“A nearly impenetrable thicket of geekitude…”

Reading, 2018

This article collects comments on books I read in 2018. I’ve left out things I read but don’t have anything to say about, including (this year) all of the non-fiction and a couple of things I might come back to.

I have included only minimal spoilers. Links to books are to the author’s web site where possible.

The Invisible Library

I started the year with a copy of the then-latest book in Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series. These are fast-moving and fun to read fantasy novels about a feisty inter-dimensional thief-librarian and her trusty apprentice, who is not entirely what he appears to be.

It had been a while since I read the earlier volumes, so I took the opportunity to zip through all four in January just for the fun of it. I was also musing about the nature of the universe: the Library stands to one side in a territorial struggle between forces of almost personified Order and Chaos, and I wondered whether there might be some hints I had missed as to how that worked.

This seems to be a recurring concern of mine: see, for example, Order of the Phoenix: Unanswered Questions. It’s just in my nature to want my magic to be explainable; to be, in other words, “sufficiently advanced technology” even if the elements of the technology are counter-factual.

As an example from Cogman’s books, Librarians learn a language to which objects respond (to a greater or lesser extent, as convenient for the plot). Say “door, unlock!” in the Language and the door (any door that can hear you… hilarity ensues) obeys. Who is listening? Surely not the door. What’s the mechanism? We’re not told, but I have a suspicion (and a hope) that this and some other cosmological questions (what is the place you can see out of the Library windows?) will be addressed by later books in the series.

Speaking of which, The Mortal Word is now available, and will probably be my first book of 2019.

Altered Carbon

I first read all three of Richard Morgan’s books about Takeshi Kovacs when they came out in 2002–2005, and was very impressed by them. The imminent arrival of a serialisation of Altered Carbon by Netflix was all the excuse I needed to go back and read them again.

The books are still great. They still seem very violent, but that’s a necessary part of the setup: functional immortality through body replacement makes the killing of someone’s body mere “organic damage” in this society; what’s the new capital crime?

Altered Carbon throws the reader in at the deep end and expects you to pick up 400 years worth of future history as you go along. As a reader, I find this process delightful but in this case it’s mirrored by Kovacs’ own experience: he’s not from round here either, and he has been on ice for a century or so, but his training enables him to pick things up by osmosis. As he’s playing detective in this story, it’s a handy ability. Personally, I did a bit of a double-take when someone mentioned that “the whales remember the last time the Martians came to Earth” and it took me a while to unpack the statement to the point where I realised that amongst other things it meant that oh, yeah, we talk to whales now…

The TV series is pretty good too; it covers the events of Altered Carbon with a few changes, some of which are positive: Kovacs’ hotel is hilarious, for example.

Unfortunately, the Netflix adaptation combines characters, moves storylines around between characters, and mangles Kovacs’ own backstory such that I have little hope for adaptations of the other two novels.

Annihilation

I picked this up because I had heard that a movie version was in production and that it was going to be fantastic. The book turned out not to be my cup of tea: slow, very little happening, a lot of unspeakable dread without much in the way of explanation. Perhaps a failure of imagination on my part, or perhaps I was bitten by a Lovecraft story when I was small?

By all accounts the film of the book is different (more jump scares and less existential dread), but wasn’t a huge success anyway. I understand that “the tower” — which was the thing that intrigued me most in the book — doesn’t appear. That doesn’t sound like my cup of tea either, so I probably won’t bother with the movie, or the rest of the Southern Reach trilogy.

Twenty Palaces

I had previously read the three novels in Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series (Child of Fire, Game of Cages, Circle of Enemies) and enjoyed them. I guess this is the year that I have to admit that I like fantasy as long as it’s fast-moving enough?

Unusually for this kind of series, the protagonist is not the powerful sorcerer tasked with saving the world: instead, Ray Lilly is in way over his head with the super-powerful world-savers seeing him as an expendable decoy (a “Wooden Man”) not expected to survive first contact with the enemy. It will probably not surprise you to hear that he scrapes through even so.

We finally get some of Ray’s backstory in Twenty Palaces, and The Twisted Path shows him starting to elevate himself above carrier of bags and bringer of snacks. If there are more of these, I’ll definitely read them.

Stoneskin

If you’re familiar with K. B. Spangler already, it’s probably through the web comic A Girl and Her Fed and the books set in that universe. If you haven’t discovered AGAHF and like ghosts, cyborgs, saving the world and laughter, with perhaps a smidgeon of aspirational politics, you should definitely check it out.

I could use more of the AGAHF universe, which I have been following for years, but Stoneskin is not that. Tembi, Stoneskin’s protagonist, is an eight-year-old girl at the start of the story, when she finds herself elsewhere. At the end of the novel, she is a young woman coming into powers which are magical but also explainable because here we’re told who is listening. These powers are an explicit technology in Tembi’s civilisation, with all that implies for their possible use for both good and evil.

This is a prequel; I look forward to the start of the main story.

Ra

Here’s what it says on Sam Hughes’ web site about Ra:

Magic is real.

Discovered in the 1970s, magic is now a bona fide field of engineering. There’s magic in heavy industry and magic in your home. It’s what’s next after electricity.

Hmmm. Does that sound relevant to the interests of anyone we know?

Ra not only asks “who is listening?”, but uses the answer as a central point of the plot. This means there’s not much I can say without spoiling the story. I will say it’s intriguing and (for the most part) coherent and gave me a lot to think about.

Although the story-telling gets a little confusing in the last few chapters, this is enjoyable throughout and I’d recommend it. You can always stop for a rest when things in your brain start spinning too quickly.

Too Like the Lightning

I can’t remember where I first heard about Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, of which Too Like the Lightning is the first volume. I do remember thinking that the society — based around voluntary non-geographic nations with different philosophies and legal codes — sounded like an interesting premise.

I wasn’t disappointed, and in addition the novel has much more to offer. The narrator is possibly the most unreliable I’ve encountered, which sounds like it would be a disadvantage but in practice lets you discover layers of the story as we learn more about him. Well, I say “him” but the society also doesn’t use gender the way we do so that (as in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series) we’re often left either wondering, deliberately misled by that most unreliable of narrators, or a bit of both: sometimes I found myself wondering why I was wondering about a character’s gender when it should really not matter – perhaps this was the point.

The end of the novel is a rush of revelations about the nature of the society, many of the characters and (of course) the narrator. I doubt that the pace will slacken in Seven Surrenders and I’m looking forward to reading it in 2019.

The Gone-Away World

More than half of this novel is a flashback describing everything from the narrator’s early life to the ultimate war during which the majority of the planet’s population is made to “go away”. After which, of course, things get much worse as the “go away bomb” has incidentally populated the post-apocalyptic world with numerous horrors, some with human form but most hostile to life as we know it.

As such, there is necessarily some sadness and dismay involved in the story. For the most part, however, I found myself laughing too hard to notice. Highly recommended, although the temptation to drop just a couple of tiny spoilers was almost too much for me.

Rosewater

I am about 90% of the way through Rosewater at the time of writing, so I’m including it as part of 2018.

Aliens have come to Earth. Or at least, a huge “biodome” of alien origin has appeared, initially in England before mysteriously making its way underground to a new location in Nigeria where the action of the novel takes place. The aliens aren’t very communicative but something coming from the structure has strange effects… curing illness once a year, reanimating the dead, a kind of telepathy for some.

Intriguing and really alien aliens. I am looking forward to the second book in the trilogy, expected in March 2019.