Oct 26 2016

Arena by Holly Jennings

I requested this book from NetGalley because the premise sounded hella intriguing: in 2054, the Virtual Gaming League hosts VR gladiatorial combat tournaments, with participants feeling all the pain of their avatars, despite the injuries and deaths staying virtual. The first female team captain in the history of the combats, Kali Ling, challenges the structure that hides deep dark, secrets.

Except they’re not really secrets. And they’re not really that interesting.

So here’s the deal, you get that Holly Jennings knows and loves her video games. And she tackles the culture of celebrity and addiction and the manipulation of the young and impressionable by cold-eyed corporations for profit — all meaty stuff. And her near-future setting offers an interesting sci-fi slant.

But oh my God, so little of it makes sense.

Even if one accepts the premise of all these gamers accepting real pain for virtual injuries and deaths (for what reason? This masochism is never explained,) the sheer lack of professionalism in any of it makes zero sense given how much corporate money is purportedly on the line. I mean, I prepped more for amateur CCG matches than these kids do for pro video games. The format in these tournaments is essentially capture the flag, and when 40% of the way into the book, Kali has a brainwave and starts thinking of studying the teams they’re facing… for real? This was not your strategy since Day One?! I went into this assuming that the reason Team Defiance, Kali’s team, got slaughtered so brutally by InvictUS in the opening pages was because they had a spy in their ranks, which would have been an interesting plot point. But no, the real reason is because InvictUS was professional and prepared. If these were amateur games, then I would totally buy Defiance’s absurd lack of foresight, but we’re repeatedly told these are pro tournaments and these kids have the experience of years.

Another thing I side-eyed: the lack of coaching staff. I get that it’s a new-ish sport, but given that these guys have dedicated trainers and simulation programmers, I’m supposed to believe they don’t have anyone to outline tactics and strategies?! No way does a corporate-sponsored team not have anything like the coaching prevalent in other pro sports, especially if we’re supposed to believe that the VGL is one of the biggest sports in America. And don’t get me started on the absurd dismissal of pro athletes as being incapable of adapting to these games the way “real” gamers would. Tons of “real” athletes are hardcore into video games, too.

None of the competitive aspects of the narrative make a lick of sense to anyone with any experience of organized sports or tournament game play, or to anyone who understands business. No way would corporate sponsors exhort their athletes to party and make the pages of the tabloids instead of eating right and getting enough sleep. Performance enhancers = believable, party drugs = stfu. I totally believe the mandated outings for publicity (I was a professional stage actress, I know the drill,) but corporate gets really, really angry when partying gets in the way of show time, or in this case, game time. Completely unbelievable.

I also had a hard time believing that Team Defiance was all 20 and 21 year-olds. They acted like 16 year-olds, especially Kali. And don’t get me started on her awful romance with Rooke. He’s your standard hot, alpha male jerk bag, but with a religious twist! See, he thinks it’s okay to press discussion of a person’s religion when specifically asked by that person not to do so. And not only does he magically manage to put her in touch with her religion despite her reluctance, her religion then gives her a competitive edge, which totally made me want to barf. I don’t mind when fiction incorporates religion into the narrative (I’m actually in the middle of a Louise Penny jag for work, with books that explore religion in a deft and respectful manner,) but I do mind when the main character is dragged to salvation in a triumphalist fashion, no matter what faith tradition it’s sourced from. This kind of writing is smug and, worse, boring. Also, I’m convinced that Rooke is a not-so-secret Asian fetishist. The entire discussion of racism in the book was excruciating, especially to me as an Asian person.

Gosh, the bigger ideas in the book have so much potential, but none of the details made sense. I’m not sure how old Ms Jennings is, but this read like it was written by a teenager with little experience of the complexities of adulthood. I requested this from Netgalley in hopes of being allowed early access to the sequel, but I’m definitely not requesting that now. I’m hoping Ms Jennings channels her talents into areas she has more experience with, as the classic video game scenes and the discussions of celebrity culture and survivor’s guilt were all compelling, but the rest of it was awful. Someone let me know if she writes something good in future. She’s definitely got potential, but Arena was not a worthwhile display of her talents.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/10/26/arena-by-holly-jennings/

Oct 18 2016

The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

I didn’t find The Dark Forest as compelling as its predecessor, The Three-Body Problem. I think a lot of it has to do with how I disagreed with Liu Cixin as to the behavior of future humanity, particularly in terms of the outlawing of Escapism, as well as the way in which the victors of the Battle Of Darkness were labeled as being inhuman and how that was attributed to their loss of a home planet. I also felt that the narrative dragged quite a bit, particularly after Luo Ji was forced to apply himself as Wallfacer and right up till he was awoken from hibernation. I also didn’t feel that the science was as gripping as in T3BP, but found that forgivable given what a tough act T3BP would be to follow in that regard.

There was a lot that I did love, however. The entire scene around the explanation of why this book is called The Dark Forest was brilliant and brutal, and I was shocked at the (much earlier) discovery of who Hines’ Wallbreaker was (even as I still don’t understand why Hines did what he did. I just don’t get how that would have saved humanity. What was the point of it?) And I was so. fucking. mad at what happened to Zhang Beihai. That badass deserves all the marbles — kudos to Mr Liu for making me care about an utter bastard. I did also greatly enjoy how Mr Liu dragged me to the brink of utter despair at the fate of humanity only to… well, you should read this book. It’s not as easy or breathtaking as book 1 in the series but it’s still worthwhile. Plus, there’s Da Shi being as awesome as he was in T3BP, and I’d read about his exploits any time.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/10/18/the-dark-forest-by-liu-cixin/

Oct 11 2016

A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way puns. Several somethings, actually, in Roger Zelazny’s seasonal romp, A Night in the Lonesome October. Those things are not to be confused with the Things in the Mirror, the Thing in the Circle, the Thing in the Wardrobe, the Thing in the Steamer Trunk, or the Thing in the Attic; all of those are kept in place by faithful watchdog and narrator Snuff. He serves his master, Jack, even as they skulk about foggy London streets, evading both the regular police and the Great Detective. (He’s the one in the deerstalker hat, holding a dramatic pipe and observing very closely.)

Their tasks in London mostly done, Snuff and Jack relocate to the countryside, for this is a year when the full moon falls on Halloween and a Game for very high stakes is about to begin. Possible players include the Count, a Russian monk, a witch, a druid, and more, all with their animal familiars. Some will act together when the stars are right to open a gate and bring the Elder Gods back into the world; others will band together to try to slam the gate shut. Until the last night, though, no one is sure who is on which side. They spy, steal, thrust and feint, trying to gain advantage before the big night comes.

Zelazny relates it all with aplomb, never giving too much away too soon, and never taking the end of the world too terribly seriously.

Made the circuits. The Thing in the Circle changed shapes, finally making itself look like a lady dog of attractive person and very friendly disposition. But I was not fooled into breaking the Circle. It didn’t have the smell part down yet.
“Nice try,” I told it.
“You’ll get yours, mutt,” it said.
I walked past the various mirrors. The Things locked in them gibbered and writhed. I showed them my teeth and they writhed away.
The Thing in the Steamer Trunk pounded on the sides and hissed and sputtered when it became aware of my sniffing about. I snarled. It hissed again. I growled. It shut up. (p. 5)

Snuff makes friends with the witch’s cat, although he suspects they are working for the other side. They discuss what a sneaking rat, Bubo, might have seen at Snuff and Jack’s residence.

“But I heard him come in, and I know just where he was. All he got to see was the Things in the Mirror.” [Snuff is speaking]
“Things in the Mirror?” [asks the cat, Graymalk]
“Yes. Don’t you have any?”
“Afraid not. What do they do?”
“Come on. I’ll show you.”
“You sure it’s all right?”
Later, she placed a paw against its reflection as she stared.
“You’re right,” she said. “They—slither.”
“Change colors, too, when they get excited.” (pp. 49–50)

There are twists and turns, and moons to howl at. Players attack, traps are laid, plans made. Soon all is ready for the Game’s final moves.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/10/11/a-night-in-the-lonesome-october-by-roger-zelazny/

Oct 05 2016

The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth


At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the guns fell silent, ending more than four years of terrible war in Europe. First as Armistice Day and later as Remembrance Day, European (and Commonwealth) countries even now commemorate the end of the First World War nearly a century after the event. Except the armistice in Western Europe is at best half the story. As Robert Gerwarth details in The Vanquished, war, civil war, and revolution continued in Central and Eastern Europe for years after fighting in the west had ceased. His subtitle is Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917–1923, and even that does not encompass the full extent of the fighting and suffering. Gerwarth makes a good case for linking the First and Second Balkan Wars (1912–13) to the First World War. From that perspective, the Balkans saw fighting from 1912 through 1919, and dislocation even later as population exchanges after the end of the Greek-Turkish War forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Drawing on original sources across the whole of Central and Eastern Europe (including Anatolia and the Caucasus), Gerwarth argues that the continuation of the First World War should be examined across the whole region, and not in national isolation. Europe’s land empires collapsed, leaving behind them revolutions and new states, many with competing claims to the same lands and peoples.

The revolutions that occurred between 1917 and 1923 could be socio-political in nature, pursuing a redistribution of power, land, and wealth, as was the case in Russia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Germany; or they could be ‘national’ revolutions, as was the case in the shatter-zones of the defeated Habsburg, Romanov, Hohenzollern and Ottoman empires, where new and re-emerging states, inspired by the ideas of national self-determination, sought to establish themselves. The simultaneous occurrence and frequent overlap of these two currents of revolution was one of the peculiarities of the years between 1917 and 1923. (p. 10)

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/10/05/the-vanquished-by-robert-gerwarth/

Oct 04 2016

Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

The cover gives it away, I thought. And so does the text on the back cover! Readers are being set up for a murder mystery, but whodunit, or rather whatdunit, is clear from the very beginning, if not before. I was all set to be cross at having the mystery solved before it had even properly started.


With Terry Pratchett in charge, I should have known better than to think things would be simple. Yes, a golem committed the murder that opens Feet of Clay. But which golem? There are far more of them in the city of Ankh-Morpork than one would have thought. And what about this other thing? The Patrician, apparently being poisoned? And this other thing, too? And this other, other thing that seems unrelated but probably is related after all?

Pratchett deftly weaves together several threads in this novel of a Night Watch that has moved ever closer to respectability since it was first introduced in Guards! Guards! as a collection of three or four lost souls, mostly drunk, and careful to keep away from crime, lest the other side take them seriously enough to cause real harm. The Watch has grown, and now incorporates most of the species who make their home in Ankh-Morpork: dwarves, trolls, and the occasional undead in addition to more familiar figures of humanity, no matter how odd. They are even beginning to engage in detective work, though they are not entirely sure how it should be done.

It also seems that someone powerful, or perhaps powerful someones, thinks that Ankh-Morpork should have a king. Samuel Vimes, commander of the Night Watch and descendant of the city’s most famous regicide, has firm views on that topic.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/10/04/feet-of-clay-by-terry-pratchett/

Oct 01 2016

The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey

This is another one of those books where I saw that a movie was coming out, and the trailer looked good enough that I felt I ought to read the book before I was inadvertently spoiled as to what happens. And then I was puzzled to discover that M. R. Carey is the pseudonym of celebrated comics writer, Mike Carey. Is the pseudonym an attempt to ensure that the novel is read by people who would otherwise dismiss it as coming from the pen of a “mere comics” writer? I’d hope not, especially since this book is so firmly within the speculative fiction genre that you’d think the target audience wouldn’t offer the same disdain to comics as “serious” readers would to them.

Anyhoo, as to the contents of the book itself. It really shouldn’t be a spoiler that this book is about zombies. And not to ghettoize zombie fiction, but there are really only so many ways one can tell a zombie story. Mr Carey does a pretty good job of it here, and I figured out the ending even earlier than Dr Caldwell did (though not necessarily what Melanie chose to do with the wall at the end.) I did think Mr Carey might have explored Miss Justineau’s feelings at the end in more depth, as she’s the closest to a reader stand-in we have at that point, but my feelings regarding Miss Justineau aren’t quite as effusive as they could be given the incredibly stupid thing she does around the halfway mark. I get that she’s concerned for Melanie, but come on. In that sense, maybe the lack of internal exploration does make sense, since Miss Justineau’s survival instinct is clearly subservient to her maternal instinct.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the implications of what happens next. I suppose there’s a certain element of traitorousness in my satisfaction, but Melanie is a capable sort and this fictional world is in good hands, more or less. I’d be interested to read Mr Carey’s exploration of what happens next, tho I imagine it’s meant to be an exercise in speculation for each reader. I did also enjoy Sgt Parks’ equation of the teaching program with a war crime. Is it weird that I kept picturing him as played by Idris Elba?

I’m not sure if, after reading this, I’d go to see the movie, honestly. Besides the fact that I’d spend the whole movie thinking “But… Idris Elba…” instead of enjoying what I’m sure is a perfectly competent if not better performance from Paddy Considine, I don’t enjoy watching gore. But it’s prolly the kind of thing you’ll enjoy if you want to watch a zombie film based on an intelligent novel (even if the characters occasionally do extraordinarily stupid things.) I would be rather curious as to how they filmed Melanie’s first exposure to the world outside Hotel Echo, as well as her walk through the wall, but not enough to sit through the rest of it, I think.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/10/01/the-girl-with-all-the-gifts-by-m-r-carey/

Sep 27 2016

League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

League of Dragons brings the Temeraire series to a fitting conclusion. The story picks up right where Blood of Tyrants left off: with Napoleon retreating to the west through the Russian winter. Novik captures the terrible pity of that march, the unrelenting cold of the borderlands, and the folly of men who tried to carry off so much treasure that they skimped on the clothing that survival required. In this volume, Novik finally begins to play around with European history, having air transport of French troops speed the retreat somewhat, and alleviate the deadliness of the river crossings that killed so many soldiers in our timeline. Allied commanders are also anxious to capture Napoleon because they believe that if he escapes, his dragons will transport much of the French army back to areas where they can be supplied and readied for a fresh spring offensive.


As with Blood of Tyrants, I found the section of League of Dragons set in Russia the strongest part of the book. The cold is palpable, the hardships of the men and dragons give meaning to the action, and the supporting cast is full of strong personalities. Again there are echoes of War and Peace, and other Russian literature. All of that adds up to show that Novik can write more than just a cracking good adventure when that is what she wants to do. The amnesia-driven realignment of Laurence’s personality even gets put to dramatic use: he compels a duel with a Russian nobleman. Aviators, in Temeraire’s world, are forbidden duels of honor because in the event of a loss their dragon might also be lost to the Corps. In early 19th century society, they are, for good and for ill, outside the realm of honor that still means so much among Europe’s rulers. Laurence, as a naval officer, was firmly within that realm, and he calls a Russian nobleman out by returning an unforgivable insult before anyone thinks to impress upon him what a bad idea that would be.

The duel is one of the best scenes in the book. The details, the things left unsaid, the competing agendas of the protagonists and seconds, with several different nationalities involved, make for gripping drama. The aftermath is nearly as good, with Temeraire wondering where Laurence has been gone so long, and the increasingly uneasy crew trying to conceal what their captain has been up to from a dragon who knows very well why duelling is forbidden among aviators.

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Sep 21 2016

Blood of Tyrants by Naomi Novik

The premise of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels is simple: Patrick O’Brian with dragons instead of ships. What’s not to like? The first three or four books are pretty much a lark. The history is alternate – dragons! – but not too alternate, because otherwise there wouldn’t be any Royal Aerial Corps, nor any wicked Napoleon to fight. It doesn’t pay to think about the premise too hard. The notion that the presence of dragons in human history would lead to precisely the same configuration of events that allowed a young Corsican to be Emperor of France and would-be conqueror of Europe collapses as soon as it is plainly stated, so I will take it for granted and run with it. Which is precisely what Novik does, with panache.


The dragons in Novik’s world are sentient, and some are large enough to carry a crew of dozens of humans into aerial combat. The British, from whose point of view she tells the first few novels, regard dragons as beasts whose abilities to fight and talk make them useful but also dangerous. They are treated poorly, kept away from most human settlements, and strictly regimented by the Aerial Corps. The Corps itself is the most disreputable of Britain’s armed forces, the more so because dragons sometimes bond with women, accepting no one else as their captain.

In the first book, circumstances align to forge an unbreakable bond between a hatchling, soon to name himself Temeraire, and Capt. William Laurence, a Royal Navy officer of noble birth and high social standing. That volume, and the ones that follow mix exploration — Laurence is learning the strange customs of the aviators at the same time the readers are — and adventure. Part of the fun is watching how Novik arranges events so that dragons’ involvement in major battles of the Napoleonic wars changes the main line of history not a whit, something of an anti-butterfly effect. It’s a neat trick, when deftly done, and Novik is reasonably deft. Temeraire and Laurence are also a fun pair to spend time with; they’re not quite Aubrey and Maturin, but that is an awfully high bar to clear. It’s also fun to see their stock in the service rise, as Laurence becomes less of a stiff-upper-lip Navy man and more of a freethinking aviator, while Temeraire’s abilities grow far past expectations.

Precisely those developments, however, lead the series into more treacherous waters. Temeraire is too powerful for the balance of forces in Europe to stay the same, even after a similarly powerful dragon turns up as an ally of Napoleon. It’s as if Patrick O’Brian’s hero had discovered he was captain of a dreadnought in the middle of the age of sail. The stories are no longer yarns of adventure, but Novik is not yet ready to change European history. Her solution is to send her protagonists around the world (the Napoleonic wars had a global scope), but that brings in another difficulty: history outside of Europe is much more alternate. Africa, for instance, has a very different political setup than was known in our timeline. In South America, the Spanish never conquered the Inca, and a possible alliance between Napoleon and the Inca Empress drives the plot of one of the later books. These differences prompt more thinking about the premise of the series, which can’t really stand up to the scrutiny.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/09/21/blood-of-tyrants-by-naomi-novik/

Sep 20 2016

When All the World Was Young by Ferrol Sams

When All the World Was Young wraps up Ferrol Sams’ semi-autobiographical bildungsroman trilogy that began in Run With the Horsemen and continued in The Whisper of the River. It follows Porter Osborne, Jr., from his entrance into the medical school at Emory University six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor through his service in the US Army until he heads home in early 1945.

The first book told of a childhood both privileged and circumscribed, with Porter growing up as the son of a cotton planter in rural, early 20th century Georgia. It was a world still close to the soil, ruled by the rhythms of the seasons and by the near-feudal social relations of the Jim Crow South. Porter’s name was seldom used; within the closed cosmos of the county, everyone knew who he was. The second book carried him through his college years, a time of learning and exploring, marked by professors, girls, and pranks. Names play a role there, too, as he learns to juggle the identities marked by his full name, his childhood moniker (Sambo), and nicknames bestowed on him by friends. His world is bigger, but still protected by his social standing and his status as a college student.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/09/20/when-all-the-world-was-young-by-ferrol-sams/

Sep 18 2016

The Return Of Sir Percival: Guinevere’s Prayer by S. Alexander O’Keefe

I’m not sure how I feel about this book. On the one hand, it’s an entertaining tale of Dark Ages Britain, with some really cool Roman/Byzantine/Middle Eastern history and politics thrown in. On the other, it’s a re-imagining of Arthurian lore which plays super fast and loose with established canon, and while it’s good reading, I spent way too much time being irritated that S Alexander O’Keefe conveniently ignored whatever didn’t fit in with the story he wanted to tell. While that’s his prerogative as an author, it also feels lazy as hell: at that rate, why not just build your own mythos instead of piggybacking off this one? Which is also one of my problems with the genre of historical fantasy, as those of you who’ve read my extended rants against some of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels will remember enduring.

Anyway, if you want an entertaining tale of knights and queens a la Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (and I choose that comparison for quite definite, not unflattering reasons,) then this is the book for you. But if you’re anything of an Arthurian purist, you might find this book less fun than annoying.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/09/18/the-return-of-sir-percival-guineveres-prayer-by-s-alexander-okeefe/

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