Alec Austin (alecaustin) wrote,
Alec Austin

Books, April

Dan Abnett, Dr. Who: The Silent Stars Go By: An Eleventh Doctor novel, in which Abnett deftly captures the dynamic of the banter between Amy, Rory, and Matt Smith's Doctor as they face off against a mysterious foe (though the cover reveals the Ice Warriors are involved). It's Abnett, so the action is top-flight, and there's some cute stuff with the faux-medieval village and their language having shifted over time, but the book isn't notably more than the sum of its parts, making it a perfectly fine tie-in but not much more than that.

Chang Wejen, "Classical Chinese Jurisprudence and the Development of the Chinese Legal System": This is an English-language overview of the philosophical foundations of the Imperial Chinese legal system, which I downloaded in the course of reading Debt but didn't get around to finishing until this month.

Professor Chang represents the views of Confucian and Legalist scholars fairly accurately, but he approaches the works of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi from the perspective of a western-influenced legal scholar, which results in a really weird reading of their work. (Lao Zi opens the Dao De Jing with the statement that the Dao that can be spoken is not the true Dao-- in essence, that trying to define the Dao using words distorts its meaning and encourages misunderstanding and dogmatism-- and I feel that Professor Chang's exegesis of Daoism as a secretly tyrannical philosophy only proves his point.) I also feel like classical Chinese Legalism was a reaction to the chaos of the Warring States period, in much the way that Hobbes's Leviathan and Machiavelli's Prince were reactions to the English Civil War and the age of Borgia dominance-- in times like those, Confucian platitudes about the inherent goodness of man were unlikely to be very convincing. That said, Professor Chang's analysis of how the three schools of philosophy affected Chinese jurisprudence from the Qin and Han onward is consistent with my understanding of Chinese history. Recommended (with caveats) to anyone interested in the philosophical basis of Imperial Chinese governance and law.

Dorothy Dunnett, The Unicorn Hunt: Discussed elsewhere. To elaborate on my 'replaced by evil robots' comment, however, my feeling is that the book's scheming works on a purely tactical level, but neither a strategic or emotional one. The only way I could keep reading the book was to turn my critical faculties down as far as they could go and read it as a sequence of moderately interesting events that weren't causally connected.

I'm going to keep reading the House of Niccolo books, but The Unicorn Hunt is my least favorite of the series to date.

Judith Herrin, Women in Purple: An intriguing but largely speculative history of three Empresses of Byzantium, wherein the newest and most controversial part of Herrin's thesis-- that Empress Euphrosyne bridged the gap between her grandmother Irene and her stepdaughter Theodora, in terms of providing continuity of both iconophilia and female knowledge of how to maintain Imperial power-- is bolstered mostly by interpolation and circumstantial evidence. For the most part, I found the glimpses into Byzantine court life which Herrin provided on the way to making her argument (Eunuchs! Bride shows ala Cinderella!) far more intriguing than questions of whether Euphrosyne and Theodora were secretly loyal to the iconophile faction, as Herrin does a solid job of providing context for both the iconoclast movement (which was popularly linked to military victory against the iconoclastic armies of Islam) and Byzantine life and politics as a whole. There are also some very nice maps at the front of the book, which is always a plus.

Peter Higgins, Wolfhound Century: So you know how I was talking about privileging aesthetics over coherence earlier in the week? Yeah. Aesthetically Wolfhound Century combines the anarchy and agitation of pre-Revolutionary Russia with the gulags, propaganda machine, poverty, and purges of the Stalinist era to create the Vlast, a faux-Communist empire that controls most of the world and is locked in an endless war with the Archipelago. The Vlast's magic and technology are fueled by the stone flesh of angels, who have fallen to earth out of the skies for three centuries, and the only angel to have survived the fall has extended its influence to prompt a coup. Opposing the angel and its minions are the old gods of the forest, who have hidden away a seed from which the old world can be restored from backup, overwriting the Vlast and all its works.

All of this is fine as far as it goes (and Wolfhound Century is the first half of a two-part book, so it only goes so far) but the hodgepodge of Russian-derived content didn't really add up for me. Aristocrats are persecuted, but there's no visible communist ideology behind the persecution; it's just there to add to the Russian-ness. The world appears to consist of the Vlast, the Archipelago, and a smattering of Free Cities, which broke my brain a little because so much of Russian history is defined by hordes rolling in off the steppe, centuries of interaction with Europe (see: Lenin's delivery to Russia via armored train), and the like. You don't get Communist Russia without the French Revolution; you don't get Russia as an industrial power without Armand Hammer, and Lend-Lease, and the enslavement of German technicians-- and you sure as hell don't get Stalin or Kruschev or any dictator going around without a set of personal bodyguards who they and their intimates regularly vet for their loyalty. Higgins uses a lot of verbiage and angel stone to try to gloss over this stuff, but fundamentally he's far more interested in his characters being horribly oppressed and in his coup being dramatic than in having the world he's painted be coherent.

(It doesn't help that the wise giant who saves our heroes in the marshes has a Finnish name. For those who didn't know, the Finns are the Magical Negroes of the Russian narrative tradition. Not cool, dude.)

Higgins' work has drawn comparisons to Mieville, but I felt like Mieville's world-building ramified in interesting ways. The risk in drawing on history is that people who know what you're drawing on will object to the liberties you've taken, and in the end I felt like Higgins was treating Russia like a box of paints, and in the service of a plot that strained my credulity past breaking at several points. Not recommended.

Marie Lu, Legend: So the thing with the knife did turn out to be a clue-- but not for the reasons I thought! Oh no, it was a clue because the knife had been moved from Metias's shoulder to his heart. (Let us ignore the fact that June-- who is Sherlock Holmes when the author wants her to be a badass-- missed this at the time because plot convenience.)

Okay, complaining about knife-throwing aside, Legend is a fairly standard dystopian YA novel save in certain regards. Since the novel was loosely inspired by Les Miserables, Day (our !Valjean) and June (our female !Javert) start out on opposite sides of the economic and social divide in post-apocalypse Los Angeles, with June as a committed servant of the tyrannical Republic. Ms. Lu doesn't flinch from having the Republic's military engage in behavior of the sort described in Dirty Wars (at least until Day falls into their clutches), which means June has to deal with being on the same side as torturers and killers, but the murder of her brother Metias motivates her to hunt down Day, and she only switches sides once it becomes clear that she's been lied to.

The government of the Republic is cacklingly evil and shortsighted, as is typical of the genre, and the novel's grittiness gets turned down quite a ways once Day is captured. Day and June fall in love/lust with each other more or less immediately, due to them being physically and mentally perfect aside from Day's theoretically bum knee. And yet, despite all of this, the second half of the book held my attention all the way through. Legend has real strengths; the question for every reader is going to be whether the details of its setup or internal dramatic arc throw them for a loop.

Anthony Price, The Old Vengeful: Another month, another few Price novels. The Old Vengeful traces the recruitment of a former naval captain's daughter into Audley's military intelligence department, following the death of her father and a raid on her house which is foiled at the last minute. As usual, all is not as it seems, and though I get why the traitor's identity was credible, in context, I could really have done without that character, of all people, turning out to be a villain.

Anthony Price, Gunner Kelly: Probably my favorite out of this month's Price novels, Gunner Kelly follows Audley and a German counterintelligence officer as they attempt to puzzle out who killed the aged General who was the patron of a remote English valley, and who can possibly be after the titular artilleryman. There are lots of lovely bits in Gunner Kelly, including the mobilization of the valley, its infiltration, and the visit to the tank museum, but the bit that impressed me the most was how swiftly Price wrapped everything up by having the violence occur off-screen and only showing the aftermath. By the time I was four pages from the end, I was honestly worried as to whether he was going to be able to wrap everything up.

Anthony Price, Sion Crossing: If no one would ever use the phrase "Romantic but wrong" or its corollary ever again, especially in reference to the American Civil War, I would be a happy man. Price isn't at his best here, both because he's describing a culture further away from home than he usually does, and because one of the novel's major characters is black. The book is enjoyable enough, and getting Oliver St. John Latimer's POV for once is a nice change of pace, but overall this didn't strike me as one of the stronger entries in the series.

Dorothy Sayers, Five Red Herrings: Good heavens, what a mechanistic, traditional mystery novel this is, especially when compared to The Nine Tailors or Gaudy Night. Neither Lord Peter nor Bunter really display much in the way of personality in Five Red Herrings, which is unfortunate, because nobody else really does either-- not the suspects, not the police, not even the victim, whose only real trait is that he's obnoxious (and then dead). For completists and those in need of a mystery novel who won't be disappointed that it isn't a different book by Sayers.

Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: This is less the book I expected it to be-- one which gathered many specific accounts of collateral damage and night raids and the like in one place-- than a historical overview of how America's targeted killing program developed and expanded over the years. There's a great deal of content about Anwar al-Awlaki and his transition from moderate imam to public enemy #1, and a great deal more about Yemen, and Somalia, and Pakistan, how the various players at the CIA and JSOC jockeyed for control over the secret wars and proxy prisons that the US had set up all across the globe.

Takeaways include: Surgical strikes are a fantasy; special operators and drone pilots are regularly working off of bad intel that hasn't been double-checked; Government pronouncements about who was killed in night raids and drone strikes (and whether they were armed) are not to be trusted; Anwar al-Awlaki and other Islamist propagandists who are US citizens deliberately skirt the boundaries of protected speech when calling for jihad; and there is a horrible symbiotic feedback loop between violent extremists and the US targeted killing campaign. US foreign policy is in thrall to a macho fantasy of special operations precision-- three Somali pirates sniped simultaneously! Smart bombs going down a chimney!-- that is only really practical when operations have solid intel, are carefully planned, and nothing goes wrong. And in war and covert operations, things always go wrong.

Dirty Wars is seriously depressing reading, but important for understanding the world we've made and the limits of covert military force.

Adam Stemple, Singer of Souls: I was promised total carnage at the end of this book, and I was mildly disappointed that the junkies escaped alive.

...what, you wanted more than that? Sheesh.

Singer of Souls follows Douglas, a busker and junkie who comes to Edinburgh to break away from the life of dissipation and petty crime he'd made for himself in Minneapolis. His grandmother is awesome, and her influence goes some way to helping Douglas straighten himself out, but then one of the fae allows him to see other fae, and everything goes straight to hell. Douglas, finding himself stuck between a fae-killing priest, some junkie acquaintances, and what are basically the Seelie and Unseelie courts from Changeling: the Dreaming, ends up wrecking everything good he's built and rewriting himself and those around him in order to survive.

I'm not really sure about the pacing of the book as a whole, but I can tell you this much: When reading future Adam Stemple novels, I will be much more concerned about him killing off his characters in gruesome ways than I am of George R.R. Martin offing his protagonists. Much more concerned.

Tags: books
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