This book will make no sense if you have not read The Just City. Read that first. (I reviewed it; click on the author name tag.) Though the plot is completely different, I would say that if you liked the first book, you will like the second, and if you didn’t like the first, you won’t like the second. Though I did miss the robots. And also several of my favorite characters from the first book.

Since I read this six months ago, I am not going to recap the plot, which is incredibly spoilery anyway. However, feel free to put spoilers in comments.

Like The Just City, The Philosopher Kings is a novel of ideas populated by painfully human (and some endearingly or terrifyingly inhuman) characters. There was some discussion as to whether the first book made sense as something that human beings would do, even with Godly assistance. I thought that it absolutely rang true as a portrayal of a bunch of single-minded fanatics who get together to run things their way. In other words, a cult. Of course, that is an outsider’s insulting term. An insider would call it a planned community. A true believer would call it a utopia.

I grew up in one of those. The details were totally different, but in many ways the atmosphere was very much the same. I was Matthias, taken from my home at a young age and given a name and identity I never accepted. The moment I got the chance, I snatched another name, one that I felt was true, fled, and began doing what I felt was right, which was basically the opposite of everything I’d been indoctrinated into. Sounds good, right? After all, cults are bad, right?

Well… It worked out for me. I had my own values that I picked up elsewhere, and hung on to for dear life, fixing them more and more into the core of my self at every daily attempt to teach me to believe in something else. I like my values and they suit me, but they are odd values for an American civilian (and have caused quite a lot of conflict in my life when I forget that I am the only person in the room who has them.) “I cannot die until my king has safely reached the fort.” "Service before self." “Duty, honour, courage.”

(On that note, thank you very much, Shivaji, Tanaji, Jijabai, Baji Prabhu, Rani Lakshmibai, for inspiration that lived on hundreds of years beyond your deaths. And thank you even more to the Base Commander of the Ahmednagar Army Base and every single person I ever interacted with who was in or working for the Indian army at Ahmednagar. You were the only people who were consistently kind to me, often going well out of your way or bending rules to do so, and that was so consistent that "protect helpless children whether they're citizens or not" must have been knocked into your heads at boot camp. It is an excellent ideal and I am not surprised that I extrapolated it to "ALL these people's ideals are excellent." In fact, I still think they're excellent and had I been Indian myself, I might well have joined the Army. (To be clear: I think the ideals are excellent. No comment on specific military actions, many of which directly contradict the stated ideals.)

But that was me. If I had decided to take my values from the Catholic school I attended, or from Indira Gandhi, or from Georgette Heyer, or from Kurt Vonnegut, or from any of the other thousands of possible influences on me other than the ones I was actually there to learn, I would have done very different things with my life. Being wronged does not always teach you justice. Having a just cause does not necessarily make your actions just.

As I said in my review of the first novel, you cannot make any sense of this book without the idea that depiction does not equal advocacy. I do know Jo a bit, though not well, but certainly well enough to know that she is not an advocate of rape, slavery, infanticide, torture, colonialism, kidnapping, or any of the other absolutely horrifying things presented in the novel and advocated quite persuasively, or else excused and minimized, by otherwise sympathetic characters.

I expect that there are ideas in the book that Jo does agree with, because there are a lot of ideas in the book, but I don’t know what they are and hesitate to guess, with one exception. I think Jo probably really would like to go back into the past and rescue lost or destroyed works of art, if it could be done without creating some kind of catastrophic butterfly effect. I would too. I think anyone sensitive to art would, unless they are very, very devoted to mono no aware and evanescent art; ice sculptors, perhaps, or tenders of cherry trees.

But despite the patent impossibility of the book advocating everything it’s depicting, it does feel like a book that’s advocating something, partly because the characters are all very passionately advocating things (often completely opposed things), and partly because most thought experiment novels are indeed advocating something and in fact were written for that purpose. But if it’s advocating something, what in the world is it advocating?

I think it’s advocating that you think about the ideas presented and draw your own conclusions. Very consistently, characters who are otherwise good or worthy or admirable people have horrific ideas and do horrifying things. Characters with extremely justifiable grievances are not necessarily nice people; characters who deserve to have bad things happen to them meet fates so far beyond what they deserve that that the reader feels guilty for wishing anything ill on them at all; characters who are charming and talented yet not good at all are exalted for their skills rather than for their moral character; Gods have extraordinary powers, but they are no more moral or ethical or right than any given human.

This is all very deliberate. It makes it impossible for the reader to draw the easy conclusion that good people do good things, bad people do bad things, and the morality of an action is determined by who does it, not by the action itself. The latter is a very common cognitive error that is enormously destructive on both small and worldwide scales. “My country, right or wrong.” “Priests are good and holy, so anything a priest does is good and holy.” “That woman is a liar and a con artist; why should I believe anything she says?” “That man is a war hero; who better to hold public office?”

I don’t know if that’s what I was meant to take from the book, which seems to be written as a mirror distorted just enough to make you really examine what you already believe. But it’s what I do take from it.

When I sat down to think about the book, I came to the conclusion, which had not occurred to me before, that I probably would have enlisted in the Indian army had I had similar encounters with them if I'd been an Indian citizen. In other words: I don't, in fact, have an essential problem with belonging to a cult/planned community/very formalized in-group. I just didn't like the one I was actually in. I think this shows how The Philosopher Kings is a genuinely thought-provoking book.

Also: absolutely killer ending. It was perfect and logical, yet completely unexpected. I can’t wait to read the next book.
So, I basically didn't read anything for the last six months due to being unable to do anything but what seemed absolutely essential in that time. This eventually came down to two things: 1) not dying, 2) not losing my internship. There were also a couple things that for whatever reason were more do-able, which were reading and responding to email (in 15-minute chunks, with hours or sometimes days or even weeks in between), watching TV (ditto), reading anything other than email (ditto), writing fiction (ditto) and… nope, that was about it.

However, before this I was reading normally, and so acquired a backlog of books I would have written up had I been capable of doing such things. Is anyone interested in probably-brief reviews, or rather impressions, of books that I may not recall accurately, given the circumstances? (You are of course more than welcome to comment with factual corrections.)

Poll #17235 Brief and possibly inaccurate review poll
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 91

Would you like to see me review...

View Answers

Frances Hardinge's "Cuckoo Song" (probably my favorite YA of the year)
50 (54.9%)

Handcuffed to the Bear, by Lauren Esker (Sholio), a charming paranormal adventure with romance
28 (30.8%)

The Space Queen books by Isla Sinclair, filthybadwrong noncon femdom porn with a Space Queen and a square-jawed hero straight out of the pulps, very very hot if you like that kind of thing
35 (38.5%)

Every Patient Tells a Story, by Lisa Sanders, inspiration for Dr. House. Not actually what it says on the tin.
24 (26.4%)

Nor Iron Bars a Cage, by Kaje Harper. Sweet fantasy MM h/c romance with an actual plot
26 (28.6%)

TS Joyce's "hillbilly bears" paranormal romance series. Believe it or not, these were actually my favorite PNR discovery of the year.
28 (30.8%)

Golden Witchbreed, by Mary Gentle (worldbuilding anthropological sf; re-read)
34 (37.4%)

Stephen King, The Long Walk. Flawed but vivid early book.
18 (19.8%)

Barbara Hambly's later James Asher vampire novels (repetitive plots, excellent atmosphere and characters)
26 (28.6%)

Amends, by Eve Tushnet. I beta'd this. Satirical literary novel about a rehab reality show but actually about larger social and psychological issues; really excellent prose.
21 (23.1%)

No Dreams Allowed, by Sonora Sheldon. Unusual take on the billionaire romance genre, very nice voice.
12 (13.2%)

Dragon menage romances by Terry Bolryder. Exactly what it says on the tin.
15 (16.5%)

Fool's Assassin, by Robin Hobb. I don't even know what to think about these books, they are SO WEIRD and just keep getting weirder.
35 (38.5%)

Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Slight but charming novella in the Chalion world.
26 (28.6%)

The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton. I REALLY wish I had written this up earlier, because it was extremely worth detailed discussion
31 (34.1%)

The Last Dive, by Bernie Chowdhury. Diving and disasters.
10 (11.0%)

Nine Minutes, Twelve Seconds. Detailed account of a plane crash.
12 (13.2%)

Flight 232. Another detailed account of a plane crash.
9 (9.9%)

The Light of the Moon, by Randy Styner. Ditto
5 (5.5%)

Rocannon's World, by Ursula Le Guin. Re-read
40 (44.0%)

Apollo wants to understand why Daphne would rather be a tree than have sex with him. Athena wants to find out what would happen if she took everyone throughout time who has ever prayed to her to let them live in Plato’s Republic, gave them a doomed island, a bunch of robots, and children to raise as per Plato’s ideas, and told them to go for it. A young Victorian lady named Ethel renames herself Maia and devotes herself to the Just City. Two children, taken from the slave markets and given to the Just City, come to opposite conclusions about its worth.

Out of all of Jo Walton’s strange premises, this one takes the cake. Even more than “Framley Parsonage, but everyone’s a dragon.” But I love that she thinks of ideas like this, has the chops to carry them out, and is supported by a publisher who will publish whatever bizarre book she chooses to write. The Just City is a terrific book that I can’t imagine anyone else writing.

It’s a novel of ideas in the very best sense, full of complex and interesting questions with no easy answers, and populated by three-dimensional characters who care deeply about and are profoundly affected by the issues at play. (The issues include but aren’t limited to consent, free will, nature vs. nurture, whether the ends justify the means, and how idealistic movements and planned communities succeed and fail.) Since I grew up in a planned community, I found the book particularly interesting. It does not escape Walton that one of the most toxic issues in a planned community or progressive movement is the willingness to sacrifice vulnerable members for the supposed good of the whole, nor that the same community can be a utopia for one person and a dystopia for their neighbor.

This is the first of a trilogy, but comes to a conclusion that’s open-ended yet satisfying, shocking but inevitable in retrospect. I guessed where it was going in general, but was completely surprised by the details.

You don’t need to be familiar with or care about Plato’s Republic to read this. The book explains everything you need to know. It’s much more about larger issues of utopia/dystopia than about the Republic specifically, though the actual specifics are from the Republic. Note that it contains rape, slavery, child harm, and other disturbing things, and also characters endorsing all sorts of terrible opinions. This is not a book to read if you want the voice of the author interjecting to assure you that terrible things are terrible. It’s very much a book where many opinions are presented and it’s left to the readers to draw their own conclusions.

If you intend to read this, avoid reviews. There’s several plot twists that will be more satisfying if you don’t know about them in advance. Spoilers are fine in comments.

The sequel, The Philosopher Kings, is out now.

The Just City
I read this when it first came out; please correct and forgive inaccuracies of memory. (Appropriate to the story!)

Patricia, an Alzheimer's patient, is in a nursing home. The nurses think that she recalls living two completely different lives (and is slipping between realities now) because she has dementia; we, the readers, know that she's recalling alternate timelines.

In 1949, she agreed to a marriage proposal, or not. The woman who agreed became Trish, trapped in a miserably abusive marriage... but also living in the best possible world as far as the general good is concerned, with peace, prosperity, and a moon base. The woman who declined became Pat, who falls in love with a woman, travels, and has a life full of love and self-fulfillment... in a world that slides into nightmarish total war, and seems to headed straight for Armageddon.

Though there are plenty of full scenes with dialogue and so forth, there's also a lot of summary narration. This works surprisingly well; my interest only flagged in the last fifth or so, when I started losing track of the multiplicity of alternate children and grandchildren and their significant others. It's a book about two largely mundane lives that inexplicably has the narrative grip of a thriller. I credit Walton's writing skill for this, and I'm still not sure how she did it. Between the depressingness and the summarizing, by all rights I should have bounced off this book rather than reading it in a day.

I didn't write about the book till now because I had such mixed feelings about it. Artistically, it's very well-done - an unusual use of tell-not-show that succeeds in (mostly) being compelling reading. However, I also found it excruciatingly depressing. It deals centrally with five of my top ten most depressing subjects: Alzheimer's disease, agonizing death by cancer, nuclear war, domestic violence and emotional abuse, and being consigned in a nursing home where you're helpless and mistreated and cut off from everything that makes life bearable.

Regarding the alternate timelines, the ending strongly implied that it was Patricia's choice of who to marry that led to sweeping changes between the timelines. I assume it was a "butterfly effect" in which she made one small change that led to several other small changes that ended up having a gigantic domino effect, but I would have liked to be able to see some of how that happened. I couldn't figure out what it was she did that was important. If I recall correctly, history started changing in big ways right after she either got married or didn't. Trish did get involved in political volunteering, but if I recall correctly, history had already changed at that point. Am I misremembering when history started to change, and it was the volunteering after all? Or was there some other crucial action that I missed?
A semi-autobiographical fantasy, beautifully written and very odd. Like Walton’s equally though differently odd Lifelode, it struck me when I read it in advance copy as a novel destined for a small but extremely enthusiastic audience. But it’s getting a huge, huge promotional push, so it will certainly get a far larger readership than Lifelode. It will be interesting to see how it’s received outside of fandom.

Morwenna (Mori) and Morganna (Mor), are Welsh twins growing up amongst ruined and operating factories which they pretend are sites from Lord of the Rings. There they meet with real fairies who sometimes give them magical tasks. These fairies are more like the weird creatures from a Hayao Miyazaki movie than like anything normally seen in western fantasy, living expressions of the natural world. The nature of both magic and fairies is strange, ruthlessly unsentimental, hard to pin down, and even harder to prove.

One of those magical tasks evidently had horrific consequences, because the next time we see Mori, her sister is dead, she’s been severely injured, she’s been separated from her evil mother but also from the family she loves, and she’s sent to boarding school. There she reads a lot of sf and fantasy, looks for fairies, slowly comes to terms with magic and her sister’s death and her family, and becomes involved in fandom.

Though there are some very dramatic scenes, the action and tragedy and magic mostly twine through the background and the backstory; the foreground is Mori’s life at boarding school, and most of all, her thoughts about the books she reads and her introduction into fandom via an science fiction and fantasy club. It’s almost a “secret garden book,” in which the action of the story consists of emotionally significant moments taking place in a small, often private, and atmospherically described landscape. In this case, books take the place of a physical location.

It’s too bad that the novel ends before C. J. Cherryh began writing her major books, because the way that magic operates – to twist the world in deniable ways so that the desired outcome is the result of things that happened long before you cast the spell – is very Cherryh-esque, as is Mori’s solipsistic terror that she created all her friends, and they didn’t even exist before she cast a spell to get some.

As that paranoid-sounding anxiety suggests, a reader of mainstream fiction could plausibly interpret this novel as a realistic one about a girl caught up in a delusional fantasy world. I don’t think any fantasy reader would, but the possibility does give the novel a disquieting edge.

I thought Among Others was very moving and engrossing, but I’m just barely close enough to Mori's generation of sf fandom to be able to follow most of what was going on in her reading world, and so in her inner life. Unlike the literary references in Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin or Walton’s own book reviews, I generally didn’t get much of a sense of what the books read by Mori were like unless I’d read them too.

I'm curious to see how accessible or appealing Among Others is to readers of a later generation than mine, who don’t have that context, or to readers who enjoy sf but have never been involved in fandom. But if you began reading sf in the 60s-70s, or if sf fandom is a crucial part of your life, this could be one of your favorite books of all time. Reviewers who fit that description have said exactly that.

Note: There is a brief, non-graphic scene in which Mori's father drunkenly comes on to her. This happens once and, to my surprise, does not have any significant repercussions, but I'm mentioning it so anyone who might be upset by coming across it unwarned is warned. Since it doesn't affect the plot, I'm leaving it outside of the spoiler-cut.

Spoilers have identity confusion )

Among Others
If you have enjoyed other books by Jo Walton but haven’t heard of this one, it’s probably because it was published by a small press. It’s one of those books which is so odd and quirky that only a relatively small fraction of the total possible readers will like it. But the nice thing about those sorts of books is that the people who like them at all tend to like them a lot.

Lifelode is a quiet, pastoral book, and not much happens in the first half other than people going about their daily lives in a closely observed domestic setting. I love that kind of thing when it’s done well, and it’s done very well. In fact, I preferred the first half, in which the big events concern meals and childcare and discussions of etymology, to the second half, which has battles and relationships falling apart and magical duels. However, the book does work as a whole, and the battles and so forth don’t come out of the blue, but arise from what was set up in the beginning.

Like Pamela Dean’s marvelously strange The Dubious Hills, it’s a book in which most of the action consists of the daily lives of people in a fantasy world whose extremely weird attributes are worked out with the sort of rigor fans like to see in hard sf. In Dean’s world, knowledge is divided among different people, so you have to go ask the person whose sphere is the knowledge of emotions if you want to know what it is that you’re feeling.

In Walton’s world, time and free will and magic, among other forces, vary depending on where you are. The farther you travel west, the less free will and magic you have, and while years may pass for you, only weeks will have gone by for the people in the village you left. The farther east, the more magic and the more free will you have… to a certain cool and also spoilery point which I won’t reveal. But also, time passes much more quickly for the people you left than for you.

And so Hanethe returns from the east to the placid village of Applekirk, over a hundred years after she left, and shakes up the quiet lives of the inhabitants. Because one of the main characters, Taveth, can see people at all stages of their lives at once, past and present and future, the book is told in present tense but we see the events much as Taveth does, as all happening at once. This is skillfully done and I didn’t find it confusing.

Many of the characters are members of a large, complicated polyamorous family. (This is completely normal in Applekirk.) Walton tried to avoid the usual pitfall of presenting the particular family arrangement she’s writing about as practically perfect in every way, and succeeded to some extent: even open relationships are not necessarily free from jealousy, even the most carefully set rules of operation can’t prevent people from breaking them, and not even a person who has dedicated her life to the pursuit of serenity can avoid pettiness and pain.

That being said, the family and characters may not have been practically perfect, but many of them skirted close to that mark. I would have liked a little more rawness and sharp edges, and children being immature. (The children are wise in the way that real children sometimes are; I have no quarrel with that. It’s that all of them are usually wise and mature, and even when they’re not, none of them are ever whiny or hyper or having inexplicable emotional meltdowns.)

There are a number of invented words, most of which work. Raensome (people being characteristically themselves) is lovely and fits with the setting, though frubbled (the opposite of jealousy) sounds cutesy-modern. On a similar nitpick, I was startled by the mention of edamame in a book which has no other Asian words or referents, unless I missed something. I expect it was supposed to indicate that the characters are descended from many different cultures of our world (I don’t think they’re all what we would consider phenotypically Caucasian, though it was hard to tell because the characters don’t make those kinds of distinctions) but for the sake of consistency and not jerking readers out of the story, either there should have been more non-western references, or there should have been none.

But those are, as I said, nitpicks. The prose is lovely, the descriptions are vivid, and it’s a type of novel not merely not often done well, but not often done at all. If you like books like Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, an evocative and intimate portrait of daily life in a nunnery, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s anthropological sf about life in an unfamiliar culture, you will probably like this book, and you may well like it a lot. Even with war and death and so forth, this is a very cozy book. I read it in bed during a cold night, and the only way the experience could have been better would have been if I’d had a fireplace instead of a space heater.

I didn't read this for a long because I had been under the impression that it was a continuation of Walton's King's Name/King's Peace books, which are very cleverly thought-out and well-written alternate-Arthurian which unfortunately feature a first-person protagonist who is stubbornly uninterested in everything that interested me about the story, and fascinated by everything that I found boring. (Similar to my problem with Robin McKinley's Sunshine-- I wanted to know more about the wider world, but Sunshine was monomaniacally focused on baking.)

But [ profile] oyceter told me that A Prize in the Game is only tangentially related to the other books and does not have the same narrator, and recommended it. So I read it, and I'm glad I did... except that now I think I have to give the Sulien books another try to find out what happened after the very abrupt ending.

A Prize in the Game is set in an alternate Ireland marked by the use of magic which people find ordinary and unremarkable but which has clearly had profound implications for their society, and in which the terrifying and strange visitations by Gods jar the characters just as much as they do the readers.

The novel focuses on five young people who start the story trying to grow up, find their niche in life, and claim their loves, and end it as pawns of politics, fate, and the Gods: Darag, whose own agency has been overwhelmed by the magic surrounding him; Ferdia, who doesn't quite realize that he's in love with Darag; Conal, Darag's rival; Emer, a warrior woman in love with Conal; and Elenn, Emer's sister, whose beauty might as well be a curse even if it wasn't literally inflicted on her by some malicious God.

Walton's style is spare and very readable, and the story, especially in the first half before the Gods start interfering, is a compelling account of battles, friendship, more battles, and first love. There are a number of points when crucial action happens off-page, and I am still not sure why Walton chose to dramatize some events and recount others second-hand and in retrospect. But I did enjoy the novel a great deal, especially the first half, in which the stakes are not as high as they get later, but the emotions are more immediate.

As the novel gets closer to the end, the tone becomes both more intense and more distant, the characters fall into archetypal patterns, and the story feels less like a fantasy novel than a prose ballad retelling.

I am a bit baffled by the ending. I understand what happened, but not why, and the story seemed not so much resolved as stopped short. Does it continue in King's Name/King's Peace? I vaguely recall that Elenn was in those...

Warning: comments may spoil the ending.
Thank you all very, very much!

Nigella Lawson: How to Eat and How to Be a Domestic Goddess. Cookbooks. Because I love reading them, and Lawson's Feast (thanks [ profile] gwyniera!) was marvellous: personal, funny, unpretentious, tempting.

The Freedom Line: The Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis During World War II. Self-explanatory, I would think.

Making the Corps. Nonfiction on Marines, recommended by [ profile] oyceter. Love those training sequences!

Naomi Novik: Victory of Eagles. Adrian is now madly in love with the series, as am I. Perhaps we can read this one aloud to each other, if 1-3 chapters/week doesn't drive us mad.

Kathleen Duey: Skin Hunger. Loved this, loved it, loved it. Read it from the library, couldn't wait to own it.

L.J. Smith: Night World No. 2: Dark Angel; The Chosen; Soulmate. Didn't like the last and Smith rather hilariously dissed the first herself, explaining that it was conceived when she was fifteen (and since the charm of all her books lies in their closeness to the teenage id, I find that both terrifying and awesome), but the middle one sounds pretty good.

Jo Walton: Half a Crown. Final entry in her horrifyingly brilliant fascist England trilogy. Loved the first two and would even re-read them despite their creepifyingly convincing subject matter.

Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book. Because my favorite of his prose works is Coraline, his other book for children.
The second in Walton's alternate history series about a Britain which made peace with Hitler and slid into fascism. I liked the first, Farthing, quite a bit; it was in the tradition and to a large extent the style of Agatha Christie, though with considerably better prose.

I liked this one even more. Though the setting is now more familiar, the fact that everything that was wrong in the first book is still wrong and getting worse gives the book a less shocking but possibly even more disturbing atmosphere. Plus, it involves a gender-reversed production of Hamlet which is cleverly paralleled with the story, and I always adore backstage drama.

Viola Lark (formerly Larkin) left her freakish wealthy family of negligent parents and five briliant, eccentric, and/or crazy sisters to become an actress. When she's cast as Hamlet in a production that will be attended by Hitler, one of her sisters, now a devoted Communist, drags her into an assassination plot. Like Hamlet, Viola vacillates over what she should do, and it doesn't help that she's kind of crazy; unlike Hamlet, she has the additional pressure of being involved in a phenomenally creepy Stockholm Syndrome romance with the bomb maker who will kill her if she tries to wriggle out of her place in the plot.

Meanwhile, Carmichael, the morally compromised gay police officer, investigates a bombing which we realize, though he does not, is related to the plot against Hitler. His lover really needed much more character development considering his importance in Carmichael's life and life choices; the other cops are given more character and page-time.

The conclusion, though shocking in its particulars, is horribly inevitable. Like Hamlet.

Don't begin this book late at night, or you, like me, will be up till the early hours of the morning. If the last one had the form of a cozy mystery, this one has the form and narrative drive of a thriller.

Read more... )


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