Currently Reading

If I Was Your Girl

There has been plenty of time for reading lately, but not for writing—all of that is for school stuff.

Finishing In Code reminded me that I actually have a few hard-copy maths books lying around that I should reread—or read for the first time!—including some more stuff on prime numbers. What I did read though turned out to be extremely helpful (as intended) for the start of the cryptography paper I’m currently taking.

I returned to ebooks, however, and started Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. This book took a really long time to grab my interest, and I might have dropped it entirely if it wasn’t for a rather miserable powercut that left me without much else to do. Backlights are great, let me tell you. After about 30% or so I was hooked into, if nothing else, all the trials and tribulations of the elder Miss Dashwood, and finished the rest in quick order.

The next book I picked up was Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente. This is a novel about Russian folklore (and Communism), which is a problem because I didn’t get any of the references. It was really enjoyable, however, though it’s a shame that many of the secondary characters weren’t very, ah, persisting. The rule-of-threes parts were also a nice touch.

Following this I went back to Austen, and read Mansfield Park. This was a much more gripping read, if only because Miss Price made for a very compelling main character (at least for me). I liked it all the way to the end, but unfortunately I’m not a huge fan of the end of this one, for reasons.

The book I’m currently reading is If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, a young adult novel set in the American South following a trans girl who is trying to be stealth in a new highschool in a new town. I don’t normally read YA, partially because I spent my teens thinking I was too good for the genre (among other things, and for that matter among other genres), and partially because they tend to be a bit too real—and that’s not what I usually read for!

Given the latter, this wasn’t the greatest choice to start with. In particular I’ve kind of been waiting for everything to go south for Amanda, the protagonist. It hasn’t yet, but I am concerned. Regardless, I need to read some more books like this.

Or maybe write one?

No, I definitely don’t have the time for that.

Currently Reading

In Code

I should have mentioned that I was right at the end of Pride and Prejudice when I wrote the last one, and therefore I only had to read on for another minute or so for what I talked about to be discussed in fiction. Oops—but oh well.

The next book I picked up was another of the women’s sci-fi and fantasy bundle: The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. I try to not go into too much depth, but while I enjoyed the book I found a few things bothered me.

The premise of the book is a country ruled by an aristocracy with minor magical powers. Said aristocracy is rather incestuous, but our main character (the daughter of the king, but out of the line of succession for Reasons) is the product of probably the first non-incestuous relationship they have seen in quite some time—and also does not appear to have any magic, and is generally picked on by everyone. This in fact occurs to ridiculous levels, with Mr Second-in-Line (a jerk) managing to, in picking on her, insult First-in-Line and Current-Incumbent, both of who were present and who were also about the only people who liked our protagonist. Despite this he had no hesitation and suffered no obvious consequences.

Understandably, given such apparently weak leadership, a rebellion occurs during the course of the story. I wont mention details, but it seems to me that actually, no, leaving a dragon ravaging your lands behind you while you go off and deal with that is the wrong way to go about this. Especially when your daughter has gotten quite good at hunting at least smaller dragons, and if you gave her the resources to kill this one you could then swing around and say “we killed a huge dragon from the before times, what have you done for the place lately?”

With that in mind I feel what should have happened was a some kind of peasant revolt, based on the observation of how they treat the princess—“if that’s how they treat one of their own who doesn’t have magic powers, what do they think of us?” Instead it turned into the classic people-with-greater-powers-exhibit-them-later situation. Long story spoilt, she obtains accidental immortality, saves the kingdom, and then marries the First-in-Line (who is her cousin, I should point out) but institutes a kind of William-and-Mary dual monarch arrangement. This seems like a problem because she was planning to, after he died, go and leave the kingdom behind to hang out with the other guy in her life, another immortal. Presumably she intends to abdicate?

Anyway, I really did like reading the book despite all that—I think it was a prequel for a book I don’t have, which might explain things. The next book I picked up was one I’ve already read and which I had intended to pick up again a week earlier: In Code by Sarah Flannery (and her father David). This is an autobiography (of a teenager), which is definitely not my usual genre, but I was given it by an Intermediate school teacher I once had when she was apparently sorting out her bookcase the year after she taught me and thought I might like it.

It turned out to be really interesting, being part mathematics book (which is my genre, even if not recently) and part an account of putting together a project for a series of science fair competitions about mathematics. Reviews that I’ve seen note that the book is extremely earnest (which it is) and also that its author is apparently not a geek because she likes sports, to which I note simply that we have a much more expansive definition of such thing today than we apparently had in 1999 when this was written, and a good thing too!

This book was probably a large part of why, about 10 years ago now, I spent a great deal of time trying to get QBasic to find prime numbers and do math with numbers much larger than it was capable of. I can comfortably report that working with numbers encoded as strings is extremely slow but also kind of cool sometimes.

The reason why I wanted to pick this book up again is that, after all this time, I am finally doing a cryptography course in the coming trimester. Soon I might actually know more of this stuff!

Currently Reading

Pride and Prejudice

It took a while, thanks to study for Exams, but after some careful Consideration of the text I think I have a better idea of what in Love and Freindship is a Parody of Diction and what is Not. Spelling I’m a little less sure of, but that’s what you get from old books—and old teenager’s notebooks no less so.

The completeness of the stories varies considerably: the titular Love and Freindship successfully relays how its narrator, Laura, was tragically “Deceived in Freindship and Betrayed in Love,” while The History of England does indeed give the “partial, prejudiced, and ignorant” account of the period from Henry IV to Charles I that it promises, some like Lesley Castle (the “unfinished novel in letters”) I would really have liked there to be more of as it didn’t have time to develop its quite a large number of individual plot lines. In fact most of the collection is made up of (generally rather satirical) letters; I recommend it even if the format was rather unfamiliar.

I was actually giving some thought to how a similar medium would work in a modern setting: because the logistics of postage do not even remotely resemble what they used to there doesn’t seem to be a private setting where one person talks for a long time without interruption.

Illness—specifically, needing something to read in bed while unable to sleep, when I had previously intended to pick up a physical book for once—changed my plans and I went for Pride and Prejudice as the obvious follow-up (aren’t out-of-copyright books wonderful?) In the context of what I had only just finished reading I found that it was a lot funnier than I expected; I had tried reading the first chapter or so a while ago and hadn’t stuck with it.

I do have one thing I want to say about it. The book is supposedly about not judging based on first impressions, taking another look etc: in the central case of Mr Darcy, however, I would suggest that at least a little bit of Elizabeth’s change of perspective must come from his changing his ways a bit. I mean seriously, he’s a right stuck-up git when he first appears.

Currently Reading

Love and Freindship

The Jupiter Myth ended as it was always going to. This is the disadvantage of rereading books, mystery novels or otherwise: the usual narrative arc loses its impact completely. It did prompt me to look up Roman crossbows, which I hadn’t realised were a thing.

The next step in my continuous quest to pay as little as possible for reading material this year was Crossing Those Hills, the latest novella by Jon D Arthur, a person I follow on twitter who has been extraordinarily prolific lately and about whom I constantly feel guilty for not being able to support. In a strategy that I’ve seen elsewhere and highly approve of he is offering the first in his series free (and the sequels are not overly expensive either).

This particular series is set in a world which is post apocalyptic (at least, to our characters, who live in a bombed city, and who have to deal with monsters outside of it) and to others perfectly functional. It’s a nicely done dichotomy, even if confusing at first.

The book is written in first person, present tense, which also threw me; further I did something you should never really do which is read the first 20%, not read for a week due to a project (save for trashy romance novels of the kind that I don’t mention here), then finish the rest in a single sitting while waiting for some people to finish up a game of Terraforming Mars at boardgames night—this doesn’t help with remembering what’s going on, but I picked it up again quick.

I really liked the characters referred to as cupid and the envoy, who make great… paratagonists? I’m not sure how to describe them without giving too much away. Also—and this may seem odd—great traffic jam at the end. I really want to know how the story continues!

Unfortunately the terraformers weren’t done when I was, and I continued on to another book: the intentionally misspelled Love and Freindship by Jane Austen, which is one of a number of comedic short stories written by the teenaged Austen compiled on Project Gutenberg in a single volume with that title. It’s possibly not the best introduction to her work but I am definitely enjoying it. That being said I will have to read her other stuff to work out how much is serious and how much is a Parody of their Diction.

Currently Reading

The Jupiter Myth

Needless to say, Beauty finished with everyone living happily ever after. In fact the whole book, while delightful, seemed extremely low stakes—though of course, in comparison with Mistress of the Empire very little does.

After some consideration I picked up a novel which I had already read: The Jupiter Myth, by Lindsey Davis. Though unusually titled for its series, this is one of the Falco detective novels which proceeded the Albia series. In fact, it’s this book where Albia herself first appears as a street urchin in Londinium.

The 20 Falco novels, not including the first two, can generally be divided into “Home” and “Away” (domus et procul?) stories, where most of the action occurs either in the vicinity of Rome or in some far distant province of the Empire: here in Britannia, and as a Brit herself Davis nevertheless spends this book (and frankly all other books) humorously trashing the place.

Rereading a mystery novel seems a little silly, but I’ve found that what with the quality of the books beyond simply their detective elements—and the fact that my brain tends to resemble a sieve at times—makes rereading Davis’ novels as much of a treat as the first time. Both Falco and Albia have larger metaplots, which interconnect with each other: the events of The Jupiter Myth draw significantly on the books before and are in turn very important for those after.

Of course, I know how it’s going to turn out (except for the latest Albia book, which I still don’t have), but it’s still great.

Currently Reading

Beauty

I severely underestimated just how long it would take to finish Mistress of the Empire—not simply because it was long, but because it was so dense. Luckily it at least got over the depressing part that had stymied my first attempt.

I’m not sure what I think of my previous assertion that the series could have ended at the end of Servant. On the one hand Mistress probably has a more complete ending, and is the inevitable continuation of the events of the first two books; on the other hand the central conflict of the first two books ends in the same climactic scene in which Lady Mara is officially named the Good Servant, and her challenges and opponents are quite different. Significant amounts of plot and worldbuilding come to fruition in the third book, and yet it also stands alone. Part of that of course will be that I was only rereading the first two while reading the third for the first time; I will have to do a reread one of these days.

Not today, however: as I said, it’s long, it’s intricate, it’s probably the greatest fantasy politics series I’ve read. From some side reading it appears that there’s significant appetite for further books in the world of Kelewan (as opposed to the Midkemia books that already exist in the same universe). On the one hand I’m generally sympathetic to the feeling of wanting more of the book I just finished; on the other though I’m not quite sure where you could place other books in the timeline. Over the course of the trilogy Mara thoroughly exposes and in many ways dismantles the underlying skeleton of the world in which she lives and that people wish to revisit. Further, she does so in the larger part because of her own brilliance and willingness to examine how her society is structured than the externally derived events that impact the narrative. As such, any lead character from a prequel that could possibly bare comparison to Mara as a protagonist would almost have to precipitate the same changes as she does (which would cause timeline issues, and would probably be boring). Meanwhile a sequel would exist in a world where the Game is fundamentally changed, and this may not be what is wanted.

The main option as I see it would be to base a new series around around the fallout from the abolition of slavery in the empire, and with a broader cast of protagonists to the admittedly numerous list that exists by the end of Mistress. Neither this nor any other possibility seem likely, however, and frankly I’m fine with that.

Not only did it take some time to finish the series, it also took a few days for me to recover and start reading a new book. I considered Casey Plett’s A Safe Girl to Love, due to it being vaguely topical, but instead chose Beauty, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley, the author of Sunshine.

There is a slight problem, however: I’m not very familiar with the original, which makes comparisons and perhaps a full appreciation difficult. The broad premise I of course know from pure osmosis, but it’s only through a some research that I have been able to pick up on even fairly significant differences. Most notably, the titular character is in the original a beautiful and well-read young woman who is treated like a maid by her siblings; in this version Beauty’s sisters do their fair share of the work, while she is a (still bookish) tomboy who helps in her brother-in-law’s smithy and will accept beer as payment for pulling your wagon out of the mud with her horse. The much-criticised Stockholm-syndrome romance is still there, but to be fair I’ve read worse.

Currently Reading

Mistress of the Empire

I’ve had plenty of time for reading lately, just I haven’t been writing.

Wylding Hall finished with its core mystery unsolved—in fact, it finished pretty much as the blurb ends, with it’s mystery only just explained in full. That being said it was quite a good mystery in the end.

I’ll admit I spent most of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson being confused as to what was going on. Perhaps I’m just oblivious to inter-character relationships that authors don’t immediately spell out. I was going to say that it ended all too soon, and that the book was much too short, but I went and checked and it was much longer than I thought. Confused or not, I was entranced to the end. Time flies, etc, etc.

This brings us to the Empire trilogy by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts—or should it be the The Empire trilogy? Certainly I keep forgetting what has ‘the’ in it: the book titles (Daughter of the Empire; Servant of the Empire; Mistress of the Empire), the “Game of the Council” (that is, politics), and probably a few other things that I forget that I forget.

I have all three books in one ebook, which I bought a while ago now. I read them at the time, but crucially read other books in between—this ended up meaning that I couldn’t get into the third book properly after coming back to it. Naturally, then, on this quest to read books I already have or can get for cheap I started this series that I otherwise quite enjoyed.

…of the Empire is all about feudal fantasy politics, and predates A Game of Thrones (another series I have as an omnibus ebook as it happens, but I stopped reading because I wasn’t enjoying it) by about a decade. Notably however it has what I believe is supposed to be Korean, or at least East Asian, flavour to its culture. At the start of the series, where it comes to geopolitics, the “Empire of Tsuranni” of Kelewan are at war with the “Kingdom of the Isles” of Midkemia—a much more traditional fantasy setting which is the setting of some other books by Feist that are supposed to be occurring at the same time but which I have never read—via some kind of “rift.” The father and brother of Mara of the Acoma, who was intending to join a temple, have at the start of the first book just been killed in a battle arranged by one of their domestic political enemies and Mara is thrust into the role of Ruling Lady for a suddenly very weak noble house.

The result is a kind of exponential resource gathering that I quite like in a story (e.g. in Robinson Crusoe) as she rebuilds her strength, plus some very intricate politics which are always fun when done properly. Mara learns that she really enjoys the Game of the Council, and also that it is horrific and extremely unfair to innocent bystanders. I don’t normally go much further than that into plot, but here are some observations on reread:

  • My impression of Kentosani, as the Holy City where we begin the first novel but swiftly depart, was vastly different to the feel I got of it in the second book. Part is perhaps that it wasn’t very fleshed out at the time the first book was written, though I don’t know that, but I think more important is how the character approached them at the time: Mara was fleeing Kentosani in secret, fearing assassination; she returned with reluctance but in a much stronger position, the much more temporal nature of which allowed us to see (and at times run away from) a great deal more.
  • I keep confusing Kentosani with Katarosi, a character from Aspects of the Divinity (also definitely on my reread list, especially if the second novel comes out).
  • I also confuse Hokanu of the Shinzawai and Hoppara of the Xacatecas, second sons of a similar age who are both friendly with Mara.
  • I’m not sure where names like Xacatecas come from—they seem to be more Mesoamerican than Korean.
  • My memory of the order of events in Servant turned out to be completely scrambled, or rather the actual order was scrambled and I had remembered e.g. all the Kentosani scenes going together when they plainly did not. An easy thing to do in such a long and complicated book.
  • I can only that Desio got his moment to shine in the other series. For an unrepentant antagonist who died off-screen (so to speak) he got a huge amount of character development over the second book, and yet while his death was a significant turning point in the plot it had so very little to do with that development that it’s as if it never happened.
  • On first read the seemingly erratic switching of POV characters within chapters and even paragraphs bothered me a lot more than it does now.
  • The obvious thought is “how could you modify Crusader Kings II,” a popular videogame about medieval politics, “to model the Tsuranni Empire?” It would take some doing with regards to ruleset and flavour, though I think the greatest challenge would be the map—we’re given one at the very start, but it doesn’t even remotely show the Holy Roman Empire-level territorial complexity that exists and which would be needed for an accurate game map. On the other hand, Mara’s rise to power and the Great Game in general appear to have even less to do with actual map conquest than CKII does.
  • In stark contrast with Shadow and Claw from earlier, the second book actually wraps up a lot of its own plot, and both it and Daughter could easily mark the end of the story as told. In truth, this was part of why I found myself able to give up on the third book—I could pretend it didn’t exist, and didn’t need to read it to gain closure.

But no more excuses. I’ve made it to where I stopped last time, albeit over the span of several weeks, and am now ready to discover what on earth causes Mara to be labelled Mistress of the Empire.