Book Reviews (25)

book covers

Iain Banks – Transition

A great central concept – a power struggle in the Concern, an organisation working across parallel worlds whose operatives can shift their consciousness into other people in other versions of Earth – shines through more mixed execution.

I struggled to get into it at first. Maybe my own vibes were off, but it certainly can feel a bit disjointed. The story shifts rapidly between various characters, and it takes a while for a plot to start emerging.

The best character is Adrian, a London finance dickhead and former coke dealer with a very strong voice, a manipulative self-absorbed tour de force. The others tend to suffer a little from having similar, stilted voices, like they’re giving a presentation – although the Philosopher’s eerie professionalism as a torturer, and the hints at the fascistic security state of his home world, make him gripping in his own way.

Another issue with some characters is a forced preoccupation with sexuality, especially with Tem’s parts. Not to be prudish – Adrian is always evaluating/manipulating birds and it works for the character! With the others, though, I was rolling my eyes a bit. Did a discussion about the secretive agendas at the top of the Concern need to happen during a footjob?

There’s one rather forced section where it feels like Banks is trying to leaven what he must realise is very heavy exposition – ‘quanta where reality itself seethes with a continual effervescence of sub-microscopic creation and destruction’, I mean, jfc – with very detailed accounts of what the two speakers are doing with their hands. It’s like a dry lecture if the lecturer has a few strippers come on to spice it up as they drone on. Why not make the lecture less dry?

And there’s the men-writing-women meme used irl, when Tem transitions into a female body and ‘Breasts move very slightly with each pace, but constrained. Sports bra.’ PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO KILL YOU TEM.

Having complained a lot, I’ll repeat that the ideas are great. There are very thoughtful and disturbing sequences. The central plot is good too. This might be stronger if it lectured less and had more of the parallel-world chase sequence stuff.

Banks makes a big deal of the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, though the text itself rarely directly addresses the period’s specific significance. I don’t remember that time, so I’m not getting what he’s trying to say about that, although it probably involves that nonsense about ‘the end of history’. If you’ve read this too and you’re a bit older, any thoughts?

Bunny – Mona Awad

(h/t Sprinkled With Words)

Samantha, an outsider in a prestigious MFA program, gets pulled between her friend (ahem?) Ava and her writing cohort: a creepily saccharine clique of privileged women who call each other Bunny, hug way too much, and do an unbelievable ritual where [redacted].

It’s hard to summarise what this is without spilling all the madness of it – but it’s not a self-absorbed story about ~being a writer~ at ~university~. It’s wild and sardonic; pokes at the pretensions of that world in a way anyone who’s been there will chuckle at and anyone who hasn’t will enjoy the ride of anyway; a vulnerable account of being on the margins, levied with plenty of wit, bitterness, glimmers of warmth, and surreal brain-splatter violence.

The narration is just *salt bae gif*:

“Can I take your coat?” Cupcake offers. I turn to her. She’s looking at me so hopefully. So willing to take a coat I’m not wearing, I almost want to give her my skin.
[…]
I think she should apologize to trees. Spend a whole day on her knees in the forest, looking up at the trembling aspens and oaks and whatever other trees paper is made of with tears in her languid eyes and say, I’m fucking sorry. I’m sorry that I think I’m so goddamned interesting when it is clear that I am not interesting. Here’s what I am: I’m a boring tree murderess.
[…]
Our mothers always said to look hard at the things of this world that are owies on the eyes because they will put more colors in your inner rainbow.

The ominous shift from part 1 to part 2 is really impressive: the flip in tone, voice, names. The use of cutesy cupcakes-and-unicorns stuff to be so deeply eerie throughout Bunny feels very unique and speaks to powerful ideas. And the ending finds hope, without undercutting the book’s rejection of false positivity.

Spoiler warning: Monstrous Cute, a good interview with Awad.

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
Cromwell #2

Amazing stuff! This takes everything I liked about Wolf Hall and does it better.

Mantel’s account of Anne Boleyn’s fall and Jane Seymour’s unexpected rise captures the dangerous game of the Tudor court, the turbulence and absurdity of absolute monarchy. Cromwell’s character combines a touch of impishness and deep sentimentality with ruthless ambition and corruption.

Across a wide range of figures, all are memorable with strong motivations and quirks. Jane Seymour had been so unassuming in Wolf Hall that I’d barely remembered she’d have to become #3. Now she’s still humble, unobtrusive, but portrayed with dashes of character in gestures and rare words – even the way she enters through that door is so telling. How do you surprise someone with major plot points so well known they have a rhyme mnemonic? Like this.

The writing in general is stellar. Rich, without as much of the meandering that bogged me a little in Wolf Hall – dialogue, imagery, humour, threat. A perfect balance of style, implications, clarity, and period detail.

Perhaps I’m more used to Mantel’s using ‘he’ – meaning Cromwell – as the subject of sentences, but I got less mixed up with other male characters this time. She often avoids that with a slightly awkward ‘he says: he, Cromwell’ which made me wonder why not simply ‘Cromwell says’, but at least that’s clearer.

Looking forward to The Mirror and the Light.

The Trojan Horse Affair

I’ve recently listened to The Trojan Horse Affair, an unbelievable investigative podcast by two journalists with the New York Times.

It’s a really riveting account of basic questions going unasked in service of an Islamophobic narrative; malicious and willfully dense officials from petty local government up to the Cabinet; and two dogged, likeable men grappling with the nature of their own profession.

A strange letter appears on a city councillor’s desk in Birmingham, England, laying out an elaborate plot by Islamic extremists to infiltrate the city’s schools. The plot has a code name: Operation Trojan Horse. The story soon explodes in the news and kicks off a national panic. By the time it all dies down, the government has launched multiple investigations, beefed up the country’s counterterrorism policy, revamped schools and banned people from education for the rest of their lives.

To Hamza Syed, who is watching the scandal unfold in his city, the whole thing seemed … off. Because through all the official inquiries and heated speeches in Parliament, no one has ever bothered to answer a basic question: Who wrote the letter? And why? The night before Hamza is to start journalism school, he has a chance meeting in Birmingham with the reporter Brian Reed, the host of the hit podcast S-Town. Together they team up to investigate: Who wrote the Trojan Horse letter? They quickly discover that it’s a question people in power do not want them asking.

From Serial Productions and The New York Times comes The Trojan Horse Affair: a mystery in eight parts.

It’s telling that as much as Hamza and Brian uncovered had to come from a Muslim and from a US journalist. British media easily swallowed a moral panic, and largely refuses to rethink it today. It’s not the first or the last time – but it’s unique to have the Kafkaesque twists laid out so well.

The Writer’s Imaginary Camera

I found an interesting thread on r/writing about writing (rather than ‘am I allowed to write a ghost if I’m not dead’, circle-jerks about being writers but not writing, requests for emotional support), from a screenwriter trying to do a novel.

In response to:

At about 855 words per scene, your scenes are almost certainly too sparsely written for a novel. That is incredibly short for an average.

I can almost guarantee that you are doing a LOT more telling than showing and neglecting atmosphere and detail. Go through each of your scenes and flesh them out more.

He says:

???
Character enters room with another character. Characters discuss topics. Character leaves room. End of scene.
What am I supposed to do to “flesh it out more?”

I got the impression that as he wrote, he was picturing the events from a camera’s perspective. I picture scenes I’m writing from cinematic angles and such, like anyone probably would.

The issue here is execution (as others pointed out, it is possible to write in ‘dramatic POV’, like Hemingway, and pull it off), and bearing in mind the difference between screenplays and novels in how the audience or reader ends up getting it.

A screenplay will end up getting seen through the work of actors, directors, set designers, etc. A novel won’t – there’s only what’s on the page. So a prose writer might imagine a sweeping shot, a suitable soundtrack, and all the rest of it, without that actually being made available to anyone else reading.

There are also the different senses that novels can bring to bear. Smell. The physical sensations of characters. Direct, mental access. As well as the style of the prose itself. Even an unobtrusive, camera-like sort of language, which doesn’t draw attention to the words or rhythms themselves, is its own deliberate use of prose style.

Max Gladstone said some stuff about this a while back:

Just having a dim bulb epiphany about one reason journeyman writers so often spend page space having characters see things, notice things, etc, rather than just narrating what happens.

It’s cinema language, isn’t it? In film you can’t just have “she grabbed the gun from the desk and pointed it at him.” We haven’t seen the gun since it was last in frame—we “need” a shot of her *noticing* the gun, making the decision, going for it.

In a book you just *remember* the gun was there, because he put it down half a page ago and all you’ve done in the interim is read twelve lines of text—vs. a film where you’re spending a lot of circuitry watching Bogart and Gladys George, reading their body language, etc.

If you’ve grown up with cinema grammar, you internalize that rhythm, so you know: ok, what we need here is for her to *see* the gun. We need a shot of it. Because the gun doesn’t exist unless she sees it. When in prose, the gun can just… exist. […]

And also said:

I’m personally so tired of books that doesn’t care about the effects you can create WITH BOOKS, the way an even competently-made tv series cares about the effects you can create with a camera. Books that read like screenplays for the movie the author hopes someone will make […] sometimes I want to just vanish into the dream, into the movie in my mind, I get it… but even there, when I do, the vanishing comes from a mastery of prose technique. (Evocation of camera image is also prose technique!)

When I wrote about flashbacks, I said it could be heavy-handed to use words like ‘remember’ or ‘reminded’. Instead of ‘the Old Spice reminded him of his grandfather’, ‘Old Spice had been his grandfather’s brand. He’d been standing on tiptoes to see[…]’. See how that takes advantage of an immersive access to somebody’s mind, which isn’t possible through a camera perspective?

The point here is to be conscious of how we’re engaging with our own work in progress. If we’re audio/visualising, how much of that is actually on the page? And are we losing sight of the other senses and perspectives which the written – not visual – make possible for us to use?

Book Reviews (24)

Warbreaker – Brandon Sanderson

A standalone in which two lands approach war, divided by beliefs about an intriguing magic system centred on colour and Breath – an essence each person is born with one of, with more usable to Awaken objects to do tasks or the dead to kill. It’s versatile: and makes for a good nuke-analogue.

For the first 40-or-so% I enjoyed it but found the characters and beliefs at play a bit simplistic, edging toward Flanderized. Then began the real character development, everyone and their ideals getting challenged and drawn out further. Vivenna goes from devout, prim princess through a wringer of trials, Lightsong’s dope, and Siri and Susebron… in retrospect the kneeling is hilarious.

The climax is a lot of fun, full of surprises and logical payoffs, if a little dependent on overly-mysterious tinges to the worldbuilding. The character arcs are fantastic, though I wonder if there could’ve been a touch more nuance and internal conflict in the first parts. And I have to ask what happens to [instigator] after the end? I mean, there were valid reasons to be pissed off.

The madlad even has this free on his site – here.

Worldbuilding For Fantasy Fans And Authors – M.D. Presley

(h/t WASBC)

Presley starts with a somewhat plodding overview of what worldbuilding is – you can probably skip to p.35 without missing much – then becomes more interesting. The book provides insightful new terms, and gathers common points on the subject like Sanderson’s laws of magic or the warning to avoid smeerps in a compact package.

While sometimes his way of phrasing things felt a bit knotty to me, the underlying points generally make good sense. The analytical approach picks out the fundamentals, expands on standard fare in interesting ways (separating show-vs-tell into five options from ‘hard impart’ to ‘hard deduct’), but (outside the intro) avoids bogging down in minutiae.

Blood of Elves – Andrzej Sapkowski trans. Danusia Stok
Witcher #3

Fun.

The first two sets of stories provided just enough context to understand what’s going on here, but the novel gives more chance for the characters to breathe. Geralt, the pretends-to-be-gruff himbo mess. Dandelion, who either had a lot of off-page character development or is just written differently in such a way that I no longer want the scamp immolated. Yennefer, evolved from an interesting character who’d then inexplicably become a ‘uwu Geralt pwease’ smol bean to a more consistent, sardonic, hard-willed tsundere. Triss, Yarpen. Ciri! 😭

Aside from a little cringe (fear!), seeming anachronisms like ‘the secret virus cultures’, and highly specialised and undefined swordplay-vocab, yeah, I like it. The worldbuilding is very rich, down to detailed discussion of a trade war during customs inspection of a barge. All the interactions are nice, especially involving Ciri and the ‘good friend’ letter. Sapkowski is really good at showing a large crowd interacting, sketching out each character and group. The story emerging, concerning the threat of Nilfgaard, the Scoia’tael/human-other relations, and the prophecy, already has some good turns. The ending is a little abrupt, leading on to #4.

Book Reviews (23)

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

I first read Wolf Hall choking it down as part of a reading list. Trying again on my own time, I could much better appreciate Mantel’s account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise in the court of Henry VIII, as Katherine of Aragon falls and Anne Boleyn takes her place. The sly manoeuvring of power, sharp dialogue, period detail, and introspective prose make for a compelling experience.

There are segments where it’s tricky to see how things are moving forwards – no doubt that reflects the uncertainties of the time, and Mantel’s writing kept my interest, but some of those periods could’ve been summarised more strongly. One small issue I had with the prose is Mantel’s use of ‘he’ as the subject of sentences, usually referring to Cromwell, being unclear in some places with other men involved.

However, any scene of court drama, business, violence, wrangling tricky people and situations – the majority of the book – shows off a balance of historical fact and strong characterisation, drawing on wit, sensitivity, and brash corruption.

The Hero of Ages – Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn #3

A great conclusion to a great trilogy.

Some of the world-building is a bit top-heavy, but it’s masterful world-building – you get to figure things out yourself and realize they were dangled from book one, and the action sparkles as always. The Big Bad is a bit of a generic destructive bastard, despite the notes of complexity Sanderson did fit in there, but is still a fun enemy. And the story as a whole pulls right along, with the best fast, consistent pacing so far, tying up mysteries and closing long-waiting loops with revelation.

Sazed’s philosophical struggle comes off a little one-note, but it’s impossible to dislike the character, and the arc is staggering. Spook – that guy has really stepped up! Through TenSoon, we get more nice kandra lore. Vin is Vin. Elend is Elend. The two together can feel a touch wooden sometimes, but mostly not – overall it’s good old Brando Sando.

And the ending – the scope and payoff over these three chonky tomes, the sacrifice and reward – crikey. Read these books, people.

The Dawn of Everything – David Graeber & David Wengrow

The standard framing of zoomed-out human history runs something like this: start with small hunter-gatherer bands living in either egalitarian harmony (if you believe Rousseau) or a brutish war of all against all (if you believe Hobbes); then progress through a sequence of evolutionary stages – tribes, chiefs, farming, cities: at which point the scale of people who need organising requires a level of top-down hierarchy which leads inexorably to the modern nation-state.

It’s a tale in which modern civilisation required either sacrificing the childlike equality of hunter-gatherer bands, or taming our brutish instincts through the rule of law. In either case, inequality is an unavoidable price.

This incredible work blows all that up. Looking at the evidence in anthropology and archaeology, Graeber and Wengrow overturn every step of the narrative of progress we take for granted.

Humans didn’t spend hundreds of thousands of years in tiny bands with no further political complexity at play – in a State of Nature taken as either good or evil. Our ancient ancestors, they insist, were conscious of how they organised themselves and made decisions about it. Stone Age people could gather in thousands for meaningful portions of the year, building large structures of their own, and consciously shifted between smaller and larger groups with different forms of organisation at different times of year. Far from simple isolated bands, networks of culture formed across thousands of miles.

Agriculture didn’t force a development towards aristocracies, as many thinkers have claimed; and nor did the scale of cities require a loss of egalitarian organisation. At every point a range of possibilities were open, because people debated how to organise themselves. For millennia, people farmed in such a way as to deliberately prevent crops becoming fully domesticated; and once they were it didn’t force any particular mode of social organisation. Various ancient cities were ran by local assemblies for centuries at a time, running complex projects (irrigation, housing, etc) without kings – while the smaller groups in the hills turned towards monarchy. Some cities turned to rulers. Others overthrew them.

Graeber and Wengrow put aside the usual question of the ‘origin of inequality’, which they point out assumes in its framing a primordial Garden of Eden. Instead of asking ‘are we fundamentally good or bad?’, they look deeper to ask how we really function in light of the evidence, how we got here, and what new possibilities this all raises for our future. The course of history isn’t a set of inexorable stages, but one where human agency has always played a role (not, of course, the only one).

Where, then, did the story of stages come from? They trace it to the encounter between Native America and Europe, in which the indigenous critiques of Europe stimulated Enlightenment thought as well as a conservative backlash. This is the context in which Rousseau, Hobbes, and their contemporaries tackled the questions raised by the clash of culture and ideology, in which many European intellectuals came to conclude that equality was possible at a ‘lower stage of development’ but not in commercial or industrial society. The assumptions they made about the past on this basis are all wrong, so why assume they’re right about the future?

The tone of writing is informed yet informal, nicely wry – on ‘savagely violent’ Yanomami sharing beds, ‘This requires a degree of good-natured mutual accommodation of which few contemporary social theorists would be capable.’

I did get frustrated with the endnotes. Many could be better placed within the main text or as footnotes, because flipping back and forth gets tiring. The writers cover as much evidence as they plausibly can without the nature of the task making things ridiculous, but some minor points are brushed though a little suddenly. A stronger look at patriarchy is also missing, the conclusion’s look at warfare a bit quick.

The scale of the task here means they have to set limits somewhere – they can’t analyse every bone fragment in the world’s museums! – but they are very clear when they’re referring to fact, interpretation, or just a possibility to consider. As ‘radical’ a reimagining of history we might call this, the writers were also very sober with it. Wengrow mentions in his Foreword and dedication to the sadly late Graeber that they wanted to write sequels: ‘no less than three’. Heck.

Whatever happens with that, this book is certainly profound.

Book Reviews (22)

books 22

Civilisations – Laurent Binet trans. Sam Taylor

This alt-history in which the Incas invade Europe gave me big ups and downs, but overall was fun.

Rather than a straightforward novel, sections of the narrative take different formats: from Norse saga, journals, the Chronicles of Atahualpa, letters, and ending with a version of Cervantes.

The saga began a touch awkward, but held my attention and lay interesting pieces for later. Parts of Atahualpa’s story, the main chunk of narrative, were great. The lowest points for me were also there, though – more dry than they should be, with little sense of Atahualpa as a character, and contrived vocab (‘the black drink’ – wine; ‘talking cases’ – books) being distracting. But then it very much picked up again. The final Cervantes section, the most novel-like, was the easiest to read, written nicely and peppered with those fun changes to events. Someone more familiar with the original would take more from it too.

There’s not much attempt to really convince that ‘things would happen this way’: rather telling a story on its own terms, while laying on the themes of these clashing civilisations. We get it, Binet – the Inquisition was bad! Lol. But it’s entertaining to have things like Henry VIII threaten to convert to the Incan religion so he can marry Anne Boleyn without needing a divorce first.

While the events themselves might be a little contrived, the book expects some background understanding of the actual situation it’s contrasting – mostly reasonable, but sometimes rather a bit ‘here’s some latin and spanish, good luck!’

If you have any interest in the ‘what if?’ premise, it’s worth a read.

The Lights of Prague – Nicole Jarvis

In a historical Prague where lamplighters fight the various creatures of the night, humble lamplighter Domek and classy, brash pijavica (vampire) Ora cross backgrounds and species to save the city.

Really good. The Slavic mythology here is neat, dark yet grounded. The characters are engaging and empathetic, though I mostly found Ora more interesting to read about than Domek – she has a longer, bloodier backstory, naturally, and more internal conflict. The urban setting – genteel; run-down; dank sewers – comes through in sweeping skylines and as arenas for tense combat.

Jarvis pulls off miscommunication pretty well – because it’s grounded in her characters, not just two people being stupid with each other for the plot. It does take a little time for the conspiracies to get going, but the cast’s interactions and internal worlds provide much of the charm, which means the stakes are higher when the stakes do come out (sorry!).

A fresh vampire story.

The Majesties – Tiffany Tsao

(h/t Allie Writes)

Estella, daughter in a Chinese-Indonesian tycoon family, murdered 300 people with poison – her family, herself, and all the guests to a birthday dinner. Her sister Gwendolyn lies in a coma, the only survivor, reflecting on the past to figure out why.

It’d be easy for a story like this to go overboard with a stream-of-consciousness style. But Tsao weaves through time in straightforward narrative prose, pacing out clues and revelations through scenes of family drama and introspection alongside neat touches of imagery.

I’ve seen others say that there’s too much unbelievable stuff revealed. I don’t think so. Perhaps the bit when the driver reverses pushes it a little in an already tragic scene, and yeah, maybe there is a tinge of melodrama in here, but is it unbelievable that a wealthy family with links to a corrupt government could be, uh, bad? One thing that bugged me a touch (ha!) was the weirdness of Bagatelle, which felt out of place. There is ultimately a fair explanation for it at the end, albeit not a particularly original one.

The story itself is an engaging train-wreck to watch. While it treads some standard thriller ground, Tsao lifts it with the quality of narration, character, and (mostly show-not-tell) engagement with the specific socio-economic context.

Lowkey on Afghanistan

A strong overview of the failure of liberal intervention and the war on terror. “It’s great that the world is concerned for human rights in Afghanistan, but where have you been for the last 20 years?”

But Is It Good?

Bukowski smoking

About once a month, the regularly scheduled Discourse kicks up again about a rotating list of authors and how sus it is to like them. Right now, as I write this, it’s Bukowski. It has been, and will again be, David Foster Wallace or Chuck Palahniuk or Nabokov or…

I have no particular interest in defending Bukowski. I’ve never read the guy, I don’t feel much desire to right now, whatever. I’ve no skin in this one. I just find it a little pathetic that people will pick a writer from one of these lists, to say their work is bad because they’re bad people, and substitute meaningful literary criticism or the simple, honest ‘not my thing tbh’ for ‘this is bad because he’s bad and he should’ve gone to therapy’. People with decent social attitudes knee-jerking at problematic art like this isn’t much less silly than the conservative snowflakes freaking out about wokeness all the time.

(As an aside, I dislike ‘go to therapy’ as a casual retort, used as though therapy is a panacea for interpersonal issues and bigotries or equally accessible to everyone. It’s classic white middle-class feminism.)

None of this is important, really. None of what I’m saying hasn’t been said before.

But was Bukowski’s intent (whatever we think about the value of authorial intent) to model prosocial behaviour? When a fictional character is an asshole, is the writer obligated to clearly imply or outright state their disagreement with that character? Or should readers be trusted to apply their own moral judgment like grown adults, and take the quality of a piece of art as a separate, if potentially thornily linked, question from its moral stance?

I don’t care to read JK Rowling anymore, to a large extent due to her transphobia – but I can’t reasonably point to her behaviour on twitter as a reason the Galbraith books are bad as books, any more than her TERF fans can do the inverse. It’s fine to be put off by attitudes expressed in a book, or the author irl. I occasionally give small mentions to these things in my own reviews. But this says little about the work itself, and you can’t e.g. guarantee that someone who does read Bukowski is a misogynist themselves. It’s not exactly Mein Kampf folks, come on. He’s dead, so he isn’t getting royalties either.

It’s especially funny when the moral discourse around labelling a work or its maker as a red flag gets in the way of more interesting discussions about the social implications of the work. When people say Fight Club is a red flag because white guys like Tyler Durden and he’s horrible, they’re not talking about how the narrator’s chronic insomnia was improved by crying in therapy (even though the same people doing this are normally ‘go to therapy’ types) and it was his toxic masculinity which said ‘therapy is gay bro let’s fight and give ourselves chemical burns instead’. If someone is the kind of guy to unironically like Tyler Durden, and you center your complaint on the movie/book, you’re putting the cart before the horse. And maybe (I whisper) missing something you might like if you look from another angle, though it’s totally cool if you don’t.

When Joker came out so much of the discussion was like, ‘is it incel?’, ‘will someone shoot up the cinema?’, ‘[my identity] is poor too and we don’t shoot stockbrokers’. Whether or not it was entertaining as a dark dramatic comedy almost didn’t exist as a question.

I’d like to see more of that question, alongside the repetitive discourse. More: ‘but is it good?’

Book Reviews (21)

The Republic For Which It Stands – Richard White

Intimidatingly subtitled ‘The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896’, I wouldn’t have picked up this thicc tome but Matt Christman made it sound interesting.

Turns out the period is quite interesting. White’s perspective raises similarities and challenges to our current time, and not just for the US. A core point is the failure of liberalism to meet its promise of egalitarianism and opportunity in a society of independent producers, as the realities of industrial capitalism and wage labour held sway – a story we’re still living in.

Liberals had believed that laissez-faire, contract freedom, and competition would eliminate corruption, sustain independent production, and prevent the rise of the very rich and very poor. Contract freedom quickly revealed itself as a delusion when those negotiating contracts were so incommensurate in wealth and power.

Liberalism had been forged in opposition to a world of slavery, established religion, monarchy, and aristocracy, and the victory of liberals in that contest sealed their own doom.

White’s account is at its most interesting when he’s uncovering sweeping ideological/cultural narratives – the role of ‘home’, the courage and fate of natives in western expansion, the significant struggles of race and gender – and their connection to dramatic industrial unrest. The importance White places on the environmental crisis in growing industrial cities, and its close connection to all his other threads, is insightful.

Surprising and amusing anecdotes pepper the story, with recurring figures like William Dean Howells, Frances Willard, Frederick Douglass, etc, highlighting shifts over the years. I also liked his references to contemporary fiction – the way he views The Wizard of Oz in light of the period’s themes is brilliant.

Some of the denser financial and legislative wrangling had me flagging a little. White couldn’t have done much about that without taking from his impressive scholarship, but I still think certain segments could use a touch more condensing. It’s difficult to remember the details of bills and financial intricacies as well as White himself, and he sometimes refers back to a figure where a brief reminder of who they are would be helpful.

The Sword of Destiny – Andrzej Sapkowski trans. David French
Witcher #2

The first set of stories were enjoyable, this second set a step higher in quality. Geralt’s character is stronger and more consistent: mercenary but sensitive, conflicted, a relatable mess. The frame narrative is gone, with the stories themselves having a loose chronology. While I’m unqualified to really comment on translation, there weren’t any points, as were occasionally in the first book, where I was uncertain about it.

Yennefer plays a larger role, and seeing some of that terrible dynamic the pair have – yikes. There are points where she flips instantly from brittle rage to ‘I am smol bean uwu Geralt pwease’ that don’t feel real to me, but I’m interested in where this train wreck goes. Other new/returning characters I also want to see more of. No idea why anyone tolerates Dandelion’s crap, frankly. Rapey, loudmouth, parasitic prick. Hope Yennefer immolates him at some point lol.

Which brings me to the main things that pull me out a bit: Geralt continually running into some of the same people while riding all over the place, and some anachronistic-feeling language. Cellular memory? Really? And I found the combat scenes less crisply portrayed than the first book for some reason – they’re fine, but I didn’t get the same clear sense of motion.

Yeah, looking forward to the novels.

#

Special mention: Disco Elysium – ZA/UM

A game, not a book, but it’s a text-heavy experience (with stellar voice acting) and one that beats a lot of books. In this detective RPG you explore the city of Revachol 50 years after a defeated revolution, investigating the murder of a man hanged behind the hostel you’re staying in. The case itself is engaging, but it’s the other things that truly sell this.

Your partner on the case, Kim Kitsuragi, is a fantastic character. Straightman to your amnesiac drunkard (who, depending on your build and choices, could be trying to pull himself together, ranting about a coming apocalypse, doing speed…), Kim’s personality shines in small gestures and things you can uncover in the extensive, well-crafted dialogue.

Your character’s skills embody different components of your psyche, talking to you and each other with unique voices and perspectives. They can be a major help or – particularly when failing a skillcheck, which can have hilarious results – massive hindrances. ‘Encyclopedia’ gives you helpful information, but if it’s too high you risk boring people and getting sidetracked by trivia. ‘Electrochemistry’ helps you understand the seedier side of Revachol – e.g. discerning what drug a character is on – but also yells at you to lick a rum stain. If you regularly take certain options in dialogue, or encounter certain prompts, you can be invited to ‘internalise’ a thought in your ‘thought cabinet’, further shaping your character and the things you can say and do.

The worldbuilding is great – from the geopolitical situation of Revachol, in the hands of the Coalition which defeated the Revachol Commune; to the more out-there things like Innocences and the Pale. The lead dev wrote a book set in this world which I hope gets into English eventually, because Elysium has cool ideas.

I’ve seen people complain that it’s communist propaganda. I really don’t see it. While I lean hard to port politically myself, I wouldn’t enjoy propaganda just from agreement. People who say this either missed a lot of dialogue, missed the jokes, or are triggered by left-wing views getting airtime. Internalising ‘Mazovian socio-economics’ lowers your authority score. A communist character you can meet talks movingly about how the Coalition forces blitzed all his friends in the name of capital, but he’s also a bitter tankie who thinks everything is bourgeois and everyone is a ‘pederast’. Disco Elysium treats itself and its left politics with a wry touch.

Funny, smart, emotive – my only real complaint is some quests need alternate routes. Great game, especially if you like reading stuff.

Plantsing: Some Pointers

blackboard

It’s often said that there are two styles of writing a book – ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’. Or, per GRRM:

The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.

In practice there’s going to be a bit of both, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the practical advice out there is aimed for heavy plotting. So, here are some points on how I give myself structure while leaning largely to a ‘gardening’ approach. If you’ve tried strict plotting and found it restrictive, but totally going by the seat of your pants would leave you lost, this might help you find your own process.

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Seed

You’ve got some ideas milling around. Sit with them for a bit and figure out which parts can fit together for you to take further, and which you’re going to drop for now. Which still interest you a week or two later? You want to have something you think you can work with over a few hundred pages, but also not overdo it. One cohesive set is better than a jumble of good ideas which differ in style.

Worldbuilding, setting, character

In itself these are big topics! As it comes to plantsing, what you’re doing here is giving yourself a foundation to write the opening of the story and get some thoughts on where it can go. For example, I’ll start a map as an empty square with the first area noted somewhere, adding other places and geographical features as I mention them and characters move around during the writing. (This map is never fancy, just so I don’t get lost and screw up directions.)

Not knowing everything that will happen at the outset means you’ll be adding new characters, aspects to the setting, and points of worldbuilding as they occur to you and play their roles in the story. These have to fit with what you’ve already got. Keep notes, so later on you can make it seem they were always there from the start.

Plot checkpoints

Once you have that foundation, you can form loose ideas on the plot. This might be very brief notes on potential endings and some major/interesting events along the way. Leave room to add, remove, and change the order of them as you actually write.

The overarching structure isn’t a concern yet. You’re just getting a sense of the first chapters, and a rough direction to head in from there, such as a climax for the first quarter or so. This will give you enough to get started.

Beginning

Start writing!

Reaching checkpoints

You knew a reasonable amount about the world and the characters you started with, but the first chapter let you see this in action. As you become familiar with these people and the circumstances which shape them, the logic of the world itself and the motivations of the characters will take on their own inertia. In response to given circumstances, a given character will want to take certain actions.

Some of the checkpoints you thought up earlier won’t end up fitting in, while others will present themselves. Your task is to guide the characters into a natural sequence of events, finding a harmony between ‘what would they do?’ and ‘what would be good fiction?’. Create circumstances which your characters will respond to in such a way that it leads them into the next circumstances.

Now you can consider structure as you go: keep an eye out for pacing, so that each quarter or so of the novel can have a balance of action and reflection. It’s helpful to keep brief notes on what happens in each chapter, so you have an overview of the plot to check as you go, and to use when editing and writing the synopsis.

Bear your unfired Chekhov’s guns and loose ends in mind. Did you set something up, start a subplot? If you’re ever lacking a place to go, you could draw on those.

Ending

You’ll reach a point where you know exactly what will happen in the ending and how to get there. It’s easy from there. Little things to watch for are letting the pace get more hectic than is actually good because you’re rushing to an exciting scene, and not having enough after the climax to let things breathe and tie up loose ends.

Weeding

Editing is another big topic in its own right. Likely considerations for a plantsed novel include situations where you added something on the fly and haven’t yet integrated it back from the beginning.

For example, you could go back and foreshadow events. Or if you came up with a plot-critical bit of worldbuilding in chapter 32, did you introduce it with an exposition dump to get it out and keep writing? Now you can refine that. Is there a more natural way to convey it, and is it missing from earlier scenes in retrospect?

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Hopefully this gives you some ideas on how to approach a novel with a loose, lightweight approach to planning. Good luck!