Monthly Archives: October 2013

Review: The Republic of Thieves, Scott Lynch

I wanted to like The Republic of Thieves. I really wanted to.

I was a latecomer to Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastard series, having read The Lies of Locke Lamora, published in 2006, last year, and finishing Red Seas Under Red Skies in February of this year. The latter, bursting with skulduggery and piracy, was especially strong, and I was impatient for the most recent entry in the series.

Maybe my expectations were too high.

It isn’t that The Republic of Thieves is a disappointment. It’s not; it’s a solidly constructed story and will certainly appeal to diehard Lynch fans. Rather, it lacked a certain cohesiveness, almost as if Lynch wasn’t quite certain which way the story was headed.

The Republic of Thieves, Scott Lynch

The Republic of Thieves, Scott Lynch

 

The elements readers expect from Lynch are all here: Bosom buddies Locke and Jean engaged in thieving hijinks; another well-developed city-state; wily enemies; scheming; shenanigans; copious quaffing and cursing. It’s all perfectly serviceable, and nothing at which a reader of the series should turn up his or her nose. I’m sorry to have to say, though, that it just doesn’t add up.

Readers of the previous Gentlemen Bastard books are familiar with Lynch’s story structure: Chapters that alternate between the present and the past, the latter shedding light on the former over the course of the book. Lynch maintains this tried-and-true tactic for The Republic of Thieves. The effect here, unfortunately, isn’t cohesive. The flashback chapters serve their purpose of informing the present storyline, but the reader struggles to invest himself (or herself) in it. It isn’t giving anything away to note that some of the characters in the flashbacks have been dead since the first book in the series, which robs the backstory of some of its tension. Likewise, it’s easy enough to guess what’s apt to happen by projecting backwards from the present storyline. The subject matter of the chapters set in the past, the staging of a play along the lines of Shakespeare or Marlowe, is overdone; I found myself skipping pages in these chapters, especially as Lynch related entire excerpts from the play.

The storyline set in the “present” has potential: Locke and Jean travel to Karthain, the city of mages, as political “consultants” for an election. There are many scenes that capture the spirit of the previous books, such as when the thieves sabotage an enemy meetinghouse with an alchemical stinkbomb. Still, the affair seems rushed. The motives of the mages are murky, which may or not be appropriate, and the political wheeling and dealings one might expect become increasingly brief over the course of the book, almost as if Lynch realized that, were he to fully flesh things out, it would add another two hundred pages to the novel and further slow the pace of the story.

It’s not all bad, though. There are things to recommend the book, especially to readers loyal to the Gentlemen Bastards. Locke and Jean are front and center, and are joined by one of their former associates. The setting, the city of Karthain, is as finely drawn as the cities featured in the previous two novels. And there is plenty of blood, guts, sneaking and magic to keep dedicated readers interested. Most significantly, there are major developments at the end of The Republic of Thieves that begin to set the stage for the rest of the series. Readers may or may not be rewarded with insights into Locke’s identity (past and future). A hated character from the past returns. And, most tantalizingly, Lynch drops several hints about major events to come, perhaps involving whatever forces were responsible for removing the mysterious Eldren from the indestructible cities now inhabited by mankind.

What you need to know: If you read and enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, you’ll probably enjoy The Republic of Thieves. There is less action in this book than in previous novels, but it seems to be setting the stage for subsequent entries in the series. Like most fantasy novels, The Republic of Thieves is long and will require a serious investment of your time. If you haven’t read the other books, you don’t necessarily have to in order to follow The Republic of Thieves, but it will definitely help, as Lynch presumes the reader’s familiarity with the characters and world. Good but not great.

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Judging Books by Their Covers, Part II

I found some more winners at Book Corner.

I'm from Amish country, so I had to include this one, vunst.

I’m from Amish country, so I had to include this one, vunst.

In case you were *really* interested in gerbils.

In case you were *really* interested in gerbils.

Pro: Built-in audience. Con: Audience has difficulty turning pages.

Pro: Built-in audience. Con: Audience has difficulty turning pages.

Um.

Um.

I kind of love this one.

I kind of love this one.

Based on Strange Encounters, I think I might need to start asking readers to guess the publication year based on the book’s cover art.

 

 

 

On Not Sleeping

There are few things as miserable as not being able to sleep.

(Admission: There are many things in life worse than not being able to sleep. Aside from the obvious ones, such as hunger, poverty and war, there are rarer but nonetheless still unpleasant experiences including, but not limited to, wild dogs, milky discharges, and poopy diapers.)

For people who enjoy generally comfortable lives, though, the loss of sleep is one of the most frustrating and also one of the most common difficulties they will endure.

I have a troubled relationship with sleep. I suffered from extreme sleeplessness as a teenager, tossing and turning until I had only two or three hours until I had to wake up. What sleep I got was fitful and riddled by nightmares and, I suspect, night terrors. (I say “suspect” because I was never formally diagnosed with them.) The most vivid nightmare I ever experienced took place near the end of my senior year of high school and involved a humanoid shape that is best compared to some popular images of aliens. A friend of mine was convinced that I was abducted. I think I was stressed out. A few months after graduating, I found that I was able to sleep for nine or ten hours at a stretch, a blissful and fleeting time in my life that would never be repeated.

My current bout with sleeplessness began in 2007 and was formally diagnosed as insomnia. I was prescribed Ambien for about a year, but it didn’t really help. I didn’t sleep much more than I did usually and I’m told that, when I did, I was always moving, raising and lowering my arms, kicking, and so on, a routine that would explain the weariness I suffered every day.

Insomnia is a self-fulfilling cycle: You can’t sleep, so you think about how you can’t sleep, and you become so worked up that…you can’t sleep. You pressure yourself. Sitting in the living room at 3am, you can see how dark it is outside. You can hear the absence of the background daytime noises to which we’re all accustomed, the telltale signs that life is going on around us. And you think: “I should be asleep!” Perhaps some people are disciplined enough to make productive use of the “extra” hours they acquire through sleeplessness, but most of us are too preoccupied with the thought that we’re supposed to be sleeping right now, and it’s ridiculous that we’re not, and, okay, I’m going to read a little bit, but I can’t concentrate, so maybe I’ll watch some television, but the shows that are on at this time of night (morning?) are all crap, so I’ll just stare out the window at that street lamp and OH MY GOD WHY CAN’T I SLEEP!!!

I don’t have as much trouble sleeping anymore. I still have some rough nights (like tonight), but I generally get sufficient sleep.

Here are some things I’ve learned you shouldn’t do:

  • Don’t stay in bed. It will only make you more frustrated and anxious and prevent you from falling asleep.
  • Don’t look at screens (said the dude blogging at 11pm on a Monday night). The light freaks out your brain.
  • Don’t watch TV in bed!
  • Don’t dwell on it. (Easier said than done.)

Here are some things you should do:

  • Read a print book.
  • Write down the things that are bothering you.
  • Keep your bedroom cool.
  • Make sure that your bed is used only for sleeping and, uh, procreating.
  • Create a pre-bedtime ritual, such as making some herbal tea.
  • If all else fails, and if sleeplessness persists for at least two weeks, talk to your doctor.

Now, one interesting tidbit I learned during my travails with insomnia is that the notion that eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is essential is an eighteenth century construct. Prior to the advent of widespread artificial light, people apparently engaged in “segmented sleep,” meaning that they would go to sleep when it got dark, sleep for a few hours, wake up in the middle of the night and talk or even perform chores, and then sleep for another few hours until dawn. This behavior has been documented in modern societies in which there is little to no artificial light, for instance, villages in certain parts of Africa.

A. Roger Ekirch, professor of history at Virginia Tech, has ably documented humankind’s preindustrial sleep patterns. If you’re interested in a thorough examination of our relationship with night (not just sleep) through the eighteenth century, consider reading Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. Ekirch discusses not only premodern sleeping patterns, but also the discomforts from which people suffered, as well as the real and perceived dangers of nighttime. Be warned: At Day’s Close is a work of academic history and may be more comprehensive than the average reader would like. (I found it readable, if a bit dull in spots.) You can always read just the chapter on sleep, though, or, if you have access to a library, you can download the article on which the chapter was based, “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles,” American Historical Review, CV, no.2 (April 2001), 343-387. Ekirch’s paper will tell you everything you want to know about segmented sleep.

At Day's Close.

At Day’s Close.

I found Ekirch’s work via a 2007 article published in The New York Times: “The Sleep-Industrial Complex” by Jon Mooallem. I can’t recommend Mooallem’s article highly enough. You’ll read about the interest corporations have in selling you the notion of eight hours of untroubled sleep, from pharmaceuticals to mattress companies. Mooallem’s piece can also serve as a primer to Ekirch’s work if you’d rather skip the academic scene.

Books about sleep as a socially constructed phenomenon have lately begun appearing on the scene. (Now you can read about why you can’t sleep while you can’t sleep!) For instance, Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, by David K. Randall, was published in 2012. I haven’t read Randall’s book, but I intend to; it received generally positive reviews. The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, by Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, was published just a month after Randall’s book. Again, I haven’t read this Wolf-Meyer’s book, but I mean to. Based on its title, methinks I detect a wee hint of bias. YOU CAN’T SLEEP BECAUSE OF CORPORATE CAPITALISM, IDIOT.

Dreamland.

Dreamland.

I appreciate works such as Ekrich’s, Randall’s and Wolf-Meyer’s because they question the common wisdom. Am I sometimes skeptical of their claims? Yes. But my skepticism, especially of things psychological, has been refined since reading Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. Watters demonstrates the cultural influence on emotion and mood disorders. Consider the case of depression. Watters documents the ways in which American pharmaceutical companies essentially marketed the disease to the Japanese. Japan has a tradition of respecting depression; those who are depressed are perceived as noble. When the Japanese market opened up to American SSRIs, though, the pharmaceuticals plastered Japanese public transportation with advertisements that listed the symptoms of depression (as determined by the ways Americans experience it). Japanese patients showed up in doctors’ offices with ads ripped from magazines. American companies taught the Japanese how to experience depression the ways Americans do. Other chapters cover schizophrenia, anorexia and PTSD, and they are all equally fascinating. All of this opened up for me the sociology of mental illness, which is off topic and another post entirely.

In any case, whether you’re reading this at 3am or 3pm (and nodding off due to boredom or low blood sugar), I hope you found something useful here. It’s time for me to get some shut eye. So, you know.

Let’s Judge Some Books by Their Covers

I visited Book Corner over lunch today, in the process violating my vow to no longer buy books. I found a copy of China Mieville’s Looking for Jake and Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic sci-fi tale The Left Hand of Darkness. Score two for my ever-expanding library. Thanks, books.

I wanted to share a few of the truly awesome (see: awful) titles and covers I saw whilst perusing the shelves. Enjoy.

AKA, "My high school years."

AKA, “My high school years.”

I love "how to" guides. This one seem useful.

I love “how to” guides. This one seem useful.

My personal favorite. I think this one speaks for itself.

My personal favorite. I think this one speaks for itself.

If you know of anything that equals or tops these, do let me know.

 

Review: Supergods, Grant Morrison

Supergods cover.

Supergods cover.

Supergods, like its author, celebrated comic book writer Grant Morrison, is a complicated book. This is no primitively rendered Golden Age Superman. Nor is it some drug-induced phantasmagoria from the ’60s or ’70s. (More on that below…) Supergods, rather, is a sleekly designed tome delivered to us from the future. Like Medieval serfs given a computer, we poke, prod and stroke it, we admire it and guess its possible uses, but we are unable to comprehend its true potential.

Supergods is, superficially, a history of superhero comics from their inception through approximately 2010. (The book was published in 2011.) It begins as any reader might expect: with Superman. Morrison expertly deconstructs the cover of the issue of Action Comics in which Superman first appeared, evoking the mystery of this new character archetype. He further elaborates on the story, discussing the artwork and dialog panel-by-panel. Morrison’s analysis is impressive but worrying; the reader will wonder if Morrison’s discussion of each character will be this exhaustive. Batman undergoes a similar analysis. But Morrison is setting the stage: the eternal tension in comics between darkness and light.

Although Morrison devotes the bulk of Supergods to superheroes, dividing the text into four units, each reflecting his understanding of the history of comics (Golden Age, Silver Age, Dark Age, Renaissance), the book is at its most interesting when he discusses his own life and his career as a writer. From his first impressions as a child near a US Naval base in Scotland, we are given a detailed biography of Morrison. The result is fascinating in an almost perverse way. Morrison seems, frankly, insufferable: A too cool for school teenager; a self-impressed “artist”; a comics phenom. Morrison relates bluntly how successful he is, how youthful he appears (repeatedly), and how wealthy he has become. Although off-putting, one can’t help but be impressed by his honesty.

Morrison has his quirks, and he freely relates them. (He likely doesn’t see them as quirks.) He practices and believes in the efficacy of Chaos magic. He heals his cat’s cancer through sheer willpower. In one particularly eye-popping passage, Morrison relates a “vision” he experiences in Katmandu, temporarily leaving this reality and traveling to another world whose inhabitants appear to him as a constantly shifting array of fluorescent light bulbs. (This is, he claims, unrelated to the hashish he ingested immediately prior to said experience.) Horrified, one can’t help but read on.

Supergods is, ultimately, strangely, inspiring. Morrison’s story is that of someone who is completely comfortable with who he is. He creates for a living and earns considerable wealth doing it. More impressive, though, is his take on life. He accepts his artistic medium of choice, comics, on its own terms, and insists that superheroes needn’t be “realistic” (or “grim ‘n’ gritty,” as we called them in my day) in order to be interesting and meaningful. This attitude is reflected in his own life: he acknowledges that something doesn’t need to be objectively true for one to believe in it and, touchingly, in this age of cynicism and snark, insists that it’s perfectly fine—even desirable—for one to believe in and feel strongly about things, without worrying what someone else might say about it. What a strangely liberating thing to hear, buffeted as we are by negative comments and Internet memes. Recommended less for comic fans than for writers and other creative types.