Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

A solid book, very much about economics and driven by thoughtful examination of formulas and lots of historical data, but not dense in numbers and equations. He writes with a lively touch, occasionally appealing to novels of specific eras to illustrate how commonplace some concepts and assumptions were.

In a way the primary argument is pessimistic; it took two world wars and a great depression to claw 1/3rd of wealth away from the top decile. Unfortunately, the fundamental laws of interest on capital have counteracted that spread of wealth; income on investments is becoming ever more the key to a life of extreme wealth.

It’s also interesting how corrosive the lowering of top marginal tax rates proved. From the 1930s to 1970s tax rate was so high that there was no reason to fight for a multi-million dollar salary–you’d lose most of it to taxes. That kept the boundaries of what was acceptable as income much closer to normal experience. Between hedge fund loopholes and wealth hiding, the wealthy today have every incentive to demand more and more, since they get to keep most of it. (In fact, they do such a good job of hiding their income and exploiting loopholes, that they on average pay less as a percentage of their income than the $50,000 to $250,000 per year set.)

The final few chapters bleakly examine ways to counteract the bare math of r > g, which is the law that interest grows faster than the economy as a whole. The most important element that he advances is a wealth tax, both for the obvious reasons (to shift taxation from workers to those living off of investments), but also for informational purposes. One of the big drawbacks to wealth taxes, at the moment, is that even governments have little idea of what non-land wealth people have. Even a tiny tax (say 0.1 percent) would get academics, researchers, and the government the information they need to design better, more targeted taxes.

The fly in the ointment is coordination. Unless done on a large scale (the US, the whole EU, or globally), paper wealth is hard to pin to a specific location. If Germany implements a wealth tax, the company stock may all be assigned to Ireland to dodge it. For everything but land, it’s easy to evade a single country’s efforts–great wealth is multinational these days.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

I recently finished City of Stairs, which was good but didn’t impress me as much as others seem to be experiencing. I wonder if the stuff that makes it a step above requires looking more at the world building.

It’s fantasy on the verge of Victorian (though without extensive steampunk). The lead character is interesting, as is the murder she’s trying to solve. The setting is very interesting, and events both recent and a couple of centuries old have resulted in a world with recriminations and colonial resentments.

Well done, there was just something “sparky” missing to make me eager for more.

(Edited to add: Something that came up in conversation, that speaks to the world building, is that it handles colonialism and its backlash directly and well. I agree that it’s well done, and can see how world builders in particular appreciated seeing it handled well in a fantasy story.)

The Histories of King Kelson (and King Kelson’s Bride)

These four books are interesting in their organization and subject. In many ways, it’s two pairs of books, for the main issues shift gears dramatically between books 2 and 3.

The Bishop’s Heir was probably the first Deryni book that I read. The background is dark and complicated–following The Chronicles of the Deryni the religious debate follows naturally, but I was amazed at it without the background context the first time.

The heart of the book is the developing Mearan secession crisis. We also meet a highland friend of Kelson’s, who was quite absent during the first trilogy, but Dhugal’s pretty interesting fellow. Meara feels like a pseudo-Scottish region of the kingdom; their separate history and politics feel a little “wait, what” when they’re first introduced (since why didn’t they affect the first trilogy more?), but history’s complications soon make this conflict feel fully realized as well.

Both sides get good development, and we even get introduced to Conall more, which begins laying the groundwork for the third book. But first, we need to finish this war…

The King’s Justice does NOT suffer the middle book of the trilogy effect. The Mearan war rages throughout, but it’s resolved completely by the end of the the book. It’s a fierce but unconventional war; this time Kelson has so many advantages, but he has to deal with determined partisans.

It’s well done; Kelson has age appropriate issues with impulse and passion. The war is brutal and feels appropriately so, and the church’s deryni question continues to confound and exacerbate the normal concerns of rebellion.

The Quest for Saint Camber is very different in feel from the previous 5 books. Kelson and Dhugal get an individual adventure feeling book, heavy on the difficulties of survival with limited resources. In parallel, we see Conall struggle with his birthright–the constraints of being raised to rule but thwarted from actually ruling.

The book delivers good development for many characters, and is quite a dark pleasure, though Kelson and Dhugal’s suffering is tricky to read. Much like the dark parts of the last Harry Potter novel, it feels repetitious, but the monotony does a good job of reinforcing their experience, even though it’s not fun in the same way as the Kingdom centered adventures.

King Kelson’s Bride has some parallels to In the King’s Service, in that there’s a lot of focus away from conquest and battles. As the title suggests, marriage runs through the novel as a backbone–sometimes overtly and reduced to geneology debates, often more personally.

The book gives us interesting viewpoints within Torenth and shifts nicely from marriage considerations to politics to action and magic and back around to politics and marriage. The book ends with Kelson and his kingdom set for a glorious renaissance. It’s a nice place to end the timeline–and it feels earned. (Well, Araxie does seem too good to be true, but it’s nice recompense for Kelson’s terrible previous luck.)

The Chronicles of the Deryni

The first trilogy of Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books. I particularly like this trilogy; I first read it when I was younger (in my teens, I think), which helped me empathize with Kelson.

The most recent reread of this series followed the last book of the Childe Morgan Trilogy, which was (in the world of the book) the events a dozen years before this book begins.

Deryni Rising was the trilogy’s first book. It’s set in the court of Gywnedd; Kelson Haldane’s father is killed in the first few pages. The book is about Kelson’s struggle to take over; he’s only 14. He’s also the crown prince, heir to magic powers passed down from his father… but even those are complicated.

The world building is extremely engaging. As the first book, some of the specific flavor is contradicted or presented differently in later books, but it’s pretty subtle. (Basically, the magic feels more like a wizard in this book, but more like psionics as the series evolves.)

The church is prominent and a source of divided loyalties. I really appreciated the role of the church; it helped this fantasy world feel very “low magic”… even though Deyrni powers prove incredibly useful and powerful.

Deryni Checkmate continues the trilogy. It’s a traditional middle book of a trilogy, in that the victory of the previous book is complicated and new problems crop up. We learn a lot more about the deryni and their powers–in part because Morgan and Duncan use their powers more generally.

The world that’s sketched is nuanced and very complicated; Kelson’s struggle to balance his many obligations is well done. Of course, nothing’s truly resolved… other than a tragedy in the wings.

High Deryni reveals Gwenydd’s rotten underbelly; there’s yet more treason. Things do get worse before they get better. The ending features a very surprising twist that’s indirectly foreshadowed.

This is a book of war and war-magic. We learn about Torenth and its king… and more about the Camberian Council. The book is urgent, but the pace isn’t a headlong rush.

I love the trilogy for the way they build a world that’s not too far from medieval England/Europe. There are some significant differences, but they’re largely grounded in the specific politics and relations of the region. The people feel… as correctly full of superstitions and prejudices.

A new comic

So, I spent much of the last two evenings catching up on Dumbing of Age. I’m caught up now…

Also, tonight’s rush dinner proved awesome. It was: Thin sliced pork shoulder, cut into strips. Lightly floured with salt and pepper. Cook quickly on medium high in bacon fat, add sliced apples (and turnip), serve. Yum!

The Childe Morgan trilogy

This is a “bridge” trilogy, between Katherine Kurtz’s Camber and Heirs of St. Camber prequel trilogy and the “modern” Kelson books.

The trilogy begins with In the King’s Service. I read it some time ago and have more pointed feelings about it as a book, largely due to encountering the same misfire in The Princess and the Queen, or, the Blacks and the Greens by George RR Martin. (Its review is here.) The book starts with genealogy, and is a very slow start. As the book accelerates, it rotates among many POV–but not an intimate and limited POV as we see in the other books, but a less emotionally invested, less tied series of POVs.

The plot is interesting (but at least on reread) the lack of POV development for the primary characters feels like a missed opportunity. It felt a little like the author fell in love with the broad sweep instead of getting us to empathize with the main characters and meld with their viewpoints.

The second book, Childe Morgan, is told from much closer and does a better job of getting us to empathize with the main characters. It’s told more from Alyce’s point of view, with de Nore and the Camberian Council getting frequent response or partial chapter POVs. We even get some Alric focused discussions and POV, which is tricky, given that he’s four. But they largely work. Alyce’s end is sad and brought tears; her passing shifts the adult viewpoint near Alric over to Kenneth.

There’s another change; this book is far more “dashing” and “male”. A lot of In the King’s Service focused on women’s struggles–being marriage pawns, womanly competition, child birth and youth mortality issues. Even with so much of the book being Alyce’s POV, there’s more magic and action, a great deal more deliberation and rulership as issues.

The third book, The King’s Deryni, is mostly told from the now 8 year old Alric’s POV, with quite a bit of his Dad, Kenneth, for the second POV. He’s very interested in boy things (war, training to be a page) and his father is making sure that he’s also picking up estate management and similar skills. In many ways this is an even lighter book (so far), despite some grizzly anti Deyrni sentiment. It’s more like the Kelson books, in that there’s a women’s world, but we don’t inhabit it much.

The story continues; we see the hardening of anti-Deyrni sentiment, see Alric develop into a young adult, undergoing formative experiences (like a Deyrni priest being burned alive) and stumbling into magic. The last comes suddenly; he really is poorly trained for much of the book, which corresponds nicely to the council’s opinions in the Kelson books.

There’s some minor inconsistency in the late Alric/Brion experiences versus the Deryni series, but nothing that’s not easily dismissed as minor/nitpicking. The big difference comes from learning Jehena is Bregamani… which raises the question of her self-loathing. It doesn’t seem like she would develop the same deep questioning of herself–unless Bremagne has a similar history of Deyrni oppression. (Or, more precisely, I wonder how an order that teaches Deyrni self-loathing became popular enough that the royal family of Bremagne follows their dictates and keeps them as counselors.)

In the end, it’s a good novel with good POV characters. It’s rewarding to see Morgan come into his own. It’s essentially the first half of his life; the story ends before he turns 15, and he’s in his late 20s as Deyrni Rising begins. That transition–that 10+ year gap–is also interesting, but would be quite constraining to write in.

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Rose Eox and Daniel Jose Older is an interesting collection of historical and fantasy short stories.

The stories vary in time and place, though most of them are set within the last 500 years. Some of the settings are quite familiar, such as Marigolds, set just prior to the French Revolution. A few of the stories are well outside of my traditional reading, such as Ogres of East Africa, There Will Be One Vacant Chair and The Dance of the White Demons. Many of the others are set since the renaissance, many in Europe or America.

I distracted myself, at times, with trying to identify or predict the element that would make something “marginal” enough to qualify for this collection. That’s a distraction; most of the stories are good, and most offer intriguing new viewpoints.

I’m looking forward to keeping this one in my collection and rereading it. I wonder which ones will stick?

Bookwyrm and new D&D links

Bookwyrm is coming soon; we’re beginning to wrangle GMs. Patrick and I are in charge of the indie track… and there’s a lot of people who’ve previously run that we’d love to see again. My GM recruitment post is here.

Beyond Bookwyrm, two recent developments in D&D:
web browsable basic D&D rules and a hyperlinked D&D FAQ (for AL)

Also, WotC is recruiting players to write adventures and website articles for D&D.

And Fate…
Fate new player’s guide

Bridge of Birds

Bridge of Birds, A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was by Barry Hughart.

I really liked this book. It is a world that could almost be our own, with some exaggeration. The two heroes, Number Ten Ox and Master Kao Li are vividly drawn do have some stereotypical attributes but vivid personalities.

The quest is grandly heroic, and the characters are vastly overmatched in every way. Watching them persevere and overcome, their cunning and unique problem solving, and the unique challenges they face are all engrossing.

Around the middle of the book, it becomes clear that the first grand quest is actually only one of two quests that they’re committed to–no matter how little they understand or care about the second. But the scope continues to grow and they’re tackling truly legendary challenges by the end.

It’s big and bold and very well done. Very enjoyable.