Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

19 November, 2012


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I greatly enjoyed Gregory Maguire’s Wicked.

I am by no means an Oz aficionado. I have vague memories of checking the Norwegian translation of the original Oz book out of the library as a child, but I have no memories of actually reading it, so it cannot have made a big impact. I actually just bought a copy of the book in English the other day, on account of finding it at a bargain, but I haven’t read it yet.

I do recall the film, of course. You know the one I’m talking about, I doubt I need to specify further.  I don’t recall when I first saw it, but I’m fairly sure it was somewhere in childhood. It was never a big favourite, but I appreciate it for what it is now. Still doesn’t add up to a big Oz interest though.

That came with Wicked. Which is a bit sad, I suppose, that it takes a drastic reimagining to make me take notice. Really, though, it is a testament to the quality storytelling Maguire pulled off in that book. It really was an excellent novel.

I didn’t care to much for its first couple of sequels, Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men. They were all right, I suppose, but nowhere near as engaging as Wicked. I’ve never felt moved to reread those two, but I was still interested enough in the world to read the final book in the series which came out last year, Out of Oz.

While I still wouldn’t rank that as good as Wicked, I felt this was much more of a return to form. I might actually reread this at some point! It somehow made Maguire’s vision of Oz much more interesting that the previous two. I do enjoy his ordered take on the world of Oz. Baum’s books seem to be the sort that rewrite the past whenever convenient, which isn’t the sort of approach I care for. Maguire’s Oz, on the other hand, takes all these confused elements and order them into a coherent whole. It’s like how Don Rosa organised Barks’s myriad references into a coherent whole in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck.

Come to think of it, Wicked‘s full title is even Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Like I said, I’m no Oz aficionado, but having finished this series now, I’m almost tempted to become one. I do have Baum’s first book already, and I’m sure plenty of others are on Project Gutenberg or something.

Of course, first I have to find the time.

30 July, 2012

Anno Dracula

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My summer reading post didn’t list all the books I aimed for this summer. I have a long list of books that sit in my shelves waiting for me, and one of these sneaked into the pile for this year: Anno Dracula by Kim Newman.

Anno Dracula is a pastiche which takes Bram Stoker’s Dracula as its starting point, and posits a world where Count Dracula’s plans in England succeeded. He has married Queen Victoria, placed his own people in all positions of power, has spread his vampiric bloodline far and wide in British society, and placed Van Helsing’s head on a spike outside Buckingham Palace.

In addition to Dracula, Newman draws on a wide variety of other works, as well as on history, placing it in the same sort of genre as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In addition to the Count we encounter characters like Lord Ruthven, Inspector Lestrade (now a vampire) and Dr. Jekyll. Sherlock Holmes does not make an appearance, he’s been imprisoned due to ideological differences with the new regime. Set in 1888, the novel focuses on the investigation into a series of grizzly murders, where poor vampire prostitutes are killed and mutilated by a figure known as Jack the Ripper. Several people, high and low, take an interest in the case, which speaks to the tensions between the vampires and the living in Dracula’s London, and could potentially spark open conflict.

There’s a lot to like in this book – almost all the ingredients seem tailor made to suit my tastes – so I am honestly a bit puzzled as to why I didn’t like it better than I did. Maybe the problem was that I never really connected with the central pair of original characters – the vampire Geneviève didn’t really feel as weighty as I think she was supposed to. Perhaps the parts I liked were carried more by the familiarity of the appropriated character rather than the strength of the narrative. Wow, that sounded harsh, I did after all like the book! Since the identity of the killer is known by the audience from the very first chapter, the murder investigation didn’t really grip me either. The conflict between vampire regime and general public kept being focused into the murders, however, and only at the very end did we get a few rushed pages of action on that front.

The world was very well crafted, stitching the various borrowed elements into a coherent and quite exciting whole. I do think it a bit unlikely that the title of Prince Consort would give Dracula enough authority to push through his sweeping changes so unopposed, leaving the resistance movement idle until the book gets going. Having Dracula in charge is pretty much a necessity for the story, but if there had been some mention of opposition beyond Van Helsing, I’d be better satisfied. I also wonder that vampirism should become so fashionable, especially since it seems to be common knowledge that Dracula’s bloodline is diseased. That’s minor quibbles, though, I was always turning the page wanting to know more about this world, and some of my dissatisfaction with the book stems from not getting to go as deeply into it as I desired.

I think perhaps my expectations were unrealistic going in – my edition had a really brilliant cover, and a ringing endorsement from Neil Gaiman printed on it twice. Combined with the fact that I loved the idea of the setting, I doubt any book could have lived up to what I imagined. I would still recommend it to anyone who found the cover blurb intriguing, though. It was a fine example of mash-up pastiche.

23 July, 2012


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As part of my summer reading, I recently finished Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. Elantris was Sanderson’s first published novel. I have already read and enjoyed several of his later works, so I had pretty high expectations for this one.

Elantris circles around the eponymous city, a magical place where the inhabitants lived as gods, with vast amounts of power at hand. Any person in the land can become an Elantrian, the magical process that transforms a human into one of the gods strikes at random. Upon ascension, they would go live in the city so filled with power that the very stones it was built with glow, and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, ten years before the story begins, the “happily” part was taken out – the city died, the Elantrians were struck by a disfiguring disease, and their powers abandoned them. The random transformation still happens, but instead of gods, the people become weak and fragile wretches, consumed by hunger, unable to heal even the tiniest of injuries, and doomed to live like that forever.

Like most of Sanderson’s books, it is set in his Cosmere universe, but it is still very much a stand-alone. If the Elantrians were to somehow develop space travel, they could theoretically go visit the world of Mistborn or Warbreaker, but since none of the Cosmere books feature such ships, there’s no direct crossover. The Cosmere books share themes, and the underlying structure of the universe, and a few other as-yet enigmatic features, but the stories in them are quite independent of each other.

I had some odd conceptions on what the book was about before I began reading, as a result of seeing snippets and comments on it elsewhere. I had a notion that it revolved around the sort of decadent society seen in Mistborn, with balls and opulence and possibly lots of political intrigue. I pretty much expected to read about the city as it was before its fall. Going into the book with this misconception actually helped, I think, because it made me feel more strongly about the tragedy of the fallen city. The characters were engaging, and I particularly liked the priest of the foreign religion. He could easily have been just another fanatic zealot of the Evil Empire Inc, but Sanderson made him very sympathetic. As a Norwegian, though, I must admit I have difficulty forgiving the name of the empire. “Fjorden”? Really?

Like the other Cosmere books, this book has at its heart a system of magic unique to this particular world. Much of Sanderson’s writing seems to spring out of a desire to explore these systems, and in this book it is certainly tied into the resolution in a very clever way. Despite that, however, this is my least favourite of Sanderson’s systems so far – the drawn symbols to channel power lack the originality of Mistborn‘s metal-based systems. Warbreaker, which is almost Sanderson’s second go at Elantris, returning to many of the same themes, also has a more interesting magic system in its use of colours as a power source. In general, I think it is fairly clear that this is one of Sanderson’s earlier efforts. It feels less polished than his later works. The ending seems a bit rushed, with the main villain suddenly and unprovoked revealing his motivation standing out as the worst patch. Sanderson in general tends towards avalanches of action for his endings, but in this one it didn’t work as well as in his later books.

Despite its flaws, though, it is a good book. There is a reason why it launched Sanderson’s career. While it wasn’t my favourite of his works, it was definitely worth the time and price of admission.

11 June, 2012

Je Ne Parle Pas Français

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I don’t speak French.

That’s not really a remarkable fact in and of itself; there are actually a great number of languages I do not speak a word of, but French is the one that eats at me.

It’s not that I have a great interest in French, or indeed France, either. I have no particular plans or desires to visit France or travel in the Francophone world. One summer, I was given the opportunity to go either to Paris or Fredrikstad. I chose the latter. I have no special fascination with French culture, no interest in its literature so great that I cannot read translation, no love for its film so great that I cannot read subtitles. I do own a CD entitled “The Best of Bizet”, but I don’t think learning the language would have any real impact on my enjoyment of the music.

No, the reason why not speaking French eats at me is the  fact that I spent several hours, every week, for three years, in a class that aimed to teach me French.

Now, there were plenty of subjects in school I didn’t particularly care for, and several in which I was no good, but I think I still walked away from those with something. I can calculate the area of a circle, and probably solve an equation or two given enough time and paper to scribble on. I’m aware of the general function of tectonic plates. I can set up a monthly budget in a spreadsheet, and I could make a very basic database in Microsoft Access 2000, if I should ever see a copy of that again. I know how to light a butane burner, and I know the rules of dodgeball, but I do not speak French.

The thing is, I like language. I think linguistics is super interesting. I feel like I should have had something to show for it all at the end of those three years in secondary school, but nope! I can muddle through the title of this post, but that’s about it. I keep thinking that one day – one day! – I will find the time to go through those language courses they have in the library, or find some awesome online course, and really dig up all the knowledge that never really took back in school and learn the damn thing. It doesn’t happen of course – even when I do have free time, this goes way down the list of priorities.

Enter the thing I actually wanted to talk about in this post: Duolingo. Duolingo is one of these newfangled Internet crowdsourcing services, which aims to teach you a language while simultaneously using you to translate various web pages. You gradually get given more complex words and sentences, and the idea is that as you grow in proficiency, you can help translate more tricky stuff.

I read about this thing when they announced who knows how long ago, and though it sounded like a neat idea. I signed up for their mailing list, and promptly forgot the whole thing until a beta invitation landed in my inbox a few days ago. Over the weekend, I’ve been playing around a bit with their French module, and want to jot down some thoughts.

One the plus, I absolutely see how this might be useful – taking the language in small daily doses, and building up a slow rise in competence. I have, in fact, dug up some of those things I learned in school, enough to make heads and tails of the sentences and basic verbs, and have managed to advance to level four. I don’t know if that’s four out of ten (unlikely) or four out of ten million (also somewhat unlikely), but I am at level four.

And that’s the part of Duolingo I’m sort of sceptical about: the points advancement system. See, every lesson you complete or sentence you translate wins you points. When you have enough points, you advance a level.  There’s even a big medal hanging around the neck of my default profile picture whenever I log in, proudly proclaiming my prowess as a level four Frenchie.

I don’t feel like a level four Frenchie. I still don’t speak French. I can make it thought some of the sentences that keep getting repeated in these lessons (L’homme boit du bière et la femme boit l’eau, because stereotypes fuel early learning or something, I guess), but that doesn’t mean I’ve actually learned much. There’s no real explanation for verb conjugation so far, for instance – and if there’s one thing I remember from French class in school, it’s the endless word document of verb conjugations I had amassed by the end – so I feel like I’m perpetually one step behind what I’m being asked to translate. Like an important step has been skipped. Why should I get points for that?

More insidious still, I think the points and levels could easily foster a false sense of accomplishment. It promotes a train of though where you graduate from one thing and move on to another – “I have mastered this word, now I need not look at it or think of it again!” I won the trophy, now I need not expend further effort on the task. Language doesn’t work like that, it’s not a continually growing pool of points you amass, it’s a thing you practice regularly to maintain, or let atrophy into nothing. Like a muscle. This is Fitocracy all over again.

I’ll probably keep going with these lessons a while longer. It’d be mad to give up after three days, and the core idea is still a neat one. Maybe it’ll even help, after a month or two. Maybe I’ll even have to eat my words about the points system.

But I’ll only do that if I can do it in French.

12 April, 2012

The Fighting Temeraire

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His Majesty’s Dragon, the first book in the Temeraire series, opens with a British ship capturing a French one in 1805, and finding a dragon egg in its hold. This is not extraordinary – in the alternate history of this series, dragons have been domesticated in Europe since the Romans – but it is a great good fortune, as England has a dearth of dragons compared to other European powers, and France especially. Unfortunately, the egg is ready to hatch. The ship, naturally, carries no trained aviators, so it falls to the crew of sailors to attempt to harness the dragon, lest it become feral and of no use. The problem is that a dragon bonds with a rider for life, and the man who succeeds with the harnessing will be forced to leave the relatively respectable Navy for a life in the much more maligned Aerial Corps.

I have greatly enjoyed the Temeraire books since I first discovered them about a year ago. They are a delightful mix of  Hornblower-esque military fiction and fantasy. All of the stories are enjoyable – the lifelong sailor adapting to life as an aviator, the ongoing war with Napoleon and the sacrifices needed to win it, the continual discovery of the full extent of the dragon Temeraire’s abilities, Temeraire’s slow, slow campaign for dragon rights, and best of all the friendship that develops between the dragon and the rider. It’s a thing of beauty, I tells ya!

I also really like the world the books are set in. The presence of dragons all over the world – except in Australia, obviously, ’cause Australia’s always got to be different, hasn’t it, with its freaking koalas and platypuses and poison everythings – has resulted in a pretty different history from our own, at least outside Europe. Luckily, the author seems eager to show it off, and several of the books involve long journeys to various corners of the globe, giving us a good view of it. I haven’t read the most recent book yet, but I understand it involves a visit to the Inca empire, which with dragons was able to withstand Spanish incursion, and I’m greatly looking forwards to it.

As with the Dresden files, I have primarily listened to these as audiobooks, which I can heartily recommend. Simon Vance has a great voice for this sort of period piece, and he manages to make all the characters sound different enough that there is no problem following along.

The books aren’t very long, nor too heavy reading, so I have found them perfect for quick and very enjoyable reads in between larger projects. And come on, it’s the Napoleonic wars with dragons! How can you not love that?

19 March, 2012

Dresden files

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Let me tell you, hypothetical cave person, about the Dresden Files. The Dresden Files is a series of books following the adventures of Harry Dresden, professional wizard and private investigator. He solves crime and wrangles monsters.

It is awesome.

OK, the first couple of books were decent, but not brilliant. They had a simple structure circling around the central case Dresden was on, and not much beyond that. From the third one though, it started growing into something more. The greater hidden world of wizards and faeries and monsters became more defined and arcs began to develop that spanned several books, like the war between the wizards and the vampires. There were still individual cases for each book, but they all began to tie together, as the contours of a magical conspiracy began to emerge. I can’t say too much on the subject, for fear of spoiling, but the story that runs across the whole series is shaping up to be really, really good.

I really enjoy the blend of hard-boiled detective story and fantasy. I have this idea that I don’t really like detective fiction, but since I did enjoy this, and also love the Watch books in Discworld, perhaps I ought to try some plain vanilla detective fiction to see if I’m wrong. Even so, though, it is the fantasy elements that I think really shine. The secret wizard society (which really does in no way resemble the one found in Harry Potter), the vampire courts, and the faeries. The depiction of faeries and their society in particular is inspired.

Harry Dresden himself is also a really good character, the kind of stubborn idiot who insists on doing the right thing,  at times from sheer bloody-mindedness, for fear of what he might end up doing if he did not. It echoes the same conflict in Vimes of Discworld, but is handled differently enough that I only thought of the parallel now, while writing that sentence. I really enjoy reading about him, and hope there will be many more books before the climactic showdown. Yeah, it’s a series so good, I don’t want it to end.

Some of the books I listened to as audiobooks; these were very well done, with James Marsters nailing the voice of Dresden and his world.

I watched a few episodes of the TV adaptation once I was a few books into the series, but I found that disappointing. They had made many changes which seemed quite nonsensical – changing up the best part of the universe, the magical society. The White Council of wizards had become the High Council of vague authority over everything, it was just weird. And a real shame, I think this could have made for a great series.

What am I saying, it has made for a great series – of books! Go read them!

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