Terry Pratchett – Monstrous Regiment (2003) Review

Monstrous regiment

Also in this series:

Reading the Discworld series in sequence, you might notice Terry Pratchett’s sense of humour changing over the years. Where the first dozen novels relied more on clever word play, his later novels found their humour in satirical situations. That element of satire became sharper too – more mocking, more serious in its intentions. When we get to Monstrous Regiment, we get to perhaps his sharpest, most biting novel in the series.

It tells the story of Polly Perks, a girl who dresses up as a boy to enter the military, in search of her older brother. We are in Borogravia, a location not visited before in the series, and a very warlike and religious country. The country follows the Book of Nuggan, which is actually more like a heavy binder that lists all the things that are considered Abominations unto Nuggan, such as chocolate, and the colour blue. The country also suffers from too much patriotism. You can’t be the greatest country in the world without having enemies, after all. And even when Borogravia is losing, it is winning. Make of this characterization what you will.

As Polly enters the army, we start out all Full Metal Jacket style and she enters a company consisting of course of a vampire, a troll, an Igor and so on. A “monstrous” regiment. But Pratchett references with this title an actual, sexist pamphlet from 1558 by one John Knox that raved against government by women. It doesn’t take long before we discover that all human members of her company are actually women in disguise.

The last years I’ve become rather tired of politics entering entertainment – not because I am against the underlying sentiments, but because films and books are being praised for being great for having political messages that have very little to do with the actual themes or qualities of plot and characterization in these works. Only in a few instances, such as Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion (2016), did I feel that the gender identity issues it took up were a natural, holistic part of the universe she created and the story she wanted to tell. It made sense for such themes to be present in that novel, just as it makes sense for themes about war to be present in military fiction.

For Terry Pratchett, I also make an exception, because his mocking satire is intelligent and piercing, and the issues of sexism and patriotism he takes up also happen to be the central theme of the novel. It makes sense for them to be there. Sometimes he goes down the road of “women are better and men are stupid”, which I find tiresome and unconstructive, but then turns it around in later pages. Besides, Pratchett wrote interesting female characters long before today’s focus on it.

So, we meet a whole roster of new characters, and at first the group feels like a version of Sam Vimes’ city watch. The military regiment has the same diversity of fantasy characters – the troll, the vampire, the igor – and sergeant Jackrum is the guy with the “street smarts”. The characters really started working for me around the halfway point. Maladict the vampire has an addiction to coffee (something I personally relate to) and withdrawal turns him into a Vietnam soldier from apocalypse now. Jackrum the sarge is a lot meaner than Vimes, but a lot of fun to read about. Only Polly herself feels a bit flat.

Many of the jokes write themselves by this time, especially with the fantasy characters, but Pratchett never went so grim with the characters’ backgrounds. The female soldiers found themselves in the army running from restrictions and abuse. Looking back at earlier novels of Pratchett, like Equal Rites (1987), where women’s rights featured as well but the story was much lighter, and then looking at later novels like Night Watch (2002) which also went dark with the grittiness of revolutions, then a picture forms of Pratchett becoming angrier and having more to get off his chest.

I wish Pratchett was less insistent at times at how everything has its gritty downsides. What I am missing here is a character like Granny Weatherwax (perhaps Pratchett’s finest creation): someone who is confronted with the stupidity of the world all the time but uses head-ology to outwit everyone by strength of character. She, however, has been transported to Pratchett’s Young Adult novels as a role model. I wish that that optimistic role model idea and lighter storytelling of the YA novels had remained integrated with the grittiness of Night Watch and Monstrous Regiment.

Overall, I thought this was just an ok novel, and Pratchett’s writing is always smooth. The crossdressing jokes wore thin after a while, though, but the characters were a lot of fun. It went on for far too long, however, and has about 10 endings. I skipped the final 50 pages. Sorry, Terry.

7/10

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Roger Zelazny – Jack of Shadows (1971) Review

jack of shadows

Jack of Shadows, perhaps not Zelazny’s best known work, can still be considered one of the essential Zelazny reads. Written in between his Amber novels, Jack of Shadows has the same inventiveness but is a love letter to Jack Vance in a unique science fantasy setting.

Jack is, just like so many other fictional characters named Jack, a miscreant. A famous thief, Jack of Shadows. A living piece of folklore. So when he shows up at a local games event and ogles the prize trophy, the game master quickly has him arrested and executed. That’s how the novel somewhat haphazardly and confusingly starts off. Jack, however, has many lives.

The real reason that Jack is named Jack is because Zelazny is honouring his fellow writer Jack Vance, whose work is of great influence on Zelazny and on Jack of Shadows in particular. Zelazny admired Vance’s legendary talents in creating strange planets and societies, and tried to achieve something similar in this novel.

The story is set on a planet that doesn’t spin, one side always in darkness and the other in the light. The dark side works on magic, while the light side knows science and technology. Shadowjack is a darksider with powers of reincarnation and getting power through shadows. He is a Vancian hero in the style of Cugel the Clever: a rogue on a quest for revenge on the people who killed him. On his quest he travels through the strangest lands and has rather cruel adventures.

From the start, the story feels a bit impulsive, a bit of a messy jumble of science fiction and fairy tale elements that Zelazny is making up on the spot. It feels like a first draft. Some of it feels rather cliché, like Jack going for revenge and trying to win some sort of princess. It’s very Vancian, but it’s also very chewed out and done a million times. Taken on its own, Jack of Shadows disappoints because of its lack of plot and likable characters, but taken as a Vancian tale I start to understand its shortcomings.

In 2009, George R.R. Martin edited Songs of the Dying Earth, an anthology that was a love letter to Jack Vance. It clarified – sometimes painfully – that it is incredibly hard to write a Vancian tale. Roger Zelazny is one of the few able to pull it off, with his skill in writing dialogue and the power of his imagination. And Zelazny never concerned himself much with plot either. He shines in individual scenes through character interaction and crazy setpieces. So that is how I started reading the novel: taking it in as episodes, chapter by chapter, setpiece by setpiece. Then I could enjoy it.

Now, all of this only goes for the first half of the novel, because we then make a jarring jump that feels like we started an entirely different novel – a different genre even. The novel jumps from The Dying Earth-style dungeons and dragons into urban fantasy, and it feels totally incongruous. Reading online reviews, many people express problems with this jump, unsurprisingly.

Later on, we do return to the fantasy elements but in general the novel rubbed me the wrong way all the way through. It is a taped together Frankenstein of a story of elements that didn’t work together. There just didn’t seem to be a point to any of it. Or, Zelazny wanted to describe a cold world without souls and conscience, but it makes Jack a pretty miserable main character who never really becomes known to us.

7/10

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20 Questions Tag

Hello everybody. I’ve been tagged by Embuhlee at Embuhleeliest to participate in the 20 Questions Tag. Thanks Embuhlee! I CAN FEEL THE PEER PRESSURE.

  1. How many books is too many books in a series?

Having more than 6 books is really pushing it. 6 can be separated in two trilogies and that’s a fine number to tell a great tale. But a 7th book is dangerous. There is no end after that.

  1. How do you feel about cliffhangers?

Occasionally they work. I think they work best if they are only a sentence long. Something like “and then the aliens showed up.” And just end the chapter there. Don’t overuse it though.

  1. Hardback or paperback?

Paperback. I want them to be handy, and dustcovers are a pain in the ass. I never know what to do with them.

  1. Favorite book?

Haha. Next question.

  1. Least favorite book?

Perhaps Dan Brown’s Origin. But that was just lazy writing. The last time I was really mad at a book was Jim Butcher’s Summer Knight. The author mentions coca cola about 20 times in the novel, and his main character was such an annoying Nice Guy.

Origin

  1. Love triangles: Yes or no?

Absolutely not. It may just be that most romance in fantasy and SF novels is really bad. The personal baggage of the writers often shines through.

  1. The most recent book you just couldn’t finish?

I have had real trouble with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. It was so, so slow, and the characters annoyed me so much. I pushed through but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  1. A book you’re currently reading?

Two actually. Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment and B. Catling’s The Cloven. Which is the final part of his stunning Vorrh trilogy.

  1. The last book you recommended to someone?

Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char. A crazy, crazy story about some kind of pantheon of gods on the American countryside. Sounds similar to American Gods, but much greater and weirder.

  1. Oldest book you’ve read by publication date?

That would be the Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 4000 years ago. I didn’t read it in the original cuneiform though.

  1. Newest book you’ve read by publication date?

Peter Watts’ The Freeze-Frame Revolution, published in June 2018.

  1. Favorite author?

Oh, very difficult question. Some of my favorites: China Mieville, Jeff Vandermeer, Jack Vance, Frank Herbert and Iain M. Banks.

  1. Buying books or borrowing books?

Buying books. Most of all because I like checking out new books in stores.

  1. A book that you dislike that everyone else seems to love?

The Name of the Wind. I have no interest in reading another angsty book about magic university. The story meandered in all directions and ultimately went nowhere.

  1. Bookmarks or Dog-Ears?

Bookmarks. I should get a personalized one.

Ilium

  1. A book you can always reread?

The Lord of the Rings.

  1. Can you read while hearing music?

Only very soft ambient chillout music.

  1. One or multiple POVs?

One. Preferably in first person.

  1. Do you read a book in one sitting or over multiple days?

Haha, I don’t think I would be able to read a book in a single sitting. I need about a week. Can’t read more than 100 pages on a single day before my attention wavers.

  1. A book you’ve read because of the cover?

Dan Simmons’ Ilium.

Oh now I should picks others, right?

Bormgans, imyril, Granny Weatherwax, Sarah, Bookstooge,

 

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Frank Herbert – Children of Dune (1976) Review

Children of Dune

Previous in this series:

Dune, the first novel of the series and a glorious achievement on its own, made the transcendence of Paul Atreides seem like a rather straightforward affair. He had the genes, the training, the spice and could see the future, and so won an empire. Yet, every subsequent novel introduces more and more complications to this story. Dune Messiah saw Paul walking in the shadow of his own visions, and choosing to disappear from the engine of violence and oppression that his empire had become.

In Children of Dune, we circle back to Paul’s two twin children and his sister Alia, and the Lady Jessica who returns to Arrakis. “The Abomination”, Alia was always called, because she carries the memories of her ancestors. But why are the Bene Gesserit so fearful of that?  Not all of those ancestors were nice people; in fact, she carries the blood of the Harkonnens, and so do Paul’s twin children and Jessica herself. And all of them see their ancestors’ memories. But Jessica has retreated back to the teachings of the Bene Gesserit and forms an immediate threat to Alia upon her return.

While Alia and Jessica stare each other down, the twin children, Leto II and Ghanima, are hatching their own plan, their Golden Path, based on Leto’s prophetic dreams. They are in a way resurrections of those who came before: Paul and the Duke Leto, Chani and Jessica herself. They are past people within a husk of their own personality. They can continue Paul’s efforts to destroy Muad’Dib as a religious symbol and replace it with something better (or just different) than an empire run by abominations.

Children of Dune is a very complex epic, rich in scope and storytelling. It takes a while, a hundred pages or more, for the story to crystallize out of the heavy soup of political intrigue and religious speculation. With the theme of reincarnation comes the theme of history repeating itself: Paul’s journey into the desert, and his second journey in Dune Messiah, is repeated with his children. After the depressing tone of Dune Messiah, Children of Dune is the upward spiral, the spring of a new age coming. In light of this story, Dune Messiah feels therefore like a preamble, a bridging novel between Dune and this one.

A greater theme now emerges that encompasses all three novels: that of human civilization and human religion existing in – and being an extension of – geography and nature. In the chapter notes Herbert keeps stressing that ecological systems are shaped by the constrains of harsh geography and are constantly renewed by evolution, and that human societies and religion behave the same way and especially that societal stasis leads to twisted, sickly societies. Hence, when we saw Paul Atreides as a tragic emperor of an oppressive empire in Dune Messiah, that was a bitter pill for many readers, but it paved the way for a cycle of creative destruction and renewal with Leto II, Paul’s child and successor. Religion, then, focusing on the holy emperors, solidifies and gives meaning to the events surrounding these societal upheavals.

Herbert once again does an amazing job with characterization and dialogue. It is the chief way in which he shapes his story. He has an idea, a vision for the continuation of the story of Dune that he is chasing after, and the Atreides twins are the subjects of his attention. He portrays them as some unique reincarnations of the generations that came before them and poor Stilgar and Lady Jessica are completely perplexed – hardly able mentally to understand and interact with them. All their conversations are completely fascinating; dense with meaning and emotion.

So, this novel shows that the series does not have to rely only on the first novel Dune and that it can be expanded into an even greater vision. But, as a series, it starts to get a bit shaky. Herbert keeps adding new ideas about the Spice and about prescience so that I’m wondering if the first novels still make sense in light of these new ideas. The plot is also rather complex to the point that I frequently got confused about the motivations of Jessica from chapter to chapter. Towards the end, events move so quickly that it might’ve been better to add another 50 pages to the novel.

Nevertheless, Herbert’s ideas and writing talent continue to impress. The series gains complexity and depth to measure itself with all great works of the imagination. With Children of Dune, the saga is now truly a “body of work” instead of merely a novel with sequels that milk out its popularity. I’ve been told that that particular sin will be committed later.

9/10

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Peter Watts – The Freeze-Frame Revolution (2018) Review

the freeze frame revolution

So, the setup. The space ship Eriophora (named after an orb-weaving spider) travels through the galaxy building wormholes to connect solar systems in some sort of galactic highway. This trip takes millions of years. The ship has an AI with the intelligence of a chimp and mostly builds the wormhole gateways by itself, but every few thousand years it wakes up a rotating crew of humans for maintenance.  Deep into their journey, the human race back on Earth has probably evolved into something new or disappeared, and the crew of lone humans are on a mission that probably doesn’t make much sense anymore.

In what is becoming a theme for Watts, The Freeze-Frame Revolution features an isolated group of humans in a hostile environment. He first toyed with this concept in Starfish (1999) in which a group of psychiatric patients formed the crew of a deep ocean power station. In Blindsight (2006), a group of almost post-humans encountered unfriendly aliens in deep space. Now, humans start a fight against their own ship’s faulty AI, a fight stretched out over millions of years in which they might be the only original humans left in the universe.

I would never recommend this to someone unfamiliar with science fiction. I believe reading SF trains you to have a dialogue of understanding between reader and text, to make inferences about the future, guided by hints in the writing. In the case of Watts, the density of inferring is among the highest of all SF authors. That tends to make his writing confusing, but he can convey very complex settings and ideas with as few words as possible and at a high pace. This creates a kind of feeling of rush, of being at the bleeding edge of futuristic thinking, which many SF junkies love. It doesn’t make his writing beautiful, but Watts at least manages to make it clean and sharp.

Therefore, it is best to read this slowly, because even though this is a novella, the density of ideas is enough to fill a fat novel. (And, by the way, what we call a novella nowadays in page count would be a novel in the 50s.) There are some earlier short stories set in the same universe, but are not necessary to understand this novella.

This is hardly the first story about humans rebelling against a dictatorial AI; in fact, it is a bit of a cliche. The story still feels fresh, though, because of the unique, fascinating setting and the personal relationships. Sunday, our main character, is one of the last people to accept their dire straits. She had an understanding, a friendship even, with Chimp the AI. Only when she is about to blow the cover of the conspirators does she learn about their secret codes. The disillusionment is a bitter pill to swallow. Throughout the story we keep wondering whether Sunday is actually on the side of the conspirators, and half of the time he doesn’t know it herself.

Ultimately, the story didn’t blow me away, but many elements worked very well. The Eriophora is a deliciously complicated prison to escape from. What Watts brilliantly realized and utilized is that for a journey that takes millions of years, the ship has to have immense control over every process and an immense redundancy built into every system. This makes the resistance very exciting and communication is hard when stretched out over thousands of years.

It is also not a simple good versus evil story of the poor humans fighting a mad computer. The AI is programmed by mission control, so the fight is against their design, and the human tendencies to project consciousness on a computer voice tends to work against our heroes. Our brains assume intent and consciousness with only a few hints – we see gods and ghosts everywhere – and when dealing with AI the problem is not that it is hard to make a believable conscious computer but that our own brains are so easily fooled in assuming consciousness.

8/10

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Josiah Bancroft – Arm of the Sphinx (2015) Review

Arm of the Sphinx

Also in this series:

Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series has so far really been the story of Thomas Senlin. He was a sympathetic, interestingly layered person in Senlin Ascends (2013) and the sequel does an outstanding job in continuing his development and deepening his character.

A just and morally upright person by nature, Senlin was forced by circumstances to assume the life of a pirate. Not only that, but to rob fellow tourists, the same kind of tourist that he once was, the way he arrived at the Tower of Babel. Senlin tries to maintain a semblance of gentility and fairness, but feels terribly conflicted about his actions. It is the sad story of a cruel world corrupting an honest man. We still care for him because his ultimate goal is still to find his lost wife, Marya.

I wasn’t happy with the way his lost wife Marya was depicted in Senlin Ascends. She had no real character but was depicted (through Senlin’s rose-colored memories) as an outgoing manic-pixie-dream-girl, as opposed to the stiff and awkward Senlin. Not only is this a tired old trope in fiction, but it never strikes me as totally realistic in the way partners end up together and as simply a male fantasy.

What’s very interesting in Arm of the Sphinx is that Senlin now sees his wife as a drugs-infused hallucination, and in his hallucinations she represents Senlin’s self-critical voice, always bringing him down, voicing his suspicions about others, belittling his ideas. What Bancroft might want to say with this is that Senlin hates himself for being a pirate, but I’d like to think that this phantom represents a so far unmentioned dimension in their relationship, one that we haven’t been told about in the first novel. Senlin struggles to maintain a positive image of his memories of Marya. Maybe Senlin doesn’t feel worthy of his wife, or maybe she did criticize him in direct or indirect ways. However, I could be looking to deeply into this. I hope I am right, though.

In Senlin Ascends, Thomas collected a couple of figures around himself and you could see that novel as the gathering of his fellowship. His ship crew – Edith, Adam, Voleta and Iren – are now all main characters in Arm of the Sphinx. They become dear to us as we really see them working together and build friendships. Bancroft writes very clear, easily differentiated characters who are all sympathetic, slightly flawed and struggling with their own challenges in life. Compared to the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey with bland James Holden and his crew, then Bancroft’s ship and crew are a truly superior effort of characterization.

The story moves slowly, though, and is slightly baffling. The first novel was baffling too in a weird and wonderful kind of way and got its momentum through mystery, but halfway through this one things get stranger in a way that put me off a bit. Strangeness is thrown into the story out of principle, and the world of the Tower of Babel is edging towards a more childish Alice in Wonderland instead of a believable world. Bancroft also tries his hand at action and multiple POVs, and while his writing style is very charming and wonderful, he has a way of deflating any tension with an overload of words.

Among the randomness and indulging quirkiness, Bancroft never loses sight of the characters and their relationships. Therefore, despite the lack of tension, the novel has a strong emotional backbone, and Senlin and his crew undergo many changes, both harrowing and uplifting. All in all, this series remains a very emotional read and Arm of the Sphinx is a strong continuation of Senlin Ascends.

8.5/10

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Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) Review

Inside Llewyn Davis

7.5/10

Inside Llewyn Davis shows us a young man (Oscar Isaac) who’s trying to break out as a successful musician, but all we see is him failing at that goal. He had a small measure of success with his erstwhile partner Mike who is gone now, and other than that he has no money. Receives no royalties. Has no winter coat. And his ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) hates his guts. The Coen Brothers make of this, as always, something both sad and comical. Llewyn Davis even has trouble taking care of someone else’s cat.

After half an hour of this, he ends up at his sister’s house, where she asks him: “do you still have your marine papers? In case, you know…”In case I don’t make it?” Llewyn finishes. “But then I would do nothing. Then I would just… exist”. “Oh,” his sister answers, “Is that what we do outside of show business?”

The problem is, Davis is so focused on his own problems, on his insistence to make it as an artist, that he neglects the people around him and their concerns, and his own life. He takes himself too seriously. He lives on couches, tells little white lies to everyone, keeps holding up the fantasy that he is a great success, but looks down on pop songs that he has to participate in to keep himself afloat. He’s a bit of an asshole, really.

And then, halfway through the film, a whole new act is set in motion, comprising a road trip and a lot of random events both comedic and farcical. And all it does is underscoring what a passive, inward-turned man Llewyn Davis is. He just undergoes life. What he is afraid to find outside of the world of show business, “simply existing”, is exactly what he is already doing right now. He’s stuck in some sort of limbo world where he fights to be successful to prevent himself from getting a meaningless life, but that is what he already has all along.

Oscar Isaac shows himself to be an immensely talented actor, having perfected that stare of inner conflict and numbness. He does all his playing and singing himself, as do all the actors in the movie, which is very impressive. Some Coen Brothers regulars like john Goodman show up to give a funny appearance, but it is mostly a character study that also cemented Isaac’s presence in Hollywood.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a musician biography like Walk the Line (2005), but where that movie was rather serious about its main character and wanted to show a sad story, this Coen Brothers film takes Davis far from seriously. They made a black comedy, and that’s alright because Davis is not a very sympathetic character. He constantly undermines his own efforts. So, yeah, becoming successful as an artist is really hard and the film shows that perfectly, and no wonder that Llewyn is tired of it all, but he carries his own downcast disposition with him. The movie is filmed with washed-out colors, edging against pure back and white, and I think this represents Llewyn’s own outlook.

Inside Llewyn Davis makes for a nice addition to the Coen oeuvre and feels similar to A Serious Man (2009), but in some ways it is quite different. A Serious Man is about bad things happening to someone who doesn’t deserve it, while this one is about a man causing his own problems. And where A Serious Man ended in a depressing anticlimax, this one actually hints at things taking a turn for the better.

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