Saturday, September 17, 2022

Some Book Reviews

I recently got myself a Kindle, so I've been doing a fair bit more reading than previously. Here are some reviews and thoughts on books I've been reading over the past few months. This post is kind of a mess (sorry).

The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet, The Thousandfold Thought // Bakker

Some pretty fun deep-lore fantasy with both a more historical and psychological bent. Bakker's got a knack for naming things really well. His battles and politics are tense and engaging. He's very willing to have weird fantasy elements you just have to accept—for example, most (but not all) characters' names are Surname -> Personal Name, so Ikurei Conphas is colloquially addressed as Conphas. There is a strong important between Anagogic and Gnostic sorcerers (which is never fully clarified but is cool anyways). There's a sprawling etymological language tree in one of the appendices. Bakker's got lots of weird fun fantasy ideas, and they run deep throughout the book.

The books are also just very obviously written by a white man 20-something years ago. Sexual assault is commonplace. The books depict a fantasy version of the First Crusade, and we have essentially zero perspective on what it's like for the non-Crusaders (oh, except for one chapter, where a character's internal monologue narrates how being a slave suits her). One character casually mentions that no women have ever been taught to read. Of the three major women in the book, one is a sex worker, one is a concubine, and one is an incestuous mother-empress. Of the two explicitly queer characters, one exclusively uses sex as a tool and the other despises himself (and is despised by his family) for loving a man. While this doesn't make the books uncompelling and these issues are (mostly) grappled with in a genuine way by the characters, it does make it just... tiring. I get that """realism""" is important, but it also weighs the book down—and I say this as a pretty basic white dude.

There's also a character, essentially the would-be protagonist, who in classic fantasy novel fashion is just superhumanly good at everything. He's the best fighter, the best wizard, the best tactician, the best friend. He's also regularly described as being super white, super blond, and super masculine. While Bakker is clearly doing the Dune thing of questioning heroism and our elevation of leaders as heroes, it's also just kind of tiring and discomforting. 

On the whole, the books have some good parts but also lots of questionable decisions that don't feel entirely earned. I doubt I'll weird the sequal-quadrilogy. Three stars.

Dune*, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune // Herbert

This was my first reread of Dune, and I enjoyed it far more after having seen the movie and watched some lore videos and read some thorough analyses. There are so many details and intricacies I missed on my first time that I found very gratifying on the reread. Dune remains basically undefeated.

I loved Dune Messiah. I'm a strong proponent of the "what happens in the aftermath?" question of storytelling, and Messiah is all aftermath. What does Paul's gargantuan galactic empire look like? How do the Fremen change after accepting Paul as the prophet? How does a society change after the fulfillment of its own zealot prophecies? All fascinating questions, ones that Messiah is very interested in exploring. I also love the ending—I genuinely think Herbert could've ended the books as a duology and they would've been basically perfect.

Children of Dune is fine. It's pretty good. It's got the classic sequel problem of needing to alter characters in order for there to be a plot, but for the ways it does alter those characters, it works reasonably well. My biggest issue is that it basically doesn't have anything new to say. In Messiah I think that worked, because Messiah is mostly tragic and that hammers home the original message about the dangers of heroism and zealotry. But Children needs new problems to face, and so it has to warp certain characters and elements to get where it needs to go. It's fine.

On the whole, very good. I can see why Dune is so foundational to '60s and '70s geek culture, and how it inspired so many works I love now. I'll read the second trilogy soon. Dune and Messiah get five stars, Children gets three, maybe four.

The Five Books of Jesus* // Goldberg

Imagine the Gospels, but they're told like a fairytale or a children's fable or an ancient myth—that's the Five Books. If you've never the Gospels before I'm not entirely sure what it would read like, but for me (somebody who has read the Gospels many times, both willingly and unwillingly), the Five Books are a deeply, deeply refreshing take. The book is strange, playful, funny, terrifying, approachable, and meaningful. I'm reminded of that old line about John—the book is shallow enough for a child to splash in, but deep enough to drown an elephant.

I've reread the Five Books several times, and I don't think this will be the last. Five stars.

Anatomy: A Love Story // Schwartz

Extremely charming historical YA about a young noblewoman who wants to be a surgeon in 19th-century Scotland and the impoverished orphan boy who works as a resurrection man. I saw basically every plot point coming, but it was still a very enjoyable read. It's got the exact right blend of drama, humor, romance, historical tidbits, gothic spookiness, and just a touch of horror. 

I can't wait for the sequel. Five stars. 

Gideon the Ninth // Muir

The currently-very-popular space-fantasy romance(?) drama. Imagine, like an episode of Scooby Doo playing out in Warhammer 40k, but also everyone is gay. It's pretty good. 

I really like the level of worldbuilding Muir landed on: it's a fun blend of real-world science and history combined with a shot of bonkers 40k fanatic theology and real spooky space-magic. There are clear references to things you'll be familiar with, but also a lot of weird unique sci fi elements and magic. It's good. 

The tone is a little... jarring. Gideon's internal narration is extremely irreverant: on the one hand, this works really well to balance out some of the self-seriousness of space necromancer cults; on the other, the phrase "gangbanged to death by skeletons" takes something away from a novel that wants me to care about it. 

It's also got some structural issues. The entire intro felt very off to me; I wasn't sure at all what was happening until about 20% of the way in, where the plot finally appears. Likewise, the final battle and answer to the mystery felt like they came a little out of nowhere, ones reliant on lore nobody had bothered to explain. Maybe it's better on a reread?

Still, it's pretty fun, and does a good job balancing both the familiar and the unexpected. Four stars. 

(I fell off halfway through Harrow, we'll see if I get back to it at some point.)

Hero of Two Worlds // Duncan

A sprawling biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, specifically focusing on his involvement in various revolutions, primarily American and French. You may know Duncan from creating and hosting two historical podcasts, The History of Rome and Revolutions, both of which I love.

HOTW is great. Duncan's always been a master of injecting human emotion and narrative into the historical timeline without compromising the facts or complexities of history, and HOTW takes it to the next level. Because Duncan has one singular focus, Lafayette, it allows him to constantly frame the historical events occurring through the lens of Lafayette not only as a force of history but as a human. The book delves pretty deeply into the man's feelings, thoughts, convictions, and motivations. It's a portrait not just of what Lafayette did, but who Lafayette actually was. 

It's really good. Five stars.

House of Leaves // Danielewski

The beast. 

My roommate left the book sitting on our kitchen table, and on a lark I decided to start reading it right before I went to bed, around 2am. I then proceeded to spend the next six hours straight doing nothing but read House of Leaves, and scared the absolute shit out of myself multiple times throughout that night. 

It's pretty good! I see why everyone lost (and continues to lose, to some extent) their mind over it. The multiple layers of narrative, the very entertaining (sometimes-)pseudo-academia, the bizarre layout, the layers of meaning in the appendices. I am sure that the book still holds some secrets that I've missed, but puzzling out the details I did find was very rewarding. It's weird to talk about a book like an ARG, but that's sort of what it is.

That said, I'm not sure the book really needs to be as long as it is. There are definitely chapters that feel like they're spinning their proverbial wheels. Sure, it being 700-plus pages is impressive, but I'm not wholly convinced Danielewski couldn't have pulled it off in 500, or even 300. And while I do find the core Zampano - Navidson story quite compelling, especially the house itself, I found Johnny's sections oftentimes a bit of a drag—very '90s, very Infinite Jest.

Still, I liked it quite a bit. I'll definitely have it on the mind for some time. Four stars.

The Martian // Weir

I saw the Matt Damon movie in theaters, but hadn't read the book before. It's fun! It's one of the most OSR-feeling books I've ever read, I think, in that so much of the book is a fairly-procedural movement (dare I say crawl?) through lots of scientific logistics problems, and much of the drama comes from how Watney solves those problems. It's got food rationing, long-range communications, hostile environments, overland travel, complicated teammate dynamics, the works. 

The last third falls off a bit, I think, once Watney's main survival is established and he finally connects to NASA. Granted, that third is basically Oregon Trail: Mars, which is understandably a bit dry, but I wish Weir injected a little more juice into it. 

Still, it's pretty good—got lots of little tidbits the movie had to gloss over. Four stars.


Should I do more reviews? Not sure.

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