Book Review: Raising Steam

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Terry Pratchett left us in early 2015. I’ve been saving the last two Discworld novels for a while, savouring the melancholy knowledge that there would never be any new ones. I was delighted to realize recently that I’ve somehow missed one. Saving that one for another day, I finally allowed myself to read the last Moist von Lipwig novel, in which a number of other favourite characters made brief appearances as well. It does take place partially in Anhk-Morpork, after all.

Let me state outright that I very much enjoyed the book. Most of that is to do with the book itself, with a little nostalgia mixed in along with the realization that I’ve never met a Discworld book I didn’t like. So if I offer up a couple of criticisms, which I’m about to, that should be remembered.

First, recognizing that it was necessary to the story, the development of the railroad was a little quick for me, going from the first experimental engine to a track running all the way to Uberwald in a year or so. Or was it less? With all of the other events in the novel, some of which went by very quickly, the building of the railroad itself is almost lost.

There’s an assumption of familiarity with the major characters that isn’t usually present. You don’t usually need a lot of time to establish personalities and objectives for the majors, but you mostly don’t get that time in Raising Steam and we plunge straight in after the establishing shot of “now it’s time for the age of steam”.

And not all of the important characters are as crisp and clean as I’m used to in the Discworld. In particular, Moist and the Patrician. Moist von Lipwig is almost too rushed, too frantic, and it shows even in his internal dialogue, flying though one thing too quickly to get to the next for much of the book. And Lord Vetinari is, well, a bit fuzzy. His wit and personality don’t quite have the edge I’m used to.

At the same time, the plot is a little on the light side, sometimes seeming like a group of barely-connected scenes held together by force of will as Sir Terry tried to get everything he wanted to say in this last mature-audiences Discworld book to be published. And there’s a lot here: technology, change, religion, terrorism, and maturing societies.

All of those are strong through the book. Mr. Pratchett lampoons terrorists throughout as misguided idiots at best and criminally self-serving at worst. In part, they’re the representation of the resistance of change, of all of the people in the modern world digging their heels in over technology, religion, social attitudes, or anything else that might make it better for someone else even if it has no effect on the luddite in question at all. In many ways, the conservative elements in Dwarfish society stand in very well for similar elements in current western societies, just with the added bonus of having a terrorist wing.

Raising Steam also spends quite a bit of time building on Sir Terry’s long running themes of equality and inclusion, which I very much appreciate. Over the course of the series, more and more different species have been integrated into the great melting pot of Ankh-Morpork with ripples spreading out from there. The latest inclusion is the goblins, perhaps the most downtrodden of the Discworld’s sentients. But there are strong emphases on gender equality as well, with a major revelation and shift in Dwarfish society, up to its highest levels. In a similar theme, the interactions between Moist and his wife Adora were some of the most entertaining bits of the book, and I wish we’d seen more of her in the narrative.

Overall rating: 4 stars, and that’s a touch of round up. Aside from the previously mentioned issues, one of the major crises in the plot was solved with a little handwavium and something that there wasn’t actually any ground work laid for. But this is Discworld, and it’s Discworld pushing its way into the modern age, showing us fun and humour and ourselves along the way.

And if the other major characters in the City Watch were present and accounted for, where was Captain Carrot?

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Book Review: The Fifth Season

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by N.K. Jemisin, and winner of the Hugo in 2016.

The world has an extra way to kill people. Actually, many extra ways, but they all stem from this particular earth being geologically unstable or the magic that has developed in a tiny number of people, giving them the ability to affect the earth.

Every so often, there’s a major tectonic catastrophe. Sometimes that catastrophe ends civilizations and sometimes it doesn’t, but once in a great while it causes a fifth season during which the earth recovers and people try to. These can last years, periods of what we might call nuclear winter, but caused by massive eruptions instead. Some of these border on extinction events, but life, and humanity, clings by its fingernails until things get better.

Now add in the orogenes, people who can, to varying degrees, control the environment around them. Ordinary humans don’t like them much because of the power they hold, and they are kept on a tight leash, forced to be a benefit to society according to their abilities and in whatever way society requires of them.

Oh, and the remains of a variety of past civilizations litter the planet. Some of them might have had some significant technology, but in the time period we’re concerned with, I’d call it a more or less age of enlightenment level, with a few odd exceptions in either direction.

There are three intercut narratives making up the story, telling bits of the tale and building bits of the world. All three are from the point of view of a member of the powerful yet downtrodden orogenes class. As a story telling device, I like the use of the same group being both powerful and powerless, a group of people who could take over the world if they truly wanted to, but who are too conditioned to want to. And I really enjoyed the diversity in experience and personalities of the main characters. There are no cardboard cut outs here. If someone is important to the story, they’re distinct and realized with their own voice.

There’s a great deal of world building gone into this story. Standard fantasy tropes aren’t to be found here: the author has built a completely fresh world. Ms. Jemisin’s writing carries you along through the exploration of character and society so well that when you realize what ties the three separate stories together, you find you knew it all along because she laid the groundwork so well while you were enjoying the story.

And it’s a strong story of the struggle to adapt. Individuals, groups, and societies. The world is a difficult place for all of those, and with the coming of a new Season, it’s going to get worse. Life is going to get harder for those who survive.

If I have one significant issue with the book, it’s that one of the narratives is told from a second person POV. I don’t really like second person as a perspective beyond a short story of a couple of thousand words. It wears on my quickly. Properly done, making the reader the subject of every sentence and action can lend an air of immediacy to the story, swallow the audience whole into the narrative. And Ms. Jemisin does it properly. The problem is, I don’t think it’s sustainable for long. Eventually, being the subject of things starts feeling like you’re being told what you’re doing or going to do. Maybe it’s me, but if that goes on very long, I start to resent it. In this book, I kept waiting for the second person parts to end and eventually found myself disappointed when that perspective took over, even though the writing remained excellent and the story stayed engaging.

Overall rating: 4 stars, leaning towards 4.5. I really enjoyed this book, but a third of it being told in second person perspective grated on me after a while. Plus, the book ends on kind of a cliffhanger. I knew it was the first book of a series going in, but I still would have liked the story to be more or less complete on its own. We end with new questions being asked and just the hint of new secrets being revealed.

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Book Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

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Still playing catch up. By the time I’m done writing the last group of reviews for last year, I’ll have a half dozen to do for this year so far.

The most recent book in the Vorkosigan Saga, and while I enjoyed the story, it’s even more of a departure from what I think of as a Vorkosigan story than the last two have been. It’s almost as if Ms. Bujold is taking several books to tie up every loose end and give most of the characters happy endings if she can.

Like with Ivan Vorpatril’s wrap up in the last book, we’re still more or less staying away from Miles (the primary hero of the series), focusing instead on his mother, the original hero of the first couple of books, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. Cordelia gets her happy ending, though it’s a little while in coming, as does the other titular character Oscar Jole. That’s not really a spoiler.

What might be is that this isn’t really space opera or action adventure or military SF, all of which you’d normally expect in the series. This is a romance taking place in a small piece of the overall setting for the action military space opera the series is known for. More, it’s a romance between two people who are in their later years.

Oh sure, there’s other stuff going on, political and diplomatic, and occasionally logistical, but everything in the book contributes to the building, strengthening, or deepening of relationships, especially the one between Oscar and Cordelia.

It’s a slower paced story than her fans might be used to, but it’s completely and totally worth the read. Through Oscar and Cordelia, we get insights into the fact that there’s more to being an adult than just hitting the age of majority and having to make your own big boy/girl decisions. Adulthood makes up most of our lives and there are stages and things that have to be dealt with throughout, and things are different depending on what stage of adulthood we might be in.

This book explores some of those things for people in a stage that’s usually neglected and reminds us that just because there’s snow on the roof doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the hearth.

Overall rating: 4 stars. Possibly because I’m in my own middle years and look at things a lot differently than I did even a decade ago, this book speaks to me on a level that often gets missed. I like to think and I like to see the world and the universe in different ways and I like it when someone shows me something I don’t normally get to see. I’m getting that here.

Be well, everyone.

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