A Midsummer’s Equation

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An enjoyably intriguing detective thriller, but not the best I’ve read from Higashino.

A Midsummer’s Equation features the recurring character of Manabu Yukawa, the eccentric but brilliant physicist and sometime-detective who features in many of Higashino’s Detective Galileo works (and who also, like many such characters, tends to find himself implicated in these crimes almost purely by happenstance).

Equation reads like your run of the mill murder mystery – a man is killed in an otherwise idyllic if fading  seaside resort town, the police scramble and bark up the wrong tree, while Yukawa quietly goes about his own sleuthing, his eccentric nature the perfect rationale for why he never chooses to edify the authorities until the last minute. It’s much more straightforward than the howdunit narrative structure of The Devotion of Suspect X or the heartrending originality of Naoko. 

There are some interesting elements, though – like how one of the main point of view characters is a child named Kyohei who forms a close bond with Yukawa and who later turns out to have an unexpected connection to the case. Higashino takes some time to develop that relationship between the two, which does lead to a satisfying emotional payoff at the end.

And the narrative does have a few red herrings here and there – the entire pretext of why Yukawa is there is to provide technical expertise for a planned undersea mining project that has the locals up in arms. I thought at first that the murder might have been motivated by something to do with that particular fight, but the real story turned out to be a lot smaller and soap-operatic in its scope.

While the soap opera tinge does feel ever so slightly overwrought – ascribing somewhat larger-than-life motives to people that might not otherwise be expected to have given their characterization – the precise structuring of the mystery and the slow, methodical and ultimately satisfying experience of seeing how all the pieces fit together in unexpected ways is classic Higashino.

Ultimately, A Midsummer’s Equation isn’t as unique as Higashino’s other works in a way that differentiates it from other detective fiction I’ve read, but it is still a book that displays Higashino’s sleuthing mind in top form.

I give this: 4/5 paintings of East Hari Cove

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Iron Gold (Red Rising #4)

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Iron Gold is where the Red Rising series sheds its remaining adolescence and emerges in the full flower of its adulthood.

We’ve come far since the YA-inspired beats of the original Red Rising, with its Hunger Games style conflict set in a totalitarian, class-based society. Our protagonist, Darrow, has turned from precocious teen to a force of nature, a towering figure of revolution, in the span of the three books that tell his story from his own perspective.

Iron Gold is the first of a new trilogy of books, set 10 years after the fall of the Society. It’s a familiar refrain commonly employed in novels of this type; maintaining the peace is just as hard as waging war.

Brown emphasises this by telling the story from four different perspectives – Darrow whose quest to annihilate the Society carries him down a dark path; Lyria, a Red whose family is killed in the everyday chaos; Ephraim, a former Grey claims inspector turned mastermind criminal who gets caught up in a vast underworld scheme; and Lysander, the prince in exile. The characters inhabit spaces in this universe that hitherto were just hinted at in the original trilogy, and experience things that show us that even amidst the liberation of society from Gold, privation and conflict still exist, generating conflict, opening new societal fissures, and giving some the chance to profit off the corruption of the system.

Brown isn’t afraid to tear down in Iron Gold what he spent the first three books building up. What Darrow is forced to experience in the course of his character arc will be upsetting to those who hoped to see him lead a happier existence after Morning Star. Threats to the new order emerge, long stratagems to undermine the fledgling Republic bear fruit, and things are frankly looking grim by the end.

It’s not quite escapism because it is so unrelentingly grim, although Brown’s worldbuilding is as top notch as ever, painting the cityscapes of Hyperion, the idyllic islands of Venus, and the acid-swept plains of Ios in larger-than-life brushstrokes; a modern sf writer’s answer to planetary romance. The Japanese-inspired asceticism of the Rim Dominion is a study in cultural appropriation that somehow doesn’t feel as pandering as it could have been, just because of Brown’s skill in syncretising his fictional cultures from many inspirations. Certainly not as bombastic as the Greco-Roman pretensions of Gold society.

Iron Gold has also shed any pretension at being a young adult novel, with rough language and mature themes speckled about. Yes, I know it’s ironic given that the first trilogy featured heaps of violence and gore atop the saccharine tweeny-romancing and bruised male egos, but that’s the calculus society operates on nowadays when deciding what’s adult. And Iron Gold has crossed that particular Rubicon.

After all that fulsomeness, it may perhaps come as a surprise to say that I didn’t quite enjoy the book as much as I did previous offerings in the series. While the world is beautifully crafted and expanded, it does take a while for the story to pick up as we slowly get used to the new characters (and the book assumes the reader continues to be intimately familiar with the characters – a pre-novel recap would have been useful). And the outlook of the novel is so unrelentingly grim that I’ll approach reading the next one with a little bit of trepidation. Perhaps Brown might have dialled up the sense of unrelenting threat a tad too much?

Ultimately, though, those admittedly subjective sentiments don’t detract from Iron Gold’s well-deserved kudos as bringing new life and depth to the burgeoning Red Rising universe. Just wish there were a bit of light in the darkness.

I give this: 4 out of 5 railgun pistols

The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds

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The Educated Ape is a snickeringly amusing random entry point into the far-fetched fictive fun-fair that of Robert Rankin’s books.

I bought this book, completely without premeditation, at one of those warehouse book sales where you fill a cardboard box with books, and if you can close the box, you get all the books for a mean $50. As such, I went into it completely unaware of what would be in store or that it was actually the third in a series of loosely connected books in the same universe.

Fortunately, Educated Ape, despite the many peculiarities of worldbuilding that were foisted on me with barely any exposition, was well enough within the realm of comprehensibility that easing into the story was not particularly onerous. Sure, there’s the fact that this is set in an alternate 19th century in which Great Britain is a spacefaring power possessing Martian colonies, every other person of repute has a trained monkey companion, peers of the realm rub shoulders with Venusian ecclesiastics and jovial Jovians, and magic exists. But you get over all that culture shock quickly and take every weird facet of this brave new world in your stride.

Rankin creates out of this mishmash of literary and science-fictional references a surprisingly cohesive world; one that is strangely advanced in many ways but still assuredly Victorian in its manners; a civilisation at the pinnacle of its power and haughtiness, whose use of the English language is rather more florid than is strictly necessary (case in point: Rankin does this thing where he describes actions as ‘X did Y-ing of his Z’, as opposed to the usual ‘X Y’ed his Z’. Like, Bell did steeplings on his fingers rather than Bell steepled his fingers (not a real example)).

There are hijinks galore, all written with heaping doses of (sometimes ribald) humor but with an abiding humanity. All manner of interesting figures abound – the Pipwick-like master detective Cameron Bell, upon whose exploits Sherlock Holmes is (in the story) alleged to be based, his on-and-off monkey partner, Queen Victoria’s secret, evil cannibal twin, a gas-mask toting female vigilante known only as Lady Raygun, and a maid both spare and kempt. Historical figures, such as Ernest Rutherford and Nikola Tesla, feature as the scientific pioneers of the new age, as do time travel shenanigans, liberal use of dynamite as plot device, and the coming of the Antichrist, all layered together in one single twisting narrative but somehow still making sense.

Having read it nearly in its entirety during my annual in-camp training, I can say with confidence that The Educated Ape is precisely the sort of weird, humorous, but surprisingly easygoing tome that you’d want to while away the long boring hours of the day with nothing else to do.

I give this: 4 out of 5 bananas

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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This is such a strange and dense book that it almost defies summary. Framed by a fictionalised account of an actual father-son motorcycle journey from Minnesota to California undertaken by the author and his son, Zen is also a work of metaphysics, and a treatise on how one might be able to be more content in an age of technological rationalism, which alienates many even as they rely on its benefits.

When I picked up Zen, I had very little idea of what the book was and why it had attracted such a strong following – I expected at most an uplifting account of a summer journey through the American West peppered with koans and platitudes, where father and son learn much about life and each other and emerge as better people at the end of the journey.

Instead, it’s a disquieting, quasi-autobiographical account, focusing relatively little on that road trip per se, but more on the narrator’s own past and a novel system of philosophy painstakingly developed by a mysterious alter-ego named Phaedrus, as a means of addressing what he saw was an otherwise unresolvable problem in rational inquiry and rational life.

It starts from the metaphor of motorcycle maintenance. Some people enjoy the process of engineering, of conceptualising things by their parts and figuring out how they all cohere together into a functional whole. Others find themselves appreciating the motorcycle as a whole as a thing that serves a purpose, and as an ideal of functional beauty. The distinction between the two is known as the classic-romantic split, and often the romantic finds himself alienated in a world in which technology and classic rationality – that Aristotelian taxonomisation of the natural world – as king.

Clearly, the narrator explains, rationality can’t explain everything that is experienced and perceived; rationality in and of itself does not contain the means to choose between an infinite set of possible hypotheses to explain any natural phenomenon. How does the classically-inclined person know what hypothesis to favor when making a rational deduction? How does a romantically-inclined person know what is beautiful without rationally scrutinising the aspects of something beautiful?

His answer, which is rooted in the kind of metaphysics that wouldn’t have seemed out of place to a Plotinus or a Taoist, is to posit something called Quality, which is a conceptual monad that defies definition but may be compared to the concept of arete, or virtue, or good, or unity, or even the Godhead, in various schools of metaphysical thought. Quality is what reality strives towards; it precedes perceptual experience, it is pre-intellectual, but only with an apprehension of Quality do we have a sense of what should be. We all know Quality when we see it – but not why. To a classical person, Quality guides the process of rational inquiry by positing the Good to which the inquiry aspires, while to the romantic person, Quality is the source of aesthetic and moral judgement. To the narrator (and by extension Pirsig), Quality is the only metaphysical explanation that provides a conceptual frame to reconcile rational and non-rational modes of thought into a harmonious whole that enriches human experience.

Pirsig briefly dwells on how Quality relates to everyday lived experience, and it can pretty much be boiled down to a metaphysically-supported version of “trust your instincts”. In many tasks we do, we sometimes get caught up in what Pirsig calls gumption traps, i.e. mental blocks fostered by the frustration felt at the lack of progress in a particular task due to internal or external factors. The way to escape the gumption trap is to allow yourself the mental space to apprehend the Quality in the thing you’re doing – which, if you do it right, should come as a pre-intellectual flash of insight.

It’s a weird way of thinking and not at all in tune with modern modes of thought, and comes from a line of logical inquiry that would perhaps be most recognisable to a Greek metaphysicist of old – non-dualistic monads, the unity of the Truth and the Good – the Good being Truth. It’s just that Quality is a modern metaphor, just as the act of repairing a motorcycle is, for life. I don’t personally buy the metaphysics, but certainly I can appreciate its moral or prescriptive content – just like any religion.

The book actually spends most of its time on its so-called Chautauquas – or philosophical stories, and little time on the actual journey itself – which is actually a strange and disturbing account of a man’s struggle with his inner demon alter ego, the person the narrator used to be, who came up with Quality. Essentially that entire plot is inherently a return to Quality as the two dualistic halves of the narrator’s self reconcile at the end of the book.

Zen is therefore, when all is said and done, an odd book. Because it’s a philosophy treatise disguised as roadtrip novel, written so densely that its metaphysics will escape readers unprepared for it, and an odd reflection of the true life of the narrator, but warped beyond reasonable facsimile of reality due to its extremes in personality disorder (and that the narrator’s life was just that weird). But it was worth reading, just for how surprisingly deep and well-constructed it was, even if the metaphysics probably made it less of an actual philosophical revolution that could have been expected, given its popularity amongs t the contemporary crowd.

I give this: 4/5 motorcycles

 

 

 

The Dark Defiles (A Land Fit for Heroes #3)

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What it’s about: The last book in the trilogy sees the three heroes achieve their respective destinies, and the truth of the world is revealed.

Notes:

  • Reading this book has been a long time coming – one could say that I started the series way back in 2008 when the first book came out, and I’ve only just finished the third book in 2017.
  • The Dark Defiles, by and large, shares many of the flaws of the series as a whole – notably its tendency to get stuck in somewhat repetitive plot loops in which characters get pulled into dire situations only to be rescued by plot armour – Ringil with his terrifying spirit vanguard, and Archeth with her growing proficiency with her magic knives.
  • But the last book does take the series in an interesting direction, most notably in the culmination of its long running attempt to set up Ringil for on the path of  the classic hero’s journey, only to have him realise this and reject it in soundly characteristic fashion. It is revealed that the plot has a meta-plot – the events that happen to the characters are all orchestrated by higher deities that have to intrude into worldly affairs in a narratively circuitous fashion in order to follow a set of rules imposed by an even more inscrutable set of beings that have set the laws of that present reality after it was almost torn apart by a cataclysmic war.
  • These gods have been grooming Ringil (and similarly, the Helmsmen have been grooming Archeth) – so that he can fulfill the destiny they have in store and thereby achieve their inscrutable objectives. And Ringil follows the tracks and grows in power akin to some shounen anime protagonist, protected by the plot armour bestowed upon him by the gods, until he reaches that crucial point where he is expected to seize the reins of his destiny – but he acts, in true bloody-minded fashion, opposite to what is intended, to grasp his own destiny.
  • Similarly, Archeth was maneuvered by the Helmsmen into embarking on a quixotic quest north, which was a facade for their machinations to set her up as Empress – but she instead goes in a completely different direction.
  • Egar, out of the three, had no greater destiny, and his death was genuinely quite shocking, although in the context of the greater character carnage Morgan was wreaking on his characters, not entirely discordant with the theme. He was a normal bloke after all, and he, too, was manipulated like a pawn by the gods and used to serve a tangential purpose in the larger scheme of things. But it is Egar’s death that derails Archeth’s particular pre-set destiny chosen for her, although events conspire to suggest that she may heave closer to that fate than she thinks (as she rides back to Yhelteth, not knowing that her Emperor Jhiral has reclaimed Ishgrim for his own).
  • There are echoes of a technological past and a tenuous connection with Morgan’s Altered Carbon series of books too, connections that are more spiritual than suggestive of an actual canonical relation. But the parallels and hints are exactly the kind of thing I like in fantasy.
  • All in all, a well-executed conclusion to the series, both in terms of its thematic payoffs as well as the way in which the various plot threads were ultimately tied together – in what I must say was quite a miraculous fashion, considering that 50 pages to the end I was starting to wonder if there was supposed to be a sequel to this book.

Verdict: The Dark Defiles is a thematically satisfying conclusion to the series, and ties off the various loose ends in a pleasingly ambiguous fashion.

I give this: 4/5 smart daggers

The Cold Commands (A Land Fit for Heroes #2)

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What it’s about: The story of the three antiheroes, Ringil, Archeth and Egar continues. Ringil cuts his way into the centre of yet another dwenda conspiracy, Egar gets himself into successively worse situations, and Archeth, having received a dire warning, mounts an expedition to find a lost Kiriath city in the North.

Notes:

  • This is an odd middle novel. It feels less like the continuation of a first part and more like the start of a sequel series to the first book. Part of the reason was because the first novel could have been a standalone work with a number of minor modifications. The Cold Commands also opens with the characters, particularly Ringil, in very different circumstances – Ringil himself has developed magical powers the provenance of which is not made clear until quite a ways into the book, and is now an outlaw that hunts down and kills slavers.
  • In that sense, it feels a bit disjointed at first, because of the introduction of new world elements that were not really present in the first book. The ikinri’ska magic that Ringil seems to have picked up out of nowhere, the vague portents and weird things that keep happening to him, and his mysterious vanguard of wraiths – the cold commands of the book – that show up at just the right time to slaughter his enemies when he’s on the verge of being overwhelmed, and the weird time-warped relationship between him and the mysterious, out-of-nowhere Hjel and his band of followers.
  • Clearly, the deities and powers-that-be in the book are trying very hard to set Ringil up to be the hero-savior keystone to basically solve all the accumulating plot-threads he’s weaving together – power-leveling him through tribulation after tribulation and giving him all sorts of weird powers, even as the series tries to subvert the very idea of there being a world-savior type hero. Ringil suffers from an extreme form of plot armour, emerging unscathed even after a dwenda bites a chunk of his face off – but it could be construed, to a certain extent, to be deliberately seeded as part of the meta-narrative. But the way in which he rebounds is a testament to his pure, shonen-like bloody-mindedness.
  • The other two threads featuring Egar and Archeth aren’t nearly as weird, but they do take the series in interesting new directions. The full weirdness of the Kiriath wasn’t quite apparent in the first novel, but there is significant development in the second that really hints that they are essentially a technologically advanced race that just keeps up appearances with the barbarian locals in an effort to “uplift” them to their own standards of civilization. There’s even that intimation that their helmsman servants are just glorified AIs. I have a weakness for that sort of thing.

Verdict: Disjointed, hyper-violent, and initially confusing, The Cold Commands nevertheless opens up enough questions to keep the reader invested.

I give this: 4/5 space crabs 

 

The Steel Remains (A Land Fit for Heroes #1)

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What it’s about: In a brutal medieval world, a lethal gay soldier, a womanising barbarian chieftain, and a half-breed last scion of her race grapple with the phantoms of their past and spectres that threaten their future.

Notes:

  • You thought A Game of Thrones was the epitome of grimdark? It’s pretty tame compared to Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains. The series drowns in blood and violence is often the only way the characters know how to react to their troubles. The world is a hellscape of superstition, ignorance, corruption and regressive social mores, locked in petty factional squabbles. And – get this – it just re-legalised slavery in a move called liberalisation. But it’s a world that is just recovering from a war that was black and white in its stark moral absolutism – a war against a race of animalistic lizards that demanded the highest valor from its warriors. It’s a prototypical attempt to crack the fragile eggshell of high fantasy tropism – by setting the story after the epic good-vs-evil struggle amidst a landscape of blinding ambiguity.
  • Ringil, our battle-scarred, hard-bitten warrior, is a frenetic mishmash of atypical character traits for a main character – a sexually voracious gay ex-soldier with a magic sword and the bearing of an aristocrat, noxiously jaded by the world’s barely-concealed corruption and barbarity to the point of reflexive violence, yet secretly yearning for a better world that seems out of reach, in which he will never belong by dint of the blood on his hands. There’s something to be said about the book’s portrayal of Ringil’s sexual appetites, which binds him to a network of lovers and rivals and becomes the driving force of his travails in the book. It is a human spectacle amidst a fantasy world that abominates homosexuality and punishes its sodomites with public impalement. It’s a rather nuanced and was probably quite novel for the standards of mainstream fantasy in 2008.
  • The second main character of the book, Archeth, is another interesting character, the half-blood daughter of a race of immortal humanoids with advanced technology and eldritch intelligences that do their whim – the sort of science-fiction advanced alien race stand-in for the series. As the last of her race on the planet, she is left to advise the savvy but hedonistic emperor of her people’s chosen empire. Of the three threads, hers is the most potentially intriguing in terms of narrative and worldbuilding possibilities.
  • Egar, the womanizing and out-of-place steppe nomad chieftain, is probably the least interesting of the lot, although effort has been made to insert pathos into his origin story. But it’s pretty cool that the steppe nomad savages aren’t portrayed as faceless barbarian hordes as so many fantasy novels like to portray them – sure, they’re violent and rambunctious, but also politically smart enough to know how to posture in the midst of their neighbouring polities.
  • There’s a lot else going on in this book – enigmatic plotting gods, eerie elven types that can flit in and out of different dimensions, shards of deep history and hints of advanced technology, plenty of gay sex described in loving, erotic detail, and a trail of bodies, blood and viscera left behind by all three heroes. In a way, perhaps Richard K Morgan’s long dalliance with cyberpunk has provided the superstructure for this book – triads of noir fantasy heroes exacting revenge on the prevailing power structure.

Verdict: The Steel Remains is a violent, eclectic fantasy debut with many good ideas and just enough going on to bear the weight of its portentous cynicism.

I give this: 4/5 fireships