Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

A Darker Shade of Magic
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve returned to my YA roots. I always say I like YA and I certainly have fond memories of many books from my own youth — yet other than Harry Potter or works by Mr. Gaiman, I rarely dip into that well. So it was exciting to pick up A Darker Shade of Magic.

And this book certainly hits all the right marks to be a great YA book! Magic and daring! Precocious young characters who find hidden wells of strength to overcome the obstacles placed in front of them! A well-defined (though still vague enough to not get bogged down in) magic system! It’s got it all.

I had also forgotten just how light a good YA book could be. So it was very pleasant to see the pages fly by. Moreover, this book is easy to read without being overly simple — a task that is harder to pull off than it looks.

So A Darker Shade of Magic is poised to be a classic. Except…

One key area where the book does fall into the trap of being overly simplistic is in the villains. Their villainy is shown through purposeless and gratuitous cruelty that seems to be motivated entirely by their knowledge that they are villains and need to act a certain way. Their evil plan seems to be “We have ruined one world; may as well ruin another because that is what villains do.” The reader can imagine deeper motivations for the Danes, but it’s a lot of work because the characters themselves seem unaware of anything more. They were plopped into the story as villains so that is what they will do.

Great stories derive from great conflicts, but great conflicts come along when the antagonist could be seen to be the hero of their own story and not the villain of someone else’s. The relationship between the siblings points to something richer but it goes entirely unexplored. Even Tom Riddle had a backstory, you know?

Similarly, the villainous plot is mostly perfunctory. I have mostly lost patience with SF stories that feature heavy use of unbeatable mind control. It gives the villain a great advantage without any real story work. Imagine the hero’s brother torn between multiple obligations who has to make a terrible choice between going along with the villains plans or staying true to the people he cares about. And imagine the villain subtly working to make the “right” choice be betrayal. That would be a great story! It would explore notions of family and honor and the no-win scenario! It would show off the villain’s chops as a manipulator and a master of the long game. This book, though, just uses a spell to achieve the same effect. Off screen.

It reduced the complex relationship between Kell and Rhys to just being yet another plot obstacle. It also made the Danes seem rather impatient and inept. After taking control of the king and queen, they had won! They could have easily leveraged that into whatever longterm goals they had. Instead, they goaded the one person on all the worlds who could stop them. It doesn’t make sense and makes the entire book feel forced.

All of which could have been avoided by eschewing mind control. Even YA deserves more than that these days.

Ultimately, A Darker Shade of Magic is a reasonably charming book that is light and fun to read but is somewhat done-in by shallow characters and drop-in plot contrivances. Still, the universe has potential and book two will probably be worth taking a look at.

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015
Link: James Joyner: Your Second Third Drink
Sunday, March 1st, 2015

In a recent episode of his podcast, Clay Jenkinson was discussing Thoreau and Walden. He focused in on the idea of “living deliberately”, a concept I could not help but conflate with some form of minimalism. It’s an idea that has been resonating with me lately as I have found myself increasingly discomforted by all the stuff I have dragged into my tiny house through the years. It’s almost overwhelming.

And I think, “How did it come to this?” and I have to admit that it is because I have not been living deliberately. When I see a new and shiny toy, I grab it to satisfy that immediate want — but I give no thought to where that thing will fit into my life in one or two or ten years.

The move towards replacing physical artifacts with bytes has helped tremendously. My Kindle has so many more books on it than I would be able to store as physical copies. Our iTunes library is expanding while our groaning DVD shelves are happy to not be called to further service. But these still come with an economic cost that I don’t always fully consider in the sense of living deliberately. And that doesn’t even begin to factor in the psychic costs of my nagging worry that Amazon or Apple will flip a switch one day and all my “investment” in those books and songs and movies will vanish in less than a puff of smoke.

So this deliberate living (in a minimalist possession style anyway — I will save thoughts of things like food for another day) starts to sound pretty good when I take a hard look at where my time and energy and money goes.

But how to start? There are two clear points: there is the commerce side where I bring possessions into my life and there is the other side where I have to live with them. The commerce side is more of a regular habit that must be handled with a new commitment each day. But the housing-life-possessions side — Ah! Now that presents and immediate and severe challenge.

SO I star taking stock: what do I need to be happy? I need a good chair to read in. And a good sofa for when I need a good lie-down. And a good TV. And a couple of good boxes to plug into that TV.

I need a good computer. And a good phone — these are how I make my living. I don’t need a good tablet (finally! A concession!) But I do need my Kindle.

I need a good pen and some bottles of ink and good paper and a good notebook, but I have at least convinced myself to stop buying more of these things for now. Even though I really want some.

And the list goes on (I haven’t even gotten to my small whisk[e]y collection…). I believe my definition of “minimal” may need to be calibrated. And that can no doubt turn into a life-long pursuit of contemplating and refining that definition. But one thing is decided not on the list of things I need and it breaks my heart.

I don’t think I really need all these books.

Our house is basically a library. We have filled it with shelves. We have filled those shelves with books. We have stacks of books. We have piles of books. We have bags of books. Our storage closet is filled with boxes filled with books. When we buy books now (and we buy books!), we can give only small thought about an organizational system as the pressures of reality force us to put them wherever there is an empty space or (in some cases) where we can convince gravity to look the other way.

I married someone who loves books as much as I do and it is glorious. And I love books a lot. I love reading them. I love holding them and smelling them. I love running my eyes along their colorful spines and reading their titles — each one an invitation. I love being surrounded by them and just existing in their presence. But I have to wonder: how much of that could be satisfied by a trip to the library? How much space at home am I sacrificing and is it worth it?

But…

I don’t know if I can get rid of them. Each fiction book is a miniature universe, filled with possibility. I can’t throw away an entire world so callously! My non-fiction books are even more valuable for they are filled with knowledge and the potential for self-betterment!

I find myself paralyzed by sentimentality and I do not know if I can overcome it. Even for books I have not opened in decades or technical books that are staggeringly outdated, I don’t know if I can stand to part with them.

I may have failed at deliberate living before even starting — and that is before discussing any of this with my spouse (a vital piece of any lifestyle experiment!). Perhaps I am doomed to live more like Jefferson (but without the astounding intellectual gifts that allowed him to gain enough status to mostly get away with it in his lifetime).

But I have a secret. None of those books on our shelves is Walden. I’ve never read it. I think I shall and maybe Thoreau will speak to me and help me overcome my own worst instincts.

But when I read Walden, I think I shall get a copy from the library.

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Chindi
Chindi by Jack McDevitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a certain genre of science fiction where human beings find a massive and ancient alien artifact or ship. They explore that artifact while being completely ignored by the it and whatever attendants it may have (automated or otherwise). They marvel at the age and history and unfathomable alienness of the thing. Then they leave, having found more questions than answers but opening the eyes of our species to a new level of cosmic wonder.

When done well, books in this genre can be a page-turning adventure story about a group of people overcoming tremendous obstacles — all set against an amazing and rich backdrop. When done poorly, books in this genre become monuments to how much math the author has done to arrive at something fantastical yet plausible.

This book was done well. The characters are fleshed out and engaging. The ancient artifacts are compelling and they leave the reader with the same questions that it leaves the book’s human civilization: “Who built this? Where are they? Can we find them? Can we talk to them? Can we learn from them?” The other relics of other civilizations our heroes find have their own shades and layers of mystery, leaving the reader with even more questions and idle fantasies while painting a picture of an and well-populated galaxy. The adventures are fast-paced and exciting. The AI is charming.

And ultimately, the chief adversary of the humans in Chindi turns out to be the hubris of members of their own team. Which, in a book that chronicles the self-destruction of countless other civilizations, serves as a solid theme and a good reminder to not do that.

This book was both satisfying and entertaining. I look forward to finding other entries in the series.

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

The Big Sleep
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sherlock Holmes. Miss Marple. Jessica Fletcher (hush, you!). And Phillip Marlowe. These great detectives of our culture have long been cemented — in thousands of pages and hours of film — as icons of our culture. Yet I had somehow never actually experienced Chandler before. I’ve only really ever been exposed to the hard-boiled detective genre through tributes and pastiches like Star Trek‘s Dixon Hill or “special episodes of shows like Castle or Psych. I was excited to turn to an original and classic like The Big Sleep.

I was not disappointed but I was also not prepared. As a fan of detectives like Holmes, I expect my detective stories to follow certain patterns of evidence and deduction. Marlowe doesn’t really go for that sort of thing. There is even a nice moment where he explains that he doesn’t do that because, in reality, the police don’t miss many clues when they are really looking — it was a lovely reprimand from an author from seventy-five years go.

Instead, The Big Sleep focuses on the who instead of the how or why of detecting. Chandler was not so much interested in building a proper mystery as he was in having Marlowe deliver the perfect mot juste when questioning a suspect. And if the story’s resolution doesn’t make perfect senses, does it really matter so much if you had a good time getting there?

Once I embraced the differences between this and every other detective novel I’ve ever read, I was able to come on board and enjoy the ride.