Book Review

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

A friend of mine recommended City of Stairs (The Divine Cities #1) to me, and I picked it up not knowing much about what to expect. The genre is alternative world / fantasy, set in a sort of Victorian, or early 1900 era of technology.

In some ways the plot is the best kind of whodunit, starting with a murder investigation that ends up spiraling into something else entirely. There is a lot of dramatic tension and drive, and it’s one of the most “stay up into the night to finish the chapter” books I’ve had a pleasure to read in a while.

While the prose isn’t as gorgeous and lyrical as, say, Rothfuss’s, the writing and setting and plot is clever. Clever in an intellectual sense, clever in the way it dangles shinies in front of the reader to give pause and reflection. Clever in the way that this entirely alien world really isn’t, and judging the characters’s actions and the justness of the world can’t happen without contrasting it with ours.

The characters are maybe not all that deep but they’re interesting and original and good vehicles for exploring all the things the author has to say about things and events.

And all the while the book is a great straightforward mystery/adventure tale to boot, with great pacing. Nitpicking that some of the terms and language are a bit anachronistic feels awfully curmudgeony.

Highly recommended, four stars.

Posted by Toivo Voll in Book Review

The Invisible Library Series by Genevieve Cogman

The series consists of The Invisible Library, The Masked City, The Burning Page and the Lost Plot (at least one additional book is slated for publication later this year.)

The setting ticks so many boxes. We live in a multiverse, although most of the residents of the worlds in this multiverse do not know it. Connecting most of these worlds is The Library, an ancient institution that collects books from the various worlds to preserve knowledge and other reasons. It employs Librarians to acquire these books. There are two other factions — dragons who embody order, and fae who embody chaos.

The protagonist is one of these Librarians and her apprentice, and they find a lot of challenges in their seemingly simple task.

The protagonist is great; while there’s a bit of Mary Sue-ism, she has a great internal dialogue that not only sets up moral decisions, but is also funny.

The setting as a whole builds up so many great characters, plot hooks and places that it seems a pity if they won’t be followed up on. As it stands, there are some that seem to be abandoned half-way through, and I can only hope they will get revisited in the future before the ball of plot becomes too unmanageable.

Another very enjoyable aspect is the prose itself. It flows effortlessly, the dialogue is nice, and the vocabulary is unusually rich.

And yet the books are shy of being great. The Masked City in particular was the weakest of the series for me, as it was filled with cinematic action that got to be too much. The pacing and dramatic tension in general doesn’t seem to quite work, although The Lost Plot is perhaps the best in this regard, so hopefully the future works continue with those lessons learned. Whatever it is, the series has all the ingredients to be great, but so far only achieves goodness. They’re easy books to recommend, but not books that keep me up wanting to finish the chapter.

Three and a half stars for the series, except three for The Masked City.

Posted by Toivo Voll in Book Review

The Goal and The Phoenix Project

 

I’m reviewing these two books together, since the Phoenix Project builds largely on The Goal by applying the Theory of Constraints to the IT environment.

The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt is familiar to anyone who has studied management. It tells a fictional story, following a protagonist struggling with production problems at a manufacturing plant. By following the protagonist’s journey in understanding the problem definition, the mechanisms in action, and how to improve the situation the reader gains the same information, is guided through the logic and thought process, and the theory is applied to (fictional) practice. It’s not the most riveting piece of fiction ever written, and Goldratt spends too much time showing just how bad the problem is and the protagonist’s frustration before moving onto the enlightenment steps. That said, it’s certainly a much more pleasant and effective way to convey the concepts Goldratt wants to share than a traditional theory book would be; much like a a textbook it does require the reader to put it down here and there and think through what just happened and was suggested.

The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford follows the same method, but is objectively a much better book. It starts off with a dysfunctional IT organization within a company. Here it shines by painting a picture of archetypal IT staffers and situations with such skill that anyone who ever has worked in IT may be tempted to replace the characters with names from their own organization. The pain-points are also all too familiar. It moves along at a much faster pace while still succeeding in conveying the principles and theory it sets out to communicate.

The Phoenix Project in particular should be required reading for anyone in IT operations or development to get a better idea of organizations as a whole, especially management. Regardless, helping the reader understand how to be more efficient, and how to spot inefficiencies around them, it is helpful no matter the level of an employee. It additionally serves as a great source of references for more reading, such as Personal Kanban, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and The Goal to name a few.

The Phoenix Project I highly recommend; if you want to get into more nitty-gritty about the Theory of Constraints in still a very accessible work, The Goal is a good follow-up.

 

 

Posted by Toivo Voll in Book Review, Information Technology

Leigh Bardugo: Six of Crows

I encountered Leigh Bardugo and the first part in her trilogy by being invited to a YA book club meeting to discuss the book.

During my teenage and young adult years I read a lot, thanks to the excellent Finnish library system, although I never really had the concept of YA as a separate genre. Perhaps it’s because there are so many memories from my formative years, or perhaps because there are many tremendously strong fantasy and urban fantasy authors that publish under the YA pigeon-hole that I quite often find myself reading works from that section of the bookstore.
This book club is being sponsored by Inkwood, a local brick-and-mortar (or rather restored bungalow) independent bookstore, and I actually ventured there to purchase the hardcover version of the book. It’s been quite a while since my last visit to a bookstore; much like libraries, they’re magical and wonderful places. The visit left me very conflicted. I absolutely do want to preserve the magic there is in these places, but having to drive forty minutes through rush hour to a store with limited hours to purchase a book at more than twice the cost of a Kindle version… I wish I knew how to make the economics work.

In the case of Six of Crows, though, the hardcover is worth the price. The book is wonderful. I was going to make some comment about separating the physical form of the book from the content, but then I realized doing so really wouldn’t be fair; the presence and quality of the book in my hands absolutely contributed to the reading experience.
The book itself was good. Not great, but good. The basic structure is a number of street urchins from a fictitious medieval world banding together for a goal that promises them all which ever kind of dreams or hopes they have. There are strong influences from medieval Dutch, Scandinavian and Venetian trade empires, coming together in a fairly distinctive and original setting.
The story is told in chronological order with interspersed chapters of the history of the various characters. The prose is good, and the pacing is solid. Unfortunately, once again, something triggered my feeling that the book was too carefully planned and put together. I can’t quite put my finger on it, as we find out things in a nice, measured, balanced way, the characters complement each other and work well, but something just feels too artificial and missing an organic soul.
Nevertheless, there’s enough depth in the plot and the web of relationships, a lot of exploration of self-worth, finding oneself and balancing of conflicting priorities.
As befits a set of youth trying to eke out a living in a ruthless world, things aren’t nice. The characters all have various traumatic pasts, and even the actual story gets pretty grisly at times. YA certainly doesn’t mean PG-rated by any means.
I completely missed the mention of it being a part of a trilogy, so the ending that leaves a fair bit of things hanging was a tad jarring; be aware that getting into this series likely requires commitment of three books.
Four out of five, with a bonus half point for the gorgeous presentation.
Posted by Toivo Voll

Ann Leckie: Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch #3)

This contains some possible spoilers of the previous two books.

Brief recap of the concept and some of the tech assumptions of Leckie’s world: AI exists, humans can have implants that allow them to communicate with, or be completely controlled by said AI, war ships have a number of such humans, called ancillaries, at their disposal; they’re individual intelligences and consciousnesses, but synchronized as parts of a greater whole. There’s an interstellar empire that is keeping peace by conquest, ruled by one apparently immortal empress. A few alien races exist, but they’re alien, and generally keep to themselves as do the humans.

The protagonist is one of these ancillaries; after the destruction of her ship, her part of the AI is all that remained. While this book plot-wise can largely stand on its own, it really should be read as part of the trilogy, since the protagonist’s nature and relation to her crew are otherwise left less explored than it should. Notably, the use of gendered pronouns when referring to an artificial intelligence was intentionally muddied in the first book; by this third volume any assumptions of the accuracy, relevance or meaning of sex or gender should not be taken at face value.

The plot continues from where it left off at the second book — the empress consists of multiple clones, and they’ve unsychronized and are now waging war amongst themselves. The premise is dicy: arguably the current system of rule isn’t perfect and might makes right instinctively doesn’t sit well with the reader or the protagonist, but even beyond that all the loyal subjects of the empire are asked to pick a side, even when they just want to be loyal to the concept or system, and since all the sides are supposedly the legitimate authority, the choice is impossible.

We learn more about the Presger aliens, and this is generally that they are alien. Leckie does a good job at making aliens, their behavior and motives alien.

The themes familiar from the previous works continue here — trying to find the right choice, trying to decide what is just, navigating class and religion and fallible and imperfect people, as well as exploring the nature of the AIs in more depth. Between the three books concepts such as identity, self-determination, end justifying the means, ones responsibility to oneself and others are pretty well examined.

There’s action as well, and the novel works well as space opera, but the added aspects really elevate the entire series a notch above even good space opera.

The pacing is good, the prose competent — while it might not be most elaborate writing on its surface, there’s a clear level of consideration that has gone into it.

Four out of five

While this “concludes the trilogy,” there’s room for future exploration of the universe, and I’d definitely welcome it.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Tanya Huff: An Ancient Peace (The Confederation of Valor #6, Peacekeeper #1)

While this novel is oddly part of two series, continuing the adventures of gunnery sergeant Torin Kerr of the Confederation Marines, it can stand on its own as well, as the setting is pretty familiar science fiction trope territory.

The genre is space opera on an individual scale; the action isn’t space fleet battles as much as boots on the ground in the dirt. It’s feel-good pop-corn reading; the eminently competent sergeant Kerr is thrown into any number of dicy situations and manages to get her and most of her people back out of them, showing integrity and honor and all the romanticized values of a military in the process.

The above shouldn’t be taken to imply this book isn’t good. Ms. Huff continues to deliver the tropy feel-good romp with great skill. Everything is just a notch above what one would expect: the characters, while by no means deep, are interesting and sympathetic and different; the world building feels natural; while the protagonist manages to overcome the plot challenges elegantly enough to satisfy Hollywood sensibilities, a lot of politics and morality and big picture setting somehow still manages to come through.

The basic plot: A group of grave robbers are about to unearth ancient weapons from one of the Elder Races, and it’s up to Kerr and her no-longer-marines company to stop them before their actions can cause another war. The plot pacing isn’t perfect; a lot of the book is a dungeon crawl with one group following the other, and consequently covering some of the same ground. While this allows for comparison between the motivations of the two groups it still felt a bit annoying. The story follows multiple viewpoints as needed in chronological order, and it flows very naturally. The prose is good, albeit not extraordinary.

In summary — if you want a competent, tough-but-good idealized version of a space marine leading a motley crew of races on a romp for justice, this is a book for you.

Three and a half out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass (The Cinder Spires 1)

Jim Butcher does steampunk.

Oh, I’m supposed to say more? Fine.

Mr. Butcher can produce great, fun stories that are a step above the average disposable urban fantasy (in the case of the Dresden Files), although his foray into actual fantasy (Codex Alera) appealed to me considerably less.

In this case the setting is interesting — humanity lives in huge spires, the surface of the planet is too dangerous to venture on, ether technology and power allows for all kinds of things, including flight, and trade, war and privacy happens via ships powered by crystals and ethersilk sails, and iron and steel rot quickly and are an unreliable basis for machines, and cats can talk. There is a tremendous amount of mystery about why things are the way they are, and I’m pretty sure that it’ll be a major plot point moving forward.

The book introduces a cast of characters from various backgrounds and interests, and there isn’t a clear single protagonist. The plot, instead, begins to craft a team of the various characters, and lies a groundwork for higher adventure.
While the novel is clearly a way to set up for another series, it stands well enough on its own, and doesn’t feel like it sacrifices too much for being a pilot episode.
The characters and setting are good, and I found myself wishing I could see the visuals Butcher may have had in mind for many of them. The absolutely biggest shortcoming of the work is unfortunately the prose. It sounds like the first attempt to speak at a steampunk RPG or convention, mixing overly polite and proper archaic English with modern enough concepts and an alien setting. He doesn’t take it nearly as much over the top as some others (Gail Carriger, I’m looking at you), and to me it just always felt annoyingly tentative. I either got used to it or he figured out the style towards the end of the book, though.
The plot, once it starts rolling, is heavy on action, and here Butcher has struck a much better balance between describing cinematic battles and not getting carried away than he did with Codex Alera, and I found myself enjoying the fights, which is not too often the case. Of course, perhaps as part of the genre, the outcomes are about as predictable as anything on primetime TV.
In summary, I enjoyed the romp a lot more than I really ought to have, and will be keeping an eye out for the next installment.
Three out of five, at least half of those being for just sheer fun.
Posted by Toivo Voll

Holly Black: Red Glove and Black Heart (Curse Workers 2 & 3)

Since I quite liked Holly Black’s first Curse Workers installment, I went ahead and read the rest of the series. All the things I liked about the first volume continued to work on the next two, and if anything they got better. The magic and abilities are present in the world, but mostly in the way it shapes society and interactions, and are very rarely actually used.

The clear strength of the series are the relationships between its characters. A mother who means well but is dramatically inconsiderate, siblings who have their own motivations, and friends who have their own problems.

It’s very refreshing to not have simple Mary Sue / Marty Stu settings, or unnecessarily dramatized relationships. The protagonist’s friends will be unhappy if they’re not treated well, but nobody will cut off ties for a single slight of some kind. Everyone has their own motivations, and occasionally they’re unrelated, occasionally they coincide with those of others, and occasionally they’re in conflict, and the character will have to make value judgments, just like real life.

The pacing is generally good; the books aren’t the most action-packed thing out there, but they easily held my interest. The love interest plot is devilishly complicated and clever in its set-up, and as some other situations, the protagonist is faced with multiple choices, all seemingly less than ideal.

The first book is readable on its own, the next two do better as part of the full trifecta.

Four and a half out of five for the whole enchilada.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Holly Black: White Cat (Curse Workers 1)

I’ve had a few false starts with books recently, where the book I started just doesn’t manage to keep my interest even to the point of wanting to finish it. It was therefore a welcome change to pick up Black’s White Cat and get promptly sucked into the story.

The setting is mild urban fantasy / alternative history. Magic exists, but very few people can do it, and the magic is hexes where witches (or curse workers) can shift someone’s emotions, dreams, etc.

I’m not sure whether this book falls under the umbrella of Young Adult literature, but I don’t think it matters; the characters, their relationships and problems are just as applicable to YA readers as to anyone else.

It’s those relationships and characters that make this book so great. Everything feels new and original and fantastic and not like just another fast food version of a literary adventure. Things are complicated, the way they can be in real life, everyone’s flawed, and there is not really black and white.

The pacing isn’t perfect: the story spends some time with us getting to know the protagonist and the demons haunting him, but once the plot kicks into gear it doesn’t let go and I finished the book in a single sitting.

This isn’t popcorn reading. There will be complicated emotions and bittersweetness, but it’s well worth it. This is the kind of book that makes me happy for having read it, and wanting me to recommend it heartily.

Holly Black is often mentioned in conjunction with Neil Gaiman, and as much as I hate to go that route, I think this novel clearly shows why.

Four and a half out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

M. L. Brennan: Tainted Blood (Generation V)

I started to read this series because of the kitsune deuteragonist, and I had some quibbles with the first two books. Many of them are still present in this third installment: the main character is annoyingly dim-witted and oblivious at times and the plot, while well paced and reasonably complex etc. seems like it came from a “how to write a good noir PI story in 57 easy steps,” just somehow a bit too planned and clinical. I couldn’t begin to say why a properly executed and planned plot bothers me.

What the third installment has going for it, in addition to the kitsune and the decent murder mystery, is the vampire aspect. The way the novel addresses the practicalities of its vampires, and the protagonist has to confront what he is and what he will have to do to survive was wonderfully refreshing.
There is some repetitive introductory material, presumably for people who want to start from the third installment. Otherwise, the storytelling has improved a bit from the previous two installments, and the book is fine pop-corn reading. Sufficiently so that I actually am about to buy the next installment.
Three and a half out of five, with an extra fox star.
Posted by Toivo Voll