Friday, January 31, 2020

One Charm to Rule Them All

The Will and the Wilds by Charlie N. Holmberg

Enna and her mentally-damaged father live far from the village, but close to the Wilds, a dangerous locale for anyone who doesn't know how to control or fend off the "mystings," ravening creatures that can come into the world from its shadowy depths.

Her father's damage came from descending into the normal world of the mystings, to retrieve a charm to help his daughter track them so she can avoid them. Now he has just sufficient memory to grow mushrooms, although he frequently mistakes Enna for her mother, who was killed by a mystings pack of "grinlings" in the Wild when Enna was younger.

Enna lives a semi-secluded life, caring for her father and their small farm, selling their mushrooms in the village, tending her herb garden, and studying the Wild and the mystings. She dreams of attending a school and sharing her knowledge with the world, but neither the money it would require nor her need to stay close with her father will allow this luxury.

All that changes when a demon-beast from the Wild charges past their protective herbal boundary, and marks Enna for destruction. Her solution is to make a bargain with a different kind of mysting, and trade a willing kiss for a pledge to destroy the pack that has targeted Enna.

And that is when things really begin to go wrong...

Charlie Holmberg's material magician novels—starting with The Paper Magician—often share this tension between gifted-yet-ignorant young women and powerful, skilled men who serve as their tutors. In The Will and the Wilds, Enna and her pledged demon Maekellus are equally ignorant of each other's worlds and abilities, and the tension comes as much from what they share with each other as it does from their battle to save both worlds from the power invested in Enna's Ring-like charm.

The tale neatly skirts the trap of fairy-tale Beauty and Beast, and goes directly to a deeper question: can a woman surrender to a man, yet retain her self? Can a man truly love a woman, yet not conquer and consume her?

The answer is worth the trip into the deep, dark Wilds.

Homeless in High School

Roam by C.H. Armstrong

Nothing breeds angst like being a teenager in a new school. 

Being new in school partway through your senior year is bad enough, but Roam's protagonist Abby Lunde has been ripped from a comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle with two working parents, and a highly successful high-school life—cheerleader, member of a clique of "populars"—to land in Minnesota, in winter, her family homeless in an otherwise-wealthy community.

To add further apprehension to her social situation, Abby was badly traumatized by the way her "friends back home" reacted to her change in circumstance, and lives in fear of the day her new schoolmates will learn she is sleeping in a car with her family in the local Walmart parking lot, pretending to shop there when she needs to use the toilet, eating at the local soup kitchen, and doing her morning ablutions in the high-school restroom.

Nevertheless, she does gain friends almost immediately, from a ready-made group of Disney-nicknamed classmates to an interested young man who turns into a potential prom date. This rich-boy/poor-girl trope is a major part of the tale—along with a snobbish bully antagonist, a pre-prom "makeover," and a vocal competition straight out of High School Musical

So is this just a soap-opera teen drama with a homeless twist? Not at all.

The strongest message here is the crucial importance of family in overcoming teen angst. From her perspective, Abby's family was broken by the unforgivable choices made by her parents. In her new school, and in the homeless support community they came to Minnesota to find, she builds a wider family, and eventually learns to heal what is broken in her own heart.

And nothing could be less soap-opera than that.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Magic Words of Babel

Lexicon by Max Barry people at the top, the scariest thing is how many people there are below. They need to watch us. They need to monitor what we’re thinking. It’s the only thing between them and a guillotine. Every time something like this happens, anytime there’s death and fear and people demanding action, to them that’s an opportunity.  —Lexicon

This terrifying science fiction thriller combines a host of sharp observations on society and individuals, a multitude of cultural origin stories that echo the Old Testament's Tower of Babel, and cutting-edge-of-tomorrow technology that might actually exist today—only "they" don't want us to know. "They" are the verbal elites, a dark Illuminati who know the secret words that, when spoken, can enslave anyone—even another member of the elite—and turn them into a virtual slave, permanently or for a defined time.

The concept supposes a tower of puppets, a looming world-wide heirarchy of commanders and commanded. There are categories, of course, of these verbal whips, and for each personality type, some will work and others will not. In the lexicon of command, there are phrases to subjugate each group, as long as you can determine which type they are.

The cabal of elites selects and trains likely youngsters to gather and interpret data about individuals so that their category is known. A hundred, even fifty, years ago, this would have been difficult. It would have been piecemeal, using the few persons able to determine the type of a person by direct interaction. Social media has changed that.
People resist a census, but give them a profile page and they’ll spend all day telling you who they are.

Then there is the "bareword." A bareword is a rare thought which, whether vocalized or visualized, can command everyone, regardless of their type.

Except, perhaps, one immune. Maybe there are others, but one is known for certain. This unique individual may have died in an experiment—but if not, he or she has experienced first-hand the release of a bareword. And for the elite commanders atop their tower, this person may be their last hope to recover that bareword, to give them ultimate power.

They pursue it despite knowing that, whenever this power has been acquired in the past, a Babel-like tower and the subsequent shattering of the common language has been the result.
Their power lulls them into comfort. They become undisciplined. Those who had to earn power are replaced by those who have known nothing else. Who have no comprehension of the need to rise above base desires. Power corrupts, as the saying goes, and the bareword... is not only absolute power, but worse: It is unearned.

The interleaved neuro-linguistic concepts play well against the political-thriller action of Lexicon, provoking an intermittant recognition of real-world events, and leaving the reader at the end with a deep sense of satisfactionas well as more than a little queasiness about using social media.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Laughing at Death: Johnny Optimism

Johnny Optimism - Volume One: What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stranger by Stilton Jarlsberg

You can't read this book and stay blue! Well, not unless you hold your breath while searching in it for a cartoon that's NOT funny. Or one that is too dark to laugh at.

Truly, Johnny Optimism has the worst luck—and the best sense of humor—in the hospital, if not the world. You've got to love him!

You'll also meet an astounding array of characters, like Tickles the creepy clown, the homicidal child with her duck puppet, cowboy-kid Pepe the epileptic, and the reading girl with her gloomy predictions of all the things that can kill you. Like a slipper. (I'm not telling. Read the book and find out. Or live the rest of your life in fear of comfortable footwear.)

The only downer in the book? It's Volume One. There's a whole 'nother book, at least, of Johnny Optimism jokes I'll have to wait to read.

Note: If you can't wait, try the excellent blog where new Johnny Optimism posts appear at a frequency of around three per week. A recent post:

Note2: Please observe the "Fair Warning" on the cover: These cartoons are "not for kids or the overly sensitive. (Read: Easily Triggered.)

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Molly Utterback is my new hero. This twelve-year-old girl has persistence and the power of her convictionsnot to mention her witchy powersand she'll need every bit of it to rescue the semi-abandoned gothic Castle Hangnail and its resident minions.

Molly arrives on the doorstep of the castle with an invitation to become its Master/Mistress. Her problem is, the invitation wasn't addressed to her, but to "Eudemonia." Nevertheless, she talks her way into the hall, and sets about to meet the list of "Wicked Witch" tasks needed to qualify as the castle's resident owner. Some of these tasks, like fixing the plumbing, are ordinary (though perhaps not usually in the repertoire of a preteen girl), but smiting and blighting are decidedly wicked.

Molly will succeedif she doesby studying diligently in the well-stocked library, relying on the help of her minions, and being clever about meeting the requirements listed in her Tasks scroll. And by being too stubborn to quit when it gets really difficult.

This is a delicious story with plenty of twists and turns, and marvelous supporting characters. They try to be evil minions, but fail in the end due to an over-supply of empathy and love for the castle they have infested for so long. Yes, infested; among Molly's assistants are bats and moles. And a donkey.

Castle Hangnail has clever twists to delight the adult reader, and a happy ending to please the middle-school reader—plus lots of gothic details and snide asides to satisfy the young adults in between.

You'll enjoy it.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Merlin, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth II Battle the Inquisition

Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber

Humanity exists on only a single world, but it's not Earth. The population of Safehold is the rescued remnant of near-extinction by an unpronounceable enemy that found them because of broadcasts, bursts of energy, and expansion into space from the humans' original home.

Instead of preparing Safehold to remain in a state of technological "quiet" until the colonists are eventually ready to take on the foe that devasted them before, their leaders choose instead to reprogram them, compelling them to worship their leaders, and to follow an over-arching Church that requires its believers not to progress from a feudal-level society's art and knowledge. 

The colonists' programming defines their leaders as semi-divine "Archangels," and that status is underscored by their use of space-travel technology in which the Archangels indulge themselves. Finally, they recreate the Inquisition to ensure that even when their very-long-lived leaders are finally dead, the colony will continue to stagnate in its Dark Ages.

Unknown to these corrupt leaders, a safeguard has been put into place to undo their schemes at a far-future date. Nimue Alban (or rather, the near-immortal avatar that holds her personality and memories) must guide the Safehold colony to progress past this short-sighted program so that they will have a chance to defeat the enemy if and when it ever finds them. The Archangels are long dead when her avatar is roused, but their Church and its Inquisition are still very much alive.

When I first read Off Armageddon Reef years ago, it took me almost a year. I kept putting the book down—for months at a time—and coming back to it only when I had nothing else to read. I thoroughly enjoy all of Weber's Honor Harrington novels. Why couldn't I get into the Safehold series?

Re-reading it this year in the omnibus Safehold, I now recognize the problem. This series-in-one-volume begins with nearly 900 pages of prequel and exposition. Reading it in the omnibus Kindle version makes better sense of the initial novel, even though it doesn't quite cure another issue. Like many David Weber novels, Off Armageddon Reef is chock-full to bursting with characters, most of whom are crucial to the story, or essential to plot-points that will come later in the series. In Weber's other series, this is not an issue. If you like Weber, you've learned to accept that well-developed masses of players are part of his game.

However, in the Safehold series, there is a bug in the game. Those abundant character and place names are all spelled weirdly. Weber says in the prequel/exposition that "over nearly nine hundred years there had been a shift in the language such that words were pronounced differently, but spelled the same." In the novel, the opposite occurs, and the shift seems limited to namesplus the rules for unraveling vowel and consonant shifts are not consistent. So "Bynzhamyn" is probably "Benjamin," and "Jhames" is obviously "James." But "Jherneau" and multiple others are beyond simple transcription. The effort to translate becomes a constant diversion from the story, and it makes it harder than necessary to unravel the cast of characters.

That issue, however, is all that detracts from the novel, which like any Weber novel, is also full to bursting with action—political, naval, military, and yes, religious. Building a world like this one, with a culture begun as a <i>tabula rasa</i>, and then programmed and designed to remain in a technologically medieval state, offers Weber a wide scope to show the development of all the science and engineering that exploded at the end of our own Dark Ages, with the sweeping cultural and political changes that this explosion brought. 

I expect that the subsequent novels in the series will read easier for me, now that I can be less distracted by the odd spelling choices, and just enjoy the interconnection of religious awakenings and social changes that follow in the wake of massive technological advances. As well as the stirring naval battles and political manuevers, of course!

So if you've been puzzled, as I was, by the way Off Armageddon Reef seemed to be a puzzle with a few missing pieces, try the omnibus version, the first twelve hundred pages or so. With that addition, it becomes another thrilling Weber series with a strong female protagonist.

Friday, January 3, 2020

A Quest to Middle School

Homerooms and Hall Passes by Tom O'Donnell

What if the universe of Dungeons & Dragons is the real one, and to relax after heroic quests and battling trolls, young people in that world play a non-adventure game called Homerooms and Hall Passes, in which they roll dice and consult charts to learn if they will survive in the stressful world of a suburban middle school? That's the premise of this witty, engaging story from Tom O'Donnell. You know, the creator of Hamstersaurus Rex.

To spin the story anti-clockwise from a myriad of D&D-inspired fantasy novels, the H&HP players find themselves trapped in the world of the game they've been playing. The Viking-like wielder of a hammer named "Boneshatter" must settle into the role of a nerd; the gothic loner elf must transform herself into one of the "popular" girls; the habits of the group's thief threaten all of them with expulsion; the virtuous warrior maiden must learn to tell white lies. 

And the apprentice wizard finds himself faced with leading his group against a challenge that many full-fledged wizards would turn away from.


Even if you've never played a game of D&D, I guarantee you'll find enough detail here to make sense, and more than enough thrills, puns, and wry observations to make you want to play along. 

Performing in a Mine Field

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

[I]n every death, someone suffered and someone triumphed, and often those two were the same person... 
—Reif Larsen, I Am Radar

I have exactly two experiences of novels by Reif Larsen, and both are richly developed, densely entangled with science, observation, and time; and both show Larsen is willing to kill off characters the author has spent some time introducing and weaving into the narrative.

The first for me was the wonderful The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, with its 10-year-old scientist protagonist. That novel was joyful and celebrated love and family by the device of separating young Spivet from his far western roots, sending him on a long journey by train, where he reflected on family history, geology and water flows, bird flock movements and their deep connections to the immense land he was traversing. If you happen to encounter and enjoy the movie The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, trust me, the book is a richer and more succulent exploration than the film.

Because I loved T.S. Spivet, I ordered the other novel, I Am Radar, and dug in, hoping for the same joyful info-rich experience. I was simultaneously disappointed and elated to discover a completely different exploration, this time relating the weird effects of quantum entanglement and sub-atomic forces with the experience of surviving the conflicts and deprivations of war. Info-rich it is, but there is very little joy here. The characters observe their embattled environment from a distance, and comment on it via a series of complex and never fully-explained "performances."
“Observation is precisely the problem. Observation, as we understand it, is the nemesis of understanding,” said Bohr. “We’re obsessed with this act of witnessing—yet witnessing is an action that irrevocably affects the subject. As it turns out, we can only witness the witnessing...” Maybe telling a story of the event was more powerful than witnessing it yourself....
As with young T.S. Spivet, the title character Radar is a child through much of the narrative. In fact, he is an infant at the novel's outset, and a young man in his twenties at its conclusion. His life, as well as his mother's and father's, are entangled by the circumstances of his birth, and then by their attempts to "cure" his condition. Entanglement is a concept both explored and demonstrated throughout the novel, with some of the "spooky" effects of quantum physics simply tossed into the narrative and then ignored, as if it is sufficient to introduce them like a splash of paint onto an abstract stage backdrop.
“Olfaction operates via quantum electron tunneling—we actually smell a molecule’s vibration and not the molecule itself...."
There’s evidence that epilepsy is a quantum phenomenon.
I Am Radar was a more immersive read for me than T.S. Spivet, and yet with each I resurfaced at the end knowing that I would want to reread, that there is more to discover, that I must have missed a few points along the way.

And as Radar observed, "To see the stars, you must be able to first see the night."