The Ballad Of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

A well written, interesting take on Cthulhu’s mythos, with an engaging main character to start–Black Tom. Unfortunately, at the midpoint the book shifts protagonists (due to madness), where it’s somewhat less successful.

The story of New York as its various barely connected cities, each with their own character, was great to read and experience. I had little idea that the city’s boroughs were so stratified; that Harlem was black and cool, yes, but the degree of suspicion and exclusion out on the lines was a solid reminder that less than 100 years ago the world was very different.

Tom is a great hustler, and his POV feels consistent, rich, and full of intriguing detail. His relationship with his father, work, and Lovecraftian mysteries were all interesting. The police officers, on the other hand, are shallow to start-particularly from Tom’s POV, but we’re barely asked to ally with them once the story is theirs.

In the end, I really enjoyed the first half–and some of the details of 1920s life all through.

Odds and Ends

Great sector generator for Stars w/o Number

Fate/FAE encounter design–
(for Josh’s game?)

A strong post about “the worst ever” and deflating motivated responses–

Rejected Princesses; women being awesome in history, with great explanations.

Guard Mouse sketches —

Aesthetics, mid–

Dal Fry (Dal Tadka)

Fatayar recipe (yum)–

Music: investigate Metric, Pagans in Vegas

Lots of interesting looking games–

Wipe & wipe reusable graph paper —

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

The first book written, but the second I read and the second in sequence. It continues from Dirty Wings… it’s the next generation, Maia and Cass’s daughters.

Reading, it was interesting to see what our narrator gets “wrong” about Cass and Maia’s journey… and to think about what our narrator misunderstood versus what she was mislead about. This book’s journey is somewhat less harrowing, though Aurora’s (and even our narrator’s) lifestyle isn’t one that mom’s are going to encourage their daughters to follow.

The book tackles powerful, senseless teenage love; something that always reads as exaggerated to me… but it works here. The “sisters” are drawn so carefully, as are their relationships to their parents and their deliberate reflection (and rejection) of those parental traits.

It was a compelling read with great characters, despite the superficially lower stakes for the first two-thirds of the book. When she commits, decides to thwart the fait accomplis, she’s almost as driven as Cass and Maia… more so, even, given that she has to do it alone.

I really liked her as a character, and understood her empathy for her near-sister Aurora. She was crazy to go… but it was so true to her stubbornness that I have to just smile and root her on… while staring on in horror. A great kickoff to the series. As the first book, I can imagine Dirty Wings reading like an increase in stakes… and a revelation about Cass and Maia’s journey.

About A Girl by Sarah McCarry

A great conclusion to the trilogy; it’s the last both in publishing and internal chronology. Tally, our heroine, is in the summer before college.

The book starts off jarringly; it’s in Tally’s voice. She’s SO busy letting us know how smart she is with her word choices and casual brilliance that it’s offputting… which, matches the reaction the strangers in her life have to her. Her family and close friend all know her well and put up with (or are charmed) by her positions, vocabulary and diction, which are strong and confident.

Tally’s tale picks up a generation after Aurora and “Aunt Beast” grew up in Cass and Maia’s shadows in All Our Pretty Songs; she’s raised by Raoul (who gets modest screen time), his husband (who doesn’t), and Aunt Beast in a modern mixed family of choice. She’s an orphan daughter of Aurora (she knows), but it’s complicated. She’s surrounded by love, but with both her Mom absent and Father unknown… she’s unsure of herself, emotionally, no matter how she erects intellectual bulwarks.

After the awkward first chapter (once Tally’s not trying to impress us, it seems), the book reads smoothly. The magic is much less metaphorical this time around; it’s more than creepy dreams and bad choices. The overt magic extends Tally’s time on her journey… and, given how straightforwardly she tackles things to start, it was probably necessary to shortcut her having a frank talk and heading home a day later. (I mean, that’s just about how the book ends… but there’s a lot that goes on first because she and others are all being manipulated in the meantime.)

It’s a great book. Tally carries the story and drives everything–and she has the personality and perseverance to make it an interesting journey, even if it’s less obviously perilous than Cass and Maia’s journey. She’s also flawed, but that’s easy to forgive in the moment, and an important component of her authenticity.

Interestingly, her boyfriend Shane is important… but he’s relegated almost to a frame story. It’s a quirky thing to notice afterwards.

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

A worthy conclusion to the trilogy.

The last book ended with Tris’ capture–she begins this book held in Erudite headquarters, this time fortunately not alone. The city struggles with the changes brought about by the assault at the end of book 2… and the Tris’s big revelation to the city.

The world grows again–not just out to the city’s associated Amity farms, but beyond the city altogether. Outside… it turns out the cities and factions are not at all natural–they’re somewhat controlled experiments.

This book introduces Tobias as an alternating POV. For the overall story, the addition makes sense, but I miss the immediacy of Tris’s journey alone, as in the first two books. Some of the conflicts that arise I’d probably have explained away more easily with access to only one POV–with both, the thinness of the dispute felt a little more author inserted.

This book is great for explanations and lore, though I completely empathize with Tobias when he bemoans just how many revolutions he’s participated in by the end of the book.

Time is a little more front and center; you realize that the first two books are much less than a year’s action. This book has a somewhat odd pacing for the world behind–a few longer gaps of “not much going on, losing track of time”. And it features an epilogue set two and a half years later, looking back on this crazy time and its lasting impact.

A good conclusion to a fun book. The politics all trended YA simple, but the excellent and vibrant characters kept the action focused where it was strong. Well done, particularly for a debut series.

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

The sequel to Divergent. If you liked the first book, this is a fine sequel. The book does have the drawbacks of a mid-trilogy book. It starts with a defeat and runs generally down beat–particularly Tris’s relationship with Four.

At times, it felt like progress was being stolen from the hard earned victories of Divergent, but they feel like a natural continuation. We learn much more about Candor and Amity this time; while there are strands of “peaceful hippy” to Amity, and strands of “no filter” to Candor, both have more nuance than their they present to outsiders. We also learn more about the factionless.

Tris continues to struggle, now to survive a life on the run, rather than just adjusting to Dauntless life. She has good allies and vibrant connections to them–they rarely feel like they’re making their decisions motivated by plot.

The book ends with tumultuous change and a revelation that feeds straight into book 3.

Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry

This is almost YA-fiction, though the turn to drugs and dissolution seems much stronger than in the other YA I’ve encountered.

It’s a tale of Maia and Cass, girls at the end of high school. Maia is a great pianist, through some combination of very hard work and innate gift. Cass is trouble–but worldly, experienced, wise trouble that’s mind blowing to Maia’s stunted upbringing.

The story is told in two halves: now and then. The now chapters are mostly a road trip down the west coast on limited resources. The then chapters begin with Maia and Cass crossing paths and falling into each other’s orbits. There’s less than a year between the now and then… but a world of change. It’s not static either–in then chapters we see Maia’s engagement with the world beyond her piano bench and isolation, steadily growing more worldly, more open to experience. In the now chapters, we see her live out those changes, embrace Cass, rough living, and the quest for new experiences.

The path that’s been planned for her by her parents and her piano teacher at the start is so very different from the path she’s on at the end. Like her parents and piano teacher, I’m a bit horrified at where she winds up–but I empathize with her desire to chart her own path, feed her own desires.

The characters around the fringes are interesting. Her mom was pretty horrible throughout, but her Dad so blossomed on setting foot in New York that I wished he’d been more a part of the story prior. (More in an “I wish he’d been more involved, for Maia”, not an “I wish the author had inserted him more” sense.) Her Piano teacher, Oscar, is more complex from the start–and his own life’s deviation, revealed late in the now, explains the experiences that taught him the wisdom he displays throughout.

Jason… I only ever really saw through Cass’s eyes. The chance that delivers him… it was a cruel final blow to my hopes that they’d find a way to blend the worlds. I thought–hoped–that together in New York… it was a compelling dream.

In the end, she did a great job of getting me tangled up in two strong characters. I’d wish them well, but that’s not the trajectory they’re on as the book closes.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Well off my beaten path, this isn’t science fiction or fantasy, though at times I wish it was. It’s a thoroughly persuasive example of how the same facts fed into a different context.

The book is slim and eschews hand-holding. It’s written in response to the 2014 round of well publicized police killings. Much of the anchor of the book is from his personal connection to the death of his friend from college, and going through the same process before.

It’s framed, and well framed, as a letter to his son who is struggling to process the Michael Brown acquittal. There’s some padding to provide useful hooks for people who aren’t his son–context for things like Howard University, which I barely recognized, but looms so important for historical (and still social) reason for Ta-Nehisi and his peers.

The fault lines running through the community are interesting, particularly as viewed from the inside. Ta-Nihisi’s interview with the mother of Prince Jones; her striving and overcoming proved insufficient to protect her son, despite the tremendous respect that she and her son each deserved and got from society as a whole. A single suspicious officer ended his life and the family dream, with horrific ripples throughout the communities, crushing his family, and worse.

Other parts of the book are autobiographical–he tells his son about growing up in poor neighborhoods, corrupt districts, and what going to university was like for him. Similarly, they discuss Europe (particularly Paris, which the family visits together) and its problems–but its different problems. Being alien, but not the designated bottom, and how oddly freeing it was.

The book was slim, but packed with experience. It’s written to read easily, but the new perspective is complex. I really appreciate the book for providing a familiar (studious kid) story in a new context. It’s not as hard to imagine being… someone like me, born to different parents. The struggles are similar–some the same, many entirely new. There are so many additional hazards on the way; fortunately, a couple fewer for his son–but still too many.

It’s a great book and slim read with well crafted words.

Hurricane Fever by Tobias Buckell

We’re back with retired Caribbean Intelligence officer Prudence Jones, Roo to his friends.

The book is a fun continuation of Roo’s career–well, post career, as he’s retired from the agency. But his skills, contacts and tradecraft drag him back into the mix. An old friend dies, but an “on death” message directs him to a secret flash drive and a global conspiracy… that’s too well protected to identify after a brief review.

It’s a cool plot with great action scenes and chemistry between the leads. This could easily be a 21st century version of spycraft to rival James Bond for a more complicated world with a more underdog feel.

I’ll keep an eye out for further books in the series.

The Journal of Corbrum Blackstone, Pine Forge Township

I was ill company for days after riding away from Hammer Mine. There I faced another problem that demanded high resolve to resist the foul demon’s blandishments… and again my pace slackened, my feet drifted away from challenging the possessed miner. Once again I fled to seek the support of my boon companions, my fellow Dogs… without them, the town surely would have wallowed in filth unending. Without their efforts, the town would have neglected the children, continued to believe the heretical tale of the mine in end days, and turned their eyes from the King’s commands. The King is well served by Rusty and Dominicus. I must test my heart, my resolve, to see if the King and ancients have judged me truly fit to bear his word in this sinful world.

[A few months passed, largely uneventfully… now it is the edge of winter.]

Nestled against a mountain, surrounded by well exploited woods and mines, lies the prosperous township of Pine Forge. The town is large–one of the largest in the territories–and crowded with outsiders. As we rode into town, idly drifting snow fell ever more steadily…

We were met by one of our training class, Rusty’s friend Tobias. He led us to the Steward’s house, where we huddled against the cold and listened to Tobias and the Steward explain the problems of the town. Most vexing was the presence of Territorial Authority soldiers–currently a squad of six men–idle and prone to drunkenness. Just last night two soldiers made untoward advances on Sister Althea. Steward Wiley was describing his efforts to navigate the town through rapids secular and religious, when a shot rang out.

We all rushed to the door, hurriedly catching up our coats against the winter chill. The Steward led us unerringly to an inn… outside of which we found a tense gathering, A half dozen men, well armed–clearly the soldiers of whom we’d heard such ill tales–stood tense and well armed, liquor rolling off their panting tongues. Also already present was the sheriff, Brother Henry. One of the soldiers stood stunned, pistol dangling from his hand, glumly staring down at the red stained snow. One of ours, a boy of the faith, lay dead at his feet. Churned snow spoke of a large melee and several folk fled, spurred to flight by that fatal shot.

Rusty and I tangled with Sheriff Henry, who officiously claimed the shooting was a territorial matter–his jurisdiction, not the King’s. His voice burned with sour whiskey; ours rang with the King’s righteousness. Alcohol fueled his stubbornness, but we reminded him of his place–and ours. His shame shone through and his obstinacy collapsed. Steward Wiley led the sozzled sheriff home, to bed.

Domincus spoke with the leader of the soldiers, while I chimed in with a few apt quotes from the Book of Life… and other books the soldier was familiar with. Our discussion turned to the topic of responsibility and ultimate responsibility for our fallen Brother Jackson. Corporal John spoke passionately but fairly for his men; we continued to address him with respect and steadily earned his. Finally his wicked tongue was quelled–not of defense of his men, but of his reflexive slurs and insults of the King.

As our conversation reached a newly respectful silence, the murderous soldier named himself as Private Alex. He admitted to slaying Brother Jackson, though he claimed that it was in defense of his own person–and defense of his fellow soldiers, including the lecherous Private Boone. Reluctantly, the soldiers turned Alex over to our care, and we promised to protect him from hot handed justice.

With that resolved, we sprang into action. Our fellow Dog, Tobias, took charge of Private Alex, leading him to the Steward’s house where he was already encamped. Rusty squared his shoulders and stormed into the den of evil and spirits, ready to wrestle with the speakeasy’s proprietor. I ran to get the mortician, to address poor Brother Jackson’s battered and bloody body. It could do no good to leave his form steaming in the snow.

Rusty’s confrontation with the proprietor, Daniel, was sharp. Daniel was aggrieved by his ill-treatment by the faithful, and not just in this town. (Though he did not confess it, he burned with hatred after being driven from Bridal Falls City itself months ago… at Corbrum’s hands.) The King must have been strong with Rusty; his words persuaded that shriveled devil that continuing to serve liquor after it brought about murder would be foolish. With grave reluctance, he locked his liquor cabinet and handed the key to the King’s Watchdog. Ah, if only I could have seen that moment!

Meanwhile, I reached the mortician, who was in conversation with Steward Wiley and a brother of the fallen boy Jackson. I reined in my urgent feelings and fell into step with the solemn procession.

As I trudged back, Dominicus and Rusty spoke with the soldier, Boone, whose advances had provoked the altercation. His tale was one of a frank attraction to Althea, which she eagerly returned. His voice was steady with truth… both on that subject, and when he described Althea’s brother Jackson and a group of local toughs who seized him and drug him outside to beat him while he was too drunk to offer a solid defense. Fortunately (to his mind), his fellow soldiers rushed to his aid, then the scuffle became heated… and Alex’s gun slew one of his attackers.

The swiftly falling snow, backed by bitter wind, chased everyone to bed once we had brother Jackson loaded up for the mortician. Rusty would shelter in the Steward’s already full house (with private Alex and Tobias already lodged), while Domincus and I went unto Brother Ezikia’s home for a night’s rest. The King’s guidance rings in that decision to rest ourselves under his roof…

We were tired from our day’s ride, a day made long and weary by the senseless murder of Brother Jackson. We thanked Brother Ezikia for his family’s hospitality and soon slumbered. While we slept, the town was not idle… but we, as yet, had no way of knowing.

We broke our fast with Ezikia and his family. Ezikia stands at the right hand of the Steward, a swift rise for a man in his early 20s. He burned with passion and disgust for “outsiders”. (I can still hear the sneer and malign twist of his mouth as he spat the word.) Ezikia’s rhetoric was passionate; outsiders were filth who had been presented with strong examples of true faith by our community. If they persisted in their willful neglect of the King… he had no patience for them, no tolerance.

The territorial authority has long passed through Pine Forge; for years, they were little enough a disturbance. That changed when Daniel arrived and opened a distillery. The bad example of outsiders has led even faithful men, like Sheriff Henry, to indulge in forbidden spirits. Now, complained Ezikia, the Sheriff sides against the faith.

We turned the conversation to the altercation the night before at the speakeasy. He turned evasive, protective, when we asked who had been present beside Brother Jackson so we could speak with them. The names spilled out–Newton, Obidiah, and Jackson. His face twisted as I spoke; he heard the taint of eastern education as I deployed my words. Then revelation forced his hand; “I saw Virgil too,” he said, to a quiet prompt from Dominicus.

Aha! We readied ourselves to find out his role in the confrontation when a knock at the door interrupted. The Steward stood framed in the door, his words compelling our attention: “Brother Tobias was caught in the act of smashing the inn’s liquor.” Fortunately, he continued, Tobias didn’t resist when the soldiers rushed down the stairs to investigate the disturbance. “He’s been hauled off to the jail,” he said, so we three Dogs joined him, walking briskly.

The Sheriff, somewhat surly as a result of his tipple the night before, did not want to allow us to speak with Tobias. He barred the way with his body, backed by soldiers who idled about the jail, clearly anticipating our interference. We spoke, at first calmly, with the Sheriff. He pushed Rusty, but Dominicus clamped his powerful hand on the Sheriff’s shoulder before they could give into the call of violence. While Dominicus held the Sheriff, I walked through the soldiers and into the jail. Dominicus and Rusty soon followed, while the Steward remained outside to straighten the Sheriff and counsel him on navigating the demands of faith and world.

Tobias… his tale is sad. He awoke filled with a passion. He urgently drew on his clothes, abandoned his charge Private Alex, swiped a key from slumbering Rusty, broke into the inn and began smashing liquor. We spoke quietly, so our voices would not carry, as we sought to divine whose voice urged him to his reckless act. After probing questions, his doubt made itself manifest and he realized that the passion had been his, not the King’s. “Rusty, you helped me find the King before…” he cried out. At Rusty’s hidden sign, Dominicus and I fled that scene of broken searching, leaving two Servants of the King to wrestle with faith.

Dominicus and I made haste toward Obidiah and Althea’s house. There, we felt, we would better understand the root of yesterday’s tragedy… but we were too late. When we arrived, their sister told us that Ezikia had come by just after breakfast and gathered them to visit the Steward’s. Dominicus and I blanched; Private Alex had been abandoned there while Tobias smashed liquor bottles–the soldier we’d pledged to protect was undefended. We broke into a jog…

The vigilantes didn’t expect us to come at a run. At my appearance, Newton was startled from his watch and ran to cry warning to his compatriots. He slid across the smooth floor boards of the Steward’s entry hall and pivoted to shut fast the door behind him… but I lowered my shoulder and slammed into the closing door, throwing it back open. Only a step behind was Dominicus, charged with the King’s fury.

Even the mildest of men would have been sickened by the bloody wreck that had been made of Private Alex. Obidiah clutched him under his arms, steadying him for Ezikia’s blows. And worse than blows; Ezikia had a pistol in his hand, its handle slicked with blood. Dominicus and I commanded him to stop in the King’s name, but he was unheeding; the pistol flipped, the bloody grip coming to rest in his hand, ready to fire. “Leave this place,” I commanded him, but his hand was unwavering, the pistol leveled at Alex. “After we take out the trash,” he said, and fired at the private.

Dominicus cowed Ezikia’s followers; first Newton dropped his hands to his side, then Virgil slid out the open door. Sister Aletha rushed forward to cast her body between Ezikia and his target–her bravery bought us time. Obidiah could not be dissuaded, but he fell to a savage punch that I unleashed, toppling him to the floor. Ezikia was unable to breach Althea’s selfless guard of the soldier; unwilling to shoot her or us, he eventually surrendered. Althea turned to treat the fallen soldier while we secured that once faithful man, Ezikia. He was unbalanced by his hatred of others: of outsiders, of the faithless. Of his neighbors.

The remainder took a great deal of discussion with many people. In the end, we allowed the soldiers to take Private Alex with them; Ezikia had taken vengeance’s cloak and delivered a punishment that would have been death had the King wished it. Steward Wiley was dismayed that his student Ezikia’s passion had been in service to hatred. As faint salve, he could count his guidance of Sheriff Henry back to the faith as a success.

The soliders also took Ezikia with them, back to their fort, where he would face a trial for the attempted murder of Private Alex.

Rusty counseled Tobias; they rode together back to Bridal Falls.

Dominicus and I set off for Bridal Falls a day later, delayed to escort one called to be a Dog. In her selfless defense of Private Alex, Dominicus and I saw the spark of the King; we asked Sister Althea to come and learn from the teachers and ancients at the temple. In her shines the spark of justice, her compassion true even when staring down the barrel of her mentor’s bloody pistol. We hope that she will join the King’s Watchdogs and bring her gifts to the faithful. Amen.