book review: master and commander

I have friends who really enjoy Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. After reading the first one, Master and Commander, I’m sorry to say I don’t understand the devotion. Maybe it’s like how Star Trek is for me, where what happens on screen/page is understood as only a shorthand for the coolness we don’t actually see but understand somehow.

Jack Aubrey is the Master and Commander of a little ship. He gets a doctor, Stephen Maturin, onboard and they go off having adventures attacking French and Spanish ships. I think part of what I dislike stems from the first impressions of them both being petty assholes, one stamping along badly to music and the other elbowing him for making the concert less enjoyable for everyone around him, and then suddenly they’re best friends. It’s like introducing your hero as being the jerk who’s talking on his cell phone through the movie. Sure he might be enjoying it, but he’s also a jerk.

I also have issues with the naviness of everything. All of that military hierarchy and Aubrey’s desire to climb within it don’t make him an appealing character to me. I feel similarly when I read some of the Miles Vorkosigan books, but those, to me, are far more fun.

And there’s all the sailing terminology which never gets explained. I’m all over that in science fiction because no one knows exactly what you’re talking about, since the writer is making a lot of it up. O’Brian isn’t making up tacking and rigging, just talking about it like of course we understand how sailing works because only idiot landsmen wouldn’t.

So yeah, I guess this series just isn’t for me. I’ll stick with spaceships and characters I don’t want to punch in the face.

book review: under heaven

Under Heaven is the first Guy Gavriel Kay book I’ve read in years and years. I don’t know why I haven’t read more of his since the Fionavar Tapestry, but I haven’t. Weird.

Under Heaven is a fantasy novel set in a world almost but not exactly like Tang Dynasty China. The difference is basically just enough to let Kay stray from history and include ghosts and someone who is something else. Also women have stronger roles than you’d usually see in a story actually from the first millennium.

When the book begins Shen Tai has spent the last two years burying bones from a decades-old massacre. He is given a gift in recognition for his service, a gift that means he must go to the capital. Someone is also trying to assassinate him, even before the extremely valuable gift is made known. The story follows Shen Tai and his bodygurd (and eventually a poet he befriends, who is one of the Banished Immortals) as they go to the capital to see the emperor and confront whoever is trying to kill him.

Shen Tai’s younger sister is a secondary character who has been traded to the barbarians beyond the Long Wall by her other brother (who’s at court in the capital). Her story is interesting and provides motivation for Shen Tai, but even though it’s the more fantastical part of the book, it feels a bit perfunctory.

I really enjoyed the book, especially since it is self-contained. As the end nears we’re learning more and more about what happened in history because of these events and the sense that we’re just dipping a ladle into a river of events that make up these lives is emphasized. It feels right in the way a historical epic should. Traditional, I suppose. Romantic. Very recommended for fantasy/historical fans.

book review: the sixth gun (vol. 1 & 2)

My librarian friend Jamie picked up the first two volumes of The Sixth Gun on a whim recently and recommended I read them. Very glad I did. They’re set just after the American Civil War and the titular guns are basically forged in hell demon weapons that are bound to their wielders.

In Cold Dead Fingers we meet Drake, our badass antihero who’s been hired to look for the guns. The last owner of one of them (the one that let the wielder see the future) had been killed and hidden on sacred ground, but his old posse (with guns that spout hellfire, or plague, or grant eternal youth, or summon golem armies from the people they kill) kill all the priests and dig him out. The future-glimpsing gun gets bonded to the daughter of a preacher who’d been hiding it. Lots of crazy action happens, culminating in Drake being bound to the other four guns.

The second volume, Crossroads, has Drake down in the swamplands looking for information about the guns and what to do with them. There we discover what a magnet for trouble weapons forged by the devil are and how vodoun spirits would also like to get their (metaphorical) hands on such things. More crazy action happens.

These books have an excellent melding of crazy action, magickal weirdness and characters you care about. Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt (both of which do sound like fake names) are telling a pulpy tale that’s worth following, especially if you’re a fan of the Weird West (and stuff like Deadlands) like I am.

book review: wizzywig: portrait of a serial hacker

WIZZYWIG is Ed Piskor’s comic about a hacker named Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle. It tells the story of how he grew up and learned to become a phone phreaker and scammed long distance companies and became a fugitive hunted by the FBI.

It’s an interestingly told story because Phenicle is a fictional amalgam of all the famous hackers of the 20th century (or he at least knows them a la Forrest Gump). The way he’s interwoven with the real history (including the Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games, which was my personal introduction to how governments can freak out about hacking) makes it feel very real. It also helps that Piskor is a guy who’s drawn historical work before (including Harvey Pekar’s The Beats).

So yes, a well-told story that is a good jumping off point for further research of how hackers actually did things (as opposed to their portrayal in ’90s movies about cyberspace). And in the end the parallels to Wikilieaks and Bradley Manning contemporizes it nicely. Well-done.

book review: the thousand autumns of jacob de zoet

David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is about the Dutch in Nagasaki at the end of the 18th century. Jacob is a clerk who’s there to make his fortune so he can go back home to marry. Things don’t work out as he’d hoped and he has to become much better at politics than he was on arrival.

Mitchell splits up the narrative between a few different viewpoint characters in the book, which gives us not just the colonial perspective on what’s going on. The most troublesome part of the book for me was the nefarious practices going on in the mountain abbey. While the rest of the book felt like a more-restrained part of The Baroque Cycle, the abbey rumours were exceedingly pulpy and over the top. It made for a weird tone, since I wasn’t sure if the overly lurid doings were supposed to be taken seriously or if they were being overdone as a statement about exoticization/orientalism or if they were just weird.

In the end it was a satisfying story, but not as impressive as something like number9dream or Cloud Atlas.

book review: petrograd

I enjoy stories of Russia’s history, especially when they’re about the Russian soul, which always seems so different from mine. Petrograd, by Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook, is about a British spy in Petrograd during the Great War (hence the interstitial name between St. Petersburg and Leningrad). The British want to make sure the Russians and Germans don’t come to a separate peace so they push their Petrograd office into making sure that doesn’t happen, by killing Rasputin.

Cleary is one of the spies. He’s in bed with revolutionaries, feeding information to his masters and the tsarist secret police, and hobnobs with princes (for more information). When Cleary is pushed into plotting assassination he’s clearly out of his depth and the book focuses on what kind of a man he is trying to be.

It’s a great book, done in a bigger hardcover than a lot of Oni Press’ stuff. The art is detailed and brushy (reminded this untutored eye of Craig Thompson’s work, but with more traditional page layouts) with faded orange washes throughout. It’s a great non-gamourous spy story with violence and repercussions and talk of “Russifying one’s soul.”

book review: ten billion days and one hundred billion nights

It makes perfect sense to read in the afterword of 10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights that one of the big influences on Ryu Mitsuse (the author) was Stanislaw Lem. The story is about Plato and Siddhartha and Jesus of Nazareth (one of the three is the villain) dealing with Titans and Orichalcum, the death of all humanity, colliding galaxies and the existence of entities beyond infinity. It is fucking marvellous.

At first I thought it would be more like The Years of Rice and Salt, but 10 Billion Days is not nearly so grounded in the life of people being reincarnated. It’s the kind of book that you can sort of float through because the plot isn’t grabby, but then you shake out of yourself and ask what happened and you realize you’re somewhere distant and cosmic. I don’t know how much of that distancing comes because this is a translation, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a book about cyborgs looking for god and I liked it a lot.