Frey

Prologue: If you like fantasy, should you read the first volume of this epic? I say “Hell yes!”

The review (two hours earlier):

Frey, by Melissa Wright, is the first installment of a rather long series. Often writers of series will offer the first installment for free to get readers hooked. I am a cheap bastard, and I do enjoy a high fantasy. I decided to give this one a go.

Right off the bat, a small warning sign. There is a prologue, but the action of the prologue actually happens somewhere around chapter four. So… not so much a prologue as a tease (also a time-honored literary tradition).

Mark Twain (I think it was) said (something like) “Start the story as late as possible.” It’s something I consistently fail to do. My Kansas Bunch Colleagues accuse me of “walking to the story,” meaning I have a bunch of stuff happen and then the story actually begins. Having a “prologue” that is actually something that happens not that far into the story strikes me as a way to create an alternate entry point into the narrative, as if the author is aware that the first few pages aren’t compelling enough on their own.

I was happy to discover, then, that the first few pages actually were compelling enough to stand on their own. Perhaps a little more work was needed to make them really grab, but there was plenty enough happening that the artificial tension-upper prologue was not necessary.

Frey is just your typical elf, except she can’t do magic, which makes her not typical at all. She walks around with a big L on her head and she has a special tutor but she’s pretty much hopeless.

Except it turns out that the day before we start reading she got pissed off at some elf-bitch who was mocking her and kinda-maybe did some fully-justified hurtful magic.

When I read that part, I was reassured that there would be no walking to the story. Significant shit started going down even before we join Frey in her world.

In fact, I kind of wish the narrative had started one day sooner. I wish I was there for the teasing, for the avoidance, for the pursuit, and for that moment of anger when Frey turns on her tormentor and everything changes, even if we didn’t know it at the time. It could have been a powerful scene. And anger is one of Frey’s core strengths; we may as well start learning that.

A Mysterious Stranger arrives in town, and Frey is fascinated by him. We’ve read these stories before, and we know what that means. Frey has not read those same novels and will require more convincing. Mysterious Stranger’s name is Chevelle. That took me back for a moment, as that is a name I used jokingly in The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy. It turns out this name will be the second-least silly name to follow in this entire book.

I think the author was having fun with the names, kind of a nudge-nudge game with her readers, but it was distracting.

So there is traveling, and the assembly of the party, including Steed (see what I mean?) and Ruby, who are themselves interesting, multi-dimensional, and well-rendered.

But here’s the thing that annoys me no end. ALL those people know things about Frey, about her muddled past. (Of course she has a muddled past.) But no one tells Frey anything. Frey, for her part, seems to be working extra-hard to be clueless about the intentions of the others. Information withholding and deliberate obtuseness — two cornerstones holding up a plot that would shrivel and die if you shone a light on it. That’s two stars off for lazy plotting.

One of the two stars I deducted for this sin shall be restored because one of the entourage found a way to circumvent the will of the others, adding complexity to the group dynamic. Then a star removed again for the author not exploiting the schism in the group.

What drives me crazy is that all this obfuscation just wasn’t necessary. And so many cool moments were lost because of it. Consider this modest modification:

“You need to learn to use weapons. Why don’t you give this sword a try?”

Frey takes the sword. It’s not as heavy as she expects. There are runes etched in the metal. “It’s beautiful,” Frey says.

“It used to be yours.”

BAM! That’s a moment. But that moment can never happen because the author is hiding things from the protagonist that even WE know, despite the first-person narrative.

There’s another part where Frey does something… monumental with that same sword. Not monumental in the sense of changing the course of history, but something that should have been personally monumental. Something that doesn’t fit with the image she’s built of herself, yet no identity crisis follows. What a great opportunity to start a personal struggle that could carry through the whole series.

So many annoyances, but. I got to the end pretty quickly, turning my electric pages. There must be a reason for that.

The prose itself is of the “do your job and don’t get in the way” school, not prone to strutting and preening for its own virtue. I can appreciate that. Descriptions and setting are good enough I’d like to know more.

But mostly it’s the ideas in this story that kept me going. Some are the same old tropes I love so dearly, like the rise of the lost and forgotten child. There’s a “let’s turn the myth upside-down” conceit that’s fun. There’s a whiff of elf-eugenics, thrown for a loop by an outside influence. But above all that there is a spirit of rebellion. Fantasy for so long was about defeating the evil, disruptive elements. I like stories where the protagonist herself is a disruptive element. By the end of her story, things are going to be different.

Mechanically, I have issues, but the story has heart and it has behind it an intelligence (that the characters don’t always share).

If you like fantasy, should you read the first volume of this epic? I say “Hell yes!”

Whether you read the second volume is up to you. I probably won’t. But I’m tempted. But I probably won’t.

Robinson Crusoe Without the Whitewash

My recollections of the 20th-century film adaptations of Robinson Crusoe don’t include slavery. In the source material our hero is on a ship taken by Moorish “pirates” and he is made a slave.

(Pirates in quotes because they’re just doing the same shit as the Europeans.)

But slavery’s not so very bad, right?

While the rest of the crew is sent off God-knows-where, our narrator enjoys a fairly benign period of servitude. He’s technically a slave, but the degradation is absent. It’s just an involuntary job that Robbie executes well, and he is never beaten to an inch of his life, or raped, or humiliated in any of a thousand ways for the pleasure of someone else.

Then there is the escape. A pretty easy escape, really, but let’s just allow that literature was young and even the greats back then leaned on the gullibility of the bad guys. Crusoe escapes with another young slave named Xury who immediately becomes Robbie’s sidekick and biggest fan.

Free! Except of course they are on the open sea in a small boat and that is not sustainable. They have a few adventures along the shore, proving both the power of gunpowder and the stupidity of a hungry European deciding that lions aren’t fit to eat. Xury shows bravery and resourcefulness, and they continue to survive.

More than once, Crusoe said he was heading “south and east”. I checked the map, checked it again, and that just doesn’t work. South and east puts him right ashore. Which is weird, because otherwise Defoe’s descriptions of the geography are accurate.

As Crusoe is heading down the African coast bearing south and west, he reaches a point where Dakar now sits, thrusting out into the ocean. It is here that Robbie and his crew of one spot the sails of a Portuguese (slave) ship. They risk everything to give chase and attract the attention of the men on the ship, and eventually they are rescued.

The Portuguese captain is impressed with Crusoe’s little boat, and offers a nice chunk of cash for it. The captain is also impressed with Crusoe’s sidekick Xury, and offers almost as much for the kid as he did for the boat.

Before I tell you Crusoe’s response to that offer, let’s review. Crusoe has been a slave. He and the kid gained their freedom together, and have struggled together to stay alive. They have been partners, and Xury has shown some moxie in the process. Safe to say, without Xury, Crusoe would have died.

Yeah, you got it. Robbie sells his sidekick — but with a caveat! If the kid accepts Christianity he will only be a slave for ten years.

Well, all right then. I guess that makes it OK.

It was a different time. I get it. Slavery was to maritime trade what porn is to the Internet: The thing no one wants to talk about that funds the rest. But while Robinson Crusoe’s fortunes seem to be rising at this point in the narrative, I just don’t like the guy. Not at all.

I think the writer, Defoe, at a gut level, realized that his main guy was being a complete asshole. Friends don’t sell friends. So in the end Defoe (the writer) compels Xury himself to agree to the terms of the deal, where Crusoe (the character) could not consummate the deal alone without moral compromise. But if it was Xury’s choice, then he should have been the one to get paid.

In my previous episode about this story, I remarked on the lack of visceral detail during the scary times. Perhaps it’s this same detachment that allows Robinson to fucking sell his friend. Perhaps Crusoe doesn’t actually feel anything. That would explain a lot.

1

In a Word

I thought maybe I’d take a break from mediocre Space Opera and find something more fulfilling to read. One good thing about the modern age is that with a suitable device one has access to countless classics of literature. I’ve read more than one of those.

Robinson Crusoe recently caught my eye. I have vague recollections of a least one movie based on the story, those memories smelling slightly of Disney. Guy gets shipwrecked, has adventures, gets rescued. I think there was a dog, and natives. I have no doubt that the original will be substantially different.

If I can manage to read it. Here’s a sentence from near the beginning:

“In a word, as the sea was returned to its smoothness of surface and settled calmness by the abatement of that storm, so the hurry of my thoughts being over, my fears and apprehensions of being swallowed up by the sea being forgotten, and the current of my former desires returned, I entirely forgot the vows and promises that I made in my distress.”

My eyes were getting blurry by the end of my count, but I came up with a total of sixty-one words to finish a thought that started with “In a word…” But I am in no position to criticize someone for rambling.

There has already been one Interesting Idea (that the happiest people are in the economic center of the spectrum, and that adventuring is not for people who have a chance to be actually happy), but Daniel Defoe spends so much time talking about the people trying to convince Robinson to stay home that he kind of neglects the far more interesting expression of what that desire to roam feels like. There’s nothing visceral in his descriptions; I don’t feel the pull of the sea. Maybe I’m viewing this through a modern lens, but I want to understand his irrational decision from an emotional level, rather than just be presented with it. Other than the weeping of his father (factually presented), there’s not much emotion to be found.

And to be fair, Crusoe is telling this story from the point of view of regret. All those people telling him to stay home were right.

The first storm has come and gone and Crusoe has managed to convey his fear well enough even without any visceral imagery – but it felt flat to me. One sentence stood out, however (yours truly stops to copy sentence, realizes the sentence is easily more than 100 words long and the good part was just a piece of it):

“I expected every wave would have swallowed us up, and that every time the ship fell down, as I thought it did, in the trough or hollow of the sea, we should never rise more; in this agony of mind, I made many vows and resolutions…”

Were I in a writing workshop with Mr. Defoe, I would have advised him to go back and add the groaning of the timbers of his fragile ship, the cursing of the crew, the water washing over the deck, and the feeling in his gut when his little boat slides off the crest of a wave and into the waiting trough, and the juddering in his legs as the boat smashes her bow into the wall of water rising above her, to repeat the cycle.

Although this was a pretty minor storm; maybe Defoe is saving up his descriptive prose for the real thing. That might be an excuse, but you never forget your first storm at sea, I bet. The next day Crusoe’s pal says “that was nothin’!” But wouldn’t Crusoe’s terror be all the more meaningful when reviewed in that context?

I’m pretty sure I could have helped a lot of authors of classics really get over the top with their “great works”. Story idea: I and Michael Bay go back in time to fix a bunch of boring old “literature”.

1

OF COURSE She’s Beautiful

I haven’t been getting much writing done lately, and an important way to break out of that slump is to make sure I spend more time reading. So this afternoon I was poking around the ol’ virtual bookstore looking for one of those free “first taste” novels intended to get one hooked on a series.

Today I found a book by Morgan Rice, the first of eight installments (and, presumably, counting.) That many installments in the story can be a red flag; the world does not need another Robert Jordan fumbling his way though an epic he knew how to start but not how to finish. As each book of Wheel of Time got longer, the amount that actually happened went down.

That notwithstanding, if each installment of the saga can show vestiges of a beginning, a middle, and an end, it could be a fun read.

There is one thing that annoyed me right off the bat, however. This is the first sentence of the blurb:

17 year old Ceres, a beautiful, poor girl in the Empire city of Delos, lives the harsh and unforgiving life of a commoner.

Beautiful. Not “resourceful”, not “paranoid schizophrenic”, not even “headstrong” (which is awful for different reasons). From that sentence, I am left to believe that her primary tool for escaping poverty will be her beauty. That’s the least-interesting tool imaginable.

And come on, she’s the hero in a pulp drama. There is no way anyone on this side of the blurb even considered the possibility that she might not be beautiful, or that the most worthwhile men she meets won’t also be beautiful. I get it; the beauty is part of a fantasy shared by the primary audience of this story. But the first high-impact word in the blurb — arguably the most import word in the whole description, the one word that will influence the success of the novel more than any other single word — is a throwaway.

She’s beautiful. Big fuckin’ deal.

1

Burn by James Patrick Kelly

I was bopping around looking for some good ol’ space opera to read, and I came across Burn by James Patrick Kelly instead. I found it on manybooks.net, and after I registered I sat down to read it.

It’s really good.

We get a glimpse of far-future humankind, with tech that borders on magic, but there’s also a little mysticism. Or at least luck. That future is merely a backdrop, however; the actual conflicts, the personal and the political, are very human, and told from the point of view of Spur, someone we can understand. His acestors decided to abandon the tech and go back to a simpler life. While Spur knows that the “upside” exists and is filled with tech marvels, he also knows that the same technology at some point must undermine the humanity of those who wield it.

Of course he knows that; he’s been taught that his entire life.

There’s a shade of Buck Rodgers here — not the swashbuckling space hero nonsense I love so much, but “the future as seen by someone like me” narrative. Except Buck doesn’t have to deal with differences between past and future that are quite so fundamental as the ones Spur struggles with.

Spur is badly wounded fighting a fire that is almost a diabolical intelligence on its own. While convalescing he is in a hospital that gives him, for the first time in his life, a glimpse of the upside.

While healing, Spur is given a chance to reach out to the universe. It is a guilty pleasure, an idle conceit as he convalesces, one he knows his friends will not approve of. He pokes at the universe, almost randomly. But then the universe answers back. The fuckin’ universe answers back. Luck, it’s just luck. The event that triggers this story (or the part of the story we see here), is one of near-fantastic luck. It would be difficult to swallow, except, well, luck is a real thing.

The author does an admirable job of avoiding judgement; there is no absolute “right” and “wrong”. While characters make judgements, the author does well to not color the debate with his own leanings. One person says “terrorist”, another says “martyr.” “Us” and “them” gets tangled. And there are subtle elements, as well. Spur is married, but the marriage is on the rocks. There are the usual reasons, but perhaps he was in love with someone else all along.

One quibble: if pukpuk had been capitalized like most organizations of humans are, I would have parsed the opening sequence (which is pretty hectic) more cleanly.

Like all human conflicts, not everything is wrapped up in a neat package at the end of this story. The immediate conflict is resolved in a satisfying way, and the final choice Spur makes rings true. There are still large questions outstanding, about the future of the planet and the clever indigenous species. But Spur has had a taste of what the upside has to offer, and in the end this story is about him, and the choice he must make.

I wrote some of the above on the manybooks.net site, then I decided to share my findings here as well. As per tradition, I went to Amazon to get links to share. It was then that I learned that this story has earned the Hugo and Nebula awards. Well then!

Note: if you use the above link to buy the book (or an Antique Silver Multi Cut Rhinestone Bridal Royal Tiara Headband) from Amazon, I get a kickback.

Harry Potter and the Two-Hour Prologue

Last week the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings & Half-Baked Ideas and I decided to watch the first Harry Potter movie. It was my first exposure to the franchise. Considering all the hype, and the penetration of the film into pop culture, the movie was surprisingly mediocre. Of course, it’s possible to make a crappy movie no matter how brilliant the source material is, but in this case the biggest problem with the movie was simply in its storytelling. I suspect it is a faithful reflection of flaws in the novel itself.

The biggest storytelling flaw in this flick is that it takes forever for the story to actually begin. I have been accused of “walking to the story” often enough to recognize it when I see it.

We start with a prologue that reveals nothing which isn’t amply explained in short order. Then we have many scenes that do nothing but establish setting. Crappy home life (perhaps more interesting if we didn’t know what we already do), shopping for school supplies, and so forth. As far as the actual story goes, we finally hear a whisper of the name that will shape his young life. But only a whisper, and we proceed with a series of events that aren’t moving anywhere. There are, James Bond-style, offhand mentions of things that conveniently turn out to be important later, but that’s about it.

Once he’s at school, we get closer to a plot, but not very quickly. We get to meet important friends and rivals, but mostly it’s still establishing setting, building a whimsical and magical world. Don’t get me wrong, the movie does a fine job of this, but it’s all done through a series of unrelated events.

One of those disconnected events is that Harry’s natural broom-riding ability leads him to be the “seeker” for his house team in the sport of Quidditch. The game is like this: A bunch of people fly around under very complicated rules, scoring points here and there, then the seeker from one of the teams catches a tiny flying robot-magic-thingie and the game is over, all the rest of the activity having been rendered moot. It makes for some good action scenes, but they are not in service of the story.

The story, what there is of it, is that there’s an important thing that bad guys want to steal. The most interesting part of that story is Snape, a teacher and the head of the “asshole” house at the school. So many things suggest he’s a bad guy, but… when shit gets real his actions are noticeably absent of evil.

When one makes a movie based on a novel, the hardest decisions the screenplay writers face is what to cut. A movie simply can’t contain an entire novel. I wonder, looking at what they decided to keep, looking at scene after scene that did not serve the story, what they decided to chop. More of the same? Or were they worried that rabid Harry Potter fans would riot if the movie didn’t include the gratuitous prologue that was in the novel, and instead cut more interesting things to remain “faithful”?

The next night OSoMR&HBI and I watched the next movie in the series, and now we have consumed two more. So clearly HP-1 was not so awful we walked away from the franchise. This was partly because friends assured us the following movies got better.

Today I realized why. The first movie is ALL prologue. It is the reading you are supposed to do before coming to class. Being a story is a secondary goal, behind introducing us to the world.

Aspiring writers take note: WORLD BUILDING IS NOT STORYTELLING. I recently had the privilege of reading a friend’s draft of a novel, and I realize now I forgot to compliment her on the way she built a really strange world through the telling of her story. She hit the ground running and we got to see the world as the action unfolded, in a natural way. So, just do that.

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Time for the Stars

Recently an acquaintance of mine asked the hive mind for examples of short stories that featured the time-dilating effect of traveling near the speed of light. Ideally the story would also feature one element where that rule is broken.

I immediately forgot the “short story” requirement and recommended Time for the Stars, a Young Adult novel by Robert Heinlein. It is exactly about that; it even takes a break for a lecture on time dilation, complete with the equation I call the “Einstein fudge factor” carefully typeset in the narrative.

I happen to have recently been reunited with a copy of that novel, one I received as part of a box set one fine Christmas morning in the early 1970’s. There were a couple of things I particularly remembered about that story, so I decided to give it a read once more after all these years.

The part of the story that Heinlein got the most pleasure from, I believe, is an organization called the Long Range Foundation, or LRF. They were endowed to pursue pie-in-the-sky research with no hope of commercial reward in any reasonable time frame. The kind of research that corporations and even governments can’t justify.

It turns out, however, that taking the long view can be embarrassingly profitable over decades and even centuries, and the LRF is constantly looking for deeper holes to dump their giant piles of cash into. One of those holes is interstellar travel. (They are already gushing cash from developing technology to allow travel all over the solar system.)

So they build a bunch of giant spaceships to go out and explore nearby star systems. They don’t actually expect any of those ships to ever make it back home, so they need a way for them to keep in touch. Which brings us to another one of their projects.

Pat and Tom are twins, the youngest children of a family over the quota for number of children (the Earth is staggering under the weight of five billion occupants). The LRF offers them a bit of cash to participate in a study. While they think they are cheating on a test, they are actually confirming that they are psychically linked.

This linkage is not bound by relativity and does not diminish with distance. The LRF gathers up all the psychic-twin pairs it can and loads up their giant spaceships (called Torch Ships) with half of each pair, several teams per ship. Now, even should the spaceships never return to the home world, the information they gather will.

The dynamic between the brothers is interesting, as they jockey for which will see the stars and which will stay home. One of the moments in the book that stuck with me all these years was when the ship’s doctor points out that Tom really doesn’t like his brother at all.

So Tom’s Torch Ship, the Lewis and Clark (or Elsie for short) flies away, and the time shift between the ship and Earth gradually accelerates. Communication is more and more difficult as the brains of the pair work at different speeds. Finally there is a period of isolation — a few weeks on the ship, and many years back home. Not all the psychic pairs can reconnect after such a long break, and a lot happens on Earth during that time each jump.

Meanwhile, science is trying to recreate itself to allow the concept of simultaneity, which relativity pretty thoroughly ruled out. It’s quite a long range sort of project.

Decades pass on Earth, months and then years pass on the ship.

Small Spoiler: Disasters happen, friends die — including the people in charge of helping everyone get along— and morale among the survivors becomes very low.

Occasionally, especially during disasters, I had to smile at the casual 1950’s-era sexism, and while the crew is racially diverse without making a big deal about it, there is a Wise Old Negro. I hadn’t noticed that stuff last time I read the story. Also, there was a bit of recklessness on the part of the crew when it came to exploring strange worlds. Plague sucks.

Big Spoiler: The most striking thing about the story is how it ends. Once physics introduced the concept of “irrelevance” — the idea that some things were not bound by relativity but existed outside that framework — work began to harness that phenomenon. After one particularly bad disaster, the Elsie is orbiting a planet and is told to stand by and wait for a rendezvous. A faster-than-light ship arrives shortly thereafter, straight from Earth. The install a device on Elsie and say that they will be returning to Earth. This is met with great joy among the remaining crew.

“When will we get there?” Tom asks.

“I thought we’d wait until after lunch, if that’s all right,” is the answer. Or something like that. Push a button, you’re home again. No fuss.

They return to Earth little more than a curiosity, Rip Van Winkles rendered suddenly and absolutely obsolete. Already faster-than-light ships have far eclipsed what had taken the Torch ships decades to accomplish. That the new technology could not have happened without their sacrifice is not much of a solace. And women, apparently, no longer wear hats, which was unthinkable when Tom left Earth.

There is a happy ending, at least for Tom; others of the crew have highly specialized skills that just don’t matter anymore. At least they have a few decades of back pay that’s been earning interest all this time. After all, legend has it that Einstein said compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or these silly shoes), I get a kickback.

Wrath of Athena

Before we get to the story, let me tell you a little about the author, Dale Cozort. He is part of a loose confederation of writers I have dubbed the “Kansas Bunch”, of which I am a member, though none of the others have adopted that name. Dale is unusual in our group, because he comes, gets advice, ignores a lot of it, and publishes his damn books. There are other published writers in the Kansas Bunch, some even famous or becoming so. But Dale is special in that regard. He plugs away, doing what he loves. He’s a very blue-collar sort of writer. No pretentious airs, just a story he feels good about.

So while I usually refer to authors by their last name in these little blurbs, Dale is “Dale” to me.

“Doing what he loves” means, for Dale, mashing different parts of history together to see what happens. Some of his stories might be called alternate histories, but most of his work is more like bizarro history, where space and time twist to rub cultures together that should have no business with one another. Most of his stories lean toward action/adventure, but now and then he’ll take a break and have a little fun.

Which brings us to Wrath of Athena: A Snapshot Novella. A petting zoo with a pair of talking dinosaurs (that may or may not have been won off some Nazis in a card game) is running into trouble in twenty-million-year-ago Madagascar (or, as I would call it if I lived there, Lemurpalooza). A breeding pair of talking dinosaurs, in fact, threatening disaster for the lemur-based ecology.

The setting is a little complicated, but pure Dale. Some alien intelligence we have no hope of understanding has been taking “snapshots” of parts of Earth at different times throughout history. So there’s 1942 Europe, 1950’s California, ancient Madagascar, and on and on, sliced out of reality, copied exactly including the people, and linked to each other through portals. Why do the mysterious intelligences do this? So Dale can have fun, that’s why.

This story unfolds like a whodunnit, and manages to keep that contract with the readers pretty well. The bad guys’ scheme is convoluted enough to keep readers guessing. Our main character is the official shit-shoveler of the traveling zoo, but he has some other skills as well. Dale has fun with stereotypes, and this gives the story a 1950’s-ish feel. Short-tempered redhead, insufferable brat, lecherous boss, and so forth.

Our shit-shoveling narrator talks like a shit-shoveler, and his voice is comfortable and honest. When he talks about his relationship with Athena you can nod and say, “I feel you, bud.” He’s playing catch-up much of the time, but he’s used to that.

Is it good? I enjoyed it. It’s a light read, and it moves right along. I was about to say that I don’t see Hollywood banging down Dale’s door for screenplay rights for this one, but then I hesitated. It’s about the right length for a screenplay and… talking dinosaurs? Lemurpalooza? Nazis and hot redheads? What’s not to like? CALL THE MONEY PEOPLE! I’m already casting Bruce Campbell as the shit-shoveler.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or an amazingly ugly watch), I get a kickback.

Starmind: Chapters 3 and 4

It’s not often I find a novel where every damn chapter is worthy of comment. Starmind, by Dave Van Arnam, turns out to be one of those. Not because it’s good, oh no, not all all.

When last we left this little yarn, I was wondering what possible excuse the author could find for medical professionals to even want to try to put the halves of two different people’s brains into one body.

Dr. Brian pretty much says he just wants to see what will happen. There’s a first time for everything, after all.

Yeah, Dr. Brian. The Brain surgeon. I have stopped correcting myself as I read. Nascent writers out there, if for some reason you want to call your guy Dr. Brain, just do it. No need to be coy. (Or better yet, call him Dr. Mtumbo.)

At this time, there are six characters of note. Inside the head, there are two men and one woman (although one of the men is more of an emotive blob). Outside the head, there are also two men and one woman. Both women are attractive, in nonspecific ways. Only one of the men has been described at all.

In chapter three, two of the three men capable of this sort of thought decide it might be kinda cool to have their brains installed in a hot female body. Both women find the idea of being installed in a man’s body to be loathsome. So… 1969.

On the second page of chapter three I laughed more than once. The dialog! Holy crap!

Here’s a choice nugget — the doctor, talking to the reporter:

I will not speculate on any emotional ties that might exist between you and Miss Rost, but it is obvious that your concern runs deeper than I, as a medical researcher and practitioner, dare to take cognizance of.

He better not dare to take cognizance of it! Or this gem three tiresome paragraphs later, as Parker, the reporter, continues his stilted verbal sparring with Dr. Brain Brian:

I am a professional in my own field, as you are in yours, doctor; and in my case it means I know how to research those necessary background facts that make conversations such as this more meaningful than the customary exchange of platitudinous awarenesses of each other’s position.

Both those quotes are parts of much longer paragraphs. Despite this unbearable verbal mass, they do little more than exchange platitudinous awarenesses of each other’s position, along with a heapin’ helpin’ of as-you-know-Bobs. The reporter, for instance, tells the brian brain surgeon that it has been eleven years since the first successful brain transplant.

But I will say this: although there are some horrible moments in the discourse between the characters inside the head, it is way better that the interactions outside the head. At lest so far; the head occupants aren’t to a stage where they can engage in stilted verbal exchanges. Though there are plenty of problems inside the cranium, as well. Jailyn is witness to one of Joe’s sex fantasies, then exercises her will to make it stop. She apparently has none of her own. Sex, it seems, is something men want and women allocate.

There’s a nice twist, though, as the “simple” thoughts of the Idiot Adonis unexpectedly rise from the previously-unmentioned surviving lower parts of his brain and provide an emotional foundation for the two intellects who discover themselves so intimately connected. In the hands of a skilled writer, that might make the premise of a great story. I could picture a one-act play based on that theme.

Alas, we are not in the hands of a skilled writer, my friends. Yet still I read on, finding comedy where none was intended, hoping the pretty nurse kicks her boss of irrelevant appearance in the balls, knowing she won’t. The mystery of “why would anyone do something so stupid” has been answered with a “why not?” and on we go. The next question is: how will the author contrive to expose this odd trio to pseudogravitic multiwaves? And will he manage that before the ridiculous dialog slips from funny to tiresome?

Stay tuned, dear readers, for the answers to these burning questions!

1

Starmind

I found a battered old paperback in a box I packed up back in 2004, as I was preparing for the Homeless Tour. It was not with other books; it was jumbled with stuff that had come from my desk in my previous job. Starmind, it’s called, by Dave Van Arnam. It didn’t look even remotely familiar. The crappy copy on the back cover, circa 1969, did not stir any recollections.

The cover carries the tagline, “What ships can be launched on the far seas of the mind?”

I have now read the first two chapters, and I think that’s enough for me to stop and write a brief commentary. You don’t have to thank me; it’s what I do.

In chapter one, we meet three people and a technology. The three people are: a super-studly super-rich super-idiot, a super-clever super-sexy super-rich woman, and a super-intuitive super-smart engineer. The engineer is taking care of one of the massive pseudogravitic multiwave generators humanity has constructed out in space. Multiwave is… well, that’s not clear yet, but the Boss of Earth has made a huge commitment to the technology, with the hope of achieving faster-than-light travel. The engineer (Joe) also has a broken back, which gives him a chance to muse about how amazing it was that modern microsurgery can even repair nerves.

First note: I don’t care how far away the year 2057 might seem when you’re writing a story, there’s no need to be so specific. There’s no need to mention that the engineer’s dad was born in 1997. There’s no need to put dates on medical breakthroughs.

Anyway, chapter two (uh, this is a spoiler, but it’s only chapter two so get over it) comes along and all three of our main people are killed. One is burned to a crisp in a spaceship explosion, one is baked by multiwaves, and one simply falls to his death.

But get this: half of super-clever Jailyn’s brain was preserved, and half of super-intuitive Joe’s brain was also put into deep-freeze. And poor, idiot adonis Benjy is still completely intact, except his brain was destroyed in the fall.

So that’s where I’m at in this story, but what comes next is pretty obvious. Someone, for some mind-boggling reason, is going to decide it’s a good idea to put the two half-brains together in Benjy’s head. Pseudogravitic multiwaves will get into the mix, and a transhuman will be created. One whose mind, I might guess, will hold far seas upon which ships might travel. Or something like that.

The writing really isn’t all that good, I’m afraid; at points the dialog is downright odd. Van Arman invented a reporter as a foil for the Jailyn’s exposition in chapter one, and the conversation between the two doesn’t really resemble human conversation. “Trumped!” the reporter shouts once.

Good or not, I’m reading on! I must learn the logic that will be used to even consider putting two halves of different brains in the same body, and why anyone would think the outcome would be other than a horribly deranged monstrosity not even capable of governing the body they occupy. But someone’s going to suggest it, and others are going to approve.

Unless… maybe the multiwaves are behind the whole thing…

With that in mind, consider the way the book reached me, here in 2016. Perhaps there are larger, subtler forces at work. Maybe the multiwaves put the book in that box. If that’s the case, the fate of the world may hinge on me finishing this book.

1

The Unlikely Ones

I just finished reading a fantasy novel, and I really enjoyed it. In some ways it was a lot like other fantasy novels, but it was very different in several important ways.

It starts with the Unlikely Ones themselves. They are an odd assortment, seven souls brought together by the evil of a witch, bound to a quest to free them from the tyranny of her enchantments.

Ho, hum. Another Quest Story. But… consider. One of the seven is a fish. Another is a Toad. There is a gallant knight, and a lady fair broken and twisted young girl named Thing, along with a crippled kitten, a flightless raven, and a lovelorn unicorn who has lost his horn.

This quest is personal. None wish to change the world; they wish merely to be relieved of their burdens, to return to a normal life.

The setting of the story is England. Some kind of mystical between-the-ages England, but definitely not any sort of Middle Earth thing. I would like to go back and review the story and connect the events in the book with actual places. Because I’m absolutely confident the writer of this story had the full Ordinance Survey at her disposal while she pulled the party from place to place.

Back to the story. It is a play in three acts, clearly delineated by the chapter titles. At the beginning, just like in every fantasy tale, the questers come together. Even here, things aren’t completely according to script because, well… I’m not going to tell you. But you know how Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy starts with the world being destroyed? There’s a bit of that here, too, with one of the main staples of the quest story getting wrapped up right at the get-go.

The second act is perhaps the most predictable, as the unlikely ones are bound to each other, and Thing falls in love with the knight, and each of the seven must past a test of courage, or quick thought, or what have you. Before this stage of the quest is over, it is apparent to them that the quest has been specifically designed this way, so by the last test everyone knows whose turn it is. Which is kind of nice, because as readers we see it coming a mile away, and it would be disappointing if the characters in the story were too stupid to see the pattern as well.

The thing I most like about this story, however, is that victory has a cost. The story doesn’t end with the completion of the quest; there is a final movement in the book in which we watch the Unlikely Ones, no longer united by purpose, quietly return to lives suited to their various species. The world moves on, the ordinary triumphs.

I believe the book is targeted at young adults, but there is some “mature content” (rhymes with penises). I think some of Thing’s self-image issues would resonate more with a 15-year-old girl than with a 50-something male engineer, as we all wait for Conn to see her how she really is.

Overall, a mighty good read. A quest story that keeps things personal, avoiding the tiresome “Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy” mold, but for that, perhaps more poignant.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or a $1000 Generic Men’s 3D Print Skeleton Playing Guitar T-shirt), I get a kickback.

1

The Expanse Trilogy

I recently wrapped up reading The Expanse Boxed Set by James S. Corey, and I must say I enjoyed it quite a bit. It is Space Opera — space ships shooting at each other is a pretty common occurrence.

Humanity is expanding out into the Solar system; Mars is populous and prosperous, Earth is crowded but surviving, and the population of the asteroid belt is growing. The belters are few in numbers, but if armed conflict should arise, they would just have to throw rocks at Earth and Mars and let gravity do the rest. The three factions are in balance at the start of the story, but it wouldn’t take much to really mess things up.

Something like, say, the discovery of some sort of bizarre, obviously-manufactured molecule on a moon of Saturn. The molecule, when it comes into contact with organic life, reshapes it to its own purpose, whatever that is. A weapon? A tool? Impossible to say without putting the molecule somewhere where’s there’s a lot of living matter. Best guess is that a distant alien intelligence threw the protomolecule-bearing rock at Earth two billion years ago, but Saturn caught the incoming rock and held it in cold storage while life continued to get more complex on Earth.

But if the protomolecule was the fuel to plunge the solar system into chaos, the spark that touched it off is named James Holden.

In the first book there are two main characters, moral-high-ground-hugging Holden and a dissolute detective named Miller. They find themselves looking for the same woman, but for very different reasons.

Time for a fairly lengthy sidebar, here. Not long ago, a bunch of jerks fucked up the Hugo awards, ostensibly lamenting that all this inclusiveness and feel-goodiness was ruining Good ‘ol Science Fiction. Before us today is a massive work of GoSF. How does it compare to the Sick Puppies’ agenda?

In the first book, the main two characters are male. The third-most important character is Naomi, who apparently has hit the genetic jackpot, inheriting the best features of many of the races of earth. More time is spent on her more relevant differences in appearance, however; people who grow up in microgravity look different.

But still, the main female character in book one is attractive. Of course. The men? A little harder to tell. They’re not described in the same terms.

I wonder if Corey reviewed book one and decided that book two needed to be more diverse, or if he just felt the story had expanded enough to include more diversity. There are more characters, and one of the major ones, a skilled and powerful politician, is a grandmother with a foul mouth and a buddhist shrine in her office. She spends a lot of time with a Martian gunnery sergeant who also happens to be female. It’s not a big deal.

And that’s the answer to the Sick Puppies. There is a scene in which parents have to make difficult decisions about how to raise their daughter. It just so happens the parents are both women. But the argument is the same, the love is the same, and that’s what the story is about. Saying, “Fuck you, sick puppies! In my story everyone is gay!” is not the answer. But a heartbreaking moment between two people can happen no matter the genders of the actors.

OK, back to the books. A quick hit list:

Not to say that’s there’s no shooting in the first book, but it felt to me like shooting became ever more important as the story moved along. In book one, there was substantial opportunity for cleverness to prevail; by the end of the trilogy cleverness was more about gaining tactical advantage in a firefight. In that way, even as the story expanded in scope, the options open to the participants grew ever more narrow.

Favorite phrase: “vomit zombies”.

At one point, a character says, “Don’t you FUCKING touch me,” and I went, “oh holy shit.”

Later, another character says “We need to talk,” and I said “oh holy shit” again.

I’m willing to bet this is the first work in this genre to specifically mention Hatch green chile. Out there, the treasures of home are even more special. Bull is a good man, a long way from New Mexico. (Though it seems like he’s from northern New Mexico, and therefore might prefer chile from the Española area instead, given his druthers.*)

I’m very curious now about the TVizaion of this series of books (on SyFy). How will they make the Belters look distinctly different? Will they commit to the intimate moments between the action sequences? Will the cast be able to carry those moments? Will they make the spaceships sleek?

If you enjoy GoSF for the right reasons, I think you will appreciate this trilogy.

Note: if you use the above links to buy these books (or Bose Lifestyle SoundTouch 535 Entertainment System), I get a kickback.

___
* And with that, I win the award for ‘most pedantic, picky-ass novel criticism ever’. I’ve been working hard for this honor, and this effort finally put me over the top. We all covet the Hatch when we’re beyond the borders of the Land of Enchantment. Unless the Española is available, is all I’m sayin’. Seems to me Bull is from Española, but it never actually says so.

2

Altered Carbon and Spin State

It’s been a while since I’ve shared my thoughts about books I’ve read. While I tag the episodes as “reviews”, I’m not really trying to write something to help you decide whether or not you want to read the story — it’s more an analysis of the writing to give me new ways to look at my own work.

Recently I bowed to the suggestions of Amazon and bought two Science Fiction novels, Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan and Spin State by Chris Moriarty. I must say that the Amazon suggest-o-matic did a fine job.

The two books have much in common. For instance, both take place in universes where information is not bound by the speed of light. This gives the universe the absolute timeline that makes faster-than-light stories so much simpler. Spin State uses Quantum mechanics sleight-of-hand (thus the title), while Altered Carbon uses less well-defined hand-wavery.

This leads to the core thesis in both books: If information can go faster than light, and humans can be described as information, then people can go faster than light. And if people are information, then information can be a person. Both stories have characters who are Artificial Intelligences. (They would argue that they are not artificial at all.)

In Carbon, (almost) everyone has a module installed in their head that records the current state of their brain. In the event of untimely death (‘untimely’ open to interpretation, budget, and religious belief), that personality and everything it knew up until the moment the recorder stopped working can be restored into someone else’s head (unless, of course, the recorder was also destroyed). Bodies are now referred to as “sleeves”, and there are more people than there are sleeves. The deceased and the incarcerated are now just files in a database, waiting for flesh to host them once more.

If you have enough money, you can live forever. You can even clone up a batch of replacement bodies, keep them in cold storage all over the place, and hop from one to another as a form of instantaneous travel. You can even have multiple copies of yourself, but that’s illegal, of course.

When you can live forever, it changes you. You’re lose a little of what it means to be human. You become a Methuselah.

Takeshi Kovacs is a bad-ass Envoy for the U.N., trained to withstand the stress of dropping cold into a new world, in a new body, and Doing What Needs to be Done. This time he finds himself on Mother Earth, the memory of his last death (and the death of good friends) only minutes old, subjectively. His sleeve this time has some fairly high-end cybernetic upgrades that make him stronger, faster, etc. He’s been called in by one of the wealthy immortals of Earth to solve that man’s murder — a murder so thorough that the ancient one lost two days of memory. The police have ruled it a suicide.

Takeshi has been downloaded into a body that used to belong to a cop who has been convicted of Horrible Crimes. The Envoy’s new employer chose that sleeve partly out of spite, as it’s the cop’s lover who is in charge of the murder case. She hates the Methusalahs, and they don’t miss a chance to rub her face in their power. Now she has to deal with some other asshole in the flesh of the man she loves.

It leads to some interesting questions about identity and what it is that attracts one person to another. Is part of attraction chemical, not governed by the information of who we are and how we think, but instead by glands and receptors and the stuff that’s built into our meat? Do we become chemically familiar with the people around us?

One thing I didn’t buy: criminals are put on the shelf for a given period of time. This is supposed to be a punishment, but think about it: if you rob a bank and get caught, you will be instantly (as far as you experience) shot a hundred years into the future. Sure there’s some shock there, but unless you posit that society and technology has completely ground to a halt, the future looks pretty bright to me.

Altered Carbon is a detective story with Science Fiction clothing, and it follows the Detective Story Contract: The reader is given the information needed to figure out the answer, so when the detective reaches the conclusion you say, “ah, sweet!” rather than, “Hey, I call shenanigans!” Morgan does this well, though there are a lot of moving parts. For a while I was reading this at bedtime, and not in big chunks, and found myself going “wait – who’s that again?” a few times. If your memory’s like mine, this is a novel to read in big chunks.

I had several theories as the story progressed, and was right often enough to feel clever but there were still plenty of surprises. It was a fun read.

Notable side effect of the technology: once everyone’s wired up, advertising goes straight into your head. And it’s really effective.

In Spin State, Catherine Li is a bad-ass Soldier with the U.N., specially trained to drop in on a planet and Do What Needs to be Done. Her body has some fairly high-end cybernetic upgrades that make her stronger, faster, etc, but it’s past time she took them in to the shop for maintenance. We first meet her on a commando raid on a facility on some backwater planet. Their mission: get into the facility and stand by while a kick-ass AI gets what is needed from their data systems. An AI has no physical presence, but it can temporarily take control of a body that has special hardware installed.

The raid doesn’t go perfectly; the person who was the host for the AI gets killed, and Li blames the AI. Then she’s sent off to her next mission, which turns out to be a real bitch. It’s on her home world, and a past she doesn’t remember starts to catch up with her.

There’s a wrinkle when people are sent across the void using quantum-mechanical spin state stuff: A person’s memories don’t always come out intact on the other side. As a person makes more jumps, they become more and more reliant on hardware installed in their heads to remember things for them. That means that their bosses see everything, and soldiers only remember what their boss wants them to. Li has a vague notion that she’s done some things she’s not proud of during a grinding, protracted struggle in a war that’s over but not really. It makes me think of Stalingrad. The enemy in this case is a system of worlds called the Syndicate who have decided that the old way of making new people is obsolete; instead they clone up batches and throw away all but the best, culling them as they develop until there is a family of exceptional humans who all have the same face.

It turns out Li has one of those faces, but she’s had it surgically altered to escape discrimination in UN space. Another woman with the same face is a famous scientist who has been murdered. And Whaddayaknow? We have an action-mystery story. You see, the quantum-spin faster-than-light mechanism relies on an exotic material that only comes from one place. Once that supply runs out, humanity must return to decades-long (centuries-long?) journeys between planets, and the UN’s benign rule becomes impossible to maintain. So Famous Scientist was trying to figure out a way to synthesize the material. Or at least, that’s what she told people she was doing.

So that AI that flaked and may have cause the death of Li’s comrade? It goes by the name Cohen, was born on Earth (when Earth was still a pleasant place to be), and clearly has designs of its own, however much it may be working with the UN right now. And it has a history with Li. Cohen interfaces with the world through a variety of people who have shunts installed, and I have to tip my hat to Moriarty for his carefully natural-sounding language differentiating the host meat from the personality within.

Lesson one: Don’t turn your back on someone with a shunt installed. You never know who might show up.

Li is the natural pivot point in all this: she has hidden Syndicate roots but embodies rugged individualism; she has a connection with a powerful AI, and she does the ugly jobs for her boss who is a Big Wheel at the UN. She’s a good soldier and accepts that she remembers what her superiors choose, but she’s convinced that it’s all for the right reasons. She roots for the wrong baseball team, but I’ll forgive her that.

Warning: Spoilerish paragraph:

While the AI in Altered Carbon is an interesting side character, Cohen in Spin State is central. He (yes, ‘he’) was one of the first machine intelligences to emerge, and much of the time he seems, well, human. Later Moriarty shows us that ‘Cohen’ is not really singular, and that the nature of machine intelligence is entirely different than our mushy biological intelligence. Yet they share one thing with us: a desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are also better than us at just about everything. In that light, the human engineering programs of the Syndicate start to make a lot of sense. Alter humanity or get left behind.

There were, I must say, a couple of things that bothered me about this story. I simply cannot believe that the mine for the material that the entire economy is based on would be run the way it was in this story. Even if extracting the mineral is an art form, the rest of the labor would be more cheaply done by robots in a society this advanced. I think the writer could have found plenty of other ways to create local unrest.

Also, virtual reality has advanced to the point where it’s indistinguishable from physical reality. I’m having a hard time articulating what it is about that that bothers me, except that it seems to be unable to let go of physical reality. People meet in virtual representations of real places, and can be embarrassed by the arrival of other people in that place also. If you’re a super-AI, how do you allow that to happen?

But for those nit-picks, I enjoyed this story quite a lot.

Two stories of hard-nosed people in over their heads. There is shooting, and sex, and explosions, and questions of identity. People die horribly when their heads are hacked. Philip Morris will be glad to know that tobacco has followed mankind to the stars and back again, to be thrown in an acid-rain puddle under a flickering streetlamp while taxis rush by.

Note: if you use the above links to buy one of these books (or The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey), I get a kickback.

I Broke a Solemn Vow

A few years ago I read the novel Step on a Crack by (ostensibly) James Patterson and (reprehensibly) Michael Ledwidge. It was awful. Really, really horrible. After reading it, not only did I vow never to read anything with James Patterson’s name on it ever again, I vowed to stay clear of anything published by Little, Brown and Company, as clearly there was no editor there, just marketers trying to find ways to put Patterson’s name in larger type on the cover.

So-called critics gushed over the steaming pile of poo, which shows how professional critics make a living.

In fact, before I get to the actual subject of this episode, let me step into the way-back machine and relive just how ghastly awful Step on a Crack was.

Let’s you and I imagine for a moment that we are bad guys — wait, no, we are criminal masterminds. Let’s also imagine that criminal masterminds have a place they like to hang out and discuss evil plots. We’re sitting, having a beer, discussing which root certificate authority is the most vulnerable, when a new guy bellies up to the bar.

“Got a big thing going on,” he says.

“Oh?” You ask, not wanting to be rude.

“I know some stuff about this Cathedral,” he says. “If I can get a bunch of A-listers and world leaders in there all at once, I can do some damage.”

“Nice,” I say. We’re all evil here, and this sounds promising.

“How you going to get them in there?” you ask.

“A funeral,” he says, and that appeals to both of us. “Former first lady. Beloved the world over. She dies, the world comes callin'”

“Nice,” I say again. I’m not terribly creative.

“So you’re going to kill the former first lady?” you ask.

“Damn straight,” our newcomer says. “There’s this restaurant they go to every year. Anniversary or something like that.”

“And you’re going to shoot her at the restaurant,” you say.

“Even better,” the man says, “She’s allergic to peanuts.” You start to get that sinking feeling. Real masterminds keep things simple.

“You don’t say,” you say.

“Yep. I’m going to get a guy hired there as a cook, and he’s going to put peanut oil in her food.”

Questions start to bubble up in your mind. How does this man know that his peanut-oil slinger will be scheduled to work that day? How does he know that he will be on the line and get that dish? What if the chef decides to do the one for the first lady personally? This plan is starting to sound pretty fishy. “Or you could shoot her,” you suggest.

“Then people will know it’s murder. There will be too much security at the funeral.”

“Huh,” we say together. “She’ll have an Epipen,” I say. “One blast of adrenaline and she’ll last long enough to get to the hospital.”

Our fellow mastermind shakes his head. “I’m thinking what with all the excitement of the anniversary and all, she’ll forget it.”

“Isn’t she protected by the Secret Service?” you ask.

“Sure, but they won’t know about her life-threatening allergy. They’re just there to protect her life.”

“So…” I say.

You sum it up. “Your entire plan is predicated on the assumption that no one will be able to handle a food allergy, even though there will be several people there with a vested interest in being prepared for it, and she will die as a result.”

“What about your guy on the inside?” I ask. “They’re going to grill him pretty hard.”

“Nah, why would they?”

“Because he killed the former first lady.” You remind him. “They’re going to put the entire kitchen through the wringer.”

“I don’t think they’ll bother,” our fellow mastermind says. “Accidents happen, you know.” He slaps the bartop. “And that’s only step one! Wait ’till I tell you how we get away!”

The above part of the “mastermind’s” plan gets us though the first few preposterous pages of the Patterson/Ledwidge farce Step on a Crack. I read the whole damn thing, and I promise you it doesn’t get any better. Thus I vowed to boycott the whole Patterson swindle.

If you have already guessed by the title of this episode that I broke that vow, congratulations! You are smarter than any character in Crack. A while back I was early to pick up an order at Panda Express (as Chinese as McDonalds is Scottish, but some days nothing else will do) and I needed something to read. iBookstore was quick to tell me that the latest Patterson was FREE! I decided, for science, to see if the opening few pages of the latest work compared with Crack.

So I downloaded Private, only realizing later that by doing so I participated in the swindle. I helped produce inflated numbers for the book, which will ultimately lead to more people paying money for the rot. You see, each Patterson book is called a #1 best-seller because book stores order lots of copies, not because people buy them. THEN people buy them because it looks like the book is really successful. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Anyway, I read the prolog. The first sentence was really quite good. I stopped to savor the moment before continuing. The rest of that first very short chapter wasn’t too bad either, although the contortions the writer went through to make the protagonist as heroic as fuckin’ possible got pretty ridiculous. In one paragraph the dude is dead from unspecified war-related injuries, heart stopped and everything, then maybe three sentences later he’s knocked his buddy down and is running toward a burning helicopter. I think if the author could have worked in puppies in mortal peril he would have.

Still, better than Crack. The writer at least has some sort of voice.

In the second chapter of the prolog he visits his father in prison and learns he will inherit fifteen million dollars and a (thoroughly discredited) private detective agency (named “Private”) that caters to the rich and famous. His n’er-do-well twin brother is not to know about this.

There’s a few hundred pages after that, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read them to know what’s going to happen. Hot movie star almost-girlfriend imperiled by evil twin, (only of course that’s the big surprise), yadda yadda.

Not bad for a Patterson, though, I’ll give ’em that.

Drowning Mermaids

I just finished reading a book called Drowning Mermaids. I’m not sure why I finished it; several times I set my electro-book thingie down and asked the ceiling, “Why am I still reading this?”

I don’t have a good answer. My first warning came on the second page, when a veteran sailor refers to the ‘washroom’ on the boat. First note to writer: If you’re going to write scenes on a boat, take a little time to learn about boats, and the vocabulary of sailors.

This may seem like a nitpick, but it’s an indicator of the poor polish and care of the writer. Later, we learn that this industrial fishing boat had a bathtub. I don’t expect everyone who reads these words to know how absolutely ridiculous that is (although… come on), but I expect the writer of this story to know.

On the other hand, I was entirely able to accept the genetic branch of the human species that enabled under-water breathing. Scientifically it’s preposterous, but in this context played just fine. Crazy species are popping up all the time. I needed one more mutation to make this story work, however — a human in arctic water has about thirty seconds to live, and it has nothing to do with oxygen. Odd to make underwater breathing scientific, but resistance to cold magical.

Structurally, the story isn’t bad. If each chapter were rendered with half the words, we’d have a good start on a decent yarn. Those chapters, they need trimming. They just drift along, whacking on the same points over and over. Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be another way to beat that horse, you’re treated to another few paragraphs of the same stuff. Even the individual points reviewed repeatedly are unnecessarily long-winded with each iteration, often using the same language each time. It just keeps going on. Kind of like this paragraph. It gets annoying fast, doesn’t it?

I am fully aware of the irony of me accusing others of rambling, but when Main Dude asks Main Chick for forgiveness for the third damn time in the chapter, and gets the same answer each time, you have to think that maybe things could have been tightened up a smigde. Here’s a digest of that conversation:

“I’m sorry I was such an asshole.”
“It’s all right.”
“Are you sure? I mean, I’ve been a monumental asshole.”
“I love you, and I have to take the good with the bad. You are forgiven.”
“But… I’ve been preposterously assholish. You can’t possibly forgive me.”
“How many times are we going to go around this subject? Believe you’re forgiven and shut up, or call me a liar and get the fuck out. Asshole.”

That last line is not an accurate representation of the story. At all. That conversation? It took several pages (whatever ‘page’ means these days) in the book, as each party internally reviewed stuff we already knew, reacting the same way they did the last time they internally reviewed it, picking at the scabs over old wounds. Sharply-written dialog, a couple of telling gestures, and all those pages of smoke can be compressed into a half-page firecracker.

Tightening the narrative would have reduced the number of times I paused to look at the ceiling to wonder if I should go on. By the end of the book my pauses were longer and more frequent, and the only answer to “why am I still reading this?” became, Because it’s almost over. I’d made it this far, I would see it to the end.

Even that motivation almost wasn’t enough. The big confrontation is going down and our main mermaid has an opportunity to spend five frickin’ seconds to simplify her situation dramatically. The narrator tells us “Aazuria knew that she should stop and XXX, but…” and a lame excuse follows. (Five frickin’ seconds!) You know what that phrase really says? “The writer knew she should find a better way to resolve this situation in a way that propels the plot forward, but she didn’t bother.”

Those are the moments that separate the pros from the amateurs.

To tie with my comments about brevity above, Aazuria stops to review her unbelievable decision in the next chapter as well, accomplishing nothing but chewing up words to remind us that we got to this point in the story through artificial means. The writer’s guilty conscience peeks through again.

Ultimately this is a romance story, so all that other stuff is subordinate to the relationship between Main Mermaid and Boss Fisherman. There’s good news on this front: There was a point that I actually doubted the outcome of the romance. That’s a huge compliment for the writer, considering the contract romance writers make with their readers. Love damn well better conquer all in these stories; that’s why people read them. Probably if I was a more regular consumer of the genre I would not have had my (enjoyable) moments of doubt.

Uh, I guess that was a spoiler. But come on. Love conquers all.

Side note: it’s almost comical how much the people on the cover don’t resemble the descriptions in the story. Especially the dude.

Hey, do you mind if I slip a couple more spoilers in here? If you think you might be reading Drowning Mermaids then you’ve probably already stopped reading this review, so I’m not too worried. But things get even spoilier from here on out.

The writer flirted with daring on a couple of occasions. Big Names Die… almost. They will all be back for the sequels, but now we know that they are safe. The writer has squandered the ability to make us worry for the fate of the major characters; they could be boiling in acidic lava while sharks eat their entrails and I’d be pretty comfortable betting they they would be back before the denouement for that episode.

Speaking of episodes, here’s something I must recognize: This story had an ending. Kind of crazy that I have to mention that as a plus, but these days it’s no slam dunk that a story will reach some sort of conclusion when the pages run out. There’s plenty of stuff still going on, Big Danger on the horizon, but we get to a place where specific issues have been resolved. It’s a good stopping point, and the underlying structure shows favorably.

I wasn’t going to bother providing a link to the novel on Amazon, but the cover is worth a chuckle. I’ll be adding the image shortly. Unless I don’t.