Brief reviews of books I've read.

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Randall Garrett, "Murder and Magic"

2014-10-26 · in Books · 184 words

A short collection of Lord Peter Wimsey-esque murder mysteries — four stories, written and set between 1964 and 1973, with two gimmicks: Richard the Lionheart didn't die in 1199, and a small (but significant) fraction of the population are able to use magic. The former means that we're sitting in the middle of an Anglo-French feudal culture, and the latter means that technology has developed in a rather different direction.

This doesn't mean that we get a bunch of mystery stories revolving around the use of magic, though; instead, magical forensics is a well-developed science, and magic-based engineering is available for those who can afford it. My favourite example was the investigator's electric torch — which is normal in every regard except that the filament is prevented from burning up by an enchantment rather than a vacuum…

The only complaint that I've got are that these aren't fair mysteries (that is, there are clues that the investigator and his assistants know but the reader doesn't). I'd like to see the same idea done at novel length.

Robin Hobb, "Blood Of Dragons"

2014-10-24 · in Books, Realm of the Elderlings · 85 words

This is either the thirteenth Realm of the Elderlings book, or the fourth Dragon book, depending on how you look at it; it's the conclusion of the story about the resurrection of dragons that began back in the first Fitz trilogy. The writing and characterisation hers is up to Hobb's usual standard; good stuff.

I wonder which universe we'll get a book from next — it'd be nice to hear more about the Soldier Son world…

Robert L. Forward, "Indistinguishable From Magic"

2014-10-21 · in Books · 99 words

A pop-science book, explaining how science-fictional concepts — for example, gravity control, or faster-than-light travel — could be achieved using existing science. In many cases the science needs to be helped along with heroic feats of engineering and/or politics — for example, when he's talking about space elevators and space fountains.

Most chapters are illustrated using one of Forward's SF short stories, or with an excerpt from one of his books. The ideas are interesting and they're explained effectively; I think his writing style works much better for non-fiction than for fiction.

John Culshaw, "Ring Resounding"

2014-10-05 · in Books · 315 words

To get an effectively frightening sound for Fafner, Gordon had rigged up a huge bank of about twenty fifteen-inch speakers each with its own power amplifier, and installed the lot in the Blaue Saal, which is a very resonant hall attached to the Sofiensaal. […]

Böhme did not greatly like the result. I sound awful, he said.

You're meant to, I told him. You're a dragon.

He thought about that for a moment. Yes, he said I know. But I'd like to be a beautiful dragon.

Decca Records producer John Culshaw tells the story of the first complete stereo recording of Wagner's Ring cycle, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti — a project that Culshaw and his musicians completed in 1965 after nearly ten years' work. Culshaw notes early on that had he been producing 78 RPM records rather than LPs, the project would have occupied 224 sides; and later he describes a radio station that spent an entire broadcasting day playing the completed recordings.

There are plenty of amusing anecdotes here about the problems of employing and recording opera singers and instrumental soloists. However, I found the most interesting material to be about Culshaw's philosophical and practical approaches to producing the Ring as a studio rather than live recording, taking advantage of the then-new stereo LP format to do things that weren't practical in a theatre performance, while not straying too far from conventional performance techniques. It's a bit light on technical detail for my taste — but when this was written in 1968, I imagine Culshaw was keen not to give too many of his secrets away!

Thoroughly recommended. While I have some of the other LPs Culshaw talks about in this book, I don't actually have any of the Decca Ring series; time to visit my local second-hand record store, I think…

Neal Stephenson, "The Confusion" (reread)

2014-10-03 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 132 words

The sun rose. What a moment ago had been glowing pools of spilled fire on the black velvet ground, were revealed as damp patches on khaki dirt. The bubbler ripped loose, hurtled away, and impacted on the roof of a monastery half a mile downrange. The chimney and dunce-cap shot into the air, spiraling and pinwheeling through the night sky as if the Big Dipper had scooped up a load of the sun's own fire.

See my previous review; and we're now moving into Newton and the Counterfeiter territory.

Rather more action-oriented than Quicksilver, although with occasional interesting alchemical interludes; I'd remembered the bit about steel but forgotten the striking description of phosphorus production. The epistolary approach to Eliza's sections works effectively.

Neal Stephenson, "Quicksilver" (reread)

2014-09-02 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 176 words

Forgive an ignorant Vagabond, but I am used to men of action—so when the Doctor spends all day, every day, talking to people, it seems to me as if he's doing nothing.

He's accomplishing nothing—that's very different from doing nothing. Enoch said gravely.

Continuing my programme of rereading books I last enjoyed ten years ago, this is the first volume in Neal Stephenson's 3000-odd-page Baroque Cycle series. The series is a prequel to Cryptonomicon, and explores some of the same themes: cryptography, the history of computing, and most importantly the nature of money. As the founders of the Royal Society are key characters, it also sort of works as a sequel to An Instance of the Fingerpost — although Stephenson's characterisation of John Wilkins is rather different!

While this is an impressive and wide-ranging piece of work, with a number of Good Bits (my favourites generally being the Eliza-and-Jack sections), it's not as tightly-written as Cryptonomicon. Recommended if meticulously-researched, extremely long novels are your kind of thing.

Neal Stephenson, "Cryptonomicon" (reread)

2014-08-08 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 205 words

My second favourite Neal Stephenson novel; just beaten by Anathem.

When this first came out, it was partly set in the present day and partly during the United States' involvement in World War 2 — so now, of course, it's partly a historical novel set in 1999 (pagers! GSM phones! BeOS!), involving a bunch of cypherpunks attempting to set up a slightly-shady digital currency. Which has, of course, happened in the meantime.

In general, this has aged pretty well. It's structurally very neat, being written as an ordered set of standalone vignettes (many of which would make decent short stories) rather than as continuous narrative. It's a long work but not an overpadded one, and maintains an even pace throughout. There's certainly enough complexity here to reward rereading several times, especially if you've gone away and read more of the relevant history in the meantime…

(The typesetting in this paperback edition leaves quite a bit to be desired, though, especially the maths near the start and anything set in a monospace font. It's not unreadable, but it is jarring. Other editions may be better; I've certainly not had the same problem with Stephenson's more recent books.)

Michael Chabon, "The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, Volume 3"

2014-08-03 · in Books, The Escapist · 52 words

Third anthology of Escapist comics, and the final one to date — the best of the three, I think. I particularly liked Another Man's Escape and The Final Curtain, but all the stories are strong and there's a range of interesting art styles.

Michael Chabon, "The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, Volume 2"

2014-08-02 · in Books, The Escapist · 48 words

Second collection of Escapist stories; not as much to my taste as the first. The Boy Who Would Be The Escapist by Kevin McCarthy and C. Scott Morse is my favourite here; the cigarette-cards cover is also nicely done.

Iain Pears, "An Instance of the Fingerpost" (reread)

2014-08-01 · in Books · 135 words

A bumptious man who works in the Navy Office, forever discoursing on subjects he knows nothing about, but very enthusiastic, and quite likeable in his simplicity. His name, as I recall, is…

I do not wish to know his name, Mr Aubrey.

Oxford, 1663, in the aftermath of the Restoration: an academic is found murdered in his college rooms. The story is related by a visiting Italian medical student — and then it's told again by another of the participants, who has read the previous account but puts quite a different interpretation on events — and similarly twice more, with the true solution being revealed by the final narrator.

This is a well-written, elegant mystery story with excellent characterisation and a detailed, plausible historical setting. Highly recommended.