Monday, November 24, 2014

[Book Review] Spellwright

Spellwright / Blake Chalton (Powell's Books)

Nicodemus Weal was once thought to be the prophesied Halycon, a powerful spellwright essential to mankind in the apocalypse known as the Disjunction.  But while Nicodemus can read and power magical text, his touch disorders runes and his his prose is inevitably misspelled.  Considered crippled, but still literate, he lives among wizards as still an apprentice.  Then a wizard is murdered with a powerful misspell, inflating the fear and distrust of cacographers such as Nicodemus, and his life is caught up in the machinations of factions wanting Nicodemus as their prophesied tool.

One thing I absolutely love about Spellwright is the concept of how dyslexia would affect a magic user.  Charlton executes this idea fantastically, along with some very clever wordplay.  This is the first book in a trilogy, and reads as such.  It tells a full story arc, and introduces us to the world, setting, and characters, but you can tell that there is more story to come.

Nicodemus is refered to as a ''cacographer'' - a wizard, or spellwright, who cannot spell.  Cacography is defined as 'bad spelling,' giving the source of the name given to Nicodemus' disability.  In the story Charlton explores what it means to be defined by your disability, as well as how one affects the life of a protagonist.  I have yet to encounter another fantasy novel that does anything close to what he has done with this book.

The magical system and the active inclusion of a disabled protagonist are the main reasons I picked Spellwright for the October Virtual Speculation read.  It is a book I enjoy reading, but not one in which the prose stands out to me quite on the same level as many of the other titles picked for this year.  But I like the exploration of ideas and the creation of a great dyslexic protagonist.

Discussion Fodder:
  • This book is filled with plays on words, but rarely in a playful or comedic manner.  Puns are "joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word."  The opening of the story has a grammarian literally chocking to death on her own words, unable to speak due to censoring.  Words can be sharp, magic is spelled.  What happens with wordplay turns serious?  How does it affect your processing of the text?
  • Ostensibly, Spellwright is about dyslexia.  Could it also apply to other diagnoses?  What about Devin and John, who are considered cacographers but who's spellwriting is effected by more than just the ordering of letters?
  • The higher magical languages are constructed with complicated runes, but we do get a glimpse of simpler languages such as Jejunus.  The syntax of Jejunus is that of command line instructions, parsing input and instruction.  Is the similarities in this magical system to computer programming languages unique or something common across magic systems?
  • One of the antagonists appears as a golem, a creature considered fictional in the setting of this story.  Do you think that golems make sense as a creature of fantasy or should they be a familiar creation in a world where magic words are so literal?  Is the place of a golem in a story reliant on the existence of gods?
  • Nicodemus talks about use of language, "I was thinking more that such language encourages you to stop thinking about the news and start thinking about me, which would have helped focus you on the lecture material.  Regardless, you must start thinking about such things now; if you are to become wizards, you must question how language is trying to manipulate you.  What is it pushing you to assume?  How is it distracting you?"  How do you evaluate the use of language around you, in conversation, in debate, in advertisements, in article headings?
  • Nicodemus hopes to be complete, to not be a "true" cacographer.  Shannon argues that even if his cacography is erased, it would not change anything.  Is one right or wrong, are both?
  • When Nicodemus touches magical text he corrupts it, misspells it. He can do this consciously or unconsciously, such as when walking through a hidden ward or elevating the consciousness of a gargoyle.  Is his cacography his greatest strength, or in fact, the liability everyone says it is?
  • Are, as Fellwroth claims, all prophesies false?  There are so many conflicting prophesies about the Disjunction.  Of the Halycon,  Peregrine, Oriflamme, a savior, a destroyer, or both.  Is it the prophecy or the translation?  How does context and personal framework effect the the art of prediction?
  • Language Prime consists of four characters, and makes up living things.  Is Language Prime DNA, or merely a similar structure?  How does Language Prime interact with ailments, such as the cankers and tumors caused by Fellwroth or the misspellings of a Language Prime spellwright?
  • Los, the first demon, was not always as such.  Is his story similar to the fall of Lucifer?  Are there other elements of biblical storylines in Spellwright?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

[Book Review] Witch Lights

Witch Lights / Michael M. Hughes

In the fallout of the Blackwater incident, Ellen and her son, William, are presumed dead, with Ray as the prime suspect for their deaths in addition to the fallen cultists.  In return for their help in the Blackwater incident, and in hope of harnessing Ray's abilities for themselves, the Brotherhood is helping shelter the trio in South America.  They have more to fear than just discovery and extradition to the United States.  Lily, with her financial and occult power, is on the hunt.

But there are other players in this game.  Mantu, their protector since Blackwater, has grown uneasy with the changes in the Brotherhood's leaders.  And Ellen attracts the eye of a very powerful drug lord who offers protection from Lily, but is less than human or benign himself.

Witch Lights follows on the heels of Blackwater Lights, and suffers from the all too common middle book slump.  There is threat, tension, danger, and secrets, but the entire book failed to deliver the same narrative punch of it's precursor.  It very much reads as a set up for the thrilling conclusion of the trilogy, but I'm not sure if Witch Lights leaves me wanting to finish after it's failure to live up to Blackwater Lights.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Friday, November 7, 2014

[Book Review] Blackwater Lights

Blackwater Lights / Michael M. Hughes

Ray Simon has no interest in returning to Blackwater, West Virginia, a small town connected to a part of his childhood that people say doesn't exist, and that he'd rather not remember.  But when a desperate call from a friend and fellow survivor brings Ray back to Blackwater, memories and secrets start surfacing.  Secrets that threaten the life and sanity of Ray and of those he befriend in town.

While I'm not sure if Blackwater Lights pulls from the C'thulhu mythos directly, the story embodies the consuming desperation, confusion, and dark madness of the mythos in a contemporary thriller setting.  An engaging, twisted read.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

[Book Review] Dark Triumph

Dark Triumph (His Fair Assassin #2) / Robin LeFevers (Powell's Books)
Sybella arrives at the convent’s doorstep half mad with grief and despair. Those that serve Death are only too happy to offer her refuge—but at a price. The convent views Sybella, naturally skilled in the arts of both death and seduction, as one of their most dangerous weapons. But those assassin's skills are little comfort when the convent returns her to a life that nearly drove her mad. And while Sybella is a weapon of justice wrought by the god of Death himself, He must give her a reason to live. When she discovers an unexpected ally imprisoned in the dungeons, will a daughter of Death find something other than vengeance to live for?
Earlier this week I reviewed Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin #1), and was left with the general feeling of while it wasn't a bad book it wasn't what I wanted.  Dark Triumph made up for my disappointment.  I was far more engaged as a reader and less inclined to put the book down while reading it.

In Grave Mercy all we learn of Sybella is that she is (at least) half crazy and impetuous.  Dark Triumph takes a damaged killer and turns her into a person.  It turns out while I'm not crazy about Ismae as a protagonist, she makes for a very good supporting character.

Sybella has good reason for her anger and thirst for revenge, suffering greatly at the hands of those who should have protected her.  LaFevers does a very good job of handling some very dark content in Sybella's life without making it gratuitous.

A very strong second novel.  I would recommend reading the first book for context and continuity.  I am curious about the third.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

[Book Review] Accelerando

Accelerando / Charles Stross (Powell's Books)

Manfred Macx lives on the cutting edge of future thought, and the future is coming at us whether we want it or not.  The whole concept of humanity and sentience is changing. A singularity of human existence.  Only as we become the aliens we learn there may be something else out there, and it might not have our best interests in mind.  Accelerando is a multi-generational story of post-singularity humanity and evolution.

Accelerando was the July (yes, I know, it's November, this has been a difficult few months) pick for Virtual Speculation.  I find Charles Stross' Science Fiction intelligent, witty, and fascinating, with the added bonus of the author's strong information technology knowledge set.  His near future (or alternative current day) science fiction explores the what-ifs of technology and culture.

The book is curious and quirky.  An idea seeded from the experiences working in IT during the late 90's.  The what-if of a future technology bubble, shifting cultures and paradigms.

In addition to finding a copy at your local library or bookstore, Stross has made the book available as a free ebook:

Discussion fodder:
  • Manfred patents concepts and permutations of concepts, an activity that raises alarm and derision when a corporation attempts (such as patenting page turn animation, one-click purchasing, etc).  Is it merely his lack of greed or interest in accumulating property that prevents him from being a threat?  Or is this only a point of view (imagining trying to run a for-profit company with proprietary intellectual property)?  What do you think of Manfred's patent milling?  Is it ethical?
  • Technology is not the only thing evolving throughout Accelerando, but sexuality, sexual expression, norms, and morays as well.  The sex of Manfred's day is undeniably kinky, congress grown out of a fear of disease and biological contamination, "This generation is happy with latex and leather, whips and butt plugs and electrostim, but finds the idea of exchanging bodily fluids shocking: a social side effect of the last century's antibiotic abuse."  Looking at historical shifts in eroticism in the face of times of high infection risk (particularly towards feet) as well as the ease at which the Internet helps explore and expose 'deviant' sexualities, how far fetched do you find the direction in which sexuality takes in this book?
  • What do you think about the arguments about treating uploaded AIs as sentient human equivalent regardless of source material?
  • Manfred effectively loses his sense of identity when his goggles are stolen, his personal cloud storage for his memory.  What sort of risks to identity, memory, and personality do we face as we as technology becomes a more integral part of the human experience and who we are?  Can identity be outsourced?  How does external storage of memories leave us vulnerable?
  • Technology remakes our lives, how does it remake religion?  How does ability to upload and download your personality, to fork your existence change concepts of morality, right and wrong, sin, redemption, heaven and hell?
"The Church of Latter-Day Saints believes that you can't get into the Promised Land unless it's baptized you - it can do so if it knows your name and parentage, even after you're dead. Its genealogical databases are among the most impressive artifacts of historical research ever prepared. And it likes to make converts.
The Franklin Collective believes that you can't get into the future unless it's digitized your neural state vector, or at least acquired as complete a snapshot of your sensory inputs and genome as current technolgoy permits. You don't need to be alive for it to do this. Its society of mind is among the most impressive artifacts of computer science. And it likes to make converts."
  • Was Aineko sentient before the alien transmission?  Do you think the transmission had anything to do with her developing sentience?  They say that she wasn't "conscious" then, but what switched her to sentient.
  • One of the recurring discussions in the novel is when exactly the singularity happened.  Some argue that it has yet to happen, even in a world of uploaded existence, borg virtual intelligence, matrioska brains, dyson spheres, and quantum thought.  Others argue that it occurred in 1969 when the first network control protocol packets were went.  What are your thoughts on the concept of the singularity?  A moment of yet-to-be reached machine intelligence, an event that has already occurred, a merging of man and machine, or something else entirely?
  • Economic and political theory are often intertwined, but are still distinct concepts.  In the social and technological evolution in Accelerando they have become reinvented and in some cases merged.  What happens when your personality becomes capital?  What do you think would happen in a truly virtual economy, one with native digital lifeforms?  What about a culture in which a multiple-personalities is not a disorder but a matter of daily life among your own forked personalities and freedom from set physical form?  What makes something valuable as currency?
  • How is age counted, life quantified, when your childhood can be reset and repeated?  What does it mean when you can fork your personality and explore multiple futures before merging into a single "person" again.  What does this do to the concept of a person?
  • Is failing to grow old 'immoral', as Pamela says?
  • Who's story is Accelerando?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

[Book Review] Grave Mercy

Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin #1) / Robin LaFevers (Powell's Books)
Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?
I might have liked this book more were I not inadvertently comparing it to Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey.  The teaser text indicates political intrigue and romance, and while Ismae may not be a god-touched courtesan, she is a god-touched assassain, and both Phedre and Ismae are trained in the arts of subterfuge, spying, and seduction.  The plots have some similarities as well, though to give LaFevers credit, the main political events are based on events in history she researched.  It just happens that a young female regent beset by suitors, traitors among her inner circle, and at risk of war with invaders makes for a good plot concept.

The point of all this is to admit that my feelings towards the book are unfortunately biased, and I'm not sure if I am properly compensating for this bias.

I wanted more out of the book.  More excitement, more capturing of my attention.  This is a book about a god-touched assassin in a cesspit of intrigue and betrayal.  And, in theory, a good dosage of lust (for power, sex, or other).  Ismae sort of floats through the events.

It's hard to write a 13 year-old duchess well.  I liked Anne, but her age never registered to me until the end when they talk about her wedding.  The characters seemed to be in three nebulous age groups.  "Older" - particularly encompassing the slovenly and power-hungry suitors; "Adult" - we'll say late teens through mid 20's, but they all read as about the same age, even when they were in fact a 13 year old duchess; and "Child."  That being said, we are talking about a society when young teens were expected to act as adults.

Grave Mercy does one thing well.  It does not treat the reader like an idiot just because the intended audience are teens.  It actually reads as a respectable historical fantasy with a tone appropriate to teens, though I suppose any amount of sex will make some parents uncomfortable.

Kirkus does speak favorably of this book, describing it as a "page turner - with grace."

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

EDIT: Review for book 2, Dark Triumph  now up

Link Smorgasbord, October 2014

After Some Victories, the Time Has Come to Legally Define ‘Fair Use’
About libraries, lending, fair use, and the wonderful world of "try it and hope you don't get sued" in testing the realm of fair use.

Adobe, Privacy and the Big Yellow Taxi
Good read on privacy, ebooks, and the displeasing data situation with Adobe.

Librarians Are Dedicated to User Privacy. The Tech They Have to Use Is Not.
The title nails it.  It's one of the thing that drives myself (and many of my professional colleagues) crazy.  But we're trying to find ways to address it.

Isaac Asimov Asks, “How Do People Get New Ideas?”
Neat read

3 Ridiculous Misconceptions About Dating a Librarian
Actually, buying me book is a pretty safe bet... if I don't already own it.

Terms of Service : understanding our role in the world of Big Data
A great graphic novel exploration of privacy and data collection.