Archive for steampunk

la belle sauvage [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2018 by xi'an

Another book I brought back from Austin. And another deeply enjoyable one, although not the end of a trilogy of trilogies this time. This book, La Belle Sauvage, is first in a new trilogy by Philip Pullman that goes back to the early infancy of the hero of His Dark Materials, Lyra. Later volumes will take place after the first trilogy.

This is very much a novel about Oxford, to the point it sometimes seems written only for people with an Oxonian connection. After all, the author is living in Oxford… (Having the boat of the two characters passing by the [unnamed] department of Statistics at St. Giles carried away by the flood was a special sentence for me!)

Also, in continuation of His Dark Materials, a great steampunk universe, with a very oppressive Church and so far a limited used of magicks! Limited to the daemons, again in continuation with past volumes…

Now, some passages of the book remind me of Ishiguro’s buried giant, in the sense that the characters meeting myths from other stories may “really” meet them or instead dream. This is for instance the case when they accost at a property where an outworldy party is taking place and no-one is noticing them. Or when they meet a true giant that is a river deity, albeit not in the spirit of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London novels.

The story is written in the time honoured setup of teenager discovery travels, with not so much to discover as the whole country is covered by water. And the travel gets a wee bit boring after a while, with a wee bit too many coincidences, the inexplicable death (?) of a villain, and an hurried finale, where the reverse trip of the main characters takes a page rather than one book…

Trivia: La Belle Sauvage was also the name of the pub in Ludgate Hill where Pocahontas and her brother Tomocomo stayed when they first arrived in London. And The Trout is a true local pub, on the other side of Port Meadow [although I never managed to run that far in that direction while staying in St. Hugh, Oxford, last time, the meadow being flooded!].

Looking forward the second volume (already written, so no risk of The Name of the Wind or Game of Thrones quagmires, i.e., an endless wait for the next volume!), hoping the author keeps up the good work, the right tension in the story, and avoids by all means parallel universes, which were so annoying in the first trilogy! (I do remember loosing interest in the story during the second book and having trouble finishing the third one. I am not sure my son [who started before me] ever completed the trilogy…)

Shadows of Self [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on April 8, 2017 by xi'an

“He’d always found it odd that so many died when they were old, as logic said that was the point in their lives when they’d the most practice not dying.”

Now this is steampunk fantasy, definitely! With little novelty in the setting of the universe. If mixed with a Wild West feeling, though, just like the half-made World

“Mirabell had been a statistician and psychologist in the third century who had studied why some people worked harder than others.”

Actually, this is the same universe as The Mistborn trilogy, but 300 years later,which allows for some self-referential jokes and satire. Including the notion that the current ruling class could be exactly what the heroes of The Mistborn had fought against!

“Not guns,” Wayne said with a grin. “A different kind of weapon. Math.”

More precisely, this is the (a?) sequel to the Alloy of Law, which I had almost completely forgotten, unlike The Mistborn trilogy, which does not help with the reading as the book refers rather insistently to this Alloy of Law!

“Sir, you said you hired me in part because of my ability to read statistics.”

Nonetheless, it is an interesting plot, with a very nice ambiguity of the main characters, who (again) often feel they may be closer to the dictature that set The Mistborn revolution than to the revolutionaries themselves! And one of the heroes is a statistician (as obvious from the many quotes around!).

“Wayne felt a disturbance stir within him, like his stomach discovering  he’d just fed it a bunch of rotten apples. Religion worried him. It could ask men to do things they’d otherwise never do.”

In short, good story, nice style, entertaining dialogues: perfect [mind-candy] travel novel!

The Alloy of Law

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2012 by xi'an

When I saw that The Alloy of Law was half-price in the Cambridge Waterstones, I did not hesitate long in picking the latest Brandon Sanderson‘s book! It is set in the Mistborn universe, with the same chemical principles directing magical powers (allomancy and ferromancy). A terrific concept by the way! However, The Alloy of Law reads much more like a steampunk novel. With a serving of wild (or weird) West. And, in short, it does not read very well… (Even though it reads fast, I was done with it by Sunday evening.)

“Numbers, patterns, movements. People seem erratic, but they actually follow patterns. Find the deviations, isolate the reason why they deviated, and you’ll often learn something. Aluminum on the floor. It’s a deviation.” (p.178)

In a sense, the novel The Alloy of Law best compares with is Gilman’s The Half-made World, that I read about a year ago. Same steampunk basics, same wild wild West atmosphere, same central characters of a female academic chafing at the Victorian constraints imposed by the society, same major role of trains… However, I feel The Half-made World is a successful and convincing construction, while The Alloy of Law sounds like an unfinished attempt. I have been amazed at the number of books published by Sanderson over the past years, especially considering the pressure he is under for completing Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I wish he had spent more time and care in polishing this book! Indeed, it greatly feels like it was rushed, with a neat idea for a backbone, but not enough meat to make the concept stand. There are too many dreary, repetitive, and overly precise descriptions of gun battles, the main male character is shallow (and only too well deserves his nickname of Wax!), the female character is more interesting but still caricaturesque, the overall plot does not make much sense, most of the dialogues are poor (e.g., when explaining “When you make an alloy, you don’t just mix two metals. You make a new one.“, p. 134), and the connection with the original trilogy is almost completely lost! (The fan-made trailer is actually quite well-made, by comparison. And covering about all main features of the book!)

I am certainly not looking forward the second volume in the series…., if any. In fact, the book is presented as a stand-alone novel, but the ending has all the loose threads (main villain still at large, love relations still unresolved, final appearance of a mythical figure, …) to proceed quickly (too quickly!) to a sequel of The Alloy of Law.

Diamond age

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2011 by xi'an

Here is the one before last of my vacation reads! As obvious from several earlier posts, I am a big fan of Neal Stephenson’s books. e.g. Snow Crash is one of my preferred cyberpunk books (along with Neuromancer), and I consider Stephenson’s approach to the genre deeper and more scientific than Gibson‘s. So when in Lancaster I picked the Diamond Age, I was quite excited to have discovered an overlooked volume of his’! The more because the story was partly taking place in Shanghai. Alas, I am rather disappointed by the result. Indeed, the book does not read well: the “suspension of disbelief” does not operate.

The Diamond Age brims with (too many???) brilliant techno-societal ideas, colourful characters, literary references, and exciting settings, but the plot dries out much too quickly. The universe Stephenson depicts is a mix of cyberpunk centred on nanotechnologies and of steampunk with Victorian codes and attitudes. (In a sense, the Diamond Age is Dickens mixed with Gibson and van Gulik.) One of the great ideas in the Diamond Age is the “primer” that educates the central character, Nell, who has been neglected by her alcoholic mother. It is a quite compelling concept, the one of an interactive book backed by an AI and by real actors that turn Nell into a real scientist (the part about Turing machines is quite good) and cryptographer, as well as teach Chinese orphans (although it does not work so well in the latter case because of the lack of real actors).  The fact that the level of the story remains one of a fairy tale while Nell is growing up and maturing is a bit of a disappointment. What really put me off, though, half the book read, is the appearance of the Dreamers, an “unnecessary and monstrously tacky underwater sex cult” that doomed my “suspension of disbelief” for the rest of the book… (The criticisms are mostly positive, though.)

the half-made world

Posted in Books with tags , , , , on December 31, 2010 by xi'an

“He was–ah–he was carving the roast at dinner, for the Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and the Bishop of Lodenstein, and others. And the effort, and the occasion, were too much for him. He swelled up in his shirtsleeves and burst. He fell with his mustaches in the gravy.” put the first chapter of this book on-line and it was original enough to make me buy it… I read the remainder of the half-made world over the past week and really enjoyed the weirdness of it! It came as part of the steampunk month on but it blurs the genre boundaries as it also qualifies as weird WestContinue reading

A very poor read

Posted in Books with tags , , on October 30, 2010 by xi'an

Following some reading advice on, I ordered Worldshaker by Richard Harland. Now I have read it, I cannot fathom why anyone would see anything positive about the book and even less how it could be nominated for an award! The style is appalling (the same applies to the above trailer and to the cover). The characters are incredibly shallow. The story is completely predictable, to the point there is no suspense whatsoever. (E.g., it is just so clear from the beginning that the two main characters will end up in a romantic relationship. The reason why they do is highly unrealistic, even in a fantasy universe.) The closed universe of the massive moving city (or juggernaut) is inspired from submarines but the description lacks conviction and it is unrealistic to an unbelievable level (like, how does the structure produce wealth to pay for raw materials from populations outside the ship? Why is the size of the working class population much lower than the size of the upper class population, contradicting economic requirements? What is the role of the “filthies” in the production and locomotion processes if they cannot be compelled to work for the upper class? &tc.) The fact that Worldshaker apparently belongs to the “young adult literature” category does not excuse those low standards in writing, unless the author wants to reach at such a young age that the story becomes inappropriate… There is no possible comparison with other books in the literature: the closed universe of a Jules Verne’s novel like 20,000 leagues under the sea is way above in its creativity, not to mention its style. The hardship of Victorian education are described in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, that Worldshaker very poorly imitates in this respect. The consequences of storing one’s ancestor bodies in one’s lodging is exploited in Barjavel’s Ravage. And so on. (An hilarious confusion on amazon author’s page mixes the author with a homonymous literary theorist!) This is clearly one of the worst novels I have read in a long time…