bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
The tenth and final volume of Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan graphic novel series is Transmetropolitan, Vol. 10: One More Time, which is a terrible title because every time I look at the cover of this volume I get Daft Punk’s song of the same name stuck in my head. Which, I suppose, is appropriate, because Spider Jerusalem is pretty punk and definitely daft. 
 
Despite the title it is a fantastic book and a fantastic end to the series. Spider defeats Callahan with THE POWER OF JOURNALISM, which is pretty much what we were expecting, but as always, whether it’s boring or not is in the execution, and the execution is pretty satisfying. It does make one wish that taking down a corrupt criminal president with THE POWER OF JOURNALISM happened a little faster in the real world rather than the slow-ass pace of Watergate or whatever the fucksticks is going on now (hoping and praying that whatever’s going on now actually does result in taking the president down eventually), but hey, the point of science fiction is to inspire us to envision a better future than our current tawdry realities. (Not that there are many ways in which Spider’s futureshock dystopia is better than our current tawdry realities; it’s more of a warning than an inspiration, I guess.) 
 
This volume is about twice as long as most of the others, but only half or maybe two-thirds of it is actually the story proper. Afterward there’s a series of little vignettes, mostly based on excerpts from I Hate It Here, Spider’s crankypants column for The Word, drawn by a variety of other comics writers. It’s fun seeing Spider and his filthy assistants rendered in all sorts of other folks’ styles, even as someone who’s not very familiar with other graphic novels and has no idea who these people are. I’m sure it’s even more fun if you recognize the other artists. 
 
Anyway, WHAT A DEPRESSINGLY TIMELY SERIES. It certainly makes me wish our current media institutions had more violently psychotic journalists, though, considering they’re up against increasingly violently psychotic politicians apparently. We should arm them all with bowel disruptors, just in case.
 
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
 In Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 9: The Cure,  Spider goes around re-gathering evidence for his project to take down President Callahan in between bouts of forgetting words while his brain falls out his nose. (Don’t do drugs, kids.) This outlaw journalism-ing involves such fun tasks as beating Fred Christ’s head in with the Chair Leg of Truth, but it is ultimately Spider’s crotchety former editor who does some massive day-saving with backup copies of Spider’s evidence. Spider then goes out and interviews more people, most of whom are not Fred Christ and who he therefore does not bash in the head with the Chair Leg of Truth. 
 
Spider gets some journalistic help from a scarfaced TV anchor named Robert McX, who does some epic signal boosting of Spider’s work by throwing it in Callahan’s face. But that’s about where the book ends, so the real fallout with obviously be the Big Showdown with Callahan in Volume 10 that we’ve all known is coming eventually.
 
This volume contains the immortal line “I hate Nazi sex midgets,” but other than that is one of the less weird installments in this series.
 
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol 8: Dirge continues the story of Spider’s attempt to take down the Smiler, and the Smiler’s attempt to thwart Spider at every turn and probably kill him. 
 
Because this book was written 16 years ago but is still depressingly relevant to everything about modern life, the big incident chronicled in this volume is something called a ruinstorm, a gigantic, destructive bomb of wind and water that apparently used to be much more common before they figured out how to stabilize the climate and weather a little. The Smiler uses this ruinstorm as cover to basically get all the press and cops off the streets so he can hack into newspaper archives and delete a bunch of stuff. Spider, of course, is having none of this and is more determined than ever, but he is suddenly on a deadline—he gets diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease and has one year, maybe two, until he loses all his cognitive faculties. 
 
Most of this book serves largely to set the scene for the big showdown against the Smiler that’s coming later, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of this volume. 
 
bloodygranuaile: (good morning)
I finally got around to picking up the third book in Max Gladstone’s excellent Craft Sequence, Full Fathom Five. I decided to prioritize this over the other giant pile of stuff I have to read because I am mentally exhausted reading about capitalism and politics and so wanted some nice escapist fantasy. And also because I am apparently stupid and self-sabotaging, since the Craft Sequence is basically all about technocorporate capitalism, just with souls as currency and gods taking the place of… fossil fuels? Basically energy utilities.
 
My favorite thing about Full Fathom Five right off the bat was that one of its viewpoint characters is very poor, which the previous ones have generally not been, so we get some scenes in which poverty is literally soul-sucking. Izza is a street thief, and it is through her that we see the effects of running low on soul—blurred vision, faintness, dizziness, basically what it sounds like it would be—when she has to buy incense when her goddess dies.
 
Full Fathom Five takes place on the small touristy island of Kavekana, the main industry of which, besides tourism, is the creation of idols—rudimentary godlike constructs that can be built upon request and worshiped by Kavekana’s priests, as a stable, safe investment with less sacrifice required than traditional actual deities. There are parallels here to any number of complicated financial hedging products that exist all up on Wall Street and elsewhere, and some other distinct parallels to the economies of assorted lovely small islands in places with nice weather that are referred to by residents of larger jurisdictions as “offshore.” The core of the plot is the core of so many stories of modern finance: a bunch of smart finance bros build products that they think have permanently beaten or ended some element of risk in the market, but the thing they thought they’d eliminated the risk of happens anyway. No one can get one over on capitalism indefinitely. 
 
Our other main viewpoint character is Kai, an idolmaker/priestess who ill-advisedly attempts to save a dying idol, nearly dies herself, is hospitalized and demoted, and winds up uncovering a giant conspiracy involving idols, an insufferable poet, and Cat the drug addict policewoman from Three Parts Dead. By the end it also involves Dickensian street urchin Izza and features a cameo by Teo from Two Serpents Rise, forming a wacky girl gang of priestessy types with terrifying powers. It’s FANTASTIC.
 
After the initial exciting bit with the idol dying and Izza’s goddess dying and Kai almost dying, the plot takes a somewhat leisurely but not too slow pace to really put together a full idea of what’s going on and how urgent it is to fix it, but that’s fine because the backstory and worldbuilding and meandering around Kavekana getting drunk and looking for poets is quite a lot of fun. It’s clear from pretty much the beginning that Izza’s Blue Lady is the idol Kai tried to save even though that’s supposed to be impossible, but this is OK because the real mystery is how the hell that happened, and it’s fun to see when and how the two main characters will finally cross paths (it’s a small island so they run into each other a bunch of times before interacting properly, which is probably a little gimmicky but I liked it?). I figured out who the bad guy was probably a chapter or two ahead of the protagonists; I think it’s pretty heavily telegraphed but only for a little bit, so the period of time you spend basically going “Don’t go into the basement with just a thimble!” is limited. 
 
Kavekana also features a terrifying rock-based police force, although one quite different from the gargoyle-derivative black ops-y Justice agents in Three Parts Dead. These are called Penitents and they are basically big magic geodes/iron maiden type things that criminals are trapped in until their wills are brought in line with the programming of the Penitents. The Penitents basically wander the streets scaring petty thieves, while the rich powerful folks are able to use the Penitents on their enemies to help them cover up crimes. This has no analogies to our current society’s issues of police militarization and their being used by large corporations (like, say the DAPL builders) against regular citizens whatsoever, I am sure.
 
I’m planning on getting to the last two books in this series later in June when I get up to Maine. I’m really, really glad I finally got around to reading this series; it’s just so great to have well-done fantasy that also indulges my love of reading about financial crime. 
 
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
 In the sixth volume of Transmet, Transmetropolitan, Vol. 6: Gouge Away, Spider has become a media celebrity.

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. 

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I loved Three Parts Dead so much that I immediately ran, did not walk, to borrow the sequel Two Serpents Rise from my roommate, and then I ate it (by which I mean I read it really fast; eating other people's books is rude).

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.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Aaaaaaaahhhhh it's the last Harry Potter book!

I'd only read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows once, since it came out, and since then I've seen bits of the movies, but I basically remembered next to nothing of the plot other than a) Horcruxes and b) the epilogue was boring, because those are the two things that have the most filtered into our cultural consciousness in the decade (!!!) since it was published. So most of this book was very much like reading something brand new.

This book deviates from the previously established structure of uncovering a plot over the course of a year at school, and instead borrows that timeless (or, in some hands, timeworn) fantasy classic structure: a Quest, or more specifically, a Long Ride. After aging out of the blood protection he got from the Dursleys and escaping with the Order of the Phoenix, Harry and Ron and Hermione wander around England for several months, searching for Horcruxes. Over the course of this quest, Harry is systematically stripped of most of his support system and prized possessions — starting, heartbreakingly, with Hedwig, who could easily be included in both categories — in a process that is clearly a metaphor for something. We've had this sort of thing in miniature before, right from the very first book, when Harry goes into the obstacle course defending the Stone with Ron and Hermione but ultimately must face Voldemort alone.

In Deathly Hallows, though, you know stuff has gotten real destablizing, because people are losing their wands. Ron memorably had his wand broken in Chamber of Secrets, but it was a secondhand wand (which means it probably didn't work all that well anyway), and its being broken caused problems for an entire year. But here, people are losing wands and having them broken and confiscated and stealing them from one another all over the place. It kind of makes you wonder why this sort of thing didn't happen more often earlier in the series, but maybe it's also just one of those things that happens more when society has largely collapsed. And make no mistake — wizarding society here has indeed collapsed.

In among the examination of authoritarian takeover and its attendant ills — mass surveillance, militarized public life, blackmail, betrayals, schools being turned into police states, propaganda about "undesirables," registering people based on their "blood status," does any of this sound familiar yet — is a Redwall-esque riddle quest (ha, do u see what I did there) through the history of the wizarding world and its great families to find and destroy the Horcruxes. The heart of the mystery is at Godric's Hollow, ancestral home of Godric Gryffindor, of the Peverell family, and of Harry's father. The crux of the action, however, occurs on the hallowed ground at Hogwarts, as it assuredly must. Harry has to figure out when to rely on his friends and when to stand alone; when to hide and when to draw attention to himself; when to fight and when to face death unarmed and accepting.

The body count is high, and whether the victims are characters introduced in the first book or in this one, they're all pretty devastating. Having grown up with these characters and this series, having so many of them die right when this book came out, as I was at the end of my teens, felt like my childhood was being killed off in a way that's more viscerally upsetting than I wanted to admit. It was no less traumatic the second time around, ten years later, even though in the intervening time I've read dozens or probably hundreds of books with vastly more death and violence.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows marks the end of an era, the end of the formative years for a generation that became better people because of this series, according to science. And now, it's time for us to take what we've learned and to go out and fight fascism in the Muggle world — without wands, but with love and courage and inquisitiveness and a sense of justice and a commitment to equality and all of our wonderful friends.
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: (oh noes)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is not really when the series starts to get dark, but it feels like it is.

It's not hugely long, being only a little bit over 400 pages. And there's no real character deaths, although obviously it deals with the fallouts from several past murders, as do all the books.

But it is the book where we meet the dementors, and so begins to really look at fear and despair and power in a more complex way than it had previously. And it is the book where we meet Sirius Black, which means it is also the book that starts complicating the long, deep web of trusts and betrayals that so inform the rest of the series. This isn't just unknown quantity Quirrell hiding his allegiances for a year; this is the decades of secret drama Voldemort sowed among families and close friends. We've spent the first two books learning history, both common knowledge and hidden, and now we start to learn about the ways that our understanding of history can be wrong. But to do that, we have to first learn about fear.

In this book, we learn that Harry's biggest fear is fear itself, which Franklin D. Roosevelt would be very impressed with if he were around, but since he isn't, kindly secret werewolf professor Remus Lupin does it instead. (Side note: While it is eventually revealed that Lupin was bitten as a child, it is never explained how his parents knew to name him something so wolf-y as Remus Lupin.)

In and around all the scary stuff about Harry being supposedly hunted by an escaped mass murderer and the deep stuff about fear and cowardice, there are plentiful infusions of the series' signature hopefulness and good humor. Harry starts the book off by making the dreadful Aunt Marge swell up like a balloon, and spends a whimsical three weeks ogling broomsticks and eating ice cream in Diagon Alley after a short adventure pretending to be Neville Longbottom. At school, he discovers the Marauder's Map and sneaks into Hogsmeade. Harry and Ron start taking two new classes; Hermione takes ALL the new classes. Gryffindor finally win the Quidditch House Cup. And the cure for exposure to dementors -- the embodiments of depression -- turns out to be, of course, chocolate.

Somewhere along the line of five bajillion new characters are introduced, both inside and outside the school, every single one of whom will show up at least once more in the series, with the possible exception of the clerk in the pet store who sells Ron rat tonic. It's impossible to thoroughly list all the delights in this book and the little bits and pieces of the puzzle that are so carefully set up. Rowling knows how to set up a Chekhov's gun (or wand, as the case may be).

This book is still in the "I have read it upwards of fifty times" part of the series to me, and now that none of it is surprising, I feel I can fully appreciate just how masterful and delightful every bit of it is. Every word is precisely where it should be. I refuse to even try to nitpick the time travel stuff. My brother has our old broken-in copy so I have a distressingly shiny new one. Its crisp, creamy pages and straight binding seem to rebuke me for not showing them any love over the years since I have acquired this copy. I can't let this happen again. This book is one of my best friends.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
It was a bit of common wisdom among my Harry Potter community many years ago that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was one of the less good ones — better than non-Harry Potter books, of course, but inferior to the other books in the series.

For the life of me, I cannot remember why.

I spent a chunk of last Wednesday devouring the thing from cover to cover and I was at every moment riveted, although every word and em-dash (J.K. Rowling loves em-dashes) was as familiar to me as the sight of my own hands. Though this installment of the series is not yet really dark, it's still got high stakes and a lot of tension, since most of the plot is just trying to figure out who the antagonist even is and then both the memory of Tom Riddle and the basilisk need to actually be defeated. Rowling's touch for mystery writing is really on display, as is her flair for writing secondary characters who are cartoonishly unhelpful but in, I have sadly learned in my wise old age, a realistically frustrating way. Dobby, Gilderoy Lockhart, the painfully earnest Colin Creevey, self-indulgent toilet ghost Moaning Myrtle all of them are irritating as hell in the most amusing possible ways. Other hilarious things include Ron's broken wand, the flying Ford Anglia (which later goes feral), Fred and George (of course), the Headless Hunt's general douchiness, the drugging of Crabbe and Goyle, and the cranky singing Valentines.

As usual in the Harry Potter books (as in life), friendship and kindness are of paramount important; many rules are meant to be broken but it's still useful to do your homework (or at least to have someone in the group have done their homework); and racism is bad. And, of course, we are taught that "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (We are also taught not to trust anything that can think for itself if we can't see where it keeps its brain, which is increasingly difficult out here in technologically advanced Muggle-land.)

Though this is a short book, it does a lot to build up the backstory to the larger Voldemort story that will be the main conflict in the rest of the series. We learn about Parseltongue, and why Hagrid was expelled, and that Dumbledore used to be younger and has not been an old man and head of Hogwarts since time immemorial, even though it seems like he should be. (In this part of the series, Dumbledore is still the greatest. If he were any greater, we wouldn't need Harry.) We also get to meet MORE WEASLEYS which is great because the Weasleys are the best. We also get more Malfoys, who are basically foils for the Weasleys, in that they are the worst.

Anyway, it was a beautiful three hours or so, rereading this book, rivaled only by the rest of the day when I reread Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (review forthcoming).
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In Transmetropolitan, Vol. 4: The New Scum, Spider and his two “filthy assistants” are still covering the shitshow of an election, doing interviews with Tammany Hall boss-esque incumbent The Beast and empty suit upstart Senator Gary Callahan, aka The Smiler.

Spider also interviews a bunch of other people, including a lady who used to be cryogenically frozen, because the 23rd century is weird like that. But mostly, this volume is entirely about the election.

Everything we’ve heard about the Beast in the past three volumes is awful. The more we learn of the Smiler, though, we start to see that he’s awful too, and of course, as soon as it becomes clear enough that he’s actually going to be more awful than the Beast, he wins the election. Spider and his filthy assistants throw hand grenades off the balcony when they learn this.

The title refers to the most throwaway stratum of city life, those disenfranchised by the Beast as punishment for never voting for him, although the term “new scum” was given to them by their new supposed hero Senator Callahan. The old scum is presumably the Beast’s voting base.

The relentless misery of electoral politics is occasionally broken up by subplots from weird religious sects, a cute section where Spider is actually nice to somebody (in this case, a young girl whose favorite toy had to be pawned), and by the blossoming pain-in-the-ass friendship between Channon and Yelena, Spider’s assistants (technically, his current assistant and his former-assistant-now-bodyguard).

The Hotel Fat also sounds like the futuristic version of Trump Tower, I’m just sayin’.

It’s hard to truly describe just how incisively weird Transmet is without just pointing out the stuff in panels—the cultural detritus (and I use that word for a reason) cluttering up every available surface in each panel is solid gold to read through, from food stands selling reindeerburgers and French people to a stenciled message on a public bench that reads “Warning: This bench becomes red-hot between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. No sleeping.” I know there’s some cities in the U.S. that would do that if they could figure out how to do so cheaply enough.

 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Hold onto your butts, because Transmetropolitan, Vol. 3: Year of the Bastard is where the real main plotline in Transmet—and the one that’s got nerds running in droves to reread the series—shows up: the election.

With Channon having ragequit Spider’s employment and fucked off to a nunnery, Spider starts off this volume avoiding covering the electoral shitshow that is consuming the city. His editor lands him with a new assistant and orders to start doing his damn job, so Spider decides to cover the opposition party’s convention.

The incumbent president is a corrupt, marginally competent lowlife that Spider has stuck with the nickname The Beast, and who seems to be the one primarily responsible for doing to the America in Transmet what Steve Bannon wants to do to the America in our reality, in this the worst of all timelines.

The opposition party’s two main candidates are a racist fascist named Joe Heller and a clean-cut senator with a creepy wide grin, Gary Callahan, nicknamed The Smiler. Spider’s main puzzle in this book is to ferret out and report on the shady dealings that allow Callahan to steal the Florida primary from Heller, who practically owns the state, and therefore nab the opposition party nomination. The shady dealings include a vice-presidential candidate who was literally grown in a vat. Personally, I think it’s unlikely that Florida will still exist by the time we’re growing full humans in vats, but perhaps it went and annexed part of another state or something.

Callahan’s campaign manager, Vita Severn, is basically the only halfway decent-seeming person involved in the whole affair, so of course she gets assassinated. This upsets Spider and gives Callahan a giant boost in the polls. What a coincidence, eh?

The political parallels to today’s electoral fuckery aren’t perfect—the Beast, Heller, and the Smiler all have attributes that are familiar enough among today’s politicians, but the characters themselves are quite their own. But there’s a lot of very resonant stuff about corruption and fakery and the government being run by people whose views on what the government actually ought to do are certainly not along the lines of “promote the general welfare.”  And, of course, there’s the role of the media, although none of the investigative journalists actually covering our campaign ended up getting quite the amount of celebrity Jerusalem supposedly enjoys (or hates, rather), plus Spider doesn’t have to compete with professional troll farms.

Still. Elections is ugly, and Ellis does ugly very well.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 2: Lust for Life is longer than the first installment of the series, and contains a number of loosely connected story arcs that mostly serve to do further worldbuilding and to further develop Spider Jerusalem’s highly dysfunctional character. In this volume, he takes on an assistant, buys a pair of Jesus-themed sneakers and gets all messianic, traumatizes a police dog, and has a pack of cultists set on him by the cryogenically frozen head of his ex-wife, who is also willfully dysfunctional.

Personally, my favorite part of this volume is the introduction of Channon Yarrow, a grad student paying her way through J-school with a series of increasingly less respectable gigs, of which becoming Spider’s assistant may be the least respectable. Channon has a useless boyfriend who eventually leaves her to become a foglet, essentially a cloud of living nanoparticles. Channon is very upset about this even though she’s better off without him.

If there is a weakness to this volume it is that it doesn’t have a storyline to tie it together, although the individual episodes are very interesting. The results are a bit disjointed. Fortunately, this won’t be the case for long. Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 2: Lust for Life is longer than the first installment of the series, and contains a number of loosely connected story arcs that mostly serve to do further worldbuilding and to further develop Spider Jerusalem’s highly dysfunctional character. In this volume, he takes on an assistant, buys a pair of Jesus-themed sneakers and gets all messianic, traumatizes a police dog, and has a pack of cultists set on him by the cryogenically frozen head of his ex-wife, who is also willfully dysfunctional.

Personally, my favorite part of this volume is the introduction of Channon Yarrow, a grad student paying her way through J-school with a series of increasingly less respectable gigs, of which becoming Spider’s assistant may be the least respectable. Channon has a useless boyfriend who eventually leaves her to become a foglet, essentially a cloud of living nanoparticles. Channon is very upset about this even though she’s better off without him.

If there is a weakness to this volume it is that it doesn’t have a storyline to tie it together, although the individual episodes are very interesting. The results are a bit disjointed. Fortunately, this won’t be the case for long. 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The Raven King is, I think, the most Raven Cycle-y of the Raven Cycle books. It’s also my favorite because my copy is signed by Maggie Stiefvater herself, which is always a plus. But it’s also a really fulfilling end to the series, drawing on all the themes and motifs set up right at the beginning—Blue’s prophecy and the vision of Gansey’s death and the tomb of Glendower and all that stuff—but also introducing wacky new elements and characters right up past where you’d ordinarily think you’d be getting much new information in a story this long. Henry turns out to be pretty important, and while it seems weird to be basically adding a fourth Raven Boy a few hundred pages from the end of a four-volume series, Henry is too awesome for it to matter—as is RoboBee, Henry’s magical robotic bee that functions as something between a familiar and a James Bond spy gadget.

Much of the series thus far has dealt with uncovering family secrets, but there are still more to be discovered, and they’re pretty big ones. Ronan has the most outlandish ones, and you’d think they’d be predictable after a while but they’re somehow not—after finding out in book two that his father dreamed up his mother and in book three that he dreamed up his brother, you wouldn’t think there would be more things to find out that he accidentally dreamed up, but there are. And that’s not even getting into the business end of things. Adam is still in some sort of weird possession/communication with the spirit of Cabeswater, which was getting better for a while as he learned to listen to it, but which is not becoming a problem again as Cabewater gets infested with the demon awakened at the end of the last book, which looks like a giant-ass black hornet (because wasps and bees and stuff are a huge recurring thing in this series and if I’d known I would have insisted the bees panel talk more about it at Readercon) and seems to function a lot like Hexxus from Ferngully. Henry has… well, he has the backstory that gave him RoboBee. Gansey is dealing with all his rich dude legacy problems, plus the having died already once thing, and while this Glendower quest has taken him all over the world, it turns out the answers might lie closer to home than he suspected.

Blue may be having the worst of it, though, because they found her father and brought him home, and he’s been cowering in a broom closet avoiding Gwenllian for the whole time, and it’s kind of sad. And then there’s some stuff where Blue might be basically part tree, and it’s pretty weird, even though Blue already has a lot of experience with being weird. It’s above and beyond weird and Gansey is still going to die.

On top of that, Piper, who has graduated to becoming our main villain after murdering her husband and adopting the demon hornet, might be more knowledgeable about magic shit than her husband was, but still does not seem to really grasp the gravity of what she’s doing when she decides to sell the demon hornet to the magical-object-collecting community. Frankly, the Piper/demon alliance is not the most seamless pairing of personalities, and it’s pretty hilarious. Piper also disses Legal Sea Foods, because she is the worst. Legal is a venerable Boston institution and their food is delicious even if they are functionally a chain now.

While the plot gets darker and weirder and more and more people die and Cabeswater is unmade, the language in the book actually gets funnier and more Stiefvater-y, and somehow it works. Part of this is because there are deceptively goofy-sounding characters like Piper and Henry, who are, respectively, amusingly shallow trash and using humor as a form of camouflage/coping mechanism for all the weird shit he’s part of. But even the third-person narration has gotten even less invisible than it was at the beginning of the series, using all sorts of interesting tricks like repeated lines, words and half-words floating about with no punctuation, stream-of-consciousness description, and jokes. Also, how do you not laugh every time you see “RoboBee” written on the page, no matter how dire the situation? Especially when everything else going on is so medieval?

Overall, it does end up reminding me a bit of the Lynburn Legacy books, with a similar blend of death and jokes, and of the modern and the historical. I’d definitely put it in the “sassy Gothic” subgenre that I wish was larger because it’s basically the sweet spot of Relevant To All My Interests. I can’t wait to see what Stiefvater comes up with next.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Aight, so I finished The Raven Boys and then picked up The Dream Thieves immediately that same day, so I might be a tiny bit confused about what goes in which book, because they're all one ongoing story anyway.

This book picks up pretty much right after the last one leaves off. The boys and Blue are still looking for Owen Glendower, although they have made what seems to be progress in the form of the thing that happened as the climax of the previous book. But there is also something weird happening with the corpse road/ley line/whatever you want to call the band of magical energy that Glendower is supposedly buried along: it's starting to flicker in and out like an overloaded circuit.

In other news, Ronan, the fighty Irish boy with emotional issues and a pet baby raven named Chainsaw, is working on his own magical powers: He can take things out of dreams. Chainsaw he took out of a dream, although that was before he started getting the hang of doing it on purpose. Also, somebody beat up Ronan's terrible older brother. Also also, a bunch of people are searching for what they believe is an object that allows people to take stuff out of dreams. Also also also, some dbag at Aglionby named Kavinsky keeps taunting Ronan into street racing and making extremely unclever gay jokes at him. Kavinsky is possibly the most unmitigatedly terrible person out of all the terrible people in this series. His terribleness doesn't even have a point, he's just an overpowered twit.

Meanwhile, Gansey and Adam go to an awkward party at Gansey's house, because his mom is running for Congress. Adam's inability to accept charity and simultaneous desire to break into non-poor society causes problems, as usual, because Adam doesn't understand that rich and powerful people stay rich and powerful because they help each other out a lot. Favors are what people trade in when they either don't have enough money to pay for stuff in money, or when they have too much money for the money to be meaningful. TAKE THE FAVORS. YOU'LL PAY THEM BACK LATER.

Also meanwhile, Blue's mom is dating the hit man that beat up Ronan's terrible brother, and she knows he's a hit man, and it's weirdly adorable? And then the hit man has a weird sort of tragic background/redemption arc about his own terrible older brother. Dysfunctional family secrets abound.

If the first book took a nice floral meandering path to getting the story rolling, by this point, it is rolling pretty fast. The Dream Thieves has its quiet moments and its descriptive passages and its teasing bits of backstory, yes, but for the most part, things have gone and turned into HIGH-OCTANE NIGHTMARE FUEL with someone getting beaten up or murdered or chased around by scary dream monsters with beaks and claws nearly every chapter. Cars blow up. Ronan's non-terrible younger brother gets kidnapped and stuck in the trunk of a Mitsubishi (which later blows up). Probably some other stuff gets blown up too, I don't even remember. Some people die and some other people weren't even alive to start with. Gansey gets covered in bees. This isn't funny because Gansey is very allergic to bees and has already died of bees once already.

This series is quickly moving up my "Did this author write this series just for me?" list, although it is not likely to dislodge the Lynburn Legacy from the top spot. But that is OK. It might get to #2 if it keeps escalating like this. Especially if tarot cards continue to feature in it as heavily as they do.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
One of the best literary discoveries I made this year was Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, of which the first volume, Ancillary Justice, was the first book I read in 2015, after it had won nearly every award in science fiction for 2014. Ancillary Sword I read sometime midyear, and the third volume Ancillary Mercy, was just published this fall.
Ancillary Mercy was a spectacular finale to the series. Breq has sooort of the same goal that she had in Ancillary Justice — to shoot Anaander Mianaai with a Presger gun, against dreadful odds — but things have gotten bigger and more complicated since then, not like it wasn't complicated to start with. Formerly more of a lone wolf, Breq is a Fleet Captain now, with a crew and a ship dependent upon her, and she's deeply enmeshed in the unstable petty politics of Athoek Station, where her ship is docked. Other complications include the arrival of Presger Translator Zeiat (we're pretty sure she's Zeiat because Presger Translator Dlique is dead, so she can't be Dlique) and an unregistered human living in the slums of Athoek Station who might be an ancillary to an ancient, long-lost ship from before Anaander Mianaai took over the Radch, apparently still hiding in its ghost system on the other side of the gate.
One theme that had been running constantly through the books that's really pushed to its limits in this one is the idea of who counts as real people. The Radch have a very self-absorbed notion of "civilization," where to be "civilized" is to be Radch, and therefore anyone who's not Radch can be murdered with impunity as lowly savages up until they become Radchaai — at which point they are entitled to all the benefits of the Radchaai state, on the condition they follow its rules and leave any other sort of identity completely behind them. This doesn't always pan out in practice, of course. The Presger — the powerful, ineffable aliens that are the only creatures the Radchaai are really afraid of — have a similar delineation between Significant Beings and insignificant ones, with Significance being enforced by strict treaties. The Radchaai have managed to get humans a treaty designating them Significant; AIs such as ships, stations, and ancillaries are still considered tools rather than independent, civilized, or Significant races by anybody — except, perhaps, themselves. And Breq has been doing a pretty convincing human impression for several hundred pages now. If the trilogy weren't so long, it would make an excellent, excellent addition to the Aliens and Others in Science Fiction course I took at Clark, which I will freely admit shaped a lot of my thinking on what "literary" work (discussion of what "literary" means to be had at another time) speculative fiction does. Stories that look closely at the relationships between artificial intelligence and humanity have always been my favorite type of science fiction anyway; I like cyborgs better than aliens.
I also like tea, although not as much as the Radchaai like tea, but all the same I very much enjoy the role of tea in these books, and they make me want to own more fancy tea paraphernalia. Fancy tea sets are frequently used as status symbols, and status is extremely important in Radchaai society. One especially fancy tea service becomes quite integral to the plot after it is tragically shattered by a spoiled brat near the end of Ancillary Sword, as it provides important clues to one of the many knotty political mysteries Breq is trying to untangle.
This series has been targeted by assorted reactionary types for being too political, as if any halfway decently written political drama isn't going to be freaking political, or indeed, any decently written story at all. And it is true that the villains and heroes in this work are not determined by whether they are wearing white hats or black hats, but by their actual actions and beliefs. There are some plotlines featuring actions taken and beliefs expressed that do relate to certain hot topics in modern civilization, such as Lieutenant Seivarden's slow, painful journey toward becoming less of a classist assbag, and Anaander Mianaai's questionable views on how to handle peaceful citizen protest. Personally I think these are handled stellarly they're certainly relevant to modern issues, but they are very much a part of the world of the Radch after all, while the world of the Radch seems strange initially, people are people and we kind of do the same basic sorts of stupid shit in a lot of our societies and they are integral and organic parts of the story Leckie is telling. And honestly, it's these sort of little human details people being whiny and emotional and status-conscious and petty and materialistic and flipping their shit about tea that fills out these sorts of big epic space dramas with their talking ships and nearly-magical weapons and farcically incomprehensible aliens and makes them feel real and rich and relevant.
I think this is never more relevant than with the Presger, who are so completely and terrifyingly outside of human norms that the Presger Translators they send (who seem to be . . . constructed, somehow, like they were grown and programmed in a lab) generally come off as farcical in addition to their being some confusion over which one is Translator Dlique and which one is Translator Zeiat, Translator Zeiat's favorite drink is fish sauce, no matter how many times the humans try to explain that fish sauce is a condiment which, occasionally, makes it tempting to forget that they are actually terrifying. All their weirdness makes total sense somehow, to them, and they're the ones with the sufficiently-advanced-so-as-to-be-indistinguishable-from-magic guns. It's creepy as hell. But it is also still hilarious.
Actually, much of the book is hilarious; it might be a bit much if it weren't. But for a spaceship, Breq is pretty witty in a deadpan sort of way.
I'm a bit sad that there will be no more of this series, although I think it did wrap up in a very satisfying way. Perhaps I should go back and read it again rather than pining for more; I'm sure there's some things I missed the first time around.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Well, I am on a roll with reading books wrong. In the case of Diana Gabaldon's Voyager, the third book in the Outlander series, it's because I got it out of the library, only read 25% of it before I had to return it about two months ago, got back in line, and read the rest of it last week when it finally cycled back to me.
While Outlander took place almost entirely in Scotland, and Dragonfly in Amber brought us as far as France, the aptly named Voyager brings us basically everywhere. Acting on news from the research project she, Brianna, and Roger started in 1968, Claire moves from Boston back to Scotland, travels back through the stone circles at Craigh na Dun to sometime in the 1760s, tracks down Jamie in Edinburgh, and from there a relentless flood of shenanigans takes them all around Scotland, then to France, and then back over the Atlantic to the Caribbean. And that's just the main plotline, from Claire's perspective. We also get POVs from Jamie, as he does all sorts of dramatic Highlander things like hide in a cave for seven years and escape from an English prison; from Roger; and from one Lord John Grey, who seems to have a bunch of his own spinoff novels now.
The book is also kind of all over the place in other ways, too. Some of it is very serious--Jamie's time in Ardsmuir, for example, is pretty dark, treated with all seriousness and mostly not filled with highly improbable action-hero hijinks. Other bits are, uh, not--once they get on a boat everything basically becomes "Highlanders of the Caribbean" and it's all very colorful and almost absurdly action-packed, and develops a serious case of Les Mis-level small world syndrome (you know how in Les Mis, Paris has like twenty people and one policeman and one apartment to rent? In Voyager, the entire British Empire has about twenty people, one ship, and two military officers).
One of the big effects of leaving the rural Scottish highlands is that there are a lot more people of color in this book, which is a thing that can obviously go very wrong very quickly, especially considering the time period is really the height of British colonial power in the New World (it's like, 10 years before the American Revolution starts, I think) and the slave trade is in full swing. I have... mixed feelings about how this is handled. It's clearly well researched, which certainly helps it avoid some of the more common myths and pitfalls about the time (most notably, Gabaldon knows what involuntary indenture is and the ways in which it is similar to and different from chattel slavery; this shouldn't be noteworthy but it is). But the general approach she takes to characterizing pretty much all ethnicities--which is not so much to avoid stereotypes, but to deliberately walk straight into them and then try to build up more perspective/characterization on top of it--works slightly less well with, for example, the one Chinese character--a short, frequently drunk man with very bad English whose skillset is basically a grab bag of Chinese Things, including Chinese herbal medicine, acrobatics, calligraphy, acupuncture, and, of course, magic--than it does with any one of the ten billion Scots that populate the series. (Granted, one of the things I do kind of like about the books is that every culture the characters come into contact with has its own magical traditions and they all appear to work equally well, but the execution can still feel a bit clumsy--like, this random English lady keeps finding herself in situations where every time she meets new people she gets to witness their magic in action. Every single time.) The one Chinese dude is an especially interesting case of both being an interesting character and giving me wincy feelings because he's a fairly major secondary character and he gets a good amount of page time. He's known throughout the book as Mr. Willoughby, which is obviously not his name but was bestowed upon him in a well-meaning but ultimately worse-than-useless attempt to help him blend in. He's sometimes a comic character but other times a very tragic one, especially when you finally learn his backstory--something I found particularly interesting was that a major part of his backstory is that he is actually kind of a sexist dillweed, in the hopeless-romantic-with-ludicrously-unrealistic-views-of-women method that made me like him a bit less as a reader but is clearly a huge point of commonality between him and a lot of the white dudes in the book. By the end of the story I actually did like him, but there were a couple of cringeworthy scenes to get to that point.
Also cringeworthy is an appearance of one of my least favorite tropes EVER, actually I don't really know if it's a trope but I have seen it in one other book at least, which makes two too many--where a nice white lady who is very opposed to slavery gets so upset about it that she winds up owning one, because that is totally a thing that happens, and it is very upsetting, because clearly the important thing about slavery is how hard it would be on anti-slavery white people to be landed with one, and now she has to decide how best to go about being a good white savior, which in both cases I've read have inexplicably involved steps other than "ask person what they want and do it." I partly don't like this trope because it smacks very strongly of "author's personal self-examination and thought exercises leaking onto the paper"; in this case, many of the compounding issues that cropped up in the Jackie Faber book where this happens are thankfully avoided, but at least in the series so far, I can't help but think that the entire subplot with Temeraire could have been completely excised with no harm done to the rest of the book whatsoever.
These are the low points. There are many, many other things going on in this book (these books tend to be pretty densely packed with a wide assortment of Things), including the reappearance of Geillis Duncan (who is a major creeper), our first gay character who isn't predatory and terrible, hints of family backstory and things for Claire's Boston doctor friend Joe Abernathy (JOE ABERNATHY IS GREAT), lots of ladies with lots of agency in different ways all along the moral spectrum, and, as usual, a lot of sex, although kilts have been sadly outlawed at this point so Jamie is reduced to constantly wearing breeches. And have I mentioned the MELODRAMATIC ADVENTURES ON THE HIGH SEAS? It is everything you could want out of a melodramatic adventure on the high seas; I think Gabaldon had a checklist of Stuff That Happens When Adventure On the High Seas and made sure every point got in there somewhere--there is kidnapping, espionage, shipwrecks, slave revolts, an outbreak of plague, naval battles, pirate attacks, smuggling, big storms, seasickness, hardtack with weevils, a Portuguese pirate with too much jewelry and a cutlass, stowaways, a parentally disapproved-of romance, and even a dude with a hook for a hand, although the said dude is Fergus, who we actually met in the last book and who lost his hand long before becoming a sailor. At one point there is even a big hat. (Note: People for whom melodramatic pirate adventures are NOT catnip might find this half of the book frustrating, the way I find cartoon physics in non-cartoon movies frustrating, because it kind of pushes against one's suspension of disbelief sometimes. I'm just willing to overlook this because for me, melodramatic pirate adventures are SUPER CATNIP.)
On a more serious note, the looks we get into the British penal and colonial systems, in Scotland and elsewhere, are really, really well done, I think--they're very informative but also very emotionally engaging, and involve a lot of heavy stuff about power and identity, which is especially apt since the British relied even more heavily on eradicating people's identity to conquer them than they did on brute force (not like brute force wasn't a major component, of course). I particularly appreciate the looks at the basically decent English people who were still complicit in and perpetrators of these colonial systems that very definitely weren't at all about "helping" or "civilizing" any of the people in the lands the British took over and who the English definitely never saw as their fellow countrymen, even the sort of nice ones, no matter what the official imperialist rhetoric was.
This book's story arc never particularly wraps up--it just leads right into the next book, which I have dutifully added to my library queue. The line is shorter than it was for the last few books, so with luck I will have it within a few weeks.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
GOOD LORD AM I BEHIND ON MY MARK READS OR WHAT.
Anyway, last weekend I finally caught up on Witches Abroad, which I vaguely remember as being "the Cinderella one." Which it is! But I'd forgotten most of the rest of it.
Like many Discworld books, this one is about stories; like many of the Witches books in particular, it is about fairy tales; but this Witches Discworld book, specifically, is about Disneyfication.
The "abroad" where the witches go is a city-state called Genua, which seems to be based in part on New Orleans, but which is being sanitized and forced into basically becoming the Magic Kingdom (it also reminds me of the walled city in Shrek). It's really just Magrat who is supposed to go, officially—after all, Desiderata Hollow left the magic wand to her when she died—but obviously Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax aren't going to let Magrat go off and do anything on her own, so all three of them go, with Granny complaining about "forn parts" the whole way.
While Granny is staunchly (and meanly) provincial, Nanny Ogg is a belligerently enthusiastic and clueless tourist, bulldozing her way through Genua with a hodgepodge of incorrect common phrases from a variety of languages, apparently under the impression that "foreign" is a language and she speaks it. It's hilarious, and probably very embarrassing for Magrat. Magrat is, as usual, ineptly well-intentioned, and can't figure out how to do anything with the wand except turn things into pumpkins.
The entity Disneyfying (Disnifying? Disnefying?) Genua is a fairy godmother named Lilith, who uses mirror magic. This Evil Queen trope makes her scary as hell because she can basically always be spying on people; her whole magical system bears more resemblance to George Orwell's Big Brother than anything else: She's always watching, and she can have you disappeared if you don't behave according to the exact code expected of you. Her goal is to provide everyone with a happy ending, whether they like it or not, which on second thought also has weird Communist dictatorship overtones. I think there's some underhandedly political commentary about authoritarian utopianism going on in this book, y'all. I always missed it because I was too busy focusing on the fairy tales aspect and the puns!
The fairy tale tropes are deconstructed mercilessly, especially once you find out more about Lilith. It involves more mirroring, in a way.
While the sanitized/gentrified/Disneyfied aspect of Genua is handled brilliantly, the New Orleans-y stuff underneath falls a bit flat sometimes—Pratchett is clearly very familiar with his fairy tale tropes and the way they differ from messy reality generally, but he's not as familiar with the voodoo stuff he's incorporating as he is with the rural British cultures he draws on in places like the Ramtops, so some of the jokes feel more obvious than I generally expect from Pratchett and some of them are just plain racially awkward. (Lilith's whitewashing of Genua would have been SUCH a powerful layer if it had been handled a bit better!)
Overall, though, it is basically everything you'd expect and want out of a Witches book, and then a little bit more.
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)
I read Lyndsay Faye's The Fatal Flame in about a day, which is pretty much the exact same thing I did with both of the first two books in this series, The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret.

The title of this one is a bit more literal than the first two--the book is about fire. Much of the series has already been about fire: Timothy Wilde's parents died in one; his larger-than-life older brother Valentine is a firefighter; and, of course, he got half his face burned off at the beginning of Book 1. As a predictable consequence, Timothy Wilde is terrified of fire.

So it's only fitting that the final mystery in the series would be an arson case.

At least one thread in the plot seems deceptively simple: When sleazy robber baron industrialist and hella corrupt Democratic Party alderman Robert Symmes reports the arson to Timothy and Valentine, he also hands them a convincing suspect pretty immediately: a women's labor rights activist whom he had fired after an unsuccessful strike. He also seems to have proof in the form of creepy threatening letters that Sally Woods, the activist in question (who lives in a greenhouse with a printing press and wears pants and is generally awesome) had sent him.

Obviously, it's not going to be that simple.

For starters, when Robert Symmes asks Valentine to investigate the arson, he pisses Valentine off so badly that Valentine decides to run against him for Alderman, which upsets nearly everybody because of a long-ass list of Tammany Hall-related Reasons. Like, Timothy isn't even the person who is the most pissed off about this--that would be Gentle Jim, Valentine's boyfriend. The circumstances under which Symmes pissed Valentine off are also ones that intersect with both Timothy's detective work and a lot of long-running personal and family issues for Valentine, who honestly seems to be in competition with Tim for which one of them can be the most messed up. (Or more likely, it is Tim that is in competition with Valentine.)

The resulting plotlines draw Tim--and us--deeper into the world of corrupt Tammany politics, and into the horrifically exploitative world of women's industrial labor in the mid-nineteenth century, including the prejudices endured by the white in-house factory girls, the abuses heaped upon the out-of-house freelance seamstresses (mostly immigrants), and the even more horrific abuses employed to divert immigrant/refugee women into the sex trade (this story takes place at the height of the Hunger, so: lots of very destitute Irish washing up in New York). There are good cops and bad cops and good corrupt politicians and bad corrupt politicians, and while I usually found it pretty easy to slate characters into Awesome Characters and Characters I Want To Punch Up The Bracket, in the actual situations on the ground Timothy doesn't always know who's a "good guy" and who's a "bad guy" (except Alderman Symmes, where the only question is just HOW reprehensible is he really) (answer: TOTALLY REPREHENSIBLE), and winds up in all sorts of awkward situations like "working with his nemesis Silkie Marsh" and, as previously mentioned, "trying to solve a crime on behalf of Alderman Symmes."

Some readers have apparently complained that there is not enough Valentine, probably because they want the book to be all Valentine all the time, which is understandable enough. Valentine Wilde is both the hero this version of New York City needs and that it deserves. Timothy is not very good at heroing, which is what makes him such an excellent actual protagonist. But Valentine is totally big on heroing, doing ALL THE DRUGS and banging ALL THE LADIES (AND SOME OF THE DUDES TOO) (MOSTLY JIM) and speechifying ALL THE RABBLE-ROUSING SPEECHES and dressing ridiculously and running into fires and slamming rapists' heads through walls and basically being a Big Damn Hero and also entertainingly batshit. His and Timothy's relationship continues to be a thing of beauty to read, meaning they fight even worse than me and my brother Timothy ever did--which is sayin' something, but I don't think Tim and I have ever devolved into a giant screaming match about how much we hate each other in front of extremely important political personages, at least not as adults. This Tim and Valentine will have giant I-hate-you screaming matches at any time in front of any person, about literally anything, from Valentine's sex life to why Timothy is short. All these topics eventually end up illuminating something about their extremely complicated relationship, because fiction is supposed to have less pointlessness in it than real life.

Anyway, if the book were all Valentine all the time, we also wouldn't get as much of everyone else--not Bird Daly, on her way to becoming a teenager; Elena Boehm, whose accent gets more pronounced every book for some reason I still haven't figured out; Dunla Duffy, an immigrant seamstress whose half-simple Gaelic poeticism makes getting information out of her a whole new mystery plotline in itself; Mercy Underhill, back in New York and with something unidentifiably wrong going on; Tim's squad of Irish roundsmen buddies, including the one who falls in love with a police-hating immigrant woman because she nearly shot him; Gentle Jim Playfair, with whom Tim begins building a real friendship independent of Valentine; pants-wearing activist Sally Woods; the fictionalized version of George Washington Matsell, first head of the NYPD; or spectacles-wearing wannabe-dandy newsboy Ninepin and his crew (but mostly Ninepin)--even the bad guys, like Grand Bitch Silkie Marsh and Alderman Robert "That Guy" Symmes, are worth every minute of their time on the page. Usually in a book this big there's something that I figure could have been edited down, even if I don't personally mind, but with Faye's stuff I need every single interaction between every single character that takes place. All I need is for someone to have an asshole cat and I might have actually died of awesome casting.

Despite all the screaming and arson and oppressed laborers (and an ACTUAL TARRING AND FEATHERING OMG), much of this book is still funny. Partly this is due to Timothy's entertaining internal narration -- he is very clever when he is not being dense as a brick--and a big chunk of it is due to his wacky pseudodetective sidekick, Mr. Jakob Piest, a Dutch policeman with a talent for "finding things." But the funniest part of the book is Timothy voting for the first time in his life, which doesn't sound all that exciting until you get up close and personal with just how absurdistly corrupt the Tammany Hall voting machine was at that time. And how terribly loud the "dandy" fashions of the era were. Apparently, an orange cravat and getting completely shitfaced were mandatory for voting in this time period.

As always, the flash patter remains one of my singularly favorite aspects of the book, but I really have to take a step back and admire how seamlessly this thieves' cant fits into the rest of the worldbuilding, with different characters' use of and reactions to it informing their already rich characterization. This New York is pretty hardcore awful, but it's not a one-dimensional pseudo-deep grimdark -- it's as rich and thrilling and satisfyingly devourable as a Guinness chocolate cake.

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