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Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice

Another Amazon / Goodreads suggestion, Ancillary Justice is Ann Leckie’s first novel (though not her first published work), a space opera — when a review made a comparison to Iain Banks, and I saw the huge Kindle discount, I was sold.

The premise is that of a far future interplanetary empire. Humans have colonized hundreds if not thousands of planets, and there are huge ships and space stations with superhuman artificial intelligences. These AIs can use human bodies as “ancillaries,” avatars of sorts. The main character is one of these ancillaries separated from their ship’s AI. By now the parallels to Bank’s Culture are probably apparent.

One particular, if not entirely believable, aspect is the way the book deals with gender from the viewpoint of a genderless language and a genderless machine. It’ll cause any future Finnish translators a lot of grey hairs. While the rationale behind introducing the verbal trickery may be a bit suspect, the effect was pretty interesting, at least to me.

The language and prose were well crafted, and it’s clear time was spent on this book. The pacing is a bit slow — this isn’t as much space action as it is a more measured “what if” exploration, which speeds up towards the end. Unfortunately I felt like many of the moral issues were not entirely satisfactorily dealt with. Since the main character isn’t human, criticizing them for not really getting all the depth one might want seems churlish.

Overall, I’m a bit torn; if I look at any single technical aspect, Ancillary Justice is a good enough, but not great. And yet it kept me turning pages and neglecting chores and sleep; it clearly is better than the sum of its parts, and all of those parts are perfectly serviceable, if not excellent or particularly original.

Three and a half stars, and I’ll definitely pick up the sequel. The plot is self-contained; things are fairly well wrapped up making the read rewarding on its own, but there’s a clear larger story arch that has been set up. At least in the Kindle edition, after all the marketing fluff, there’s an interesting interview with the author. (And thank goodness, this book knows where it ends, rather than the Kindle thinking I have to page through all the previews for the book to be finished.)

Posted by Toivo Voll

Max Gladstone: Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise

Me friend Tegan had recommended Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead for the quality of its prose, and being still under the spell of Patrick Rothfuss for the same reason, I gave it a try.

Three Parts Dead is the first book in a series carrying the same name. The books do not proceed chronologically or feature the same characters, but are set in the same world and do have linkages. I liked the first book; didn’t love it, but liked it. The prose was nice, the pacing good, and the world is original. If anything, it reminds me of a more serious Ankh-Morpork. If I stop to think about the internal consistency of it too much, I begin to have doubts, but it works well enough to keep the story moving.

The plot itself is a whodunnit, and the characters in question are pretty interesting, even if they don’t become entirely three-dimensional. Definitely worth the time and price, though did not make my top-shelf list. Three and a half stars out of five.

Where things get more interesting is with Two Serpents Rise. The events of this book take place before the first, and approach the world from a different angle. In many ways it really fleshes out the cosmology and theology of the world to a much greater degree, and not just by exposition, but by bringing up the inherent moral and ethical conflicts involved.

The plot is hard to pigeon-hole, perhaps calling it an adventure tale will suffice. I was not horribly impressed by the beginning of the novel. It started a bit timidly, but it kept building momentum and continued a good clip for the rest of the book. There were several turning points both in the story and emotion, so the traditional build-up to a climax and descend from there did not apply.

What appealed to me the most here was the relationship between the protagonist and his love interest. The relationship is mutating and complicated, much as reality. While the romantic moment tropes are well present, the entire story is a lot more interesting. Even so, though, the characters never quite came alive as deep people — some of this may be forgiven due to the way the primary relationship serves as an allegory to more fundamental events.

Two Serpents Rise earns four of my five stars, with the note that one of those is completely subjectively given.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Brandon Sanderson: The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive 1)

I don’t actually remember how this book ended on my “to read” list, whether it was someone’s suggestion, a Goodreads plug or Amazon’s recommendation. Regardless, I read the book without having any idea who Brandon Sanderson is or what the book was about.

The way of Kings is an epic fantasy novel, the first part in a series that, according to Wikipedia, might be ten books long; no other books in the series are out yet. It stands reasonably well on its own, plot-wise, so the serialization shouldn’t necessarily put you off. The first novel, at least, is quite long. I read it on a Kindle, and in this particular case a print version might be better; there are maps and drawings that did not reproduce well on the e-ink screen.

The book is a bit confusing at first; there’s a time-shift, and a number of separate characters and threads are introduced. Some of them also keep switching to historical flashbacks for extra complexity. The world is pretty unique — broadly fantasy medieval, but the cultures, animals, geography, plants and indeed the entire cosmology are different from our world. This could be risky, but in the end I felt like Sanderson did a good job at making this alien world seem real, and stimulated my imagination in trying to envision the various things described.

The world, and plot, are deep and multi-layered. The first novel generally just introduces the reader to the tapestry, and few of the story threads are concluded or secrets revealed. For whatever it’s worth, this didn’t bother me as much as I would’ve expected. The characters remain a little artificial, but interesting. There’s a main protagonist of sorts, and the story follows his trials and tribulations. There is a lot of death and misery, but unlike in Robin Hobb’s books, there is a point to it, and the characters grow through the story. Still, in balance, it feels at times like a bit of an angst-fest, though of course the fate of the world hangs in balance. The story runs well, and I wasn’t tempted to skim.

This all sounds somewhat non-committal, but I actually really liked the book. Whereas Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles are exquisitely crafted, down to every word, the Stormlight Archive is in too much of a hurry with too much to tell to spend that much attention on everything. And yet, when I speak of one I instinctively contrast it with the other. There’s just something properly epic in The Way of Kings to elevate it to a level above your run of the mill fantasy novel. Sanderson has set himself some ambitious goals, and he delivers.

If you like your fantasy epic, if you love complex and unique new worlds and magic, if you enjoy the clash of armies and the fight between good and evil, I can easily recommend The Way of Kings. Personally, I’m going to rate it four out of five.

Oh. Turns out that this Sanderson fellow wrote the final book in the Wheel of Time series, except that his book ended up published in three volumes. That explained a lot.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Windows Phone 8 / Nokia Lumia 521

My Galaxy Nexus got finally to the point of being unusable — it was almost impossible to charge, and neither Google nor Samsung seem to have any desire to support the phone. I went and plopped down $69 for a Nokia Lumia 521 at a local Microsoft Store (which turned out to be a kiosk in a mall food court, not quite competition to the nearby Apple store). I had eyed the Moto X, but $400 vs. $69 is a pretty big difference.

I’m on a grandfathered plan with T-Mobile, and traditionally it has made more sense for me to keep buying unlocked phones. Philosophically I also prefer paying for my service, then paying for my phone separately from it, without being locked into contracts that obscure the true cost of what I’m getting. Luckily T-Mobile makes this easy.

The Lumia 521

$69 for a smartphone with no commitment is a pretty sweet deal — or rather, one should set one’s expectations accordingly. The Lumia 521 has no front-facing camera for video chats, has no hypergigapixel camera (5 MP), has no flash or autofocus light for the camera, has no acceloremeter, doesn’t even have the FM radio found in every other Nokia phone I’ve had over the last decade. It doesn’t have a trueblack screen. It comes in white, white or white.

It does, however, have a micro-SD slot taking up to a 64 GB cards, allowing you to download music, maps etc. It seems to work fine with my old Galaxy Nexus headset, which is good because it didn’t come with one.

The phone consists of two parts. The back and sides are one continuous piece of plastic, similar to protective covers you can buy for other phones. To get to the battery, SIM and SD-card slots you simply pry it off the phone. The power button, volume rocker and camera shutter button are integrated into the cover. They have a surprisingly good feel, and it’s noteworthy that the camera shutter is a proper two-stage affair.

The second part is the guts of the phone; only the camera lens and display are visible through the wraparound cover when it’s on. Like some of the higher end phones in the Lumia line, the benefit of the wraparound plastic is that even if you scratch it, the scratches won’t be particularly visible as there’s no smooth surface to damage and the color is part of the plastic rather than a coating. I put the phone in my pants pocket without even a thought of a protective cover, although its price may have also encouraged me in this.

My initial impression was very positive. I had worried about the logistics of getting a new SIM card from T-Mobile (the Galaxy Nexus uses a mini-SIM, the Lumia 521 uses a micro-SIM; some other new phones have a nano-SIM. So much for that standard…) but it turns out this was a non-issue; there was a micro-SIM in the box with a phone number and URL. I punched it up in my mobile browser from my old phone, and within minutes my old SIM was deactivated and my new phone was up and going. Easy-peasy. Kudos to T-Mobile.

The phone comes with the SIM card, micro-USB charger, and super-short micro-USB cable, and some paperwork. No case, bag, or earbuds.

Compared to the Galaxy Nexus, the Lumia 521 screen is vastly better, although it’s being lambasted as being fairly poor as far as current phones go. I have no complaints. You can’t calibrate the touchscreen, although you can set the sensitivity. It’s supposed to work even if you have regular gloves on.

Inexplicably, when T-Mobile had Nokia spin the Lumia 521 variant of the 520 model, they added some 4 millimeters in length. Internet wisdom suggests this is so they could print their carrier logo on it. Of course the one I bought from Microsoft has no logo on it. What this means, though, is that aftermarket covers and similar accessories meant for the Lumia 520 don’t fit the 521. In fact, the selection of specific accessories is next to non-existent.

Battery life is considered poor by other reviewers, but it’s no worse than the Galaxy Nexus was when new. If I don’t use the phone for more than the occasional email and Facebook check during the day, I have more than half battery left by the time I’ve made it home from work. On the other hand, running GPS-enabled fitness apps and podcast playback in a forest with borderline cell coverage (meaning that the phone has to use full power on its radio) will suck half the battery in a matter of an hour and a half. It seems to charge back up quite quickly too.

Windows Phone 8

The user interface is amazingly smooth. Swipes are easy and smooth, and the inertia works as expected. Many of the basic functions of the phone, like unlocking, alarm clocks, contact list and so forth are as good as instantaneous. Night and day compared to my Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

The Windows Phone 8 Metro interface divides people. I dislike it intensely on my Windows 8 laptop. On the phone, however, it’s great. I love the consistent visual look in apps and the consistent behavior of left/right swipes to move between screens. The transition animations are pleasing. Every other phone OS could do well to learn a lot from this.

I use relatively few apps, so your needs may be quite different. The Windows Phone 8 main screen has tiles on a grid. Full-size tiles are two cells high and four wide. Half-size are two cells high and two cells wide. Small size are one cell. For most apps you can pick which size you want to have. The tiles can be “live tiles” i.e. update information constantly and provide you the latest Facebook update, weather etc. at a glance.

…and here’s the first caveat. Especially in this phone due to its RAM, you’re limited as to how many apps you can have running in the background updating tiles. In practice this means you have to pick only a few. Even worse, in my view most of the tiles are useless, as they tend to only show one thing. The calendar only shows the next appointment. The Facebook tile only shows one update. The email app only shows the latest message. It’s visually much prettier than Google Now cards, but Google’s cards are vastly more useful, both in information content and their ability to change cards based on what’s relevant. One attempt to make up the difference is the Here suite “My Commute” where you tell it ahead of time around what time you’re typically going from where to where, and it’ll prefetch the traffic and routing info into a live tile. This is similar to the Google Now card, though doesn’t work quite as well in practice.

The second issue with Windows Phone 8 is the utter lack of customization. It goes to ridiculous lengths. For example, the phone has a volume rocker. It sets the phone volume. This is used for all alarm sounds as well as audio playback. To repeat — you can’t set the ringer volume separately from the audio playback volume. There is no ascending volume either. There are no real themes to change the visual appearance of the phone, and you’re pretty limited on what you can do with the lock screen. You can load your own ringtones easily enough, though.

In the Symbian era Nokia made great phone hardware, consistently let down by half-baked software. Has Windows Phone 8 changed that? I’d have to say yes and no. The operating system and the integrated Here suite of apps certainly are of higher quality than even Symbian^3. However, the apps are another story altogether. Here’s a list of the apps I use, and my problems with them:

  • MyFitnessPal — It’s just plain broken. You can’t add entries to your food diary. Not that you can’t add new foods; you can’t add an entry of what you ate. They’ve been aware of it since early December last year, but so far no fix in sight.
  • Endomondo — I still miss the Nokia Sportstracker, but that aside, I used Endomondo a lot on my Galaxy Nexus, paired with a Zephyr HxM Bluetooth heart rate monitor (HRM). Surprise! For no obvious reason, there’s no HRM support on the Windows phone version of Endomondo. No official response from Endomondo on their support forums that I can find. Instead I switched to Caledos Runner, but it’s wretched and borderline unusable. It should be mentioned that the HRM pairs with the phone like a dream, and another Caledos app that does nothing more than show the current BPM works peachy.
  • Google+ Doesn’t exist. Neither does Google Maps, Google Now, Gmail or virtually any other Google product. This kind of hurts.
  • LastPass — Works great.
  • Waze — The Windows Phone version is quite buggy. For example, pulling up your podcast app to pick something to listen to during a drive, then switching back to Waze causes it to crash. Navigating in an area with sketchy cell coverage causes it to crash. You get the idea.
  • Podcast Lounge — None of the podcast apps I used on Android appear to be available on Windows Phone, so I went with this. It’s visually pretty, but it has some screens you can’t get rid of (like a category directory pre-populated and non-editable), and it insists on updating a feed every time you enter the episode list. This takes a while, especially if you’re out of coverage. “Now playing” is fairly well hidden as well, and not the default screen you get to when resuming the app from the background.
  • Yelp — I only use this to look for restaurants; I don’t have a login. Works great.
  • Facebook — There is no Facebook app from Facebook for the phone, but Microsoft has cooked up their own. It’s pretty slow and appears to have no way to do things like timeline review (links to it do nothing). It’s usable, though.
  • Pandora — I had gotten rather used to Google Music instead, but had to switch back to Pandora since Google Music won’t work. No problems, aside from occasional failure to return to playback after being interrupted by a GPS announcement or text message.

In fact, one of the most glaring annoyances is switching between tasks. I don’t know if it’s the limited RAM, the OS, or badly written applications, but you need to get used to the idea of switching from one application to another taking an inordinate amount of time. Even worse, a lot of apps, when brought back to the foreground, don’t put you on the screen you were in when you backgrounded them, but act as if you had just started them from scratch. Some, like the built-in Here navigation work fairly well with it, taking a while to figure out what they were doing and resuming. Others, like Waze or Caledos Runner, just completely forgot that you were navigating or in the middle of an exercise activity, so you have to restart things every time.

Much like Facebook, in the “neener neener, I’m not touching you” act Microsoft and Google appear to be engaged in, Microsoft has rolled Gmail support into their native email app (which, incidentally, is probably the best I’ve seen in supporting email services and being pretty functional). The phone integrates corporate Exchange contacts, Google and Google+ contacts, Skype contacts, Microsoft Live contacts and Facebook contacts. This is nice, though not quite as well done as it was on Symbian^3. It is also very annoying when people have bogus or old information on Facebook, as the phone won’t let you edit or delete those entries. The contacts functionality works well in general, and Gmail support is usable, though it comes with all the usual IMAP/POP3 limitations.

Purchasing apps is dangerously easy. The app store, by default, charges your purchases to your cell phone account, so you don’t have to add separate payment info.

One aspect where Android wipes the table with Windows Phone is the keyboard. Android has built-in a Swype-like functionality where you just swipe your finger on the keyboard, and don’t have to exactly hit the keys. The Windows Phone keyboard requires you to actually hit the keys, and it doesn’t allow you to enter numbers and symbols with a long press, you have to actually switch modes to do that. Swype is not available as an app, either.

The phone comes with speech commands. They’re somewhat more limited than Google’s, but appear to work about as well, i.e. when I try to navigate somewhere or send someone a text message, it works about half the time, and lands me in a web search window the other half. A special kudo goes to the text message functionality, though. When the phone is paired to my car and a text message arrives, the phone announces that I have just received a new text message from sender, and asks me if it should read it or ignore it. If I say “read”, it reads the message, then offers further actions like reply, call. I can listen to the message and dictate a response without pressing a single button.

Conclusion

The Lumia 521 is an amazing value for money. It’s clearly limited in hardware and in software, and some of those limitations may be severe enough that this is not the phone for you. It’s not the phone for Facebook addicts, multitaskers, app-addicts or users of Google services. On the other hand, it’s visually elegant and works well; the things it does it does well. The camera is basic, but surprisingly decent.

Microsoft’s SkyDrive is a very reasonable Google Drive replacement; pictures can get auto-uploaded to it and the web interface is way nicer than Google’s. Instead of Google’s Keep, there’s OneNote. There are also some media services under the X-Box and Zune labels, but I can’t speak to those.

If you tend to use one app at a time, if the apps available are enough for you, and you just need a basic smartphone, it’s hard to not see the Lumia 521 as a winner.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Tanya Huff: The Silvered

I’ll have to hand it to Ms. Huff — she’s not happy with any one setting or world or genre, and boldly explores new ones. I generally like her work, though find the quality of it somewhat uneven.

Amazon had suggested, or at least one of its reviews did, that Silvered was Huff’s foray into steampunk. Since I like her and I like steampunk, I picked it up. It’s not steampunk. Yes, there are cannons and balloons and such, but the role of technology is minor, and the type and technological level is not close to that genre either. Instead, it’s a tale of a nation of witches and werewolves at war with a nation of technology and religion. A young witch and a young werewolf have to step up when it becomes obvious that only they can prevent a great calamity.

I have some trouble figuring out just what this book tries to be. There’s obviously a bit of romance. It’s a tale of a girl growing up to a woman, and a powerful hero. It’s a tale of personal conviction and morals overcoming duty when duty is immoral. It’s a werewolf story, it’s fantasy paranormal romance, it’s… a bit hard to pin down.

The characters never quite gain the depth I wish they did. The setting has potential, Ms. Huff doesn’t shy away from brutal violence in her depiction of evil, of fear and war. The plot is well crafted. And yet somehow it doesn’t quite get together, the chemistry doesn’t quite work. There’s nothing wrong with the pacing, the prose or the setting, it just didn’t quite grab me that way I think it should have.

Two and a half out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Sharon Shinn Troubled Waters

I rather liked Sharon Shinn’s Thirteen Houses series, and of course her science-fiction flavored Samaria series.

Troubled Waters starts a new Elemental Blessings series; currently this and the second book (Royal Airs) are out.

The setting is, as expected, a late-medieval world, just on the cusp of industry and transport beginning to change the world. The protagonist is a privileged woman, people are generally smart, nice and wise, there’s a small amount of magic in the world, and there’s an undercurrent of romance or relationship. In that respect it’s quite similar to Thirteen Houses and has a similar Mary Sue air to it, if you find that offensive.

In this series Shinn has created a new world, with a very convincing numerology-based system that permeates social organization, religion, timekeeping and commerce. There’s a regent and five essential houses. There are five fundamental dual human characteristics — Elay (Air/Soul), Hunti (Wood/Bone), Sweela (Fire/Mind), Coru (Water/Blood) and Torz (Earth/Flesh). Each of those characteristics is associated with a set of eight blessings such as “joy” or “resolve” or “honesty.” The character of a person is somewhat determined by blood, based on their parents or grandparents, and typically is predominantly one dominant characteristic with a possibility of another lesser one. Some combinations are good, some make for a conflicted or difficult personality. There are temples in which you can divine a person’s character as well as coming events by drawing random blessings.

It all sounds rather convoluted, but it really isn’t. The entire setting flows naturally as the plot progresses, and once I was done with the book I was a bit surprised to remember that that’s not how the world actually works. The money and timekeeping are a bit more work, but an appendix explains it, should it become confusing.

The system reminds me somewhat of a role-playing game with its archetypical characteristics or alignments; so much so that this entire world would lend itself rather well to a game setting. Either way, Shinn does a brilliant job structuring a world around people whose personalities are either predetermined to some extent, or who appear to be easily sorted into these categories. The protagonist is a Coru (Water/Blood), and the way she is always moving, restless, calm yet potential for amazing fury does the element of water and the likeness of a river great justice.

The plot eventually becomes court and succession intrigue. Frequently new revelations cast past events — both major and seemingly inconsequential — in a new light, either to the reader, the protagonist, or both. The machinations and motivations generally seem believable and consistent and weave a rich tapestry.

The pacing is good, though falters a bit towards the end; it almost feels as if the book vacillates between finishing properly or splitting into another volume — as she’s done before, Shinn picks up the next installment years after the events in this, so how repercussions played out is hinted at but not given as a story. That being said, this volume clearly stands on its own, and ends in a way that doesn’t make you demand the next volume to found out what happened. The prose itself is good enough to overcome any desire I might have to skim, with occasionally delightful vocabulary. Most importantly the flow is great, and this easily was one of those books that makes one ignore bedtimes or even mealtimes.

Four out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Anne Bishop: The Tir Alainn Trilogy

I’ll bundle The Pillars of the World, Shadows and Light, and The House of Gaian into a single review. The plot and storytelling was sufficiently consistent between all of them, and each subsequent book immediately picked of where the previous left off that they might as well be considered one long work.

The premise is an idyllic fantasy world that has fae crossing into the human world at their leisure, and generally behaving somewhat like arrogant brats. There are sprites and other little folk, and witches that are either appreciated or shunned, and of course humans.

An evil power is gathering and hunting the witches, and old linkages between all of the races have been forgotten, so now fae, witches and humans desperately need to relearn what their role in the greater weave is to counter the threat.

So far, so good. What I didn’t like was that the evil was incredibly caricatured. There’s a strong women’s rights lesson to the story, but the threats are so overt that they detract from the point being made. Another major shortcoming is the plotting. Occasionally evil and conflict gets built up only to utterly deflate. Occasionally it actually leads to tension.

Overall, I was left with a feeling of quite a mess that didn’t have a good dramatic flow; huge amounts of traveling between random places for what occasionally seemed like very contrived reasons, and at other times excessively plot-convenient proximity of people and events. The characters were witty, but didn’t quite ever develop proper depth or sufficient differentiation from each other. The one exception and my clear favorite of the series met with a tragic end, for which I’ve tried to find a good plot justification but haven’t, so I may have a bit of personal beef on that account.

The cosmology, on the other hand, was noteworthy. The origin of the fae or man is not explained satisfactorily, but their roles in the world, their realms and their connection to the witches is a very nice and consistent. The maturation of a couple of the primary characters was pretty well done, even if it didn’t give them that much more depth as people. The duality of some of the more powerful creatures, the tempering of power with responsibility, of destruction with compassion, was interesting.

The characters and prose were sufficient to make me read, if somewhat skimming at times, the entire trilogy, so for that I give it two and a half out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Patrick Rothfuss: The Wise Man’s Fear

Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind is an amazing fantasy novel. It is the opposite of most of the other fantasy I read these days, as it’s obviously crafted with great time and care. It is the fantasy novel my more refined (and librarian) friends recommend to people wishing to discover new fantasy authors.

However, having started his trilogy with such a spectacular work, Mr. Rothfuss faces the task of living up to the expectations he’s set.

To be brutally honest, he doesn’t.

This doesn’t mean that The Wise Man’s Fear isn’t a spectacular book, it is. It just isn’t more spectacular than The Name of the Wind, and perhaps a bit less so since we know what to expect.

The tale continues, as expected, from where The Name of the Wind left off. As in the first book, the setting is a tavern where the protagonist, Kvothe, retells his life’s story to a chronicler. Obviously things are afoot that tie into the history, but almost all of the writing pertains to the past, and the current time is advanced via brief interludes. Once more, Mr. Rothfuss uses this narrative device with perfect skill.

Unlike works from Patricia Briggs or Wen Spencer, The A Wise Man’s Fear is not a book that kept me up past my bedtime because I just couldn’t set it down. I have been wondering why this would be, and came up with a few hypotheses. Narratively, we know the end point to which the retold tale will lead; Kvothe in his tavern. There is little indication that the real-time thread of the narrative would reach a conclusion in this work either, so that motivation is also not present. Similarly, I suspected that Kvothe’s biographical tale would only proceed another third of the way.

However, there are other aspects as well. I had a slight feeling of dread for Kvothe as I went along; I fully expected horrible calamities and unpleasant events to befall him any moment — to the extent that it detracted from my reading pleasure. Whether this ominous air was Mr. Rothfuss’s intention or my own doing is unclear to me; perhaps others who have read it can chime in. On a more positive note, I was also unwilling to skim ahead or read it with less than proper attention, in fear of missing wonderful language or sayings.

Rothfuss continues with his world-building, introducing the fae archetype and the ascetic eastern warrior archetype, among others. I’ve always been fascinated by sidhe, fae and similar mythos, but even so I feel that Rothfuss has done an amazing job with both. While these are known archetypes, the re-imagining, both in prose, in plot and in world-building are top-notch.

The ancillary characters do not gain much in depth; Kvothe, Bast and Denna being ones that notably come alive. Trying to judge beyond that runs into the many-layered nature of the narrative; the description of the protagonist is one of a young man given by his older self, both of whom are clearly flawed and blind to certain aspects of themselves. Some darker plot elements are introduced, and Rothfuss earns another honorary mention on that account — something occurs in the book, and it is left for the attentive reader to speculate what it means and whether it’s important — and if it is, it will appear later in the tale, without being telegraphed or explained. The same applies to some philosophical aspects, such as the notion of free will in the face of prophesies of omniscient beings.

The book ends on a cliff-hanger of sorts, but a tasteful one that does not artificially hold the plot hostage. It also winds down, narrative-wise, in a sort of epilogue that I found very pleasing.

Summarizing The Wise Man’s Fear is hard. It contains many epic and memorable characters, lines, and ideas. It is tremendously well written. Is paced in a very deliberate manner. My brain is still thinking about the people and events in it, long after I’ve set it down. Perhaps it is like a fine spirit, to be enjoyed in a quiet setting with proper decorum and gravitas, rather than a beverage which allows for a good, raucous party.

Five out of Five. It’s not the best possible book, but it is so far above most of the other things I read in the genre these days, that there’s no point in splitting hairs.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Wen Spencer: Endless Blue

I finished my Wen Spencer binge with a sci-fi novel of hers that I had laying around in paperback format.

Endless Blue is science fiction; it has space ships, clones, genetically altered super soldiers, aliens, shuttles and rail guns. It’s not an amazing literary feat, following the more typical Spencer of very enjoyable prose and plot that moves along propelled by interesting protagonists.

The setting is thick with tropes, and few if any novel ideas are introduced. And again, Spencer manages to bring an interesting fresh angle at the material. The familiar criticisms are still there — as interesting as the character concepts for the protagonists are, they don’t ever quite develop the depth I’d like. The plot is self-contained — the book begins and ends within its covers — but towards the end it seems like the author woke up from all the fun she was having writing and had to quickly start tying up loose ends. It also engages in Marty Stu/Mary Sue fantasy with its protagonists.

For all its hard sci-fi setting, Endless Blue is about the relationships between the characters and how they define themselves and each other, their actions when they’ve been yanked out of their comfort zone, and musings on equality and humanity as a whole. While cinematic, some touches of the world seem unnecessary for the plot. There are also occasional plot clues revealed only shortly before they’re used, which annoys me a bit, having grown up with the proper British mystery novel tradition.

Deux ex machina is the novel’s strength and Achilles’ heel. The unlikeliness of some of the events and setting are explained by it. On the other hand, the divine hand is elevated to a central element of the setting and left mysterious, giving the work and its events a lot more depth. Just what was preordained, what was free will? What was human nature, and what was human nature being made into the image of something else?

The setting could easily support a multitude of further novels with different protagonists, and as a credit for her world building I still find myself trying to imagine the visuals and wondering about just how certain things would work and develop.

Much like a lot of Spencer’s books, I feel that it shows great promise, but only wish it had been worked and finished with a lot more patience and care. Nonetheless, it was a book that was readable, made me think of deep, existential issues, and successfully convinced me that sleep could wait, and for that I’ll award it four out of five stars.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Syria

Over the last months as events in Syria have continued to spiral from bad to worse and show no sign of reversing course, I’ve been reflecting on what happened, and why.

The Arab Spring

After the revolution in Tunisia in 2010/2011, it looked like people’s desire for self rule, and possibly even democracy, was going to transform the Middle East from a authoritarian, repressive region to something altogether new and better. It was a very inspirational narrative, one of hope and optimism for the future. It is not how things turned out, but I refuse to call those hopes wrong or even naive, because we must have hope. I am convinced humanity can do better.

Things have gone disastrously wrong. Instead of uniting under national identities and solidarity and self-rule we have sectarian violence, often fanned by outside interest, foreign fighters and weapons. Syria is the most extreme case, but Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and altogether depressingly too many other states suffer from the same malaise. After the genocides of Rwanda and the Balkans, both of which occurred in the context of a modern world, the same kind of strife continues in the Middle East, and we appear unable to stop it.

I cannot begin to explain the reasons behind the violence, although cold power games are not helping. Nor can I devise a magic solution.

Men, Women and Children

Someone, almost certainly Assad’s troops, used nerve gas and killed over a thousand people; men, women and children. The United States, France and Great Britain have demanded or are planning military retaliation.

On a superficial level this makes sense: someone (Assad) does something revoltingly inhumane — commits a crime against humanity — and so the international community of civilized states will rain down punishment on the perpetrator.

Once one thinks about it, though, the situation becomes a lot more complicated. The fighting in Syria has already killed, by some accounts, over a hundred thousand people. One could well argue that the latest horror is but a footnote in the mass slaughter, and the current outrage is but a strange form of hypocrisy.

Why do chemical, biological and radiological weapons elicit such an immediate and strong reaction? Partially I suspect it’s that an international norm has successfully been set against their use. Reacting to their use in this case would reinforce that norm, and that is a positive. These are weapons that work extraordinarily well against civilian populations, who have little protection from them. They are indiscriminate; if there are rebel fighters in a part of town, they will kill the rebels and everyone else. They are strange and frightening and alien, you may not see or smell them. They can produce particularly agonizing deaths and there is relatively little that can be done to save an affected person.

Chemical weapons should remain a normative taboo, and that norm should be strengthened. The problem is how. If Assad — or anyone else — finds them to be of great utility in clearing out entrenched urban rebels, troublesome civilian populations and creating terror among his enemies, the penalty for using them needs to be greater than the benefits. That can be difficult to achieve, though. Bombing urban areas, no matter how smart a munition, still results in civilian casualties and ruthless regimes can make sure they are maximized by co-siting humanitarian shelters with military targets. It is difficult to justify an action that kills civilians as just punishment for killing civilians. As Saddam Hussein’s and Osama bin Laden’s long escapades demonstrated, it is surprisingly difficult to truly impact a determined, well resourced opponent with bombs and missiles.

The Enemy of my Enemy…

There’s also the larger context. Disturbingly, not all members of these “civilized states” are interested in punitive measures, let alone military ones. If major, well-established nation-states are not prepared to bolster some of the most non-controversial norms out there because they conflict with their national interests, what can we make of that? But yet, if there is no international consensus or legitimacy for a punitive action, attacking another sovereign state with military force is, no matter how you bake it and no matter the motives, a war of aggression.

That’s a slippery slope. If the United States finds that it can unilaterally, or with a few of its allies, punish another state for unacceptable behavior with military strikes, ignoring sovereignty and the most basic principles of the United Nations, what is to stop China, for example, of using the same logic against Tibet? Or Russia against its former states? Doing this makes violation of sovereignty and unilateral military action more acceptable, and that’s a change in norm that is clearly not good. A similar door has already been propped open with the dubious definitions of fight against terrorism and drone attacks, and we’ll be dealing with the unpleasant things crawling in soon enough, I predict.

The United States attempted to forestall the use of chemical weapons in Syria by declaring it a red line — cynical reading would say this means that slaughter by any other means was acceptable. Ultimatums in diplomacy have a tendency to backfire. In this case, one has backed the United States into a corner. Not to act would mean weakness and lessen any subsequent threats and attempts to influence the behaviors of others by means of diplomacy. But acting will bring with it countless negatives as well. Even worse, there are actors, such as Russia and Iran which clearly benefit from the weakening of the United States, and therefore might have a motivation to encourage behavior or events that lead to such a no-win scenario. I’m not saying any of them did, but from a cold power calculation, it stands in their interest.

A Kinder, Gentler… What?

There are precious few non-military options left either. The regime is already an international pariah, and is fighting for its survival, so any additional sanctions would barely register. In any case, as long as some countries are not interested in playing along, and the regime can get the goods it wants or needs, such measures are moot. Summoning those responsible in front of international tribunals is logistically impossible during a war, and again there is a considerable lack of consensus for the legitimacy of such mechanisms. Threatening Assad’s future comfort is unlikely to sway him from trying to survive by any and all means a war fought today.

How Did it Come to This?

Rolling the clock back even more makes one wonder what, if anything, could have been done to prevent events from progressing to this point. Maybe promoting democracy, self-rule, human rights, co-operation and discouraging authoritarian regimes would be the safest thing to do, no matter the immediate political costs, to forestall future disasters like this one? Aggressive use of diplomatic and economic power to engineer more interconnected and democratic countries and institutions is expensive, long-term, and often thankless, but a determined push could well have an effect in a generation or two.

Fear Thy Neighbor

A central piece of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which is often forgotten is this: to discourage countries that do not already possess nuclear weapons from acquiring them, the nuclear powers agree to disarm and guarantee the safety of the non-nuclear nations. The argument “you do not need powerful weapons, we will make sure you’re safe from attack” works just the same for biological and chemical weapons. If countries do not have to fear existential threats, and if there are strong international norms against certain kinds of weaponry, it makes sense for them to not develop them.

Unfortunately, the reality is the opposite. States, whether enemies (Iran, North Korea etc.) or allies (yes, I mean Israel) do face existential threats. Based on history, they have little faith, rightly so, that the nuclear club or the international community would intervene on their behalf as was promised. Arming themselves remains the only logical option, and matching this arms race remains the only logical option to their adversaries.

Again, had the world been able to hold itself to the principles of the NPT, things might look different today.

Where Do We Go from Here?

I don’t know. I’m afraid I agree with many pundits and analysts who predict that there’s no stopping the carnage. Sectarian civil war will rage for years. We can care for the victims, we can protect the helpless, we can work to keep outside entities from pouring gas on the fire, we can try to do our damnedest to mediate and help diplomacy have a chance, and hope that it is enough to allow us to look ourselves in the mirror.

And we can think about these things, and pray to get the wisdom to learn from our past.

Posted by Toivo Voll