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.

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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!

The Complexity Trap

In discussions around recent events in Israel/Palestine, as with the issue generally, there’s a common narrative about complexity. The situation is complex, nuanced, ‘both sides’… blah blah blah.

The history of the region certainly is complex (although I imagine every region is complex when you look into it). This, however, is the only area where we’re always reminded it’s so complex we can’t take a firm position. China has a rich history spanning millennia, and that’s never used as a reason to shut up and step back on commenting about the Uyghurs, is it? I’ve never seen anyone appealing to the complexity of the Middle East go on to outline any of it – to actually provide any of that nuanced context which we need before we can dare to conclude anything.

This appeal to information isn’t being used to clarify anything. Or explain anything. It’s instead an anti-information. There’s no suggestion of ‘here is the specific knowledge you lack, which could clarify this’, as would be expected in a normal discussion. Instead, it’s a bizarre claim that the whole thing is basically unknowable.

As James Butler put it:

[Edward] Said argues that Western writers frequently mystify the ME by suggesting its politics are so arcane, conducted among people so alien and different from us, only a tiny group of professional experts can possibly comprehend them at all. It is a means of political demobilisation.

As Michael Brooks explained so well, the situation is not very complex at all. The reality of the asymmetry between Israel and Palestine is so blunt that it’s laughable (and rather sick) to pretend otherwise. One side is an ethnostate doing settler-colonialism with advanced military hardware, backed by the most powerful states on Earth, and just attacked Al Aqsa during Ramadan. The other is an occupied people, with the right to armed resistance, using glorified fireworks which have a kill rate well below 1%.

What in the history of the region justifies the time white phosphorus was used? Eh? Grow up. I don’t know the history going back centuries. I can’t list the top ten exports or name all the political factions. I don’t need to know all that to see things that are blindingly obvious. That most of the people harping on complexity don’t know that stuff either, but simply don’t want their comfortable fence-sitting disturbed. That attacking places of worship is wrong. That if any of us lived in Gaza, we wouldn’t want to accept the abuse.

It’s impossible to make a reasonable argument that Israel is acting in a way we would ever accept if it was done to us. People are hesitant to even try, which is why they resort to hand-wringing about complexity instead. There’s nothing behind it. There’s no knowledge hiding there, only deliberate ignorance. Don’t let this foolish trap blind your moral clarity.

Heist

Marco barged into the cold room with an unconscious man over his shoulder.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ Helena shrieked, locking the door. ‘What have you done this time? This was meant -’

Relax,’ Marco said, laying the man down as he swept back his thick black hair. ‘He’ll be fine. I got him from behind anyway.’

‘Why did you bring him in here, fledgling?’ Ambrose said, weary. He stepped away from one of the cabinets and felt the man’s wrist. Ambrose’s breathing hitched ever so slightly. Marco caught his eye with a wan grin. ‘Take him out. Now.’

Helena yelped.

‘I meant drag him outside,’ Ambrose said.

Marco chuckled, bending to retrieve his cargo. ‘He was just by the door… force of habit.’ The man’s eyelids fluttered open as his head left the floor. He scrambled in a wild dash for the door, caught by Ambrose in a deft, fluid motion.

‘Too late,’ Helena said.

‘Who- what is this?’ the struggling man said. ‘You want the drugs? I have keys, just -’

‘Still yourself, sir,’ Ambrose said, one arm securing him in a strong, expert grip. ‘We mean no harm. Let us conclude our business and be on our way.’ They heard a faint beeping from elsewhere in the hospital as the captive orderly’s panting settled, going limp. Ambrose pushed him away from the door.

‘Where’s Claire?’ Helena said suddenly. ‘We’ve only got an hour. She should be here by now.’

‘That’s plenty of time,’ Marco said.

No names,’ Ambrose hissed.

‘What’s the matter?’ Marco said. ‘He won’t remember.’

‘Whoa, hold on…’ the man said, fists shaking a little in a fighting stance.

‘And now you’ve dismayed him again,’ Ambrose said. He read the orderly’s name tag. ‘Jack, sir. There’s no need to be afraid.’

‘Oh, isn’t there! Taken hostage by – by you freaks. Costumed freaks.’

‘These are just jeans,’ Helena said. ‘From Primark. And there’s no need to be rude.’

‘It’s Ambrose who likes the 18th Century shtick. Reminds him of the good old days,’ Marco said.

‘This jacket is barely even formal,’ Ambrose said.

‘For you, old man.’

‘Old man… this game you’re playing is fucking ridiculous,’ Jack said.

‘You keep thinking that,’ Helena said. ‘As soon as Claire’s here I’m gone. I need a drink.’

A ceiling tile slid aside and Claire dropped from above, landing quietly with a whirl of hair. ‘Pity’s sake, Marco,’ she said at the sight of Jack.

‘Because you were so sensible?’ Marco complained. ‘Where the hell have you been, dropping from the ceiling like… like it’s a damn film or something.’

‘I didn’t get seen. In and out like a ghost if you hadn’t screwed it up,’ Claire said, sweeping to one of the chilled cabinets which filled the room and opening the door. Refrigerated air wafted in her face, a hum deepening as the cabinet kept its contents cool. Claire’s nostrils flared. ‘Ah. Look at all this.’

‘That’s what you’re here for, then,’ the orderly said as Ambrose passed Claire an empty backpack. ‘Look, this has gone much too far. This game you’re playing… people need that. It’s very important. Fine, have an alternative lifestyle, LARP, but -’

Jack trailed off as Claire picked out a chilled pack of AB+, opened it with her teeth, and drank it dry.

‘You’ll get more,’ Ambrose said softly. ‘This is better for all of us than the alternative.’

Claire turned to Jack, skin alabaster, eyes dark. Thirsty. She licked a pointed canine. ‘Ambrose, please deal with him and let’s finish here. Dawn’s soon.’

Ambrose grabbed Jack’s head in both hands, their faces close. Jack struggled for a few moments then went slack. ‘You fell and hit your head,’ Ambrose said, while the others stocked backpacks with blood. ‘Nothing unusual happened here tonight.’

‘Yes, master,’ Jack murmured.

‘That really isn’t necessary,’ Ambrose muttered, lowering the dazed orderly’s head to the floor.

‘Maybe they wouldn’t say that if you stopped dressing like an aristocrat,’ Marco said, wiping blood from his mouth with one hand and flicking Ambrose’s high collar with the other. ‘When are you teaching us that, anyway?’

‘When I can trust you to be less foolish with it,’ Ambrose grumbled, unlocking the door to the blood bank.

‘You sired us, remember?’ Helena said.

‘Time was, our kind were more discerning,’ he said, leading the way out. ‘Years of service to earn our gift. Now I have fledglings barely following the basic codes of the masquerade.’

‘And who got your email set up?’ Helena added.

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Jack woke, rubbing his head, just as someone else barged into the blood bank. The man offered Jack a hand, his coat moving aside to reveal a shaft of dark wood strapped to his belt. ‘What happened here?’

‘I must’ve fell and hit my head. Say, you’re not supposed to be here.’

‘My mistake, took a wrong turn. Get that bang looked at, eh?’

‘Think I’m alright now. Need directions?’

‘That’s alright,’ the stranger said, not bothering to ask any more. He glanced at the cameras as he left, but knew they wouldn’t be much help catching the things responsible for another unconventional heist.

Book Reviews (20)

The People’s Republic of Walmart – Leigh Phillips & Michal Rozworski

An excellent, readable work advancing a modern socialist response to the economic calculation debate.

One of the better capitalist arguments is that only the market and its price signals can marshal production and exchange on a large scale – that the level of information needed makes planning impossible. Phillips and Rozworski summarise some of the key points and responses in layman’s terms, advancing their own core thread – that much of the world’s economic activity already is planned, that taking place within firms; especially giants like Walmart. In fact, firms which try to introduce internal markets, competition, and price signals tend to crash and burn, as in the case of Sears after a Randian took over.

Given that planning empirically works on large scales, the question broadens to one of democratising planning, and using big data effectively and responsibly. The authors consider both capitalist firms and the USSR as authoritarian in different ways, in their discussion of the latter asserting that one of the reasons planning struggled was the authoritarianism of the society. Contra common arguments that planning inevitably produces shortages which are responded to with state suppression, they suggest that Stalinism undermined planning by inhibiting proper flows of information. If the reports of farmers are ignored in favour of top-down dictats and factory managers fear being shot if they admit problems, planners won’t have decent data and the economy will falter.

They recount Allende’s CyberSyn as an inspiring early attempt at a more democratic planning – with limited computing technology, Chile’s government was nevertheless able to co-ordinate around a CIA-sponsored strike using a balance of bottom-up and centrally guided organising. (Of course, nobody who responds to the mildest of socialist ideas by screeching about gulags is ever heard lamenting the brutality of Pinochet.)

It’s an intriguing piece of work, discussing the economic and historical debate in a more interesting, insightful manner than the off-the-shelf slogans you’ll hear anywhere else.

The Well of Ascension – Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn #2

I’ve seen two cons mentioned for book two – that it’s a bit slow, and that the original crewmembers aren’t there much.

It’s true that the pace isn’t as intense and twist-filled for much of it. However, the character work is even better as the cast adjusts to a new situation and its challenges. Ham, Dox, etc are less in focus than last time – but they’re still there quite a bit, and show more of themselves in their new context with Sanderson’s great dialogue and plotting.

New characters and some old ones come to the fore – aside from the obviously interesting Vin, the kandra perspective is fresh, Sazed is Sazed but even more, and Elend becoming less of a drip is a key point. Zane is repetitive, though. Action is still crisp and dynamic, particularly as the pace does pick up. The ending is less rushed than The Final Empire and just as staggering.

Some world building points do feel slightly thrown in by surprise, and finding another document lost for over a thousands years is a touch cheap (though admittedly, it’s hard to imagine an alternative given the situation). Duralumin is cool.

Venus in the Blind Spot – Junji Ito

A selection from horror manga artist Junji Ito. The phrase that comes to mind is ‘mixed bag’.

The best pieces carry plenty of dread and creepy imagery – Billions Alone, the title story, The Enigma of Amigara Fault, Keepsake. Billions Alone’s loner character is the most compelling in the collection, Amigara Fault pulls off a foreboding compulsion with a body-horror payoff that builds as you think about it, the title story has a particularly unique hook.

Weaker pieces are still interesting but a little abrupt, weird for the sake of it. There’s Lovecraftian-incomprehensible, there’s twists and foreshadowing, then there’s just ‘doesn’t make sense’. Master Umezz and Me shouldn’t be here: this fanboy piece about how Ito read Kazuo Umezz growing up is an abrupt shift in topic and tone, and the art style comes off goofy with a light-hearted subject.

I get the impression that his longer work would probably build on the strengths the best pieces here show, with time to dig into some characters more and build up that unease. Some of his shorter work struggles in those areas, while others succeed.

Patriotism: Enemy Terrain

Starmer shagging a flag
Dave Brown, Independent

Keir Starmer’s consultants have suggested a focus on ‘flag’ and ‘patriotism’. It’s not just the left criticizing Keith’s focus-group gestures – the commentariat is also recognising how lacking in ideas he is.

The sycophants have a ready answer: Labour has to seem patriotic to win, everyone thought Corbyn hates Britain, ordinary people like the flag, etc, etc. This is beside the point. The trouble is how empty of content this is. This flag-shagging is nothing but a gesture on terrain thoroughly owned by the right.

That doesn’t mean the left shouldn’t make any forays on this terrain. Matt Widdowson’s thoughtful article on socialist patriotism argues the need to articulate ‘a genuine love of our country and its people — in opposition to the militarism and imperialism’. I’m still personally uncomfortable with British patriotism while we leach off the third world and so forth, but I can see the need of the narrative in electoral strategy.

The trouble is that nobody I’m aware of has ever came closer to articulating this positive vision than Jeremy Corbyn, and he was lambasted as a Britain-hating nutter despite being a mild socdem. The whole territory of patriotism is occupied by rabid Tory nationalism.

Caring about the nation’s poor – unpatriotic. Wanting our services properly run in-house – unpatriotic. Wanting out of the middle east – unpatriotic. Why? Because he thought people in other countries were also human, dislikes the Empire, etc. Corbyn wasn’t a nationalist, which is why everyone got convinced he wasn’t a patriot. The Tories sell all our stuff off to the lowest bidder and treat our people like shit, but they’re ‘patriotic’ because they love poppies and bombs.

Attempts to articulate progressive patriotism in some form will contradict the nationalist poison inherent in the mainstream view of what patriotism means, and thus be branded Britain-hating. Attempts to hang on the coattails of the symbols will be seen as the empty focus-group tripe it is. Why would flag-shaggers go for fake flag-shaggers when Boris is right there, rutting the thing with wild abandon?

The whole thing is hard, and Keith doesn’t get it. I don’t have an easy answer either. The right has overseen over 100,000 Covid deaths and, before that, similar numbers through austerity. They’re still polling around 40%.

Voters this brainwashed will not go for a watered-down version of revanchist nationalism when the real thing is available. It’s possible to articulate a progressive patriotism, but trying to win the right’s culture war by hanging on the flag’s coattails is a fools’ errand.

Why not go for the people who are reachable, with a meaningful platform to address their material circumstances? The thing that could’ve won in 2017, if it weren’t for backstabbing centrists? By all means have a flag in the background of that speech – but still expect the usual suspects to rant about you hating white people.

Someone will be pissed off regardless, but trying to offend nobody won’t inspire anybody.