have been historically taken at face value shouldn’t be. And there’s value in explaining the methods of modern history and the kind of evidence that historians look for, and have available. And of course, there’s value in looking beyond the stories of the nobility into the history of the “regular” people of Rome, the history of women, and the history of slaves, which Beard also does.
It’s still not the book I want—I want the book that does all that stuff in the context of telling a detailed history—but it’s a book that’s worth reading if you want an accessible, quick overview of modern historical understanding of Roman history.
The fun thing about non-fiction books is that you don’t need to guess what they’re about, because they tell you right in the post-colon half of their titles. So, yeah, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is exactly what it says on the tin, a look at Europe in the years leading up to the first World War.
There are probably two big ideas that Clark is pushing against. The first is that WW1 was inevitable, that the constellation of inexorable historic forces would have made it happen regardless of anything, and that Franz Ferdinand was just a pretext. Toward this end, Clark takes the Serbian trigger seriously and delves reasonably deeply into the history of Serbian nationalism and the particulars of Serbian government and its relationship to clandestine conspiracy groups. He also moves on to examining the history of the relationships between the European powers in the decades leading up to the war, and shows how they were in constant flux, and that if war hadn’t broken out when it did, the constellation of alliances could have been completely different in a few years.
The second idea he’s pushing against is the idea that it’s productive to sit around pointing fingers and putting together rankings of who is the most to blame. Which, okay, not wrong. History is complicated and counter-factuals are impossible to evaluate, and everyone legitimately has their own competing interests and all. But at the same time, as someone who’s grown up with history books where Germany was on the opposing side, and who’s always understood that they were the aggressor, it’s a little odd to read a book in which it’s the French who are pushing the war forward the hardest, and pushing their allies to do the same.
But of course, saying that “France” did anything is kind of missing the point, too, because—to go back to that first point about the contingency of history—one of the things Clark illustrates vividly is that each country had its internal factions, and had its hawks and doves, and that the particulars of policy depended on the specific human beings who were in power (or, sometimes, just in key ambassadorial or ministerial roles) at any given time, and that their preoccupations and characters and beliefs shaped the course of events in ways that were unpredictable and could easily have been changed. The idea that the person in charge might be essential to avoiding or inciting catastrophe on the scale of global war isn’t one that’s particularly reassuring right now, but alas, it has a lot of compelling evidence behind it.
Ultimately, The Sleepwalkers is a good demystification and explication of a period of history that is usually taught with vague handwaves and yadda-yaddas. It’s not so blindingly revelatory that I’d recommend it to everyone no matter what, but certainly if you’re interested in the run-up to WW1, it’s a solid read.
So Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest and Death’s End complete the trilogy started in The Three-Body Problem, and this is definitely a case where reading the whole series changes my opinion of the first book.
Because the thing is, that book is a “novel of ideas” in that old-timey SF way, but its idea wasn’t really that deep, novel, or interesting, so it felt pretty basic. But the sequels take that idea and run it through cycles of elaboration, piling on more and more ideas, each one a “oh, you thought you understood the universe, but wait there’s more“ moment. By the end of the third book, there’s so much going on that you could arguably make the criticism that it’s overstuffed with too many SFnal concepts.
But it’s not a criticism that I’ll make, because I liked it a lot. It is still very retro-style throwback SF, but it’s doing a thing that I love—following a society through deep time as it evolves and changes—and doing it well. It’s fun, albeit in a bleak way.
The criticism I’ll actually make is that the third book has a running theme contrasting “masculine” decisiveness and aggression with “feminine” pacifism and nurturing, which… well, if you’re going to mine old-timey SF for cool plot structures, go for it; but the antiquated gender role bullshit really doesn’t need to come along for the ride.
Anyway, if you like SF of the old-school with space shit and technological development and aliens and civilization-defining crises and all that, and you don’t demand naturalistic dialogue or three-dimensional characters and can look past some weird retro-sexism, this is what you’re looking for.
So the next Hugo nominee turns out to be the third novel in a series that I hadn’t previously read, so I started in on Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (translated by Ken Liu), which is itself a 2015 Hugo nominee.
So this is a novel originally written in Chinese, and it seems that Ken Liu, when translating, has tried to keep it faithful to the style of the Chinese novel. Which, I’m not going to pretend to know much of anything about Chinese prose style, but in this case at least, it means that the dialogue comes across as very stilted and artificial. Which, ironically, makes it seem kinda old-fashionedy, as it reads like old Golden Age SF, Asimov or Clarke or whatever.
But actually, now that I think about it, what it’s really most like is indeed an Asimov novel, but not one from the Golden Age—it’s The Gods Themselves, a novel wherein aliens (from a parallel universe with different physical rules) try to communicate with the people of Earth, and factions on both sides try to steer the interactions between the societies. That’s not exactly the plot of The Three-Body Problem, obviously, but it gives a surprisingly large amount of the flavor.
On the SF side, anyway. Because the other subject it deals with is China’s Cultural Revolution, during which the first part of the book is set. To my tastes, this is by far the more interesting part—a straight historical novel that ditched the SF trappings not be abandoning the stuff that makes this novel interesting. (Of course, it also wouldn’t have been nominated for the Hugo, which means I probably wouldn’t have read it, so… yeah, really need to work on reading more mainstream fiction.)
But in the end, what you’re getting with this book is really a book with quasi-Asimovian prose and SFnal content, but embedded in a Chinese context. It’s interesting, and I’m happy to keep reading more, but it’s definitely the “Chinese” part that makes the book more than an utterly forgettable throwback.
Next Hugo nominee up is Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky.
Tonally, this is a kind of weird book, because it’s a bit all over the place. One moment, it’s hyper-naturalistic, with people behaving like regular ol’ people and events that are wholly mundane; the next, it’s using archetypes straight out of fairy tales, with people acting in completely unrealistic ways. It’s not quite doing the hysterical realism thing, although it dabbles in that at times, too.
At its best, the book is telling the stories of its protagonists, who are interesting people doing interesting things, and who are sometimes jerks, but mostly pretty decent, in a way that rings true. At its worst, the book is delivering a crashingly unsubtle message about the need to balance technology with humanity. Most of the time, it’s doing those two things together, and the result is something that ends up being readable and interesting, but falls well short of greatness.
Compared to the other nominees I’ve read, it’s more ambitious than Chambers, but less well-executed; and lacking in both ambition and execution compared to Lee or Palmer. But I don’t want to be too critical here, because this is a really strong slate of nominees, and this is ultimately a perfectly fine book, even if it’s not one that I’d vote for to win the Hugo.
Next up on the Hugo nominee reading list is Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit. This turns out to be another first novel, but Lee is an accomplished short story writer, and that comes through pretty clearly—for both good and ill, I think.
So the world-building on this one is… complex. It throws you into the deep end of a galactic war built around quasi-magical concepts, and as you read about calendrical heresies and threshold winnowers and Kel formations… yeah, you’d better have some experience doing that SF-reading thing where you are able to read dense clouds of nonsense words and figure out what they mean gradually as you go. But I promise it does cohere quickly enough, and into a setting that’s both unique but also very much in the SF tradition of magic-tech space empires.
What never quite cohered for me in the same way was the main character. We spend the book seeing things through their eyes, but I didn’t feel like we ever really got to see behind their eyes; the protagonist was reserved and distant in a way that made it hard to really get emotionally invested in the book. For maybe unfair reasons, this kind of distant affect strikes me as a short story-ish quality, and I think it works fine at short length, but for novels I want more of a visceral hook.
Ultimately for me this is one of those books that I respect, but don’t love. The world-building’s great; the plot moved along quickly enough to keep me reading, with twists along the way; the writing is quietly accomplished; but… well, there’s a sequel coming out soonish, and even though I’m interested in what happens next, I don’t really care that much. Still, given that this is a very solid first novel, I’ll probably give it a go, and hope that it manages to be just that bit more friendly.
So the next book on my Hugo nominee reading list is Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit, except that it’s a sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, so I ended up reading both.
You’ll recall that I went on for a bit about how little How Like the Lightning felt like a first novel, right. Well, The Long Way feels very, very much like the first novel that it is. Clunky writing, cliched setup and world-building, characters that feel like lightly-disguised versions of characters from TV shows, a sloppy plot that kinda ambles around pointlessly and is full of coincidences. Really, all the hallmarks are there.
But that’s not to say it’s bad. It reminded me a lot of early Scalzi—Old Man’s War, let’s say, even down to the tedious infodumps about how the warp drives work. I’d say it’s probably a bit more fun than the Scalzi, though, so if you like sloppy-but-enthusiastic found-family-onna-spaceship stuff, it’ll be up your alley.
But anyway, that’s not the book that got Hugo-nominated. The second, nominated novel is significantly better. A Closed and Common Orbit is a quasi-sequel to the first book—you’d probably want to read them in order, but they don’t have a ton of characters overlapping—and it’s about growing up and learning to be a person, from a couple of different angles. It’s a more distinctive novel all around, with characters that feel more developed, a story that actually is about something, and writing that doesn’t embarrass. The growth between the two novels is huge, and promises good stuff from Chambers’ future works.
Still and all, I’m not sure I’d really consider it Hugo-quality, but then, I’ve thought that about a lot of past nominees (and plenty of winners, even), and this is better than a lot of those, so maybe I’m being too picky. At any rate, if it wouldn’t get my vote for the award, it’s definitely good enough that I’m looking forward to Chambers’ next book.
So the 2017 Hugo nominees were announced, and I discovered that I had read literally zero of the novel nominees (though I have read The Ballad of Black Tom, which is apparently considered a mere novella). I usually get some book recommendations from the Hugo nominee list, but I haven’t read all the nominees since 2011, for one reason or another. But this year’s list all look to be interesting, so I figure I’ll give it a go.
First up is Ada Palmer’s How Like the Lightning, which I picked because it’s one of the few books on the list that isn’t the second or third book of a series, so it’d only commit me to reading a single book. Or so I thought, up until I got to the end of it and saw a “here ends the first half of our story” thing, at which point I sighed and also picked up Seven Surrenders, which more or less completes the story. (There are to be more sequels, and there’s plenty of room for them, but the key elements of this one are wrapped up in it.)
So this is apparently Palmer’s first novel, but you really wouldn’t know it from reading. It is incredibly accomplished at a technical level, with a complexity and command that you rarely see from a first novelist.
Really, the word to best describe the novel is “layered.” It’s the story of a future society that is vastly, enormously different from our own, and it’s narrated by an author who is writing in a kind of deliberately retro-eighteenth-century omniscient-first style for a presumed future audience living in a different society. And so the narrator is explaining the world to the reader, as one does when writing about alien societies, but they’re also showing the world to you, and these things don’t always mesh up perfectly, anymore than Thomas Jefferson’s high-flown writings about liberty align with him being a slaveholder.
So there’s definitely this level of the unreliable narrator to it, which puts me in mind of Gene Wolfe novels, but there are layers in more senses than just that. There are layers of revelation as the plot builds; there are the layers of sediment that lie in the backstory of the book. Palmer is apparently a historian by trade, and this reads like a book written by a historian, aware of how alien societies can be across time, and how their concerns and morals—and even their crimes and perversions—might not be readily comprehensible in terms of the present.
(And as a side note, there are crimes and perversions aplenty. The content warnings on the front of the books are world-building for the future society, but also not lies. There is a portion of these books that was getting to more sordid and unpleasant than I generally like; it never crossed the line for me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people for whom it did.)
I’ve probably already said too much here—I went into these books knowing nothing, and I think that’s pretty ideal—but these are also books where, even though I absolutely loved them and tore through them at top speed, I think they will not be to everyone’s taste, so I figured I needed to give more than a blanket recommendation. (Amazon reviews seem to back this up; the first book gets a pile of five-star ratings, but it also gets a lot of “this is total garbage, who could like this” comments.) But if you like unreliable-narrator future-history SF with some 18th century flair and a bunch of talky philosophy, boy howdy is this the book for you.
So, having listened to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton about a zillion times, I decided that I really should read the book that inspired it, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, if for no other reason than just to know which parts of the musical were true and which were dramatic license.
But Chernow’s biography turns out to be a lot more than just a sourcebook for the musical, of course. It’s a portrait not just of Hamilton, but of his era, because it turns out that if you’re trying to explain the life of this guy who did so much to shape the nascent United States, you really need to explain the politics and controversies and wars and personalities of the time as well.
One of the things that surprised me was how narrative, almost novelistic, the book is. Because when I’ve read biographies of historical figures in the past, for college classes, they were always medieval or early modern figures, people whose lives have a lot of blank spots and whose personalities require a lot of guesswork based on relatively little evidence. But Hamilton lived much more recently, and there’s so much from and about him—letters that he wrote to his friends and to his wife, letters from his illicit mistress, the letters that he wrote to his political allies, letters that his enemies wrote about him, plus newspaper essays and wartime correspondence and trial records and and and. So there’s a lot of emotion and personality in it, in a way that I hadn’t expected. It’s easy to see why Miranda was inspired to make Hamilton the subject of a musical, because he’s almost bursting out of the pages the whole time.
But I don’t want to give the opinion that this is just a fun diversion. For all that Chernow writes accessibly, and that Hamilton’s life lends itself to narrative, this is a well-sourced biography with tons of primary sources and apparently original research; and Chernow does an excellent job evoking the colonial and post-colonial worlds.
If the subject holds any interest at all to you, strongly recommended.
So V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy is about three different Londons in different dimensions, the people who travel between them, and the dangers that threaten them.
It’s actually a kind of weird trilogy, because the structure of it is really lumpy and uneven. I don’t want to get into spoilers, but the first book stands alone well; the second book feels like it could have been an entirely satisfactory standalone book except for the ending, which has nothing to do with 98% of the content of the book and what all the characters were doing, but does set up a cliffhanger that it takes the whole third book to resolve.
And so as those plots unfold, the amount to which the different Londons come into play comes and goes, and to a large extent, huge swaths of the book are just set in a fantasy London and oh btw our real-world London exists somewhere but it’s not really that important.
But look, I’m sitting here nitpicking at the structure of the series, but that’s hardly the most important thing. What’s important is that the trilogy features some great characters—protagonists, antagonists, and even little side characters are all fleshed-out and detailed people (even when we can’t entirely see that through the protagonists’ perspective at first)—engaged in a series of plots that move along briskly and are always interesting. There’s piracy, a magical tournament, interdimensional court intrigue, ancient evils, family drama, and plenty of witty repartee.
It’s a lot of fun, reasonably original, and compellingly readable. Recommended.
So Tony Judt’s Postwar is a history of Europe from the end of WW2 to… well, basically right up to 2005, when it was written.
And so of course you can’t really write a history of the present moment, right. Which you see as you go through the book—the parts about the late 1940s feel genuinely historical, whereas by the time you get even a few decades further in, there’s a kind of memoir-ish feel to things, where you can sort of feel the author’s personal experiences coming through on the page (Judt’s palpable disdain for the intellectual and political movements of “The Sixties” is almost puzzling in its intensity to someone who didn’t live through the period).
But to some extent, that’s one of the running themes of the book: The construction of “history” and its social purpose; how so much of postwar Europe was devoted to actively suppressing, forgetting, or rewriting its history; and the degree to which more true histories were not able to emerge until well after any of the various horrible events that happened in twentieth-century Europe.
But it’s not just historiography, it’s also a straight-up history. Probably the strongest part is about the early postwar period, where Cold War Europe is being constructed—both because it’s the part that most benefits from historical perspective, and because that’s one of those things that I never really knew. I knew that WW2 ended, sure, and then Europe divided and the Cold War, but I never had any idea how it got from one to the other, and there’s something fascinating about reading how it happened, and being able to see how it would have seemed less obvious and inevitable to people of the time.
And from a personal perspective, the history of the end of the Cold War—the revolutions of 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union—was equally fascinating, both because it is an obviously huge historical transition, and because… okay, I was just barely a teenager when this stuff was happening, right? So I remember seeing these events on network news, and hearing jokes about them on Letterman (when he was still on after Carson), and it’s something that I lived through in a way that I can still remember… but at the same time, holy cow, I had basically no comprehension at all of what was happening beyond the most superficial and obvious. So tying those old memories together with all this deeper knowledge is an experience I don’t often get in reading history, due to the part where I wasn’t alive during e.g. the Middle Ages or WW1 or whatever.
So anyway, great book, and if you want to know at least the latest bit of how Europe got to be where it is, absolutely worth a read.
I set myself a reminder for today, to note that this is the fifteenth anniversary of this booklog. Okay, yes, I’ve sometimes been… less than timely with updates (like, oh, all of 2012); but I never gave up on it, and it’s still the complete record of every book I’ve read over this past decade and a half. If my counts are right, it’s 1,041 books in 512 entries. It’s kind of amazing to me that I’ve been that persistent with it; and it’s even more amazing when I think about what’s changed during that time.
For instance: The very definition of what a “book” is. In 2002, every book I read was printed on paper, and the idea of an “e-book” seemed off in the distant science-fictional future. I had shelves and shelves full of printed books (at one point peaking at over 2500 books stored on an absurd number of bookcases). By late 2010, I was reading on a Kindle. These days, I read books on my phone and tablet (using the ugly-but-functional Moon+ Reader app), only have like a dozen printed books left, and even a Kindle seems dated and old-fashioned.
And, slightly delayed, the same transition came to comic books. If you look back, you’ll see an absolute ton of comics logged up through 2010; I used to buy them in collected “graphic novel” form, and log them that way. Not too long after that, though, it became apparent to me that I’d be reading them all on a tablet in the future, so I quit buying the paper ones. These days, I stay current-ish on Marvel comics through the superb Marvel Unlimited service, where I can read literally every comic they publish for one flat fee. But I don’t booklog them anymore, because they’re not really discrete units of reading in the way that the old bound collections were. (I should maybe think up a way to write them up, though, because I’ve got 5-6 years’ worth of comics that I’ve never said a word about here, and evidence suggests that if I don’t write them up somehow, I’ll completely forget about them.)
On the technology side, the booklog has gone through four complete rewrites with different technologies—partly because I use it as a playground for learning new things, and partly because fifteen years is forever on the web. For context, when this booklog started, Internet Explorer 6.0 was brand-new, and its competition was Netscape 4.7; Mozilla hadn’t yet released its browser, and neither Safari nor Chrome existed. RSS 2.0 hadn’t even been invented yet, and I didn’t get around to adding an RSS feed until 2005.
So, yeah, fifteen years is a long time; this might be the only thing I’ve been consistently doing for that long. With any luck, we’ll all still be here in another fifteen years.
Back when it was first published, on the basis of a long-forgotten recommendation, I picked up a copy of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and then never got around to reading it. And so recently, reading an excellent essay she wrote about our political moment, I decided to remedy that neglect.
So this is one of those novels that follows a couple of families over multiple generations; it takes place in London, and the families in question include immigrants from Jamaica and Bangladesh, and their descendant from the 1970s to the 1990s. It’s got a lot of stuff crammed into it—genetically-engineered mice, the end of the world, World War 2—but the real thematic through-line is the challenges of life in a multi-cultural society.
Reading this now, it definitely reads like a literary novel written a young writer in the late ‘90s—it’s sprawling, full of comedy and tragedy mixed-up together; it’s sometimes absurd, sometimes grittily realistic, and sometimes implausible bordering on the supernatural. But it turns out that’s a thing I like, and this is a well-done example of the genre. Recommended.
James S.A. Corey’s Babylon’s Ashes is the most recent Expanse book. I’ve said in the past that this series is a mix of SFnal big ideas and human-scale intrigue; this installment is almost entirely human-scale politics, though.
But that doesn’t mean it’s about small things; I’m not going to spoil this series at this point, but if you’ve been reading along, you’ll remember that some major shit has gone down in previous volumes, and it would almost be ridiculous if the various factions of humanity weren’t focusing on their own divisions and future plans right now. (I read this not too long after the recent election, and in a weird way, it feels like the first post-Trump piece of fiction. Which, considering what this book is about, is not the most optimistic statement ever, obviously.)
The series continues to be excellent in the ways I want it to be, with its found-family crewmates working together in a universe where it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the fate of humanity hangs in the balance on the regular, trying to tip things over to the good side. It also wraps up some important storylines and moves the series forward, although I admit I have no idea what will happen in the next book at this point.
If you like space-flavored SF at all, this series is basically a must-read at this point.
David Weber’s At the Sign of Triumph is the ninth Safehold book, and it’s a good one.
When I wrote up the last one, I mentioned that while I liked it a lot, it felt like nothing significant had happened in it. I sort of suspected this was just going to be an ongoing series that continued on predictable paths until the heat death of the universe. But this book is, uh, not like that.
A lot happens in this one, including some very major things that have been set up since the first book. It’s not the end of the series, and it’s possible to imagine this series still going on for many, many books, but it’s a huge shift in the status quo going forward, at the very least, and points the way toward the end.
Which is probably good on the whole. The series has to eventually end, and at nine lengthy installments, there’s no question Weber has spent plenty of time getting to this point. Still… I’ve been loving this series a lot, and now I’m unsure what the next installment is going to be like. Fingers crossed, I guess. And if it turns out that things really go off the rails from here, well, hey, at least these nine books tell a fairly well-contained story in their own right.
So Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those classics that was instantly hailed on its release, winning Hugo and Nebula awards and reshaping conversations around the genre. There’s no discussion to be had about whether it’s a major work (it is) and whether anyone interested in the genre should read it (you should), but it is worth looking to see how well it holds up nearly half a century after it was published. Fortunately, the answer is “very well.”
Most of the obvious places where it would show its age are neatly worked around by the setting: The protagonist is the point man for first contact on a new world. So, no, there’s no internet or GPS or anything… but it’s easy to think that’s because he’s on a primitive world, and that in the normal, tech-rich society he comes from of course people have those things.
(This is almost certainly not true, and it’s probably canonically disprovable: A thing I hadn’t realized is that this novel takes place in a future history Le Guin invented, with ten or so novels, and as many short stories, in it. This is apparent in the book—the references to backstory feature too many proper nouns and specific events to just be flavoring—but this book stands alone just fine.)
The one thing that does seem weird is the gender attitudes of the protagonist, who believes in a very, very strong kind of gender essentialism that seems odd to a modern reader. What’s not clear to me, though, is whether that’s supposed to be a tic of the protagonist’s society, to set him off in more clear context to the gender-fluid society he’s contacting, or if he’s supposed to embody “normal” attitudes at the time the book was written in the 1960s. Either is plausible, which feels a bit weird in its own right.
But so anyway, yeah, the exploration of gender is clearly a big thing that the book is about, and if it feels somewhat conservative in that exploration from today’s perspectives (it uses male pronouns throughout, it assumes a kind of heteronormativity that Le Guin later regretted), it was certainly novel at the time.
But of course, it’s also about more than just that. A book that just had one thing to say wouldn’t be a masterpiece that holds up for so long. There’s also an adventure novel in here, and a novel of political intrigue, and thoughts about what makes societies and governments good, and about the difficulties of communicating across cultures, and a lot more.
So yeah: Major classic, holds up well. You should read it, and I should have read it forever ago.
So Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom does a really cool thing, which is to combine two things that are usually not combined, and make it obvious that they should have been together all along.
And so here we have a familiar tale of Lovecraftian horror—eldritch mysteries and sleeping gods and the like—set in the 1920s era that’s so distinctively Lovecraftian. Except that instead of being set on the rural New England coast, it’s set in New York City, and the protagonist is a black musician living in Harlem.
Lovecraft’s stories are famously super-racist, so obviously this is in one sense a pushback against that, a subversive reclamation. But it’s also more than that, because from the other direction this is telling a story of the black experience in Jazz Age New York, and the Lovecraftian elements serve to mirror and reinforce that story in a way that makes the supernatural layer feel like literalized metaphor. That is, it’s not just telling a Cthulhu story that has Tommy Tester as its protagonist, it’s telling a story about Tommy Tester that has Cthulhu as a plot element—and it works in both directions.
This is good stuff. Strongly recommended.
So let me preface this post by saying that Dave Duncan is usually a reliably solid fantasy writer whose books range between excellent and decently entertaining. You should absolutely read stuff he’s written, and I’ve written up a bunch of it positively.
So with that out of the way, now I’ll say this: Dave Duncan’s Eocene Station is a terrible book. It is not good at all. It’s full of sexist attitudes (which are lampshaded a bit by references to “the New Morality” ushering in a sort of neo-Victorianism, but it goes well beyond the ability of the setting to explain or excuse), it’s rapey in a really creepy way that seems more about the character development of the male protagonist than anything else, and it is just in general not good at all, despite a few fun action scenes and a setting that could have been interesting in a different book.
Back when I was a teenager, after I’d read a bunch of Duncan’s fantasy, I picked up his Hero, which was SF. It was so much worse than his fantasy that I wondered at the time if it was actually the same Dave Duncan or a different guy. These days, I’m certain it’s the same guy, but if I didn’t know it, I wouldn’t believe it. Stick to his fantasy, is my advice.
So I read William Doyle’s The Oxford History of the French Revolution at the same time as I listened to Mike Duncan’s Revolutions Podcast take on the subject in the course of 55 episodes (roughly 27 hours). There actually ends up being nearly the same amount of detail in book and podcast, so it’s interesting how different they were.
The podcast focuses on the narrative aspects of the history. It gives you more fleshed-out and fully-realized characters. It gives you events in purely chronological order, so that they flow in cause-and-effect order at all times. It gives you a good chunk of military history as it delves into Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy and Egypt.
The book has very little of that. Its characters are largely just names; it covers subjects topically, so that it’ll get to things out of order; and it skipped right over most of the military details. But what it gives you in exchange is more context of the international situation outside of France; more analysis of economics and institutions; and more of the broader implications of events beyond the story of the moment.
Honestly, they complement each other well. So if you’re going to read this book (and it seems a decent enough, if not stellar, survey text), I do recommend listening to the podcast either right beforehand or in conjunction with it. If you’re only going to do one, though… as much as it pains me, a fan of the written word, to say it, I’d go with the podcast. Duncan just does a better job of making things comprehensible and memorable than Doyle’s book does.
Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Relics of War is the latest of his Ethshar books. It’s been three years since I wrote up a book in this series and even then, it was just a quick blurb as I cleared out my backlog, so let me give a bit more context.
The Ethshar novels are all individual standalone novels that tell a complete story, but which take place at various places and times within the same world—a very traditional kind of swords-and-sorcery world where a great war of demons and wizards ravaged the landscape, and city-states and small kingdoms replaced the grand empires of old in the ruins of that war. The first book actually takes place during that war, and I think that at least one volume takes place in the distant past, but most of them are well past that time.
This one is a few decades past the war, and it’s set in a rural farm where children playing in the wood find a magic artifact that might be a leftover from the war. Local nobles are notified, and events spiral upward as new wrinkles emerge.
I really like the Ethshar series—it manages to be charming and fun and clever in almost every installment—and I did like this installment, too. But I will say that it’s definitely on the slight side. Whereas something like The Unwelcome Warlock, the book before this one, got at one of the core mysteries of the setting and dealt with grand magics, this is just a small story about some farmers and a thing that happened to them. But that’s okay; the ability of the series to jump from grand tales of war and magic to little stories about farmers and apprentices is one of its charms. You wouldn’t want to start reading the series here, but I tore through it quickly enough.