Archive for magics

Rivers of London [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2014 by xi'an

London by Delta, Dec. 14, 2011Yet another book I grabbed on impulse while in Birmingham last month. And which had been waiting for me on a shelf of my office in Warwick. Another buy I do not regret! Rivers of London is delightful, as much for taking place in all corners of London as for the story itself. Not mentioning the highly enjoyable writing style!

“I though you were a sceptic, said Lesley. I though you were scientific”

The first volume in this detective+magic series, Rivers of London, sets the universe of this mix of traditional Metropolitan Police work and of urban magic, the title being about the deities of the rivers of London, including a Mother and a Father Thames… I usually dislike any story mixing modern life and fantasy but this is a definitive exception! What I enjoy in this book setting is primarily the language used in the book that is so uniquely English (to the point of having the U.S. edition edited!, if the author’s blog is to be believed). And the fact that it is so much about London, its history and inhabitants. But mostly about London, as an entity on its own. Even though my experience of London is limited to a few boroughs, there are many passages where I can relate to the location and this obviously makes the story much more appealing. The style is witty, ironic and full of understatements, a true pleasure.

“The tube is a good place for this sort of conceptual breakthrough because, unless you’ve got something to read, there’s bugger all else to do.”

The story itself is rather fun, with at least three levels of plots and two types of magic. It centres around two freshly hired London constables, one of them discovering magical abilities and been drafted to the supernatural section of the Metropolitan Police. And making all the monologues in the book. The supernatural section is made of a single Inspector, plus a few side characters, but with enough fancy details to give it life. In particular, Isaac Newton is credited with having started the section, called The Folly. Which is also the name of Ben Aaronovitch’s webpage.

“There was a poster (…) that said: `Keep Calm and Carry On’, which I thought was good advice.”

This quote is unvoluntarily funny in that it takes place in a cellar holding material from World War II. Except that the now invasive red and white poster was never distributed during the war… On the opposite it was pulped to save paper and the fact that a few copies survived is a sort of (minor) miracle. Hence a double anachronism in that it did not belong to a WWII room and that Peter Grant should have seen its modern avatars all over London.

“Have you ever been to London? Don’t worry, it’s basically  just like the country. Only with more people.”

The last part of the book is darker and feels less well-written, maybe simply because of the darker side and of the accumulation of events, while the central character gets rather too central and too much of an unexpected hero that saves the day. There is in particular a part where he seems to forget about his friend Lesley who is in deep trouble at the time and this does not seem to make much sense. But, except for this lapse (maybe due to my quick reading of the book over the week in Warwick), the flow and pace are great, with this constant undertone of satire and wit from the central character. I am definitely looking forward reading tomes 2 and 3 in the series (having already read tome 4 in Austria!, which was a mistake as there were spoilers about earlier volumes).

Crossed Blades [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on April 13, 2014 by xi'an

After Broken Blade and its sequel Bared Blade, Kelly McCullough wrote Crossed Blades that I had ordered along with Bared Blade. And once again I read this volume within a few evenings. It is still very enjoyable, maybe the more given that there is a continuity in the characters and the plots. However, I did prefer Bared Blade to Crossed Blades as the former was creative in terms of plot and environment. Here, in Crossed Blades, the main character Aral is facing his past, from the destruction of his religious order and of his goddess to the possible treachery of former friends and mentors, to his attempt to drown this past in top quality whisky… While dealing with an adopted teenage daughter in the midst of a typical teenage crisis. This new instalment is thus full of introspection and reminiscence of past loves, and frankly a bit dull at times, even though there is a (spoiler warning!!) massive battle against the culprits for the destruction of the order. The very end is a bit disappointing, but it also hopefully closes a chapter in the hero’s life, which means that the next volume, Blade Reforged, may run into new territories and more into simili-detective stories.  (Two more books in this Blade series are in the making!)

Bared Blade [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on March 23, 2014 by xi'an

As mentioned in my recent review of Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough, I had already ordered the sequel Bared Blade. And I read this second volume within a few days. Conditional on enjoying fantasy-world detective stories with supernatural beings popping in (or out) at the most convenient times, this volume is indeed very pleasant with a proper whodunnit, a fairly irrelevant McGuffin, a couple of dryads (that actually turn into…well, no spoiler!), several false trails, a radical variation on the “good cop-bad cop” duo, and the compulsory climactic reversal of fortune at the very end (not a spoiler since it is the same in every novel!). Once again, a very light read, to the point of being almost ethereal, with no pretence at depth or epics or myth, but rather funny and guaranteed 100% free of living-deads, which is a relief. I actually found this volume better than the first one, which is a rarity if you have had enough spare time to read thru my non-scientific book reviews, I am thus looking forward to the next break when I can skip through my next volume of Kelly McCullough, Crossed Blades. (And I hope I will not get more crossed with that one than I was bored with the current volume!)

Broken Blade & King of Thorns [book reviews]

Posted in Books with tags , , , on March 1, 2014 by xi'an

Over the past few weeks, I read Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough, the start to a series of novels taking place in a fantasy universe and involving the same characters. As in many recent novels I read, the main character Aral Kingslayer is more an anti-hero, not very congenial and rather drawn towards booze and self-loathing. He is one of the last remaining Assassins of a religion which goddess got killed (with very little explanations on how and why this happened). Maybe this is a good enough explanation for his current psychological state, hence the “broken” in the title, but that does not make him more endearing! The story itself is more of a sleuthing one, Aral acting as the detective for hire and another character as the client seeking to recover her inheritance. (With the more unusual add-ons of ghouls and zombies and magics. And the more usual theme of corrupted police officers.) Nothing earth-shattering and still a pleasant ride (that made me miss my metro station once!). As an indicator of how I liked it, I already ordered the sequel Bared Blade. If only to see whether the novelty does wear out… Or not!

About a year ago, I mentioned reading Lawrences’s Prince of Thorns and being rather uneasy about the central anti-hero, a 14-year old at the head of a gang of murderers and worse. I nonetheless bought the second volume, King of Thorns, a few months ago. Once again, I am unhappy about the lack of moral and basic compassion of Jorg and found it difficult to trudge through the ethic morass that King of Thorns represents… In some sense, the character gets more depth and some minimal type of humanity, but most of his actions do not make sense and the added touch of Indiana Jones at some crucial point in the story is just annoying. And I am usually adverse at the mix of science-fiction and fantasy in vague post-apocalyptic universes.  Not recommended, despite the flow of highly positive reviews…

Magical Mathematics [and the converse]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2011 by xi'an

The two of us have been mixing entertainment with mathematics for most of our lives.” (page xi)

When I learned that Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham had co-authored a book on the mathematics of magic, the Book Editor of CHANCE immediately asked Princeton University Press for a copy! Even though I am not at all interested in card tricks. Nor in juggling. (The title is a wee confusing to [a non-native speaker like] me as it sounds as focussing on the magics of mathematics rather than the converse.)

Once the book had arrived, I showed the book to my wife and she started reading it right away, going over the first chapter prior to giving it back. Later, on a plane trip between Phoenix and Minneapolis, I happened to sit next to a professional magician, The Amazing Hondo!, who started chatting with me and telling me about his work and some of his tricks. He knew about Persi as a magician but was surprised he was equally famous among mathematicians. Hondo showed me a few (impressive) sleights of hand and explained a nice mathematical trick (based on creating apparent randomness while always extracting the same number of cards from the pile). As I happened to have the book with me, he took a look at it, commenting on one trick, and wrote down the reference. I have had a few other occurrences of how the book attracted the attention of non-magicians and/or non-mathematicians: this illustrates the appeal of the concept of this book for a very wide audience and, of course, once one starts reading the book, the attaction is increased manyfold. It is indeed a very entertaining book, with a fairly easy mathematical level, and it is also a beautiful product, with wide margins, fancy (but readable) fonts, photographs, and graphs or tables in the margins.

Both of our worlds have a dense social structure: thousands of players turning ideas over and over.” (page xi)

The entertaining and cosy style of Mathematical Magics (oops, Magical Mathematics!) does not mean it is an easy read. First, conceptualising the card manipulations requires a good analytic mind if one does not have a deck of cards available. Second, the connections with mathematics involve several subfields and not only combinatorics. Like de Bruijn sequences and graphs, the Mandelbrot set, Penrose tiling. And even Bayesian analysis for reversible Markov chains (p.42) and the I Ching… The last chapters are however less directly related to maths (even though Chapter 10 about great mathematical magicians includes connections with topology).

Interestingly (for us academics), the book mentions a (Banff) BIRS 2004 workshop relating to magics via de Bruijn sequences and Gray codes. With the traditional picture in front of the (old) BIRS building. (Another item of information, IBM stands for International Brotherhood of Magicians!)

We hope that our book will shine a friendly light on the corners of the world that are our homes.” (page xii)

One of the complaints I share with my wife about Magical Mathematics is that some of the tricks are not explained in full enough detail. At least for some non-native speakers like us. For instance, during my skiing break in the Alps, Paul my nephew and I tried the Gilbreath principle and could not make it work without forcing the perfect riffle-shuffle one card at a time. The sentence “the shuffle doesn’t have to be carefully done” (p.63) set us on the wrong track. On pages 106 and 107, two 1500’s books in French are quoted with one typo (sont versus font, but at the time s and f were typed quite similarly), a missing s in Inventions, and without the accents:  I wonder whether or not accents existed at the time. (It seems they did not, as seen on the originals here and there.) The comment on Heeffer’s 1624 (French) book is confusing [to me] in that Heeffer is a current math historian working on a 1624 book by Jean Leurechon. (The accents are not there in the 1624 edition.)

Overall, this is a wonderful book, potentialy enjoyable by a large range of individuals. (Precision: I read half of it flying over the beauty of sunsetted Greenland and the other half in a chalet next to the ski slopes. So I was in a mellow spirit!) The order behind the apparent randomness of card tricks becomes clearer and clearer to the naïve reader like me.And the warmth and communal spirit of the magician community transpires through the last chapters. (Note there is a $1000 reward posted within the book!)