Book Review: GlowGems for Profit

GlowGems for Profit

by Bruce Davis

 

Okay, it’s kind of a funky title. Sounds like one of those get-rich-quick seminars you see signs for on the side of the road. Thing is, there’s a pun in there that you don’t recognize: the Profit is actually the name of the spaceship that carries our hero through the solar system; Davis is creating a series of adventures about the Profit and her crew and this is only the first – all of them (presumably) will have Profit in the title. So that’s part of the reason: and also, of course, the question of profit is one that runs through the book. The idea of a get-rich-quick scheme, especially one that isn’t really what it seems, is exactly what this book is about, and greed warring with caution is another theme that runs through the book.

And this book runs. That’s the first thing you should know: this is action from start to finish. Davis spends the first two chapters giving us enough exposition to understand who these characters are – and then starting with Chapter Three, the guns start blazing and the blood starts flowing, and it doesn’t really stop until the end. It’s got everything: hand to hand combat, gun battles, chase scenes, ship-to-ship space combat, locked door murder mysteries, betrayal, secrets – everything; and all of it is wonderfully well-done. I don’t know if it was hard to put down because I never really tried: I didn’t want to put it down, I wanted to keep reading, wanted to get to the next scene, the next fight, the next sticky situation, to see how the heroes could fight their way out of it.

That’s the next thing you should know: these are great heroes. Davis has created a fantastic hard-boiled sci-fi hero in Zack Mbele. He’s got a complicated past, remarkable abilities, good friends for whom he has fierce loyalty, a deep cynicism and an inability to trust strangers, and a lone wolf streak a mile wide: he’s Sam Spade and Harry Dresden and Simon Green’s John Taylor and all the rest of those kinds of guys. But he’s also thoroughly himself: I had no feeling at all that this was an imitation of any other author’s work; this world and this hero are entirely original.

In addition to the main character (I admit I didn’t like the other characters as much, apart from Deuce, who’s awesome – but then, I’m not supposed to.) and the action-packed plot, the intricacies of both the world Davis built and the intrigues that the characters get involved with were remarkable. Mbele is a disillusioned former revolutionary, and the way his past keeps rearing its head no matter how hard he tries to escape it was fascinating. And the characters and their complex, difficult motivations, all of them deciphered over the course of the novel by Mbele’s dogged investigating, was perfectly human and completely fascinating to me. You have no idea who’s telling the truth or why people are doing what they’re doing until Zack knows the truth, and you learn it along with him – it was excellent.

This was great stuff, an excellent sci-fi thriller/mystery – the sci-fi, too, by the way, was well done, just enough advanced tech to make the story complex and interesting, not so much that you get confused – and I highly recommend it.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking of a strange question. It is: how right do I have to be?

My thinking of it now comes from an ill-advised dip back into a particular cesspit of an argument from my past. I didn’t win the argument, because I threw up my hands and walked away. I think I did the right thing for my sanity, but I’ve never been happy with failing to win the argument. I want to be entirely right. I am still somewhat haunted by the idea that I may not be right at all, because if I’m not right in an argument that I feel strongly about, but can’t muster the intellectual chops to actually win on the battleground, as it were — what does that mean for my other ideas that seem right, that feel right? Does it mean that nothing I think is right, at least not right enough to win an argument over it?

Does that matter?

Hence my question. How right do I have to be?

Let me give an example, and see if I can illustrate the conundrum here. I have found myself, as a high school teacher of English and therefore of persuasive essays, rhetoric, and argumentation, discussing the legalization of drugs in the U.S. time and time again over the last twenty years. It  is always a topic that comes  up, and now that I’m doing argument with three of my classes, it has come up again.

My opinion on the issue is complex, and not worth hashing out again now; I’ve written about it too many times. (Here’s one. And here’s another. Second one has a better soundtrack.) For this example, all I want to say is this: I waver on whether or not it would be a good idea to legalize all of the drugs. I see arguments for both sides. I don’t know which side has the better points, the truer final argument; I’m not sure which to choose. That’s why my opinion is complex, and why I keep coming back to it, never fully comfortable with my decisions about what policy to support, not sure how to come to a final conclusion.

The question is, should I keep doing this? Should I keep coming back and thinking about it again and again? On some level that is valuable, as it keeps making me revisit my own past opinions and decisions, and I think the changed perspective through time gives good insight. I also think it’s valuable not to get too dogmatic about things — though I confess I enjoy appearing dogmatic, and I often act as if I have not a scintilla of doubt in my mind about various opinions; but mostly that’s for show. There are few things that I’m 100% sure about — mostly it’s that my wife is the best wife in the whole world, education is entirely good  as a concept, if not as an institution, and reading is the greatest thing in the world, except maybe for the satisfaction of basic needs like food and sleep and hugs.

So it may not be bad that I can’t come to a final determination. On the other hand, if there is a 100% right answer and I can know it, then that is the thing I should be working towards and supporting and arguing for, right? Shouldn’t I do the right thing? If I can know the right thing, then I can do the right thing; and that means I should figure out how to know the right thing and go from there. Because  if I’m not doing the right thing, then I’m doing or on some level participating in the wrong thing, and I don’t want that.

How much do I have to know to know the right thing? Beyond a reasonable doubt? 110% entirely completely sure, with evidence and logic to back me up? If it’s the second one, then I have to be very careful about what arguments I take up, as settling them with absolute clarity and certainty would take a crap-ton of time and effort, and I can’t do that with every argument; so I need to be selective.

How do I know which arguments are worth taking up and finding out the definite answer to? Is there a 100% true answer as to which arguments I should be arguing? Is that what I should spend my time on  first, deciding what to know?

If it doesn’t have to be 100% certainty before I can know the right thing, then what else do I use as the basis of my decisions? They feel right? They seem right, based on my upbringing and my culture and my morality? Why would I assume those things are right, especially in the face of obvious arguments to the contrary, things about this culture that strongly imply that this culture is wrong? I am and have been wrong countless times; why would I ever trust my gut on anything of import?

But if I don’t trust my gut, who or what do I trust?

This comes up in my writing, too. I have to decide what the right story is to tell. Writers’ advice tells me to tell the story I feel I have to tell, and satisfy my own inner critic first; but what if I have several stories I feel I have to tell? Which one comes first? And what if my inner critic is an idiot? How can I know?

Do I actually need to trace out the entire epistemology and philosophical basis for all knowledge, so I can be sure of my knowledge,  so I can be sure of my decisions? How long will that take? How many aspects of life will it apply to — and how many will I lose because I’m focusing on this one endeavor, seeking purity of knowledge and purpose? And if  I go out and read all the books that underpin Western reason, how sure can I be that those authors followed the same rigorous standard for confidence in their ideas? What if they went with their guts, rather than establishing a sound logical basis for everything they say?

Does that mean they were wrong?

Does that mean I can’t actually trace perfect knowledge and understanding and thus make a 100% perfect decision?

Yeah, I don’t think I can do that last one, either. So if there can’t be a 100% perfect decision, is there at least a sound basis, a bedrock to build knowledge on? Or is it just turtles all the way down?

Image result for turtles all the way down

Image taken from here. And it’s for sale, and you can vote for it.

So that’s the question, then: how right do I have to be before I make a decision about what side to choose, who to support, how to argue? How right is right enough? How aware is aware enough? And is it even so bad to be wrong, or to change my mind?

I don’t know this answer. I’m genuinely not sure I should know — but regardless, I want to.

I suppose I can only start  by asking the question.

If anyone has an answer, I’d surely like to hear it. And if I have confused you entirely, I apologize; I feel the same way, believe me.

And I don’t know what to do about it.

On the Eighth Day of Blogging, Just Dusty Blogged for Me . . .

…A book review from Purgatoryyyyy!

A quick word: though I have said a lot about the uselessness of New Year’s resolutions, I’m still going to  make something akin to one. Because I’m not against promises, just against them being attached to January 1, and the promise I’m making has little to do with that, as it isn’t bounded on either end by 2017. But the promise is this: books. This year — and beyond — will be about books. I have a book to finish writing, and two books to publish, and at least 100 books to read, before another year has passed. This book is the first of this year, though I started it last year, and don’t actually care what year it is. Point is: books. Lots and lots of books.

This was a good place to start, if starting is what I’m doing.

 

Lost Gods

by Brom

This is the fourth book I’ve read by the illustrator Brom – the other three were The Child Thief, The Devil’s Rose, and the unforgettable Plucker – and I feel about this one much as I felt about the others: Brom has an incredible imagination, a good ability to tell a story, and a thorough obsession with blood and gore and hell. I still think he should stick to the illustrated novels, though, because The Plucker is by far his best work, including this one.

This is a good book. It’s a fantastic cosmology, with Brom following in the footsteps of Jim Butcher and Kevin Hearne and others, finding a way to unify ancient mythologies with the modern monotheistic religions; in this book, set largely in Purgatory/Hades/The Underworld, the idea is that the One Gods (And maybe my favorite word play in this book is that one: the plural “gods” after the number “one”) have taken over from the ancient pagan gods and driven them into the Underworld, where all souls go. There the gods have continued their ways, trying to draw worshipers and maintain their own power and glory, but still losing out to the modern religions and to ambitious and godless men.

Enter our hero, a man with a mission: to save his wife and child. Whatever the cost.

I don’t want to give away more than that – don’t even want to tell you which character is actually the hero, because the first impressions you get, from pretty much every character, are wrong. That was the best part of the novel, for me: the underlying idea that nobody can be taken at face value, neither good nor evil. That was done extremely well in this book, and it kept me guessing all the way. Kept me reading, and enjoying it. There are characters to root for, and ones you hope will be destroyed; many of them end up exactly where you want them to, and it is satisfying. But there are also some that make you change your mind: first you want them to fail, but then you want them to succeed; some of those resolutions were actually the most satisfying.

Other than that, the world-building was great, as I said, and the visuals are brilliant at times: Brom doesn’t always have a great gift for describing things in detail, but the pictures he imagines, and then puts into words, are stunning. It’s why I wish he’d stick with illustrated novels, because when he paints those visuals, then the whole story is elevated to magic. Fortunately, this book has a set of full-color plates, illustrations of the demons and gods in the Underworld, which are beautiful. Combine that with a good fantasy world, a good story, lots of action and violence and blood and gore, and with interesting characters, and this is something worth reading. (And spend the money for the hardback: you want the illustrations full-size. Don’t know what they’ll be like if there’s a paperback. If you find it in a store, check: they’re inset about two-thirds of the way through the novel, in a group. Not necessarily the best part of the book — it is a good story — but they are a necessary part of the book.)

 

In his acknowledgments at the end, Brom says a wonderful thing while thanking his editor for helping him put this book together. He says,
“When I started writing this novel I never stopped to consider the logistical challenges of my idea. I, like so many creatives, don’t have time for such silliness. I needed to plunge in, chase my muse before she slipped away. I did not realize until later that in order to make my particular vision of purgatory believable, I would need not only to invent an entire history, a system of government, a political/social structure for both souls and gods, tie it into all religions, add some kind of monetary system, define magics and spells and powers, but also to invent a physiology for the dead, figure out if souls eat, drink, and if so, what. Can the dead die? If so, how? And, as with most mysteries, answering one question often leads to ten more.”

He’s never been more right. And he’s done a good job of this with Lost Gods. I recommend it.

Book Review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass

The Aeronaut’s Windlass

by Jim Butcher

I’m tired, now.

I’m not tired because it’s Monday (Okay, no, I am tired because it’s Monday – but that’s not the main reason.), but because I just got finished being dragged along, like a dinghy tied to the back of a battleship, in the wake of probably the best action writer working right now.

Jim Butcher.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is the first book in a new series, The Cinder Spires; it is science-fiction, and it is steampunk. It is set in a world where the people live in impossibly tall structures, called Spires, that stand miles into the atmosphere; people travel between Spires on airships that fly using electrical currents in the atmosphere which they catch with great webs of silken ropes, like solar sails. The main characters include the captain of the fastest air ship on the planet – which is not Earth; it seems to be a planet with a much denser atmosphere, as the ships are described as sinking down into the permanent mist, or sailing up out of it in order to navigate or to fight – as well as a pair of what might as well be called wizards, master and apprentice Etherealists with strange powers and the strange penalties that so often accompany power. There are also a selection of nobles of the main Spire in the story, Spire Albion; nobles both wealthy and poor, honorable and deceitful, beautiful and deadly. They duel, they backstab, they fight for position and prominence and power. There are several soldier characters, as well, as this is the story of a war between Spires, or at least the beginning of the war: and the first strike is not only the deadliest, but it carries deeper meaning, as well. There are wheels within wheels, here, and fires within fires. There are also some of the nastiest villains I’ve read in quite a while: an evil Etherealist and her bodyguard, and they are extraordinarily vicious and disturbing. All I’ll say is: their allies of choice are enormous alien arachnids that skitter up walls before they leap down and tear limbs off with their giant insectoid jaws, wrapping up their human opponents in strands of sticky web-silk. And those are the less-frightening ones.

But hold on: because all is not lost. As confused and desperate as these humans become – and the heroes really do sink pretty low, though I’ll spoil this: they don’t lose every fight – they still hold onto hope.

Because some of the characters in this book are cats.

That’s right: steampunk, airships, war, magic, battle, alien spider-monsters – and talking cats.

And because it’s Jim Butcher, the battle scene starts about a third of the way into the book: and then it. Does. Not. Stop. Even on the last page, we are finding out about new betrayals, new dangers, new challenges that face our heroes. It is enormous fun to read, because Butcher does it the right way: he has his characters face setbacks and surprises and even awful defeats; but then the right person with the right ability is in the right place at the right time, and out of that good fortune or good planning comes– victory. At least a small one. Sometimes a large one. And you’re cheering for them the whole way, because Butcher also writes wonderful characters, complex and intriguing and genuine, and of course, Butcher has that wonderful sense of humor, which sparkles through the whole book – particularly the scenes with the cat interacting with his human companions (and inferiors, as he sees them; he is, after all, a cat.).

It’s not flawless; the way the airships function was hard for me to follow at times, and the world is larger and more complex than could ever be covered in one book unless that book was nothing but history and atlas. This one isn’t, so there are things I want to know more about and things I don’t yet understand. But this was tremendous fun to read. And for the rest?

You’re durn tootin’ I’m going to read the next book to find out. And the one after that.

Book Review: MacHugh and the Faithless Pirate

 

MacHugh and the Faithless Pirate
by William S. Schaill

 

First, let me say something about the publisher: because this book is from Fireship Press, (Website is here) a small independent press here in Arizona that specializes in nautical and historical fiction. I found this press, and this book, at the Tucson Festival of Books, a glorious local event that celebrates the printed word, and because I am a pirate fanatic, this book jumped out at me immediately. But Fireship has a number of authors, with a number of titles, and the books themselves are top notch, good printing, good binding, good cover art. The copy editing was imperfect — but honestly, I just read another book published by Bantam Spectra which had as many typos if not more, so I won’t split hairs. This is a good press that makes good books.

And this is a good book. It’s not a great book, I’ll say that; the characters are a little too simply drawn, and the main character annoyed me a little at certain places (Largely because he thinks of younger women as romantic interests, which was entirely accurate for the time period, but still a little weird to read — a grown man going over to the home of a friend and checking out his daughter is just too funky for me.) and I wish the Faithless Pirate could have been more than just a villain, because I do love pirate narratives.

But this is, bar none, the best nautical action/adventure I’ve read, in terms of its accuracy and its verisimilitude and its author’s encyclopedic knowledge of the sea and tall ships and marine combat. Reading about these men struggling with this ships on these seas, fighting weather and currents and politics, searching for pirates, finding them, fighting them, winning and losing various battles in various ways — it was just great fun to read. The suspense is excellent, the action is exciting, and the historical and nautical details are as accurate as any I’ve known. For the sake of enjoyment, and for the sake of reading about cannons blasting and cutlasses slashing and blood spurting and everything else, this book was excellent. I hope the author continues to write MacHugh stories — because whenever he isn’t creeping on 18-year-olds, I thought this Scottish wine merchant/privateer was a great character (Though he did seem to have a whole lot of “In his younger days” adventures that made me wonder: just when did this guy start living this life of adventure? And did he ever, I don’t know, take a week or two off?) and I’d love to read more.