King of Thorns

by Mark Lawrence

King of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #2)

We find the young Jorg Ancrath shortly after where we left him at the end of “Prince of Thorns”. He’s still ill-tempered, a murderer, destructive, sly, and entirely ruthless. He often seems to act at random, and at best his loose goal might be avenging the deaths of his sister and brother, but mostly he’s just rebelling against being told he can’t do things, or he’s expected to do other things. That’s how Jorg works – instinctively, brutally, reflexively, but still somehow brilliantly:

‘Is this going to be one of those times when you pretend not to have a plan until the last moment?’ Makin asked. ‘And then turn out to really not have one?’

Jorg is a king, now, but it hasn’t quietened his nightmares, which are now haunted by a mysterious copper box. And it hasn’t smoothed one iota off his sharp tongue- we’re sarcastic about everything, if it deserves it:

The bladder-pipe, a local Highlands speciality, is to music what warthogs are to mathematics. Largely unconnected.

Meanwhile, Jorg finds himself opposed to the man who would be Emperor across the whole continent. It’s not that Jorg doesn’t like him, or see why he might be a great Emperor, it’s mostly just his innate stubbornness, and unwillingness to bow down to others, ever. So Jorg finds himself in his castle, with his very young new bride, poorly defended, with twenty thousand of the would-be Emperor’s troops marching towards him. Only his wits – and maybe a handful of peculiar artifacts – might help him.

Occasionally, you get glimpses of the broader setting of this book, from which these artifacts derive – we find that we’re in a long post-apocalyptic future:

When a game cannot be won, change the game. I read that in the book of Kirk.

These kind of “Easter egg” insider nods to the broader science fiction/fantasy genre are delicately done, and a delight to find.

The book is told through two intertwining timelines, one taking only a few hours, while the other takes months, until eventually they come together. I thought this was very well done, and a great narrative device. It’s a form that works very well for other genres, but I haven’t seen it used here, and I rather like it – fantasy as smart fiction, even if it still takes in some of the tropes on the way.

But it’s not all smart asides and clever references. Some of Mark Lawrence’s writing here, as in his other books, soars high above us:

Still the music, the deep slow melody, the high and broken counterpoint, as if the mountains themselves had become the score, as if the glories of hidden caves and secret peaks had been wrapped around the ageless majesty of the ocean and turned into the music of all men’s lives, played out by a woman’s fingers, without pause or mercy, reaching in, twisting, laying us bare.

Five stars, very well deserved.

Book review

The Road to Farringale

by Charlotte E. English

We live in the 21st century, we don’t have flying cars, so can’t we at least have magic? Maybe it’s that sort of desire that has produced such a wave of “contemporary magic” books in the last decade or two. Or maybe we’ve all read too much Harry Potter, I’m not sure. Either way, this is a nice example of the genre: there’s magic, it’s out there, but it’s been fading for hundreds of years, and now us ordinary people can’t see it – and those who can, like Cordelia “Ves” Vesper, the hero of this book, seem to have a whale of a time with it.

Here, we follow Ves as she works with her new partner, Jay, to discover what’s ailing the troll communities of Britain, many of whom seem to be turning in on themselves in a rather alarming way. We’re in book 1 of a series here, so there is some development of the characters, with Ves receiving most of the spotlight, and Jay less so. I liked the setting, too, with the ancient manor house where their organisation is headquartered also playing a significant role. The writing flowed smoothly, but I did feel a little short-changed when the whole thing wrapped up in about 120 pages, all a little too neatly, and with perhaps not enough time for me to get properly engaged with the world.

Still, lots of enjoy here, so three stars for some engaging writing and interesting segments.

Book review

Dispel Illusion

by Mark Lawrence

Dispel Illusion by Mark  Lawrence

This is the deftly-written conclusion to the excellent Impossible Times trilogy, and I enjoyed it as thoroughly as the first two. This isn’t a book you can read without having read the first two in the trilogy – the plot line is complicated enough as it is, with several different timelines going on in different chapters, and you’re definitely doing well if you don’t need to read the helpful recap at the start of the book.

It’s a book that quite literally begins with a bang – a time-distorted explosion, of course, as it’s a prototype time machine that’s blowing up here.

“The two saving graces of explosions are that from the outside they’re pretty and from the inside they’re quick.”

It’s a book about time travel. Time travel as invented by Nick, the lead character, and the real-world implications of that. (My favourite is still that if you travel through time, you are going to also need to travel through space, otherwise when you reappear in your new time, the Earth’s orbit will have moved it from under your feet!) Time travel is, according to mathematics and the laws of physics, perfectly possible:

“The mathematics of time don’t care about ‘now’, they just ask what value you want to set ‘t’ to. There’s a special connection between consciousness and time. Einstein said, ‘Time is an illusion’, and the great Douglas Adams had even greater doubts about lunchtime.”

That reference to a Douglas Adams line is one of the reasons I loved this book, by the way. I grew up very much in the era in which this book is set, and I love all the references to the culture that Nick grew up with. I also played Dungeons&Dragons enough to get the references there, so this was always going to give this book a +3 in the saving roll against my affections. I also grew up in the early days of the World Wide Web, so references like this make perfect sense to me:
I didn’t have time to write any code but the machine linked into the World Wide Web and the Lynx browser enabled me to navigate through literally hundreds of pages of information held on computers all across the planet. Well, mainly in America.

Of course it’s also a book about friendship, and how that changes through time and space. The group of friends we met in the first book are still together – and still playing the same epic D&D campaign that they started in their youth. But they’ve grown up, and grown into their respective characters. One of the nice things is how the tone of the narration has changed very credibly, as we moved from Nick as a teenager in book 1 through to threads of his adult life in the current volume. Although he’s in many ways the same Nick underneath, he’s definitely grown up in this book, and more able to deal with the situations in which he finds himself. Growing up will do that to you:

“Always the child standing there wearing an old man’s clothes, an old skin hanging from old bones, and wondering where the days went, remembering how marvelous it had been to fritter away so many slow and sunny days. And wanting more.”

It’s also a book about enemies: again, the bad guys follow you through time, both forwards and – if you give them a chance – backwards. Miles Guilder is still funding Nick’s research, and he’s still not a nice man. Charles Rust is still very much present as Guilder’s heavy, and he still very much does not like Nick. The interactions with these two drive much of the plot of the book, in ways that are foreshadowed in the earlier volumes, but still reveal in surprising and clever ways in this book.

And Mr Lawrence writes some beautiful lines, here as in all his books, that do such a great job of revealing our shared humanity, even in very tiny ways.

“The stories of our lives don’t behave themselves; they don’t have clear beginnings, and even death isn’t a clear end. We just do what we can, we take what kindness and joy we find along the way, we ride the rapids as best we’re able.”

I loved this book. I perhaps loved the first in the trilogy even more, because it caught me by surprise, but there was so much of that spirit still in here that it’s a solid five stars all the way for me.

Book review

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life

by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Octopuses have eight legs, we all know that. How many hearts do they have? Turns out they have three. Now, how many brains? Well, it turns out the answer to that is complicated… very complicated. And that has huge implications for how smart we think octopuses might be, along with a few of their close relations like some squids, together known as cephalopods. It also starts to nudge into an even more interesting space: that of whether octopuses are conscious or not. Because if they are, the implications are huge, and that’s what this book mainly sets out to explore:

“Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

It’s a truly fascinating space to think about, and this book did a good job of introducing me to various aspects of it. The early chapters take you through the ancient evolutionary history that lead to both humans and the octopus. We go all the way back to the Ediacaran, from about 635 to about 542 million years ago. Life seems to have been very peaceful then, with creatures grazing on mats of vegetation in the early oceans. All sorts of weird things were out there:

“body forms that have since been entirely abandoned by evolution – three-sided and four-sided designs, some with quilted arrangements of plant-like fronds.”

Then some animal worked out that eating other animals gave you a lot more nutritional value than grazing, and we were in a whole new game. This is the Cambrian era of prehistory:

“During the Cambrian the relations between one animal and another became a more important factor in the lives of each. Behavior became directed on other animals – watching, seizing, and evading. From early in the Cambrian we see fossils that display the machinery of these interactions: eyes, claws, antennae. These animals also have obvious marks of mobility: legs and fins. Legs and fins don’t necessarily show that one animal was interacting with others. Claws, in contrast, have little ambiguity.”

One way to deal with this was to grow a hard shell, and hide within it, or to grow hard body parts and use them to leverage muscles. This was the path our ancestors chose. The other was that of the octopus:

“An octopus has almost no hard parts at all – its eyes and beak are the largest – and as a result it can squeeze through a hole about the size of its eyeball and transform its body shape almost indefinitely. The evolution of cephalopods yielded, in the octopus, a body of pure possibility.”

To use that possibility, the octopus has many more neurons than comparable creatures – about 500 million, close to the range of dogs, and very much larger than all other invertebrates. But these neurons aren’t largely collected in one place, as with vertebrates:

“When vertebrate brains are compared to octopus brains, all bets – or rather, all mappings – are off. There is no part-by-part correspondence between the parts of their brains and ours. Indeed, octopuses have not even collected the majority of their neurons inside their brains; most of the neurons are found in their arms.”

This is where it starts to get weird. The arms have nearly twice as many neurons as the central brain. “Each individual sucker on an octopus’s arms may have 10,000 neurons to handle taste and touch. Even an arm that has been surgically removed can perform various basic motions, like reaching and grasping.”

And still they are very smart – “smart in the sense of being curious and flexible; they are adventurous, opportunistic”. Examples abound:

“When vertebrate brains are compared to octopus brains, all bets – or rather, all mappings – are off. There is no part-by-part correspondence between the parts of their brains and ours. Indeed, octopuses have not even collected the majority of their neurons inside their brains; most of the neurons are found in their arms.”

So how does this all work? The octopus, we discover, is “suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain” – the brain is the body, or perhaps better even to say the body is the brain. If it has a language, it seems to be a language of colour and patterns, for octopuses can also produce a remarkable range of colours and patterns on their body, changing these in a second or less if needed. They do this not only for camouflage, but also, so far as we can tell, to communicate with other octopuses. Our exploration of this has barely begun, as we gather data from octopuses in the wild, but it’s certainly used for mating, and quite likely used for dominance displays.

Finally, we touch on the question of why an octopus might need intelligence like this? Neurons are very expensive things to run, from an energy point of view. Many octopuses only live for two years. Why would such a creature need such a sophisticated capability? We do not yet know.

This is a tantalizing book. The author, based on many hundreds of hours of personal observation in the ocean, and building on decades of work from others, makes a very strong case for octopuses as intelligent creatures, even as conscious creatures – as conscious as your family pet, perhaps. But different, too, with a distributed intelligence of a completely different kind than cats, dogs, and humans. There is much more we can learn about intelligence, about consciousness, about what it is to be human rather than a crab or a cat or a cephalopod, from these eight legged, three hearted, creatures with their distributed intelligence and language of colour.


Three Tales from the Laundry Files

by Charles Stross

Three Tales from the Laundry Files by Charles Stross
Book review

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

by K.J.Parker

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Let’s be honest here, I bought this book because of the title. Don’t by a book by its cover – well, maybe, but surely you can take the title into account? I did here, and I have zero regrets.

Orhan is a military engineer. He’s never going to rise far through the ranks, despite his evident competence – he’s the wrong race, and regarded as useful, but somewhat out of his depth on a battlefield. By a series of unfortunate accidents, though, Orhan finds himself in a city that is about to be under seige. He is the sort of person who will, somewhat reluctantly, step in when others are thrashing incompetently around him, so he finds himself increasingly in demand, and increasingly in charge of the city defenses.

“as a wise man once said, the difference between luck and a wheelbarrow is, luck doesn’t work if you push it.”

Fortunately, though, he is cunning, smart, and reads a lot.

“According to the books (there’s an extensive literature on the subject) there are fifteen ways to defend a walled city. You can try one of them, and if that doesn’t work— Indeed. But the books were written for generals, kings, emperors; better luck next time, and we have plenty more cities where that one came from. And, to be fair, each of the fifteen ways is practical and sensible, provided you’ve got an adequate garrison, and sufficient supplies and materiel, and a competent staff of trained officers making up a properly constituted chain of command. What the books don’t tell you is, there’s a sixteenth way. You can use it when you’ve got nothing; no stuff, no men and nobody to lead them. Apart from that, it’s got nothing to recommend it whatsoever. Fine, I thought. Let’s give it a go.”

He’s also happy to delegate to people who do appear competent, and resourceful in working out who those might be. Honourable, he is not, but that’s not what the city needs right now. It needs resourceful, and Orhan is that.

Every stupid, bloody desperate little thing I can think of buys us a tiny scrap more time, once he gets here. It’s all ridiculous and pointless, of course, but I’ve got to try.” I looked at him. “Everyone keeps telling me what I can’t do, but they’re wrong. The only thing I can’t do is nothing.”

I liked all the references to various ancient cultures in here, mixed up in a delightful way. The main division in the city, for example, is into the Greens and the Blues – you are just born into one or the other, and they hate each other for reasons lost in the mists of time.

The story is told in the first person, so it’s (delightfully) not always clear when Orhan is being a reliable narrator of his own tale, but that just gives K.J.Parker more license to have some fun with us. I’ll be lining them up now – I loved it!

Book review

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me)

Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts

By Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson

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Many people (but obviously not me) find it difficult to admit to their mistakes. This book explains why (although clearly it doesn’t apply to me, because I’m not like that), illustrating its points with some great examples, and explaining the experimentally-verified underlying psychological tendencies. Most important is the concept of cognitive dissonance: how we (well you lot, anyway, I’m too smart to do it) will resolve the conflict between our view of ourselves as fundamentally honest and right-minded, and any actions we may have taken that aren’t quite as honest or sensible as they might have been:

“Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or plan of action but justify it even more tenaciously.”

We are terrifically good at this, too. Over time we will nudge our memories so they align better with how we wish things had gone, we tell half-truths to others that we come to fully believe are justified, and maybe even actually a more realistic version of what happened. And we do all this entirely unconsciously – our minds are just seeking to resolve this cognitive dissonance, and do it all for us without our awareness. For example, talking of the first Gulf war and the invasion of Iraq:

“Before the invasion, about 46 percent of Democrats supported it; by 2006, only 21 percent remembered having done so. Just before the war, 72 percent of Democrats said they thought Iraq had WMDs, but later, only 26 percent remembered having believed this.”

Mostly we do this to make ourselves feel better, but actually it’s about reinforcing whatever our self image is. If you are that way inclined, and you have a negative image of yourself, you will reinforce that view. “Yes, I won the Pulitzer prize, but it was just a fluke, I’ll never write anything half as good again”, these people would tell themselves – quite sincerely believing it.

While we may have noticed this inclination in others, the authors are at pains to point out that we all do it – they give various annecdotes about how they did just this on one occasion or another.

“The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on its owner the comforting delusion that he or she does not have any.”

The worst aspect of this isn’t what it may do to our individual lives, but how it can play out on a larger canvas. Several chapters are given over to examples in our courts or in our political system where the implications have included everything from wrongful imprisonment of innocent people of decades, to children taken away from their parents, to corruption, to thousands of deaths in wars or accidents.

Even when we think we are certain we are not doing it this time, we may still be doing it:

“The weakness of the relationship between accuracy and confidence is one of the best-documented phenomena in the 100-year history of eyewitness memory research”

How or why do we do this? One plausible explanation is that we tend to view things that people do as due to either the situation, or due to an innate tendency on their part. When we make mistakes, this is due to the situation – I bumped into you because I was rushing to get somewhere. When others make mistakes, all too often we blame it on their character: they bumped into me because they are just plain rude. This is the so-called “fundamental attribution error”, and again, we may see it in others much more easily than we see it in ourselves.

The final chapter talks a little about how we might get better at spotting these problems in ourselves. If I had one complaint about this book, it’s about how short this section is. The advice is basically “now you know it’s a risk, you can be on the lookout for it, and catch yourself doing it”. True, I’m sure, but how, and what else might we do as well?

I shall give the last word to George Orwell, who the authors quote as putting the whole thing quite magnificently thus:

“We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”


Heroes of the Frontier

by Dave Eggers

Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

Delightfully written book from Dave Eggers, in which we follow Josie, a former dentist, who is having a bit of a mid-life crisis and has abandoned her job and taken her two children to Alaska. Most of the time, these are her companions: Paul, a calm eight years old, and Ana, who has an extraordinary knack for getting into danger, but who has somehow survived her first wild five years. She hires a shakey old RV, and sets of to parts unknown without a plan – or even a plan for a plan, as far as we can tell.

For me, half of the delight is her children and their straightforward reactions and interactions. Paul absolutely dotes on his little sister and is careful and detailed, while she is the epitome of a wild child. They are beautifully drawn characters, and the way they meet the world and whatever it – or their mother – throws at them is charmingly done.

The other half of the magic is Josie herself. Her inner life is richly portrayed, with my favourite scenes being those in which she mentally sketches out musicals based around what she’d experiencing:

“Her head was full of ideas, elaborations and reversals. The show about Grenada? Would that be the first thing to explore? Or Disappointed: The Musical? Or something encompassing all of Alaska. Alaska! No, without the exclamation point, because this was not a demonstrative place, no, it was a place of tension, of uncertainty, a state on fire. Alaska with a colon. Alaska:. Yes.”

It’s a book about their haphazard road trip, with forest fires and law suits and lightning storms, but also moments of tranquility and beauty, long afternoons watching her children playing with other kids in a little brook or on some old playground, and hidden side adventures away from everyone. The plot may or may not resolve, but as with our own lives, in the end it’s about the journey, not the destination.

A strong four stars.

Book review

The Writing Life

by Annie Dillard

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Re-read #3 for me on this, I think. It’s such a beautiful little book, only a little over a hundred pages. The prose shines like the highly polished brass of a cannon, gleaming in the sun, catching your eye with its beauty whilst simultaneously capable of blowing your mind into tiny little pieces. I found myself captivated, reading sentences or paragraphs again and again.

It’s about us reading a book:

“The line of words feels for cracks in the firmament. The line of words is heading out past Jupiter this morning. Traveling 150 kilometres a second, it makes no sound. The big yellow planet and its white moons spin. The line of words speeds past Jupiter and its cumbrous, dizzying orbit; it looks neither to the right nor to the left. It will be leaving the solar system soon, single-minded, rapt, rushing heaven like a soul.”

It’s about the process of writing a book:

“I had to discover a method to remind myself that I had water boiling on the stove… so I stuck a clothespin on my finger. It was, as it happened, a strong clothespin, and I had to move it every twenty seconds. This action, and the pain, kept me in the real world until the water actually boiled …. So that is how I wrote those nights, wrote a book about high holy art: moving a clothespin up and down my increasingly reddened little finger. Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless it is that their lives lack a material footing.”

Much of it is of course just the process of being alive – all of our lives.

“What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”

All of it is remarkable, and much of it is also very poignant. The final chapter, on its surface about Dave Rahm, a geologist who also happens to be a world class stunt pilot, makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time I read it. The clouds part, and just for a moment, your imagination conjures up, with the help of these little black shapes on bits of smashed trees and rags, a thing of Platonic beauty.

Breathtaking stuff. Five golden stars.

Book review


by John Varley

Millennium by John Varley

I love this book – and not least because it’s an old old copy, dating back from my youth, that has followed me across the years, and I’ve read perhaps a dozen times over that time. I feel re-joined somehow with my younger self.

This is not inappropriate for a book about time travel. Here we find Louise, the heroine, reaching back from the far future to our century. Here, her path crosses with Bill Smith. And here, Bill leads a team of air accident investigators who find themselves investigating an appalling mid-air collision between a DC10 and a 747. In which they start to find some very odd things – digital watches running backwards, for example. What exactly is going on!?

The lead characters are great – Bill is nicely written, deeply flawed man: a functional alcoholic with a relentless streak that doesn’t look like it’s going to save his career. Meanwhile Louise is trying to save humanity, one body at a time. And the plot is suitably time-twisty, without any serious impact for being 35 years old, so I’m not going to share any more of it.

Find an old copy somewhere, sit back, and enjoy the ride!