book review: boxers & saints

Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is a pair of volumes about rebellion in 19th century China. In Boxers, we follow a young man whose father is humiliated at the hands of the foreign devils and the people who’ve gravitated to their power so he turns to mystical powers to try to rid China of their influence. In Saints we follow a young woman as she tries to become a foreign devil herself.

The stories are good, but somewhat slight. I don’t know. I liked the representation of the Brotherhood of the Righteous Fist becoming gods in their fights. Whenever I read histories of the Boxer Rebellion it seems stupid that so many people would believe a little ritual would protect them from bullets. This represented things in a way much easier to empathize with.

Really though, this book is a decent enough fictionalization of history, but it felt like the characters were there as a means of showing us history rather than having real depth of their own. Which is disappointing, because Yang’s made me care about characters and their individual struggles before.

book review: debt: the first 5000 years

I’ve been grabbing people by the arm and talking their ears off about David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years for a couple of weeks now. Putting together a few thoughts about it here has been a little daunting though. Partially because I liked it so much, but partially because it seems to be about so much.

The idea is to look at human history and how the idea of debt has been constructed. Graeber talks about societies where money is used only for the important things in life and the idea of being in debt for something like food makes little sense. He goes into the myth of barter ever existing the way Adam Smith and so many subsequent economists talked about it. He goes into a history of merchants through the world (not limiting himself to Christendom, which means his conception of the Middle Ages start off in China and India) and how religions incorporate their society’s struggle with the idea of all-purpose money. There’s stuff about the ages when Christ and Gautama and Mohammed were changing the world and how separating economics from religion is crazy.

It was an amazing book. I have my buddy who knows about economics reading it now so I can get a bit more informed opinion about it, but for now, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed/had their thoughts provoked by Guns Germs and Steel.

book review: that which should not be

I don’t like reviewing books I don’t like. It feels rude. So I’m not going to rip into Brett J. Talley’s That Which Should Not Be with great abandon.

This is a Lovecraftian tale about a young man at Miskatonic University who is sent by a mentor to find a book in the town of Anchorhead. In that town he goes to a tavern in a storm and listens to tales of horror from world-weary men. One is a Wendigo story, one is a cultists in Transylvania story, one is an Asylum story, one is a nautical ghost-ship/evil tome story. Then the young hero sails around the world and helps prevent Cthulhu from waking.

The thing about this book is that there wasn’t anything new or interesting done with any of those story-forms. They are all entirely old-fashioned in plotting and language. The language emulation leaves out a lot of Lovecraft’s purple prose, but it does use that formalized stiff diction that makes it sound like it was written a hundred years ago. If you have read any Mythos stuff before (really, if you’ve read any horror story from the last two hundred years) you’ve read the same thing.

The big philosophical problem I had with the book was the power of Judeo-Christian symbols in the face of the Mythos. Not to be a huge nerd about it, but these monsters cowering at crucifixes is completely antithetical to how I see the cosmology of a universe including Great Old Ones. There is altogether too much veneration of Christ in these stories to be effective Mythos tales.

I would not recommend this book to anyone but someone completely new to horror fiction.

Note: I received a free copy of this ebook through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program.

book review: metal (northlanders vol. 5)

Metal is the fifth volume of Brian Wood’s excellent Northlanders series. As per usual, it’s got multiple stories in the book, each one with a different illustrator. I wasn’t such a huge fan of the story about the merchant captain who took his boat on a voyage of exploration instead of trade. I mean, it wasn’t bad or anything; it just didn’t grab me the way the big story, Metal, did.

Metal was about a crappy blacksmith who’s chosen by one of the old gods (while he’s tripping out on hallucinogens) to stop his village from bowing down and letting the Christians have their way with them just because they’ve got sacks of money. He rescues a woman the Christians are holding and then burns everything down. The two of them head off like an ancient day Bonnie and Clyde. They’re pursued by a hired sword who takes his job very seriously, and it’s violently excellent.

One thing I love about this series is how it is not tied to any sort of chronology. There are hundreds of years separating different stories, but they’re all Viking tales. It also means they’re easy books to recommend since you don’t need to read them in any really specific order.

book review: blood in the snow (northlanders vol 3)

Blood in the Snow is part of Brian Wood’s Viking comic series, Northlanders. It’s a collection of short stories set in different time frames. One is about three women fighting a pillaging horde, one is about a Saxon boy who hates his father and his Nailed God religion, and one is about a duel.

All three of the stories are good, but the duel one is my favourite, probably because it doesn’t show the story, just this fight. The coolness is all about the narrator’s background and context for how these two clan champions are fighting. It oozes research, but also a wry modern tone (with images of the old ultra-violence). So good. Brian Wood just writes awesome stuff and all his artists in here work really well.

book review: the sea of trolls

The Sea of Trolls was my first book I’ve read by Nancy Farmer and it was really good. It’s about a Saxon boy named Jack who is becoming a bard and is kidnapped by Vikings (Northmen) with his sister and then he has to go to Jotunheim on a quest after he makes the vikings’ half-troll queen’s hair fall out. He does this accompanied by an unbearably bratty sister (who is mercifully struck mute and left in the Northmen village for the trek to Jotunheim) a one-legged crow and Thorgil, a young female wannabe berserker.

There’s a lot to like about this book. Jack’s quest is suitably epic and he has talent even before he becomes able to wield magic. The entire trip to Jotunheim is where it becomes much more fantastical, which I appreciated. In Middle Earth everything could be explained away by a rational sciencey 21st century observer, but when they cross worlds the magic becomes closer to the surface and it really takes off. The integration of different belief systems (Jack’s father is a Christian, but his mother believes very different things and hides them so as not to be constantly told she’s going to hell) works probably not realistically, but very evocatively for the story.

I don’t know tonnes about Vikings and Norse mythology but Jack’s first mentor is the bard who documented Beowulf’s tale. I love the idea that a kid reading this would later know Beowulf’s story when she has to read it for a first year college English class. This Jotunheim and the trolls and the whole story really are a way better (and by that I mean more faithful) introduction to Norse mythology than anything Stan Lee ever put together. It’s also got a different, less fairy-tale and more epic feel than something like Odd and the Frost Giants. We don’t actually meet any gods, not even in animal form.

book review: american gods

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is one of my favourite stories ever. It’s about a man who gets pulled into a conflict between America’s old gods (Odin, Anubis, Anansi, leprechauns, et al) and its new (Television, Automobiles, the Internet). There are digressionary tales of people who brought their gods to America, but the main story is about this con artist who’s enlisted this guy to help defend the old ways.

One of the things it doesn’t deal with is the modern political dimension of religion. There’s a bit where they talk about the churches on every corner having nothing to do with holy sites where you have to make something, some sort of sacrifice. There’s an offhand comment about what a lucky son-of-a-virgin Jesus was, all stealing Mithras’ birthday and everything, but the political realities of America are left out. There is no discussion of Islamofascism or any of that political religious shit you can fill up with in the real world news. But there are paragraphs like this that make me love this book so much:

None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you – even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.

Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.

So none of this is happening. Such things could not occur. Never a word of it is literally true. Even so, the next thing that happened, happened like this:

There are more bits in there that I love, but the other day I watched a TED talk on metaphor and this bit leapt out at me. At work last night I was telling someone about the Pynchon bit about metaphor in V that goes:

Fausto’s kind are alone with the task of living in a universe of things which simply are, and cloaking that innate mindlessness with comfortable and pious metaphor so that the ‘practical’ half of humanity may continue in the Great Lie.”

That’s in the middle of a big chunk on the importance of poetry, which was worth the price of admission for me. So yes. Metaphor. Belief. Interesting stuff.

And this new copy of American Gods I received (in trade, not as an Xmas present) is signed by Neil Gaiman himself, from when he was in Winnipeg last month. I don’t have to get my 1st edition all banged up rereading it. So that’s cool.

But yes, American Gods is a great story. I’ve heard that there are people who don’t like it, and I honestly can’t understand why. I mean, I can understand the fact that some people don’t like beautiful wonderful things and would prefer to live in gray boxes without feeling or thinking about anything, but I don’t understand why someone would be like that. No accounting for taste I suppose.