You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Evil for Evil

Evil for Evil is K. J. Parker's sequel to Devices and Desires. Duke Orsea, who has lost his duchy, is living with his wife under the refuge of his rival Duke Valens. The duchess, Veatriz, maintains an uneasy relationship with him and Valens, with whom she exchanged letters for years. Veatriz and Valens waver between acknowledging their attraction and pushing each other away.

Valens has to concentrate on the war with the Mezentines. After rescuing Veatriz and Orsea, the Mezentines are waging war in vengeance and to kill the defector Vaatzes. Valens decides that since his city is no match for the Mezentines and their mercenaries and their war engines, the best option is to evacuate the city and scuttle the silver mines. He consults with Vaatzes who comes up with a plan to collapse the first hundred feet of the mines to fool the Mezentines into believing they are totally ruined.

Lucao Psellus, the clerk in the empire who got the war started and became part of Necessary Evil, has been tasked with discovering more about Vaatzes crime. He is also sent to meet with Vaatzes to make a deal with him to betray the Vadani like he betrayed the Eremians. Of course the Mezentines have no intention of keeping any promise they make him.

Meanwhile Miel Ducas, the disfavored Eremian lord, is leading the Eremian resistance against the Mezentines but is picked up by scavengers after a battle. He manages to escape before being turned over, and makes his way to an old estate of his where a man and his daughter are working on the formula for a particular color of glaze to be able to sell Mezentine style pottery.

At the center of the plot (and plotting) is Ziana Vaatzes, who continues to connive to get vengeance against his former country. This volume starts to go in a different different direction, changing expectations quickly. The wild card is a man named Daurenja, who is Vaatzes' equal and nemesis. He sees through the defector's machinations and sets in motion plans of his own. The two go from being wary allies to being bitter rivals, yet they both need each other.

I was pleased to encounter unexpected twists in the book, on top of the unexpected twists in the first volume. Vaatzes continues to be the main driver of the plot, even as events start to overtake him and acquire a life of their own. The metaphor of Vaatzes' plot being a well calibrated and designed machine is expanded. All the characters continue to develop. The nature of the relationships keeps changing as the plot thickens. I was a little concerned in the first half of the book when the plot seemed to get bogged down and characters seemed to be in stasis with little interesting events. But then a surprise attack comes out of nowhere things get very interesting. It's a good example of the twists that happen in the book. For a middle volume, it manages to keep interest. B+

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Son of a Witch

Gregory Maguire's Son of a Witch is the sequel to his novel Wicked. This novel has a different tone than the
first, mostly because Liir, the son of Elphaba, has a very different personality than the witch. Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, was very headstrong and knew precisely who she was and what she wanted. Liir is not even sure that Elphaba was his mother, and he has no family.

The story starts with the discovery of Liir's body, broken and comatose, and he is taken to the Cloister of Saint Glinda to see if he will recuperate. A new maunt (nun) called Candle, who is very quiet, is assigned to watch over him and to help his recovery she plays her instrument, a domingon. Meanwhile the story flashes back to immediately after the witch dies, when Liir travels with Dorothy and her companions to the Emerald City to visit the wizard. Once there Dorothy and the wizard disappear and Liir is left alone in the city. He is determined to find Nor, his childhood friend, and nearly catches up with her in the horrible prison called South Stairs. Instead he uses the witch's broom to fly out, and he decides to join the home guard.

He spends years in the home guard, never forgetting Nor but becoming entwined with the mindset and politics of Imperial Oz. On assignment in Quadling country he follows an order to commit an atrocity against the civilians, then leaves in shame. He makes his way to the witch's castle of Kiamo Ko, then decides to fulfill the mission of a dying Bird by flying to a bird convention. That is when he is attacked by dragons and left for dead.

Candle has a power that she wields through her domingon. Her power helps revive Liir, and he is pleasantly surprised to find himself in her company in a strange farmhouse not far from the cloister. They both agree that he must go to the bird convention to deliver the message and discuss the dragon attacks. At the bird convention he meets General Kynot, a Cliff Eagle who is another of the many colorful characters in the book, both human and Animal. Liir then returns to the Emerald City where he encounters a former comrade in the home guard name Trism who is now in charge of the dragons. Trism's horror at the viciousness mixes with Liir's horror at his own atrocity. The two of them decide to take a stand against the emperor, risking their lives.

Liir is always beset by the uncertainty of his heritage and his lack of direction in life. Though he believes he may be Elphaba's son (and she didn't treat him like her son), he knows nothing of her magic, and he's not sure he wants to follow her politics. This is symbolized by his reluctance to help Princess Nastoya, an Elephant serving as the Scrow princess. This is a story about growing up, driven by Liir's search to determine his identity and make a life for himself. He stumbles along the way, but knows he must redeem himself.

All the characters in the story are very interesting. The girl Candle starts as a simple stereotype but grows into a significant force in Liir's life. The maunts Sister Doctor and Sister Apothecaire have a strange relationship that changes as they search for the cause of the face scrapings in the area. Liir's own uncle Shell shows up in South Stairs then rises to great political heights. Every interaction between the characters could be a story in itself.

Politics is also a strong theme that emerges in the story. Liir comes to identify with the elements of Oz that resent the imperialism of the Emerald City. This is only intensified when he learns of the atrocities committed at the influence of Shell. Liir becomes not only responsible for his own life but also a sort of hero to others. A

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Descartes' Bones

I received Russell Shorto's Descartes' Bones for Christmas. The full title is Descartes' Bones: A skeletal history of the conflict between faith and reason. And it is just that. Shorto uses the famous philosopher's bones to trace the history not only of the mortal remains but philosophy in general and the impact that the use of reason has had on science and faith.

Descartes died and was buried in Sweden in 1650, but his bones were disinterred in 1666 and sent back to France. His bones were seen as a symbol of the light of reason, but ironically they were also treated as holy relics. In this way Descartes embodied the fusing of ancient or medieval thought with the principles of the Enlightenment, like using reason despite where it took you. But even though Descartes worshiped reason he still maintained the existence of God, and he was joined in other scholars who dared not challenge the church's authority. Instead they used reason to try to prove God's existence.

During the French Revolution the bones were moved from a church to a national museum known as the French Pantheon to join other historical monuments. Yet just a few years after the decree to move the bones, the revolutionary fervor swayed against the philosopher. This is the biggest example of the fact that reason alone can be used or abused for many purposes. The revolution itself, originally formed based on principles of a government formed by its citizens, quickly turned bloody and unreasonable to the extreme.

Shorto gives a good description of how Descartes' ideas spread throughout Europe from the relatively free Netherlands and immediately created controversy. Later, his philosophy would influence great thinkers such as Spinoza and Kant. The influence of reason over religion would grow over the centuries, but there are obviously great conflicts to this day. I was struck by this quote towards the end of the book, by a Christian minister: "The human mind can be led astray. It is no basis for anything without God." This anti-reason attitude is not only prevalent today, it is highly contradictory. The minister is trying to reason away reason itself. He saw no irony in the fact that his own mind is as fallible as any other, more so because he refuses to apply any reason to his preconceived notions.

The author does a great job melding a historical detective story with the development of modern philosophy, while developing the symbolism of the bones: the way Descartes bridges ancient and modern thinking. To add to the symbolism and mystery, his skull was separated from the rest of his bones and has its own fascinating history. A-

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Devices and Desires

K. J. Parker's Devices and Desires is the first novel of a fantasy trilogy. The Eternal Republic is a city-state of Mezentines who have a regimented society built around solid principles of engineering. Any deviation from Specification is an extreme crime punishable by death. Ziani Vaatzes is the foreman of a factory that makes scorpions, military war engines that fire spears. When he is convicted of making an abomination, a deviation from Specification, he is sentenced to death. Enraged at the idea of his wife and daughter suffering without him, he escapes the city and swears revenge.

Beyond the city are the neighbors are the Eremians and the Vadani, two rival duchies that are more agrarian. The Eremian Duke Orsea has just suffered a terrible defeat by the Mezentines and their scorpions after an ill-advised attack. In their retreat they capture Vaatzes, who offers to build scorpions for the Eremians. Orsea and his council decline his offer, but he sets up a shop building them with the help of a partner.

Meanwhile, the duke's right hand man Miel Ducas fnds himself with a quandary when he comes into possession of a secret letter written to the duchess from Valens, the Vadani duke. When Ducas finally decides to destroy the letter he discovers that it's been stolen.

The Mezentines decide that to protect their technological secrets they must destroy Eremia, but the first army of mercenaries they send are wiped out by the Eremian scorpions. The second army they send is decimated by the Eremian cavalry before laying siege to the city. Ducas is imprisoned when the missing letter comes into Orsea's hands, just as the Mezentines begin their attack.

This is an exciting story that has more to it than my brief synopsis would indicate. At the core is Vaatzes cold determination to reunite with his wife. As an element of a machine, he is a part of a metaphor of fate, his sentence leading mechanically to his revenge and unification with his wife. The book is also quite funny in places, especially the relationship between Ducas and Orsea. The cultures of the Mezentines and the Eremians are drawn well and are in stark contrast. Vaatzes, as the central cog, provides the engine for the story. His determination and machinations are impressive. The story is often dark, cold, and ruthless. I look forward to the next volume. A-

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