Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Fantasy (Page 1 of 2)

My Top 5 Books of 2022

Well, it is somehow another new year! Time just keeps on going, doesn’t it?

One of my favorite end-of-year activities is thinking back over all the books I read that year, and sharing my favorites with others. I read 32 books in 2022, which achieved my arbitrary Goodreads goal of 30 books. ( I thought I had just squeaked by with 30 books, but it turns out a couple of them had not been recorded as “Read” on goodreads!) Though to be fair, one of the “books” was actually a short story and another was a novella. They help balance out some of the super long books like Michener’s Alaska. According to my Year in Books, I read 12,531 pages. Not bad.

Overall I would say it was a pretty good year for books. I generally know my own tastes well enough that I don’t end up reading much that I would rate below 3 stars, but sometimes you get an unlucky run of so-so 3 star books in a row. I did have some 3 star books, but even those were mostly not bad. For example, I started reading pulpy sci-fi books set in the Battletech universe (originally developed for tabletop RPGs, later for the Mechwarrior video game series, which I love). They weren’t well-written books so I gave them 3 stars, but I sure had fun reading them (and in fact I just started another one the other day).

But let’s cut to the chase. Of the 30-ish books I read this year, what were the top 5? It’s always hard to choose, but here goes, in no particular order:

A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown Shy by Becky Chambers

Yeah, that’s right, I am immediately going to cheat and list two books as one. But these are parts 1 and 2 of a series, they’re not very long, and they’re both great. Also, coincidentally, they pretty much bookended my year. I read Psalm in the first couple weeks of the year, and Crown Shy in the last week of the year!

Sci-fi fans love to defend the genre by talking about how the speculative framing allows more freedom to conduct thought experiments with how things could be rather than sticking to how things actually are. The problem is, most sci-fi doesn’t do this very well. Or rather, it does this but very narrowly, often focused just on fancy new technology. So you end up with “what if [insert current political conflict/war/controversial issue] but in space?” It’s inevitable, and it’s not even necessarily a bad thing, but I am always on the lookout for authors who take it a step farther and genuinely imagine alternative ways of life.

Not just “what if we had fusion reactors” or similar, but “what if society was organized in a fundamentally different way?” Ursula K LeGuin did this all the time, and it’s why her stuff is so good (it also helps that she is just an amazing writer). Kim Stanley Robinson does this, as does Ada Palmer in her Terra Ignota series. With the Monk and Robot books, Becky Chambers is doing something similar but in a particularly interesting way.

Instead of holding a mirror up to our current state of affairs, and using sci-fi to highlight all of the terrible things by placing them in an exaggerated analog of our world, Chambers recognizes that our world is so messed up that its problems are obvious. She doesn’t need to rub our noses in them and say “Wake up sheeple, look how terrible things are!” We know, and she knows that we know. Instead, she skips that part and instead imagines a world where all of those terrible things are gone. Solved. No longer problems.

This series dares to do something that is almost unheard of and imagine an actual utopia. Not “utopia, but at what costs?!” Just… utopia. A really nice place to live. A world where everyone’s needs are met, where people live sustainably, in harmony with each other and the environment. Where exploitation, unchecked growth, discrimination, inequality, even money itself, are gone.

It is hard to express the physical and emotional relief that I feel when I read these books. They are comforting and relaxing and nice. Their depiction of a warm and positive vision of how life could be is just wonderful. They don’t get into the nitty gritty of how the utopia works, or how we get there from here. They just exist to demonstrate that it is possible to imagine such a world, and show us how nice that feels. And then they ask an interesting philosophical question: In a world where everyone’s basic needs are met, what gives us purpose? What do people “need” in the broader, more philosophical sense?

These are easy, comforting reads, but they’re not just fluff. They somehow manage to be easy and comforting while confronting real existential questions and daring to imagine a better world. They’re great science fiction, and simply by imagining something better, they are an act of resistance against the problems we currently face. As LeGuin put it:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula K LeGuin

I’ll finish with a quote from the first book:

You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I try to mix up the genres that I read, but honestly I mostly read sci-fi and fantasy of one kind or another. Partly because futuristic technology and magic are cool, but also because it’s nice to have a layer of genre to act as a shield between me and the fictional stories that I read. I find more realistic stories are generally more stressful because I know that they really could happen. (Well, at least, they’re more possible than magic spells and faster than light travel…)

I may need to re-evaluate this aversion to realistic fiction, however, because when I do read it I tend to get a lot out of it. I don’t think it’s correct to say that I “enjoy” it as much as SFF, but because it is realistic it also tends to touch on real world emotions and challenges in a way that resonates.

All of which is to say, The Goldfinch is not my normal type of book, but once I finally got around to reading it, I thought it was great. Definitely made me anxious to read about the characters making increasingly terrible decisions but it did a great job of walking the line between popular page-turner and “literary” novel. It is a long, engrossing book, and somehow makes something I have little interest in (Dutch golden age art, antique furniture, criminal enterprises that steal and/or make forgeries of those things) very interesting. The writing is often wonderful too. I found myself almost highlighting a lot of passages, but most of my actual highlights are from the very end of the book, where the author really digs into the meaning of the book’s events.

I don’t hand out 5 star ratings unless I really like a book, but between the great story and the deeper meaning, The Goldfinch gets 5 stars from me.

That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Ok, back to genre. This was one where the protective layer of genre was very helpful, because even with a (fairly surreal) science fiction setting, this book was hard to read at times. How High We Go in the Dark is a series of interconnected short stories, spanning a huge range of time and space, but they are all about death. The framing event for the stories is that archaeologists digging in thawing permafrost unearth bodies from long ago that also carry a deadly virus. This virus spreads and ravages the world, and most of the stories in the book are in the aftermath of this pandemic.

One of the problems with speculative fiction is that when you try to summarize what a story is about, it can come across as silly or ridiculous, with none of the emotional weight that the story has when you read it. So with that in mind, here’s a sampling of some of the central ideas in the stories in this grim but beautiful book:

  • Hotels that have been converted into massive funeral parlors where you can rent a room to spend time with your deceased loved one while awaiting their cremation.
  • A scientist whose child has died of the plague is searching for the cure, but in the process inadvertently breeds a pig capable of speech, who he adopts as a surrogate child.
  • An employee at a euthanasia amusement park, where terminally ill children are treated to one last fun day before riding a ride that ends their lives, falls in love with one of the parents. (As a parent, this story pretty much emotionally destroyed me.)
  • An artist creates ice sculpture boats out of the remains of the dead that sail out to sea and then melt.

There are more stories but that gives you an idea. The blurbs for this book say that fans of Station Eleven and Cloud Atlas will like this, and since I loved both of those books I guess they were right. Like Cloud Atlas, the different stories are interconnected in interesting ways, and it was fun to identify these as I made my way through the book.

I think it’s a little misleading to call this a novel – it is really a story collection, and like any story collection the stories varied in how well they worked for me. But overall, I thought this book was quite good. Weird and dark and depressing, yes, but very good.

Persepolis Rising, Tiamat’s Wrath, and Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey

Yep, cheating again and grouping several books from a series. When you read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, you get used to series. Long, epic stories split up into 3 books, 5 books, 10 books, sometimes even more. In certain notorious cases, these series are never finished, or must be finished posthumously by another writer. In many other cases, the first book or two are great, but things gradually get formulaic, or bloated, or weird, or otherwise lose the magic of the initial books.

I am happy to report that The Expanse series does not suffer these fates. It is a 9 book series, and it is consistently excellent, and it is complete, and the ending was good. That is… basically unheard of.

This year I read a lot of books by Daniel Abraham (one of the two authors who write under the pen name of James S.A. Corey). I read two books in the Dagger and Coin fantasy series, and three novels and a novella in the Expanse series. Apparently I like Daniel Abraham’s writing! Thinking about it, he seems to particularly specialize in characters with personalities that can be described as different variations on “world-weary snark”.

I feel confident saying that The Expanse is one of the greatest sci-fi series ever. It is not particularly “deep” – don’t go looking for a lot of symbolism or hidden meanings – but it’s a truly great story, set it a wonderfully developed science fiction universe. I particularly appreciate how, despite having plenty of things in the series that violate the laws of physics in the interest of telling a good story, those instances of rule breaking are well thought-out and limited.

I would not call The Expanse “hard” sci-fi, but I would say that it does a great job of getting the science close enough to right when it can. And more importantly, it uses the limitations of real-world physics as a driver of the story, rather than a hindrance. Stories where anything goes are often less interesting than stories where there are some constraints, and by being realistic where possible, The Expanse ends up telling some great stories. It also makes the instances where things do not follow the laws of physics much more significant, both for the reader and the characters in the story.

As an aside: I generally don’t like the distinction between “hard” and “soft” sci-fi because in certain segments of SFF fandom, “hard” sci-fi (ostensibly, sci-fi that somewhat tries to obey the laws of physics) is seen as somehow better than “soft” sci-fi (sci-fi that is less concerned with physical sciences and more interested in social sciences, philosophy, etc.). This distinction between hard and soft sci-fi is so blurry as to be meaningless and often has sexist overtones.

The worldbuilding in The Expanse is great. The geopolitics of a future where humans have spread throughout the solar system (and then beyond), the messy, complicated, diverse vision of the human future in space, is just excellent. The stars of the show are the “Belters”: humans who have grown up in the cities of the asteroid belt, who are extra tall and thin due to low gravity, who are more comfortable in a space suit than on the surface of a planet, who speak “Belter creole” – a mix of various languages that is just at the edge of comprehensible to the reader. But the other major factions (Earth, Mars, and in the later books, the Laconians) are all interesting and distinct and well done.

If you haven’t read The Expanse and are up for a long but consistently excellent series with a lot of space battles and solar system geopolitics, I highly recommend it. (The show is very good too, and relatively faithful to the books, though it stops at book 6.)

I think about all the things we could have done, all the miracles we could have achieved, if we were all just a little bit better than it turns out we are.

Leviathan Falls, James S.A. Corey

What a crew does with its rail-gun capacitor in the privacy of its own ship shouldn’t be anyone else’s business.

Leviathan Falls, James S.A. Corey

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is an odd one. It’s a fantasy novel about an elderly couple who set out on a quest to visit their son, but the whole country is afflicted with a “mist” that robs people of their memories. The couple aren’t entirely sure that they even had a son, or where he lives. They end up traveling with Wistan, a Saxon warrior, and Edwin a boy who has been shunned from his own town because he has been contaminated by a bite from an “ogre”. Along the way they meet up with Gawain, as in King Arthur’s nephew, who is now an old man, and Wistan and Gawain have an oddly tense relationship from the start.

The story unfolds slowly and carefully, and everything is suffused with an unnerving unreal quality because most of the characters have no reliable long term memories. Nothing is what it seems, and everything comes with layers of meaning that I am sure I only dimly perceived in most cases. Characters behave strangely, not trusting themselves or others. Half-forgotten arguments from long ago appear and fade, and everything has that tip-of-the-tongue can’t-quite-remember feeling to it. It is a real feat to write a story that continually teeters on the edge of reality like this, and the writing in this book is really lovely. Simple, but somehow also not simple at all. It is only toward the end after a long, slow buildup that things are really made clear, but the payoff is worth it. The final scene left me holding back tears as I listened to it while cooking dinner.

I can understand why a lot of readers, used to modern fantasy stories that are relatively fast-paced, plot-driven, and without a lot of layered meanings, might not like this book. Honestly, I would probably have had trouble with the slow pace if I had been reading instead of listening to the audiobook. But it has stuck with me in a way that most books don’t. It is a haunting book about whether it is better to remember or forget, and I highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for something a bit challenging.

“Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”
“It may be for some, father, but not for us. Axl and I wish to have again the happy moments we shared together. To be robbed of them is as if a thief came in the night and took what’s most precious from us.”
“Yet the mist covers all memories, the bad as well as the good. Isn’t that so, mistress?”
“We’ll have the bad ones come back too, even if they make us weep or shake with anger. For isn’t it the life we’ve shared?”

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

Honorable Mentions

So those are some of my favorite books from this year. But just as I couldn’t resist cramming more than five into my “Top 5” list, I can’t just leave it there. Here are a few more that were not in the Top 5 but which are worth mentioning:

  • The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity – This was a frustrating book. It offers a novel take on world history, where humans are active, imaginative agents in our own fate rather than passively at the mercy of our environment. It advocates a view of prehistory that breaks free from modern preconceptions about how societies can be structured, and challenges a lot of the “conventional wisdom” about centralization of power and the shift toward what we call civilization. But it also very clearly does some cherry picking and has a strong bias in how it interprets history. Still, worth reading because it stirs the pot and challenges some fundamental ideas.
  • Exhalation by Ted Chiang – Excellent collection of sci-fi stories, often dealing with philosophical questions like free will, sentience of AI, etc. Very very good.
  • A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – Sci-fi dripping with political intrigue, set in the capital of an interstellar empire that is strongly influenced by the Aztecs. Very different and strange but in a good way.
  • Embassytown by China Mieville – Quite possibly the weirdest sci-fi story I’ve ever read. I only gave it 3 stars because it very nearly falls apart under the weight of all its weirdness, but if you want to read something really different, worth a try. It’s fundamentally a story about how the ability to say things that aren’t true – to use metaphor – underpins all of human language and thought. But it explores this by way of an alien species that speaks with two voices at once and which can’t lie or understand lies.

Ok, I’d better stop there or I’ll just write about all 32 things I read this year. Your turn: what were your favorite books of 2022? I always like adding things to my to-read list!

Book Review: Heroes Die

Blending sci-fi and fantasy is not really a new idea, but not many books pull it off as effectively as Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover. The premise of the book is that in a dystopian future where corporations rule the earth and society follows a strict caste system, the primary form of entertainment comes from “actors” who are teleported to a parallel universe. In this medieval parallel world, called Overworld, magic is real and various fantastical beasts are too. Viewers see through the actors’ eyes as they go on exciting adventures. These adventures are very real: the actors can be killed, and when the actors kill someone else in the fantasy world, it’s a real death. Basically, imagine if when you went to the theater to watch an action movie all the violence was acted out by actual gladiators who really died or killed when that happened onscreen.

The main character of Heroes Die is Caine, an extremely successful actor who, in Overworld, is a badass ruthless assassin. He has assassinated kings, he has turned the tide of wars, he is almost universally feared, all for the viewers at home to enjoy.

Caine is, as they say in action movies, “getting too old for this shit” but he is roped back into one more adventure. His ex-wife, also an actor (she is a powerful mage in the fantasy world – yes, there’s magic there), has unknowingly gone off-line due to a powerful spell that hides her from her enemies. If an actor stays off line too long the signal connecting them to Earth gets lost and they die, messily. Caine wants to go rescue her, but to go back to Overworld, he has to sign a deal with the devil, i.e. the studio executives. They don’t particularly care about saving Caine’s wife. They want Caine to assassinate the new god-like emperor of Overworld who is so powerful that he might actually usher in an era of peace and order which would make the studios lose profits.

What follows is a page-turning over-the-top violent adventure. It reminded me a bit of old sci-fi pulp stories like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, but with the difference that Heroes Die has far better characterization, and is far more gruesome. Much like Caine himself, the novel excels at violence while also criticizing the very same violence.

In the afterword of the book, the author sums this up nicely:

It’s a piece of violent entertainment that is a meditation on violent entertainment—as a concept in itself, and as a cultural obsession.

The book is basically Russell Crowe in Gladiator, when he performs a feat of extreme violence with great skill and then turns to the crowd and says:

It helps that the author is apparently a martial artist so the fight scenes are well done. Yeah, the characters accumulate various wounds and continue to do acrobatic feats of murder, but overall the fights are more convincing than average.

There are so many ways that Heroes Die could have gone off the rails but it doesn’t. Despite the flashy violence and magic and sci-fi tropes, it’s a character-driven story. Even the bad guys are well-developed, especially the God-emperor, Ma’elkoth, who Caine is meant to kill. There are moments where as a reader I was swept up in his charisma and power along with Caine and started to think maybe he wasn’t so bad after all.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I’m surprised it is not more widely known. If you like speculative fiction and are ok with blood and violence, check it out. It’s quite a ride.

Review: Game of Thrones Season 8

It’s over! Winter has come, and we know who ended up on the throne, who ended up dead, and how the White Walkers were defeated.

It is strange to be done. Although George R.R. Martin says that there are surprises in store in the final two books compared to the show, the main plot points are bound to be the same. I first read Game of Thrones something like 12 years ago, so I have been swept up in the story for about a third of my life. I named my dog Renly after the Game of Thrones character. I re-read the whole series, aloud, with Erin ahead of the release of A Dance With Dragons.

I remember being in New York city the weekend of the premiere of the show. There were Iron Thrones in a few places throughout the city, and there was almost no line to sit in them and get your picture taken. Most people didn’t know what this show, with the posters of Sean Bean looking sad, was about. I remember watching that first episode in our hotel room, through a very highly suspect, likely malware-ridden site. It was a magical experience, seeing the story that you love come to life on the screen, and what’s more, with such fidelity to the source material.

It is disappointing that Martin was not able to finish the book series before the show. Although quite faithful to the books at the start, as the show went on, it had the luxury of pruning plot lines and streamlining the story for TV, while Martin labors away with the books, juggling an ever-increasing number of plotlines. At times this was a great benefit for the show, and it had moments of brilliance, but as the show got farther and farther from the source material, those moments become more widely spaced. Without the strong foundation of the books, the show lurched from plot point to plot point, and the different writers and directors in different combinations led to an uneven experience. Sometimes, when the writing and directing all lined up, the show was astonishingly good. Other times, for all of its big-budget glamor, the show seemed shallow and lazy, with gratuitous gore and sex as if to say “look what we can do because we’re HBO,” and with characters betraying their backstories or just acting stupidly in order to bring events to a key plot event.

This was never more evident than in the last season. The first couple of episodes were quite good. I especially enjoyed the second episode, which is focused on all of the characters we know and love waiting together in Winterfell for the army of the Night King to descend upon them. It had lots of beautiful, human, character-driven moments. It reminded us of the tangled web of relationships that have been built up over the previous seasons. But after that episode, the rest of the season had the feeling of a homework assignment where the student has a cheat sheet with the correct answers but runs out of time and just scrawls those answers in the blanks without showing their work. Probably because that is almost exactly what happened: the showrunners knew what had to happen because Martin provided them with an outline, but they didn’t have the writing chops to pull it off. Bringing a story this massive and complex in for a graceful landing is more difficult than most people realize. Still, I can’t help but feel like there are some pretty obvious flaws in the final season. Unforced mistakes that, especially with an extra year’s hiatus to work on the final season, were really disappointing. Such a great story deserved better than what we got.

I know a lot of people are upset about the actual end results: who ended up dead, who ended up alive, and who ended up on the throne. I was actually ok with most of it. Let’s consider each of the main characters:

Jaime – It’s such a George R.R. Martin move to take a literal knight in shining armor, make him a king-killing, child-murdering, twincestuous villain, then make you spend enough time in his head to start to root for him, and then once you think he has become the good knight you wish he was, have his old vices win out in the end. The problem, as we will repeatedly see with other characters, is that the show didn’t spend enough time on the character development leading to his final acts. It spent multiple seasons building up his redemption arc, and then Sansa mentions that Cersei might be in danger from the giant armies and dragons headed her way (shocking!), and suddenly he is on the fastest horse south. We needed to see his struggles with his inner demons. We needed to witness his facade crumble in the face of a threat to that which, in spite of his best intentions, he loved most dearly. The show handled it too abruptly, so what should have been a more poignant and tragic end was not fully earned.

Cersei – I was disappointed with Cersei’s ending, but not because she died in Jaime’s arms. Her arc was a sort of mirror image of his: while he appeared to find redemption and then turned his back on it to be with Cersei, Cersei appeared to become even more evil and insane than she started, and convinced herself that she no longer loved him, only to find comfort in his arms at the end. Unfortunately, leading up to her end, she basically just stood around. What happened to the cunning, ruthless Cersei we loved to hate? Part of the problem here may be her bizarre affair with Euron Greyjoy. He was such an outlandish character that his story line sucked up a lot of the oxygen that should have been devoted to Cersei.

Tyrion – Overall I thought Tyrion’s ending was fine. My main complaint was that I had trouble remembering why he was supposedly so devoted to Danaerys that it took a literal holocaust for him to see that maybe that loyalty was misplaced. Him ending up as hand of the king to a Stark has a certain poetic justice to it, and he has the smarts and experience with the conniving politics of King’s Landing to make a very good foil for an overly noble and idealistic Stark king.

Danaerys – Of all the characters, I think Dany’s end was the one that needed to be handled with the most care, and in turn was the one most poorly served by the final season’s rushed pace and weak writing. I think in the right hands, with enough insight into what is going on in her mind, and enough time for her character to develop, her ending is going to be powerful and convincing and tragic. In other words, I am really looking forward to reading the book’s handling of her ending, and I am really disappointed that I had to see the clumsy way the show handled it first. The show skipped the hard work of character development and had her sulk in her room for a few days, and then flip out and nuke a city full of innocents. Tyrion’s speeches to Jon in the final episode tried to make up for the lack of justification leading up to her breakdown, but they were too little too late. There are hints of real insight into how evil acts are done by people who think they are the “good guys” but the poor character development this season prevented Dany’s ending from being what it could have been.

Bran – One of the major themes of Game of Thrones is that those who are most hungry for power are those least suited to rule. Also, a failure to recognize how events in the past echo forward to influence the present and future. (It’s almost as if fantasy can have meaningful lessons that apply to real life!) So, a kind man with near-omniscient knowledge of events past, present, and future, with no real desire to rule, and no children makes sense as an ideal king. I’m on board with Bran as king. What is less clear and I think was pretty clumsy is why the nobility of Westeros were suddenly willing to hold a vote for who would be king. (I did love Sam’s attempt at inventing democracy being summarily shot down by the nobles.) As an aside, can we mention the way that the show conveniently skipped the part where Grey Worm found out what happened to Danaerys and somehow did not summarily execute Jon and Tyrion, and furthermore allowed Tyrion to make grand speeches leading to a vote for the new leader? And how the Dothraki seemingly disappeared? That was sure something.

Sansa – My prediction for a long time was that Sansa would end up on the Iron Throne. Her arc, especially in the books, was all about going from an innocent pretty pretty princess to learning to survive and then thrive in the ugly, brutal, real world of court intrigue. She learned from Tyrion, the Hound, Cersei, and most of all Littlefinger. She was clearly being groomed by Martin for leadership. I had assumed that Jon and Dany (Ice and Fire) would die in the climactic battle against the White Walkers and Sansa would be left to rule over the ruins of a Westeros that barely survived. All in all I was not too far off: at least Sansa ended up on a throne, if not The Throne. Her decision not to join up with the other kingdoms under Bran’s rule is a little odd, but not too much of a stretch.

Arya – She killed the Night King! That was pretty great, even though most of the rest of that episode was too dark to see anything. Unfortunately after that, anything else was going to be kind of anticlimactic. I am absolutely on board with her realizing that there is no place for her in Westeros and setting out to do something else, but again, I wish there had been any build-up at all to her decision to become an explorer. You may have heard of Chekov’s Gun. The saying goes: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” To me Arya’s ending is the exact opposite. She is firing a rifle that we didn’t know existed. Where is it mentioned that she has an interest in exploring the world? Where does that desire come from? Why have we not heard of it before literally the last minute? Again, I am totally onboard with Arya, intrepid explorer. I would watch that spinoff show. But as with so much in this final season, the show didn’t do the work to get there. It skipped over the necessary character development, so it all seemed to come out of the blue.

Jon – Once it became clear that Danaerys was going full “Mad Queen” it was obvious that Jon was going to have to kill her. I also think his insistence that he did not want the throne was in keeping with his character. He was always a reluctant leader and ruler. And, although it was not shown, it is also in keeping with his character that even though Drogon showed up, torched the evidence and flew away with Dany’s body, Jon would go and admit to killing her and end up in jail. In the end, he was the most Ned Stark like of them all. I thought him being sent back to the wall was rather anticlimactic, but his arc was a hard one to wrap up. He doesn’t really fit anywhere else but it feels wrong to have him exiled for doing the right thing. Poor Jon deserved to retire to someplace warm, but of course he would never sit still for that. The final shots of the show seemed to imply that maybe the North was thawing and he would found a new kingdom up beyond the wall, which I guess works for me.

So, overall I am satisfied with the main plot points, but I am disappointed in how poor a job the show did with getting to them. Time after time, it didn’t devote enough time to develop the characters such that their endings felt fully earned. I’m sad that I didn’t get to find out the ending by reading the books, where Martin can spend as much time as he wants doing that hard writing work and making each twist and turn feel as powerful as it should be. But that also means that I am hopeful that Martin will finally finish the last two books and that we will eventually get to read the ending as it is supposed to be.

I am also hopeful for what will come after Game of Thrones. The show became a cultural phenomenon and made the entire world realize the kinds of powerful stories that can be told through speculative fiction. Sci-fi and fantasy are thoroughly mainstream now and Game of Thrones played an important role in making that happen. There are already many amazing shows following in Game of Thrones’ footsteps, and I can’t wait to see more.

Book Review: Lancelot

I follow a lot of authors on Twitter. This is because authors tend to be interesting people with interesting things to say, and because I like to hear about writing from people who do it for a living, but it also has the benefit of allowing me to hear about new books. A few months ago, I saw a tweet from the historical fiction author Giles Kristian, seeking bloggers who write about books and offering to send a copy of his new book Lancelot. I had already heard good things about the book and it sounded like something I would enjoy, so I responded, and shortly thereafter I received a package from the UK with a signed trade paperback copy of the book!

I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge that this is a really cool book cover that fits the tone of the book perfectly.

So, with all that said, let’s talk about the book! I really enjoyed it. It is a historical fiction retelling of the Arthurian legend, with Lancelot as the main character. It’s set in the years after the downfall of the Roman empire, when Britons are fighting against invading Saxons. For fans of Arthurian stories, don’t expect this book to follow exactly the stories you might be familiar with. In my opinion, this is a good thing: when retelling such a familiar story, it can be tempting to follow the well-worn ruts laid down by previous authors, and end up sounding the same and not really adding much. Kristian manages to avoid this. Lancelot stands on its own, primarily because it focuses on the character of Lancelot, fleshing him out in a way that I haven’t seen before. He’s still the Lancelot that we know and love: obsessed with Guinevere, practically unstoppable in battle, with a “complicated” relationship with Arthur. But that is now supported by a tragic backstory and a fierce (and flawed) personality that fits with the legendary character but humanizes him.

The story doesn’t follow the legends exactly, but as someone who is pretty familiar with them, it was really fun to see how this retelling portrayed different famous characters and events. There’s a special thrill when you realize that the horse warrior in the shining scale armor that is being introduced is Arthur, or the wiry old druid with tattoos and a cloak of raven feathers is Merlin.  Many other familiar knights of the round table and other characters make appearances throughout the book, and it was great to see this version of them.

This novel walks right on the borderline between low-magic fantasy and historical fiction, which is an area that I wish more authors would explore, and one that I often gravitate toward in my own fiction writing. There are hints of magic at times, and of course the source material is mythology rather than history. But at the same time, the details of the setting are historical. The lingering influence of the Romans is felt in their ruins, and in some cases in the lineage of certain characters. The details of the battles feel authentic (I’m no historian, so I can’t say for sure) even if the battles themselves are invented. Likewise the smaller everyday details that can really make or break historical fiction. Sometimes a little detail will jump out and ruin the suspension of disbelief (I am thinking of one Roman historical fiction book where they repeatedly mention fields of corn, a crop from the Americas), but there was none of that here for me.

If I have one “complaint”, it is that I never really got a feel for the bigger picture. There are a lot of names of kings and kingdoms bandied about, but I never really felt like I understood the geography of where they were or what their relationships were the way I do for something like Game of Thrones. Part of this is because of the unfamiliar names (Karrek Loos yn Koos, Caer Gwinntguic, Cynwidion, etc.), and part is simply because this is really a much more focused story of one man so the bigger picture doesn’t actually matter as much. (I should note: there is a perfectly fine map in the front of the book, but I was lazy and didn’t refer to it much.)

I’ll finish by noting that this book reminded me very strongly of Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Tales” series. Even though Cornwell’s books are set centuries later, the basics of medieval warfare didn’t change very much in that time, and both stories feature a headstrong but extremely skilled warrior fighting for a king who is trying to unite Britain against an invading force.  Both stories  depict a bloody, gritty, world of shield walls and gruesome wounds and personal rivalries. Kristian acknowledges the influence of Cornwell’s writing in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, in particular Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles series, which is its own take on the Arthurian legends. I haven’t read those Cornwell books so I can’t compare directly, but the influence is undeniable. It’s been a few years since I read anything by Cornwall, but in my opinion Kristian’s prose is better: a bit more imagery and flowery language than I remember from Cornwell, but not so much that it is over the top.

Bottom line, I really enjoyed this book, and I really appreciate the author being kind enough to send me a copy! For anyone who is a fan of bloody and gritty fantasy or historical fiction from authors like Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin, Conn Iggulden, or Bernard Cornwell, I definitely recommend giving Lancelot a try.

Patriotism, Genre Fiction, and Criticizing What You Love

In both genre fiction and politics, our culture is struggling with the idea that you can criticize something that you love.

When someone points out that many video games are disturbingly sexist, or that Lord of the Rings is kind of racist, or that the Avatar movie perpetuates the “white savior” trope, are they no longer a fan of genre fiction?

When someone points out that the United States is the only country out of the 25 wealthiest nations that lacks universal health care, or that black people are disproportionately incarcerated and killed by police, or that our wars in the Middle East are responsible for the rise of ISIS, are they no longer a patriot?

In both cases, I say that thoughtful criticism is a deeper, more meaningful expression of love than blind enthusiastic support.

Let’s take Game of Thrones as an example. I love Game of Thrones. The books are among my favorite books of all time. They’re vast and deep, with well-developed characters with unique narrative voices; exciting, twisty, satisfyingly complex plots; epic, vivid worldbuilding; and they signal a profound shift in the fantasy genre, subverting the tropes of the genre established by Lord of the Rings and beginning the modern era of more “grimdark” fantasy. Likewise, the show is excellent: visually stunning, well-acted, and it brings the books that I love to life in a way that allows many more people to experience them. Not only that, but the show has been a revolution in terms of getting excellent genre fiction onto television, demonstrating to TV channels that compelling, adult-oriented stories can be told through genre fiction, and that audiences will eat it up.

But I will readily admit that both the books and the show have major problems too. The show is famous for its gratuitous nudity, and there have been several notorious examples of changes to the original book where main female characters are raped or threatened with rape. There is also a problematic “white savior” vibe to much of Danaerys’ story line. I would argue that the books are somewhat better, but there’s still a whole lot of rape and threats of rape, which is often defended with the old “historical accuracy” argument, because apparently dragons are plausible but a medieval society that isn’t quite so horrifically misogynistic is not.

There are those who see comments like those in the last paragraph and reflexively condemn them. How dare some “social justice warrior” criticize the genre they love? Why can’t people just enjoy things without picking them apart and over-analyzing everything? Why do these SJWs have to ruin everything by insisting on political correctness? They’re clearly not real fans. They clearly hate the genre.

For those who have been paying attention, this conflict came to a head in the video game community with the “gamergate” fiasco a few years ago. Women who dared to point out that video games are full of a disgusting amount of misogyny were harassed by an army of angry, mostly white, mostly male gamers who felt that their favorite hobby and its fundamental culture were being unfairly bashed. The conflict rapidly escalated to doxing (the release of private personal information), lost jobs, lost homes, and death threats.

Later, in the speculative fiction community, a similar conflict arose when the “Sad Puppies“, a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, readers stuffed the ballot for the Hugo Award. They were supposedly fighting back against their perception  that science fiction and fantasy were being ruined by SJWs trying to force everything to be politically correct and shoehorning women, people of color, and LGBT people into fiction, rather than trying to tell good old fashioned apolitical stories. (It apparently did not occur to them that it is possible to tell great speculative fiction about people who are not white straight men, or that all fiction carries with it political baggage.)

And then, of course, there is the 2016 election, where a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, voters were apparently so appalled that we had a black president, and that a woman dared to run as his successor on a platform of inclusiveness and tolerance, that they instead voted for an unqualified narcissistic idiot. Trump’s campaign and its “Make America Great Again” slogan catered directly to the perception that criticizing our country is unpatriotic, and that somehow making things better for people who aren’t straight white men undermines what makes our country great.

But here’s the thing that the gamer-gators, sad puppies, and Trump voters don’t understand: unlike them, we don’t criticize from a place of hatred, but of love.

Sci-fi and Fantasy are supposed to push the limits of imagination, so why is it so hard to imagine that young women and people of color could be the heroes in great adventures? Video games allow the player to escape the real world and experience being powerful and “the chosen one”, so shouldn’t players be allowed to leave behind racism and misogyny when they enter the game world? And the United States is supposed to be a country where all people have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so shouldn’t we strive to uphold that ideal? Shouldn’t we point out where our great country does not live up to its promise for all of its citizens and then work together to form a “more perfect union”?

When you’re raising a child, you don’t praise them when they are behaving badly. You set high expectations and then help them to live up to those expectations. Why is it so hard to apply the same logic to the other things we love?

Whether it’s genre fiction, video games, or the United States of America itself, what we want is for the things that we love to live up to their true potential. To me, this is a much deeper, more meaningful way to show your devotion to something than blindly singing its praises and ignoring its flaws.


Double Book Review: A Song for Arbonne and Hounded

Phew, it’s been a busy month (ok, still busy. This post is brought to you by insomnia!). But I did manage to finish two novels: one I had been working on for a while, and one that was just a quick read.


A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay is the one I was working on for a while. I started listening to the audiobook over the summer, but then someone else at the library put a hold on it so I couldn’t renew it for a while. I’ve had mixed success with Kay’s books in the past. Most of his more recent books are “alternate world historical fantasy”: they are minimal or non-magic settings modeled after actual historical settings, but in a made-up world which give a little more leeway than true historical fiction. This is actually the sort of style I have gravitated to in some of my own writing, and Kay is one of the only authors who writes in this style regularly. However, Kay’s earlier books (The Fioinavar Tapestry series) are more traditional fantasy worlds borrowing heavily from Narnia and Middle Earth. I really did not like his first book like this, The Summer Tree.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect from A Song for Arbonne. It turned out to be a sort of middle ground. It is set in a fantasy analog of medieval Europe, specifically drawing on Provence. It has some magic, but not a lot. The kingdom of Arbonne is the main setting, and it’s an interesting take on traditional High Fantasy. There are tournaments and sword fighting and everything, but Arbonne is a matriarchal kingdom that highly values music, and troubadors and singers and the like are held in very high esteem. The story focuses on Blaise, a knight from the hyper-masculine and militaristic neighboring kingdom of Gorhaut, who has left his home and is serving as a sword for hire. Unlike a lot of fantasy, A Song for Arbonne is much more focused on courtly intrigue than violence, though it has its fair share. Much of the book involves barbed exchanges between various nobility vying for power rather than open combat.

A Song for Arbonne is a slow burn: it takes patience as Kay builds up the intricate and complicated relationships between the various characters and nations, but I really enjoyed it. It’s sort of like a less gritty Game of Thrones, somehow finding the sweet spot and managing to depict a lovely and idyllic medieval kingdom while still having lots of interesting intrigue and enough danger to make for a good story. It also has the notable distinction of being a stand-alone fantasy novel, which is almost unheard of.

Also, I would highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator is excellent, and given that Arbonne is so centered on musicians and troubadors, there are lots of songs in the book. The reader for the audiobook is also a really fantastic singer, and I found myself looking forward to the little bits of song scattered throughout to book just to hear him sing. The wuality of the narrator can make a big difference with audiobooks, and Song for Arbonne has a good one.


The other novel that I recently finished was Hounded by Kevin Hearne. I picked this up because I follow the author on Twitter and he seems like a funny and cool guy, and because it’s an urban fantasy set in Phoenix, which is kind of a neat change. Unfortunately, I did not like it very much: it’s just not my kind of book.

The premise is that Atticus O’Sullivan is a 2100 year-old druid who has settled down in Tempe to avoid his nemesis Aengus Og, one of the pantheon of celtic gods. But, as we learn from a succession of sexy goddesses, the bad guys (Aengus Og, some disposable mythological henchmen, and a coven of gorgeous witches) have finally found Atticus and he is forced to confront them with the help of his friends, the local werewolf pack, a vampire, and the sexy barmaid from the local Irish pub (who also happens to be possessed by a powerful witch from India).

In case you couldn’t tell, it’s a pretty silly book. Which is fine, humorous novels can be good, but my problem with Hounded is that it’s also incredibly shallow. There’s nothing there under the surface. The writing feels padded and vacuous: an interesting turn of phrase is never used when the most obvious one could be used instead. The worldbuilding is nonexistent, just a mashup of mythologies. It’s also a blatant male wish fulfillment fantasy (what guy wouldn’t want to be a sexy immortal spell-wielding druid who has a talking dog and gets to sleep and/or flirt with a succession of beautiful and sometimes dangerous women and goddesses while handily dispatching your enemies with a magic sword that can cut through anything?) and not much else. A 2100 year-old druid who has witnessed all that history could be a fascinating character. What sort of wisdom would living that long bring? He’s traveled the world, witnessed the rise and fall of empires and cultures, fought in countless wars. He has also outlived every mortal friend he has known. And yet, there’s no depth to his character: he mostly just makes wisecracks and sleeps with goddesses. I’m not saying he’s not allowed to have a sense of humor, but I guess I would have also liked a little more pathos/gravitas with someone who has lived so long and seen so much.

The other problem is that there are basically no stakes. Atticus already has magic that makes him immortal in terms of dying of natural causes, and early on in the book he makes a deal with the celtic goddess of death so that he won’t die even if mortally wounded. So who cares if monsters attack him? He can’t be killed, and he can heal himself almost immediately as long as he can draw energy from the earth. His sword can cut through anything, and he has a variety of spells they he can cast, along with a bunch of very powerful friends. With almost zero risk and almost unlimited power, action scenes become pretty boring.

And finally (some spoilers below), there is a scene about halfway through the novel that involved a police officer, possessed by Aengus Og, shooting Atticus and in turn being gunned down by his fellow officers for shooting an unarmed (white) man. The author could not have forseen how poorly this scene would hold up over time, but given the countless police shootings of unarmed black men in the news lately, reading about how these cops immediately shot one of their own because he shot a civilian (so unthinkable!) was… awkward. (This also reminds me: the book is full of scenes of blatant magic use in the presence of normal people, and they invariably don’t care at all. At one point Atticus decapitates one of Aengus Og’s henchmen in the front lawn of a friendly old Irish lady, and she is briefly horrified until he explains that the bad guy was British, at which point she basically shrugs and says “ok, good job then”.)

Anyway, plenty of people seem to like Hounded and the other books in this series, but it was decidedly not for me. It was like the book equivalent of a brainless summer blockbuster. Entertaining, but mostly an exercise in wish fulfillment with lots of exciting action but no substance. Like cotton candy, it tastes good, but you quickly realize there’s nothing actually there.

Double Book Review: Among Others & Rocannon’s World

This week I had the good fortune to finish two books that I enjoyed in rapid succession, so I figure I might as well review them that way too! First up, Among Others by Jo Walton:


Among Others is a sort of coming-of-age story, told in the form of diary entries by a 15 year old Welsh girl named Mori. It starts shortly after a car accident which killed her twin sister and left her crippled, as she is shipped off to live with her estranged father and rich aunts, who in turn send her to a girl’s boarding school, which she hates. Mori is obsessed with reading sci-fi and fantasy, and regularly interacts with fairies and does magic to protect herself from her mother, who is an evil witch. At least, that’s what Mori thinks. Interestingly, it is never entirely clear how real the magic and the fairies in this book are, and this is something that Mori is aware of and grapples with, making for an interesting take on magical realism.

Among Others won the top awards in sci-fi and fantasy, the Hugo and the Nebula, and it’s no wonder. This book is precision targeted to hit awkward smart kids who never quite fit in and found solace in SF right in the feels, and those kids grow up and vote for the Nebula and Hugo awards. Mori is a voracious reader, and the novel is a laundry list of classic SF novels. Part of the fun of the book is reading along as Mori discovers, and reacts to, all these famous authors and books.

At the same time, the book is really about finding your place in the world when you are different, which means finding others who are different in the same way. It’s a quiet, thoughtful, and melancholy story, but it also has plenty of moments of charm and humor. The tone of the book reminded me of Station Eleven or The Namesake, both of which I also enjoyed thoroughly.

My only complaint about Among Others is that it ends somewhat abruptly, but I really enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it, especially to fans of classic SF. And speaking of classic SF, apparently SF legend Ursula K. LeGuin, whose books Mori loves, also enjoyed Among Others, and she happens to be the author of the second book I’m reviewing in this post!


Rocannon’s World is LeGuin’s first novel, and was published in 1966. It is a bit more pulpy and less serious than some of the later books that made LeGuin famous, like Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, but even in this first novel her writing is beautiful. The story follows a man named Rocannon, who is an ethnologist from a futuristic society who is exploring a planet populated by several races of human-like people at a medieval technology level. Rocannon’s ship and crewmates are killed by a mysterious and technologically advanced enemy, and most of the book is a quest across the strange world to get to the enemy base and use their technology to call for help.

Even though it is nominally a science fiction novel, the bulk of the book is essentially fantasy. In place of Tolkien’s elves and dwarves and men, the planet in Rocannon’s World has the elf-like Fiia, the dwarf-like Gdemiar, and the human-like Liuar. As Rocannon travels across the world with his group of companions, his high-tech gear (in particular, an invisible impermeable skin-like force field) leads him to be revered as a sort of God, with legends springing up about his exploits almost as soon as they occur. After all, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

One of my favorite things in the novel was the archaic way that most of the various races on the planet speak, with lots of honorifics and nicknames and flowery language. For example, at one point when a new character is greeting Rocannon and his friend Mogien (a nobleman of the Liuar people), instead of saying “Hello Mogien and Rocannon” they say: “Hail Mogien, Halla’s heir, sun-haired, sword bearer! Hail, Hallan-guest, star-lord, wanderer!” This sort of style reminded me strongly of the epithets used in Homer: “grey-eyed Athena”, “rosy-fingered dawn”, “Trojans, breakers of horses”. It’s a wonderful way to convey that these are people who live in a culture where history is passed down orally, and these sorts of epithets serve a real purpose as memory triggers and in fitting speech to a specific rhythm. In the hands of a less capable author it could have been horrible and over-the-top, but LeGuin not only gets away with it, but made it one of the things I liked most.

I’ve read many books by LeGuin before, but reading Among Others made me want to dig back into some of the classics that I have never read. I am very glad that I did. I knew that I liked LeGuin’s writing, but Rocannon’s world has jogged my memory and refreshed that knowledge. I’m looking forward to reading some of her other early works!

Book Recommendations

There are few things I enjoy more than recommending books to people, so you can imagine how happy I was to find that there are two subreddits that are dedicated to book recommendations. It’s awesome to have a place on the internet where people are constantly asking for advice on what to read!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been recommending up a storm, and I thought it would be interesting to collect a list of my most-recommended books and post them here. This is different from my list of favorite books, I should note. There are a few very common requests that appear over and over on the book recommendation subreddits, so those tend to guide my recommendations. Here are some of the most common requests, along with my general recommendations.

“I am new to reading for fun” or “I used to love reading but I haven’t read anything recently. What should I read?”

Of course when responding to this one, it depends what the person is interested in. But I generally try to aim for easy-reading page-turners that are the beginning of a series:

  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – Good, modern take on military sci-fi with a sense of humor but also some poignant scenes. This book starts a series.
  • Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden – Historical fiction about the early life of Temujin (aka Genghis Khan). Does a great job of conveying the rugged life on the steppes. Starts a series.
  • The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell – Very readable historical fiction book about a Northumbrian boy who is captured by Danes (vikings) and raised as one of them, but who eventually joins forces with Alfred the Great. Interesting look at the early middle ages, when a castle was a hall on top of a hill surrounded by a palisade, rather than a towering stone fortress. Starts a series.

“I just read The Martian. What should I read next?”

  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – This is an epic realistic sci-fi novel about the first 100 colonists on Mars as they try to found a new civilization and terraform Mars to become more like Earth. It was written in the 90s, but holds up pretty well. Where The Martian was a very small-scale story, this one is huge in scope, spanning many years with tons of characters.
  • Contact by Carl Sagan – Writen by an actual astronomer, about deciphering a signal received from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Full of good science but also lots of philosophical discussions.

“I just finished Ready Player One. What should I read next?”

  • I often recommend Old Man’s War for this as well. Even though the books are not that similar, the tone of the writing is.
  • Other books that I haven’t read, but which I have heard would go well with Ready Player One are Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

“I’m looking for a new fantasy series to get hooked on (often after finishing A Song of Ice and Fire or Name of the Wind).”

  • The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Classics, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t read them. These are must-reads for any fan of fantasy, if only because so much of fantasy is either imitating or subverting the tropes introduced by Tolkien.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin – Another classic, and the start of a series. I especially recommend this to people who say they enjoyed Harry Potter because LeGuin basically invented the idea of a wizard school in this book.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb – This is the first in several trilogies set in the same world. Fitz, the protagonist, is in my opinion one of the best characters in all of Fantasy. Occasionally infuriating too, but still a great character, and it’s interesting to see him mature through the books. Also, some of the books about Fitz get pretty dark and gritty, even though they were written before “grimdark” became its own subgenre.
  • The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie – The standard by which all other grimdark is judged. Great characters who are also terrible people, in an interesting fantasy world that has fun subverting some fantasy tropes. I recommend this book and its sequels especially for people who liked Game of Thrones and who want something dark and gritty.
  • Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – For fantasy readers who want well-polished prose that takes familiar well-worn tropes and makes them excellent just by the quality of the writing. This book and its sequel are good for fans of Harry Potter who want something similar but a bit more mature.
  • Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin – Everyone has heard of this book and its sequels by now, but many have still not read them. If the person seems to have read other huge series but not this one, I highly recommend it. At this point Martin’s influence on the fantasy genre rivals Tolkien’s.
  • Shogun by James Clavell – This is historical fiction rather than fantasy, but it has a lot of what makes Game of Thrones great (tons of characters, tons of politics and intrigue, epic scope, etc.), so I often recommend it to Game of Thrones fans. It’s about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in 1600 and gets involved in court politics and falls in love with a Japanese woman. Surprisingly, it is based pretty closely on actual events.
  • I also often recommend Cornwell and Iggulden’s historical fiction to fantasy fans.

For fantasy fans who are looking for something a bit different:

  • Perdido Street Station or The Scar by China Mieville – Extremely creative and bizarre stories about a steampunk-ish fantasy-ish world. Strong horror influences. I haven’t read anything else like these. I personally enjoyed The Scar more than Perdido Street. Mieville also loves to use lots of fancy vocabulary in his writing: this annoys some people, but I like it. And if you’re studying for the SAT, I bet these books would be better than a bunch of boring flash cards.

“I’m looking for some good post-apocalyptic books.”

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – One of the best books I’ve read this year, and the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve read in a long time (ever?). It doesn’t do anything particularly new with the familiar tropes of the genre, but the writing is great, with well-drawn characters. Manages to be more literary than most books in the genre without coming off as pretentious.
  • Wool by Hugh Howey – This one is a page-turner. I especially recommend this to fans of the Fallout series of video games, because it deals with underground refuges from the toxic post-apocalyptic wasteland on the surface that are awfully similar to the Vaults in Fallout.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Bleak and depressing, but great, spare writing. And after all, shouldn’t the apocalypse be a bit of a downer?
  • The Stand by Stephen King – A classic of the genre. I loved the first ~2/3 of The Stand and thought the ending was just ok, but still. It’s a must-read.
  • The Postman by David Brin – Obviously an inspiration for The Stand and for the early Wasteland and Fallout video games. Much like The Stand, the first 2/3rds are better than the ending, but still a classic of the genre.
  • Earth Abides – Another classic. This one explores how civilization would change, what knowledge would be kept and what would fade with time, after a disease-style apocalypse. One of the first books of its kind, but quite good, if dated.
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – Another classic. This one was among the first to consider an apocalypse populated by monsters rather than just radiation or disease. Here the monsters are like vampires, but this led to the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. And for its age, it is still quite readable.
  • On the Beach by Nevil Schute – This one is different than most in the genre, but is well worth reading. Possibly the saddest of them all. It’s about several families in Australia after a nuclear war has been waged in the northern hemisphere as they wait for the deadly cloud of fallout to get to them.
  • The World Without Us by Alan Wiseman – This one is non-fiction! But I put it in the post-apocalypse list because it’s about what would happen if humans just up and disappeared one day. It’s a really fascinating book, especially for fans of the post-apocalyptic genre.

“I’ve read lots of YA series (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Eragon, etc.). What should I read next?” or “What are some good books for a middle school kid?”

A lot of this depends on age. Some adults have only read YA but want something more mature, so for them I refer to the fantasy list. For actual kids in high school or middle school, I recommend:

  • The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman – Great YA series with a sort of steampunk-ish world and interesting magic. There are armored bears and witches but also some pretty interesting exploration of physics, philosophy, and theology.
  • Redwall and sequels by Brian Jacques – These books are lots of fun. Woodland creatures in the middle ages with swords and bows and stuff! Also some of the most gratuitous descriptions of feasts I’ve ever read. Probably best for a middle-school aged audience though I read them well into high school.
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Duane – Lame title, but I loved this book in early middle school. It’s about two kids who learn how to become wizards and travel to a parallel version of New York, complete with predatory cars and other cool stuff.
  • The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – I loved these books in early high school, though now I can’t really remember much about them except that they are awesome. Both have great female protagonists.

“I’m looking for non-fiction that will change the way I see the world.” or “What are some must-read non-fiction books?”

  • Books by Carl Sagan including Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and Demon Haunted World – Sagan was a brilliant science writer, and all modern popular science writers are basically rehashing things he wrote better. These books will teach you about the history of science, the future of space exploration, and how to think critically about the world around you.
  • 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann – These books deal with what the Americas were like before Columbus, and how the world changed due to globalization after Columbus. These changed my view of history: real history is way more interesting than what you learn in school!

“Halloween is coming up. What are some good creepy/horror stories?”

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – Not the sort of story that is likely to give you nightmares or keep you up at night but some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read. Bradbury’s writing style is practically like poetry, and this book is all about autumn and death and a creepy carnival, so it fits with the season. All of Bradbury’s books are great, and this is not actually my favorite (That would be Martian Chronicles, of course) but this is the one I’m recommending most lately.

Book Review: Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb


Of all the epic fantasy series I’ve read, Robin Hobb’s Farseer books are among my favorite, and that’s primarily because of the great job that Hobb does getting the reader inside the main character, FitzChivalry’s head (for better or worse). The previous books follow him from being a young boy struggling to survive court intrigue, to a trained assassin working for the king, to a battle-weary man seeking solitude after a life of trauma and loss. I was surprised to hear that Hobb was coming out with a new Fitz trilogy since his story was pretty clearly finished, but at the same time I was excited to spend some more time with Fitz and the other characters from past books.

Warning: It’s hard to discuss this book without spoiling anything. I’ll keep the spoilers mild but you have been warned.

Fool’s Assassin starts with Fitz in late middle age, enjoying a peaceful retirement with his wife Molly. The book moves slowly, but the writing was good enough to keep me turning the page as the reader is brought up to speed on some of Fitz’s past exploits and his current situation. Although they both had thought she was too old, Molly announces that she is pregnant. After a long section where Fitz believes Molly has become demented rather than pregnant (my first reminder of the downside of being inside Fitz’s head: he is all too often oblivious to major plot points when it is convenient for him to be so) she eventually does give birth to a tiny but healthy daughter, Bee. Everyone assumes Bee won’t live long because she is so small, but other than her small size she turns out to be healthy, capable, and smart. She’s just shy and a bit odd. When Molly dies suddenly, Fitz is left to raise Bee himself.

About halfway through the book, the point of view chapters start to alternate between Bee and Fitz, and much as I have enjoyed the previous Fitz books, I found myself dreading Fitz’s chapters and looking forward to Bee’s. Fitz has the habit of throwing himself long, elaborate pity parties in his head, and the reader gets to come along for the ride. There is some nice writing in here about dealing with loss of a spouse (Hobb writes poignant and bittersweet very well), and the challenges of parenting, but Fitz still tends to be a downer.  And as this book progresses, his tendency to be wrong about everything just to add conflict to the plot got to be really annoying. Bee on the other hand is everyone’s favorite point of view character type: smarter than she seems, constantly underestimated by everyone around her, clever but flawed enough to be interesting, with hints of extraordinary abilities that even she does not fully understand. (Actually now that I think about it, she reminds me a lot of Bean in the Ender’s Game books.)

The book continues on, with other new (and often highly annoying) characters introduced to add conflict, but unfortunately the plot does almost nothing, and that ends up being my biggest criticism. This is not a finished book, this is the first act of a book that has been split into three pieces so it can be released as a trilogy. There’s a lot of filler here and not much plot, and what plot there is has some pretty significant holes in it that I won’t go into to avoid major spoilers. The writing was still good enough that I found myself staying up late turning pages, but in the end all this book gives is the inciting event for the real story. I’ll be reading the sequels, but if I had known how unsatisfying this one would be I would have waited for all three books to be out first.


Game Review: Dragon Age Inquisition

I got an Xbox One for Christmas, and the first game that I played on it was Dragon Age: Inquisition. The game has been winning all sorts of awards, and so I figured I might as well have my first Xbox One gaming experience be as epic as possible. So did it live up to the hype?


The environments in this game are gorgeous.

Yes! Mostly. Inquisition blends the character-driven games that Bioware is now famous for (see: Mass Effect and the earlier Dragon Age games) with a much more open world (no doubt because of the great success of Skyrim). In some ways this was great: Inquisition allows you to explore many huge environments and get lost on side quests to your heart’s content, and unlike Skyrim there is much more variety in the different areas. You can explore desert wastelands, lush forests, rain-drenched rocky coasts, along with the more traditional “mountainous temperate European-like” landscapes like in Skyrim. And of course, these all look gorgeous on the Xbox One. The game generally looks great. My main complaint about the graphics are the characters. It seems as though the game designers got so excited about the ability to have specular reflections rendered in real time, that they made everything shiny, including people. The result: everyone looks like they are wet, and wearing extremely shiny lip gloss. Also, anything that is actually supposed to be shiny ends up looking like it is covered in sequins, especially if it’s in the background and slightly out of focus. But, after playing for a while I stopped noticing these graphical quirks, and for the most part the game looks awesome.

The downside of having all of these huge and beautiful environments to explore is that it tends to dilute the actual storyline of the game. By far the best thing about previous Bioware games were the character arcs of the various interesting party members that can join you in your adventures. There are some good character arcs in Inquisition too, but they sometimes felt less coherent and meaningful than in previous games. I should note, however, that as usual Bioware does a nice job with the diversity of its characters. There are strong women and people of color, and a variety of sexual orientations. In fact, one of my favorite subplots had no climactic battle or world-changing choices. Instead, you help your gay team-mate confront his disapproving father. These sorts of character-driven moments are often much better and more memorable than yet another battle with a dragon or a wizard. It helps that the writing and voice acting in Inquisition are among the best I’ve seen in a video game.


These characters are the best part of the game.

Unfortunately, despite the interesting cast of characters, I found the main plot of the game to be pretty weak. This is likely because it was stretched so thin as I spent my time wandering around the open world doing other things and then occasionally checking back in to the plot once I ran out of other things to do. By the time I decided to finish the game, my character and team members were strong enough that the final battle was laughably easy, and because it had been many many hours since I last checked in with the plot, I didn’t really care that much about it. It didn’t help that the main bad guy is a very cliche and one-dimensional villain. The ending was so anti-climactic that I was sure there was going to be some shocking twist, but nope. That was that. For such a huge game, the ending felt small and unimportant.

All that said, as I think back to the major events in the game’s main story and subplots, I realize that they are full of some great scenes. There’s a very fun sequence where you have to infiltrate a royal ball and stop (or aid) an assassination attempt. You get to defend a town from an advancing army, explore ancient ruins in search of long-forgotten power, disrupt an illegal mining operation, stop an evil mage from distorting time to save his son, and of course you get to fight some dragons (hunting down all the dragons is much more exciting and challenging than the actual final boss battle).

Basically, my review boils down to this: Dragon Age: Inquisition is a great game, but it is trying to do too many things. If I were to play it again, I would resist my completionist urges and focus entirely on the main story and the sub-plots for my party members. I think doing that would make them much more enjoyable by essentially cutting out the filler and focusing on the good stuff. The alternative way to play is to basically ignore the stories and just run around doing whatever you want like in Skyrim. Learn to craft armor and weapons, find treasure in every nook and cranny, do every fetch quest for every villager in need of help.  This will let you see more of the game, but will rob the plot of its immediacy.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Bioware does next. The fad seems to be to make games have ever-more open worlds, but I really hope Bioware decides to buck that trend and turn all the effort that they put into making Inquisition so open, and instead direct that at crafting a great story with meaningful choices and interesting characters. Too much freedom makes it impossible to tell a good story, and for me the story is what makes Bioware games great.

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