Network Effect by Martha Wells

Read September 2020
Recommended for fans of action AI 
 ★     ★    ★    ★  

First of all, it’s Murderbot. So ‘four stars’ here is about a million for a normal read. But I struggled with Network Effect. Yes, pandemic, yada, yada. The fact is, while I was waiting for this to come out, I was able to read the quartet of novellas back-to-back, and appreciate the sense of growth in ‘Bot’s character,starting from a largely indifferent security AI (“as you may have noticed, I didn’t care”) to a being that risked security and function to save the human who consistently recognized it as its own entity. 

Yet despite that tremendous growth, Network Effect opens with a ‘Bot who is behaving more than a little like an adolescent teen. Fair enough, I suppose, as like a young adult, ‘Bot is emotionally conscripted into a job it doesn’t really want to do, working with at least a couple of people it doesn’t really like, for a person it does like but feels conflicted about (talk about first jobs in a nutshell). But it just seemed like too much a couple of times; like Wells had heard back from fans, the agent and the publisher about all the things people loved about Murderbot, and so she took the sarcasm and the emotional unavailability and the situational resolution and turned the dial up to ‘eleven’ for the first chapter. In fact, I feel like she turned back the clock on ‘Bot’s development just to satisfy. Frankly, it disappointed me so badly that I put it aside until I could let my expectations go. 

So there we are, expectation-free, and reading again. I still got wriggles on a few of the same lines, but generally was able to relax and just enjoy all of them. When I read: “I said ‘Let him go.’ I didn’t really feel like negotiating. I have a module on it, somewhere in my archive. It was never much help” and chuckled, I knew I was in a good spot.

The narrative is almost entirely from ‘Bot’s viewpoint, and once we pass through the adolescent scenes into the situational investigation and resolution, ‘Bot’s voice is far more tolerable. 

Wells did a couple of surprising things with Network, and the most surprising of all is that I somehow remained unaware of them despite reading many reviews. So while we all might know that ART will show up, there’s many twists and turns up Wells’ sleeve, and the solutions that the players arrive at are occasionally surprising as well. I will say that it felt very fast-and-furious, with hardly time to breathe in the last half of the book. I look forward to re-reading at my leisure and paying more attention to the craft of the book, because I think Wells is a fantastic author.

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Exit by Belinda Bauer

Read September 2020
Recommended for fans of British mysteries
 ★     ★    ★  

An uneven but satisfying reading experience.

Elderly (but not geriatric) widower Felix is on an assignment with his new partner, Amanda, as an Exiteer. Exiteers are a secret cell of people who anonymously volunteer who provide the means for people with fatal diseases to die. Unfortunately, as they sit in vigil with their latest client, the man fumbles the mask so badly that Amanda violates protocol and assists it onto his face. Awkward, but a potential learning mistake, until they discover the real client is still alive, and they’ve assisted his ailing, deadbeat son into the hereafter.

While Exit contains a number of clever ideas, one of my most significant challenges with the book is one of tone around the premise of the Exiteers. You see, I worked for a number of years as a hospice nurse, and for my entire nursing career as a cancer nurse, so I’ve seen many manifestations of both life and death at the end of the human lifespan. In fact, I believe that people should have a real, controlled way out at the end of their life, if they so choose. So this premise was a struggle, because Felix and his group have truly done a huge disservice to what should be a vital personal right. 

That said, once I was able to take my feelings around that issue and put them into a little compartment in the scattered library of my mind, I was able to enjoy the story, particularly as the plot picked up. I hesitate to say any more without spoilers, so let me say that all this is just the beginning of the book. Though it begins with a definite feel of sadness, eventually there there’s somewhat of a comedy-of-errors feel of it as Felix tries to work through what he’s done, both emotionally and socially. This is compounded by his own feelings of loss and grief over the deaths of his wife and son:

“Nobody ever spoke of the relentless parking that was demanded by a relative in hospital with a prolonged illness. Twice a day, every day, in the dystopian concrete multi-storey that smelled of urine and smog. The constant change for the ticket machine. The long queue at the barrier. The forgetting where the car was. Was it this row? This level?”

However, much like many Shakespeare comedies, ‘all’s well that ends well.’ 

Narration jumps around, at first sticking with Felix, and then alternating with Constable Calvin Bridge, who is assisting DCI King with the investigation. Eventually more viewpoints are brought in. In fact, I think by the end, the reader will get a taste of everyone’s viewpoint, including the villain’s. Normally, it’s the kind of device that irritates me, but something about this story worked more like a play, with a large cast of characters, than as a single-person, character or plot-driven mystery. What was nice about that is that it helps sell it as a feel-good tale, knowing as we do the mental and emotional place the characters are coming from.

The pacing is perhaps the most challenging thing about it. The main plot doesn’t take off until 11%, and the wrinkles that really give it spark aren’t until 35%. Eventually, there are plenty of twists to keep the reader engaged, to the point where it becomes a little bananas, really. There are frequent humorous asides, such as when he tries to help take care of a cat, his accidentally developing relationship with the elderly neighbor lady, and when he tries his luck standing on a boat.

Ultimately, a fun tale to read that fans of British humor should particularly enjoy. Just remember to keep that personal-ethical-political box locked up tight and have some patience for the ride. 

Many thanks to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for the ARC

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Chasing Waterfalls

In the spirit of being almost–but not quite–through a century of life, I convinced my BFF to go on a remote Chasing Waterfalls vacation. You know, based on that song:

Yeah, it makes no sense. Actually, I think it’s about taking dumb risks, which I’m terrible at. I’m also terrible at taking good risks, as is my BFF. So it’s worth noting that our first waterfall was a spontaneous add-on that required a turn around, an unpaved country road, and a dirt road so full of potholes and rocks that my Prius would have cried. Good thing we had her Outback.

Spring Camp Falls

We met an aging hippie woman drinking spritzers and beers with her twenty-something kid from Madison. She immediately asked if we were “waterfalling” and proceeding to give us directions to another unknown waterfall and an obscure viewpoint on a way to a popular falls. Spoiler: we were never able to find either.

We continued onward to another cute little falls known as Upsom Falls, found in Upsom Park. Absolutely nobody was there. It even had one of those old-fashioned iron pump-your-own-water pumps. I’m no longer confident enough in my immune system to drink from them, but they are nice for washing hands. 2020 bonus: port-a-potties now have hand sanitizers.

Look one way and there’s a nice, medium-sized falls with loads of rocks and deep pools, potentially perfect to play in. The other direction has a picturesque bridge.

          

We ventured on to Copper Falls, one of the ‘Top Five’ tallest in WI. The park actually comprises a network of falls. The new WordPress format is finicky, but first is Tyler Forks Cascade, then Copper Falls, a close-up of the cascade and Brownstone Falls. Well maintained and an easy walk. It also led to musings on the absolute pedestrian nature of white-people WI naming.

The next day we power-walked through to Lost Falls, were able to jump on a kayak trip for beginners (but don’t let them fool you, it wasn’t), and fit in Houghton Falls before dinner. The kayak trip contained a visit to a ‘keyhole’ cave, which we promptly renamed the ‘Hell, no’ cave, and a cave where we could see veins of banded iron, a rarity on the surface. We were brave enough for that one. Turns out Houghton Falls really isn’t a falls as much as a culvert used in the olden days to manage a large stream under a quarry and railroad loading spot.

The next day was rainy, so we went to Amicon falls,which has an extensive falls network. I played around a bit more with my photography. The area is comprised of compressed sandstone that has been worn away by the Amnicon River. There’s a smaller falls of a branch off called Snake Pit Falls (last picture) that has a significant drop.

The town was home to Maurices, a clothing store neither of us had seen for decades. When I was a pre-teen, it was The Place to shop. It’s reappearance caused me no end of glee every time I saw it, probably from remembering hyperventilating in those tight Coca-Cola jeans. Our hotel had a balcony, which gave me the opportunity to discover this interesting and previously unknown-to-me moth, an ilia underwing.

Last, but not least, was our final day. Potato Falls (no information on where that name comes from), Upper and Lower, and an attempt to find Giles Falls (hippie lady’s directions were thwarted by private land postings). My friend trusted Google maps more than I do, which led us down the unimproved (s)Carey Road, which lead us to a nice fall view. It was an absolutely beautiful trip. The late timing meant few people (therefore loads of social distancing) and almost no insects, a huge bonus when it comes to the northwoods.

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Lexicon A Novel by Max Barry

Lexicon by Max Barry

Read August 2020
Recommended for Crouch fans
 ★     ★  

Sadly disappointing and messy for a book about the mind-altering power of words and their impact on personal lives.

Barry does the dual timeline, dual narrative technique, so your enjoyment may vary based on tolerance. The current timeline is from a man, Wil, who is kidnapped as he is leaving the airport to meet his girlfriend, while a past timeline is from a young woman, Emily, who is recruited off the streets for her talking talents to apply for a ‘magic’ school.

As enticing as that may sound, it leads me to a digression about the role of ‘magic’ and schools in fantasy systems. In most fantasy–especially since the popularization of Hogwarts–there are magic schools that are about learning magic, and magic systems. This is not one of them. The beginning is about a young woman qualifying for a private school and adjusting to it. If you pick it up hoping to learn about different spells and how they work, you will be disappointed. Instead, this is more ‘superhero’ type, where people kind of just fledged into full skills and there’s not a lot of scrutiny how this might happen. In one spectacularly inaccurate example of ‘persuasion,’ Barry tries to show us how attention-getting on the street is the same as persuading someone to do something they wouldn’t normally do (baring one’s breasts count, as does subsequently claiming assault)

Emily is the only character that is fleshed out to any degree, and even that is suspect. We don’t learn much about her runaway history, and nothing about life before. Her stories are largely consumed with love interests or manipulation by men, but I feel like I didn’t gain any understanding as to why this was okay with her until (spoiler). As for the rest of the characters, they are inscrutable, a nice way of saying one-dimensional. Wil argues with his kidnapper, then goes along. Eliot, the kidnapper, is full of drive but the reader has very little clue why, particularly as the dialogue between he and Wil usually consists of Eliot telling Wil they will all die if they don’t do something Right Now. This dialogue is terrible, like they are reading from fortune cookies:

“‘Yes, I kill people, when the alternative is worse. That’s the world. That’s the reason you and I are still here.’
Wil looked away. ‘I’ll come with you. I’ll do what you say. But not because you are right.’
Eliot but the car in gear. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Close enough.'”

To help us towards understanding the meta, Barry provides the reader with newspaper clippings, transcripts and, in one intrusive wall-breaking case, a (fictional) blog post:

“I just think it’s missing the point to get upset about bias in Fox News or MSNBC or whoever… relying on a single source of information means you can’t critically evaluate it. It’s like you’re locked in a room an every day I come in and tell you what’s happening outside. It’s very easy for me to make you believe whatever I want. Even if I don’t lie, I can just tell you the facts that support me and leave out the ones that don’t.”

The ending… oh, that ending. Just how Blake Crouch was that? Now I have more questions, like why a certain someone’s character was completely different (spoiler: Harry. How come the Harry that forgot his Australian life–although I’m not sure that should have happened–where did he think he grew up? –how did he turn into the kind of guy that asked questions all the time? And didn’t go to help people in trouble?). Actually, while it was emotionally satisfying, it felt even more sloppy in terms of the novel.

While it’s an interesting collection of concepts, it would have done much better with Peter Watts, who can speak science while wrapping concepts surrounding psycholinguistics and neurobiology up in a sci-fi plot. As it is, it’s more thriller with people that have abilities, then a commentary on linguistics and thought.  I mean, I guess it is a commentary on linguistics and thought, but only to the point that Barry tells us it is, about every five pages. It might appeal to those who enjoy Blake Crouch and his thriller approach to sci-fi.

Sadly, I guess these words didn’t work on me.

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Magical Midlife Dating by K.F. Breene

Read August 2020
Recommended for dating optimists.
 ★     1/2   

I thought the first book in the series, Magical Midlife Madness, quite cute. The premise is that a woman is at odds after divorcing and her only son going off to college, so when she inherits a house out of the blue in a small California town, she thinks, ‘why not?’ The eccentric butler and gardener only add to the appeal. As she uncovers the mysteries of the house, she discovers she is spiritual heir to its magic and the plot revolves around discovering and accepting that magic and a new life.

However, the sequel is entirely content to backtrack and recycle, first by suddenly giving us a main character that goes from embracing independence and a new way of living (hello, magic metaphor!) to one that is focused on dating. I’m not sure how we got here, because that wasn’t really the mental focus of the last book, which left her and the reader preparing for a magical attack. She compounds this with stupid decision-making, by deciding it would be appropriate to date non-magical people (‘Dicks,’ of ‘Dick and Jane’ fame, ha. ha.) and take them to the magical-people bar (logic escapes me). Presumably unable to think of a new UF-style plot (despite prior groundwork), Breene decides to recycle ‘accept the magic’ premise of discovering and accepting her supposed ability to fly.

Ugh. While I know I was experiencing QB™ the first book, I didn’t think I had it that bad. Madness was sweet, it held attention (mostly) and I didn’t skim (mostly). This, however, was just… same ol’, same ol’ mass-market, dingy-girl-woman looks for date. Think Stephanie Plum, book 19, only with less elements of what made the first good.

Despite having been ’empowered’ enough in book one to keep her ‘midlife’ body, she did take the rejuvenation moment to tighten up some saggy bits and remove some cellulite, so we’re treated to lots of hot-mama oogling/dressing up scenes here (she’s also kind of a self-righteous twit because she didn’t make her vampire minion any younger). Oh, it’s so empowering to date like this! Her Carebear™ non-boyfriend does lots of flexing, growling and advice-giving when he sees her, so we get the whole alpha male scene, tempered with Breene’s point that Jessie’s magic is equally strong.

But Jessie remains just dumb here–really, the whole premise of dating when she’s head of a magical nexus that the magical universe is salivating over?–and if there’s one thing that annoys me, it’s setting up your plot based on your heroine not being security conscious. (Talk about privilege!) There’s multiple instances where she does  ‘instinctual’ magical shout-outs for ‘help’–so stupid– and the trust placed in the respondees was questionable. Honestly, I was waiting for at least one to be a double-agent. Incidentally, all of the magical learning becomes hand-wavy ‘instinct,’ with an occasional reference to a confusing book the vampire is translating (don’t even try and figure that one out).

What I did like was the non-Bigfoot creature who was more than a little obsessed with flowers. That was pretty much the most redeeming character. Everything else, passable to lame. Oh, and for those that actually want dating and sex–there were no happy-sexy times here. Just ugh.

Hey, good news! I guess I recovered from Quarantine Brain™!

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The Magpie Lord by K.J. Charles

Read August 2020
Recommended for fans of Edwardian mysteries
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

 

Written better than all of my QB™ reads, this is a fun palate-cleanser between more demanding books. Books that I’ve been avoiding, for instance, including finishing Romano’s well-done one on zombies (too long, too end-of-the-world depressing-people), Carter and Lovecraft (too creepy horror), The Light Brigade (too wartime), Indemnity Only (too 1980s sleezy Chicago crime couched in women’s rights). Idk, I really don’t, because I also hate rainbows and kittens. 

“This is the drawing room. It probably wouldn’t be so bad without the panelling, or the chairs, and if it was in a different house.”

Anyway, this is fun, fast break from all that. Sure, it opens with an almost-suicide which is a bit of an emotional slap, but we quickly find out that is unusual behavior from our extremely self-confident lead.

“But if I can’t find him through any of the clubs, we can just hang around all the filthiest opium dens in Limehouse till we meet him.”

“See?” said Merrick. “Things are looking up already.”

I burned through this on a lazy Sunday afternoon on the porch, because that’s just about the perfect time and place for a read like this. Great atmosphere with the growing threat of danger, but there’s some snappy dialogue in there to also provide humor. There is an instance or two of questionable relationship behavior, but it’s interesting because the characters call themselves out on it and–this is crazy, here–have a discussion about it. I don’t know what these modern authors are coming to, actually talking out relationship stuff.

“I don’t think anyone is entitled to exploit his fellows because of an accident of birth. You’re an earl, I’m a practitioner, both of us were born this way, and neither of us is entitled to feed off other people because of it.”

Crane considered that. “I’m bloody glad you’re here.”

“Really? Because I wish to God we were both somewhere else.”

Anyway, decent mystery, interesting dynamic duo, very interesting lead characters (including Merrick). I’d read more from this team, and that’s saying something, because I’m not usually a fan of this setting. Highly preferred over something like Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, etc.

Thanks to Nataliya for trying and sharing this gem. I highly recommend her review.

 

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The Forbidden Stars by Tim Pratt

Read August 2020
Recommended 
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

Entertaining, in a Star Trek deus ex machina kind of way.

You know that episode where they use their skills to avoid the baddie, then bump into the baddie in a different place, and then they pull out their sophisticated computer thing, and cleverly get out of hard place? But then there is another obstacle that courageous maneuvers overcome with good planning, although maybe it doesn’t seem so at the time, because the Captain had A Plan All Along? Then, even though they are on the edge of the nowhere in the universe, they decide to take on the Big Baddie For Real because it could mean The End Of All Living Things, so why not, even though it’s only Enterprise/Voyager/Discovery against a fleet, but never worry, because they’ve got technology and Human Ingenuity on their side?

It’s pretty much like that, only instead of Klingons/Romulans/Borg/Dominion, we’ve got squid.

“‘If there’s Axiom shit behind this, and I bet there is, we need to comprehensively ruin that, too.’
‘Hurray, a goal,’ Ashok said. ‘How should we start?’”

I liked it, even though it wasn’t nearly as good as the first in the series, All the Wrong Stars, which delighted and surprised me by turns. Something about this felt expected, more like the third episode of a movie–Die Hard 3, if you will–where we’re doing the familiar thing and making the familiar jokes and we know it’s all going to turn out cool. More predictable and yet less sensible, if you can catch my drift. Which, if it doesn’t, then you are totally not the candidate for reading this book.

Wilfred gaped. ‘I… we… I’m going to have to check on that, and get confirmation…’ 
‘Of course. Trust, but verify, just like it says in the Bible,’ Ashok said.”

Note: I skipped the second book because reviews from friends who loved both the first book and this one were kind of lukewarm. For what it’s worth, I did add both this book and the first to my library, and I’m definitely not sorry to have spent actual dollars on it. Similar to Finder, The Expanse, Retribution Falls, and, you know, that sort of rogues in space thing (see, I didn’t say Firefly).

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Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Read August 2020
Recommended 
 ★     ★    ★     ★   1/2

“‘Of course, but do you understand what is at stake,’ he asked?
She had no idea… She was, however, curious.
‘Tell me,’ she said,  knowing a story lay ahead, as fine as any of the legends and tall tales her father had spun for her.”

Gods of Jade and Shadow is like reading modern mythology–mythology set in the 1920s in Mexico, that is. Though it is also a coming-of-age tale, Moreno-Garcia gives those conventions her own twist, paralleling it with a mythological hero’s journey. I highly recommend it, even for those who don’t normally enjoy the young adult journey (me).

I’m going to do something I rarely do, and be quite lazy in my review, pointing you onward to better places. I mean, I’m often quite lazy, but in this case, I think you should go read jade’s review, which is both beautiful and informative.

The story does do a few curious things with narrative. Although told largely from Casiopea’s point of view, it occasionally calls out both Casiopea’s and Hun-Kamé’s actions for what they are, an overt commentary that points the reader in interpretive directions. Structurally, it also felt somewhat formal, like a translation. I found that curious; certainly appropriate for a mythological tale, although not entirely sure it wasn’t also just me. I’ve been working diligently at improving my Spanish.

The pre-ending is extremely non-American, which was fascinating and appropriate when involving Mayan gods, and then continued to become extremely emotionally satisfying, so I’d just call that well done all around.

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The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

Read 2020
Recommended for fans of Douglas Adams
 ★     ★ 

Almost entirely, but not quite, unlike tea–I mean, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There is no way easy way to say this, but despite ingredients that should be interesting, it just fails to work for me. However, unlike American Gods, which resembles it more than a bit, it is entirely more palatable and has 100% less offensive scenes, so there is that (I may have some trouble with statistics here). Nonetheless, because it is contains some Douglas Adamsisms that have stuck with me through the years, it still had moments of brilliance. Take his airport rule, for instance:

“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport.’
Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk (Murmansk airport is the only known exception to this otherwise infallible rule), and architects have on the whole tried to reflect this in their designs.”

This is true. There is nothing about any airport that is pretty. Most people there are indeed tired and cross, which is why when they discover that their plane has been delayed, or cancelled, or erupted in flames, they tend to overreact.

But an airport is just the beginning of roughly three separate plot lines, give or take; a young woman who is thwarted from a vacation to Oslo by a mysterious giant of a man and a fireball blowing up the check-in counter; Dirk Gently, a detective who is hired to protect an unethical producer; and a mysterious old man who would like to lay in bed and be gently catered to by a team of nursing staff. Dirk’s own adventures further degenerate into conflicts with a large eagle and a malevolent refrigerator. It’s all very puzzling mostly due to the narrative breaks and confused protagonists more than any real mystery on the part of the universe.

Having been a fan of Hitchhikers and frequent re-listener to Stephen Fry’s reading, I couldn’t help but see similarities between the lead characters.  Dirk comes across like a slightly smarter version of Zaphod and Arthur, a strange mix of lucky and clueless. I don’t know that he ‘solves’ anything so much as stumbles unto the solution. The young woman, Kate, is quite literally, taken for a ride and had some of the general non-descriptiveness feel that I always got from Trillian.  

Mostly, Tea-Time contains entertaining interludes and observations loosely connected by plot. To me, it works better in wacky unreal space adventures than in a mystery.

When I was young, I was an enormous fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I must have read it ten times. I bought whatever I could then lay my teenage hands on, written by Mr. Adams. But the Dirk Gently series never really gelled with me. Was it a window of interest? I sold off the first, but the title of the second was too, too appropriate to let go. For years I have thought of that saying, that mysterious four o’clock ennui of the soul (both am and pm) and thought that the book deserved a re-read on that alone, as well as notes on a driving technique which I’ve totally used (Note it works much better in rural areas and suburbs).

“Perhaps it would save time if he went back to get his car, but then again it was only a short distance, and he had a tremendous propensity for getting lost when driving. This was largely because of his ‘Zen’ method of navigation, which was simply to find any car that looked as if it knew where it was going and follow it. The results were more often surprising than successful, but he felt it was worth it for the sake of the few occasions when it was both.”

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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

Read 2020
Recommended for fans of fantasy
 ★     ★    ★    ★ 

Before there was TV Tropes, there was The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

In 1996, Wynne Jones created the ultimate epic fantasy trope list. Done in a time when the portal–through-the-doorway–fantasy was popular, the conceit is that Tourists in fantasy lands who will find the Guide useful in navigating through the world. However, even should one not be physically traveling through the fantasy realm of choice, this guide could come in very useful. (It would also apply to most fantasy video games).

The book opens with a large, generalized MAP (“these empty inland parts will be sporadically peppered with little molehills, invitingly labelled ‘Megamort Hills,’ ‘Death Mountains,’ ‘Hurl Range,’ and such”) and follows with a list of symbols used throughout the text. The majority of the guide is an alphabetized listing of common terms/items/ areas/ beings/ etc. found in fantasy books. The listings are priceless, filled with a gentle sort of humor that pokes fun at the tropes and without outright mocking. For instance, take the entry on insects:

“INSECTS are practically non-existent, possibly as a result of the WIZARD’S WAR (see also ECOLOGY). Parasitic insects such as LICE and bedbugs have mostly been stamped out–although fleas are still popular–and only HOVELS occasionally manifest houseflies. Small numbers of bees must exist, since honey is often served… and so much silkworms, because so many persons wear silken garments. Otherwise, almost the only recorded insects are the mosquitoes all Tourists complain of in the MARSHES (in stinging clouds OMT[official management term]).”

The beauty of it is that it’s true. There are never ladybugs in fantasyland, or wasps (unless they are the magical kind), or any other member of the insect family that should be so vital to pollinating crops and flowers that keep the realm functioning. They are usually only mentioned as a way to describe how horrid conditions are. Or take another example:

“DWARFS are short, muscular, bearded PEOPLE much given to mining and forging. They mostly live hidden inside hills, where they do their mining. Until recently, almost no female Dwarfs had been sighted, but now they are seen quite often… All Dwarfs, perhaps through living so long immured in DWARVEN FASTNESSES, have a very old-fashioned, surly demeanour. They bow a lot, but also grumble. They recite long epics about the marvellous deeds of their ancestors… they always keep their word once they have been induced to give it. They will join the forces of GOOD and supply ARMOUR, but before this the Tour may well have a difficult time with them. Dwarfs will take all Tourists prisoner for trespassing in their Fastness, and it will involve much persuasive talking to get them to be friendly.”

Tell me that doesn’t about describe every single dwarf population you’ve run into in fantasy. I’ll wait while you check. She’s spot-on, isn’t she? Here, let’s check one more entry under ‘D’:

“DUNGEONS are the first thing to be built when anyone is planning a large BUILDING. Even Town Halls tend to have them. The Rules state that Dungeons are damp and small and a long way underground. If the Tourist is being confined is lucky, there will be a small barred window too high up to reach, through which the contents of the moat trickle, and old (fetid [OMT]), filthy [OMT]) straw on the ground. There will be a thick door (locked) with a small shutter in it where what passes (only just) for FOOD can be thrown in at prisoners, generally dropping tantalizingly an inch out of reach, and there will always be rings in the walls carrying chains and sometimes old bones too. It is all designed to make you feel low. There may even be scutterings [OMT] that could be rats (but see ANIMALS). Do not, however, let this get you down. The average stay in such a place is, for Tourists, twenty-four hours.”

Surprisingly, strangely true, particularly with regard to the stay. Because how else could the story progress? 

However, despite the amusement, this really isn’t something that can be read straight through. It gets exhausting, much like reading any volume of the encyclopedia (for those who remember what that was like; for those that don’t, it’s rather like endless scrolling and clicking through a reference site). It is precious fun–I agree with a fellow GR friends that the entry on horses and cross-pollination if quite funny, although I’d note that most ‘desert nomads’ seem to be horse-breeders, so I’m not sure if that holds true–but more fun in a word-of-the-day sense over a straight read-through. Wynne Jones follows this up by writing her own ultimate portal fantasy called The Dark Lord of Derkholm, from the point of view of a (benevolent) Dark Lord. 

So, rating: highly, for cleverness, completeness and humor, but less so for actual readability. Not really a book I feel motivated to add to my library, but that’s probably how it’d work best, as a pick-up, put-down kind of read.

Note: nominated for the 1997 Hugos ‘Best Related Non-Fiction Work,‘ which is hysterical all by itself. 

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