bloodygranuaile: (gashlycrumb clara)
The April 3 issue of The New Yorker was the "Health, Medicine & The Body" issue, and it features a number of really strong pieces of medtech-related reporting in varying degrees of not-for-the-squeamish. But for me, the most upsetting article in the whole issue was Tad Friend's excellently creepy "The God Pill: Silicon Valley's quest for eternal life," a look into the field of longevity/immortality research.

While much of what Friend reports on in the article is a little weird on its facethere are some, uh, colorful characters involved in this line of workwhat 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.

The Master vampire from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
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 Uncanny Silicon Valley.)

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 richsuch as, for example, literary criticism of spec ficthe 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.
bloodygranuaile: (wall wander)
For BSpec's book club I finally got around to reading the first book in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence, which I have been meaning to do for at least two years now. I have the last two books in the sequence signed, but the first one only in paperback, and am missing the second and third. To make it even more complicated, the books take place in a different order than they are published -- they are ordered by the number referenced in the title.

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.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Sometime around the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my constant rereading habits started to drop off. I’ve probably only read this one five times or so? Maybe ten at the outside. At any rate, it’s not one of the ones where I’ve got all the words engraved deep in my memories. But I did remember the most important bits.

This is another one that’s often derided as being a little bit not as masterful as the others, mainly because Harry is annoying as crap throughout it. Everyone in this book is fifteen and has a bad attitude, and the publishers apparently made Rowling squish a bunch of romance into it that you can tell she doesn’t care that much about.

On the other hand, though, Order of the Phoenix does a bang-up job exploring issues of how fascism establishes itself in public institutions. We see the use of denial, of a compromised press, of scapegoating, of the use of crisis as a pretext for tightening government control, of the wrecking of checks and balances of power, and of the difficulties of dealing with people who are mendaciously, stone-cold indifferent to truth.

Although Voldemort returned at the end of Goblet of Fire, he’s really not the main antagonist throughout most of this book. Instead, our main villain is petty, power-mad bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge. This is because the wizarding world has split into three factions: pro-Voldemort, anti-Voldemort, and then the Minstry’s official position, which is that it definitely would be anti-Voldemort if Voldemort were around, but it simply cannot accept that it is so, and its ire is focused predominantly on those who insist upon being all disruptive by saying he is. It is traditional in children’s literature to throw in a character or two to add a minor note of Moral Complexity to the good and evil binary by having someone who is more cowardly or maladaptive than malicious, such as Gollum from Lord of the Rings. In this book, it is that cowardly, head-in-the-sand faction that bears the full brunt of the author’s ire. The cowardly faction actually has two factions within it: the people who will turn out to be anti-Voldemort once they can’t avoid accepting that he’s back, and the people who will happily collaborate knowingly with the Death Eater’s regime once it moves into the open. But for the purpose of this book, they are one faction, and it is as yet unknown who will go which way when the truth comes out.

Dolores Umbridge, as everyone knows, is THE WOOORST. Voldemort may be magic Hitler but Umbridge is the sort of grasping petty abusive condescending bigot that we all personally recognize from somewhere because our society is set up to reward sociopathic assholes. Every time someone does the tiniest thing she dislikes she comes up with sweeping decrees banning it—up to and including banning teachers from speaking to their students about anything not “strictly related” to their subject—and generally makes the North Carolina legislature look like stalwart defenders of decentralized democracy. Fortunately for our heroes, she manages a couple of spectacular own goals that allow both students and faculty to resist her—mostly in quiet and troll-y ways, like Professor Flitwick deliberately refusing to take care of pranks his students pulled because “he didn’t know if he was authorized” and letting Fred and George’s swamp sit around for ages.

But of course, there’s also Dumbledore’s Army.

Though it’s only in play for a chunk of the book in the middle, Dumbledore’s Army is the beating heart of the story. It’s where Harry becomes not just a lone hero, but a leader—and, in keeping with the themes of the book, a teacher. It’s a group of young people coming together in an act of organized resistance, something that is very pertinent to young Americans at this particular point in time AHEM. It shows that loyalty isn’t about waiting for dear leader to save you—sometimes it means you have to fight to save the leaders you’re loyal to. Above all, it shows that fascists can be beaten—not just with magic, which is not at most of the readers’ disposal, but with tenacity, solidarity, noncooperation, telling your stories, and an unwavering commitment to the truth. These are all lessons that may be more pertinent in times of crisis than in times of peace, but they are never unimportant.
bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
I've been waiting to read The Raven Boys for a long time.

In December of 2013 I read Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races, a standalone YA fantasy about water horses on a small island in Ireland. I am pretty sure that at the end of this book there was the first-chapter preview for The Raven Boys. I think. I remember the preview itself pretty vividly, because it sounded very intriguing. There were ghosts and prophecies and creepy aunts and stuff. Then I started following Maggie Stiefvater on Twitter and Tumblr and stuff, because she's hilarious, and since the Raven Cycle is her most popular series of books, I started hearing more about it. Something about Welsh mythology. A lot of stuff about death and cars. I don't know much about cars but it sounded like the sort of demented Gothic stuff I like. I decided I needed to read it, but for a while I didn't get around to it. Then, sometimes after it was announced that the fourth and last book was coming out this year and it was also announced that there would be a Raven Cycle tarot deck designed, I decided I would wait until the last book came out, find a good chunk of time when I could really relax and do the thing properly, and try to read the whole series in one go.

Last weekend I went up to my father's cabin in the woods in Maine by the lake and for two days I sat on the porch and looked at the lake and read the Raven Cycle books. I finished the first two and got a little bit into Book 3 before I had to come back to real life. I'm hoping to get back up there sometime this summer to finish the series.

The Raven Boys is the story of a young lady named Blue, who is the only non-psychic in an all-female family of psychics. Blue can, however, amplify other people's psychic powers, so she is a pretty integral part of the family psychic business. Blue doesn't really have friends at her public school, but she actively avoids the shit out of the boys at Aglionby Academy, a private prep school for rich powerful sons of rich powerful families, where basically the entire student body is as insufferable as Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl except even more insufferable because they have cars since they are in the suburbs and not NYC, and cars amplify rich boys' the-worst-ness by a factor of at least 4.

Anyway, Blue is burdened with a prophecy that if she kisses her true love he will die, so Blue very sensibly does what any independent-minded young lady not gruelingly trained in putting up with teenage boys' bullshit would probably do anyway: She decides to forgo this whole romance thing entirely, which is a decision I approve of, but which honestly can be quite hard to do without cracking at all during one's teen years and young adulthood, if only because that is the time of one's life when one is meeting lots of new people and trying new things and going new places and generally having one's world get bigger, and it takes practice to make one's world bigger without having any boys get into it at least once or twice.

In this case, Blue ends up reluctantly making friends with a quartet of Aglionby boys who are on a quest to find and resuscitate the sleeping Welsh king Owen Glendower, and also Blue knows from a vigil she held on St. Mark's Eve that one of the boys, Gansey, is destined to die within the year. Since Blue actually saw his shade herself, it's also likely that either he's Blue's true love or that it's Blue who kills him, or, considering the prophecy, both. Since Gansey is a rich smartass who wears terrible loud polo shirts, Blue is skeptical that he could be her true love, but apparently decides to stick around helping him look for Glendower anyway, even though anyone who's ever watched a movie can see where this is going. PSA: DON'T GO ON MAGICAL QUESTS WITH PEOPLE YOU'RE TRYING TO NOT FALL IN LOVE WITH, FOR CHRISSAKE.

The other boys in this friend group are Ronan Lynch, a fighty Irish boy with massive emotional problems stemming from his father's murder and his older brother's total assholery; Adam Parrish, a non-rich scholarship kid from an abusive family who works three jobs to pay the non-scholarship-covered part of his Aglionby tuition; and Noah, who tells Gansey right at the beginning of the book that he's been dead for seven years and everyone kind of treats it like a random lame joke right up until they find Noah's body that's been rotting in the woods for seven years. Seriously, Stiefvater's ability to straight-up dump spoilers into her own books like three hundred pages in advance and have the reader totally blow them off is amazing. No wussy foreshadowing here! The line of dialogue is literally "I've been dead for seven years" and then when they find the body in the woods you're like NO WAY, WHAT A SHOCK, GANSEY MUST BE SO SURPRISED.

Also, Gansey's name is Gansey, which sounds suspiciously like geansaí, the Irish word for "sweater." Blue often measures the likelihood of Gansey dying on any given outing by whether or not he is wearing his Aglionby sweater, since his shade was wearing that when she saw it, which means he's going to die in the sweater. I am 99% sure that Maggie Stiefvater did this on purpose but now I've got to go ask her just to check. *runs to Tumblr*

While the book has many jokes and general scenes of humorous mayhem, it also doesn't fuck around with the stakes: lives are at risk; the sleepy little town of Henrietta and the prestigious stuffy halls of Aglionby Academy are sites of omnipresent violence, secrets and danger; magic is not to be casually fucked around with, even by the psychics. Every character is memorable, if only because all of them could kill you (except for Noah) but all in very different ways. The story starts off slower than is quite usual for YA, and the writing tends toward the poetic and descriptive in a way that will probably annoy a lot of people who don't like to notice the words when they're reading, but since I'm a shameless fan of a well-turned bit of description I think it builds the atmosphere well--beautiful and slow and muggy like the Virginia summer the book takes place in. In short: Excellent lakeside mood reading.

I read it in less than 24 hours. Then I immediately picked up the sequel.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I hadn't remembered Reaper Man as being one of the mid-series Discworld novels, but we're definitely getting into mid-series now. And mid-series Discworld is generally the best Discworld; I hadn't remembered it as being one of the particularly good ones either.

Upon rereading it with Mark who Reads Things, it turns out that this is likely just because I only read it once, in ninth grade. I vaguely remembered it as the one where Death becomes a farmer, although I'd forgotten why. Reaper Man is a thoughtful exploration of the role of death in our lives and what it means to have only finite time in our lives--at least, it is when it's not full of madcap puns and zombies and animated compost heap monsters.

I'd also forgotten that this book is where we are introduced to the Auditors, who are existentially terrifying.

The Auditors are much like Dementors except that they are terrifying in a boring soulless way instead of in a traditionally terrifying soul-sucking way. They have no personal identities and they keep the universe running in an orderly and predictable fashion, which is not really how it all ends up working once you get near the Discworld. They fire Death for, essentially, developing too much personality. (Because soulless business culture FOR THE UNIVERSE.)

Death, now with a small batch of time in his hourglass before he gets annihilated, goes to work on a farm down on the Discworld, harvesting crops for an old widow lady named Mrs. Flitworth. Here he becomes Bill Door, and learns about his neighbors in a more individualized and human fashion than he ever has known his assignments before. Unfortunately, with no Death, the natural circle of life is disrupted--people can't die, and neither can animals, really, and apparently neither can general nature life-energy organic matter stuff, hence the animated compost heap. As the extra life energy builds up and people who were supposed to die float around being ghosts or zombies or whatever and generally not passing on, some other unknown thing shows up, a parasitical thing that seems to want to leach all this extra life out of the city. Windle Poons, a very ancient wizard who manages to become a sort of zombie out of sheer willpower when he dies and can't reincarnate, investigates, along with a ragtag band of undead creatures and a bunch of typically useless wizards all hepped up on saying "yo." Along the way, Poons learns more about life than he'd ever arsed himself to learn while he was alive.

The friendship between Death/Bill Door and Mrs. Flitworth is far and away the most touching part of the book, especially the bittersweetly comic bits near the end as Death tries to make sure she has the best death ever in return for all she's taught him. Mrs. Flitworth also gets mad props for being so accepting of Death even when she finds out who he is.

The book is a good one to read after the recent passing of Sir Pterry himself, as it's all about accepting Death as a natural and necessary thing, and not in too cheesy a way, either.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
When I heard N.J. Jemisin speak at Arisia, she mentioned that she had written her Dreamblood duology before the Inheritance trilogy, but hadn't been able to sell it. She gave two reasons for this: one, that it was "too weird," and two, that there weren't any white people in it.

To the second point, I say: There were so white people in it! There were two; they both died tragically for plot-furthering reasons in the first 10% of the book. That counts, right?

Anyway. Now that that's out of my system, on to the first objection: the weirdness.

Yes, The Killing Moon is weird. It's very weird. And I loved it for its weirdness. It's thoroughly imaginative and highly original, drawing from a lot of real-world mythological and religious stuff and recombining and extrapolating it into nothing remotely resembling anyone's D&D campaign. The main civilization in it, Gujaareh, is very loosely based on ancient Egypt, mainly in that it floods once a year and death is a huge part of the religion and it's in the desert. And there's some stylistic "McEgypt" flavoring, as Jemisin put it.

In this world, there are four humors in the human body: dreamblood, dreamseed, dreambile, and dreamichor. They all have magical properties if you know how to use them, and they are all secreted during dreaming.

In Gujaareh, dreaming is very serious magical and religious business. The various orders of the religion harvest these dream-humors and can do magic with them. Mostly healing. But a few priests, the most revered and important, are called Gatherers, and what they gather is dreamblood. To heretics and outsiders, they kill people. The view from inside Gujaareh is more complex: Gatherers usher people into Ina-Karekh, the land of dreams, and help them construct what I in my utter lack of Jemisinian poeticism can only describe as their "happy place," where their soul will be at peace; then they cut the cord between their soul and their body so they die peacefully. The cost for this service is merely the tithe of dreamblood.

Gujaareh faithful believe this is an awesome system; predictably, it creeps basically everyone else the fuck out. Especially when you consider that there are two ways someone can be marked to be Gathered--one is if they request it, due to injury or disease or some other pain they wish to not endure any longer; the other is if the holy orders deem them corrupt. Corruption is not tolerated in Gujaareh. Or so it is believed.

The plot of this book is about four Gatherers--well, three Gatherers and a Gatherer-Apprentice--and a badass lady diplomat from neighboring Kisua exposing a tangled web of lies, secrets, and coverups that may indicate that corruption in Gujaareh goes right to the top, and war may be right around the corner.

If that sounds all too insubstantial and shadowy and political for you, here's the fun part: They're tipped off that something is rotten in the state of not-at-all-McDenmark because there's a Reaper running around, Reaping souls. A Reaper is basically what happens when a Gatherer goes corrupt and scraps all the peace and providing a service bit of Gathering and just rips people's souls out of their bodies and eats them. It is bad times all around.

So that's all I'm going to say about the plot.

Since the magic in this system is predominantly done mentally (there are a few physical props they use, but not many) and takes place literally in dreamland, and is so heavily intertwined with religious faith, the fantasy aspect of this book and the psychological novel/character-driven aspect of the book must be closely intertwined, and Jemisin pulls it off beautifully. The characters feel real and even relatable, and very human, even as their psychologies are clearly shaped so much by these forces and powers and beliefs that we don't have in our world. This is hard to do and very impressive, I think. And it means, for me at least, that the world was able to really suck me into it, becoming rich and real-feeling without a lot of pages of scene-setting info-dumping descriptions. The language helped too--the whole book is written in a distinctly nonmodern register, although not so flowery or stylized that it slows down the way reading actual ancient texts does. Although I did end up reading a lot slower than I often do with big epic fantasy books, because I did want to stop and savor the language and think about what was going on, since it's definitely far enough off the usual beaten path of familiar fantasy tropes that I think if I'd just ripped through it the way I rip through, say, Discworld books (which are all about the familiar fantasy tropes), I'd miss a lot and get confused.

I want to talk more about the specific characters but I'm not sure how to do that in a way that's not enormously spoilery. Sunandi, the Kisua diplomat, is a great, great character--flawed, mostly by being enormously judgy of the Gujaareh religion, but smart and powerful and full of agency, and also one of the more "normal" viewpoint characters for a modern reader, probably, in that she's not an adherent of a wacky death cult. Nijiri, the Gatherer-Apprentice, is a fierce protagonist--I feel like I want to peg him as the protagonist because the storyline turns out to be a sort of terrifying coming-of-age narrative for him, and I read so many YA/coming-of-age stories that it's easy for me to latch on to seeing that as the central narrative character arc, but I think you could probably make a good case that he and Sunandi are co-protagonists. Nijiri was born servant-caste before he was taken into the priesthood and he's extremely strong-willed, which could have been a bad combination in the outside world but generally serves him well throughout this story: he refuses to give up no matter what monsters are roaming around the city or how screwed up his mentor Ehiru gets.

I feel like I'm doing an awful job talking about this book. It deserves a much more careful review than I can give now. Maybe when I finish the duology I can offer more complete and coherent thoughts on the series as a unit.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I didn’t get much of anything done today, because I spent basically the whole day on the couch with a cup of coffee and Lyndsay Faye’s Seven for a Secret, the sequel to her awesome historical mystery The Gods of Gotham.

Set in New York City in the 1840s, both books follow bartender-turned-reluctant-police-officer Timothy Wilde, younger brother of the larger-than-life Democratic machine member Valentine Wilde, as he deals with the psychological fallout of having half his face burned off in a fire and solves extremely sordid crimes. These crimes are not particularly “set against a backdrop” of mid-nineteenth-century New York as they are thoroughly woven within it. Where the first book’s plotlines grew out of the lurid, sordid contemporary social problems of child prostitution, body-stealing, and anti-Irish sentiment, the plots of Seven for a Secret grow directly out of the odious practice of Southern “fugitive slave catchers” kidnapping free blacks and selling them down South. (There was a certain Oscar-winning movie made about this two years ago, and excerpts from Solomon Northup’s memoir make up a good portion of the epigraphs in this book.) Chimney-sweeping, which was a thoroughly horrific industry, also makes several appearances. And we get to see a lot more of the corrupt Tammany Hall machine, as Timothy’s investigations into the murder of one Lucy Adams—the secret colored wife of a prominent Democratic politician—bring him closer and closer into Party politics.

Timothy Wilde continues to be a great first-person narrator—emotionally volatile, smart in some ways but amusingly dense in others (and therefore sometimes a bit unreliable), well-read with a poetic streak and fluent in “flash patter,” and good at meeting really interesting people. He’s got a bit of a savior complex that is mostly used to explore how complicated and awful the social issues plaguing New York are—there aren’t any easy answers here, despite Tim’s boundless bleeding-heartedness and the mostly-ineffectual savior complex it gives him.  While I’m probably not the right person to give a definitive opinion on all the issues raised with a book with a white protagonist written by a white author that is mostly straight-up about saving black people from slavery, I do think it well avoided most of the common white-saviorey pitfalls, in that Tim certainly doesn’t sweep in and save the day—he screws up a lot, he’s the main player in only one issue of a fairly expansive web of interlocking Things Going On (his job is to find out who killed Lucy Adams), he works closely with a number of well-characterized people of color who often know more than he does, have more resources than he does, and generally have better things to do sit around and be grateful to Tim for his help. Even in the scene where Tim is literally dragged in to be a white savior—namely in Julius Carpenter’s identity trial, where only white people can give testimony—there’s minimal grateful carping, and it’s heavily subordinated to discussing actual issues of plot and observing the ways in which racist laws and restrictions eat away at the people who have to constantly live under them.

Faye also continues to give both an unflinching look at the absolute misery the Irish famine immigrants suffered through, both on their way to New York and the prejudice they faced when they got there—something that tends to get soft-pedaled in a lot of American History courses—and an equally unflinching look at what utter bigoted, nasty thugs some of the Irish could be when it benefitted them, including an interesting portrayal of the NYPD’s first thoroughly crooked cop, an Irishman in league with the slave-catchers. Unfortunately, the degree to which the Irish in the U.S. “earned” respectability through corruption and attacking other immigrant and minority groups is something that’s also frequently ignored in our popular understanding of history.

On a more fun note, we get to see a lot of fun old faces again, and often learn more about them. Bird Daly makes some reappearances, as does the deplorable brothel madam Silkie Marsh. Gentle Jim plays a bigger part, and we get to see a bit farther past Mrs. Boehm’s respectable German landlady face. Julius Carpenter, unsurprisingly, becomes a very major character and brings with him a host of interesting connections involved in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. Also, there continues to be lots and lots of Valentine Wilde, who continues to absolutely steal the show on every page that he’s on and several that he isn’t, because he’s just that over-the-top about everything.

Two minor things did bug me: There is a lot of people “snapping” their heads around when something catches their attention, which is the sort of authorial tic that you don’t notice until you notice it and then it bothered me every single time and made my neck hurt. Also, for some reason all the Irish are either redheads or “black Irish,” which is a specific type of coloring, and like… many, many Irish people are neither of these. Many, many Irish people are “fair” (blonde) or sort of lighter brunette, but I don’t know if we’ve met any “fair” Irish in the whole series thus far. It’s a little weird? Especially since the rest of the series is ridiculously researched right down to the ground.
But those are nitpicks. Overall, I just want the next book to be out ASAP!
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Those who know me know I read some pretty morbid stuff, both fiction and nonfiction. This is why one of my friends saw fit to lend me her copy of Jessica Snyder Sachs' Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death.
I fear my reputation may be more hardcore than I actually am, though, for I definitely had to stop eating at several points during this book, and I love to eat when I read.
This book presents a short but, as far as I can tell, fairly comprehensive overview of the measures by which scientists, medical examiners, and other people in the death business have tried to determine time of death. It begins with short histories of the three "clocks" that medical examiners use in the immediate postmortem period--rigor mortis, livor mortis, and algor mortis--and all the ways in which they can be unreliable. The book then moves into the mid- and later twentieth century and the development of forensic entomology--the study of all the bugs that feed on corpses, and their life cycles and migration patterns and such, in order to determine time of death by assessing what bugs are on a corpse and what stage of their life cycle they are in. This part of the book is FANTASTICALLY gross, full of descriptions of roiling masses of maggots and buzzing swarms of blow flies. The entomologists interviewed for the piece all seem like really smart, interesting characters, but the descriptions of some of the research they did--especially that conducted at "the Body Farm"--and the cases they helped solve are really kind of stomach-churning. I usually like to put in one or two interesting tidbits I learned when I'm reviewing nonfiction books, but in this case I feel that maybe I shouldn't.
I think the maggots also got to me a bit more than other gross stuff gets to me because they always made me remember that time I came home from being gone for the weekend and one of my idiot roommates in Somerville had thrown meat in the garbage and left it there for a few days, so then when I went to throw something away, the kitchen garbage was a giant roiling mass of maggots. THAT WAS A GREAT SURPRISE. Kiddos, if you throw any kind of organic waste into your kitchen garbage, empty it frequently, even if it isn't full.
After all the bug stuff the book moves on into forensics and plant studies, in which ecologists try to identify the time of death of a corpse by the state of the plants immediately surrounding (especially "crushed under" or "growing over") it. This part of the book had the most fun, non-stomach-turning, Sherlock Homes-y bits in it, as usually the local flora of an area was already being studied as part of general ecological field work, and the forensic application was mostly about matching up the clues to determine, for example, what year a rope was tied around a tree branch.
After this section we get back into the realm of gross with a lot of stuff about bacterial studies and "drip zones," which is fancy science talk for "where a dead body's juices sink into the ground." This is apparently still a baby science, or at least it was when this book was published, but it's racked up a couple of interesting cases.
Overall this is an A+ book for anyone who likes gruesome murdery things to test how much they can handle.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I was a bit worried that the third installment of Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin trilogy, Mortal Heart, would be boring after the deep fuckedupness of Dark Triumph, especially since it follows the angelic Annith rather than the madness-prone Sybella. But it turns out that Annith’s secrets are just as screwed up as either of our previous protagonists’.

Annith was brought to the convent as a baby, and she doesn’t have some of the things the other daughters of Mortain have—namely a birth story, or any sign of the various gifts that each of his daughters usually display one of. What she does have is secrets, and more skill at every task the young assassins are taught than any of the other girls, in part due to starting so early, and in part because of her treatment at the hands of the Dragonette, the former Abbess.

In addition to the ongoing war with France, which has formed the main source of conflict through this series, most of the conflict in this book comes from Annith’s being denied the opportunity to go out and actually serve as an assassin—the only thing she’s ever wanted, and the thing she’s been trained for. Instead, the current Abbess declares that Annith, because she is so biddable and obedient, will stay at the convent and train as its new Seeress. Biddable obedient Annith—who has deliberately done her best to be the perfect novice so that she will be entrusted with an off-island assignment—promptly runs the hell away. Or not that promptly, really, but quite shortly afterwards, after doing some snooping around.

The dual threads of war with France and Annith’s uncovering of her own family secrets—and they are some seriously messed-up secrets—are woven together tightly, bound with a lot of mythology about Brittany’s nine pagan gods. Up until now we’ve mostly only known about Mortain, the god of death, but here we meet followers of Arduinna, protector of innocents, and hear a  lot of different versions of the story of Mortain and his ill-fated marriage with Arduinna’s sister Amourna. We also meet the hellequin, Death’s riders, earning penance for their misdeeds in life by escorting lost ghosts to the Underworld and hunting down malevolent ones. Annith’s romance with the lead hellequin, Balthazaar, seems somewhat obligatory and tacked-on for the first half of the book or so, but then plot twists happened and I changed my mind. Balthazaar has secrets too! Everyone in this book has secrets!

But this book doesn’t just use secrets for shock value—the whole book, at its core, is a surprisingly thorough exploration of how people can be bent to one another’s will—through secrets and lies, through promises and praise, through coaxing and tricking and teaching them into effacing their own wills voluntarily. Though Annith certainly has enough reasons to complain on her own—she’s been treated abominably and robbed of the expected payoff that had been her reason for putting up with it—it’s her concern for the other girls being lied to and manipulated in the same way that allows her to really become a powerful moral force.

I also love that (and here there be spoilers) in this book about assassins, the final climactic “assassination” that saves Brittany involves shooting someone—with love! Love saves the day, huzzah! But also shooting by a teenaged assassin nun! Idunno, I thought it was great.

Putting all three of the together, this trilogy is one of the strongest YA trilogies I’ve read in years—and you know how much I love YA and how many trilogies there are! Usually one of them is weak; either the middle book has Middle Book Syndrome or the last one is rushed and just falls apart. But this series, along with Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Lynburn Legacy, is really just stellar all the way through. With some surprisingly thoughtful themes lurking behind the main action of war, mayhem, and glorious medieval nonsense, it’s really everything I want in a YA fantasy.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

Well, I feel like I have a lot of things to say about Half-Resurrection Blues, but chances are good I’ll forget to say some of them, or possibly I will not say them as fully as they are in my head. Sometimes you get a book where there’s just a lot going on. (Sometimes this is because it’s 1500 pages, but sometimes it’s not.)

Starting with the basics: Half-Resurrection Blues is the first novel in the Bone Street Rumba “spectral noir” or “ghost noir” urban fantasy series by Daniel José Older, who I’ve seen on a bunch of panels at Readercon and Arisia, where he was always a kickass panelist. He has opinions on italicizing Spanish that I always think about whenever we have clients who are like “We’re trying to target a Hispanic market, also, italicize any term in Spanish.” He also answers all my bullshit tweets which is (a) good author marketing branding practice stuff and (b) a sign that his fanbase isn’t big enough, so go buy his book. He was also nice enough to sign my copy at Arisia so nyah nyah.

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We’ll get to the ugly little fucker on the exercise bike in a bit.

So “ghost noir” turns out to be exactly what it says on the tin: It’s noir, all lyric description of gritty city streets (in this case, Brooklyn) and characters smoking a lot and doing shots because they’re in such a manly bad mood and thinking about sex and having tragic buried backstories and stuff. It’s also got ghosts. Our gruff damaged protagonist is a “half-resurrected” (meaning he died but has mysteriously come mostway back to life, no one knows how) special agent for the Council of the Dead. His name is Carlos Delacruz and he figures he’s Puerto Rican and he doesn’t know anything of his former life. Mostly he skulks around keeping shit-stirring ghosts in line and drinking rum with some of his ghost agent bros and making fun of hipsters in his inner monologue and reading, which sounds like a pretty good life for a noir protagonist. But then the plot shows up in the form of another half-resurrected guy—the first one Carlos has ever seen—who wants to bring a bunch of college bros into the Underworld, and Carlos has to kill him, and then everything gets complicated. Not least because Carlos immediately develops a ginormous crush on a photograph of the now-dead half-resurrected guy’s sister, except that he’s just killed her brother, so you can imagine how well that’s going to go.

The other immediate problem is the sudden infestation of a bunch of soul-tearingly irritating (literally) ugly little demon things called ngks, which apparently look like tiny grinning toads riding tiny stationary bikes. Somehow they are connected to whatever terrible plan involved the college bros, and Carlos and his ghost cop buddies have to set about trying to figure out and dismantle an increasingly labyrinthine situation set up by some ancient weirdo called Sarco that manages to involve (and by involve I mean screw over) pretty much everyone we’re introduced to in the entire book, as is right and proper noir/hardboiled plotting. I don’t want to talk more about the plot because spoilers.

Possibly my favorite thing about this book is the voice. It’s a first-person POV, as is also only right and proper, and man, does Carlos have certain aspects of sounding like Noir-y Protagonist Man down pat. He swears a lot and he bounces back and forth between the lyrical descriptive thing and the blunt, matter-of-fact hardboiled thing accompanied by cynical inner monologue about everybody. But while Carlos’ voice and characterization is unapologetically working within a certain tradition, he doesn’t sound like a Philip Marlowe ripoff. He’s more modern and more Puerto Rican, obviously, and the Brooklyn he moves in is a modern Brooklyn, full of communities of color getting slowly edged out by annoying white hipsters and rich people, which is precisely what’s happening in Brooklyn, from all reports. I’m wildly unqualified to have any opinions on the authenticity of the use of Spanish in this book because obviously the author is actually Hispanic and I am an Irish-American living in a mostly white section of Boston, but from some recent reports of People Having Opinions About Spanish In Fiction, I am going to say that it’s really not that difficult to read, guys, even if you don’t speak Spanish. I did not even have to use the Google machine once. Stylistically I think it lends a sense of place and a sense of specificity— you don’t feel like you’re in Anycity USA, in the I Guess People Live Here Quarter where people speak Ninth Grade Textbook English—but whether it’s accurate is up to people who have been to Brooklyn more than twice. The language overall is very playful and colloquial and makes you want to read it all out loud just for the fun of it.

Additionally, but no less importantly than any of the stuff to do with race, class, or identity, is that this book is funny. Dry cynical wisecracking is a time-honored part of noir, obviously, but the humor in this book runs much goofier than that sometimes, because why not. Carlos’ super surly noir man persona not infrequently gives way to a sort of flaily haplessness when either shit gets truly bizarre (see: demons on tiny bikes) or when he’s attempting to put together sentences about Sasha, our maybe-femme-fatale love-interest lady. There are also a handful of memorable puns, the aforementioned ridiculous ngk bikes (which are never really explained), and a ghost that shows up and says “Schmloooo” a lot during a very important and suspenseful following-people scene, apparently just to ruin the atmosphere. It could easily have not worked, but it does.

My biggest criticism of the book: It is pretty dudely. There are a handful of pretty cool but still pretty minor female characters, a secondary character who is a female house ghost, and Sasha. And I like Sasha, and I actually like most of the other female characters and think they all should totally get more page time in the sequel. Apparently the Council of the Dead and all its ghost cops have a serious gender imbalance in their line of work, though. Overall, though, considering the long history of surly-white-dude-ness and general misogyny in the noir genre, Half-Resurrection Blues makes an excellent refuge for people who love gritty noiry mystery shit but are over the surly-white-dude-ness and general misogyny.

Highly recommended for: Anyone who’s ever read a Raymond Chandler novel and been like “This would be perfect with a little less raging racism and sexism, and maybe some ghosts.” Fans of Castle who are always disappointed at the end of the Nerd Episodes when the vampires/zombies/ghosts/Victorian time travelers turn out not to be real. People who like urban fantasy but are bored of the same old Laurell K. Hamilton knockoff shit. Anyone who really appreciates good use of style and language in genre fiction.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In a most timely boon from the library gods, Dark Triumph, the second book in Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin trilogy, became available just in time for a weekend bookended by four-hour bus rides between Boston and New York, where me and some of my lovely friendesses were going to check out some awesome Gothy New York things, like the “Death Becomes Her” Victorian mourning fashion exhibit at the Met, and a trendy foofy cocktail bar called Death & Co.

Dark Triumph is considerably darker than Grave Mercy, and Grave Mercy was already about assassins, betrayal, and threat of sexual violence. To this, Dark Triumph adds heaping helpings of child abuse, incest, infanticide, spousal murder… you know, basically everything.

The protagonist of this book is Sybella, a secondary character in the first book, who arrives at the convent in the middle of a full-fledged psychotic breakdown from the goings-on of her previous life. In this book, she’s been sent to infiltrate the family of the sadistic Count d’Albret, a man who already has six dead wives to his name and has repeatedly threatened—and in one case, attempted—to rape thirteen-year-old Duchess Anne if she doesn’t keep the marriage contract that was made on her behalf when she was very young (one of many such contracts). Sybella’s ability to infiltrate this family and spy for the convent is made easier, from the convent’s perspective, but harder, from Sybella’s, by the fact that Sybella is the daughter of Count d’Albret’s fourth wife. And Sybella’s family makes the Lannisters look like the Brady Bunch. Sybella spends a good deal of the book, particularly at the beginning, being near-suicidal, kept going only by the hope of getting permission to kill her supposed father (as an assassin of this particular convent, Sybella’s actual father is Death).

Things start to look up, for a pretty messed-up definition of looking up, when Sybella springs the injured Beast of Waroch from d’Albret’s jail. Beast is a big ugly berserker dude who is nevertheless super friendly and awesome when he is not in the grip of battle rage, and who is a staunch ally of the Duchess. Additionally, the Beast’s sister was d’Albret’s sixth wife, leading to many feelings and much tragic backstory for everybody. Their romance, though of necessity pretty angsty, especially on Sybella’s part, is pretty sweet, in a dark sort of way, with both of them coming to terms with their own darkness and tragic pasts and all that stuff and supporting each other, and generally being heartwarmingly messed up.

Despite all the deeply disturbing stuff, which is really quite disturbing indeed, Dark Triumph still manages to be fun in a way that a story about medieval teenage assassin nuns cannot help but be fun. It’s action-packed, vivid, twisty, fast-paced, sometimes witty, and full of rich characterization and richer intrigues. I highly recommend the bejesus out of it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
One of the many, many book clubs I am (at this point, rather half-assedly) in is Gail Carriger’s online book club. I haven’t participated since reading Blood and Chocolate, a YA werewolf novel that, despite being about werewolves, brought me back to my adolescence in the worst way. But I’d already bought a copy of Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy, the first installment of the His Fair Assassin trilogy, in one of those Kindle Daily Deal things a while ago, so I figured I might as well read it. It did, after all, have a lot of things about it that seemed right up my alley, like teenage girl assassins and medieval Brittany.

Grave Mercy is the story of Ismae Rienne, a novice at the convent of St. Mortain, patron saint/old god of Death. Like everyone at the convent, Ismae is supposedly one of Mortain’s actual children, and therefore has a number of odd death-related gifts, including the ability to see the “marques” of Death on her targets.  She also has a couple of gifts that are less common among the convent’s occupants, such as immunity to poison.

Despite many misgivings by many parties on a number of subjects, Ismae is sent off to the court of the young Duchess Anne of Brittany, in the guise of the cousin-but-probably-mistress to Anne’s half-brother, Gavriel Duval. Her actual role is to spy, and to assassinate anyone who needs assassinating. But there are layers and layers of plots afoot, and Ismae develops suspicions that maybe the people she’s assigned to spy on might not be the people she really needs to be spying on. As the threats to Brittany’s independence build and the young but awesome Duchess is betrayed by various power-grubbing nobles, Ismae’s doubts grow and she has to set herself to some serious learning—about the plots surrounding her, about the nature of Mortain and her service to him, and about her pesky feelings for Duval.

Duval is pretty much not an asshole, even though they do the classic romantic comedy bit of getting off on the wrong foot and getting mad at each other a lot, so that’s pretty good for a romance. The romance subplot is at least actually tied in pretty closely with all the fun stuff, since the main plots are dependent on questions of people’s loyalties and principles, that sort of thing, so it doesn’t feel tacked on, even if it is pretty obvious right from the beginning.

There’s a lot of historical detail here, and fairly little magic—all the magic that we see is deeply religious in nature, having to do with Ismae’s service of her god and her relationship with him as his daughter. But much of it is historical-fiction sort of stuff, and pretty heavily researched, which is completely OK by me. I like all the snooping around and trying to untangle plots and remember everybody’s family history, and am also 100 percent OK with there only being a couple of major action scenes. This book also doesn’t dick around with how limited women’s roles were in the late middle ages/early Renaissance, especially when there’s nobody to put any sort of check on the most power-hungry men.

My biggest issue with the book is that there is one small plot hole that I made into a much bigger OH NO than I think most people would. At one point, Ismae makes plans to meet with her convent sister Sybella, who may have News about Betrayal and Shenanigans and all the general badness that’s going on. On her way to meet Sybella, Ismae is interrupted by having to have a scene with the Duchess and one of the villains. And then… there is no follow-up to her missing her meeting! Sybella does show back up, but there is no acknowledgement that they had a meeting and missed it, and Ismae doesn’t go to any effort to make contact with Sybella again or wonder what information Sybella was going to give her that she now doesn’t have or freaking anything, like she completely forgot she had ever been supposed to meet with Sybella at all. I kept waiting for this to come back up because I thought missing the meeting was going to be important, and it just… didn’t.

The second book in the series is from Sybella’s point of view, and I think I’d like to read it, since Sybella was one of the best characters despite having little screen time.

This is the sort of book that would make a really fun movie if it was done properly and had any sort of budget, but if it were adapted, would probably be done improperly and with many stupid budgeting decisions and would at best end up as bad trashy fun like the Queen of the Damned movie or something.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So the third Lynburn Legacy book came out yesterday. And my book club read the first Lynburn Legacy book about a week ago. So of course it was the perfect time to reread the second one, Sarah Rees Brennan's Untold.

I read Untold when it came out last year and then I listened to Mark Oshiro read it and it is still just as fabulous and fun and heartbreaking the third time around. Jon Glass sassing Lillian Lynburn is right up there with Lady Bracknell saying "A handbag?" in a funny voice and Eliza Doolittle's perfectly enunciated "Not bloody likely!" in instantly classic comedy that will never not be funny (thus continuing in a century-plus long tradition in where there is nobody funnier than an Irish writer writing about British people). Now with more hindsight, there are some moments that take on additional significance than they did the first time around, particularly Lillian Lynburn claiming that she has no intention of ever running away to live in the tavern. Oh, Lillian. You always think your intentions are going to matter. (Intentions: not magic, even for sorcerers.)

If you never hear from me again, I am dead of Lynburns.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I have been falling dreadfully behind on keeping up with Mark Does Stuff because reasons, but today I was finally able to catch up on his reading of Mort, the fourth Discworld book. Mort is about the time that Death took an apprentice and then hijinks ensued, but I couldn’t remember what the hijinks were.

Mort, short for Mortimer, is a gangly and slightly daydreamy teen boy when he is taken on as Death’s apprentice at a job fair. Contrary to popular opinion, his name is not “boy.” Death seems to mostly want an apprentice so that he can go off into the human world and attempt to learn about human emotions and experiences, like attending parties, drinking strong alcohol, fishing, and finding employment. He is very bad at all of it, except for being a fry cook.

Mort, oddly, is not the only human person living (or residing, at any rate) in Death’s house. There is also Ysabell, Death’s sixteen-year-old daughter who has been sixteen for thirty-five years and is getting a bit sick of it, and a crotchety old dude called Albert whose purpose is apparently to fry things in grease. The only other creature around is Death’s great white horse, Binky.

Death teaches Mort “the duty,” which is to show up at certain person’s death scenes and sever their soul from their body and usher it into whatever afterlife it’s supposed to go to. This mostly goes well except for that one time that Mort was supposed to administer the death of Princess Keli of Sto Lat, but, due to having a bit of a crush on her, he kills her assassin instead, thus changing history and leading to instability in the universe. Mort tries to fix his mistake without having to tell Death about it, which goes about as well as you’d expect.

In this book we expand on a bunch of stuff we’ve seen before, mostly to do with Death, but also the nature and effects of belief on the Discworld, a little history of Unseen University, the lives of nonacademic wizards (well, a nonacademic wizard), some minor history of Sto Lat and its cabbages, other parts of the Discworld including the Agatean Empire, and basically a whimsical grab bag of stuff, none of it too in-depth, as the book is pretty short.

If this book has a theme, it is either that good intentions can cause some really big messes that only the gods themselves can possibly clean up, or that giving humans godlike powers is not a good idea and only anthropomorphic personifications should have them. There might also be an idea in there that even anthropomorphic personifications want their lives to have meaning, and that meaning is to be found in other people. Otherwise, Pratchett’s pun game is as good as ever but his deepness game is not up to where I know it’s going to get.

Also, Princess Keli of Sto Lat is everything a princess should be. Haughty, kinda mean, but very dedicated to doing right by her station and her country.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People first came to my attention when my father sent me a New York Times article about Paul Ryan, Paul Ryan’s Irish Amnesia. I got all excited when I saw that it was the same author as The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (of all time!), which I read back in college and which was absolutely fascinating. And then one day, there it was, staring up at me from the bargain nonfiction table at Brookline Booksmith which I should probably never be allowed to walk past again, all in hardcover with nice thick ivory pages and a lovely engraving of starving people in rags picking moss off the rocks on a beach.

The Graves Are Walking is just as fascinating as The Great Mortality, and it is notably more political. This is unsurprising, as the Great Hunger has always been highly political event—doubly so in the minds of the Irish and their descendants, and I will eat my copy of the book if a dude named “John Kelly” isn’t at least partly Irish.  (The British at the time considered the famine to have been sent by Providence, but the Irish have always been quite steadfast in maintaining that Providence only sent the potato blight; the famine was England’s fault.) While Kelly gives credit where credit is due, debunking various conspiracy theories that inevitably cropped up in the wake of mass devastation and taking note of the strengths and weaknesses of all the involved historical notables, he also has no qualms about straight-up judging various policies and policy ideas as good, or bad, or ridiculous, or disastrous, or downright insane. It’s fairly hard to argue with his conclusions, though, if you have any belief that mass death is indeed bad and that government has any responsibility to try to rein it in.

The book, it must be noted, doesn’t cover the whole famine, which is generally considered to have lasted for about eight years, from 1845 through 1852. Instead, it gives a very thorough and detailed account on a wide range of topics up through “Black 47”— the worst year of the famine, 1847 (and also the name of a New York Irish rock band, because of course) (please note that I have no idea if they’re actually any good or not so if anyone wants to check them out and report back, that’d be great). This gets us through most of the story about policy formulation, which is the heart of the book. By 1848, the British basically had their new Poor Laws in place and just stuck to their policies regardless of what was happening for the next several years, so we really only get a cursory look at that time period.

We get some history of Ireland before the famine, which is pretty essential to understanding why Ireland was so incredibly fucked up that a crop failure that occurred worldwide would turn into the largest loss of life in the 19th century in just the one country. At the time, everyone had their own ideas about why Ireland was such an ungovernable mess, some of which boiled down to simple racism and ass-covering—there was a popular idea in England that the “Celtic temperament” meant that the Irish were “incapable of self-government,” which I guess was a justification when it came to Britain owning Ireland but a complaint when running it turned out to be work—but a surprising amount of which all converged on one opinion, a theme which pervades the whole book, which is that the Irish landholding system was fucked and its landlords were fuckers. There are politer ways to say that, but I’m not sure any of them can concisely describe quite how nonsensical this system was nor how maliciously and willfully useless and whiny the entire landowning class was. They don’t do a single thing in the whole book that doesn’t manage to piss off everybody. The landowners were mostly members of the “Protestant Ascendancy,” ethnically English Anglicans who had been awarded land in Ireland when the Penal Laws in the centuries earlier destroyed the native Catholic gentry by barring Catholics from owning land, living in incorporated towns, etc. The Penal Laws had since been repealed, but not until a small class of now “Anglo-Irish” Protestants had taken over everything the Catholics had been dispossessed of and were firmly ensconced as the top rung of society. Most of the aristocratic landowners resided more or less permanently in England and subcontracted the actual running of their farms to a rapacious class of middlemen, and their goal was basically to get as much money out of their estates as possible so they could continue to afford to live in London or wherever year-round and never have to actually go home. While the British had installed these people into power, after a century or two, their unending reluctance to actually administrate their land or do right by their tenants in any way was earning them the ire of those elements of British political society who wanted Ireland to be a functioning and well-run part of the Union. The Anglo-Irish seem to be considered English—or at least, a tool of British oppression—by the Catholic/Gaelic Irish, and Irish by the frustrated English. By the summer of 1847, even the Canadians hated them!

In addition to history, we get some really quite interesting science and medical reporting—the author is actually a medical journalist by trade—about the potato blight, the effects of starvation, the various pestilences that began to ravage the island in 1846, when the weakened immune systems of a malnourished population met a spate of terrible weather and a stupid and cruel public works system that had people outside, building and breaking up (ugly, useless, badly planned, and leading-to-nowhere) roads, in all conditions. Seriously, don’t read this book unless you’ve got a strong stomach, because you’re going to learn all about typhus, relapsing fever, scurvy, dysentery, and starvation. We also get a lot of human-interest anecdote type pieces—the stories of individual peasants, officials, landlords, doctors, policemen, people from all walks of life who either recorded what they saw or whose stories were recorded by others. From the farmer in Skibbereen whose wife’s head was dug up out of her grave by a starving dog, to the peasant John Costello, whose cabin was torn down without warning on the orders of a landlord he hadn’t even seen in nine years, we see the devastation of the famine through the eyes of the souls that lived it—or, in many cases, that didn’t live through it. These anecdotes are well spaced, seamlessly woven around discussions of bills, laws, finances, food aid, political theorizing, and demographic statistics, so the academic stuff is never presented too far from the people it affected. It gives the whole book a moving narrative quality that I really appreciate.
About halfway through the book, we leave Ireland, following the path of the famine emigrants as they fled Ireland in droves, often penniless and half-dressed, packed onto tight, unseaworthy “coffin ships” that exacerbated all the health problems that had broken out in the population as a result of starvation, bad weather, and social instability. Illiterate, many of them Irish speakers with little or no English, often lacking in any sort of marketable skills due to the extreme poverty and low standard of living in Ireland even before the famine—we’re talking about people who couldn’t scrub a floor because they’d never seen a non-dirt floor before—the famine Irish overwhelmed the immigration infrastructure in Liverpool, in Quebec, in New York, everywhere they went, bringing with them the squalor, disease, and social upheaval they’d been fleeing from just as much as the starvation. (This is the bit where the gentle Canadians hated the Anglo-Irish landlords—many landlords, while unwilling to provide employment for their tenants, were willing to front the cost of a ticket to Canada in order to clear out their “excess” tenants and turn their land into large commercial farms. With droves of dispossessed former tenants showing up on their shores and causing a typhus outbreak all along the St. Lawrence river, the Quebecois, doubly unhappy between sympathy for the peasants that had been tossed away like garbage and fear of the actual effects of huge numbers of fever-ridden people turning up and dying on their shores, excoriated the Irish landed classes in the press in a way that I’ve never seen Canadians excoriate anybody.) We learn how the Irish were received abroad—not well—and their bumpy journey towards establishing themselves, particularly the development of the Irish-American community in major U.S. cities.

The real center of the book, however, is the bumbling-arse efforts at relief and emergency control put forth by the English and Irish political classes, and particularly the ways in which ideological commitment to various political fashions—free-marketeering, Moralism, Malthusianism, etc.—got in the way of the relief effort’s ability to be either compassionate or effective. Sir Charles Trevelyan doesn’t come off here as quite the callous genocidal monster he’s generally portrayed as in the Irish folk memory, but he’s certainly an asshole, and his condescension, lack of sensitivity, arrogance, and commitment to Moralist beliefs meant that even his most genuine good-faith efforts to mitigate the crisis frequently come off as almost willfully misguided. A number of the British political elites, mindful of the political truism that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, tried to use the crisis generated by the crop failure as a mechanism to modernize the Irish economy—ending the barter economy and potato dependence, and getting the Irish peasants onto a cash wage so they could purchase their food instead of growing it—and to teach the Irish peasantry good work habits, personal responsibility, end their “dependence on government,” all that sort of thing. As someone whose Baby’s First Irish History narratives and general family milieu growing up were all informed by the opinion that the British government was never a legitimate government in Ireland and was always a foreign occupation, every mention of Irish “dependence on government” reads like abuser logic to me—pissing and moaning that the victim isn’t doing stuff that you’re actively preventing them from doing, acting like they’re stupid that they’re making it sooo hard for you to control them—it was actually quite difficult for me to put myself into the minds of the British statesmen who honestly and legitimately believed that the “Union” was actually one Kingdom and the Kingdom should be administrated in a nice efficient freedom-maximizing way. I kept thinking “If you want to see how they self-govern you could maybe give them their country back…” although subsequent Irish history has shown that it might actually be true that the Irish are politically skilled at everything except running a country. Anyway, between ideological rigidity, some really stupid administrative clerking mistakes (REALLY stupid, not minor mistakes, stuff you should have multiple people look at and sign off on), various incompetent people overselling their experiences and getting stuck in jobs way too big for them, Nature herself seeming quite determined to make the job as hard as possible, and the stone-cold recalcitrant stupidity and whining of the large landowners, the crop failure was practically guaranteed to turn into a full famine.

A lot of this had to do with “Indian corn,” or what we in the U.S. just call corn (in England, “corn” refers to all cereal grains, apparently). I’d heard before that corn was part of the issue because Ireland had little experience with it, and I assumed it meant the populace didn’t know how to cook it. This could certainly be a problem, since improperly prepared corn can cause digestive issues. This turned out to not be correct—any idiot can boil up cornmeal and water into an unappetizing but more or less edible mush, once you have properly ground cornmeal. No, the issue here was the merchants and government officials who ordered whole kernel dried corn from the U.S. and didn’t have the knowledge or infrastructure to mill it, since corn has to be ground differently than wheat or barley. Yet the government continued to rely on corn in a deliberate attempt to have corn replace potatoes as the staple food of the Irish, planning that it would stay this way even when the famine was over. One of the reasons they did this was due to a weird Victorian belief that cereal grains were “higher” foods than potatoes, that they had more nutritional content (corn, at any rate, doesn’t), and that they “encouraged thrift” and other weird shit that food doesn’t do. The other reason is that you can’t grow corn in Ireland, so it would have to be purchased, thus forcing the Irish to work for cash wages so they could buy it. It takes some serious ideological commitment to look at the situation of the Irish peasant in the mid-1800s and determine that the issue was that they didn’t have enough middlemen in their lives getting between themselves and their ability to acquire life basics, and what they really needed was a whole supply chain inserted between themselves and their food. It takes double ideological blinders to do this while simultaneously complaining that the Irish weren’t self-sufficient enough.

Overall, this book is an amazing work of nonfiction, and I recommend it to… well, people who like Game of Thrones, really. It’s got similar levels of squalor and violence and horror, the cast of characters is about as big, and there are ample opportunities for getting really hopped up on hating on people saying and doing stupid things and a couple of satisfying moments where other people call them out on it (“The landlords in England would not like to be shot like hares and partridges … [but] neither does any landlord in England turn out 50 people at once and burn their houses over their heads” –Lord John Russell, regarding several murders of landlords). It’s quite difficult to write a truly boring book on Irish history, because it’s been so weird for so long, but The Graves Are Walking looks at one of the most messed-up times in a long messed-up history and really pulls no punches.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So I reread Terrier last year and now I have just reread it again, this time with Mark Reads. And it was glorious! The Beka Cooper books may be my favorite Tortall subseries; despite being the most recent and therefore having the least place of nostalgia and importance to my childhood, they are super up my alley. Beka is the Tortall heroine I probably most relate to—she’s shy, she looks the most like me, she wears a lot of black, she is fifty million billion percent uncomfortable with flirting and gets hostile when people try to engage her in it, she has a tendency to take things super seriously, and she’s kind of morbid—although in her case, it’s because she’s able to hear the dead and is an informal priestess of the Black God, whereas I am just a regular sort of morbid gothy person. Also, I’m pretty sure I’d be a terrible police officer.

Like all the best crime novels, this story actually focuses on two cases, which are related. In a deviation from the usual formula, we actually find out how these cases are related pretty early on: the Shadow Snake, the child murderer who kidnaps small children to extort treasures from their families, has killed the grandson of Crookshank, a neighborhood crime lord who seems to be doing some sort of hidden mining operation involving fire opals, and killing off his diggers. It’s the murder of baby Rolond that kicks off investigations into both of these plotlines.

Beka Cooper is just starting out as a trainee member of the Provost’s Guard, which is basically the city watch/rudimentary police force. She is assigned to the two very best and most well-known and awesome pair of Dogs (as they call themselves) on the Evening Watch, which is the interesting one. These are Mattes Tunstall, the laid-back goofy one, and Clary Goodwin, the hardass sarcastic one. They are both great, great characters as well as great Dogs. Beka, having moved out of Lord Gershwin’s house where her family lives, is also living in her very first own apartment (which is apparently a one-bedroom, as there are other people in her lodging-house but they’re not in her “rooms”, which makes me super jealous! My first apartment was an eight-bedroom. I would love a one-person apartment. On the other hand, apparently medieval apartments do not have kitchens, which would make me sad). She makes FRIENDS!! with a bunch of other Puppies (trainee police) and also some “rushers” (persons on the other side of the law) from Scanra, who are all darlings despite two of them being professional killers. Rosto in particular is like a bizarre mashup of Jamie Campbell Bower as Jace Wayland in the terrible TMI movie and Jamie Campbell Bower as Slutty Playboy King Arthur in that terrible Camelot show. He’d definitely be bad news for Beka but as a character he’s hilarious and weird and there is lots of very bizarre UST between him and Beka and it’s just gloriously awkward.

The journal format seems to have bugged a lot of people, but I have a giant soft spot for journal format books. I also love the extra-old-fashioned language—I remember it throwing me off a bit the first time I read the book, but it’s just so fun! The swears in particular! Every time I read a Beka Cooper book I remember that I have to call more people terrible medieval names like “sarden cankerblossom” in real life instead of just being like “What an asshole” every time someone’s an asshole, but alas, I keep forgetting.

Reading this with the MR commentariat also meant I learned a lot of interesting stuff along the way, including recipes, and that twilsey is a real thing that you can make with fruit vinegar because fruit vinegars are also a real thing. (My foodieism needs serious work. I must become a proper foodie; they know how to have fun. Especially in Paris.) (By the way, does anyone know what you actually do with vanilla butter? I bought some…)
Thumbs up A+ would read again, I freaking love Tamora Pierce.
 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So, while we were in Paris, this being my third trip to Paris, the third time really was the charm and I finally got to visit the catacombs. Me being me, this should probably have been Stop #1 on Trip #1, but I’m not sure my dad would have been able to stand up straight in them.

After our utterly awesome and creepy foray through the catacombs, both the quarries and the ossuary, we went to the gift shop, where I proceeded to splurge on dumb stuff like a skull wine bottle stopper, but also bought a copy of the English-language version of The Catacombs of Paris by Gilles Thomas. I read the whole thing on the plane ride back home, as my Kindle decided to die an hour into the flight. (Thanks, Obama.)

This book might have been more useful to me when I was still within the catacombs, as my French is a bit iffy and the ossuary in particular is full of gloriously morbid, severe limestone plaques with quotes about death inscribed on them. The quotes represent all the best in Serious Death Talk that Western civilization has to offer, including quotes by Greek and Roman philosophers, French poets, and the Bible. (Everyone else, apparently, can go hang. But silently.)

Despite being about 120 pages long and slightly smaller than a DVD case (maybe the size of a Blu-Ray case? I am not sure, as I do not have Blu-Ray), this book is solid gold. It gives a pretty solid and up-to-date overview of the current visitor’s itinerary, walking you through everything you actually walk through but with much more information than is available on the wall plaques on the tour. (Another reason I think this books might have been better to have with me in the catacombs.) It also gives a ton of tantalizing glimpses into some of the other several hundred miles of catacombs beneath the city that the visitors cannot walk through, and an excellent brief history of the catacomb system as a whole. The first half of the book is mostly about the quarries, both in the past and present, as is the first half of the tour. The second half of the book, like the second half of the tour, is where things get grim, which is where we get into the ossuary.

The ossuary, despite being viscerally creepy because it is literally miles and miles and miles of stacked human bones, is not nearly as creepy as the stories behind why the ossuary was needed, and particularly the gruesome, stomach-churning accounts of the noxious public health hazard that was the Cimitière des Saints-Innocents, a cemetery that had been in use for 700 years and held the remains of over two million Parisians before turning into such an untenably disgusting pit of half-rotted medical waste that the city was forced to empty it and pave it over. The bones of those two million Parisians, plus an additional four million bones from the dozens of other cemeteries that had developed around Paris over the course of its two thousand year history, were all transferred to the empty caverns of the old limestone quarries that had once been safely outside of little baby Paris, and were now underneath it.

While this little book does not have the room to go into quite all the gory detail, it doesn’t pull any punches about what it does report, giving us photos of the ossuary, contemporary  artwork of old Paris cemetaries, bone transfers to the ossuary, various important happenings in the ossuary’s history (it’s really weird for me to think that just the ossuary is nearly as old as the United States when it was created basically as a result of Paris getting too old to keep its whole past around), and a lot of awesome quotes from all kinds of historical primary sources. Most importantly, it has a “further recommended reading” list at the end, so morbid weirdos like me know where to get additional fixes of Weird History With Skeletons.

Overall it’s got quite a lot packed into for a short slick touristy kind of publication; I think my biggest criticism of it is that there are a few places where the English translation kind of falls down on the job—not enough to interfere with comprehension, but enough to make you break concentration and have to read the sentence a second time. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Catacombs, if you can get a copy (I don’t know if it’s old outside the Comptoire), and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who actually goes through the Catacombs, both as a souvenir as an enhancement to the tour experience.

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