Read the rest of this review at Casino City:
Ed Thorp's autobiography proves he's 'A Man for All Markets'
The story takes place on a viciously volatile planet, prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and other seismic cataclysms to a point that surviving through them defines all human culture. The big continent all the humans live on is sarcastically named the Stillness; no one lives on islands, because if it's small enough to be considered an island it's also small enough to disappear tomorrow under a tsunami. Every couple hundred years the planet undergoes a Fifth Season, defined as any sort of environmental catastrophe resulting in six months or more of winter. Usually these see civilization go to pieces to some degree or another. There are people with magical abilities to work with seismic energies; they are called orogenes, and they are feared and loathed, carefully trained to guard civilization from the Earth's ravages, but distrusted and tightly controlled.
There are three storylines in this book, which take place in three different times, and the most recent one -- which is related in the second person -- happens at the beginning of one of these cataclysms. The protagonists are a young female "grit" (an orogene still in training) called Damaya; a twentysomething trained orogene named Syenite; and a middle-aged orogene named Essun, who is the protagonist of the second-person sections where the Season has started. I was able to guess how these characters were related just enough before it was revealed to feel smart, but not far enough in advance to feel like Jemisin was treating the reader like they're dumb.
This might be as close a thing to the perfect book as I've read in quite a while, from a whole bunch of different angles. The worldbuilding is fantastic -- utterly unlike anything I've ever read, but based in enough real stuff to make it easy to vividly imagine. The societies in it are old-fashioned -- rustic, even -- and modern at the same time, with distinctive language that sounds naturally evolved and is easy to pick up on quickly. The three-threaded way the story is structured is brilliant, especially once you do find out how they all come together. The language is rich and alive and beautiful and makes me want to roll around in it except that it also has sudden stabby bits and you should never roll around in anything that comes out of N. K. Jemisin's imagination, figuratively or otherwise, because it will probably eat your face off. It's scary, but also makes me remember how much I enjoyed collecting shiny rocks as a kid and that Earth science is really interesting. The characters are mostly POC, at least half of them women, and a range of sexualities are represented, including a trans character. The ending, which is obviously a setup into the next book, is one of the most brutal verbal cliffhangers in the history of brutal cliffhangers -- like, ending a 450-page novel with a question could be cheap, but in this case it's really, really not.
Jemisin is clever with little details, too. An example: The very hateful, very obscene slur for orogenes is rogga. You can see the -rog- taken from orogene as its root, but the dropped vowel makes it start off sounding like rock, which is both plebian and on-topic. The double g in the middle parallels that in one of the most hateful, most obscene slurs in American English, subtly -- possibly subconsciously -- driving home just how unacceptable the word is: It sounds, instantly, blunt and harsh and taboo, even though it's a completely made-up word that I've never heard before in my life. When reading the book, I occasionally read sentences out loud to myself, because sometimes I do that in books with really good sentences, but whenever I reached that word, I couldn't say it out loud; I'd absorbed the taboo already.
In short, we are not worthy of N. K. Jemisin.
I'm kind of annoyed I can't just dive right into the sequel since I have other book clubs to read stuff for, but maybe I'll blow them off.
While much of what Friend reports on in the article is a little weird on its face—there are some, uh, colorful characters involved in this line of work—what I found to be the most disturbing aspect of the 10-page longread was what wasn't discussed: The inequalities in health care access and health care outcomes in America.
The article opens at a longevity symposium held in some dude's house, and there are three types of people in attendance: Scientists, movie stars, and venture capitalists. The scientists are obviously there because those are the people who do the science, and this is a scientific topic. The movie stars... I could probably write a whole post about Hollywood culture and why these people want to be young and lovely forever, but I'll spare you that rant for now.
The venture capitalists are where it gets weird.
According to how capitalism works, it shouldn't be weird, because longevity advancement is an interesting research/technology problem, and it is the job of venture capitalists to provide capital for interesting ventures. So if you just think of the venture capitalists as sources of funding for the project, it's cool that they're there: It indicates that the project might get funded, and improving longevity is probably a better use of capital than developing a $400 machine that squeezes bags of juice or reinventing the bus.
This, however, is a simplistic view of venture capitalists. It ignores who they are as people: mainly, really, really rich ones.
Here is a fun fact about rich people that does not appear in Friend's article but had also been making the news that week: Rich people in the U.S. already live an average of 15 years longer than poor people. The research, published in the most recent edition of The Lancet, concluded that this was due to our inefficient, expensive for-profit health care system, and the researchers suggested that we adopt a single-payer system like a real country.
If venture-capital-funded researchers develop a way to increase longevity or induce immortality, it's likely to be a pretty expensive medical treatment, because currently all medical treatment is expensive but new stuff is the most expensive. It would possibly not even be covered by insurance, because insurance companies never cover anything if they can find a way out of it, which means it could end up being available only to people who are already wealthy enough to pay for it out of pocket.
So then the gap between the richest 1% and everyone else would expand to a lot more than 15 years, with billionaires living forever and everyone else being subjected to normal human frailty and dying of stupid things like humans have always done. The extra lifespan would allow people wealthy enough to buy eternal life even more time to work on consolidating their fortunes and other forms of power, leading to a society ruled by a small cadre of immortal oligarchs with decades or centuries of experience in squeezing every last resource from an oppressed underclass of normal humans.
This is the premise for a bunch of shitty vampire apocalypse stories.
Bill Maris, founder of Google Ventures, is interviewed in the article and gives us the closest thing to a recognition of access and distribution issues that we get, which is this quote: "This is not about Silicon Valley billionaires living forever off the blood of young people. It's about a 'Star Trek' future where no one dies of preventable diseases, where life is fair."
Neither Maris nor Friend further discuss how to get to a Star Trek future where no one dies of preventable diseases. Instead, the article goes into a discussion of the state of the field of parabiosis, an area of research in which Silicon Valley billionaires attempt to retard aging by injecting themselves with the blood of young people.
One of the most well-known wannabe vampire oligarchs is libertarian douchebro Peter Thiel, who got rich writing code for moving money around and now thinks he's the smartest dude ever. Thiel is apparently worried that one lifetime won't be enough time to cause sufficient damage to democracy, the free press, and society in general.
Peter Thiel, basically
This brings us to my other big issue with venture capitalists: Not only do they already siphon enough years off the lifespans of the poor, but they are frequently either greedy arrogant humans, just plain fuckin' weird, or some combination thereof.
This is actually discussed at great length in the article, making it a fascinating character study as well as an interesting scientific piece. Right at the beginning, when the venture capitalists are introduced, they're not introduced as being there to consider funding: The first line we read about them is "The venture capitalists were keeping slim to maintain their imposing vitality," because venture capitalists see themselves as Randian Captains of Industry and Masters of the Universe and all that insufferable nonsense instead of as humans who have a lot of money. So apparently they feel a need to look like the Ubermenschen they think they are. (You'd think being rich as Croesus would liberate you from giving a shit what people think about your looks, but this is apparently not the case in
It's pretty clear that most of the folks profiled here, Maris' protest to the contrary notwithstanding, are interested in this eternal life thing because they personally want to live forever. Sergey Brin of Google is apparently determined to prove wrong a book about anti-aging research that says he's going to die (although in fairness, it must be weird to have a book single you out personally for something so universal). Other fun quotes from the piece include, from an unnamed scientist, "This is as self-serving as the Medici building a Renaissance chapel in Italy, but with a little extra Silicon Valley narcissism thrown in. It’s based on the frustration of many successful rich people that life is too short: ‘We have all this money, but we only get to live a normal life span,’" and from one Dr. Rando (who is named, it's just that his name is Rando), "I’ve had a lot of meetings with young billionaires in Silicon Valley, and they all, to varying degrees, want to know when the secrets are coming out, both so they can get in on the next big thing and so they can personally take advantage of them."
Two other main themes keep popping up in the characterization of these vampire capitalist types. One is that they are dooftastic, mediocre nerdboys. Many of them are probably pretty smart in whatever type of smart let them become rich, but since I am smart in ways that are the opposite of things that let you become rich—such as, for example, literary criticism of spec fic—the one thing I get to be really smug about when reading this is just how simplistic their sci-fi inspirations are. The vague hand-waving about a Star Trek future has already been mentioned, and I'd probably want to leave it up to the many lefties who are better versed in Star Trek specifically than I am to explain how we're never going to get to a Trek-like economy, let alone develop fully automated luxury gay space communism, if we leave stuff up to Peter Thiel. (Another article in this issue does discuss fully automated luxury diagnostics; it doesn't talk much about health insurance either, but it doesn't seem like such a big omission there.) However, there's also a lady who has commissioned a "mindclone" robot of her wife, despite the fact that we don't have the technology to do that yet; a guy who had a 3-D scan of his brain done and a model of it made, despite the fact that we're nowhere near close to bridging the gap in understanding between the physical structure of the brain and our actual consciousness so who knows if that scan will even be good when we do understand what we're looking for; and a dude who goes on for a bit about turning people into Marvel superheroes. Maris also gives a quote about genies that serves mostly to illustrate that he's never read a single goddamn story about genies, ever, in his goddamn life:
“Imagine you found a lamp on the beach, and a genie came out and granted you a wish,” Maris said. “If you were clever, your first wish would be for unlimited wishes.” As Doerr nodded, Maris continued, “Let’s say you’re going to live, at most, another thirty years.” Doerr had just turned sixty. “If each day is a wish, that’s only between one and ten thousand wishes. I don’t know about you, but I want to add more—I want to add wishes faster than they’re taken away.”
The other thing that keeps popping up, which could theoretically be considered a subset of them being dooftastic mediocre nerds, is an utter and all-encompassing inability to grasp the concept of something not being a computer. They just cannot do it. It's most plainly stated in this anecdote right at the beginning of the article:
Joon Yun, a doctor who runs a health-care hedge fund, announced that he and his wife had given the first two million dollars toward funding the challenge. “I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it’s encoded,” he said. “If something is encoded, you can crack the code.” To growing applause, he went on, “If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!”
And from there it just keeps going. Friend reports that most of the "immortalists" come from tech backgrounds, and that most of them view aging as "entropy demolishing a machine." The CEO of one startup profiled chirpily offers that "Biotech is something a lot of V.C.s don't understand" as part of her explanation for why she's optimistic about raising her next round of venture financing.
Some of the people interviewed here do seem willing to put their copious amounts of money where their mouths are, in a literal sense, by popping a lot of experimental pills, as well as injecting themselves with stuff. I'm not really sure if I should be giving them credit for committing to their beliefs or just appalled at the self-experimentation.
I do know that I am not comfortable with any of these folks becoming my new vampire overlords.
One of the big issues with wealth inequality is the way it snowballs. Wealth is both a reward for playing the game right and a tool that helps you play the game better and acquire more wealth. The rich, despite not needing as much government help because have their own money, already collect $130,000 more in lifetime government benefits than poor people due to the gap in lifespan. If immortality becomes available, but inequalities in health care access remain, it's clear that only the rich will get to be immortal, and it'll only trickle down to the rest of us as much as they think is convenient to allow. I suspect that the resource-hoarding advantage the already-wealthy early adopters will have will ensure that that's not very far.
Fortunately, Spider has money, so he can afford to write for free for a bit for the rogue newsfeed The Hole. If he can convince them that doing so won’t get them all killed, which might be tough, since the Smiler’s administration is hellbent on killing Spider and anyone he associates with. But that’s OK for Spider, since he’s equally hellbent on taking down the Smiler.
In the meantime, however, he spends a lot of time interviewing people on the street, first interviewing a bunch of child prostitutes and the foster homes that they sort-of live in, then interviewing all the mentally ill people that the system has slowly been kicking out of actual psychiatric institutions. It’s sad and disturbing to read, especially when you remember the defunding of mental health institutions that took place under Reagan out here in the real world. In-universe, it becomes extra disturbing when you figure out that the mad people filling up the streets were the only witnesses to some of the Callahan administration’s crimes.
This volume’s not nearly as funny as some of the others, but it’s just as exciting.
The first part of the book opens with excerpts from a number of different Spider-themed TV shows, including a cartoon called Magical Truthsaying Bastard Spidey and a terrible porno. Spider sinks into a self-hating depression, and the filthy assistants go shopping for clothes and guns with his credit card for a while, which is a less pointless plotline than you’d think. Eventually, Spider gets real pissed off and decides to do a journalism, beating up and interviewing a bunch of folks with dirty secrets on Callahan’s administration, including one of the guys that beat the genetically modified kid to death in the last volume. The results are explosive, although Spider and his filthy assistants are prepared and manage to stay one step ahead of his firing/eviction/freezing of assets. And that’s the plot, but as usual, the fun bits are in the details.
Callahan’s administration makes the current administration not seem so bad, if only because the current administration did not have its campaign manager murdered for public sympathy (nor has it grown its vice president in a vat, although I would actually believe that of Mike Pence if it were currently scientifically feasible). For this volume, at least, we’ve got a good old murder mystery kind of thing going on for most of it, with fewer Distressingly Relevant parallels than most of the other volumes. Which is a nice break.
After reading the first four volumes in December, I borrowed the next batch but hadn’t gotten the time to actually read them, which is pretty much the story of my life now. Which means Transmetropolitan, Vol. 5: Lonely City is the first volume I’ve read since the current Administration actually began. This is also the first volume in the series after Callahan’s administration begins in the City.
The beginning of this volume is a series of random vignettes about the City and about Spider and his life at the moment and his various psychological issues. He tells short little stories about people from his past and profiles some of the unfortunates living in the City. There is a short storyline where they make a local senator’s life hell. Then eventually the plot starts, and it’s a sadly relevant one, futuristic gene-reading technology aside.
In the middle of the night, a kid with a recessive gene from some kind of genetically modified church that had been freaking people out a few generations ago was kicked to death by four assailants. The police at first do not release the tapes of the attack or arrest anybody, which Spider finds suspicious, because he knows there must be tapes due to the overly surveilled nature of public space in the City. Spider uses his platform to shame the police into making arrests, and protests gather outside the police building as the dead guy’s community realizes the police had tried to bury a hate crime. But it gets worse, and by the end of the book, there’s a pile of dead bodies and Spider’s the only person who knows what happened to them—but when he tries to publish, his column is censored by Callahan’s government for security reasons. In short: Police brutality, corruption, and coverups. Sound relevant?
This being Transmet instead of the real world, however, this version of police brutality and impunity comes colored with lots of darkly hilarious absurdity, over-the-top vulgarity, and creative future-shock tech. Spider grandstands about journalism and shoots people with his bowel disruptor, as is typical for him, and his two filthy assistants do their best to keep up and keep him out of trouble. The cat still has two faces. The illustrations of the City are full of cleverly awful jokes and bizarre foodstuffs, including Irish children, because of course.
I could probably have read this more slowly and spent more time looking at the art, because the art is very, very busy and detailed. But that’s quite hard for me to do, for some reason. The art is about as fast-paced as the story, so I end up ripping through each volume quite quickly.
On to the next one, to see what perfidy the Smiler has in store for our antiheroes.
Popovic was one of the founding members of Otpor!, the Serbian student resistance movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in the late ‘90s, and since then has helped run CANVAS, the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies, which trains pro-democracy activists across the world. So it’s clear that he’s got a track record of success in the subject.
The book is short and clearly written to be as accessible and entertaining as possible, each chapter dedicated to a specific principle or strategy—stuff like “make oppression backfire” and “have a vision of tomorrow”—and illustrating it with a lot of anecdotes from either Otpor! or other resistance movements that Popovic has worked with. Case studies range from the Israeli cottage cheese boycott of 2011 to the overthrow of the dictator Gayoom in the Maldives in 2008. A number of these stories are surprisingly delightful—the Israeli cottage cheese boycott was just the most bonkers thing; I actually laughed out loud reading about it—and in several cases this is by design. Popovic is a great proponent of what he calls “laughtivism,” or what I would more likely call “TROLLING FOR REVOLUTION” or possibly “meme warfare.”
(Aside: I spent much of this book wondering what Popovic thinks of the current Nazi-punching meme; obviously literally punching Nazis is an act of violence, but setting the gif of Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched to music and spreading it around the Internet seems otherwise the exact sort of goofy, low-barrier-to-entry rejection of a self-serious bigot that he’s advocating. Anyone can make and post Nazi-punching memes. And Popovic explicitly says that his commitment to nonviolence is more about tactical efficacy than about morals, and he gives Nazis as the quintessential example of “Obviously these guys had to be fought.” But there’s also long histories of both violent and non-violent resistance to Nazis and fascists that I think really need to be gone over in actual detail by anyone seriously thinking about how to best fight Nazis, and this book isn’t really about Nazis.)
At times, Popovic’s “I was just a regular college asshole” everyman schtick gets a little annoying, probably because I had bad experiences with Regular College Assholes, but I tried to sit with and examine that feeling until I got used to it, because inevitably any sort of mass movement is going to consist largely of people who are at least sort of assholes because people are like that. Avoiding everyone who’s even a little bit of a dick is a great way to end up hiding in a hole on some obscure corner of the Internet shitposting about those splitters at the People’s Front of Judea instead of getting anything done. Getting people to not be assholes to the rest of the movement in the course of doing the work is important so resentments don’t build, but that’s a more specific issue.
Probably the biggest blind spot in the book, though, is the conflation of specific political goals with fundamental cultural change. The second is a lot harder and Popovic doesn’t really talk about it, but sometimes it leads him into stepping into bits of American history that he doesn’t seem to know more than a surface-level amount about. The worst offenses are when he’s talking about the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s, which he paints as being a huge success. It was successful if you consider it in terms of being a movement about legislative goals—ending the Jim Crow laws, passing the Voting Rights Act—and in that light, it was indeed a major victory. But the civil rights movement didn’t challenge a single unpopular figure with outsize power, like a dictator; ultimately, it was challenging a deeply rooted foundation of American culture, one with largely unexamined majority support. Any by that light, it only made very incremental progress. Popovic also ignores the role of Malcolm X and the more militant black power movement in framing Martin Luther King as a palatable, respectable alternative; nor does he discuss how the movement eventually devolved into riots in the early ‘70s. The message that can be fairly easily gleaned from what is and is not covered in this book is that cultural sea change is extremely hard; smaller, concrete policy goals are important to make sure you can claim yourself any wins at all. Most people don’t super enjoy living under murderous dictators in quite the same way that racists love living in a racist society, so the challenges are different.
The occasional foray into respectability politics aside, Popovic actually does do a pretty good job of presenting the case that the way a movement is presented and how it “sells” itself are pretty important. Symbols and storytelling are powerful tools; while some people certainly overestimate the importance of appearances over actually doing stuff, it’s also very true that people are emotional creatures, and they’ll respond to stuff better if it offers community, if it’s fun and exciting, if it feels cool and rebellious rather than strict and ideological, if it has a symbol and a narrative and all that good stuff. Otpor! also employed elements of what we’d now call gamification, such as giving out t-shirts for getting arrested, color-coded so that everyone could see what level of getting-arrested experience you’d earned.
The catalog of failed or partially failed resistance movements—Occupy Wall Street is a frequent case study—coalesces around one thesis: Learning from past movements doesn’t mean just looking at what they did and doing the same thing. It also means interrogating your own current situation and getting creative in figuring out the best way how to apply the principles of nonviolent resistance and when and in what way it will be effective to employ any given individual tactic. Occupying a space, Popovic stresses, is a tactic; it’s not a strategy or an identity. Activists need to be creative, perceptive, and flexible; striving to simply copy past successful movements makes you too predictable.
Overall, I think it’s a charming, accessible little book that explains its basic principles well and would be an especially good thing to give to the sorts of people who ask dumb shit like “Why don’t they just protest peacefully?” as if a) graffiti is violent or something or b) there’s anything “just” about organizing large masses of people, because it will explain bog-standard concepts like “Maintaining peaceful control over a large crowd of upset people is in fact something you have to actively do, and it requires discipline and organizing, and it’s possible to fail at it” in much nicer and more persuasive ways than, say, shouting at them that they’re stupid and liberals are fucking useless, which is what I want to do every time I hear stuff like that. (If you don’t want to buy them a whole book, I also recommend this excellent Foreign Policy piece about political violence.)
I’ve probably got more to say, but book club is tomorrow and I should probably save at least some of it for that? And write up questions, because that’s my responsibility which I forgot about until right this second.
Anyway. Dictators hate it when you make fun of them, so go forth and troll for democracy.
Anyway. The book.
I loved it.
Inasmuch as it has a narrative thread, it is Kory Stamper's memoirs, starting with her job interview and walking us through her training and the major lexicographical challenges and triumphs of her career, for the purpose of illustrating what making dictionaries requires and what kind of weirdos make them. Within this basic framework we take many detours -- into Kory's pre-lexicographical life, into the history of the Merriam-Webster dictionary and of dictionaries in general, into the histories and uses of a lot of weird words, and many other odd and interesting places.
This book contains many footnotes, many of which are in the form of definitions, which is quite cute, but they also have jokes and funny asides in them, like Terry Pratchett footnotes. (My favorite bit was the one I found an error in and then I felt smart.)
Stamper's general style is one I tentatively dub Internet Witty, a form of speech that is marked not necessarily by fancily formal sentences, but by a wide range of registers, references, tidbits, factoids, wordplay, and other things that word nerds have fun with. It shows off a wide-ranging rather than a narrowly specialized education and worldview on the part of the writer. It's the playfully nerdy style that was elevated to an art form on The Toast, basically, highbrow and lowbrow and middlebrow at the same time. It gives us phrases like memento moron: "remember you, too, will fuck up." It marks Stamper as one of the tribe of people who know a lot of obscure liberal arts things but who do so because obscure liberal arts things are hilarious -- i.e., my people. In short, it is very, very far from the dry, objective, personality-less style mandated by the dictionary itself. Squeezing all the color out of a dictionary definition is quite a process, and one which Stamper walks us through with self-deprecating and sometimes juvenile good humor.
If you love words, you'll love this book. If you're a bit of a snob about words, it will challenge a lot of your assumptions -- one of my favorite bits of the book is Kory's journey to becoming an "irregardless" apologist -- but if you like rolling around in them and banging them together and pulling them apart to see what's inside, then boy is this book for you.
The book started off inauspiciously with me catching two minor terminology errors in the first chapter, which depicts what is clearly a game of no-limit Hold'em, one in which our main character makes a very bad fold. But at least the book knows it's a bad fold, so it's got that going for it. Fortunately, things get better after that, as we learn more about the city of Dresediel Lex and the complex system of creepy magic that keeps it supplied with water.
Dresediel Lex, part Las Vegas and part Tenochtitlan, is a desert city that is trying to be very modern and run on Craft and ignore its prior history of human sacrifice, a history that only ended a few decades earlier. Our main character, Caleb, is the Dresediel Lex equivalent of an annoying finance bro, doing risk management and analysis for Red King Consolidated--the magical Concern that runs the city's water supply--and playing a lot of poker. He has daddy issues -- quite understandably, since his dad is one of the last priests of the old religion (the one that feeds its gods hearts) from before the God Wars, and he keeps running around trying to overthrow the Craftsmen and return to the old ways, and basically being a creepy terrorist zealot.
In classic annoying white bro protagonist fashion, Caleb picks up an Obligatory Love Interest by seeing a woman out and about and immediately becoming completely obsessed forever. In this case, the woman is a cliff runner named Mal, who turns out to be a Craftswoman for the firm that Red King is currently in the middle of a rather complicated merger with.
Meanwhile, back at Caleb's job, one of the reservoirs is suddenly full of creepy demons, and while that initial attack is sorted out easily enough, it really wasn't supposed to happen and it turns out to just be the first in a long line of complicated god- and demon-related acts of sabotage that somebody somewhere is committing against Red King Consolidated and Dresediel Lex's water supplies. The resulting complex web of law, religion, magic, explosions, and creepy lobstery water demons is fantasically difficult to sum up but it all makes sense in the book, I promise.
Despite my general underwhelmedness with both Caleb and Mal as people -- seriously, they're perfect for each other, because they're both irritating and I would not like to hang out with either one of them in real life -- I thoroughly enjoyed the book. They were still entertaining enough characters, and they certainly went through enough interesting shit. Plus a lot of the secondary characters were great, especially the Red King, a coffee-drinking skeleton who usually appears in a red bathrobe, because he lives in the creepy pyramid that is the Concern's headquarters. Caleb's dad is also actually quite hilarious, despite being a giant scary religious zealot.
Anyway, it's a book about unsustainable resource extraction, but it's also about giant fiery serpents and water gods and human sacrifice and all that good stuff, so it's quite a head trip in a good way.
The first book, therefore, is Three Parts Dead, which follows the adventures of young Craftswoman Tara Abernathy as she is hired on probation at the necromantic law firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao under the mentorship of terrifyingly efficient senior Craftwoman Elayne Kevarian. Tara graduated from Craft school under dubious circumstances that involved her trying to kill one of her professors and getting thrown out of the school, literally, which is pretty dangerous because the school floats up in the sky, as all the best magic schools do.
Tara's first assignment is in the city of Alt Coulomb, which runs off the power of its god, Kos Everburning. Unfortunately, Kos has died under mysterious circumstances. Tara, with the help of a hilarious sheltered young priest (or Novice Technician, as he is called) named Abelard and his junkie policewoman friend Cat, has to help Elayne figure out who killed Kos and why and how and who benefits and all that stuff and generally unravel the massive conspiracy hidden in the heart of the Church.
While the story is plenty funny, it's not as much of a comedy as one might think from some of its elements -- demon lawyers! a vampire pirate captain! divine contract law! -- and the world of magical techno-corporatocracy that Gladstone builds is convincing, at once both weird and distressingly familiar.
Tara is a great protagonist, driven and talented and badass and definitely in a bit over her head, and Abelard is a great dual lead, being an earnest bumbling weirdo in an arcane religious order who chain-smokes to show religious devotion and doesn't know what a newspaper is. They're a fantastic, fantastic team, especially since the book very sensibly eschews the unnecessary romantic subplot that I think a lot of authors would have found obligatory. Instead of romance we get, like, shape-shifting gargoyles and blood magic libraries and a nine-story demonic BDSM nightclub and stuff like that.
The philosophical underpinnings of the main conflict ends up having a lot to do with free will and consent and the dangers of clever, talented technolibertarian douchebags being allowed to exploit other people without adult supervision, so suffice it to say that the book is not all fluff and explosions, although like any good urban fantasy it certainly has quite a lot in the way of fluff and explosions, and even an instance of leather pants.
I think we're going to get a really good discussion out of it. I've already started reading the next book in the Sequence, so we'll see how many we get through by the time book club rolls around.