May 2012

Catching up on a bunch of blogging here. Sorry for the post-spam in your friend filters on LJ or your RSS feeds.

I seem to have levelled up in my swimming the last couple of weeks. I’ve hit a personal best three times in a fortnight and come pretty close to it a couple more. Unless there’s a problem (usually getting into the pool late during the 55 minute slot and having to stop at n:55 and either splitting my set or giving up partway through) I do 50 lengths (of a 25m pool). Mostly since I moved to 50 lengths I manage to do it in under 30 mintues, though sometimes if I’m tired (not enough sleep) or have done a lot of other moving around that day I’ve been over the 30 minutes or feel bloated because of swimming too soon after eating (anything less than 90 minutes and I’ll be a bit slow). Lately I’ve been hitting under 28 minutes even when I feel a bit slow and my personal best is no 26:38. I’m usually one of the fastest in the pool, though there are people slightly faster around sometimes. Some of them are faster on individual lengths but they take breaks whereas I just keep going through unless there’s a problem (either with overtaking or when a pair of goggles are losing their seal). The other day, though, there was a young chap who was almost twice as fast as me over one length. He was probably doing 5:3 or better. He was taking some breaks and when doing crawl was using a float between his thighs but even so he was impressively fast and it looked effortless. I was so envious. I may look like I’m putting in less effort that I am doing, to others who are slower than I am, I suppose, but this guy was just impressive. Still, I think 50 lengths in 26:38 isn’t bad going for a middle-aged guy.

This is four linked novellas (maybe some of them are novelettes) rather than a true novel. It’s written in the first person, with the first tale starting with a first person narrative letter read by the viewpoint character. One of the novellas features another of the main characters as the storyteller. The premise is that the legends of Nepal and Tibet (the Yeti, Shamballa, tunnels, reincarnated lamas) are true. It’s one of the best pieces of humorous fantasy I’ve ever read and all the more wonderful because it’s from an author who is so straight in most of the rest of his work (which is also brilliant but in a completely different way). Much as I like Robinson’s other stuff, I wish he’d occasionally write something along these lines again because he does it so well. Humour is hard but this is up there with Walter Jon Williams (Drake Maijstral) and Terry Practhett in my list of laugh out loud books. If you need a laugh, I heartily recommend it. The encounter between a mythical creature and a former US president is wonderfully told and Robinson’s descriptive powers make the movie in my head so crystal clear that I’m smiling as I remember the images now to write this.

Pure brilliance, that’s weathered the years with no diminution. Read it and weep with laughter!

The third Johannes Cabal novel takes us into yet another genre. This time Howard plunges into Lovecraftian territory and Cabal enters the Dreamlands and encounters Nyarlothotep. There’s a subplot including ghouls which is supposed to be a twisty ending type of thing but fell quite flat to me. In fact, the whole thing fell rather flat. There’s much better work out there in the Cthulhu Mythos, and indeed I felt moves to dive back into re-reading one of the better ones after this. Howard may well continue with this series, but I don’t think I’ll bother. I may even get rid of these as they weren’t dreadful but I don’t think I’ll really ever want to read them again. I don’t object to having spent the time to read them, but there’s better stuff out there for the future.

On a final note, I also don’t like the way the title works. The first two are descriptive phrases for Johannes Cabal, whereas this one is formatted with Johannes Cabal as the series name and the Fear Institute as the book title. Inconsistency. Ugh.

The second Johannes Cabal novel (the author’s note in the third gives the title of at least one published short story and implies the existence of others). This looks almost like a fix-up of a novel originally written with a different protagonaist re-worked to include the main character. Almost. It differs radically from the first one in a number of ways. For a start there’s a map showing how the action moves around the fictional geography of Ruritania-esque (Ruritania is mentioned though the action does not go there) places. It establishes Cabal as a German immigrant to the UK as a youngster (or maybe born there but with parents who gave him German as a first language and German-accented English) and with the somewhat forced appearence of a characte from the first novel clears up the setting of that as the UK. The setting here is now also clearly steampunk with airhips not raised by lighter than air gas but suspended from aetheric currents. It’s a reasonable murder mystery plot but Cabal is still not likeable enough as a main character and indeed does some things which don’t quite fit the character as set up to date in order to further the plot. Passable but not brilliant.

The second Aaronovich book about a police constable inducted into the Met police’s now very limited (him and an inspector, plus their vampire maid) magical services division. It neatly follows on from the first without missing a beat and sets up a brilliant serial killer piece which gives the magical police procedural a great workout. The main character is further developed, as is the background to the world and the other major characters (including his boss and his family). The musical link is nicely played through in multiple interlocking themes, while no punches are pulled in the human capacity for screwing up and around and, well, just plain screwing, too. I’m really looking forward to the third book which I have on my “order when available” reminder list (I think it’s in hardback now but I’ve got the TPBs of the first two so will wait for that edition).

This is the first of three (so far) “dark comic fantasy” novels by someone better known for his interactive fiction work (Jonathan L Howard, designer of games such as Broken Sword). It’s the story of a necromancer who gave up his soul years before in order to learn the secrets of necromancy but now makes a bet with Satan to get his soul back. It’s intended to be a black comedy wth a likeable antihero. I think it just about succeeds but has some significant flaws. The biggest flaw is its lack of a sense of time or place. The individual settings of scenes are not badly done, but the overall geography is missing barring a description which could equally apply to the Fens in the UK, the Forida Everglades or the Netherlands. From the author’s nationality and residence and little bits and pieces one eventually gathers that this is supposed to be some version of England, though the characters are a little mid-Atlantic ad the one clear linguistic clue to setting is one character’s use of “Mom”. The question of time period is even more difficult. At times it looks like the 1920s or 30s. At others it’s reminiscent of the 70s and still others place it in the sempiternal now. It’s not clear whether this is supposed to be our world with hidden dark forces or a parallel one where dark forces are known and understood, at first. The occurrence of a zombie army and the fame of the eponymous character for single-handedly stopping them implies the open world, but it’s sho shadily drawn that t rather distracts from the main plot. This plot is OK, but nothing to write home about (though I’m doing that now, I suppose).

An OK book, but there are better examples of the genre out there, such as Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London.

Trying to catch up on the backlog of books to write up, instead of writing them in strict reading order I’ll try to keep up with current reading as well as fill in the missed ones over time.

This is Ben Aaronovitch first novel in his own universe, I think. He’s had some official Dr Who novels published before. This is back to modern urban fantasy, subsets being The Veil (weird stuff happens but is not acknowledged by authority or visible to most people) and Police Procedural. My knowledge of police procedures is limited, but he doesn’t drop any howlers that I noticed, so I was OK with that. The plot is interesting and very much based on London as a genuis loci (there’s been a lot of fiction and fantasy in particular centring on London over the years and this pulls it of well). While it’s a bit of a kitchen sink subset of urban fantasy (everything you ever thought of, and more, exists, but they manage The Veil anyway) he doesn’t overload the plot with too many extraneous beasties as some tend to in this subgenre. The character is likeable and pretty believable. The first person narrative has one odd quirk which keep bringing me up short, though. While the grammar is perfect despite being first person (it’s a choice when writing first person whether to stick to proper written grammar or get more in keeping with the character’s speaking mode) he uses one idiosyncracy (me and X did this thing). He overuses it a bit and would, I think, have been better just using “we” a bit more often – “X and I sounds too much like the Queen”. When used, it would mostly have been obvious which people the hanging anaphora dereferenced to and then the occasional usage when it needed clarification wouldn’t drop me out of the internal movie as often.

Still, a good first own-world novel (if that’s what it is) and a decent start to a series. I’m on book two now with book three in the list for when it comes out later this year.

So, the sequel for which I re-read Halting State. Again, I knew the plot fairly well, from back when it had a different title. I didn’t like this as much as Halting State, though. Getting right into the head of a villain is a tricky thing to do well, as I’ve mentioned before and I don’t think Charlie managed it properly here. I think the combination of being in the head of a sociopath together with the start of that thread being a different person (member of the same gang, but it was odd to have the thread of a second person narrative named after a “person” shift viewpoint – or should that be target in second person narrative). I know why he did it, but I also felt that it was a bit stereotypical to have a second lesbian policewoman, particularly one who appears in the first but whose sexual orientation wasn’t made clear there (at least it didn’t come over to me). It just felt rather forced (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Again, the topics are right within my area of specialist knowledge and there’s nothing in here that rang untrue, particularly, about the tech or its potential social and economic consequences. I’ll even forgive him the Scottish independence this time as it’s a sequel so the fact that reality has already diverged just makes this an alternative history, now. It somewhat reminded me of his early short story Antibodies, and like Halting State it shows the same desire to really crack algorithmic science fiction. So, while I didn’t like it as much as Halting State, It7s still a pretty good book and a recommended read if you like near-future computing-oriented SF.