Blog: Books

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Spells of War (Gary McGath)

It's the middle of the 16th century in Europe. Magic exists, but is regulated and restricted to Christian men. Then Thomas Lorenz, a curious nerd trying to solve an interesting magical-scientific problem, figured out how to store magic. He had in mind practical applications like lights without fire; others had...other applications in mind. Nobody understands where magical power comes from, why some have it and some don't -- it comes from the World Behind, they know, but what that is is a mystery.

Martin Luther's reformation has upended Christendom from within, and the expanding Ottoman empire threatens it from without. Thomas is summoned from his university by the emperor -- one of Thomas's students is now making magical weapons for the other side, and he'd better get to work on countering that. Not only that, but they seem to have developed a weapon that can strip mages of their power, an existential threat to mages beyond the broader threat.

Spells of War by Gary McGath tells this story from several points of view. We follow Thomas and his associates as they try to understand the threat and develop counter-measures. We follow Petros, the student, and his associates who are pressed into service to the sultan. We follow soldiers who are plunged into new ways of waging war. And we follow Thomas's wife, Frieda, who pursues her curiosity about the World Behind while Thomas is away, while also caring for their two young children.

Spells of War is the sequel to The Magic Battery but stands alone. The Magic Battery starts with Thomas's apprenticeship and follows his explorations into stored magic and the ire of the church it attracts. I read and enjoyed both.

Spells of War tells an interesting story with characters I cared about. In both books, the author made me care about, and understand the inner struggles of, people who are on the "other side" -- the inquisitor in the first book and Petros and his peers in the second. Spells of War shows the devastation that war causes on all involved. I don't want to say too much about the Frieda arc for fear of spoilers, but it's engaging and gives us a very different perspective.

The world of The Magic Battery and Spells of War holds together logically. There's magic but it's not "oh, we have magic so we can do anything!"; magic has limitations, both technical and societal, and 16th-century Europe is plausibly altered to make room for magic but is still 16th-century Europe. But you can't just add magic and expect nothing else to change, either; adding magic changes society, and these two books show that well.

The Magic Battery has a satisfying ending that raises broader questions. Spells of War has a satisfying ending that raises more questions. I don't think a third book is coming (or not soon, anyway), but there's room for side stories, and one is linked from the author's web site.


I was a beta reader for both books in exchange for free copies with no expectations of reviews.

Fae shifter knights (Zoe Chant)

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, someone shared a link to a blog post from Zoe Chant, who -- because we were all suddenly in lockdown and dealing with extra stress -- offered a free e-book of hers to anyone who asked. I asked, she described a few options, and I chose Dragon of Glass, the first book in what would be the Fae Shifter Knights series. I loved it and got each of the following books as they came out. The fourth and final book just came out a few weeks ago, so I'm finally getting around to writing about them.

As implied by "fae", the knights (one per book) are from another world or realm. They're transported, one at a time, into modern-day Earth, and have to learn about magical cooling boxes and lights without flames and smartphones and television -- and social conventions. I enjoyed the fish-out-of-water aspect, laughing not infrequently. It would be easy for this to be overdone, but it's not.

The knights were one fighting band on the other side, where their world fell to evil magical beings. Somehow, during their final battle, they were frozen in glass and sent into our world. (That's explained, but it would be a spoiler.) Each knight has a corresponding person in our world, a "key", who can help unlock that knight's magic (which is greatly diminished in our world). Each of the four books focuses on one of the knights while contributing to the overall story. When I started reading Dragon of Glass I thought I was getting some light-hearted fluff, but there's more depth to the series and I found the larger story engaging.

As implied by "shifter", each knight has an alternate, magical form -- dragon, unicorn, gryphon, firebird. (When they were frozen in glass, it was in those forms, at the size of tree ornaments. The set got broken up; part of the quest for the knights and keys already here is to find the other ornaments.)

Aside: There is a whole genre of "shifter romance" that I was largely unaware of two years ago. These books, and many of Zoe Chant's other books, are in this genre. There are definitely romantic elements (and some sex scenes), but as someone who's not really into romances, I didn't find it overdone or intrusive. It was just part of the story -- not the reason for the story like (as I understand it) with some mainstream romances.

The knights have a leader and mentor, a "fable" -- not a fairy, as the character keeps insisting. (At a foot tall and with wings, you can understand the confusion.) As a reader I had more trouble connecting with this character than with the knights and keys, though the fable does get some funny, snarky lines. (Part of my problem is a personal one: the number mismatch of singular "they" trips me up as a reader, every time, even when I know who the referent is. My brain treats it as a runtime exception or something. I've tried to overcome it, but have not yet succeeded.)

The final book, Firebird of Glass, was heavier than the others (as was the end of the third book). The series has been building toward a final confrontation (the forces that took over the knights' world want ours too), and at times the book is sombre and grim. When I started the book I had predictions, expectations, of how this final confrontation was going to end; partway through the book I developed different predictions -- and in the end the author surprised me with something I never saw coming but that felt right.

I enjoyed the series, and I think some of my readers would, too.

I don't think that's how consciousness works

I recently read Corey Doctorow's novel Walkaway. It's set in a post-scarcity world where the super-rich (zota rich, or just zotas) hold their power by stomping everyone else down. There's enough to go around, but people have to work (at crap jobs for crap wages) anyway, while the zotas sit back. Some people hate this and decide to opt out by walking away and forming their own communities off the grid. The book follows some of these walkaways, as they're called. (And no, the zotas are not cool with this.)

Another theme of the book is conquering death -- that's how the characters view it. More specifically, their goal is to be able to back up a human's essence, at which point if you get killed you can be restored from backup (initially as a digital simulation, eventually into a new body). This is an attractive idea in SF and this book is hardly the first to explore it, but I always get tripped up by the same issue, including in this book.

That issue is: sure, it'd be nice if I could back up my brain so that "Monica" would never have to cease to exist, but that doesn't mean that backup is me. It would think so, of course; it would have all my memories. But from my perspective, my body dies -- I die. If I'm dead, do I really care if there's a simulation of me running out there somewhere?

This is not conquering death. At best it's mitigating it. Which makes it hard for me to relate to stories where people say "great, ditch the meat body and come back digitally or in a robot or a perfect body or whatever". Would people really do that? I find that hard to swallow.

Despite this point, I mostly enjoyed the book. There's one place where there's a jump in time that I found rather abrupt, and the story is far more dialogue-heavy than I'm used to, with a lot of philosophy in that dialogue. (In other words, large blocks of philosophy-dialogue or exposition-dialogue, as opposed to short, interactive dialogue.) But many of the characters are engaging and walkaway-land sounds like a cool place to live, when the zotas aren't trying to quash it.

Added in a comment:

And then there are the problems of forking (this comes up in Walkaway) and restoring to older versions to erase part of your life (which comes up in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which Walkaway is a prequel for and which I have now read). I'm me, but is each of the dozen independent sims of me also me? And how much of a "restore" is me if there's been selective editing? Can you cherry-pick commits too?

Magic 2.0 seems to have jumped the shark

A couple years ago somebody recommended Scott Meyer's Off to Be the Wizard, the first book in the "Magic 2.0" series. The premise is geek-fantasy: the point-of-view character, Martin, is a hacker who discovers a file (out there somewhere) that, when you edit it, changes reality. In other words, it's the file that defines the world and everything in it. After experimenting a bit (always meant to drop 20 pounds, that kind of thing), he decides to improve his quality of life by altering his bank balance. That's fine because he's creating money, not actually stealing it from anybody, right? No, not such a bright move, and soon he finds himself making a temporal change to escape the feds. His plan is to flee to medieval England and pretend to be a wizard. He's not the first person to think of that, or the last -- the other wizards put him through trials to decide if he can join the guild or if they'll revoke his access and send him back to his time to deal with the feds. It's a fun read.

I also enjoyed the sequel, Spell or High Water, in which we find out more about where female wizards (sorceresses) go, medieval England not being so great for them. We see more interactions among the main characters, and of course some problems they need to solve together. Another fun read.

The third book, An Unwelcome Quest, was less fun, in large part because of the setting. This is the first book where we don't see much of the world the wizards are in; an enemy wizard has caught the gang in a trap and most of the book is spent trying to escape it. Because my reaction to this one was solidly mediocre, and also because the next one existed only as an audiobook for a long time, I didn't go further. Recently I noticed that two more books were available on Kindle.

The fourth, Fight and Flight, starts with the wizards making a stupid mistake with consequences, which they spend the rest of the book cleaning up. The humor (including some actual laughing out loud) of the first book was back, and the resolution of the problem seemed to start down a good character-development path. On the basis of that, I read the fifth.

Out of Spite, Out of Mind was a major disappointment. Many of the characters' actions are just stupid, and in a not-fun way. That growth suggested at the end of the previous book is nowhere in evidence. The plot also revolves around some time-travel paradoxes that have been there since book 2 and always been a little annoying, but now they've taken over. In book 2 we met Brit the Younger and Brit the Elder, who are really the same person at different points in their personal timeline because bad things happen when you time-travel and meet yourself. They don't agree that they're the same person, by the way, and arguments about predestination break out. In this book that all ramps up, and we meet Brit the Much Elder and Angry Brit and Brit the One Hour Older and I think there's one more running around in there... and y'know what? I never liked Brit all that much to begin with. And in the process of messing with the Brits, the author messes with some characters I like and then ends with a very obvious setup for a sequel at the expense of resolving a major thread. I kind of feel like the author broke the contract with the reader here, especially since the earlier books all at least resolved even while leaving openings.

I see the sixth book is coming soon. I won't be reading it.

(By the way, I've read two other books, not in this series, by this author that were fun. Perhaps he does better with one-offs?)

At the end of the day

A short story in three acts.

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Matt sat in the back row of his freshman anthropology class, browsing Twitter on his phone. Kevin, sitting next to him, whispered, “careful, he’s looking this way.”

Professor Ramirez paused, then nodded toward the student sitting two rows in front of them. “Yes, Leonard?”

“Are you saying these primitive people actually believed that the sun was being swallowed by a dragon? I mean, haven’t we known about eclipses for thousands of years? It’s not rocket science.”

“Be careful what you dismiss,” the professor responded. “There are people alive even today in remote places who don’t have the benefits of science that we take for granted.” His eyes fell on Matt and Kevin. “Science isn’t just for surfing the Internet during class. It also…” Matt looked up, blushing, but the professor had moved on. Matt tapped a few times on his phone.

“Ah bummer,” he whispered to Kevin. “We don’t get a total eclipse here for another seven years. I wish we were seeing today’s show instead of sitting here.”

The shaman’s frenzied dance did nothing to deter the darkness overhead. Frightened villagers gathered around. Infants wailed, drowning out the erratic sounds of confused wildlife.

The village elder pushed his way through the crowd and stood in front of the shaman. The shaman stilled his skyward exhortations. The elder met his gaze. “Why?”

The shaman shook in fright. “I do not know, master. We have been diligent in making our offerings to the gods. We fed the dragon just last full-moon!”

The elder’s gaze fell on a man, now childless. Tears streamed down the man’s face. Had his daughter’s sacrifice been for nothing?

The sky continued to darken. A rock flew through the crowd, smashing into the father of the most recent offering. Someone shouted “unfit! what have you done to us?” Others shouted back. Fists met faces, and some reached for clubs. The village elder’s cries for order went unheard in the eruption surrounding him. The glow of just-lit torches spread through the crowd. The shaman stood still, gazing up with pleading eyes.

Darkness covered the land. The light did not return.

“I see you’ve finally tired of playing with your food.”

N’zok belched and moved closer to his mate, placing his vast left wing over her back in a partial embrace. “This system was getting boring. Thank you for indulging me.”

“Where to next?”

N’zok rotated in space, turning his mate with him. With a claw he gestured toward a bright light. “You can’t see it from here, but there are two stars in that system, one for each of us. We should be happy there for a long time.”

“Is there any chance you’ll consider eating slowly this time instead of wolfing it down? That’s so barbaric.”

N’zok belched again. “Barbaric, but oh so tasty!”

Both dragons unfurled their wings — unnecessary in the vacuum of space, but N’zok appreciated the aesthetics. They began their slow movement toward the binary star.

Airplane reading #3: The Three-Body Problem

The last of the books I read on our trip was The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated from Chinese by Ken Liu (after which it won a Hugo). I enjoyed the novel for both the science-fiction plot and the view into Chinese culture and history, and the translator did an excellent job of not just translating words but making the context accessible to western readers while still feeling Chinese. This kind of translation task is as much art as science.

The story takes place over several decades (and the novel jumps around some), starting during the Cultural Revolution. One of our point-of-view characters, Ye Wenjie, sees her physics-professor father murdered by the Red Guards and is sent to the countryside (where she is branded as subversive), but her own physics research was ground-breaking and eventually attracts the attention of a military research team. She needs protection and they need her brain, so off she goes. While working for them on the search for extra-terrestrial life she eventually finds something.

Another point-of-view character, Wang Miao, is a nanotech researcher who starts having disturbing visions. During his investigation he stumbles across a VR game called "Three Body" and begins playing it (rather obsessively). The game is set on an alien world where civilization has risen and fallen many times. This is because their star system is unstable; they have periods of stable time when they can settle, grow food, and live normally, but from time to time they are interrupted by chaotic times that pose grave danger. Each time Wang plays he is dropped into a new iteration of their development and learns a little more about this world.

You know these threads are going to come together, right?

There are other threads; the story is neither simple nor completely linear. But it's not one of those books where you need to keep notes to track what's going on, either. And despite a character list at the beginning that made me think "many of these names are too similar", I didn't have trouble keeping track of who was who because the characters are presented with some depth.

While there are some fantastical elements (including the mechanism by which inhabitants of the other world survive chaotic times), the hard science in this book is, as far as I can tell, real. The translator provides footnotes for both scientific and cultural references, which I found helpful.

I picked up this book when it was the Tor free e-book of the month a few months back. (If you don't know about that, check it out.) There are two sequels, both of which have now been translated to English, which I look forward to reading.

Small disappointment: Wang finds out about the game via a URL he sees on someone else's computer. We're given the URL. But the publishers don't seem to have claimed it and done anything interesting with it. Oh well.

Airplane reading #2: Wool

A while back a friend recommended Wool by Hugh Howey. She described it to me roughly as follows: a city-sized group of people live in a dystopian underground silo because outside is dangerous. The rule is strict, and when somebody is convicted of a death-penalty offense, the sentence is to go outside and clean the sensors so those in the silo can continue to monitor what's going on out there. (The environment is toxic, which is why this is a death sentence.)

But wait, I said -- if somebody is being sent to die, what on earth is his motivation to help the people who did that to him on his way out? Why in the world would people actually clean?

My friend said that answering that would be a spoiler, but the "books" are not book-length and the first one is free (as a Kindle book). So onto the Kindle it went.

During our trip to Europe I was facing a smaller chunk of time on a plane -- not enough to start a novel, but about right for this. It's a nominal 56 pages -- longer short story or short novella or what, I'm not sure.

The first story stands alone; in fact, from what I've read, the author didn't intend to write any more than that. Midway through I thought I knew where it was going, and the author managed to surprise me later. Yes, we get an answer to my challenge to the premise.

Since then I've read the rest of the five-book series. (There's also a prequel series that I haven't read.) The books increase in length as they go, with the fifth a nominal 264 pages -- so still shorter fiction as modern trends go. The first one is free, the next couple are 99 cents, then $1.99, then $2.99.

Each of the first three books focuses on a different main character; the last two books have multiple foci. As the series progresses we learn more about the real power structures in the silo and how things came to be this way. The series ends in a satisfying place but there is room for more stories to be told.

The first book stands alone. The second can, but ends a little tantalizingly so I wanted to immediately read the next one. The third through fifth are more joined at the hip; I don't think it would be very satisfying to read 1-4 but not 5.

I recommend the series. I especially recommend investing an hour and a half (maybe less for you; I'm a slower reader) in the first book.

Airplane reading #1: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I recently spent a lot of time on airplanes without an Internet connection -- a perfect time to catch up on some reading. First up: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.

Somebody recommended this to me but I don't now remember who. I'm very glad to have been exposed to speculative fiction from a culture not my own. (This will be a continuing, though unplanned, theme; book #2 was The Three-Body Problem.)

The story is set in Lagos, Nigeria (the author's home country). Aliens have just landed in the nearby ocean and they bring change. These aliens feel alien; they are not just humans in different skin or with different appendages like aliens sometimes are in fiction. Their motives and methods are mysterious, and I'm still not sure if they're good guys, bad guys, or...something else. I like the ambiguity.

To this American reader, Lagos feels a little alien too, and the author does a good job of conveying the feel of the city.

There are three primary characters, and a whole bunch of others, some major and many minor. The three have been chosen by the aliens for, well, something. They're an unlikely group -- a marine biologist, a soldier, and a rap singer -- who don't know each other at the start. Over the course of the book we learn their individual stories.

The storytelling jumps around, showing us vignettes involving different characters whose stories, naturally, will come to intersect. And they're not all human (or alien); the point-of-view character in the opening scene is a swordfish, and there are others later. A bat that seems to be a throw-away detail in an early scene shows up later; it's all connected. We see characters grow, change, scheme, and sometimes fall apart.

In reading the book I was challenged by one thing: the author sometimes writes characters speaking Pidgin English, and I came away from those scenes thinking I had the gist of it but hadn't gotten everything. It was also a reminder that the rest of the time these characters weren't speaking English at all, but of course the book is in English. Having the dialogue that, in the story, is the closest to English be, in written form, the farthest from English took some getting used to. I didn't notice until I got to the end of the book that there was a glossary in the back.

I enjoyed getting to know the people and the world of Lagoon.

Miscellany (no US politics)

We went up to Cooper's Lake on Sunday to help with Pennsic camp setup. It sure is weird to not have the house in camp. But we're only going to be there for a couple days (middle Sunday and Monday), because we have other plans for that vacation time later in the year.

There is now a solar panel on the pantry roof in our camp. It has begun.

Earlier this summer I finally read Pangaea, a shared-world anthology that also has an overall story. It includes a story by Mabfan, which is how I became aware of it in the first place. I quite enjoyed it and wrote a post about it on Universe Factory. A second volume is due out later this year.

I picked up the first three books in Jody Lynn Nye's Mythology series (the first book is Mythology 101) in a Story Bundle a few months back. I almost didn't get it because I see Story Bundle as a way to get exposure to new authors/series/concepts, so having three of the ten (? around ten, anyway) books in the bundle be from the same series was counter to that. But I've now read them all and bought the fourth separately, so that turned out to be a win. The books revolve around an eccentric college student who finds out that the Little Folk are real, and living under his college's library. Antics ensue.

In June my employer sent me to a conference (to work, not to attend) in Las Vegas. Now I know, from TV and general media, that Las Vegas is larger than life. And I was still surprised. I was also not prepared for it to take a long time to get anywhere within the hotel complex, because of course they need to route you through the casinos that are everywhere. Casinos are not smoke-free, so I hurried through. Also, my hotel room -- the base room type, nothing fancy -- was larger than my first apartment.

No, I did not play any casino games. Casinos have two kinds of games: games of chance that favor the house, and games of skill that I'm not good enough at and that favor the house. I don't like those odds.

I've been with my current employer for a bit over two years now and I'm still loving it. My coworkers are great, I get a lot of control over what I work on, and I can tell that even though I am the single remote member of my group, I'm still able to teach and mentor and inspire. I think I know a thing or two about technical writing in the software world, and I am glad that I can flex those muscles and impart some of what I've learned. And they appreciate me (including tangible demonstration of same), and that matters too.

Building the world of Pangaea

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What would have happened if humanity had grown up on the single landmass that preceded the continents? Acknowledging the scientific challenges of that scenario and nonetheless asking “what if?”, this is the question that Michael Jan Friedman sets before us in the introduction to Pangaea. In the pages that follow, Michael and a baker’s dozen of other writers present stories in this world.

In some shared-world anthologies the stories are independent — the world is agreed upon, and each writer does his own thing within that setting. And some novels, presenting a single story, are collaboratively written. Pangaea is a collection of short stories, sometimes interlocking, that also tell an overall story. The result is a collection that is more than the sum of its parts — engaging stories that stand on their own and a mystery to solve that runs through the entire book. Read more…