4 Book Reviews

It’s been about a month and a half since I posted my last book review. Although my reading has slowed as I got back into writing, I’ve still been reading. In fact, after watching Netflix’s Inside Bill Gates’ Brain it inspired me to read more. Bill always carries around approximately 15 books on a myriad of non-fiction subjects. Apparently he reads at a phenomenal rate and retains most of it in memory. While I can’t achieve that, I know reading is beneficial.

For this week, I thought I’d take a break from sharing my novelette Escape from Hell. At three chapters in, the character has just made it to Hell and if you haven’t read the story yet now is the perfect time to catch up. Next week I’ll share the fourth chapter.

I’ve read a number of books in the last couple of months, so it’s time for a quick-splattering of review, and some writing insights these books have provided.

The most recent I finished was Michael Connelly’s Two Kinds of Truth. (Genre: Crime Fiction). Bosch is simultaneously trying to solve a double-murder and clear his name from a corruption allegation made by a serial rapist.

I believe this is the third Bosch novel I’ve read, and enjoyed. Connelly does a great job of bringing in some flavour with the faint-yet-visible emotional struggles of his characters.

One thing that is interesting is the pattern that Connelly seems to have. Bosch always seems to be solving two crimes simultaneously. There always seems to be two plots. I’m trying to remember (and failing) if one plot gets more ‘page time’ than the other? I this particular case, the serial rapist is coming up for a slam-dunk get-out-of-jail-free court case in a week. That puts a timer on the plot; Bosch has a week to prove he didn’t plant evidence. The inclusion of two main plots adds to the drama, making the reader feel more tension and the weariness of Bosch. He’s juggling a lot of balls in the air, which also gels well with what we see about detectives on TV.

Tiamat’s Wrath is book 8 of The Expanse series by the authors known as James S. A. Corey. (Genre: Science Fiction) This series I have previously raved about.

In some ways I don’t think I can give a fair review of this book. I completed the read over a month ago and memories fade. More impactfully, I was mistakenly thinking it was the last book as I read it. (It is instead, the penultimate). Whenever I read a ‘last book’ in a series I always hold myself back a little: as though I don’t want to enjoy it too much, because it’s coming to an end. Consequently I highlighted fewer passages than normal, I believe a symptom of my end-of-series malady rather than the relative quality of the book.

The lines I did appreciate though:

  • Carrie Fisk of the Association of Worlds […] with the governors […] fighting to be the first one laughing at her jokes.
  • Growing older was a falling away of everything that didn’t matter. And a deepening appreciation of all the parts that were important enough to stay.
  • It was cunning almost to the point of wisdom.
  • “You take care of your tools, your tools take care of you.”
  • Naomi’s role in the underground, the underground’s ability to survive, everything was radically uncertain. They papered over the gaps with hospitality and kindness.
  • Timothy watched her like she was giving birth and he wasn’t a doctor. The visible understanding that there was probably something he should be doing to help, but he didn’t know what it was.
  • Evolution was a paste-and-baling-wire process that came up with half-assed solutions like pushing teeth through babies’ gums and menstruation. Survival of the fittest was a technical term that covered a lot more close-enough-is-close-enough than actual design.
  • Two men, each convinced of their exceptionalism, were capable of leapfrogging over vast chasms of maybe-this-isn’t-a-great-idea and this-is-totally-illegal.
  • “He’s dead. I saw it.”
    “So they’ve told me. He was a good . . . Well, he wasn’t really exactly a good person. He cared enough to try, anyway. But he was loyal as hell.”
    Holden paused. “He was my brother. I loved him.”
  • Being reminded that they’d been building roads through a dragon’s mouth left him jumpy.
  • This place is made out of palace intrigue and fear as much as it is concrete
  • Dreams were fragile things to build with. Titanium and ceramic lasted longer.
  • Naomi stepped over and put her arms around him. It was like hugging a metal strut.

The interesting words in this book: pearlescent, tisane, orrery, gestalt, anthropomorphizing, Heliosphere, interminable, bioluminescence and gratis.

(Genre: Legal Thriller) In The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly, we follow the character Bosch’s half-brother, Mickey Halley, a defence lawyer.

I enjoy the cross-over that occurs between Halley and Bosch books. The characters, float in and out, as you’d expect in a family relationship where they both work the same patch (crime).

It’s a solid book with twists and turns in the plot. I’d have to say I like Bosch books better; maybe because it’s easier to relate to the hero cop than the defence lawyer who can be a little greasy at times. It’s interesting that the two Connelly books are similar in many ways. One involves crooked cops, the other crooked lawyers.

(Both of the Michael Connelly books were read in hard-cover, so I can’t provide highlights. I’m one of these people who can’t ‘mark’ a book up).

I picked up Messages by John Hileman for free during a promotional event, and one should not look a gift-horse in the mouth.

It’s a faith-based story, and I think those are particularly hard. It’s pushing a message, without trying to over-push…a tight rope to walk. It’s also hard to know who your audience is: are you writing for Christians (who might know and understand the belief system), or for non-Christians (in which case the approach has to be entirely different, I think).

The best of my highlights:

  • “You know what is right, and what is wrong, because God has put it in you to know. But there are many who hear lies, and for whatever reason, be it wealth, sex, power, you name it, they give their ear to the lies. Something inside them chooses the lie over what they know is truth, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, they begin to allow their heart to be calloused, until they are no longer bothered by the evil, because they have justified it in their own mind.”
  • The second hand made its way around with no regard for the violence it would bring
  • “Why does God let bad stuff happen to good people, even people who are trying to do what he wants them to do?”
    “You’re assuming there are good people. … You’re caught up in relativism. You think because you’re not as bad as the next guy, that makes you good. If a thief stood before a judge and said, ‘I know I took all that money from the bank, but I’m not as bad as that other guy who kills people and likes it,’ do you think the judge is going to say, ‘You know, you’re right. You’re a pretty good guy. I’ll let you go.’? Of course not!”

It’s funny how you see your mistakes more easily when others’ make them. In Messages there’s a brief passage where the character receives an email from someone who can’t spell. Those few paragraphs contain spelling errors. I’ve done the same before. Now, reading it, without the I-wrote-this-bias, I don’t recommend it. It comes off tacky.

Also, I’m guessing it might have been cold while the story was being written. In fairly close positioning (i.e. several pages only) there were the lines ‘Unconsciousness crept over her like a warm blanket’ and ‘ David’s eyelids slid down like a warm blanket’. Be careful with expressions like this: use them one only.

Some interesting words: vestibule, barcalounger, orneryer.

Book Review: Babylon’s Ashes

In this blog post I continue with my book reviews of the fantastic The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey. This post contains spoilers but I recommend you still read on, at least a few paragraphs.

As it happens I accidentally read book seven (Persepolis Rising) before book six Babylon’s Ashes. Although I’m a huge fan of the series, I thoroughly encourage you to repeat my initial mistake (i.e. skip Babylon’s Ashes entirely).

It is quite telling that only once or twice in book seven I wondered if I’d missed something. Even then it was an… ‘okay maybe I forgot a character’s name…‘. Missing the book didn’t leave a huge gaping void; more like something I could forget about by the time I turned the page. If you skip book 6, you won’t miss much. (Although the book did score 4.5 stars on Amazon, so maybe this is just my opinion). I felt that nothing much happens and compared to the other books it’s a bit of a yawn-fest. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting insights I have to share about the book.

Unlike other books in the series, this book has a massive 19 Points-of-View (that is characters through whom we see the world, or in this case, the universe). The additional POVs did not improve my enjoyment of the story. Of the 55 chapters, Holden had 11, Pa had 10 and Filip had 7. That means there is a heck of a lot of characters who didn’t get many chapters. That left me feeling disconnected from the story and the characters. It gave me the unsatisfying ‘opportunity’ to spend time with characters I didn’t know or didn’t care about. It was time I’d rather spend with the characters I’ve grown to like throughout the series.

I think my opening paragraph shows what I think about this book: it shouldn’t exist. Unfortunately, I feel it weakens the series overall. If the plan behind so many POVs was to show the scale of devastation or the alternate perceptions of reality through the Sol system, a series of short stories would have been better. Too many POVs, especially with characters I had no affinity with.

I’m torn about the antagonist. In some respects the villain is good – Marco is a psychopath, which is shown repeatedly by the way he treats those around him as tools that serve his end-goals. And he is always ‘performing’ for the benefit of those around him. Those behaviours are consistent with sociopathy, which is why I lean toward the ‘like’ opinion, somewhat.

On the negative side, Marco is an emotionally driven, snake-oil salesman still pining decades later after his first love. As a villain he has no endearing qualities. He’s immature, vain, emotionally manipulative and, crucially, he’s also incompetent as a strategist and tactician. His plans fail more often than not, and we never actually see him win or succeed substantially. He has charisma – that is all. Not that I doubt the importance of charisma (see Hitler who was unimpressive, save for his charisma) but I don’t believe that Marco’s charisma is enough to command respect for long.

His stated goals are that the ‘Inners’ (Earth and Mars) would lose their stranglehold over the Belt, or that the Belt should have a turn to rule. But he never sells me on him believing it. A rule of writing is that even the villain must consider themselves the hero of their own story. Marco never sells it. Perhaps the weight of other character’s negative opinions – especially those whom we’ve learned to trust – just make his stated motivations appear as deep as a puddle. We know without a doubt his goals are ego-driven. And if he can’t convince me why should I believe that he managed to convince the thousands involved in his loosely-aligned army? Especially the army which was willing to commit to exterminate a significant portion of humanity and decimate the best source of resources in the solar system?

(Of course after reading book 7 I understand a little bit more how it might be plausible. There’s another antagonist behind the curtain who is pulling Marco’s strings… but that’s not good enough. Book 6 must be able to stand on its own… and it doesn’t).

Not only is Marco a complete jerk, maniac, sociopath, loser… he also through his actions dooms all of humanity. Oh wait! Hold the phone. I just realised Marco only gets 2 chapters. We were never supposed to come to like Marco or appreciate his POV, otherwise there’d be more chapters. Having that realisation though, changes nothing. A story needs a strong antagonist and Marco does not deliver.

There also seems to be a lot of plot holes. Pa Michio is an enemy general and yet she escapes punishment. On the contrary, she’ll become President to the Transport Union, effectively making her one of the most powerful people in the solar system. And that’s not negotiated from a position of strength, but rather just a suggestion. I’m not buying that either. And Holden, what happened to the anti-radiation drugs you have to have every few days? No mention of those in this book. And considering Belters don’t like gravity (the whole reason for this war in the first place), they seem to fair quite well in high-G space battles…

I’m not sure what the epilogue was either. It could have been cut out entirely. Maybe it was some kind of message of despair (prologue) becoming hope (epilogue). In contrast to the other book endings, it didn’t make me want to start on the next book straight away. The epilogue belongs on the editor’s cutting floor – not in the book.

There is a section in this novel which I found particularly clever. The key protagonist, James Holden, is trying to convince several potential allies that they should align themselves with him. None of these individuals would normally consider Holden to be ally-material. Though they are barely-touched-upon characters, they all have different agendas so there isn’t one point that will ‘win the room’. Dawes, another minor character, in a series of contiguous small scenes visits each of the characters individually and uses his influence and political nous to sway each of them. What makes this section particularly enjoyable is that Dawes arguments are entirely two-faced. As a negotiator he had traded convictions for victory. For example, Dawes finishes the scene telling one character ,

“There has to be a grown-up in that room,” he said. “Holden’s a puppy. We both know that. We need you there to keep him from f*ing everything up.”

Seconds later the next scene starts with,

“Holden’s the most experienced man in the system,”

He cajoules the next character with,

“But do it soon, because I will wager everything I have that even if he has to go to war by himself, James Holden will destroy Marco Inaros before this is done.”

To the next he says,

“He can’t do it alone,”

Dawes intellectually reasons with another,

“I know his reputation, but no one survives the things he’s survived without having a deep capacity for thoughtfulness and foresight. And more than that, strategy. Holden comes across feckless sometimes, truth, but he’s a thinker. What he’s doing? It’s all from the head.”

And then appeals to the emotions of the next with,

“You think he’s not angry?” Dawes said. “Holden is here as much for vengeance as you are. This is a man who acts from the gut, from the heart, before his head gets in the way.”

The series of scenes end with:

“Every time Holden takes a breath, Marco Inaros suffers,” Dawes said. And that was probably as close to truth as anything he’d said in the last two days.

A highly enjoyable series of scenes showing the full political-chameleon on display.

This has been a long post, so I will share only the very best highlights I made from this book:

  • but no matter the shade of their skin or the texture of their hair, ash and misery had made a single tribe of them all.
  • The harbormaster didn’t hug him back. He looked like a man holding his breath and hoping something dangerous wouldn’t notice him as it passed by.
  • There was an excitement in their voices. Some of it was their fear dressing up in party clothes,
  • Every atrocity that has been done to us had someone behind it who thought what they did was justified.
  • I thought if you told people facts, they’d draw their conclusions, and because the facts were true, the conclusions mostly would be too. But we don’t run on facts. We run on stories about things.
  • But Earth and Mars had kept the labor here on a leash made of soil analogues and complex organics.
  • “We beat Earth,” Filip said. He’d meant it to seem like an offhand comment. Something thrown into the conversation almost at random. Instead, he sounded shrill and defensive, even to himself.
  • Vandercaust nodded, as much to himself as to the boy. Time to pick his handholds careful. Whatever they were spun up over, this was the time he’d land in it if he spoke the wrong words.
  • The only ones not to speak were Amos, smiling his amiable and meaningless smile
  • Carlos Walker, still and silent and unreadable as language in an unknown alphabet.
  • If wars began with rage, they ended with exhaustion.

The interesting words in this book: refutation, pentameter, tardigrades, reperfusion, atavistic, epicanthic, demimonde, milquetoast, abrading, materiel, basal, spelunked, vestigial, orthogonally .

Nemesis Games

This post is about my thoughts and favourite quotes from Nemesis Games by the authors known as James S A Corey. Nemesis Games is book five of The Expanse series. (It’s pretty much spoiler-free).

(My similar posts on earlier books in the series can be found here: Leviathan Wakes, Leviathan Wakes #2 – Caliban’s War – Abbadon’s Gate, and Cibola Burn).

Nemesis Games was an enjoyable ride; and I suspect, will be re-read in the future. One of the things that I loved about this novel was it took the reader in a new direction. Whimsically put, it asked the eternal question of ‘what happens to the cowboy, when you take away his horse?’

For the past four novels we’ve had the crew of the “Roci” flying around together, saving the day. Sometimes it was fending off the life-destroying advances of an alien organism and other times hampering the plans of Dr Evils. Often both at the same time. The important point was it always the crew working together: Alex piloting with finesse, Naomi fixing stuff, Amos breaking heads and Holden being optimistic and drinking coffee. The crew did their thing and the good guys one, even if it took a toll on them and the ship in the process. So what happens while their beloved ride, home and useful giant-gun, the Roci, is spending quality time in the ‘dry dock’?

“The construction sphere of Tycho Station glittered around Holden, brighter than stars. Ships hung in their berths in all states of undress, the Rocinante just one among many.”

First Amos had “a thing” to do back on Earth. Then Alex wanted to go to Mars to apologise to his ex, and Naomi has an urgent, private and dangerous trip she needs to make to Ceres station. Holden finds himself alone on Tycho. This book is one where their personal universes do somersaults. They’re separated and each trying to do the best they can alone; they’re a close knit family, separated by hundreds of millions of miles of space. Each of the crew get their own point-of-view, which is cool to spend time in their heads.

Back in the first book, Holden comments on the fact that they’re all on the ice hauler, the Canterbury, because everyone has a past. No one with their level of competency signs up for the grueling dead-end job unless they were running from something. In this novel Corey peels back layers of each crew member’s past.

One thing that strikes me upon reflection is how I feel about the characters. I have a greater sense of warmth toward them, at only book 5, than I did toward Rand et al in the 14 books of the Wheel of Time. Why is that? I think part of it is because in WOT the characters are often working against each other, at least somewhat. Whether it’s their personality or the conflicts of their occupations, they aren’t one big happy family. The team of the Roci, meanwhile, is always fiercely guarding each other… which is part of what endears them to me. Perhaps that’s unfair, given they are often separated from each other? Maybe it’s the genre. In WOT, fantasy, the characters are powerful, and perhaps more un-relatable. In The Expanse they’re all ‘human’, with no super powers, and therefore more relatable.

The world that Corey has created is futuristic: technology changes things, big and small. The languages, idioms and behaviours have all developed over time. For example, on Earth, “pimps” are now “walkers”. It’s a clever technique of writing – making the culture shift slight enough to be different without losing the association the reader will place on it.

Another important thing I noted is that there should always be edge cases when humans are involved. What do I mean by that? If disaster is coming not everyone will choose to move out of it’s way. People are complex. Sometimes we even make irrational decisions (or at least they appear to be so). Making world’s real mean that sometimes a few people should act in surprising way. We may be herd animals to a degree, but there should always be outliers.

My favourite highlights:

  • the mythology of manifest destiny hides a lot of tragedy.
  • Amos laughed. “Let me get a preemptive I – told – you – so in here. Since when that turns out not to be true, like it always does, I might not be there to say it.”
  • The long – haul transport was named the Lazy Songbird, but its birdlike qualities began and ended at the white letters painted on its side. From the outside, it looked like a giant garbage can with a drive cone on one end and a tiny ops deck on the other. From the inside, it looked like the inside of a giant garbage can except that it was divided into twelve decks, fifty people to a deck.
  • He worked his face for a minute, trying to find a version of his smile that didn’t scare little old men.
  • the last vestiges of youth falling from her and the first comfortable heft of middle age creeping in.
  • It felt a little like watching a hunting cat track a steak.
  • The words seemed to carry more nuance than they could bear, as if the simple logistical facts also meant something about why she’d left. About who they were to each other. It was like she could feel the words creaking…
  • Alex’s experience of real family – of blood relations – was more like having a lot of people who had all wound up on the same mailing list without knowing quite why they signed up for it.
  • “What did you do? ” Fred asked.
    “There was a button,” Holden said. “I pushed it.”
    “J*** C***. That really is how you go through life, isn’t it?”
  • The guard’s head hung slack and boneless in a way that clarified the situation.
  • The aliens that sent the protomolecule hadn’t needed to destroy humanity. They’d given humans the opportunity to destroy themselves, and as a species, they’d leaped on it.
  • Thing about civilization, it’s what keeps people civil. You get rid of one, you can’t count on the other.”
  • She rattled down the hallway like dice in a cup,
  • In the hangar, the Razorback hung in clamps built to accommodate ships much larger than she was. It was like seeing an industrial lathe with a toothpick in it.
  • But looking back through history, there are a lot more men who thought they were Alexander the Great than men who actually were.
  • “Can I get you one?”
    “More of a tea man, myself,” the other captain said. “If that’s an option.”
    “Don’t know that I’ve ever tried.”
    “No? ”
    “There was always coffee.”
  • “Thank you, Mister Patel,” Holden said. “In thanks, you may now have all my stuff. I don’t care about any of it anymore.”
    “Including the coffee maker, sir?”
    “Almost all my stuff.”
  • A funeral shroud was over the planet, and they all knew what was happening beneath it.
  • “How bad does that look?”
    “We’re not making any official statements, especially when James Holden’s in the room. No offense, but your track record for blurting information at inopportune moments is the stuff of legend.”
    “I’m getting better about that,” Holden said. “But yeah. I understand.”

And some good words: sclera, maw, gobbets, malefic, atavistic, taupe, albedo, substrate, wheedling, feckless, supine.

Cibola Burn

I recently finished the 4th book in The Expanse series, Cibola Burn.

For the first time in the books, humanity has begun exploring the distant solar systems using the alien portal system. And, true to human form, people are going to fight over who gets the spoils… with not much thought as to why all of the planets are uninhabited.

As the character, Bobbie, opines in the very first page of the book, “how quickly humanity could go from ‘what unimaginable intelligence fashioned these soul-wrenching wonders’ to ‘Well, since they’re not here, can I have their stuff?”

One of the charming things with this series is how connected and cohesive the books are. The same jokes, themes and character quirks are carried through the series.

While the previous books have had only a couple of point-of-view characters, Cibola Burn expands the viewpoints. I also like (and have probably mentioned it before) how a minor character in a previous book becomes a major character in another book. That parallel-living adds to the depth and richness of the world. Sure, someone might be tangential to the current story, but they have their own life going on. There’s no such thing as a “bit character” in the real world 🙂

Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

  • “Amos will look after you.”
    “Great, Holden said, “I’ll land in the middle of the tensest situation in two solar systems, and instead of the smartest person I know, I’ll bring the guy most likely to get in a bar fight.”
  • [After being told to ‘pack a bag’…] A few minutes later he was on the airlock deck with Amos. The mechanic had laid out two suits of their Martian-made light combat armor, a number of rifles and shotguns, and stacks of ammunition and explosives.
    “What,” Holden said, “I meant, like underwear and toothbrushes.”
    “Captain,” Amos said, almost hiding his impatience. “They’re killing each other down there. Half a dozen RCE security vanished into thin air, and a heavy lift shuttle got blown up.”
    “Yes, and our job is not to escalate that. Put all this sh*t away. Sidearms only. Bring clothes and sundries for us, any spare medical supplies for the colony. But that’s it.”
    “Later,” Amos said, “when you’re wishing we had this stuff, I am going to be merciless in my mockery. And then we’ll die.”
  • “I know who you are,” Amos said. The big man had been so quiet that both Murtry and Holden started with surprise.
    “Who am I?” Murtry asked, playing along.
    “A killer,” Amos said. His face was expressionless, his tone light. “You’ve got a nifty excuse and the shiny badge to make you seem right, but that’s not what this is about. You got off on smoking that guy in front of everyone. You can’t wait to do it again.”
    “Is that right?” Murtry asked.
    “Yeah. So, one killer to another, you don’t want to try that sh*t with us.”
    “Amos, easy.” Holden warned but the other two men ignored him.
    “That sounded like a threat,” Murtry said.
    “Oh, it really was,” Amos replied with a grin. Holden realized both men had their hands below the table.
    “Hey, now.”
    “I think maybe one of us is going to end bloody,” Murtry said.
    “How about now?” Amos replied with a shrug. “I’m free now. We can just skip all the middle part.”
  • Amos stepped in front of Basia and punched the RCE man in the face. It sounded like a hammer hitting a side of beef. The security man fell to the ground, a puppet whose strings had been cut.
  • “Choosing to stand by while people kill each other is also an action,” she said. “We don’t do that here.”
  • “Then tomorrow I’m going to figure out how to get my first officer back from the RCE maniac holding her hostage, so that I can go find the scary alien bullet fragment embedded in the planet. Amos nodded as if that all made sense.
    “Nothing in the afternoon, then.”
  • He tried the idea on like a new outfit. Seeing if he could find a way to make it fit.
  • There were a lot of holes in that logic that he carefully avoided thinking about.
  • “Right,” Holden said. “No coffee. This is a terrible, terrible planet.”
  • “Last man standing,” Amos replied with another grin. “It’s in my job description.
  • “Hey Miller,” Holden said, watching the robot peel up a two-meter section of the tunnel’s metal flooring and rapidly cut it into tiny pieces. “We’re still friends, right?”
    “What? Ah, I see. When I’m a ghost, you yell at me, tell me to get lost, say you’ll find a way to kill me. Now I’m wearing the shell of an invincible wrecking machine you want to be buddies again?”
    “Yeah, pretty much,” Holden replied.

Exotic words that you may want to google to increase your word power: magnetosphere, agraphobia, avuncular, analogs, byplay, proteomes, abode, encysted, carapace, nacreous, chitinous, assays, polymerized, neocortex, axioms, transuranics, dissemble, mitotic, tetrodotoxin, chiral, diurnal, arcology, sepulcher, amorality, patois

A Feast of Reading

I’ve had several weeks holiday recently and read a number of fiction books. In this post I’ll provide some of my thoughts on them – some touched on briefly, and others with more detail. This list includes Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey, The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly and Murder Mile by Linda La Plante.

I couldn’t help myself, there are some spoilers.

Continue reading

Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel

I’ve recently finished reading the non-fiction Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. In the book, Diamond applies his extensive background and strong intellect to try and explain why and how the world has developed as it has. For example: why is it the West colonised Africa instead of Africa colonising the West? Why has technological advancement been more apparent in some regions than others?

It is an informative book under-girded by substantial research and well thought-out hypothesise. I particularly appreciate how Diamond often discussed several competing academic ideas, comparing and contrasting them. Diamond deserves congratulations on his research goal and the depth of approach he takes to answer it. Though a challenging book to read due to it’s dense subject matter, I feel as though it is a condensed master class on many topics.

Spoiler alert: I’m about to dot-point his findings and reasoning as best I can summarise in a short fashion. I’ll not be caveating, so it’s true only in broad-brush terms.

  • Only some crops can be domesticated, and they were not evenly distributed in the world. Land-masses that are stretched East-West favour crop-spreading better than a North-South orientation due to lesser climate changes.
  • Only some animals are suitable for domestication (which is different to taming). On some continents the large animals became extinct before the opportunity to domesticate them. Domesticated animals provide important protein, labour (farming), transportation and military advantages.
  • The spread of crops and domesticated animals is affected mainly by climate and geography, lesser by trade. Inhospitable environments and impassable terrain provide natural barriers.
  • Agricultural societies with crops and domesticated animals produced substantially more food than hunger-gatherer societies. This means a far denser population, and some members of society are freed freed from the food-production role. This enables them to specialise: giving rise to technologies, better organisation through bureaucracies and religion and (eventually) professional military.
  • Hunter and gatherer societies were often displaced, subsumed or eradicated by agricultural societies due to their higher population (‘the weight of numbers’).
  • A denser human population in close proximity to animals develops diseases (and then immunity to them). When these people come in contact with more isolated peoples’ disease often wiped out more than were killed militarily.
  • The development of writing facilitated “political administration and economic exchanges, motivating and guiding exploration and conquest, and making available a range of information and human experience”.
  • Technology is most often iteratively developed, and seldom from a single “brilliant” person. However, a greater population with more education is likely to develop more technology.
  • All of these factors snowballed and built-upon themselves to grow the power of the state: the larger groups often overwhelmed the smaller.

A couple of other interesting points Diamond mentioned:

  • Environment plays a huge factor. “In ancient times, however, much of the Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean region, including Greece, was covered with forest. The region’s transformation from fertile woodland to eroded scrub or desert has been elucidated by paleobotanists and archeologists. Its woodlands were cleared for agriculture, or cut to obtain construction timber, or burned as firewood or for manufacturing plaster. Because of low rainfall and hence low primary productivity (proportional to rainfall), regrowth of vegetation could not keep pace with it’s destruction, especially in the presence of overgrazing by goats. With the tree and grass cover removed, erosion proceeded and valleys silted up, while irrigation agriculture in the low-rainfall environment led to salt accumulation.”
  • Political decisions have ramifications. “The end of China’s treasure fleet gives us a clue. Seven of those fleets sailed from China between AD 1405 and 1433. They were then suspended as a result of a typical aberration of local politics that could happen anywhere in the world: a power struggle between two factions of the Chinese court (the eunuchs and their opponents). The former faction had been identified with sending and captaining the fleets. Hence when the latter faction gained the upper hand in a power struggle, it stopped sending fleets, eventually dismantled the shipyards, and forbade oceangoing shipping. The episode is reminiscent of the legislation that strangled development of public electric lighting in London in the 1880s, the isolationism of the United States between the First and Second World Wars, and any number of backward steps in any number of countries, all motivated by local political issues. But in China there was a difference, because the entire region was politically unified. One decision stopped fleets over the whole of China. That one temporary decision became irreversible, because no shipyards remained to turn out ships that would prove the folly of that temporary decision, and to serve as a focus for rebuilding other shipyards.”
  • The modern keyboard layout was actually designed to be inefficient. Originally for typewriters where too much typing speed meant the typewriter would jam. Faster keyboard layouts exist, but the current layout is so ubiquitous that we are resistant to change.

Highlights from ‘Knife of Dreams’

In blogging about my own book, Vengeance Will Come, I got a little behind in sharing my highlights as I read through the Wheel of Time series. Getting back on track here are my thoughts and comments on Book 11, Knife Of Dreams.

One of the things which I have commented on several times – because it is worthy of repetition is how Robert Jordan explores the differences between the genders. It seems that confusion and the up-is-down way that men and women think and act toward one another are endless fodder for jokes and character tension. (And much of it based in some truth).

  • only a fool thought he knew what was in a woman’s head just because she had a smile on her face. (Page 229)
  • Women could compress a great deal into one look. (Page 233)
  • When a woman went silent on you, there usually was trouble in the offing (Page 280)
  • A man wanted to stand well in his wife’s eyes. (Page 438)
  • “We’ll talk about it,” she murmured, the bond filling with stubborn resolve. The most dire words a woman can say short of “I’m going to kill you,” Rand thought. (Page 460)
  • She stood there giving him one of those looks women carried in their belt pouches. (Page 487)
  • …Caraline paused her talk with Min to give him a look that would have had him hunting for the stab wound had he noticed it. (Page 494)
  • “Still, a cold bath helps a man keep his mind off his troubles.”“I thought that was for keeping your mind off women,” Perrin said. He was in no mood for joking, but he could not expect everyone to be as grim as he was. Elyas laughed. “What else causes a man’s troubles?” He disappeared into the water, and Tallanvor replaced him. (Page 617)

There have been a few points throughout the series where Jordan’s writing has elicited an emotional response from me. It’s impressive to consider that even though I know something is pure fiction, it can still register an emotional response of sadness or elation. (In much the same ways as animation can). One such scene is where Nynaeve tricks her husband Lan, by depositing him as far away from his dangerous goal as she could (while still keeping her word), and then Travels (ala teleports) to every village along his route, calling for soldiers to join him.

“My name is Nynaeve ti al’Meara Mandragoran. The message I want sent is this. My husband rides from World’s End toward Tarwin’s Gap, toward Tarmon Gai’don. Will he ride alone?” (Page 472)

The Wheel of Time is undeniably an EPIC fantasy. The world is populated by numerous cultures; each with their own customs, fashion and architecture. Not to mention biases against each-other. Oops, I guess I did mention it.

Commoners in these lands seemed to believe themselves equal to everyone. Selucia gave the same sort of instructions to the lanky young man who took …[her horse]…  The young man stared at Selucia’s chest, until she slapped him. Hard. He only grinned and led the dun away rubbing his cheek. Tuon sighed. That was all very well for Selucia, but for herself, striking a commoner would lower her eyes for months. (Page 609)

For us in the West, a woman slapping a rude man would be (fairly) appropriate. The idea though that it would result in shame for the woman is so contradictory. It adds a flavour to the story; a richness and a difference to the culture. Jordan turns our social norms on their head: women are often more respected than men, blond-hair and Caucasian skin seem to be rare.

Being an epic fantasy, the series is full of prophecy which is used as a foretaste of what is to come, and then as a reward when it is paid off (especially when in a surprising way). However, prophecy isn’t always fulfilled with a trumpet sounding and a big climax – sometimes it occurs out of happenstance:

The ring was a carver’s try-piece, bought only because it stuck on his finger; he would give up those memories of Hawkwing’s face along with every other old memory, if it would get the bloody snakes out of his head; and yet those things had gained him a wife. The Band of the Red Hand would never have existed without those old memories of battles. (Page 809)

It never hurts to throw in a little bit of superstition or a lack of understanding. Characters after all, aren’t all-knowing.

His companion waved a plump, dismissive hand even while staring at the Maidens. “Worms?” he said absently. “Everybody knows silk grows on trees.” Walking deeper into the common room, Rand shook his head as the proprietor advanced to meet him. Worms! The tales people could come up with to try prying coin out of somebody else. (Page 483)

And just some good quotes:

  • flattery oiled the insignificant as well as it did the mighty. (Page 72)
  • yet the biting, sulphurous smell that filled the chill night air seemed an ill omen, and hardened men offered their prayers aloud as fervently as the beardless boys. (Page 98)
  • Birgitte was the first to arrive, the bond filled with weary discontent. “A ride?” she said, and when Elayne explained, she began raising objections. Well, some of it was objections; the rest was just insults. “What hare-brained, crack-pated scheme are you talking about, Birgitte?” (Page 733)

And a great quote to remember when plotting stories:

It was never this way in stories. In stories, everything was always wrapped up neatly by the end. Real life was much . . . messier. (Page 798)

And the list of words which I either didn’t know, or don’t use enough. Whilst I do love good words, and enjoy being educated by what I read, personally – I would hesitate to use so many “big words” in my own writing. Granted, they are few among thousands… still, I would hesitate.

  • hale (Page 9)
  • salubrious (Page 90)
  • tincture (Page 91)
  • zephyr (Page 97)
  • androgynous (Page 142)
  • griddle (Page 217)
  • derrick (Page 220)
  • coppiced (Page 307)
  • desiccated (Page 309)
  • perquisite (Page 400)
  • andirons (Page 414)
  • demure (Page 434)
  • gobbet (Page 449)
  • charnel (Page 450)
  • detritus (Page 567)
  • susurration (Page 581)
  • grouse (Page 590)
  • suet (Page 596)
  • asperity (Page 638)
  • ebullience (Page 729)
  • vituperative (Page 787)
  • visages (Page 791)