The Thousand Names

The Thousand Names
Django Wexler

I’m always happy to read a book by a fellow denizen of the Northwest. Not that I base my reading choices on geography, but when I find out that someone is from around here, it’s a pleasant bonus. That is incidental to everything that follows, but seemed as good a place as any to start. The Thousand Names has been making its way ‘round the interwebs lately, with multiple friends reviewing it in the last month or so. Their comments were enough to get Names onto the TBR pile, but it was sheer chance that I saw it at the library right when I hit a break between books. This could only mean one thing: the Three Nephites had left a copy just for me, and it was their Will that I pick it up next. Who am I to argue with the Three Nephites? (Mormon humor here. Some small portion of the readership is probably laughing now.)

For those not up on all the current lingo, Names is what young people nowadays call “flintlock fantasy.” This subgenre is the usual secondary-world fantasy, but with muskets and cannons instead of gallant knights in plate mail. The Age of Empires atmosphere is relatively under exploited in fantasy right now, though I wonder if that might be because the historical Age of Empires is kind of glossed over in our educational and cultural presentations of history, in comparison to King Arthur, the High Middle Ages, bits of the Renaissance, etc. Anyway, Wexler is writing about an Imperial Army out on the frontier, when soldiers carried muskets and bayonets instead of swords, cavalry still mattered, and people hadn’t moved past that bizarre stage when standing in straight lines and taking turns shooting at each other was considered the proper way to fight battles. There is also magic, because this is fantasy, but it is understated.

The first half of the book is a military campaign, seen from the alternating viewpoints of an officer and sergeant. Wexler appears to be a tabletop wargaming enthusiast and the battles show the tactical knowledge of a student of ye olde art of war. They did to me at least, and I wouldn’t know any better, but I’m still pretty sure it’s all real. I don’t know the details of musket and bayonet formations, but Wexler flashes a more than casual understanding of everything. This part of the book was the most entertaining, partially because of the military novelty and partially because the characters are interesting and relatable.

The second half of the book tends more towards questing, though there are still battles and armies. This is also where magic comes into play, rather than just rebels and imperials hacking at each other. I think it bogged down a little bit, and could probably do without a subplot or two, but the ending was well worth the wait. I suppose this is de rigueur for the first volume of a series, but the transition from a stand alone story arc into a longer series was seamless. In fact, things felt almost science fictional in the way that later revelations forced a re-evaluation of how the world works. It wasn’t merely, “Here’s the artifact and woah! Wild times a’coming for everyone due to somewhat related hijinks elsewhere!” There is a bit of that, but the way certain quest-related issues play out opens things up in the same way that scientific discovery often changes the game in SF. This is one of the things that most impressed me about Names.

Finally, I am interested in the direction things are heading. Early word on the sequel is that it leaves the military behind in favor of political maneuvering; this could be a very good thing. I enjoyed the world building that I saw, though Wexler kept it to a reasonable minimum. There are obvious similarities to European attempts to pacify the Muslim kingdoms in the Middle East and N. Africa, as the white imperialists and their vaguely Christianity-esque religion duke it out with enrobed, darker skinned desert dwellers. It’s not a blatant ripoff of any particular historical event though, and certain tropes of the colonizer-indigenous relationship are inevitable regardless of other racial or religious identities. Wexler’s portrayal of rebellion on a backwater frontier and the imperial response to it felt spot on to me. If he handles events in the core as well as he does the periphery, there could be excitement on the way.

To sum up: The Thousand Names is unconventional fantasy featuring a plethora of muskets, a well drawn conflict with engaging protagonists, a progressive gender attitude that I probably should have written about but didn’t, and a solid political and historical foundation to build the rest of the series on. It’s also a product of the damp Northwest, which makes me irrationally happy. Things may not be perfect, but I’m signing up for the long haul with this one.

Most Read Authors

Most Read Authors

Excellent blogger and FOTD (Friend of Two Dudes) Lynn recently posted a list of of the top ten authors by book count in her personal library. I wanted to do the same, but realized that my library is a collection of randomly purchased used books (often by the pound), grad school textbooks, and the occasional ARC. As such, it is an abysmal reflection of what I am actually reading and instead merely an indication of what one might find at local thrift stores. My list has to be a little bit different. I decided to parse my database of finished books from the last eight or nine years (has it been that long???) and write down the authors I’ve read the most of.

The usual caveat applies here: this only counts the books I have read since restarting my personal SFF craze, not everything I read as a dewy-eyed youth. That list would include a lot of Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, David Eddings, and (gasp) the Dragonlance crew. I kept no records then, so I will just disqualify it all and hope that I one day reread the best of it.

7-10 Books Read
Poul Anderson
Iain M. Banks
David Brin
CJ Cherryh
Glen Cook
Jack McDevitt
Jerry Pournelle
Alastair Reynolds
David Weber
Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman

10-15 Books Read
David Drake

15+ Books Read
Eric Flint
Larry Niven

I’m not sure what the above says about me, other than I am an unapologetic Larry Niven fan, have read far too many entries in Flint’s 1632 shared universe, and relied heavily for several years in Japan on the Baen Free Library. Plenty of big names not on the list now that will be within a few months (Karl Schroeder, Neal Stephenson, Charlie Stross, Greg Benford, many others), plenty of deserving names that I am excluding because I read everything they wrote back in 90s. (William Gibson is the biggest omission.) Otherwise, this is a pretty accurate reflection of what I like.

Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn
James S.A. Corey

There is a Mexican standoff scene in the movie version of Miami Vice. All the characters do what we expect them to, dialogue slides into a familiar pattern, then BANG! Violence erupts a few beats ahead of schedule and people are dead. It’s a shocking moment, and probably the most memorable part of the movie; I kept thinking back to it as I read Cibola Burn, the newest Expanse novel from James S.A. Corey. The plot repeatedly threatens to run down conventional rails, but every time the reader starts to get comfortable, Corey sets off a virtual taser. I was never able to settle in and predict everything that would happen, because, somehow, the escalations always hit sooner than anticipated. Like the standoff in Miami Vice, actions and outcomes are standard, but the timing keeps a constant hum of electricity in the air.

The Expanse is one of the few ongoing series I keep up with. The first book, Leviathan Wakes, was a fun mix of 1970s inflected SF and contemporary Hollywood, but I have been impressed with the way that the authors have managed to add thematic depth in later volumes while maintaining the original vibe. I have been even more impressed as they expand a dingy, lived in Solar System that feels like Jerry Pournelle circa 1975 outward through a series of inexplicable alien artifacts and into the galaxy. Cibola is the first book to take place in a different system, and the first to really dig into the larger questions spawned by the protomolecule. We’ll look into these in greater detail, but I should give the obligatory full disclosure bit that this sort of thing is is the science fiction equivalent of injecting chocolate directly into my veins. Near-Earth stuff is nice, but distant planets, galactic mysteries, vanished elder races, and what not are where I get my buzz.

I don’t know what the authors originally had in mind for this, back in the days before Orbit expanded their contract to six, then nine books. (Stuff must be selling well. Good on them.) I wonder if they intended to take things further from the Sun than the asteroids, or planned on moving away from the throwback fun. There was a bit of deeper stuff in Leviathan Wakes, but mostly it was Solar System noir and vomit zombies. By Book Four, we’ve looked at religion, the place of violence in human society, Self vs. Other, serious considerations of how we might colonize the Solar System, and all sorts of heavy stuff. There are still explosions and butt kicking, but it’s more cerebral butt kicking. The evolution of the protomolecule is a good reference point for charting the path these books have taken. Fair warning that, while I will remain intentionally vague on some points, this will probably constitute mild spoilers for earlier in the series.

In the first book, the protomolecule is, if not evil, at least very threatening. At worst, it feels a bit like the precursor to an alien invasion, at best the sort of coldly superior intelligence that treats humanity like an ant colony. In book two, the protomolecule is mostly on the sidelines, as people once again try to exterminate themselves. (Corey ranks up with David Brin’s Existence in faintly hopeful pessimism here. And me. Honestly, if we as a race survive the next hundred years, I will be pleasantly surprised. But I digress.) In book three, the protomolecule has half-devoured Venus and created some giant BMO (Big Mysterious Object) out past Neptune, while Miller, half of the crime-solving team of Leviathan Wakes, has sort of come back from the dead to haunt the remaining half, James Holden. By the end of things in book three, we learn that the protomolecule is just a tool, its creators wielded awesome power, and now they’re all extinct at the hand of something even scarier. Nobody is going to purposefully smash humanity, though people do a pretty good job of enabling death-by-protomolecule with or without actual alien malice. Finally, the protomolecule has opened a gate to the stars, so colonists can rush madly out, at the risk of incurring the wrath of whatever offed the protomolecule builders. Follow this? We’ve come a long way.

Cibola Burn leaves behind (mostly) the political issues that underpin the first books and instead digs further into the questions posed by the gate. Corey again keeps things on a personal scale for now, tracking the travails of the first colonizers. This is nice, with good characters and story arcs, but what really gets me are the questions lurking just below the surface. No matter how intense the conflict gets, or how focused the characters are on the issues at hand, the bigger picture is always visible. Scientists on the new planet drop repeated hints early on that this world is not normal. Its actual purpose (very mundane) is revealed later in the book, but the key take home point here is that whoever built it has enough power to casually shape entire planets the way we might assemble a backyard shed. And in spite of that, they were completely wiped out by something even bigger. Those characters still in thrall to their lizard brains manage to ignore the background, but the more self aware are constantly faced with fearsome reality that whatever that thing is, it’s still out there. So, massive engineering projects? Check. Implacable galactic menace? Check. Humans scampering about ruins like unsupervised children? Check. Is anyone out there not having fun? Because if you’re not, this may be the wrong genre for you.

One other theme that I enjoyed is Corey’s treatment of violence, both as a narrative device and a social issue. This idea pops up in all of the books (and likely in the rest of the Abraham/Franck repertoire), but those that espouse violence as the first solution are inevitably in the wrong. The books don’t skirt the reality (or even necessity?) of violence, but it is rarely the correct answer. This seems odd on the surface, what with all the action, military involvement, constant threat of war, etc., but the quiet insistence that thinking and talking will do more than shooting is a welcome message. I admit that this is at the core of the Hard SF ethos – engineers and nerds as heroes and all that – rather than some original brainstorm, but pacifism is buried under a tidal wave of pop culture anymore in the hyper-violent US.

So 1000 words later, it is very possible that I have thought too deeply about Cibola Burn. I can only hope the authors approve, since I’d much rather write about that than give a bland plot summary. These are fun, popcorn type books for those that just want a slam bang adventure, but there’s plenty more enjoyment to be had if a reader wants to dig in. Now I just have another 12 months to wait for the next volume.

The Hostile Takeover Trilogy

The Hostile Takeover Trilogy
S. Andrew Swann

Challenging times ahead, as we attempt to unpack Andrew Swann’s complicated vision. Nonetheless, I hold fast to my belief that I can safely guide the good ship Two Dudes into port, without running aground on the shoals of literary criticism. Actually, I am more challenged by trying to figure out how this thing made its way onto my official Goodreads Want to Read list. Where did I hear about it? I’m guessing that the Coode Street Podcast is responsible, but it could have been someone’s random post about space opera, somewhere in the wilds of the SF community. I really can’t remember. Whoever it was, thank you for turning me on to something I would never have thought to read.

What is so difficult to assess here? Well, my first reaction when picking this up from the library was, “Holy crap, this is 900 pages long?” I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the “trilogy” part of the title, but it was still intimidating. That is a shallow concern though. A look at this Big Idea, on John Scalzi’s blog, explains a bit more about what gives Hostile Takeover its depth. Swann describes the series as “libertarian-noir space opera,” which is probably the best description anyone will ever find. There’s no shortage of these themes out there in singles or pairs, but this is perhaps the first tripartite combination I have found. Swann says that his main goal was to “write about a realistic anarchy,” which is not necessarily an easy thing to do when one is supposedly trying to “entertain” or “become really famous.”

Of course, the L-word there is going to set off some alarms. Rest assured that this is no paean to Ayn Rand. (Longtime readers will probably have a good idea of just how long I would last with that sort of book.) The book’s main stage, the planet Bakunin, is indeed thoroughly libertarian, with nary a government hand to distort economies, repress freedoms, or do whatever it is governments do when they’re not building roads or amassing armies. Swann won’t be winning any Prometheus Awards with Hostile Takeover though; Bakunin is, by his admission, “more like Somalia with venture capital.” (Again, these quotes are all from the Big Idea.) Sure enough, it’s a strange mix of Gibsonesque cities, hippie communes, rapacious corporations, and plenty more weirdness. The practical result of this dedicated world building is a complex sandbox for his characters to play in, one that will make demands of the reader rather than smooth the way to action set pieces with familiar tropes and easily digested, but generic and forgettable nuggets.

Things don’t stop at Bakunin. As various outside forces converge on the planet in a bid to impose order, broader political currents in the multi-stellar Confederation swirl into view. Swann creates the macro and micro here, with the focus alternating between the details of life on Bakunin and the clash of super powered factions that will alter the fates of entire worlds. It’s almost a waste to spend so much time on a single planet, when there are galaxy-wide economic and racial fault lines to explore, questions of proper governance and Machiavellian scheming on a grand scale to answer, and tantalizing hints of historical secrets and looming revolution to speculate upon. There are also money grubbing religious freaks in power armor, which is probably enough to drop the mic right there.

And yet, this is a closeup, personal story. The noir part of the triangle focuses on a few characters, most of them with dark and mysterious pasts. There is fratricide and unrequited love, orbital bombardment and hacking, and everything in between. I half expected some of these people to break into arias at any moment, considering the operatic pathos on display, especially the pair of brothers. Even when the action moves outward into the Confederation, we still see it from a limited set of eyes, though the sets of eyes generally belong to the powerful. Befitting the political nature of the story, many of the non-Bakunin characters are politicians. Those on the planet are more likely to be the sorts of people one would expect to find in an anarchy: hackers, mercenaries, outcasts, and heretics. There is a certain amount of angst, sometimes enough to overpower the narrative, but this is generally balanced by the overall butt kicking quotient that people deal out.

We’ve gone this far without ever really mentioning the story. In good noir fashion, things are thoroughly convoluted. It’s clear from the outset that the initial military action is just an opening gambit, but the wheels within wheels extend far beyond what anyone inside the story expects. By the end, it’s not even clear who the prime operative was, which I suppose keeps things all the more amusing. The plot moves at the behest of the political machinations, rather than as any sort of character-driven narrative, but there are nods to agency and the individual. I don’t know that there is a message of any sort buried inside, since this is more of a world building exercise than a compelling peek at the human condition. Characters are there and fleshed out, but I came away with a greater appreciation for the Confederation and how it works. Some people might be turned off by this, but I think they shouldn’t be. Political science and economics are fun.

So to sum up, this is a very long book, or three medium-sized books, that will probably appeal to SF readers like me. Hostile Takeover is not a breezy read, nor is it particularly optimistic or cheery. There’s lots to think about and lots of detail to enjoy. As far as I can tell, Swann remains under the popular radar, but this is worth searching out for those that want some meat in their book diet.


Greg Benford and Larry Niven

Shipstar’s predecessor, Bowl of Heaven, made a big splash upon its release. The thought of an All-Star collaboration between two of Hard SF’s biggest names, and their stated intention to update the venerable Big Mysterious Object trope had certain demographics salivating. BMO’s are admittedly hoary, but they go with Hard SF like sushi and wasabi-infused soy sauce. Now, with the author who really put BMO’s on the map with Ringworld and a highly respected, multi-award winning writer working together on a Big Smart Object, what could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, enthusiasm has cooled a bit after the first book. Like a reunion album from some famous 1970s band, many people checked it out, decided that things felt too dated, got nostalgic for the originals, and set Bowl aside. I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who loved it, but most of the people I talked to were lukewarm. Indeed, the review here was far more positive than most I read. I will be the first to admit Bowl’s flaws, problems that plague most Hard SF no matter the era. The characters were rather flat and the plot was decent, with both relying heavily on the Bowl to carry things off into the sunset. The authors are clearly from another time, lacking the cutting edge verve makes certain recent books so fascinating. Niven in particular has been accused of coasting on past glories, charges that Bowl did little to discourage.

Now, with expectations dampened and people buzzing more about other 2014 releases, Shipstar sails into port. All I can say to those who vowed not to go on is: forget your promises and get this book. Bowl could be a bit of a stage-setting slog, with the trapped humans to explain, the Bowl to introduce, the Folk to show, the conflicts to set up, the information to dump, etc. etc. etc. With Shipstar, the table is set and all that is left to do is bring out the roast beast, light the dessert on fire, and pull the tablecloth out from under the crystal at the end. (This is actually a fairly accurate description of what happens. Trust me.) We still get a few inexplicable moments of leaders musing on leadership and awkward human interactions, but they are overshadowed by the rest. (Greg, what happened? You used to HATE middle management types, now you’re writing effective motivational techniques into your fiction.)

This is still archetypal Hard SF. The humans are moderately engaging, but they mostly serve as an excuse for Science and Aliens. And what aliens they are! One would expect this from Niven, but non-humans steal the show. The Folk are fascinating, and have a pretty mind-boggling history that would be a total spoiler to reveal, so I won’t say anything. The Sil are doughty, the Finger Snakes are hilarious, and the authors pull a few more tricks out that will floor a certain type of reader. They’ve really dug deep into exobiology for this one, with stuff that will surprise even the most grizzled SF veterans. In contrast, Bowl focuses mainly on the Folk, with only hints of what is to come.

The Science bit keeps pace. We all know that the meat of the series will cover the Bowl, its functional basics, its destination and history, and probably a twist or two that will pull the rug out. This it does, in ways I can’t go into here. The Bowl is mind-blowing, but we all knew that before. It has to be, or nobody would write these books. The challenge is to blow minds in original and unexpected ways, and the authors pull this off with aplomb. Again, this is to be expected. Niven knows he has to outdo the Ringworld here, so he goes all in. Benford isn’t about to go down in history as a guy who can’t deliver the science fictional equivalent of meat and potatoes, so he is at his peak. Together, they check all the boxes for BMO’s, but never predictably or conventionally.

Finally, I should say a word or two about Ye Olde Sense of Wonder. The authors know what is required of this sort of book. They know we’re here to be wowed, and they come through. Not just with the Bowl though, they pull that trick we see in all the best SF, one that defines SF as a genre apart from other fiction. Benford and Niven wrote a book that keeps unfolding new secrets that continually expand the horizons of the story and its universe. This is something I see more in SF than anywhere else, the way that one revelation doesn’t just propel the plot, but opens new existential and physical possibilities. A fact is unveiled that changes not just our perception of a character or situation, but the way the universe is put together. Shipstar has these moments every 50 pages or so. New information comes to light, and suddenly everything means something different. It is 400 pages of, “Wow, that thing there is really cool. Wait, if A does this, that means that B is possible, which in turn makes C suddenly important, and hang on, what do you mean there are dinosaurs?”

If it’s not clear yet, I will summarize in fewer words. Everything in this book except the humans gets wilder and crazier on a straight line projection; I enjoyed every minute. Yes, it’s a throwback. With the exception of a nod here and there to climate change and environmentalism, this is 1970s, Big Idea science fiction, where massive engineering works cruise the galaxy and plucky humans figure things out. It is the epitome of meat and potatoes SF, but made with grass fed, gourmet meat and locally grown, organic Yukon gold spuds. It may not redefine the genre, but it is probably the peak of a particular, fundamental subsection of SF. Recommended for everyone that likes gargantuan, mysterious artifacts. (Yes, even for those who didn’t like Bowl of Heaven.)

The Pilgrims

The Pilgrims
Will Elliot

I should confess that, while I’m not much of an art person, the cover for The Pilgrims totally sold me on the book. When Tor sent an email offering review copies of a few books, I was skeptical of picking up another fantasy. (I’m trying to keep a more manageable TBR pile for the F end of SFF.) Then I saw the cover, with a stunning white castle towering over the landscape, and knew I’d have to read this one just to see if the book lived up to the artwork.

To be honest, I normally wouldn’t write a post about The Pilgrims until I was further into the series. By itself, the book doesn’t lend itself to any sort of assessment. The first book in a new series usually concerns itself mainly with world building and character introduction, but authors generally try to create and wrap up some sort of narrative arc, even if the point of the initial story is to lead into the bigger, series-spanning plot. The Pilgrims doesn’t act like the first book of a series, more like the first part of the first book of a series. It ends without any resolution whatsoever. I can’t even call it a cliffhanger, more of just an abrupt stop. Needless to say, this is not conducive to pithy and incisive commentary. I did, however, request this review copy with a promise to write about it, so write I will! (Great sighs of relief echo throughout Tor headquarters at this announcement.)

Let’s start with things I enjoyed about the book. Elliot’s world building starts off conventional, but rapidly goes in unexpected directions. Yes, there are the usual evil wizards to slay, naughty emperors, lithe maidens with bows, and mercenaries with tormented pasts, but they are operating in a world that hints of greater depth. The secret history with dragons is neat if not wholly original, the political relationships between various cities show promise, and certain stranger aspects of the world may blossom into something truly unique in later volumes. I have high hopes. I am also intrigued by Elliot’s magic system. No more flowing, white beards and pointy hats, these mages have curly horns and chew on dirt and shrubs to reduce the heat buildup caused by excessive magic use. (I guess they haven’t learned about heat sinks or fins to increase radiating surface area.) Fun stuff. Nothing like a shaggy, ram-headed beast trailing smoke as he flies across the sky.

For things I’m less crazy about, the bit about people from our world dropping into fantasy land tops the list. That’s not a plot device I get excited about anymore, since it was beaten to death back in the 80s. The characters, to their credit, are self-aware enough to see what’s going on; one is convinced he’s going to save the day, even though absolutely nothing about him makes me think that he can. I would like to see an author drop people from our world into a kingdom in crisis, then have them fail, or just be irrelevant. Much more entertaining than the usual. Elliot is just vague enough about things to keep me guessing though, so there is hope for an amusing twist later in the series.

Beyond that, the only serious knock on the book is the way it finishes. The plot arcs in one direction for most of the book, then lurches suddenly in a new one about 40 pages from the end, then everything just sort of stops. I am baffled what might happen next. This is nothing that ruins the book for me, but I might caution people to hold off reading until the second volume is out. I expect that it will make more sense then, but would have preferred a smoother transition.

In spite of our boring heroes and the confusing final act, I will be reading the next book as soon as it is available. It’s possible that things could backslide into mediocrity, but I think Elliot is going to come through with exciting stuff. He’d better, since he has this brilliant cover image to live up to.

Toshokan Senso (Library Wars)

Toshokan Senso (Library Wars)
Arikawa Hiro

Before all else, I should note that this is a DNF for me. (Did Not Finish) My wife, on the other hand, not only finished, but promptly put the sequel on hold at the library. For some, this is probably all you need to know. For the rest, I will explain. I will refrain from going into too much detail for two reasons. First, this is exactly the sort of book that Haikasoru would translate and publish, since it would no doubt subsidize a couple of more obscure productions. Second, I imagine that certain spin-offs are out in the wild with, at the very least, fan subs available. There may be commercial translations as well; I haven’t looked. Regardless, for those who are interested, I’m pretty sure there’s some English out there.

Some background: Arikawa Hiro is a primarily a writer of mysteries, light romance, and other books allegedly aimed for the female market, or so says the Japanese Wikipedia. As far as I can tell, Toshokan Senso is her first foray into science fiction, though it appears to have comprised a great deal of her recent output. The first volume of Toshokan Senso was published in early 2006; by 2008, the four-volume series won itself a Seiun Award. Manga adaptations followed, then an anime series and live action movie. For whatever reason, Arikawa managed to create a major franchise that attracts both SF types and the shojo manga demographic. (Shojo manga are the romance comics aimed at adolescent girls.) Whatever else I thought about the book, I have to give Japan credit for not pigeonholing its genre authors.

In Arikawa’s Japan, conservative government types have promulgated the Media Improvement Laws, granting broad and arbitrary censorship powers to the Media Improvement Committee. These laws passed with a minimum of public fuss, both because they were cloaked in the usual “protect the childrens” rhetoric and because the Japanese public rarely makes a fuss about anything. Sharp-eyed activists saw the way the wind was blowing and responded with a series of measures granting the library system extraordinary responsibilities to protect free speech. Within a few years, conflict between the two got out of hand and both sides militarized. The heroes of the series are members of library special forces teams, equally adept at blowing crap up and using the Dewey Decimal System.

This is more strangely plausible than one might think. In fact, Japan-based readers probably have little trouble imaging something this bizarre going down with the current Prime Minister running the show. (In fact, we should probably just silence the author now, before the ruling party gets any more good ideas.) Weird as it may seem, the plot setup had nothing to do with me putting the book down. To be honest, I am sorely tempted to put the anime on in the background, just to see what Arikawa does with it all.

So why did I stop? Three reasons. First, and smallest, is the writing quality. My Japanese isn’t good enough to notice the subtleties, but I can tell some differences in prose. Toshokan Senso was a weird mash up of high school girl and legalese, neither of which felt natural to me. (My wife had similar complaints.) I have little patience for teen speak in English, and even less in Japanese. Second, and considerably bigger, is the lengthy training sequence that starts the book. I don’t know how this happened, but kids going to school has quietly moved into #3 on my list of hated tropes. (Long time readers will know that time travel and psionics occupy the top spots.) For whatever reason, possibly related to grad school burnout, I really don’t want to read about adolescents going to school. This is rather irrational and eliminates various popular novels, but I make no apologies. 100 pages of education is about 80 too many.

Third, largest, and perhaps least forgivable in this enlightened age, Toshokan Senso failed to hold my interest because it is a romance. Rather than science fiction with romantic trappings, it’s an unabashed shojo manga that just happens to be vaguely science fictional. This is why my wife ate it up, despite some obvious flaws, and my interest died like a fly ball on the warning track of literature. She has little use for SF, and I couldn’t care less about love. Certain of my friends are fans of both and will probably love the series, but I just couldn’t hack it.

To be totally fair to the book, I probably would have finished it in English. I’m curious enough about big titles in Japan, and intrigued enough by the library army that part of me wants to power through the annoyances and finish the book. In Japanese though, it’s just a bit too much. My reading time has been cut in half since winter and I don’t have time for books that are merely intriguing, all the more so when they take three times as long as English novels. Still, I wanted to highlight this, both because of Arikawa’s popularity and because it’s something non-Japanese speakers can probably dabble in.