Sun and Dark

Before I started this blog I had thought I was losing the ability to heavily reread certain books.  Books that I could reliably revisit multiple times in a single year and yet I was touching them less and less.  But then I realized maybe it’s just those specific books that I’ve worn out my intense tolerance for.  Which doesn’t stop me from finding new treasures to reread into oblivion.

Can you believe it’s been less than two years since I first discovered Sunshine on the shelves of my local library?  That was mid-May of 2017, and here I am revisiting this book for the fourth time already (you know, it’s amazing how much this blog thing helps me to figure out how many times I’ve read this book).  I’ve been trying not to do as much rereading of specific books in general as I used to, but sometimes there’s just no help for it.  That’s what I want to read and nothing else will suit.  There’s a book I intend to reread, for example, but the time to get to it was late January or early February and I just haven’t been in a mood for it since then.  Not to mention that it shares no feel with anything I’ve read lately.

Is it weird that there’s the two extremes of what to read next?  I either need something in common – elements, characters, tonality, setting, etc. – or the exact opposite, such as epic fantasy to hard science fiction.  Length is also a factor, as you can see that I’ve been avoiding longer books for a bit now.  I just haven’t felt the inclination to being tied down with bricks or long series of late.

I wonder how much of that is because of wanting this blog to do well.  Obviously I get more views the more posts I do.  But since my personal rules say to only make the post when I’ve finished (although with anthologies I think I could get away with multiple posts throughout the days necessary to complete it) I may post far more often in some months than in others.  As of today, the second-to-last day in March, I’ve only skipped four days in the month thus far.  Which means making 26 posts, including todays.  And this month has been my most viewed ever, by a long shot.  I can only hope that some of those new readers will stick around.  But I can’t ever forget that November 2016 got a whole 21 views (this record-breaking month is up to 189 as I type) and I spent almost all of that month stuck on Safehold, the last time I read the entire series (as it existed at the time).  As someone considering ways to turn this idle hobby into additional income, the fact that spending so much time on long books could plummet my potential so abruptly is worrisome.  On the other hand, I only started the blog in July 2016, so it probably wouldn’t turn out quite as badly this time around, especially given how many more followers I have now.

But that’s just idle maundering about statistics and I’ve got a vampire book I just finished.  There’s something incredibly compelling about how Robin McKinley plays with vampire tropes.  There’s elements of both horror and sensuality, but Sunshine isn’t truly horrific or porn.  It’s almost like a bait and switch at times, where McKinley says “hey, you want the protagonist to have sex with the vampire?  MADE YOU LOOK!”

I should point out that it’s midafternoon and I have accomplished exactly nothing today, save for reading this book.  But Sunshine is just one of those books that I love and if I’m rereading it, I’d rather be doing that than absolutely anything else.  I’d rather finish the book than run errands, check traffic or gas prices, or even figure out what I’ll be eating for dinner now that I’m feeling better.  I just want to be sucked into Sunshine‘s world where vampires are the bigger threat by far than demons, magic-handlers, and getting up at 4am to make cinnamon rolls.  It’s a book that I can choose to analyze heavily – which I have – or I can choose to just sit back and enjoy because there’s a damn good reason I keep picking it up off the shelf every so many months.

I only wish it wasn’t so overcast out.  I do love me some bright sunshine.

Back to Hell

Rebels in Hell is one of the best books from the Heroes in Hell series. It’s the third volume and second anthology of the lot and contains two of my favorite bits. First is the scene with Napoleon and Wellington at the country club. Second is the reason why there are no fighter pilots in Hell. That second in particular, a full story by Martin Caidin titled “There Are No Fighter Pilots Down in Hell”, is just damn good. I may not know much about planes or aerial combat, but even I can get caught up in the dogfight and understand what’s going on. (It’s a lovely contrast to, say, David Weber’s naval battles.)

Most of this book takes place concurrently with Kings in Hell, the second novel in the series. I will not be rereading that because, as I mentioned before with The Gates of Hell I simply have so little interest in the events it covers that it’s not worth it. Maybe at some future date I’ll reread it to be a completionist and because it’ll have been significantly more years at that point, but we’re not there yet. So I might as well take some time and talk about the set pieces of this book individually.

Chris Morris starts us off with “Undercover Angel”. Because there is, amazingly enough, an actual angel in Hell. His name is Altos, but he asks that you call him Just Al. I think that’s meant to be read two ways. First, as “just call me Al” and second as Al being a Just creature. Al’s around to make sure that, since the onset of nukes, any innocents who are accidentally sent to Hell get to Heaven in the end. He’s also supposed to try reforming the Devil. I’d wish him good luck with that, sarcasm thick in my voice, but the angel would sincerely thank me for my wish.

“Hell’s Gate” by Bill Kirby is another one of those segments that you can remember for years afterward. Not necessarily specifics, but in general. Because this is the one about the movie. You see, Hell’s Gate will be The Movie. The biggest, best movie ever filmed in Hell. It’ll win all the awards, make all the money, sell out to all the crowds, make the careers of every single person involved, etc. Or at least, that’s the idea. But the movie has been filming for so very long, it’s gone through so many directors, too many studio overseers to count, and everything seems to be one disaster after another. You know, exactly what you’d expect in Hell. Oh, and the producer is Cecil B. DeMille, the man who created the movie I need to make time to watch at some point in the next few weeks, Ten Commandments. But that’s a different topic.

From Robert Silverberg is “Gilgamesh in the Outback”, wherein we meet yet another great King of Hell from the ancient world. And he meets up with a pair of unlikely envoys; H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. They’ve been sent by Henry VIII to make an alliance with Prester John against Henry’s daughter Elizabeth. And Gilgamesh’s hunt happens to take him over to their Land Rover where silliness ensues. Of course Howard sees Gilgamesh as Conan come to life (and clearly has some repressed homosexual inclinations towards massive, overmuscled men) and they invite him to come to Prester John’s court with them. Gilgamesh merely desires to find his best friend Enkidu, whom he’d quarreled with about technology. Gilgamesh prefers things the old-fashioned way whereas Enkidu is all about modernism and would rather hunt with a disruptor than a bow. More silliness ensues.

C.J. Cherryh is just sitting there though, “Marking Time” as Brutus tries to figure out what’s going on. Julius is off in the depths of Hell with Alexander and that lot, Augustus is trying to keep things from deteriorating, and Sargon is generally nowhere to be found or not wanting to be disturbed. This is a good story for clues and hints about alliances in the ongoing plot that runs through all the books.

“Table with a View” by Nancy Asire is the Napoleon/Wellington story I mentioned before. It seems a relatively straightforward day for Napoleon as he has to visit the Hall of Injustice to clear up the fact that his driver’s license does not actually expire quite yet (one wonders why he doesn’t just renew it early but this is besides the point). And since it’s the legality of his driving that’s in question, he of course prevails upon Wellington to provide mobility. But then he finally gets to his goal in the Hall and finds none other than Marie, the Countess Walewska, behind the desk. He insists that she come home with him, once she’s off work, and the three of them go to the country club for dinner. But of course, this is Hell, and nothing is anywhere near as simple as it seems.

I’ve already spent some time gushing about Martin Caidin’s “There Are No Fighter Pilots Down in Hell” but I’m going to reiterate that this is one of the best and strongest stories in the entire series I’ve read. If my dad could remember it after thirty years, you’ve got something there. I don’t think you actually need to be familiar with Heroes in Hell to appreciate the story, although it would definitely help with background and side characters. So if you can find this alone through the magic of the interwebs, go ahead and read it already!

David Drake’s contribution is “‘Cause I Served My Time in Hell” and it’s…a war story I guess. Not as exciting as an aerial dogfight and helping to progress the overall plot, so I don’t have much to say about it. It’s well written I guess.

Then C.J. Cherryh has a quick time of it with “Monday Morning” which is wholly about the ongoing plot, this time from the Pentagram’s side of things, as we’re usually more neutral or looking at the dissidents.

Janet Morris herself finishes out the book with “Graveyard Shift” with characters who had been out in Kings in Hell, bringing them back into the main setting once again. We get glimpses of other characters, including Just Al, and discuss some unanswered questions from earlier, including earlier books. I think this one is meant to set the scene for the next installment.

I’m not sure if I’ll be following this up with Crusaders in Hell or not quite yet. I do recall how reading the first two books back to back this second time around got tedious and difficult. Part of that was the characters who were the focus of that volume, part of that was because it was a novel and not an anthology. I do actually have the book, which was not a guarantee for a while there. See, I ordered it, along with a whole bunch of other volumes in the series, on March 1st. I got a shipping confirmation on March 3rd and when I could actually see anything from the tracking number, I knew it had actually shipped on March 4th. I did not get the book until March 20th, after it had gone to several towns in Ohio, then to Iowa, then back to the same towns in Ohio, then back to Iowa, then back to the same towns in Ohio, then to Kentucky and finally on to Illinois. Frankly, I think I would have been happiest without tracking and it just showed up one day within the very loose timeframe I had originally been told to expect it. It is definitely the most frustrating instance of USPS tracking I’ve ever had. When I did finally get the package, I could see why though. The address label had the return address squarely above the recipient’s address. Postage design says that the return address should begin some distance to the left of the addressee – at least 1.5″ or something like that I think – to help differentiate. Because seriously, this is why. Someone had to cross out the return address in order for them to ship it to me. There’s being conservative with your printing and then there’s wasting everyone’s time and money because of bad design. And I have been a certified mailpiece design professional so I know damn well what I’m talking about. I may not remember specific requirements off the top of my head, but I can go pull my notes and whatnot and give hard measurements if necessary.

Long story short, if you’re going to send anything through the mail, there are very good reasons why they teach you to put address, return address, and stamp in three very different places.

That rant has gotten me no closer to figuring out what I’m reading next though, so I should go figure that out.

Faint Praise?

You’ll note that something I’ve brought up a lot in the past month and a half is my favorite annual Capricon panel, Juding a Book by Page 119.  I don’t always find new reads through it, but when I do it can be very memorable.  Today’s book was from this year’s panel even, and it was one of my own friends up at the table who’d brought it in.  Which also meant she was rather accommodating when I accosted her afterward demanding to take a picture so I couldn’t possibly forget what books I was looking for.

One of the two she read from was not actually available at that time, and her husband had gotten his hands on an advance reader copy.  What was so stunning about this ARC however, was the sheer number of blurbs it was already decorated with.  We’re talking names including Charlie Jane Anders, Jo Walton, Daryl Gregory, Malka Older, Martha Wells, Delilah S. Dawson, and Ann Leckie.  On the advance reader copy.  Not to mention that page 119 had definitely sucked me in.

Now, when it comes to preorders I do tend to get them from amazon because of that price guarantee.  It’s saved me a surprising amount on some books.  But because I refuse to shell out for prime (or even do a free trial), when I get those preorders is…questionable.  It can be as late as two weeks after the release date, it can be as timely as the day of.

I was thrilled to get my email earlier this week (in between being sick) saying it would arrive yesterday.  The official release date.  And since by yesterday evening I was feeling better, I did in fact settle down with it.  By the time I laid it aside a bit after eight P.M. I only had about two hundred twenty pages left out of four hundred fifty.  It had been so engaging that I knew there would be no problem finishing it no matter what happened at work today.

This is A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine.

The Empire in question is the Teixcalaan, which shows a very Azetc (or possibly Mayan, I am not hugely familiar with Mesoamerica) naming style.  Not just in the name of the Empire itself but also in the names of the people such as Three Seagrass, Twelve Azalea, Six Direction, etc.  There can be meaning to the names, but parents often choose numbers they like or think will be lucky for the children, and the other portion about the same reasoning.  So, about the same as our own naming choices for children in this world.

Our protagonist is Mahit Dzmare and she is the new Lsel Ambassador to Teixcalaa.  Lsel is a space station that controls a far smaller region of space on the edge of the Empire’s current boundaries.  They trade with the Empire but would dearly love to remain independent without giving up much of what they have.  The demand for a new Ambassador was abrupt and unexpected – and Mahit’s predecessor hasn’t been home for fifteen years.  This is particularly troublesome because it means she’s been given an imago fifteen years out of date.

An imago is an implant containing the memories, experiences, and skills of a person.  They are given to likely candidates interested in the same field with many of the same attributes.  The two become a single person with all the previous knowledge to draw upon in the current age…and the new host will add to that.  The oldest imago lines of Lsel Station are some fourteen generations old, a notable investment worth preserving.

Standard operating procedure calls for the individual to be given a year in which they and their imago determine how their intertwined life will work, to make sure everyone remains sane, etc.  Mahit has had Yskandr in the back of her head for a whole three months by the time she lands on the Imperial homeworld and meets her liason, Three Seagrass, for the first time.  There’s some awkward flirting between the two women, but then onto business as Mahit is brought to see Yskandr’s body.

She’s floundering for lack of knowning anything current – she doesn’t know what Yskandr was up to for the past fifteen years and especially not just before he died.  She doesn’t know who all of the Very Important people are or what she is to them.  But she is fascinated by all things Teixcalaan and a trained diplomat, two things which will serve her in good stead.

The only problem is that it seems there’s a lot of tension and unrest in the City and Mahit’s about to be deeply involved in all of it.  It’s just the time when she’d love to turn to her imago for help…unfortunately it’s not answering…

A Memory Called Empire is in many ways a political thriller.  But it’s covered in that science fiction skin that makes everything more palatable to me and I ate up every page of this book.  I was rooting for Mahit every step of the way, I was wondering whom she could possibly trust, and I was wondering how many people have actually heard and used the term “ekphrasis” before reading this book.  I mean, I have, but I took four years of Latin and we used a lot of obscure terminology when it came to discussing poetry.  Plus I read a lot of books that, like this, happen to throw in those high level vocab words just for the fun of it.

I will briefly touch on sexuality as it applies here, because I did mention the flirting between the two female leads.  It is made clear, by not being mentioned at all, that in both Lsel and Teixcalaan culture nobody cares what gender you sleep with.  There are references to male/male relationships, male/female relationships, and female/female relationships.  There is also a reference to seeing someone who is not one of the binary genders.  And none of these things are given any weight as being taboo or even notable.  As in, it’s not our business if it’s not important to the story.  As for childbirth, there are two views.  First is Lsel’s view which is that women are too valuable as skilled workers to risk on pregnancy.  All children are grown in artificial wombs.  Whereas the Teixcalaan mother we meet says how she “spent two years getting into the best physical shape of her life beforehand” so that she was able to healthily bear a child.  I think there may have also been something about permission to do so.  Regardless, motherhood is viewed as being different from sexual relations and is not dependent upon sex.  Women are fully equal in both societies and there is no question of whether or not they should be.

So does the book deserve the hype?  Absolutely.  Do I want more?  You bet.  Am I going to turn it over and start all over?  Ah…no.  No, this is not quite that kind of book.  The whole thriller aspect would probably sour a bit if I reread it that quickly.  But I am super glad to have been turned onto A Memory Called Empire soon enough to preorder it and I’m going to tell a lot of people about it.

Feeling Better

When I got my graphic novel and my free Hellboy anniversary issue, there was a coverless comic thrown in as per usual. This was Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #1. And boy did it just throw me off the deep end. I sincerely hope that this series ties into something else Dynamite has already published because otherwise there’s no reason for a new reader to pick it up. We open on a dead man’s face with narration about an alien invasion and then discover that it’s a superhero, one of a group of five, trying to convince a sixth to help them. The five represent the United States, China, and Russia teaming up like never before. The sixth person is Peter Cannon, a genius with access to ancient scrolls of wisdom, who is not sure the world is worth saving.

Really, he goes and looks at his scrolls and decides to help, returning in his Thunderbolt costume. Then he tells one of the others exactly where to hit and the group is able to defeat the invasion. This is all well and good, but Peter is sure there’s more going on. He theorizes that he created this external threat, except not he himself but the Peter Cannon of another dimension. The final page reveals the correctness of this assumption.

We get a very quick rundown of the five heroes, but most aren’t memorable save for the appearances of the two most distinct ones. I really don’t care about any of these people, not even the one two weeks away from retirement (of course, what a stereotype), and the fact that Peter’s right in the end just makes it another instance of “well, of course he’s right he’s a genius”. The reveal has no punch because I am quite certain there’s more to the story before this comic book but I’ve never read nor heard of any of it.

So, since I was sick the past couple days (seriously, yesterday’s post should have been Sunday’s), I opted with my return of health and attention span to reread an old favorite that just happens to kick off with…disease! Yes, it’s The Ship Who Searched by Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey, one of the Brain & Brawn books. For those unfamiliar, Brains are shellpeople – humans who are unable to live an ordinary life and so are put into shells as infants. They essentially become human computers who do still have bodies, but those bodies are lifeless and maintained through significant medical devices. Instead, the bodies they choose to think of are the ones their shells are installed into upon graduation. Some run space stations, some run hospitals, and some run ships. Brainships those are called, and the more ordinary and mobile human partners to these Brains are the Brawns.

Hypatia Cade is both like and unlike your average seven-year-old. She has two loving archeologist parents who take her along with them on all of their digs and she’s probably something of a young genius herself. Her best friend outside the family is Moira, a Courier Services brainship, and her countless brawns. Her main concerns are doing well in her lessons, not letting weird Psych people take her away from her parents and send her to boarding school, and loving all the time she spends with her parents each and every day.

Sometimes, when she finishes her lessons, she gets to go outside in the nearly-airless environment (safely inside her spacesuit) and play. She even has her own dig site where she pretends to be just like her parents. But one day Tia finds something at her dig. Two things actually, but the first is that she’s found an actual garbage heap from the ancient entities her parents are excavating. This gives them the chance of a lifetime. The other thing she finds that no one realizes until it’s far too late is a plague. One that just happens to want a developing nervous system to set up inside of…

Long and sad story short, Tia loses all control and sensation below her neck. She’s devastated, but tries to put a good face on it for her family and friends. Then someone comes up with a brilliant idea. Oh sure, seven is old for it, but wouldn’t a smart young girl like this do well in the shell program?

Fast forward and Tia is about to have some crazy adventures for the love of archeology.

I truly love this book. There’s something inspiring about this brilliant young girl who is intelligent enough to understand what’s going on all around her, adaptable enough to take such a lifechange and grow into a confident young woman who knows what she wants. There’s several obstacles to be overcome, of course, but what’s triumph without hardship? Plus I love the term “zen hugs.” They are, as Lars says, “the hugs that you would get, if we were there, if we could hug you, but we aren’t, and we can’t.” Lars himself is the shellperson that oversees the hospital where Tia stayed, so the term is particularly apt in his case. I just think it’s a great phrase, especially in the age of the internet, where we can be friends with people all over the planet and never once meet them in person.

There’s a subplot about the stock market in this book, which is only a very superficial overview about how such a thing works, but they’re not wrong and it’s a good example of how it can play an important role, though not a negative one. I happened to be reading this book for the first time while a class was discussing the stock market, so it was fortuitous.

Most of all, there’s love. The Brainship books are all about showing us that physical disability is no reason to count someone as less than human. They are every bit as human as so-called “normal” people and have the same emotions as the rest of us, including the ability to love. Tia wouldn’t be the likable protagonist she is without the love she feels for her friends and family, and the same is true of the other shellperson characters in this series. The books following McCaffrey’s original The Ship Who Sang all have a tagline on the front cover saying “The Ship Who Sang is not alone!” Which is true in a number of senses. Not just the expansion of the universe and continuation of the series, but also because Helva helped to pave the way for Hypatia and other ships to embrace their emotions and love their friends and family. After all, Helva and her brawn had a star-crossed romance that is still legendary by the time Tia was commissioned (Tia being 1033 and Helva 834 – shellperson class sizes being relatively small, usually under 20 individuals with no numbers repeated since they first started the shell program).

I read an article once about how Anne McCaffrey herself said she was proudest of the Brainship series, of all the books she’d brought to life. It may not have quite the same scale or notoriety as Dragonriders of Pern, but it certainly touches me more deeply. Although, to be fair, I’m pretty sure both of those series, along with several others, are all part of her Federated Sentient Planets universe, which also includes Dinosaur Planet, the Planet Pirates, Crystal Singer, and probably more. So you could make an argument that it’s all one big series and you wouldn’t be wrong. But I find it easiest to divide it up by subject matter. Dragons, dinosaurs, pirates, singers, brainships, etc. I’ve caught references in one series to another, such as a pair of crystal singers aboard a brainship, but those are relatively few and far between so it’s more the nature of a cameo than a crossover. I think that, given when McCaffrey was writing, it was never her intention to do more than that. The FSP base gave her a framework to build off of, but that might have been more for her convenience than for readers looking to tie everything together. She was not Brandon Sanderson and his interwoven Cosmere, to say the least, but she didn’t need to be. The shared universe phenomenon is relatively recent for pop culture and popular consciousness, although comic books in particular have been using the idea for decades. That’s not to say there aren’t other books like it, but I’m a bit hard-pressed to think of them. This isn’t the same as Alliance-Union or Valdemar where the author has created a timeline and a map and simply chooses to go through and fill in additional spaces as they see fit – both of those series can easily be written down in both timeline and map format. FSP can’t.

But that’s not really important in the end. What’s important is that The Ship Who Searched is, for some strange reason, one of my favorite books. I can’t quite tell you what the specific combination of elements it has that other books in the series lack, or if maybe it’s just the addition of Mercedes Lackey, but it captured my imagination and my heart when I first read it and I will never, ever forget it.

Even though there are still hours left in the day, I don’t see myself finishing another book. I do have a bookmark placed though in my very newest arrival, a preorder that just came today. One I only ordered because of a certain panel at a certain convention last month…let’s see if it lives up to all the hype.

Some Comics

So Saturday was Hellboy Day at my local comic shop, celebrating the comic’s twenty-fifth anniversary complete with special free copies of Hellboy #1: Seed of Destruction. Now, this is the first time I’ve read a Hellboy comic, but I did see the movies that were released several years ago and so much of this first issue is familiar to me. Nazis doing some weird magic ritual that brings the young demon into our world, the demon being found by a group of American soldiers (and also some British experts in the occult), and one of the professors becoming Hellboy’s adoptive father. The, uh, weird frog monster that kills the father figure is something else though.

But it’s a decent beginning to a story and that’s the important thing. They don’t celebrate 25th anniversaries for comics that faded out of popular consciousness. I don’t know that I would seek out more Hellboy to read though. I suppose it would depend on how true that first movie was to the comics aside from the origin. At this moment, I just don’t have the interest in retreading what I’m already familiar with.

What I actually bought at the comic shop was Green Lantern Corps: The Lost Army. I’ve heard something about this before, how the lanterns somehow end up in a different universe and all that, but it wasn’t until I flipped through it in the store and saw Guy Gardner wearing both a green and a red ring that I was actually interested. Because, you know, Guy as a red lantern is interesting to me.

The most interesting fact about this new adventure is that the strange new universe isn’t quite as strange or as new as I would have thought. In fact it should be familiar to anyone who’s been following the Green Lantern storyline up until now. This doesn’t detract from the reading at all though, just makes it more interesting. And of course the book ends on a cliffhanger because of course.

Sorry this post isn’t anywhere near as long or thought out as usual. I’m not feeling great.

Weird and Fairy Tales

When people have their headphones in, there’s a number of things they could be listening to.  You’ve got your typical music and sports, of course, and I won’t knock people who prefer audiobooks.  But in the past several years there’s been a huge boom for podcasts.  Essentially, though I don’t listen to them, I understand these to be recorded talk shows of various kinds.  The subjects run the gamut and not all of them are factual or opinions on real events.  Some are fictional.

I remember when I first started hearing about a little podcast known as Welcome to Night Vale.

It was something a lot of my friends were interested in.  Some kind of weird world that sounded vaguely post-apocalyptic that you experienced only through a radio show aired from Night Vale.  There would other characters who called in sometimes, but mostly it was the DJ talking.  I recall hearing that you couldn’t be sure if the world outside the radio show was real or not.

I also remember when the first Welcome to Night Vale book was published.  I think it might have been a kickstarter campaign – though I don’t recall as again, I didn’t listen to the podcast.  But I do remember suddenly seeing the book in a number of people’s collections.  And I thought “good for you guys, Night Vale.”  Because I think that thing must’ve ended up with the bestsellers, at least on its initial release, given the widespread fanbase.

But although I was vaguely aware that Welcome to Night Vale was still ongoing, I haven’t really been very aware of it since then.  Oh sure, it pops up every now and again, just like any pop culture participant.  It’s not omnipresent like the major commercialized fandoms, but I don’t doubt that it’s still going strong.

All of which is relevant because the book I finished today is It Devours!, a Welcome to Night Vale novel from 2017.  I don’t know if I mentioned it, but I participated in a little Facebook chain this year about spreading reading by spreading books.  I volunteered to give a book each to five different people, and I will be receving a few books back as well.  The first of these to arrive is, of course, It Devours!.  The friend who sent it to me says this was the first Night Vale book they read, and their favorite.  They assured me that my lack of familiarity with the podcast wouldn’t be a detriment, and they called it a mystery.  Now, I’m not a huge mystery person for a number of reasons, but I would at least read the book.

The book itself is bright yellow, and the title is in bold white text with a black outline and drop shadow, hovering above a stylized mouth.  And when I say “mouth” I mean like a sarlaac’s mouth, with many concentric circles featuring far too many sharp teeth.  Below the image is a purple eyeball with a moon for a pupil that I seem to recall is the Night Vale icon.  It’s definitely an eye-catching cover.

The protagonist is Niljana, a scientist who has lived in Night Vale for the last four years.  She can be something of a perfectionist and is wholly dedicated to science and the Night Valian version of the scientific method.  So when her own experiment is ruined and her boss Carlos, husband of radio host Cecil, calls her into his office to unofficially not-ask for her help, she’s interested.  Carlos had a traumatic experience after going through a house in town that doesn’t exist and now he’s building a machine to protect the town.  But it’s not working right and he wants her help to make it work.

Niljana has no idea where to start and so is easily distracted at a coffee shop by a guy handing out religious pamphlets for the Church of the Smiling God.  His name is Darryl and he is the romantic interest.  Oh, and the prologue featured a man named Larry Leroy falling into a pit that opened up under his house.  All of these elements come together to form a strange but still actual story of trying to save Night Vale from destruction.

Right from the first page where authors Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor describe mountains that people may or may not believe in, I understood that Night Vale logic is not real world logic.  You just have to accept it at mostly face value unless or until told otherwise.  Some things clearly are legacies from previous books or the podcast itself, such as bread being illegal, or invisible corn.  Others are just facts of the world, such as paperwork being required in order to have sex.

I heard Jody Lynn Nye say once that the trick to writing humor is that the author has to take it completely seriously, and that is definitely true for It Devours!.  I may find certain things utterly ridiculous, but it’s just another day in the life of for the characters and if they didn’t take it seriously they’d probably end up dead.

So, did I like it?  I guess so.  It was a real story and well-told.  There were a lot of things that were very predictable – like within 50-60 pages of starting the book predictable – but it was interesting to see how the story got there.  I’ve definitely read worse and as a book that can exist to be absurd it’s not a bad addition to my library.  I don’t see myself as seeking out other Night Vale books though, and I still can’t find the time to listen to podcasts.  If I put them on at work there’d come a point when I realized I’d completely lost track of what was going on because I was, you know, doing my job.  Nor is my commute long enough to justify something like that in the car.  And once I’m home, I think we all know I’d rather actually read a book.  Still, it’s something I would never had read if not for my friend and I mostly enjoyed myself.

And now I’ve officially learned a bit more about Night Vale, that strange strange town in the desert ringed by mountains that may or may not exist.

Unfortunately, It Devours! is not an easy book to follow.  It’s so different from the sort of things that permeate my library that I had to think hard about what to read next.  It couldn’t be something that took itself too seriously – I’d just end up laughing after reading about Night Vale.  It had to be something that would almost completely engage me so that I wouldn’t be reflecting back on the book I’d just finished.  Which meant, of course, it had to be something that I’d read before.  And I didn’t want something especially long, like certain bricks.

I settled on Uprooted by Naomi Novik.  This is the one that I thought originally would be a retelling of Beauty and the Beast but was truly something far different.  The main character, Agnieszka, is one of eleven seventeen year old girls in the valley.  One of them is about to become the Dragon’s new girl.  He’s the wizard who lives in the valley’s tower, and while he does look after all the villages, he’s very distant.  Once every ten years he picks a seventeen year old girl who then lives with him in the tower.  After that time is done, he sends her back to her family with a heavy purse of silver and picks a new girl.  The girls never stay with their families long though, a month at most before they pick up and leave, usually for the city.

Everyone knows that Agnieszka’s best friend Kasia is going to be the Dragon’s next girl.  She’s beautiful and seemingly perfect, and all of the girls picked have some talent, some element that sets them beyond the others in their year.

Everyone is stunned when Agnieszka is selected instead of Kasia.  No one moreso than the protagonist herself.  But that shock fades away when she realizes why the Dragon chose her – she’s a witch.  Now she has to somehow learn how to use the magic she’s always had…and to do it before the Dragon can no longer protect the valley from the Wood.

The Wood is the forest in the heart of the valley, the unspoken border between two countries (based on Poland and Russia).  But the Wood is on no one’s side save its own, and that side is inimical to human life.  It’s been spreading, slowly, for years, and only the Dragon has kept it from overrunning the whole valley these past ten decades.

It’s a fairy tale, and a well-told one.  Although, to be fair, you could say that It Devours! or any story set in Night Vale is a kind of fairy tale.  But in this case the fairy is a punk rock man wearing sunglasses at night telling you he’s a fairy before he vanishes into thin air while you’re watching.  Night Vale has a lot of fairy tale logic – this is because it is and it may never be explained but you’ll have to accept it as fact.

That’s enough reading for today though.  I’ll be back tomorrow and with some new things.

High Pitched Shrieks

I watched a lot more TV as a kid than I do now.  Often because it seems like there’s nothing good on (or at least nothing good on the channels I am willing to pay for, which means the basic stuff), or because I find it difficult to be engaged week after week, or because I just plain forget to watch and then put off catching up until I don’t care anymore.  It also seems like there aren’t as many shows that you can watch without being required to view every single episode in order to understand what’s going on – but my view of this may be skewed by the fact that I don’t watch a lot of TV.

There was a show when I was a kid that I didn’t watch religiously, but often enough.  And it was one my dad watched with me, and not just because he took the “monitoring what children watch” advice seriously.  We both liked to sit down with the adventures of Xena: Warrior Princess.  And so while I can’t tell you much about the overall plot, or more than a few characters, I do have good memories of the show.  More than enough to pick up The Further Adventures of Xena: Warrior Princess when I saw it in the bookstore last weekend.  It is yet another anthology, and one put together by fans who happen to be professional authors.

There’s fifteen stories inside and I recognized quite a number of names including Jennifer Roberson, Diane Duane, Esther Friesner (the Chicks ‘n Chainmail anthologies that dedicated their first volume to Lucy Lawless), Josepha Sherman (responsible for All I Need to Know I Learned From Xena: Warrior Princess), Lyn McConchie, Gary A. Braunbeck, Jody Lynn Nye, Tim Waggoner, and David Bischoff.  Which, of course, covers more than half the stories in the book.  And it was quite clear that a number of these people truly loved the show, given the obscure bits they chose to put center stage.

My favorite story on principle has to be Keith R. A. DeCandido’s “Recurring Character.”  He pickes a guy, Miltiades, who had shown up in the series at least four times.  Now he’s a tavern owner who wants nothing more to do with Xena.  So when a young bravo shows up declaring that he’s the man to take down the warrior princess, Miltiades shares his story to set the boy straight.

“Argonaut” from Josepha Sherman focuses on a character most might overlook – Argo, Xena’s horse.  Because Xena couldn’t possibly ride an ordinary horse, right?  Well, it seems Argo gets at least one adventure of her own that she can’t possibly tell her human about, but she and Pegasus know it happened…

Stories like “Bard and Breakfast” by Greg Cox and “The Tenth Wonder of the World” by David Bischoff touch on villains who were seen on the show.  Because if you keep wandering around the same country long enough, you’ll surely run into people again.  Diane Duane’s story “. . . When They Bear Gifts” turns the focus onto sometime sidekick and annoyance, Joxer.  And Jaye Cameron indulges her historical passion in “Xena at the Battle of Salamis”, that massive naval battle where the Greeks trounced the Persians.

Obviously I’m not going to get as much out of this book as a diehard fan who has seen every episode, in order, multiple times.  But I can still appreciate a kickass warrior woman who refuses to be anything less than what she is.

Changing Times

I mentioned yesterday how Ravirn has grown and changed from WebMage through Cybermancy and now into CodeSpell.  But I’ve neglected to speak on environment.  I know I talked about how he was a junior in college at the start of WebMage and we saw him interacting with the mundane world a lot.  Cleaning up before his roommate got back, concealing his pointed ears and slit-pupiled eyes with a spell, acceptable garb, etc.  However, the more heavily Ravirn gets involved in the events of the books and becomes a power, the less he has to do with that “real” world of ours.  At this point he has his own territory that is largely isolated from the others, though they can comminicate and visit as needed, and the only time he visited “our” world in this entire book was to order computer parts.

Of course, considering that the Raven is a chaos power, it’s probably for the best that he has little to do with us mundane types.  Even the simplest plans have a way of spiraling out of control when he makes them.  And while we thought it was bad before with Ravirn unintentionally crashing the mweb, it’s even worse now that it seems like Necessity herself is in serious trouble.  Necessity is the goddess who created the mweb, the Fates are just the system administrators.  She long ago gave up being embodied in order to make her body into a computer, to better run the mweb.  There’s some crazy philosophy stuff going on there.  The short is that Necessity needs help and someone decided Ravirn was the best person to do this.

His personal life’s going up in flames too though.  He’s been dating Cerice of House Clotho and while that worked well enough while they were both from the House of Fate, it’s a little tetchy for a scion of Order to be in a relationship with a power of Chaos.  Not to mention that Cerice herself has been a bitch and a half.  She broke it down once, how she lives for order and organization, discussing a life plan spreadsheet she made when she was thirteen and how she’s been systematically adding to it over the years, including a section for “Ravirn, Reforming of”.  Which just…adds a lot of connotations.  But sweetheart, if your boyfriend is so laissez-faire that he became a chaos power, what makes you think you can change him into what you want?

So Cerice is a bit of a control freak and when she’s not pleased about how things are going she becomes a bitch.  She doesn’t give Ravirn a chance to explain, wasting her time on accusations and unrelated questions because she’s already jumped so far ahead on the conversation in her mind that she’s incapable of backing up and actually listening to someone else’s side of the story.  Frankly, I’m not surprised that he was her first serious hookup.  With an attitude like that, I can’t see why anyone would want to romance her.

And, of course, Cerice is jealous.  Because it seems the Fury Tisiphone may have a crush on Ravirn.  Instead of a descendant, she’s a goddess herself.  A lot more powerful, a lot older, and goes around completely naked.  So it’s quite obvious that Tisiphone is attractive.  And it’s clear that Ravirn is interested, although he’s a gentleman and leaves the matter up to Cerice.

And those are just two of the main three plotlines going through CodeSpell.  It’s amazing how many ways Ravirn can discover to injure himself, screw himself over, or just realize how dumb he’s been about something that should be obvious.  I still think the books are kind of stupid, but again, I’m enjoying myself.

I did start my next book which has nothing to do with the holiday, but is maybe as absurd as this although in a different way.  But that’s for tomorrow, probably.  Pretty sure I can finish it by then.

A Second Look at a Second Book

I still think Ravirn is an idiot for waiting so long to figure out what it means to have Raven has a name.  That’s what made Cybermancy by Kelly McCullough so annoying the first time I read it.  But knowing what to expect does make it easier to bear and it is interesting to see Ravirn grow and change now having the context of WebMage in addition to this and the next book.  And yes, I simply could not resist rereading the second book after the first.  And you know the third will follow, and why not?  They’re quick reads, a day apiece, and a nice palate cleanser in some ways.  Light fantasy that I don’t have to focus too hard on is always good for me.

As a reminder, Cybermancy dives into the underworld rather literally.  We open with Ravirn playing bridge with Cerberus.  Or rather, with Mort, Dave, and Bob.  Do not ask me how this actually works.  It’s a fantasy novel and I’m just going to smile and nod and agree that the three-headed dog can play card games if he wants to.  Ravirn has an ulterior motive though – a friend of his took an arrow through the head during the climax of the previous book and he’d like to bring them back.  Which means hacking, physically, digitally, and magically, into Hades.

Naturally things don’t go anywhere near as smoothly as our protagonist hoped.  And as is the nature of things connected to Ravirn, one thing leads to another to the point that it looks like he’s singlehandedly bringing down the mweb again.  Which means he has to save it again.  And it would be nice if he figured out what it means to be Raven while he does that.

It’s interesting.  McCullough’s books are such that the plot is increasing levels of doom that the hero and allies must scale, while the hero’s character development is a slow burn throughout.  As he becomes Raven at the end of WebMage, we’re treated to some introspection on how the entire plot has led to this.  Cybermancy‘s climax contains a similar look back at what it means to be Raven now that he’s no long from the middle House of Fate.  All of the changes are logical from his starting point, but it does show development of the character.

I am still wondering whether or not I’ll reread Esther: A Story of Courage for Purim this year.  The holiday is tomorrow and we’ve already determined what book I’m bringing to work.  Plus when I was considering it over the weekend I wasn’t quite in a mood for historical fiction.  We’ll see where I am tomorrow.

In the meantime, I’m going to start in on Ravirn’s next series of troubles.

Start of Silly Stupidity

Last summer, when I dropped my friend off at one of the suburban trainstations, I found a book in their library nook that looked…intriguing.  Well, it looked incredibly dumb, but in an amusing way, so I picked it up.  That was Kelly McCullough’s Cybermancy and I pretty much got what I expected out of it.  So much so that when the opportunity came to pick up CodeSpell, the third book in the series, I had no hesitation.  Cybermancy itself is the second book and I’d spent so much of the book annoyed with main character Ravirn that I had resolved not to get the first installment.

A few months ago I was at one of my favorite used bookstores in the city and saw not only Cybermancy but also WebMage, the first book, on shelf.  I lifted my nose in the air and passed it by, but soon enough I began to regret.  I am, after all, something of a completionist.  There may be some books that I feel okay to skip after years of reading and rereading, but that doesn’t mean I felt I could ignore them when they were brand new and I was reading them for the first time.  So I resolved to myself that if I should return to that store and the book was still on the shelf, I would buy it. It’s a used bookstore, so you never know how long something will or won’t sit.  I’ve seen the same books on the shelf for months and months, but I’ve also passed up books and never seen them again.

Needless to say, WebMage was still there last Saturday, so I finally picked it up.  I wasn’t planning on reading it this soon – I have the fifth book in the series as well, but have yet to see the fourth – but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  So I gave in and determined to find out how Ravirn of the House of Lachesis, the Spinner of the Thread of the Three Fates, became Raven of his own House.

I hadn’t expected too much of the book because of the massive frustration I experienced in the first half or so of Cybermancy.  But what irked me there was the fact that Ravirn was so deadset against finding out what it means to be Raven.  Obviously this wasn’t a problem in WebMage.  No, here we meet Ravirn, screw-up child from a House of Fate, sort of trying to get a degree in computer programming to please his grandmother (leaving out a number of greats) Lachesis.  But, as I already knew from later books, nothing is ever that simple for Ravirn.

Atropos, She Who Cuts the Thread, kidnaps him briefly and asks him to debug a program for her.  Ravirn has potential as a programmer, but his primary skill is hacking and finding the flaws in other people’s work.  Atropos knows her program has a problem, and who better to find it than Ravirn?  The protagonist, however, is leery of being wanted by his great-aunt and doesn’t trust her.  Then he gets a look at the program itself – a way to remove free will from all living beings.  Horrified, he gets himself out of the situation as fast as he can without promising anything.  Then he hacks into Atropos.net in order to find the program – nicknamed Puppeteer – and destroy it.

You can imagine Atropos is not thrilled and that she wants his head on a literal platter.  Thus starts Ravirn’s first hectic adventure through the various worlds connected to the mweb and the Greek Gods of his heritage.  It’s nice to see how things started, who some characters were that I hadn’t really gotten to meet before, etc.  As I think I said last time, you really have to be a codehead to fully appreciate these books, but I found it enjoyable nonetheless.  The base concept is still kind of stupid and I seriously question books written in the mid-2000s that use the phrase “durance vile”, but I don’t have any problems with the writing style and don’t recall finding typos.  So, call it on a level with watching a stupid movie that I just happen to like, such as Ghost Rider.  You can say it sucks and I will agree that it’s a bad movie.  But you’re not going to stop me putting it in yet again.