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The Library of Babel: A Book Log

"This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences." -- Jorge Luis Borges

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Lucifer: Devil in the Gateway

This is the first of Mike Carey's Sandman spin-off comic series/ graphic novel. As such, it's really only the first chapter in a long tale, so it gets a very short review here:

Lucifer: Devil in the Gateway isn't as good as Sandman: Season of Mists, but it's much better than Endless Nights.

And, really, that's about as much as I'm willing to say about it at this point. I didn't think it was completely brilliant, but then the first couple of volumes of Sandman didn't strike me as all that great, either. I did buy the second collection yesterday, though, and will probably end up getting the rest from Amazon, unless I'm hugely disappointed by one of the other volumes.

I'm sure I'll have more to say when I finish the whole thing.

Posted at 9:53 AM | link |
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The Family Trade

Charlie Stross is nothing if not ambitious, and he's got range. The Atrocity Archives is Lovecraft meets James Bond, and the Hugo-nominated Singularity Sky is overcaffeinated space opera. His latest project is a new spin on the same basic idea as Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, only with more economics. Whatever you may think of the results, you've got to admit, he doesn't think small.

The first book in his Merchant Princes series is The Family Trade, which follows the adventures of Miriam Beckstein, a hotshot reporter for a techie business magazine, who uncovers a huge money-laundering operation, and gets fired as a result (her corporate masters are implicated). On top of that trauma, she is given some of her late biological mother's possessions, including a locket with a knotwork pattern that triggers a shift between modern-day Boston and a parallel world that is still at a more-or-less medieval tech level.

Soon after that, she finds herself snatched by the ruling families of that other world, who have built a mercantile empire of sorts off their monopoly on world-shifting. It turns out, she's the long-lost daughter of a princess of that world, and heir to an impressive fortune and various titles. Which people are willing to kill for.

Being a plucky techie type, and offended by the social and political structure of the families, Miriam resolves to overturn the existing order, and hijinks ensue. Or, rather, hijink ensues, because the plot barely gets rolling before the book ends. The plural will no doubt be justified in the next volume.

I don't really object to the big chains' newfound love of short books, but I really can't wait for the point when the idea actually trickles back down the production chain to the people writing the books. Rumor has it that this is another long book that was chopped into two by the publisher for commercial reasons, and I can easily believe it, based on the ending. I understand the reason for preferring shorter books, but if we're going to make 300-page books the norm again, we need to have authors writing 300-page books, not 600-page books that get cut off at the end of a convenient sentence midway through.

(Of course, I could be wrong about the reason for the abrupt ending, in which case, ignore the previous paragraph. Or, rather, imagine it being shifted to the forthcoming entry on Scott Westerfeld's space opera books, which got the same treatment.)

This book didn't work as well for me as Charlie's other books, almost entirely because of one very small thing: Miriam Beckstein is supposed to be from Boston, and I don't buy her as an American. There's not much problem with the book or the plot during the stretches where I'm free to picture her as being British, or Scottish, or Irish, or any sort of European at all, but every now and again, there would be a reference to her being an American, and I'd find myself kicked completely out of the book.

The maddening thing is, I can't nail down the source of the problem. I don't think it's just that I know Charlie is from the UK (though I do), but I can't really say what it is. All I know is that every time somebody would refer to her as an American, something in my brain would say "The hell she is..." and it'd take me a couple of pages to recover my suspension of disbelief.

That problem tended to draw my attention to all the other little flaws of the book, that I'd probably be willing to accept if I was drawn along by the plot the way I was for The Atrocity Archives. Pretty much anything else I might say about the book will be colored by that, and so I won't say much else.

But if you do read it, and can spot the non-American element of her character, leave me a comment, because I'd love to know what it is that's bugging me.

Posted at 9:21 AM | link | 2 comments

Friday, February 25, 2005

Ten or More

A silly Internet meme thing, via The Little Professor (where I was poking around after following a link to something completely different): Which authors have you read ten or more books by?

Being a literary academic type, she gets to list all sorts of respectable stuff. Me, I end up with (based on books that I have here):

Iain (M.) Banks
Greg Bear
John Bellairs
David Brin
Steven Brust
Glen Cook
Dave Duncan
David Eddings
Neil Gaiman
Robert Jordan
L.E. Modesitt Jr. (those damn Recluce books are the SF equivalent of Tic-Tacs)
Terry Pratchett
Rex Stout
Donald E. Westlake
Gene Wolfe
Roger Zelazny

(Bujold is close to ten, but I'm not entirely sure of the count.)

That ought to pretty much sink any future attempt to put on highbrow airs. And that doesn't even include the big stacks still in my parents' basement (which I'm sure include at least ten each by Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and Piers Anthony).

Posted at 9:22 PM | link | no comments

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The System of the World

It's hard to come up with anything really coherent to say about Neal Stephenson's The System of the World. I mean, it's the third 900-page book in the Baroque Cycle, which has been overflowing with pirates, Vagabonds, Natural Philosophers, aristocrats of all varieties, and long discourses upon economics, science, history, and pretty much anything else that crossed the author's mind during the writing process. This is not a work that lends itself to the plot-summary review.

I could also attempt to talk about the ideas behind the whole thing, but again, we're talking about close to 3000 pages of dense text. The topic is nothing less than the creation of the modern world. There's just too much to boil down into a single short booklog review.

So I'll punt, and offer a few general comments, and one representative quote.

This book took me three months to finish, not because of the length (I can read fairly quickly when I want to), or because it was intrinsically a hard slog to read (on the contrary, I would happily rip through a hundred pages a night, given the chance), but because I had too much other stuff going on. I wanted to read it more quickly, but between holidy travel, research projects, and my classes this term, I was just too fried to make much of it a lot of the time. As a result, my reading was kind of disjointed, which is another reason I have nothing coherent to say about the work as a whole. I wish I'd been able to read it in one unbroken block, but that didn't work out, and I'm not about to undertake a re-read.

Regarding the overabundance of plot, I should note that with the exception of one momentum-sapping John Galt speech scene late in the book (a three-way discussion between Daniel Waterhouse, Isaac Newton, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz), this book moves along quite nicely. There's swashbuckling adventure and political intrigue, Infernal Devices and carriage chases, Calculating Engines and alchemy, dramatic sword fights and death by cello. Even the slow bits are lively.

Even more impressive, given the author's track record, is that story acquires a host of new characters, and nearly as many new plots, but somehow manages to bring them all to a satisfying conclusion. That's really saying something, given that the book starts at the conclusion of a fifteen-hundred-page flashback.

I suspect that there's an interesting comparison to be made between the Baroque Cycle and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but I'm not sure I'm really in a position to make it. Certainly, they share some elements of setting (alternate-history England) and a love of eccentric spelling, and they're both terrifically inventive books. The really striking difference between them, though is that Jonathan Strange never really built up any momentum for me, while the Baroque Cycle books were much more compelling. I could set Clarke's book down at night when I started to get tired, while I would keep turning pages in Stephenson's until my vision went blurry from exhaustion.

I think, for me at least, that a lot of the difference stems from the gloriously anachronistic approach Stephenson takes. He doesn't attempt to maintain a consistent, authentic tone in his writing, but switches back and forth between a passable imitation of the writing of the time, and a much more modern approach, which makes for a much more lively reading experience.

To pick one of the thousands of examples available, I loved the scene in which Newton is asked to address the House of Commons on the subject of Longitude:

Sir Isaac Newton's answer comprised many many words, but contained no more than the following information: that one could do it by telling the time with an excellent sea-going chronomete, which no one knew how to make yet; or by watching the satellites of Jupiter through an excellent sea-going telescope, which no one knew how to make yet; or by looking at the position of the moon and comparing it against calculations derived from his, i.e., Sir Isaac Newton's, lunar theory, which was not quite finished yet but would be coming out any minute now in a book. In the timeless and universal manner of authors conversing in public places, he did not fail to mention its title: Volume III of Principia Mathematica, entitled The System of the World, available shortly where books are sold.

Most authors doing a period piece would try to stick to some approximation of eighteenth-century speech throughout, and bore me to tears. Stephenson doesn't hesitate to throw in some more modern idiom, and the collision between the two is vastly more entertaining.

Anyway, this booklog entry now comprises many many words, and contains no more than the following information: If you enjoyed the previous books in the series (or, really, any of Stephenson's other books), this offers more of the same. If you didn't like his earlier books, well, why are you even reading this entry?

Posted at 9:24 AM | link | 2 comments

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