Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Books Read in 2017, Part 2

Part 2!  The reading continues!


The Magicians Trilogy (Lev Grossman)

The Magicians

This is a book that rewards repeated readings.  I first read this a few years ago and while I liked it enough to go on to the second volume I don’t think I really got the book until I read it for the second time, particularly in light of its sequel.  The set-up is pretty straightforward, and one that moves from Hogwarts to Narnia as the book progresses.  Quentin Coldwater lives in Brooklyn and spends most of time third-wheeling with his friends James and Julia.  On the way to an interview with a Princeton alum things get weird and he suddenly finds himself at Brakebills – a college in upstate New York designed to teach actual magicians, users of spellcraft and wizardry.  There he makes a few friends – Eliot, Janet, Josh, maybe Penny if you stretch it – and finds a girlfriend in Alice.  He is tested, both personally and academically, and eventually he graduates, after which he and his circle spend some meaningless time in the mundane world before they discover (as is pretty much foretold from the inside cover) a pathway into Fillory – the setting for a series of books beloved in Quentin’s circles but much to their surprise a real and genuinely dangerous place.  The Magicians is in many ways about power – what it means to acquire it, what it means to wield it, what it means when it isn’t enough.  It is about loss, and what it means to lose things you cannot recover.  It’s a surprisingly bitter and bittersweet story in many ways, one whose deepening meaning emerges only slowly.  I think Quentin is a much more sympathetic character this time around than I did the first time, and knowing the second book let me pay attention to Julia more closely as well.

The Magician King

This is the book that justified the first one, as far as I am concerned.  It’s a much darker and angrier story, one that focuses on the consequences of both getting and not getting what you want.  It starts in Fillory, where Eliot, Quentin, Julia, and Janet are now kings and queens and, honestly, a bit bored.  When a random hunting expedition goes horribly wrong it sends Quentin out on a Quest, and when that turns out to be both different and more complicated than the random lark it started out to be, things get very serious very quickly.  Interspersed with this is Julia’s backstory – how she too was chosen for Brakebills but failed the exam that Quentin passed, and how her life spiraled down into darkness, anger, resentment, and the unofficial side of magic, a side far rougher and with fewer rules.  The stories never quite converge, but by the end Julia is transformed utterly, and Quentin has learned the great lesson that the hero is not the one who reaps the rewards.  The hero is the one who pays the price. 

The Magician’s Land

After the hero has paid the price, life still goes on.  Quentin, exiled from Fillory, finds a teaching job at Brakebills that is as comfortable as it is short lived, and when he finds himself exiled once again he ends up involved in a seedy magical heist, one that promises to give him the financial resources to attempt the only thing he still wants to try here on Earth – rescuing Alice from the fate that awaited her at the end of the first book.  When the heist goes wrong – as you always know it will - he finds himself plunged ever deeper into the crisis of Fillory, which is in its death-throes.  With a former student named Plum, he will seek power and wisdom and find them in ways he did not expect, while Janet, Eliot, Josh, and Poppy work from inside to save Fillory.  The two stories merge of course, and eventually most – though not all - of the loose ends get tied up in a way that is both melancholy and satisfying.  Quentin Coldwater has grown up – "He wasn't that boy anymore, that boy was lost long ago.  He'd become a man instead, one of those crude, weather-beaten, shopworn things, and he'd almost forgotten he'd ever been anything else" – and if his new world isn't what he thought it would be, it is, perhaps, what he might have wanted if he'd known.  This series is, at bottom, the story of a young man whose belief that the world owes him something is thoroughly shattered, and what happens next.  Grossman leaves himself space for a further volume in this story, and I hope he uses it.  I'd like to know what happens to these characters, now that the main story has ended.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (Denise Kiernan)

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, didn't exist as a town until 1943.  By 1944 there were more than 78,000 people living there, and the population was over 100,000 if you counted the people who commuted in.  It was a secret place, blanketed with a security so thick that even the mention of its name was enough to get people in deep trouble.  Its sole purpose was to enrich uranium - to take the naturally-occurring 0.7% of U235 in a larger sample of U238 and bump that up to the 80% or higher that was necessary for the atomic bomb.  And it was largely staffed by women.  Kiernan has interviewed a number of the surviving women, here in the 21st century, and done a fair amount of research to give the context, and the result is an interesting but curiously vague book.  For much of it she alternates between telling the story of the various women and giving shorter chapters over to the larger story of the bomb, and it is those short chapters that have specific detail.  The chapters on the women tend to be broad and diffuse, without much in the way of pull-through for the reader to follow, but engagingly told.  These are interesting stories and I'll probably use some of them next time I teach my atomic bomb class, but often maddeningly undefined.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars, and The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe (Welcome to Night Vale, Episodes, Volumes 1 and 2)  (Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor)

If you haven’t discovered Welcome to Night Vale, you should correct this as soon as possible.  It’s a podcast about a town out in the desert wasteland somewhere in America, where all of the conspiracy theories are true and accepted as part of everyday life.  It’s presented as a radio broadcast from the town’s only station, and therefore everything gets filtered through Cecil, the host.  Imagine A Prairie Home Companion as written by HP Lovecraft, and you’re about on target.  I’ve finally conceded that I will likely never catch up to the actual podcasts – they’ve got more than a hundred episodes now, and I’m somewhere around episode 38 or 39 – but this is the next best thing: a collection of the episodes written out as narratives, with each one introduced either by one of the creators or one of the voice actors.  It’s all here – the Glow Cloud that drops dead animals on the town and eventually runs for a position on the school board.  The Sheriff’s Secret Police.  The Dog Park, which no citizen of Night Vale is allowed to enter, or even know about.  The hooded figures who should not be paid attention to.  The cat that floats four feet in the air in the men’s room of the station, a station run by an eldritch horror in an office too big for the building to actually hold.  The small civilization beneath the bowling alley that declares war on Night Vale.  The Faceless Old Women Who Secretly Lives In Your House and is running for mayor against Hiram McDaniels, who is a five-headed dragon wanted for insurance fraud.  And of course Carlos, beautiful perfect Carlos, the love of Cecil’s life.  The writing is funny and dark, eminently quotable, and thoroughly addictive.  If you like black comedy, this is pure gold.

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)

Shadow is about to be released from prison, and his only goal is to go back to his wife Laura and live a quiet, trouble-free life.  But Laura is killed in a car accident and on the way back home Shadow meets Mr. Wednesday, who draws him into a final battle between the old gods – brought to America by immigrants and mostly spirits – and the new ones, born here and mostly based on technology.  From this premise comes a long meditation on humanity, spirituality, and modern America that will take Shadow from Wisconsin to Chattanooga and beyond, testing him in ways he never thought he could be tested.  While this is not the first of his books that you should read if you are new to him, Gaiman is a phenomenal writer and he pulls off this complex story with verve.  And if you think his description of the House on the Rock is exaggerated, you simply haven’t been there.

Anansi Boys (Neil Gaiman)

This is in some sense the companion volume to American Gods, following the story of Anansi (Mr. Nancy) and his children.  Fat Charlie Nancy – who hasn’t been fat since he was a child, but is such a charter member of life’s losers that everyone still calls him that – works as an accountant for the Graham Coats Agency.  He has a fiancee named Rosie, whose mother hates him.  And very early in the book his father dies.  Since his father was a god, this is more complicated than it seems, and it leads him to discover a long-lost brother named Spider – far cooler and more sociable than himself – and cross paths with a police detective named Daisy.  Eventually this will become by turns a comedy of mistaken identity, a murder mystery, and an exploration of the nature of gods in the world, all written with Gaiman’s trademark brio. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari)

I have long had a soft spot for these kinds of big, synthetic histories that weave together seemingly disparate strands into an overarching argument.  This is a book that would work well with David Christian’s Maps of Time, for example.  Harari tries to tell the entire history of our species – which, for convenience, he abbreviates as Sapiens, to distinguish it from other human species – from its evolutionary origins down to its future in just over 400pp.  Throughout the book he does a really good job of illuminating odd connections and making fascinating arguments that at first seem at odd angles to most of what people take for granted.  He is unimpressed with the Agricultural Revolution, for example, calling it history’s greatest fraud because while it did lead to more food it also led to more misery.  His chapters on the interplay between science, empire, and capitalism were masterful.  Sometimes he slips – his close reading of the Declaration of Independence was so far off base that I actually checked his bio to make sure he was a professional historian, and he has an entire chapter on how to measure happiness that doesn’t really fit into the narrative and doesn’t cite Martin Seligman, one of the pioneers of that field of study – but overall the book works well.  He spends a great deal of time on the notion of imagined communities – things that draw people together without any particular hard reality to them beyond shared belief, such as money, nationalism, or religion (it’s very clear Harari is not an American from the brutally casual way he dismisses all notion of the supernatural as anything other than imaginary).  The book is very well written though it reads like a transcription of a lecture rather than a book – it has the rhythms of spoken language rather than written language.  And it was clearly printed on paper made from depleted uranium and grief, as it weighed far more than you’d think just looking at it.  I enjoyed handing it to people just to see their reaction as their arms were pulled earthward, but that’s me.

The Massive: Black Pacific (Vol. 1) (Brian Wood, Kristian Donaldson, Garry Brown, Dave Stewart)

This was part of a Humble Bundle collection I bought a couple of years back, an assortment of post-apocalyptic fiction that more and more seems like it’s coming true these days.  It’s a graphic novel, which are mostly lost on me – I’m the sort of person who reads the words and barely glances at the artwork.  But it was interesting.  Not long after human civilization is thoroughly disrupted by a series of environmental cataclysms, a former mercenary named Cal Israel plies the seas in the Kapital with his fellow radical pacifist environmentalists.  Although some are more pacifist than others.  They explore the new, more brutal reality.  They seek supplies.  And they search for the Massive, the other ship this group owns that had gone missing at the start of the troubles.  It’s an interesting collection and, like most graphic novels, it flies by.

That Old Cape Magic (Richard Russo) 

This wasn’t the book I had planned to read next, but for a very specific if trivial reason I needed to have a hard-back book that day so this is the one I picked up.  And as with all Richard Russo books, it was well worth it.  In some senses it’s a pretty typical Russo book – warm, gentle, melancholy, thoughtful, full of well-realized and vaguely worn down characters trying their best to get through the day – but it has a different structure from most of the others of his that I’ve read.  Jack Griffin (almost always referred to by his last name, to the point where I had to go back to see if it actually was his first name or not) is in his 50s.  He has a wife (Joy) whom he loves, a daughter (Laura) on her own as a young adult, two parents who are the epitome of academic snobbery and sniping, two in-laws who he doesn’t like, and a former writing partner (Tommy) who keeps entering his life in odd ways.  Griffin was once a screenwriter in LA, but upon the urging of Joy he becomes a minor academic on the east coast at the same college where Joy works in administration, a life that leaves him somewhat empty if he is honest but which Joy finds the fulfillment of her dreams.  And it all slowly falls apart.  The book has two halves, both centered on weddings a year apart and both on Cape Cod, where Griffin’s parents would take him as a child.  Amid the events of the weddings are flashbacks – to Griffin’s childhood, to writing with Tommy, to any number of things that go into building a half-made life.  Griffin is self-aware enough to know what’s going on and clueless enough to let it happen anyway, though Russo does give him something at the end.

Lock In (John Scalzi)

On his first day on the job, FBI Agent Chris Shane and his senior partner, Agent Leslie Vann, are assigned to what looks like a murder.  But this is not the world of today – it’s sometime in the near future, after a devastating epidemic known as Haden’s Syndrome has killed over 400 million people and left a small percentage of its victims alive but “locked in,” unable to control their own bodies in any way despite being entirely conscious and otherwise mentally unaffected.  These people are often known simply as Hadens, and a massive “moon-shot” style federal effort has led to the development of neural networks capable of controlling robots called “threeps” (think Star Wars).  Other Haden victims remain in control of their bodies but develop the ability to Integrate – to allow, with the right technology, locked in Hadens to use their bodies as threeps.  Shane is a Haden.  Vann, it turns out, was once an Integrator.  And the murder in question is going to get tied up inextricably with the money end of Haden’s Syndrome – the market for threeps, the politics of the impending cut in federal support for Haden victims, and the cut throat maneuverings that happen when ruthless people sense opportunities.  This is a pretty typical Scalzi work, even if slightly askew in genre – well written, engaging, and in general an enjoyable if undemanding read.  It’s a sci-fi police procedural whose plot draws you in and hums right along, a page-turner that you can enjoy thoroughly and then put back down.  I heard Scalzi read a bit from the sequel to this (due date: sometime) and he was kind enough to autograph it for me so I was happy.

Welcome to Night Vale (Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor)

Night Vale remains as dark and ridiculous as ever, and that is a good thing.  Fink and Cranor know how to turn a phrase and they’ve created a world where reality as we know it is off-kilter by several degrees.  The townsfolk know this, but soldier on anyway.  Diane works in an office, though at a desk separated from her colleagues by enough distance that she rarely socializes with them.  She doesn’t know what the office really does beyond her job.  Most of her focus is on her son Josh, who is a shapeshifter and a teenager and it isn’t clear which one is harder to work with for her.  When one of her coworkers goes missing, nobody but Diane can even remember that he existed.  Meanwhile Jackie is 19 – has been for decades now – and runs the pawn shop in town.  She has a mother and a childhood that she cannot remember.  Jackie and Diane’s paths will cross when both end up with mysterious pieces of paper stuck to them – papers that say, “King City.”  But they cannot get to King City no matter how hard they try – it is physically impossible, until they find the time-travelling possibilities of the plastic flamingoes.  Trust me, it sort of makes sense when you’re reading it.  Eventually the whole thing turns into a Lovecraftian meditation on identity, which is a remarkable feat.  On the whole I preferred the episode books to this novel, but it was still fun to read.

The Atrocity Archives (Charles Stross)

I recently picked up one of the later volumes in this series – which, once again, I think should have been called the Laundry Cycle rather than the Laundry Files – and I remembered that these books really do require a good memory of what came before in order to make sense.  Having lost that memory, I decided to reread the previous books until I got to the new one, and this is where it all started.  Bob Howard works for the Laundry – an agency within the British government that is so far beyond Top Secret that even knowing about some of the things they do is a crime.  The Laundry protects the realm from the Lovecraftian horrors that inhabit the infinite parallel universes that surround us, universes that are accessible through higher math.  Bob was conscripted into the Laundry when his graduate work came perilously close to destroying Wolverhampton, and at the beginning of the novel he works as one of the IT clerks.  The Laundry is also a bureaucratic agency, with all of the infighting and senseless paperwork of such things.  And the contrast between the bureaucracy and the work of the Laundry is where much of the humor comes from.  Stross is a talented writer with a gift for a phrase and it’s all on display here as Bob finds himself working upward toward being an active duty agent even as his manager tries to sabotage him for her own bureaucratic purposes.  Eventually he finds his way to a) California, where he meets Mo, who will play a much larger role as the series progresses, b) Angleton, his new boss who is quite possibly the most frightening thing in the Laundry, and c) a parallel universe where the best possible option is leftover Nazi occultists and the worst is, well, much worse.  Stross also appends a novella (The Concrete Jungle) about basilisk software in Milton Keynes and the abuses to which it can be put, as well as a short essay analyzing the intersections of spy fiction, horror fiction, and the literary hacker as an avatar of Loki.  All told, well worth the read.

The Jennifer Morgue (Charles Stross)

It’s a couple of years later, and Bob and Mo are keeping house now, still working for the Laundry and going through one of those rocky periods that couples go through.  Rather than have time for a vacation, though, Mo gets called up to a Laundry facility for training – she is perhaps the only combat violinist with occult training in the world – while Bob gets sent on a mission to the Caribbean.  A maniacal billionaire is attempting to raise a powerful artifact from the bottom of the sea, in direct violation of the treaty with the Old Ones who live there – a violation which could have dire consequences of the Old Ones get angry about it.  Bob – and Ramona, with whom he is entangled – have to stop this.  There is international bureaucratic rivalry, internal bureaucratic rivalry, and no small amount of James Bond trivia (the engine of the plot is a Bond geas that forces everyone to act according to the archetypes of the movies).  It’s a better story than I remembered it being, but still not as good as The Atrocity Archives.  Appended to it are a short story entitled Plimpf, wherein Bob has to go into a video game to save his intern, and a quasi-non-fictional meditation on twentieth-century spycraft, spy novels, and politics.

Down on the Farm (Charles Stross)

In this short story, Bob Howard goes to the Funny Farm – the mental institution where the Laundry stashes those agents whose minds are casualties of the job.  And, of course, all is not as it seems.  This story introduces Krantzberg Syndrome, which becomes important later on.

Overtime (Charles Stross)

Because Bob was hospitalized when it was time to pick his holiday leave he ends up working over Christmas as the Night Duty Officer – normally a quiet way to pass time, but when Forecasting Ops kills the mood at the Laundry Christmas party by announcing that they will all be no more by next Christmas, the job gets more complicated and dangerous than usual.  Another short story, rather than a novel.

Equoid (Charles Stross)

The third of the Laundry short stories fits more or less at this point in the Laundry timeline, though it was written somewhat later.  Bob is sent out to investigate reports of strange equine happenings in the English countryside.  It turns out that unicorns are not the cuddly cute things of modern cartoons - they're part of the breeding cycle of a creature that exists in two very different (and equally horrifying) genders that need to snap together to mate properly, and which need virgin girls to do it.  Bob - a Londoner to his bones - is not at all happy to be sent out into the countryside among the squirearchy, and he is even less happy when things escalate to a full-blown Plumbing job.  It's a short novella, but one that fits neatly into the narrative arc and allows Stross to continue ratcheting up the stakes for the Laundry.

The Fuller Memorandum (Charles Stross)

This is where the Laundry Files really start to get dark, which is saying something for a series that focuses on the efforts of the British Civil Service to protect our universe from the Lovecraftian horrors that want to eat our souls.  It starts with a rather grim preface outlining the current state of Bob Howard's life, most notably how he wishes he could go back to his "standard British atheism" but he knows better.  The One True Religion is real and so much more horrifying than any of the fairy tales that pass for faith among humanity, and there is nothing he can do with this knowledge but live with it.  At the beginning of the novel Bob goes on a short mission that goes terribly wrong while Mo goes on a longer mission that goes right but whose consequences are equally terrible, and for much of the middle of the novel they deal with the consequences of that.  But those consequences get caught up in the story of the Eater of Souls, a coldly intelligent entity that existed in a WWI-era Russian partisan before being transferred to a body much closer to home.  Eventually there is a cult and a summoning and an uprising of the living dead, and it ends on a rather bleak note, just in time for the next story.  You have to read these things fairly close together, I have found, as otherwise you lose track of the inside references.

The Apocalypse Codex (Charles Stross)

Bob Howard is moving up in the world, though as usual with the Laundry this comes at some personal cost.  In this volume, Bob finds himself assigned to External Assets, a branch of the Laundry that is so deeply covert that even most of the Laundry is unaware that it exists.  In this case, he is assigned by a higher-up named Lockhart to observe and manage a pair of agents - Persephone Hazard (also known as the Duchess) and Johnny McTavish - whose relationship to the Laundry is curiously and rather deliberately left broadly undefined until well into the book when Persephone exasperatedly clues Bob in.  She also gives him the capsule history of Mahogany Row, which for the first time becomes a defined entity rather than a nameless offscreen foil.  Bob and his agents are sent to the US to monitor what at first appears to be one of those bog-standard fundamentalist megachurches that infest this country like lice but which, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a much darker cog in the wheel that will ultimately turn toward CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.  With this book the larger overall arc of Bob's story becomes more clear - something I missed when I read these books separately over a period of years.  On to the next

The Rhesus Chart (Charles Stross)

Bob Howard continues to climb the Laundry ladder and has become a rather fast-tracked manager with some powers that he didn't have earlier, much to his dismay.  It's a couple of months after the events of The Apocalypse Codex, and all is not well.  He and Mo are having the kind of marital struggles that come with two people having highly stressful occult jobs that often involve killing people (or killing Lovecraftian horrors, which are marginally easier on the conscience but no less draining in practice).  His managers at the Laundry have fallen for the latest make-work management fad and ordered everyone to come up with a side project on their own, though without allocating much in the way of time or money for these projects.  And now there are vampires, one of whom is Bob's psycho ex-girlfriend Mhari, now a decade removed from his life and her Laundry job and working as an investment banker in London.  But "everyone knows there's no such things as vampires," and getting around what everyone knows to arrive at the truth of things is a tall order, one that will take a fearsome toll on the Laundry in general and Bob in particular.  Also, he adopts a stray cat.  Stross continues to spin a fascinating story with some marvelous writing (including one priceless simile that I can only wish I would find an appropriate audience for).

The Annihilation Score (Charles Stross)

This book is where Stross finally faced the issue of how to tell a Laundry story that wasn’t narrated by Bob.  For this story the focus shifts to Mo – Dr. Dominique O’Brien, otherwise known as Agent CANDID or, more prosaically, Bob’s wife – though her voice is fairly similar to his.  The story picks up immediately after the events of The Rhesus Chart – in fact, the first chapter is just the last chapter of The Rhesus Chart told from Mo’s perspective rather than Bob's, which is a bit of a jarring transition if you’re reading them back to back.  In the background is the story of Bob and Mo, whose marriage is beginning to crumble under the occult weight of their jobs and their roles as the apprentice Eater of Souls and the caretaker and wielder of Lector (an accursed violin) respectively.  The foreground gets more complicated.  The arrival of the initial stages of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN has led to a surge of people with odd occult powers – superpowers, as most people think of them – and Mo is farmed out to a new agency designed to be the public face of the British governments attempts to deal with this.  There are the bureaucratic struggles of getting a brand new agency up and running in the face of politics as usual, the occult struggles of piecing together the various malevolent entities from the multiverse that want to wreak havoc, and the personal struggles Mo faces running an agency whose primary staff is composed of 1) Bob’s formerly psycho ex, Mhari, now a prickly but more or less collegial vampire working for the Laundry, 2) Ramona, the Deep One that Bob was entangled with in The Jennifer Morgue, and 3) Jim, who slowly becomes Mo’s romantic interest over the course of the novel now that Mo and Bob are living apart.  There are outbreaks to resolve and a supervillain named Dr. Freudstein to combat and it all ends at the Proms (which, for the first time, I now know what they are).  In between the Auditors become human-scale characters for the first time (one Auditor whose role is merely glancing here was a fairly major character in an earlier book, it turns out), Mo forges working relationships with Mhari and Ramona, and Lector becomes a character in his own right rather than just a weapon.  The pieces are falling into place, and the series gathers for its end run.

The Nightmare Stacks (Charles Stross)

While The Fuller Memorandum was dark, this is where the Laundry Files gets truly grim.  The Cold War got hot, the invasion has begun, and CASE NIGHTMARE RED (rather than GREEN) is the order of the day.  In keeping with The Annihilation Score, the narrator here is not Bob Howard but instead is Alex Schwartz, one of the vampires (“PHANGs” in the parlance of the Laundry, though what that acronym actually stands for is something of a running joke since it changes every time) who came into the Laundry during The Rhesus Chart, and for much of this book the main characters are Alex and Pete (the vicar whom Bob ended up accidentally drafting into the Laundry during The Apocalypse Codex.  Bob is a big muckmuck in the Laundry now – referred to nervously by Alex as Mr. Howard – and neither he nor Mo make any real appearance here, though Pinky and Brains become more fleshed out characters instead of just comic relief.  Bad things are happening in Leeds, and not all of them are because that’s where Alex’s worried and mildly dysfunctional family lives.  What starts out as a brief make-work assignment turns into a full-fledged war as an alien hominid species – the People, or as they have entered into human legend, elves (Stross seems to share Terry Pratchett’s distaste for elves) – flee across the dimensions to try to take over the earth.  Agent First of Spies and Liars is sent across to prepare the way and takes over the body of an innocent – Cassie – whose fate is grimly recorded later.  The new Cassie and Alex bond, however, so when the elves and the British clash, they end up on the same side.  Stross does a good job of demonstrating the cross-cultural confusions that sabotage military plans (the All-Highest’s plans for conquering humankind rely on a vision of society no human would recognize), and he is also very good at depicting unfolding catastrophes – his buildup to the final battle is both precise and illuminating as it jumps from POV to POV.  This is easily the bloodiest and tensest book in the series thus far.  What started out as satire and comedy has come around to war and tragedy, and there are still books to go before the Laundry Files are closed.

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