Category Archives: Books

I Read the Red

Many of my friend enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora much more than I did, and it was only after some poking that I revealed my reasons why. After that, I was assured that the problems I had with LLL were not present in the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, so I agreed to read it and post my thoughts. I finished it up over the July 4th weekend, so here they are.

First and foremost, yes, I enjoyed it much more. It’s still the adventures of Jean and his annoying friend, but I’m ok with that, and most importantly, the cheating was not nearly so rampant, and is mostly limited to mere hand-of-author stuff rather than caper-breaking stuff. This is, at least in part, a result of the smaller role played by the bondsmagi (and, tellingly, that part lead to me frowning at their apparent violation of their own rules) and I’m grateful for it.

For context, I actually listened to it rather than read it, and while I was originally skeptical of the overly-theatrical nature of the reading, I was quickly won over to it. The reader (Michael Page) does a good enough job with the voices that it was very easy to stay on top of conversations. One of the unexpected benefits of the audio book format is that it makes Lynch’s fondness for fantasy names much more tolerable. Hearing them spoken makes them at least feel like names when they otherwise sit like lead on the page.

The audio book also has a bit of a downside in that it casts a harsh, unforgiving light on the entirety of the text. Because there’s no way to skim, overly detailed blocks of prose that don’t actually move anything along are cast into harsh relief, and this book is awash in them. If I did not know that Lynch was a gamer, I’d suspect it based on his descriptions, which often serve to lovingly showcase his worldbuilding (which, in his defense, is pretty good) far more than they do anything to move along the plot. They’re problematic enough in their own right, but they’re far more problematic in a book that feels too long to begin with.

In fact, this really feels like two book jammed together, the first a city caper, the second a pirate tale. Either one would probably have been a good read, but their combination feels fat, and wrapping them thickly doesn’t help. This is further muddled by a number of unnecessary time jumps, most egregious of which being an opening flashback which more or less reads like a storyboard for the screenplay this book might be. It’s such a blatant structural trick that it chafes, and it also forces a technical gaffe onto the protagonists (check which names they use).

Finally, this is kind of soft writing. There were numerous points where the tension depended upon your thinking the author would be willing to go there, and Lynch won’t. That’s not too bad a thing, since it’s caper stuff, and fun is appropriate, so it mostly becomes an issue when this moves away from it’s caper roots.

That’s a lot of complaints, but here’s the rub. I enjoyed it, and I’ll read the third book – whenever it comes out – with far less hesitation. For all those complaints, there are some good parts to it. First and foremost, when Lynch is on his game, he really rocks it. Dialog and action move along, his fight scenes are great, and by and large when things are happening, they’re a joy to read. If he were more willing to jump-cut between scenes, it would be a joy to read.

I worry sometimes that Lynch is an author out of time. His writing (at least as showcased in RSURS) seems less well suited to the massive fantasy bricks of today than to the novellas and short stories of yesteryear. With only minimal editing, one could turn RSURS into a collection of stories akin to one of Lieber’s Lankhmar collections and vastly improve them thereby. Many of the longish asides (like the event while climbing) would make perfectly serviceable little stories on their own. It would also offset some of the softness of the writing since there’s an expectation in short stories of a return to the status quo.

It occours to me that the seams are so clearly visible that I wonder if, perhaps, that was the original format, and it got beaten and spackled into Big Fantasy Book. It wouldn’t surprise me, since I imagine that’s the necessity of the day, but it would be a shame if so.

Anyway, the bottom line is that the book’s not flawless, but it’s a fun adventure yarn, with some surprisingly good setpieces. Glad I finally broke down and read it.

Opinions of Locke Lamora

I usually just talk about fiction in terms of how it can be reflected in games, but today I’m going to talk about the actual fiction itself. It should be no great surprise that I’m a fan of capers, and by extension, a certain sort of mystery and thriller. Plot, story and character are all important, of course, but these stories add an extra layer of puzzle onto the fiction. Over and above the interest in the story, there’s an intellectual challenge to it. Can you, as the reader, stay a step ahead of what’s going on? Can you solve the puzzle? Can you figure out the twist?
Writing these stories walks a fine line, and I do not envy the authors who try it.They need to strike a balance of showing the reader enough to allow her to try to puzzle things out, but no so much that it gives it all away. To make this possible there are a number of rules, tropes and traditions that allow the puzzler-author to get away with more things, specifically to allow for information to be obscured.
Now, this can be tricky. If the author withholds a piece of information that one of the characters have, it can utterly ruin the puzzle. You see this a lot in bad (but often popular) mysteries where the reveal revolves around something the detective hasn’t mentioned to the narrator (because, hey, why write well when you can use unreliable narrator as a bulletproof shield?) until that very moment. That’s a cheat because it means the reader could never have figured it out.
But at the same time, you don’t want to show everything all at once. If the brains behind a caper is making preparations for a twist, we don’t necessarily need to see what those preparations are, just that preparations are being made. This is often the difference between a good and bad flashback. A good flashback is built on a stub of an earlier scene – a bad flashback comes out of nowhere in an oh-by-the-way fashion.
If you read a book for the puzzle, you buy into the rules and expect the author to do the same, and when he does, that’s a real problem.
It is with this in mind that I both love and deeply hate The Lies of Locke Lamora. This is a shame, because it’s exactly the kind of book I SHOULD enjoy, and it’s full of things I still remember fondly. If it had been merely an adventure novel, I would probably have enjoyed it a great deal. But it’s a puzzler with both mystery and caper elements, and in that regard it falls down very hard.
Spoilers Follow
Lynch cheats in three very specific ways in the book, and i use the word cheat very deliberately. In each case he uses his authorial power to break the rules in order to keep readers in the dark. This is an admirable goal, but it’s rather like scoring a touchdown in chess – it’s not very impressive if you don’t tell the other party what game you’re playing.
So, first, we have the identity of the Gray King. This is set up very nicely, and there are any number of people it potentially could be, all of whom have some good reason (like being dead) why it couldn’t possibly be them. This is a classic mystery setup, and in time you discover the lie and it reveals who’s alibi doesn’t hold up. It’s set up so well that it ends up feeling like a double cop-out when the reveal is “Ha Ha, it’s this guy that got mentioned on page 23 who has no connection at all to the story so far!” (and, in fact, it feels like a triple cop out if you view it as a “Ha Ha, I as an author am deliberately foiling your expectations!”). It’s a cheat designed to make sure that everyone’s guesses are wrong.
Second, we have the Bondsmagi. To put it bluntly, he’s a walking Deus ex Machina, and that’s _terrible_. Introducing magic into genre fiction is always hard, but it’s super hard for puzzlers because it has the potential to undercut any and all logic. This is the reason, for example, it’s so hard to do a locked room mystery in a D&D setting – there are so many ways to get in and out of a locked room that it’s hardly a mystery at all. If you’re going to add magic to your puzzlers, you need to have rules that you stick by (because nothing’s cheesier than using violations of your own rules as resolution). If you want to bend or break those rules then you need to make sure the limit is not the rules but a character’s understanding (*cough*Harry Dresdean*cough*). Better still, you don’t want magic to ever be the _answer_ to a mystery unless it’s also part of the question. Bottom line, the Bondsmagi is an unending font of cheating.
Last, LLL performs the ultimate cop-out of any caper. In an attempt to make the protagonist clever, Lynch often takes the shortcut of making everyone else stupid. The best and most obvious example of this is the fact that the virtually all-powerful and for-hire magi are an absolute blind spot for every single person in the city, including the spymaster who I can’t help suspect reminded lynch of an NPC he disliked. Yes, they’re crazy expensive, but we’re talking about a rich trading city here. even if they can’t keep one on retainer, it stretches credulity that no one else has thought of using one of these guys before (especially when you can apparently use one to steal huge amounts of money, which certainly seems to offset the cost).
Now, as I say all that, bear in mind that I think the book is full of fantastic, clever, well-written scenes. Many of these scenes are so good that I still waffle on my opinion of the book despite how much my problems with the main plot grate at me. But taken as a whole, it’s a great book about how to run small cons, and a terrible book about how to run a caper.
That said, enough people have said good things about the sequel that I’ve downloaded the audio book and put it in my queue. I’m willing to give it a fair shot, if only because Jean is awesome, and I’m totally willing to read the adventures of Jean and his chatty sidekick.

Kindle, Nook and Virtual Books

I’ve had a kindle 2 for several months now, having acquired it a little bit before the DX came out. I love it, but I also acknowledge it’s too expensive for what it is, and the future of DRM’d books is enough of a crapshoot as to make it a very expensive gamble. I generally encourage people not to get one unless they have very specific needs. If you read a lot of books, often multiple books at once, and do so in unpredictable places (either just randomly or because you travel a lot) then you should consider it. If the books you read are predominantly fiction or entertaining non-fiction (as opposed to reference books) then it’s probably a good match, but even then consider the price.

If you shop through amazon, odds are good the savings on buying kindle books will often be very slim – in many cases it is less than a dollar – so while you’ll see some savings over time, it’s going to take a long while before you make up the cost of the reader. Someday an e-reader might be a good way to save money on books, but we are very much not there yet.

All that said, we are getting closer to the point where it is worth giving an e-reader some serious thought. For all it’s faults, the kindle represented Amazon’s commitment to the idea of ebooks, and that gave the whole idea a shot in the arm. For all that these new and interesting readers are starting to come out, looking to be a kindle killer, never for a second underestimate just how profound the impact of the kindle was. Ebook and e-readers have been around for more than a decade, and the barriers to their success have not been technological. E-ink has offered some improvements in battery life and readability, but it has also traded away functionality that older readers took for granted. And ebooks are not large files – for all that ubiquitous wirelessness improves the experience, transferring books was something that worked just fine in a dial-up world.

Having that kind of commitment to the device and to the idea of ebooks created a market. Without the kindle, the sony ebook would have been a curiosity that sat in its technological corner and gathered dust. By making the market legitimate, it opened the door to competition, and now we find ourselves looking at the devices which are responses to the Kindle. Most of them are pitched in terms of offering something the kindle lacks, which kind of reflects the real state of the market, and several look interesting. Sony is gong to offer a smaller reader, which intrigues me but leaves me skeptical[1] and combination devices like the entourage edge offer a promising look at a potential next generation path, but most of the interest at the moment is on the Nook.

The Nook is Barnes & Noble’s answer to the Kindle, and is firmly positioned in response to it. There’s a lot of attention given to the inclusion of a color touchscreen for navigation, but I admit that doesn’t impress me much. It’s going to look cooler than the Kindle, and I suspect it will make navigating your library much faster (since you can scroll through it all rather than go through it a page at a time) but I would dread trying to use it for navigation and typing. It’s not that the kindle’s particularly awesome at these things, but for some things you just want a hardware keyboard.

No, what’s really interesting is the capabilities of the nook.

First, it has wifi, Some people are excitedly hoping this might open up, but I wouldn’t hold my breath – this function is not for web surfing, but rather for something kind of cool. If you’re in a barnes & noble, you can read books over this connection without buying them. It’s a “browse” function which is kind of awesome in theory, though in practice I think it just means finding a space in the café just got that much harder.

Second, it supports many more formats than the kindle. I won’t go into the weeds here, but there are several formats for ebooks, and the Kindle only supports a tiny slice of them. When people talk about other readers being able to get content the kindle can’t, it’s mostly bullshit, but sometimes (as in the case of library loaning) it’s because it depends on a format the kindle doesn’t support.

Last, and perhaps best, it support book loaning. You can send a copy of a book on your nook to a friend for two weeks. You can’t read it for those two weeks, and when time runs out, it disappears from their nook and appears back on yours. I cannot stress how INSANELY awesome this is. One of the greatest problems with the kindle is the lack of social element. There’s nothing I love like loaning a book to a friend, and the kindle takes that from me. This (combined with the fact that B&N’s goal is to make their books readable on every piece of technology under the sun) could be a killer app.

But it won’t be. See, what’s kind of fascinating about these differences is that, excepting the wifi one, they’re all software driven. The kindle or any other wireless reader could do the same thing with a patch. My big hope is that the nook will be popular enough to force Amazon to actually do that. And it might happen, but I’m a little skeptical. For one thing, as far as I can tell the market for the nook is “people who would have bought a kindle, but don’t like Amazon”. I mean, they exist, but that’s not a huge market. B&N _might_ be able to do a strong upsell through their stores, but that feels like a crapshoot, esp because even if B&N embraces the ebook, that doesn’t mean every employee will.

But I’m still optimistic. I think a competitor would have to come up with something drastically better or cheaper than the kindle to unseat it in the short term, but over the long term the hounds might wear down the lion, forcing it to either give up its throne or (more likely) transform to adapt to the realities of this new world.

1 – In the last generation of ebooks, one of the most promising companies basically destroyed themselves by deciding people wanted an ebook reader the size of a Palm Pilot, and added extra functionality. The result was, basically, a more expensive, less useful palm, and unsurprisingly they didn’t sell. That this was evidence that there was “No market for ebooks” enraged me for several years.