Saturday, January 12, 2019

Books Read in 2018, Part 2

List, part the second!


The First Law Trilogy (Joe Abercrombie)

The Blade Itself

There are very few authors who can match the world-weary black humor that permeates Joe Abercrombie’s First Law world, a mood that gets established right at the outset of this novel.  Logen Ninefingers (The Bloody Nine, to his enemies) has had enough of being a barbarian warrior.  Feared throughout the North, he is observant and thoughtful enough to know that the short end of a harsh life is not going to last very long, particularly after his catastrophic entrance into the story.  He’s done brutal things and had brutal things done to him in return, yet his wry groundedness makes him as close to a hero as this book has.  Sand dan Glokta is another unlikely hero and a man who has also seen the short end of war’s violence.  Once a dashing soldier, he spent nearly two years being tortured in a Gurkish prison before returning to the Union as a crippled husk of his former self.  He now works for the Inquisition, doing unto others what was once done unto him, and it says something that Abercrombie makes him nearly as sympathetic as Logen.  Add in Jezal dan Luther (a pompous ass of a nobleman’s son, training for the annual swordsmanship Contest), Collum West (a commoner who has risen through the ranks of the Union’s hidebound army) and his dashing sister Ardee (whose respect for the norms of Union society is about as high as its respect for her), Bayaz (the First of the Magi), Ferro Maljinn (an escaped slave pursued by the Gurkish for their own purposes), and an engagingly comic if unhesitatingly violent band of Northmen raised on war and wearily continuing down its path (Dogman, Threetrees, Black Dow, Forley the Weakest, Tul Thunderhead, Harding Grim) and you have a finely crafted story of war, history, action and character.

Before They Are Hanged

The Union is a snakepit, beset on all sides by enemies and consumed from within by betrayal, intrigue, and cold-blooded realpolitik.  From its place at the center of Joe Abercrombie’s map, the main characters of The Blade Itself split off to their own quests.  Logen, Bayaz, Ferro, and Jezal head west, through the ruins of the Old Empire, in search of the Seed – the physical manifestation of the Other Side, of magic.  Touching the Other Side directly is a violation of the First Law but needs must.  West goes north, oddly enough, where Bethod, king of the Northlands, is pressing hard into Angland.  With him goes most of the military forces of the Union, as well as Crown Prince Ladisla – a blithering fool of a dandy, ill-suited to anything more demanding than gossip and fashion.  West’s commander navigates both the intrigues of his subordinate generals and the tactics of his foe, with what can charitably be described as mixed results even with the help of Dogman, Threetrees, Black Dow, Tul Thunderhead, and Harding Grim – Named Men of the North who once fought for Bethod but now have little use for him.  Meanwhile Glokta is sent south, to the besieged city of Dagoska.  Taken from the Gurkish in an earlier war, it is now on the Emperor’s list of things he wants back, and if the Union is a snakepit in practice then Dagoska is the quintessential ideal of one.  Battles will be fought, trusts will be betrayed, characters will mature and change and die or be left to carry on, and in the end the wheel turns and we hunker down for the concluding volume.

Last Argument of Kings

In the final volume of the First Law there will be blood.  There will be battles, betrayals, politics, and magic.  West, newly promoted, goes after Bethod with the help of Logen and the Northmen, at least for a while.  Sand dan Glokta spins, caught between equally ruthless and diametrically opposed masters.  Bayaz pulls strings and delves into the forbidden.  Jezel finds himself in a new and surprisingly difficult position.  Ferro seeks vengeance.  Dogman just tries to survive.  The Gurkish invade.  Characters try to become better people and in many cases they succeed, but to no ultimate purpose.  In the end all is destroyed and the rebuilding must begin, though how that happens and or what is gained in the process is not at all clear.  Abercrombie writes the blackest humor in the fantasy genre, a celebration of rue and regret that deftly straddles the thin dotted line between comedy and tragedy, and you never know quite whether to laugh or wince or both but you keep reading because he’s that good at what he does. 

Best Served Cold (Joe Abercrombie)

What price vengeance?  It does not pay to be too popular as a mercenary, and Monzcarro Muscatto, leader of the Thousand Swords – the mercenary army working for Grand Duke Orso of Talins, in Styria, at the beginning of the novel – is about to find that out.  By the end of the first chapter her brother Benno is dead, murdered by the command of Duke Orso himself, and Monza nearly so.  From there she swears vengeance on all seven men who were in the room at the time.  Her vengeance will sweep across Styria, leaving blood and fire in its wake.  It will raise kings and raze cities.  It will pull in some familiar names from the First Law series – Caul Shivers, seeking to be a better man far from the North; Shy Vitari, not quite retired from her earlier career; Mauthis of the banking house of Valint and Balk; Nicomo Cosca, Abercrombie’s most charmingly amoral mercenary (who sounds like Inigo Montoya in my head), and even Jezal dan Luther, who makes an unnamed appearance for those who remember the title he came into earlier – and introduce others, notably Shenkt, an assassin and more, Friendly, a stoic and possibly autistic ex-con, and Castor Morveer, a master poisoner and all around waste of space as a human being, not that he would agree.  And it never seems to help.  Vengeance, as several different characters point out along the way, helps neither the dead nor the living.  Abercrombie’s characters all carry themselves with a rueful self-awareness that makes them sympathetic even as they continue down their brutal and bloody paths, even as they all pay the price for a vengeance that might or might not even be theirs.

The Heroes (Joe Abercrombie)

It’s nine years after the First Law trilogy, four years after the events of Best Served Cold, and the consequences continue to spool out in odd and unpredictable ways.  Black Dow is now King of the North, claiming to have killed the Bloody Nine and taken the crown from him.  Bremer dan Gorst is in disgrace, having been raised high in the First Law and then made a scapegoat for one event in Best Served Cold.  Caul Shivers is back on his home territory.  Bayaz, First of the Magi, is pulling strings as usual.  And the conflict between the North and the Union is about to come to a sharp point.  This book is much more tightly focused than Abercrombie’s previous works, but just as well written.  It’s the story of a three-day battle in the North, in a small valley with a couple of towns and a standing stone circle known as the Heroes, an ironic play on the fact that in Abercrombie’s world war is a game fought by tired men with aching joints and hard-won fatalism who see heroes as fools.  The characters on both sides are sympathetic and horrifying in equal measure – there are no heroes here, no villains, just men (and occasionally women) with jobs to do.  There are some new characters as well – Curnden Craw, Whirrun of Bligh, Caul Reachey, and Red Beck for the North, Corporal Tunney, and Finree dan Brock for the Union, among others – but the question is old and it is the same on both sides.  What is a hero?  And what good are they?  This is a character study of a violent time, as messy and inconclusive as events demand.

Red Country (Joe Abercrombie)

Can we change who we are?  At the foundation of Joe Abercrombie’s world you will find that question, and his answer is not comforting.  The world of the First Law is filled with tired, worn down, and deeply self-aware characters, many of whom would like to be better – or at least different – from what they are, and their efforts rarely seem to turn out well.  Red Country is an odd blend of fantasy and western, not as magical realist as Felix Gilman’s Half Made World but definitely a place where the swords and sorcery of fantasy give way to the emerging industrialism and social conflict of the western frontier.  It’s filled with characters we’ve met before in other places, some named – Caul Shivers, Glama Golden, Nicomo Cosca, Sgt. Friendly – and some, like the Mayor of Crease or Lamb, a giant nine-fingered Northman and a fierce warrior, you just have to infer, though the other characters do recognize Lamb when they see him.  It’s been a few years since The Heroes.  Lamb is living quietly with Shy South, her brother Pit and her sister Ro, doing his best to take care of them as he promised their mother he’d do.  But when mercenaries destroy their farm and kidnap Pit and Ro, Shy and Lamb are determined to get them back if all the Near Country and Far Country should burn in the process.  Temple survived the fall of Dagoska to end up as the lawyer for Nicomo Cosca’s mercenary army (not the army that kidnapped the children) but he has his doubts and eventually they end with him floating unconscious past Shy in a river.  Shy’s quest will take them across the Far Country – under the flamboyant guidance of Dab Sweet, aging frontier guide and Davy Crockett archetype, and opposed by Ghosts, the native people of the west – to the mining boomtown of Crease, which is about to burst into civil war, and from there to the home of the Dragon People.  The characters struggle against who they are – except for Cosca, who is who he is and makes no secret of being a “villain” (“That’s why you hired me,” he tells one disappointed employer), though he appears more of a villain and less of a charming rogue here than in earlier books – and while they know who and what they are and what they'd like to become, change is rarely possible.  The book ends on an oddly quiet note, which is a nice way to leave this story.

Sharp Ends (Joe Abercrombie)

TS Eliot once wrote that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  There is more than a little of that in this collection of short stories set in the First Law world, at least for me.  This is especially true of the second to last story, which I had read years before in a different anthology but which – having now gone through all of the First Law books in a row – I now understood in a new light.  I know where the characters came from and how they got to that point, and it gave the story a new depth.  That’s true of all of these stories.  There’s one about a young Colonal Sand dan Glokta, before the Gurkish got to him.  There’s a glimpse of Bethod and Logen Ninefingers that makes you rethink which one of them is the hero and which the villain or whether either of those descriptions make any sense.  Curnden Craw figures into other stories, as does Monza Murcatto, Shy Vitari, Whirrun of Bligh, Sgt. Friendly, and Nicomo Cosca.  Even Corporal Tunney and Private Yolk make an appearance.  Perhaps the most entertaining are the stories featuring Shev and Javre, two women whom we first meet in Westport, Styria and who spend several stories as a slightly mismatched pair of rogues careening through the First Law world.  Shev, a lesbian and the self-proclaimed greatest thief in Styria, is hopelessly in love with Carcolf, a blonde femme fatale and no great moral exemplar herself (though Abercrombie does get inside Carcolf’s head as well, and she is just as complex as Shev).  Javre, a tree of a woman with phenomenal appetites for men, combat, and alcohol, is running from her order, determined not to be anyone’s slave.  Adventures ensue.  The collection as a whole is of a piece with the rest of Abercrombie’s work, featuring the same complex, nuanced, worn down, wearily self-aware characters trying (and largely failing) to be better people than they are and leaving blood, mayhem, and regrets in their wake – perhaps my favorite story is simply a collection of vignettes of people who were caught in the crossfire of Monzcarro Murcatto’s revenge during Best Served Cold, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffered the consequences as collateral damage.  That kind of perspective switch – of seeing the same events through different eyes – is something of a hallmark of Abercrombie’s writing, and I’ll miss it.  This brings my First Law marathon to an end, sadly enough, and now I will just have to wait until next year when the first of the next trilogy will be released.

Dog Days: A Year in the Life of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile (Dave Ihlenfeld)

One of the lesser known perqs of living in southern Wisconsin is that you aren’t that far from the Oscar Mayer headquarters in Madison, which means you have a better chance than most of seeing the Wienermobile on the highways and byways as you travel.  Ihlenfeld spent a year driving one of them around (there is a small fleet of them) and does a good job of telling the story of that year, interspersed with some general history of Oscar Mayer and the Wienermobiles in general.  An aimless soon-to-be graduate of the University of Missouri, he somehow stumbled into the year-long job at the end of his time in college.  After attending Hot Dog High with his Hotdoggers he got put on a crew that included Brad, Sofia, and Ali and sent to cruise California.  Ihlenfeld is a good writer and his stories of his travels and colleagues are entertaining (the maintenance woes of the Wienermobile are a running theme, for example), though his persistent immaturity toward the women in his circle grates after a while.  Eventually the crew gets broken up and he finds himself on a new crew touring the American southeast and then, finally, with a different partner in Germany and Italy.  If there is a hero here it is Russ, the guy who hired Ihlenfeld and ran the Wienermobile program so well, and it is to Ihlenfeld’s credit that he recognizes this.  It was a pleasant and undemanding read, and a nice break after 3500 pages of the First Law.

Eating the Dinosaur (Chuck Klosterman)

This book was a pleasant surprise for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it was a collection of essays of cultural criticism rather than the novel I thought it would be.  Klosterman is an engaging thinker and a smart writer – his ability to ask probing questions from interesting angles is matched by his ability to turn a phrase – and he addresses such issues as whether ABBA is a musical genre in itself (and whether they would even care about such a distinction), why Ralph Sampson was considered such a failure as an NBA player, how American football is a progressive game hiding under a conservative facade, the nature of mediated experience, and whether Ted Kaczynski was right about technology.  Between the essays he offers snippets of imaginary interviews with himself, completely without context and therefore crystalline in their way.  Throughout there is the running theme of the messy relationship between perception and reality – a theme that Klosterman delightfully twists away from the usual undergraduate speculations that one finds on the subject and toward more thoughtful examination.

“A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow”: An American Hitchhiking Odyssey (Tim Brookes)

The subtitle of this book is ironic on two levels.  First, Brookes was born and raised in England, settling in the US only as an adult.  He’s been here a while, though, and since one of his goals on this expedition was to explore America – to repeat in 1998 the hitchhiking journey he took through the US in 1973 and see what if anything had changed, either in the country or in himself – making the title a small irony for an Englishman, perhaps, but a manageable one.  Second, though, he spends a fair amount of time not hitchhiking.  His partner for this journey is Tomasz, a photographer from Poland who often ferries Brookes around in his aging Buick Skylark, and Brookes also spends a fair amount of time on buses.  But as he says, he’s older now and his knees let him know this.  He does do a fair amount of hitchhiking, though, and he meets up with a crowd of people who are uniformly kind to him and interesting in their way.  Many of them go out of their way to be helpful to him.  He even spends a night with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, though – in a further irony – it is Brookes who is rambling and Elliott who has now settled down.  Brookes starts in New York City, works his way to the Bay Area in California, then up to Seattle and back across, ending up at his home in Vermont.  He’s a good writer and an entertaining travel companion, and if his occasional efforts to extract Larger Meaning don’t quite work it is enjoyable to see him catch up to old friends and meet new ones on the road.

The Light Ages (Ian R. MacLeod)

What if magic were just another commodity – a substance mined from the earth, responsive to human will and language but otherwise not all that different from coal?  What if aether – as this commodity was called, in deference to the ancient views of matter – became the foundation of British life, from its economy and architecture to its society and politics?  What if too much exposure to aether could turn a person into … something else, a “changeling” or such?  In Ian MacLeod’s fascinating story of an alternate Britain, aether is discovered in the late 1600s at the end of what became known as the Age of Kings.  It is now almost hundred years into the Third Age of Industry – ages tend to last about a century – and Britain is a land of guilds, grim industry, vast gaps between haves and have-nots, and roughly Edwardian technology (mostly horse-drawn carriages, for example, but a few motorcars here and there).  Robert Borrows grows up in Bracebridge, somewhere in northern England, the son of a minor guildsman and a mother slowly turning into a changeling.  Shortly before she dies she takes him to meet Mistress Summerton and her ward, Anna – a beautiful young girl and a changeling herself.  Their paths part, and eventually Robert hops a train to London to remake himself into a revolutionary working for a new Age, the Age of Light.  His paths cross with Anna’s again, and from there it spirals outward into a lushly written story with echoes of Charles Dickens, China Mieville, Les Miserables, and Ralph Glasser.  Come the revolution, things will be different – not necessarily better and maybe not even all that different, but people try anyway.  It’s a bittersweet story of love and loss, of great events and family secrets, of economic scandals and political crises, all told with a wordsmith’s eye for detail.  Remarkably dense reading at times, but well worth it.

The House of Storms (Ian R. MacLeod)

A century after Robert Borrows’ story ends, at the closing of the Age of Light, Grandguildmistress Alice Meynell brings her tubercular son Ralph to Invercombe, a grand house on England’s western shore, where the Severn meets the sea, in search of healing.  For all that she is the master manipulator of this story and for all the space in it she takes up, Alice – a descendent of the Bowdley-Smarts (minor characters from the previous book) and an ambitious and possibly sociopathic social climber – is not the focus.  Instead, the complex and changing relationship between Ralph and the local shoregirl who becomes one of Invercombe’s maids – Marion Price – sustains this episodic story over the course of several decades.  We see Ralph and Marion as star-crossed lovers, joyously exploring each other and the scientific theory they call Habitual Adaptation, before events shift and they are separated.  We see their lives grow and change.  And when England is riven by civil war, we see their roles grow and adapt until finally, at the end, it is once again Marion and Ralph at the center of things.  The Age of Light turned out to be much like the one before it, despite Robert Borrows’ best efforts, but the one that comes after it will be new.  This densely-written, often rather bittersweet and thoughtful book makes a worthwhile sequel to The Light Ages, completing its story when the events of the first book are just poorly remembered history.  As a historian, I like when stories take that into account.

Noir (Christopher Moore)

There are a million stories in the big city, and in the San Francisco of 1947, there’s Sammy’s.  Sammy is a bartender with a few low-level personal secrets – some desperation, some law-breaking, some nonsense – and a couple of equally down and out friends whose life gets upended when a dame (hey, it’s 1947 and it’s noir) named Stilton walks into his bar.  Before you can catch your breath, there are murders, snakes, nefarious rich people, misunderstandings, corrupt cops, military men, and, eventually, aliens, which of course means the early-post-war version of Men In Black as well.  Moore keeps the plot moving along quickly once he gets it rolling at all – the first part of the book is mostly tone and dialogue, which is worthwhile in itself when Christopher Moore is writing it – and it all wraps up as what Moore himself, in the Afterward, calls “Perky Noir.”  There are a few laugh out loud moments and Moore’s trademark talent for dialogue is everywhere in evidence – it’s not the deepest book you’ll ever read, but you’ll have a good time while you’re there.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Anthony Bourdain)

I miss Anthony Bourdain.  I never met the man, but for many years he was a presence in my life, between his various books and the multiple iterations of the same basic television show that he would do – “former chef travels the world eating and visiting” – for various networks.  He had a unique voice, and a sense of wonder about the world that went far beyond just the oddity of things and encompassed the humanity of it.  He had no patience for pretense or bullshit, and no hesitation about calling out the powerful in defense of the downtrodden.  He’s gone now, and the world is poorer for it.  This was his first book – the one that launched his career change from producer of meals to sharer of meals – and it chronicles his life in the kitchen, from his first awakenings to the possibilities of food as a child visiting French relatives through the drug-addled reckless abandon of his young adulthood to his settling down at Les Halles in NYC, reformed (sort of), but still rakish and rogue-like.  He’s passionate about his food, serious about his kitchenmates – a collection of similar buccaneers in a high-pressure, high-testosterone environment where competence is the only thing that matters and if you can’t speak Spanish you might as well go home – and enlightening with his stories.  I’ve read it before, but it needed to be read again.

The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones (Anthony Bourdain)

This is a collection of short articles, rants, and other bits and pieces of Bourdain’s writing, roughly divided into sections that are labeled with tastes (Sweet, Sour, Umami, etc.) that are clearly meant to convey emotions.  They’re all worth reading, even if at the very end he provides short commentary on each piece and mostly dismisses them as hopelessly flawed.  It’s an interesting tour of his mind, and if – in light of his recent suicide – the throwaway joke about hanging himself in a hotel room seems rather grim, for the most part you get drawn in and are happy to tag along with him in his travels.  That’s really what Bourdain’s gift was, becoming your companion on trips you’ll never take and probably wouldn’t enjoy if you did but which you do enjoy when you’re with him.  His death is a loss for us all.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Peter Frankopan)

The current domination of the world by the West – first, beginning in the 1500s, by Europe and then, beginning in the 1900s, by the United States – is something of a historical anomaly, and one that this book tries to correct.  Frankopan begins with the simple observation that it is neither the West nor the East (China, Japan, and so on) that has been the pivot around which human history has revolved for most of its run, but rather the Silk Road, broadly defined – the area of southern Asia that has linked East and West since humans began trading long distance – that played that role.  It includes such modern-day countries as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and so on.  It’s here that the resources of East and West flowed back and forth, enriching the nations at either end.  It’s here that the main resources of the modern world – fossil fuels, rare earth metals, and so on – exist in abundance.  And it’s here that Frankopan would like to recenter the story of human history.  This dense but readable book is designed for a popular rather than scholarly audience, and it can largely be broken down into two parts, even if Frankopan doesn’t do so explicitly.  In the first part the nations of the Silk Road are the subject – the actors, the doers.  Here we see Persia, India, and the kingdoms of antiquity emerging and becoming, acting and doing.  In the second and longer part (probably because of the disproportionate level of documentation), the nations of the Silk Road are the object – acted upon, done to.  They are the colonies and prizes of the West, and rather than tell their story directly Frankopan uses them to give a different perspective on Western history.  His focus on the modern Middle East in the run-up to World War I, for example, is illuminating.  He has little patience for the dismissive and short-sighted treatment of the Silk Roads by the West – his evisceration of American actions since WWII is particularly biting – but his main point is clear: there is a new Silk Road rising, and East and West need to recognize and account for that fact.

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