The Shadow Campaigns
Between Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels and Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series (and possibly also Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell), I seem to have developed quite a taste for so-called “flintlock fantasy.” Muskets and magic? Yes, please. So then Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series is right up my alley.
The first book, The Thousand Names, follows Winter Ihernglass and Marcus d’Ivoire in a sort of Sharpe’s Eagle-meets-epic fantasy military tale. Winter is a young woman who has masqueraded as a man in order to join the army as a ranker, only to find herself thrust into command when her inexperienced officer near gets her platoon killed. Marcus is the regiment’s captain, competent but no genius as a battlefield commander, and both he and Winter are sorely tested when their backwater assignment erupts in a native rebellion. A new commander, Janus bet Vhalnich, has been sent to take over and quell the uprising, and though he turns out to be unbeatable on the field, as Winter and Marcus follow Vhalnich, they are drawn into a world of dark magic and secret cabals.
The first and third books are largely war novels, with a heavy focus on infantry battles and tactics, while the second is more of a political thriller. Throughout, there’s a lot of interesting character work, particularly with Winter and her relationship with the men under her command. As you might guess, gender roles are explicitly at the foreground, with Winter proving a capable leader and Marcus being her old-fashioned, “women and children first” foil. The supporting cast is quite good as well, and the world-building is neither too heavy nor too thin.
The first three books in the series are already on shelves, with two more books due out in 2016 and 2017. I can’t wait.
Started: 7/10/15 | Finished: 7/25/15
By Naomi Novik
As regular readers may know, I’ve quite enjoyed Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels, and when I heard about her newest standalone novel it piqued my interest. And from the first few lines it held that interest:
Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.
Agnieszka is a strong-willed but almost preternaturally clumsy young woman from the village of Dvernik, which sits just outside the edge of a dark, enchanted Wood which constantly threatens to expand and swallow the village. The village is protected by a wizard known as the Dragon, who in return requires the village to send him, once every ten years, a seventeen-year-old girl who will move to his tower and be his servant. A decade later she is given a purse of silver and sent on her way, to be replaced by the next girl. Agnieska grows up knowing that she will be seventeen in the year of the Dragon, but also knowing that the Dragon will surely take her beautiful, graceful friend Kasia instead. Only that isn’t how it works out; when the Dragon does come, he chooses Agnieszka, and beyond being merely his servant, she becomes his apprentice.
The story fans out from there, moving from a light, fairly comic beginning to a harrowing climax, finally coming to a warm, lyrical close. All of these descriptions are things that can be applied to different types of fairy tale, from the modern, Disney-style take to the more traditional, darker, Old-World style, and Novik draws from all of those, blending them into a very satisfying story. In her author’s bio, Novik describes herself as a first-generation American raised on Polish fairy tales, and there’s a definite Eastern European flavor to this story, from the names and places to the general tone. It’s markedly different from the Napoleonic-era Britan-with-dragons she presented in Temeraire, but while both settings are enchanting, this one feels more personal.
It’s nice, too, to see a modern writer taking on the fairy tale genre but doing so in a way that explicitly challenges the problematic gender tropes we’re all so used to. There’s a clear parallel to Beauty and the Beast, for example, but without all of the weird Stockholm Syndrome that somehow everyone seems to find so romantic. It was quite refreshing in that respect.
I ended up staying up pretty late to finish this one in four days, and was happy to have done so. If you enjoy high fantasy and modern fairy tales, I’d say it’s well worth your time.
Started: 7/2/2015 | Finished: 7/6/2015
The Skull Throne
By Peter V. Brett
I’ve been following this series since a coworker dropped a copy of The Warded Man on my desk back in 2010, and I’ve enjoyed each installment since then. The Skull Throne picks up where the last one left off, with Arlen and Jardir having just faced off in single combat. Both men end up surviving their duel, and grudgingly come together to look for a way to infiltrate the Core, to find a way to finally end the demon threat. Meanwhile, the Krasian occupation of the greenlands continues, and Jardir’s sons seek to push further and capture Fort Lakton. There’s intrigue culminating in a coup attempt, a lot of battles as the Krasians clash with the greenlanders, and both fight against the corelings. Enough is shaken up in this book that I can honestly say I’m not sure how things are going to end.
One thing that’s interesting to me is that as long as I’ve been reading this series, I never really thought very much about the gender or racial portrayals in it, even though they’re not particularly difficult to notice. I did think about it this time, but I wasn’t really sure where to come down on either. The Krasians, for example, are pretty clearly patterned on Muslim Arabs, while the greenlanders are the typical Europeans that you see in most fantasy novels. The differences between the two cultures sets up a lot of the conflict in the series as a whole, but rather than casting the Krasians solely as the antagonists, or as monolithic, Brett seems to go out of his way to show a certain amount of diversity in the different Krasian characters, as well as giving complex backstories to the central Krasians, Jardir and Inevera, and making their motivations understandable, even while their methods are not excusable. Too, the greenland cultures aren’t shown in particularly good light, either; the entrenched class structures and sexism of feudal societies also form a backdrop for some of the central character tensions. I’d be tempted to say that Brett seems to deal with the cultural stuff fairly well in that regard, but I can’t help wondering if he’s trading too much in certain stereotypes in his portrayals.
Similarly, there seem to be a number of strong female characters, with a pretty diverse range of backgrounds and personalities. On the other hand, a lot of the agency that women in this world effect comes through their sexuality, or their skill at healing, or working behind the scenes. There is a lot of stuff that made me uncomfortable in terms of specific women being portrayed as desiring a certain type of subservience to their husbands, but then much of that also explicitly gets commented on by other characters. I really wasn’t sure what it all amounted to. These types of questions are something that come up a lot with genre fiction and particularly with fantasy, working as it does with a pseudo-historical milieu, and while Brett certainly doesn’t seem to be any worse than average for fantasy writers, that’s not a particuarly high bar, and I’m not really sure he does a lot better. But I’d love to hear from other people of color and from women to get their reactions.
All that said, I’m still planning to pick up the last book, which will likely be out some time in 2018. I’m not sure how it will all wrap up, but I look forward to finding out.
Started: 6/28/2015 | Finished: 7/1/2015
By Andy Weir
It’s been really interesting to me to see the different reactions to this book from the people I know who have read it. A few (mostly writers and professional critics) have found it fair but a bit workmanlike in its prose, others (mostly male engineers) have proclaimed it the best book they’ve read in years, while others (mostly women) have found it infuriatingly sexist. As for me, I pretty much get where everyone is coming from. The prose isn’t great but it’s adequate. The engineering aspects are very well-handled, and it works pretty well as a survival story. I wouldn’t call it “great” by any stretch, but I get why my male co-workers were so thrilled by it—any group of people who are used to being underrepresented in media are going to enjoy seeing themselves cast as heroes. And although I wasn’t personally moved to anger by the sexism in this story, I did find it irritating and definitely a drag on what could have been a fun, science-y, Castaway-in-space story. I will say, I was a little surprised at just how much in the minority I seem to be in my opinion; browsing through the responses on Goodreads, it seems like just about everybody loved it. I guess you’ll just have to make up your own mind about it.
Started: 6/19/2015 | Finished: 6/26/2015
By James S. A. Corey
Most of you will know that I’m horribly biased about these Expanse novels, having a personal connection to the authors as well as the roots of the story. So I’ll just come out and admit that I enjoyed the hell out of this book, even though I completely understand some of the criticisms I’ve heard of it. The series is, as I understand it, planned to span either 9 or 12 volumes, depending on sales and the whims of the publisher. As the fifth book, then, Nemesis Games is pretty squarely positioned as the second-act turning point of the series, the part where all hell breaks loose—the Empire Strikes Back moment, as it were. And, yeah, that’s pretty much what happens.
The Rocinante gang, freshly back from their trip to the colony world Ilus, feel a bit of down time and go their separate ways. Thus, for the first time, each crewmember becomes a point-of-view character, which was particularly gratifying for me when it came to the Amos chapters. And, of course, the moment they split up, everything hits the fan. As we’ve come to expect from this series, there are conspiracies and terrorism and plots, and a whole lot of high-stakes action. Much of this is left a bit unresolved, but these books tend to be written in pairs, with the odd-numbered books providing the setup and the even numbers paying things off, so it only makes sense.
The main criticism I’ve heard, one that I agree with, has to do with how the female characters are handled, what their story functions are. And, yeah, it’s not great. One supporting character seems to only exist to be rescued, and the additions to one of the main characters’ backstory is disappointing in centering (as so often is the case with female characters) on her feelings about motherhood. Several of my friends were quite angry about the way women were written in this book, and I can’t blame them. I haven’t talked with the authors about this complaint, but I know both of them are thoughtful and open-minded, so I’m hopeful that things will be better in this regard in future episodes. (Thus far, there has been a pretty diverse cast of women in this series, with a broad range of personalities and motivations, so I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume that this will be the case going forward.)
Even so, I’m completely on-board with this series, and, as I mentioned, I really liked this book. If you’ve been following along already, you’ve probably already read this one, and if you’re new to the series and are a fan of science fiction, I give it a high recommendation. Check it out.
Started: 6/12/2015 | Finished: 6/18/2015
The Southern Reach Trilogy
There’s a Lovecraft short story called “The Colour Out of Space” that describes a strange series of events following the impact of a meteorite in a stretch of rural Massachussetts farmland. It being a Lovecraft story, a whole bunch of eerie stuff happens and then pretty much everyone involved goes insane. But fundamentally it was a story about alienness. Lovecraft was specifically responding to the popular science fiction of his day, in which extraterrestrials were depicted more or less like humans with slightly different morphology, and with “The Colour Out of Space” he was trying to imagine an interaction with a truly incomprehensible “other.”
Jeff VanderMeer seemed to have the same concerns in mind when he was writing his Southern Reach trilogy, which pulls in the same exceptionally creepy tone that characterizes Lovecraft’s work, but in a modern style and without all the racism. In his series, VanderMeer tells us of a stretch of coastline in what appears to be a backwater part of Florida, in which some sort of “event” in the past has created a mysterious region known only as “Area X.” In the first novel we follow the 11th expedition into Area X, an expedition that sets out knowing that every previous group that has entered has come out insane, died of cancer, or not come out at all. And with each new chapter and new novel, things get more and more strange, and the mystery becomes deeper.
It’s not the kind of story for people who want happy endings, or even much of a sense of closure. But VanderMeer is a master of establishing atmosphere, and the books are very skillfully written. I’m still not sure, having had nearly two months to think it over, exactly what happened in these books, but the experience of reading them was breathtaking.
Started: 5/28/2015 | Finished: 6/11/2015
Regular visitors to the forums on this web site will probably have already heard of this series—indeed, that’s where I heard about them. The title character, Katherine Stephenson is the youngest of three sisters, growing up in Regency-era Britain. Opinionated and feisty, Kat is often in trouble with her prim, society-minded stepmother, all the more so when Kat discovers that she has inherited her late mother’s magical powers. In a sort of Jane Austen-meets-Harry Potter story, the series follows Kat as she explores her powers, becomes initiated into a secret magical society, and saves her family (repeatedly) from all sorts of nefarious sorcery.
Like Harry Potter, this series is aimed at a YA audience, and like the earlier Harry Potter novels, it’s quite a lot of fun. My only nitpick is the way in which literally every other character assumes that Kat is both helpless and either lying or wrong about what she says is going on. There’s some sense to this at the beginning of the series, but by the third book she’s repeatedly demonstrated both resourcefulness and general honesty, and her sisters’ (and parents’ and teachers’) insistence to the contrary seems a bit of a stretch. Still, I can recall feeling similarly dismissed as a tween, so perhaps it’s not too far off the mark. I’m definitely going to be keeping my copies of these books for when my own kids get older.
Started: 5/14/2015 | Finished: 5/27/2015
What Art Is
By Arthur Danto
A while back, a fellow photographer brought up Arthur Danto and his definition of art while we were discussing some work we’d both recently seen. It was an interesting conversation, enough that I decided to explore Danto’s writings on my own. As it turned out, though, I spent most of this book frustrated and irritated.
As you might guess from the title, the central point of the essays collected in this book is Danto’s definition of art. Art, he says, is “embodied meaning.” There’s a certain looseness of language to that definition which a self-proclaimed philosopher probably ought to have worked out better—after all, embodiment as a prerequisite excludes art forms that don’t rely on physical media. That’s a bit of a quibble, though. What really bothered me was that Danto seemed similarly willing to play fast and loose with both history (the development of both art and art criticism being more evolutional than he admits) and with epistemology. Danto explicitly waves aside epistemological questions, saying that he’s concerned with what art is, not how we know what art is, but many of his arguments rely on taking for granted his own ability to understand an artist’s intentions.
In the end, though, it’s probably more than it’s worth to get upset about such an esoteric discussion. If nothing else, reading this book got me to revisit and clarify some of my own thoughts on art.
Started: 5/9/2015 | Finished: 5/14/2015
So here we are, the last night of your first year. As I'm writing this, you are about eight feet away from me on your mom's lap. You've just finished a last little snack before bedtime, which is part of your normal routine. Unlike most nights, though, we're in a hotel room more than a thousand miles from home—your first trip to another country. It's funny for me to consider that with you, I'm going to be seeing a lot of firsts for the last time. But I'm glad that you're the one I'll see them with.
Before you were born, your mom and I thought we knew what we were doing as parents, and we thought we knew what to expect from you. But from your very first day, you have demanded to be reckoned with on your own terms. You are strong-willed and determined. You are a girl on the go. Today, for the first time, you decided to stand without holding onto anything for balance. I'm sure it's only a matter of weeks or even days before you take your first steps. None of your family is surprised about this; you have always had places to go, things you wanted to be doing, and you are not one to let anything stand in your way. It's a big world out there and often a tough one; I think your grit and drive will serve you well as you continue to grow and find your way.
You're sometimes a handful, and sometimes a sweetheart. You're goofy, like your brother and sister—you love to make people laugh. You're little for your age when it comes to height and weight, but like you might hear in stories about another adventurous soul, you're bigger on the inside.
Tomorrow is your birthday, and you are going to be surrounded by family celebrating your first year. For you, I think tomorrow is going to be no big deal, maybe just something you'll see pictures of when you get older. For me and your mom, though, it's a pretty big deal: you're one year old, and you're the one who's made our family complete.
I hope you have a great day, baby girl. I love you.
Soundtrack: "Train Tracks" by Marmoset. Used with permission.
Every year I write you a letter and make a video for you. In a lot of ways, what goes into these letters isn't much different from what I do every day: I think about you, what you're like, how you've grown, and how much I love you. Lately, too, I've been thinking a lot about what kind of man you will be when you're grown up, and what the world will be like when you get there. A lot happens out in the world, some of it good and some of it bad, and sometimes I worry about the problems you will face some day. But more and more I am comforted by the ways that you show me how good a person you are. You make me very proud to be your dad.
In just the past week, two different families have commented to me and your mom about how polite and mature you are. And it's true: sometimes life gets frustrating, but you are really good at talking things out, and you care a lot about doing the right thing. This year you became a big brother for the second time, and you are so good at taking care of your new baby sister. You play with her and you talk to her. You're just a great brother, to both of your sisters.
Another big step for you was earning your junior black belt, after two whole years persevering and learning in your karate class. I've gotten to come visit your class more often this year, and I love to see how good you are at focusing and improving your skills.
But most of all, I love that you're fun and funny. After we went and saw Inside Out, I've liked to say that you live on Goofball Island. In fact, just as I was writing this letter to you, you came and joked around with me about boogers, and also tried to tickle me. (Your mom doesn't like the booger jokes as much, but that's OK. This can be our thing.) I like that you're playful and enthusiastic, and I hope that never changes.
Tomorrow is your birthday, and I'm taking the whole day off work so I can spend it with you. It's going to be a great day, I know it. Happy birthday, pal.
Soundtrack: "Baby Is Unseen" by Beachcomber. Used with permission.