Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Faded Sun Trilogy (The Faded Sun #1-3), by C.J. Cherryh

audiobook cover To be honest, I've reached the beginning of the third book in The Faded Sun Omnibus and I've decided to stop.

It was 1978. Religious people living in the desert under strict rules and brandishing swords were still cool and not considered terrorists. C.J.Cherryh decides to write a story about a fierce warrior race that works in the employ of others to wage space war, driven by a very exact culture that emerged in the desert. They carry black veils that only let show their eyes and are very partial to rituals and hand to hand combat. No wonder humans kicked their asses, but even they are terribly anachronistic. They have waged 40 years of war with the humans, under the contract of the Regul, fat immobile and amoral beings that care only for their own tribe's well being.

Reminds you of Dune, the Freemen and the Harkonen? Well, this is where the similarity ends. Where Dune was deep, these three books are tediously drudging through all kinds of futile rituals and each character is painfully introspective, to the point that tough warriors bred for battle are recognizing and thinking about their feelings of fear all the time. Worse, nothing really seems to be happening. It takes a book for a ship to get to its destination.

And the book has aged poorly, even when in the whole thing there are maybe a page of technical descriptions, probably less. There is no mention on what makes the ships run, what types of weapons are used, how computers work, etc. A ship just "fires" and it is never even described in what way.

But the ultimate sin is how little sense it makes. I mean, this is the age of Star Wars, where... errr... people on starships wage battles with swords... OK, the author isn't the only one who screwed stories up, but the Mri are presented as this scourge of the battles, yet they don't know technology or can even read or write, they are appalled by mass warfare and prefer hand to hand combat (like real men!) and are strict in what they are allowed to do, know or even think. It's like giving space weaponry to the Flinstones. OK, you get the Jetsons, but how is that supposed to be terrifying or a match to the voracious human penchant for mass destruction? And there is more. After 40 years, we learn that people have never captured Mri alive, never studied them. The Mris themselves are accompanied by huge bear like semitelepathic animals that they never name or even know how they reproduce. Unlike Frank Herbert, who was obsessed with ecology, Cherryh feels no need to explain how a species of huge carnivores exists on harsh desert planets that are almost devoid of life and water or how three completely different species can share air and food, or how the animals and plants on a different planet are the same as from one that lay 120 planets away, or how language and culture stays the same for 80000 years. A lot of things just don't make sense, including the story's main premise, which is the fear that humans and Regul alike carry for the Mri.

Bottom line: if it were nice to read at least, I would have given it a shot, but after two books of people thinking in fear about what others are thinking of them, I gave it up. It was just tediously boring.

Now, Cherryh was at the beginning of her illustrious career and there are books written by her that I liked. I just hated this one.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

book cover The City in the Middle of the Night reminded me of Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis, only way lighter. The same female centric focus, the slight weirdness of descriptions and feelings that comes from a truly different perspective. Charlie Jane Anders describes a planet far away from Earth, a colony that devolved after humans reached the planet until it got to feudal levels of government and technology. The planet is tidally locked, so people live on the narrow edge that separates frigid night and scorching day. There are some aliens there as well. Pretty cool story and concept, so much so that I hated it when the book ended and it was NOT a trilogy or a saga or whatever. Hard to please me, right?

The writing style isn't on par with the richness of the concepts, though, and I was also thrown off often by gaps in the understanding of science, social norms and even sensory descriptions. Yet once I understood the author is a transgender woman with sensory integration disorder, it started to make sense. The main characters are all women. There are no real romantic or familial relationships between them, unless counting the fact that they are always feeling things strongly and lying together in beds without doing anything. The lack of sexuality in the novel is refreshing but going a long way in the other direction until it feels eerie. And they often react physically or mentally in such overblown ways that it's hard to empathize. Stuff like someone saying something and they suddenly go to a corner to heave, or having seen someone smile or being touched in a certain way just short circuits their brain. There are a lot of leftover threads in the book, things that get partially described and you just wait for them to be explained later on and they just don't. Also the mix of first person perspective for Sophie and third person for everybody else is strange and forces one of the characters as the main one, even if maybe a reader would relate better with somebody else.

So I had difficulty in rating this book. I would give an excellent rating to the world building and the concepts presented there, but an average on characterization (even if most of the book is about what characters do and think and feel). I would rate some descriptions of internal struggle and emotion as great, but others really lame, especially when it comes to characters who seem to be designed to be thrown away later on. The writing style is not bad, but not great either. It's a mixture of brilliance and average that is hard to reconcile into a single metric. I mean, I could describe the entire plot of the book in two paragraphs; the rest is just people bumbling around trying to make sense of the world and themselves. No character has a real back story, except a few defining moments that feel pulled out of a hat, and they are understandably confused all the time. Who are their parents? Everybody in the book is an orphan. Why so many descriptions of invented food if does nothing for the plot, yet no sex, only a rare and weird longing sort of platonic love? Why is everybody so casually violent, yet so disgusted with violence in their inner thoughts?

It seems to me that this is a book that only some will be able to connect to (the others will get delirious and murderous). I liked the ideas, I liked the characters, it's just that they are coming from nowhere and ultimately going nowhere.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World, by Jessica Snyder Sachs

book cover The book might put you off at the beginning, as it starts with a no bullshit nomenclature chapter. It basically says: "This is how I am going to call things in this book and if you don't like it, talk to people who actually care about semantics". The rest of the book continues with the same directness and I believe it is one of the works' best qualities.

Good Germs, Bad Germs starts like a few other books on the subject I've read recently, with a short history of how people have looked upon disease and its causes: Hippocrates' humors, the (all bad) germ theory, vaccines, antibiotics, the bad antibiotics and the good germs, modern understanding of immunity. And yet this is just the first half of the story. The rest is about new ideas, actual therapies and studies, real life cases and attempts to bring this new knowledge into the public domain.

I really liked the book. It's easy to read, easy to understand. Less of the story-like or anecdotal writing style of some other works and more to the point. I also liked that it doesn't take sides: one therapy has to go through wholly unreasonable FDA hoops to be allowed to even be tested in humans, the author points both positive and negative aspects of being prudent. Is it ridiculous that the lack of communication between American hospitals hides invisible epidemics that then get reported by Canada or Europe and end back into the States' headlines as foreign diseases? Jessica Snyder Sachs just reports on the facts, letting the reader draw their own conclusions.

Bottom line: I thought it would be just a repeat of the same information I've become familiar with lately, yet it was not only a different way of tackling the same subject, but also a lot more information about actual attempts to use it in real situations. I recommend it to anyone trying to understand how we stand in this coevolution with the microbes living inside and outside us.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Knights of the Borrowed Dark (Knights of the Borrowed Dark Trilogy #1), by Dave Rudden

book cover Knights of the Borrowed Dark is a typical fantasy story filled with tropes like: "the one", "son of..." (or "noble family" or "everybody is related to everybody"), "secret war (for no good reason)", "light versus dark", "evil must be fought with swords", "no one tells you anything, even if it makes no sense", "dark king" and so on. The main character is a Mary Sue, an orphan who doesn't know his parents and has lived his entire life in an orphanage, but somehow is a balanced, well read individual who favors rationality to emotion, yet has no problem using both. Add the trope of trilogy to this and you have a complete picture.

Now, does that mean I was not entertained? Nope. It was all fun and games and I've finished the book in a day, yet I can't but be disappointed in both the formulaic nature of the story and the fact that I liked it anyway. The bottom line is that Dave Rudden writes decently and has enough skill and humor to make the same story you've read or seen a dozen times already feel pleasant. So read it, if you like that kind of thing, but don't expect anything above ordinary.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Magic Is Dead, by Ian Frisch

book cover I liked the book, but not a lot. Ian Frisch is an investigative reporter who happened to enter a circle of disrupting young magicians who want to shake the industry and make it ...err.. fresh again. Really didn't intend that pun. However, if you expect revelations of how tricks are done or the deep exploration of the human soul, you won't get a lot of satisfaction from this book.

Full title Magic Is Dead: My Journey into the World's Most Secretive Society of Magicians, it feels more like a roadie story, where the young author gets sucked into a group of charismatic artists and ends up in their group. You can't use it as a barometer of the state of the magic industry, as the story is pretty one sided. The writing style isn't that great either, with some of the ideas repeated several times and none of the emotional bare stripping of the soul that I've come to love in autobiographies. There is no big drama or action of any kind - this is not Point Break or The Magician or anything. Moreover, the "secretive society" isn't all that secret, it is just a club of people hand picked for their innovative contribution to what many see as a stagnant industry and that many people know about. The title is pretty confusing as well, since it is not about magic being dead, alive or anything in between, but rather the pinhole perspective of the author while seduced by this group of very talented and interesting people.

As an introductory work in the world of magicians as a whole, it works pretty well. There is a lot of name dropping and some starter resources for wannabe magicians. It presents the mind set required to do magic in a way that satisfies not only you, but the customs of the magician community. But that's pretty much it. I can't recommend it, while I can't criticize it too much either. I would call it average.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon

book cover The Priory of the Orange Tree is a typical fantasy story, with realms, heroes, heroines, dragons, magic and the mandatory evil one. It is a large book, that others would have made a trilogy out of; considering it is a single story, I find it most honest that the author published it directly. Samantha Shannon writes really great for a 27 year old and considering she already has under her belt a seven book deal under which she already published four (The Bone Season series), she seems to be doing good. People even hailed her as the next J.K.Rowling, which I personally would think it feels annoying rather than flattering.

So what is the book about? There are several countries with different religions that all stem from the same event: the bounding of The Nameless One, a huge evil dragon with intents to conquer the world. Some think all dragons are evil, some think dragons are cool, some think only some dragons are evil and the others are gods, and so on. There are conflicting stories about who is the hero that defeated evil a millennium ago, too. And of course, evil is stirring once again and a new generation of heroes rises to the occasion. They are mostly female, although some males are prominent in the story. Also, at least three characters are gay and one may be asexual.

About the gay thing, I found it not annoying. Although major events of the plot depend on the love towards another person of the same sex, it wasn't forced towards the reader and it didn't feel like it was glue added to the story. But it was also funny, because in the whole book romance is either gay or really short, chaste, doomed or kind of second rank. I imagine this is how a gay person reads a straight romantic story, where homosexuality exists on a conceptual level at best.

The point is that the story is not difficult at all, except at the beginning when you have to get acquainted with too many characters in too many countries all at once. Then it just flows, sometimes a little bit too smoothly, towards the predictable end. I read it all in a weekend. The main characters are complex and competent, although the minor ones are kind of one dimensional. If anything, I was disappointed with the villains. They were cartoonish, almost. I mean, the most evil of them all was called The Nameless One, like some extra that has one line in a public bathroom in a movie: "the guy in the bathroom". He didn't even have a "same thing we do every thousand years, Pinkie!" moment. Lazy as hell, all the dirty deeds were done by his henchmen... errr henchfolk? And that ending...

Bottom line: nice story to read, above average clearly, but not something to be amazed by.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Girl Corrupted by the Internet is the Summoned Hero?!, by Eliezer Yudkowsky

book cover I've had a blast reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a humorous take on Harry Potter if he were educated in science and not just another emotional teen lucky enough to be "the one", so as I was reading A Girl Corrupted by the Internet is the Summoned Hero? I was really hoping it wasn't just a one off. And it wasn't! Although much shorter and not so rich with references, this novella from Eliezer Yudkowsky is just as funny as I hoped.

A self proclaimed translation of a Japanese manga that was never written, the story follows a girl that gets summoned into another realm as the virgin hero to save the world from evil. However, the reason she is still a virgin is habituation to Internet pornographic depravity and losing interest in any normal relationship. The world she arrives in is a world of prudes and the power of the magic there relies on one) being a virgin and two) asking prudish demons to do something awfully depraved so that they refuse.

I won't spoil it for you, but it's funny and short and I recommend it highly.