robertliguoriwritesstuff

A quick story of me as a callow youth.

(Names blanked out to protect the innocent-ish.)

Scene: A group of friends, out for a walk in Colonial Williamsburg.

Friend A: “Hey, I’ve got an idea! Let’s play the penis game!”

Friend B: “What’s that?”

Friend A: “It’s like this: I start by saying ‘penis’, then the next person has to say ‘penis’ louder than I said it, then so on around in a circle, and the loser is the one who gives up first. Okay?”

Friends: *nod*

Friend A: *whispers* “Penis.”

Friend B: *whispers slightly louder* “Penis.”

Robert: *puts hands to mouth and bellows as loud as he can* “PENIIIIIIIS!”

Tourists: *look at Robert and friends*

Robert: *pokes Friend A* “Your turn now!”

Friend A: “Hey, I’ve got an idea! Let’s no one ever play the penis game with Robert ever again!”

Survival ethics and outlaw civilizations..

Most people agree that there are multiple valid moral models, depending on the environment you’re in. There’s the base model of vague liberalism in which everyone agrees not to attack or violate the rights of everyone else, and edge cases are dealt with via the agreed-upon arbitrators of the legal system. Then there’s wartime morality, where you designate the militant arm of an enemy soceity as acceptable targets and then use violence at them until they stop being militant. (Obviously, this can also lead into much less agreed-upon but still common morality modes if you don’t actually stop then.)

We agree collectively that if there’s a great mass of people trying to kill you, it’s perfectly acceptable to kill them right back. But reading To Destroy You Is No Loss made me think about this. One of the things that the Communist regime did in Cambodia was work hard to make as many people as possible complicit. Neighbors were encouraged to report on neighbors and family for minor infractions which could, depending on the political state of things and the desire for more or less murder at a particular point in time, lead directly to those neighbors or family being marked for death. And if you didn’t do this, then you’d be marked as uncooperative and be killed yourself (along with your family, naturally).

When you’re captured, enslaved, and threatened with death daily, everyone agrees that then is an excellent time to kill your captors. But does it change things if your captors are captives themselves, forced to betray you lest they die in turn?

I don’t think it does. We accept the necessity of killing conscripts in the service to evil regimes. We look for alternatives, but when they don’t exist, we accept that taking up arms for an evil cause means that you can be morally killed.

So, in a society which weaponizes its entire civilian populace, it follows that morally speaking, you’re weapons-free. It’s tragic to have to kill a child soldier with an AK because he will most likely shoot you with it, and it’s equally tragic to quietly poison the neighbors and their children because they might report on the Jews in your basement, but if one is permissible, the other should be as well. (Modulo the rules of war and so forth.)

On the other hand, I also can’t imagine “Well, we the despised minority group is being targeted for harassment again. Time to poison all the wells, loot the valuables from our dying ex-neighbors, drop a few plagues on our way out to cover our retreat, and group up in a nation that’s not harassing us to live in peace and prosperity!” actually working for any minority group. Maybe the most ethical thing to do if you find yourself in an oppressive regime is to do absolutely whatever it takes to escape, then make up heartwarming tales about allies and collaborators.

Really, I think the best thing to do is to remember that yes, it can happen here, yes, it can happen to us, and to be ready to drastically change your living situation once you get a hint of people in charge restricting your ability to save money, arm yourself for self-defense, or travel freely.

Coffee and software philosophy.

Due to my old computer being old and having number of issues, I decided to take advantage of one of the many sales and pick up a new PC. It has Windows 10, on the grounds that I only expect Microsoft to accelerate its dirty tricks to get people to upgrade and I’d rather start with it than buy a PC with 7 or 8 and have to upgrade.

I am amazed at how many things this new OS gets wrong. You log in with your Microsoft ID. I haven’t heard what happens if you update your Microsoft ID then log onto a computer without Internet access, but I imagine it’s going to be fun. There are loads of completely random mobile-esque settings sprinkled through, that godawful ribbon from the latest Office suite has made it into the file browser now, there’s all the random tracking and reporting back, and to add insult to injury, the system loves to give you pop-ups to remind you to use its various features.

From where does this wrongness come from? From the foundations, the very core. Windows 10 is an incredibly annoying OS because it rejects the Unix Software Philosophy, which is, in short, you should get you work done with multiple small programs, each very simple and very specialized, strung together as you see fit.

To get the metaphor in here, Windows 10 is a Keurig. Specifically, it’s a Keurig 2.0, DRM and all. On one hand, stuff is simple. You just need to fill it with water, put in the pods (approved and sold by Keurig), hit the button, and you get coffee. Of course, if you want non-pod coffee, then you need to hack your coffeemaker.

Me? I have a coffee grinder, an electric kettle, and an AeroPress. I have three specialized machines which do one task (grind, heat water, steep something in hot water in a small chamber), and I string them together. And this gives me freedom. I can grind any kind of coffee bean, or use preground coffee if I want to. Heck, I could buy Keurig pods and empty them into my AeroPress if I had the notion to. I can tweak the water temperature and volume exactly, just by adding more or less water, or letting the water cool. And I can steep the coffee for as long as I want. And I can adjust all of these settings dynamically. I can note that I’m short on grounds, and opt for an ultra-fine grind with an extra-long steep to get more flavor out of less coffee, at the cost of a little more bitterness. I can switch from coffee to tea and still use my setup as-is. And if any component breaks or if I decide to replace it, then I can do that trivially. And best of all, I don’t need to worry about the mechanisms and connectors in the Keurig.

The more I deal with Windows 10, the more installing Linux and running Wine when necessary seems like a good idea.

Because I’m not yet on enough interesting government watch lists.

So, what’s the most effective way to commit terrorism using remote-control quadcopter (or hex- or oct-) drones?

You can, of course, mount guns to quadcopters, although there are a host of reasons you really, really shouldn’t. But this doesn’t offer you much benefit; it’s much easier to just go someplace high up with a rifle.

No, we’re going straight to bombs. A basic medium-end quadcopter like the Phantom can lift and carry a few pounds. Grenades are less than a pound each. You want terror? Get a moderate-sized quadcopter, fly it about a hundred feet over a highway during rush hour, and put an automated rig to pull pins and release grenades straight down.

This assumes that you have ready access to grenades, of course. If you don’t, it might be better to just turn the drone itself into a bomb; stud it with nails and fill an internal space with commercially-available black powder, then wire that space to a control you’re not using to pilot the drone. Hit the button for that control, the drone blows up.

This is the kind of thing you’d want to use on a high-profile target. If you know that someone’s giving a speech, and will be in a particular 5-meter radius at a particular time, you can plan ahead, put your drone hovering a few hundred feet in the air ahead of time, then once you’ve got your confirmation that your target is where you expect him to be, send the drop signal, put your drone in free-fall, and blow it up when it gets within range. Since it will be falling, not flying, people won’t hear the drone of the rotors to make them look up, and even if your target does (or he’s being watched), tracking a fast-falling object (especially one you’ve spray-painted sky blue or cloud grey) is really hard.

But surely the government has clever technical solutions to drone-based terrorism on high-profile targets? Yeah, not so much. If they have them, they’re covering them up really, really well.

Really, though, America’s dealt with snipers and kamikaze suicide bombers before. To get some proper terror going on, I think we need to go back to WWII. That grenade idea wasn’t bad, but using timed fuses limits the height of our bombs. What we really want are impact-fused bombs like what were used in aerial bombardment, dropped from a great height, over populated areas. You can put fins and such on ’em, but the real answer is to just find really wide targeting areas. If you do it right, the drone will always be several seconds away before anyone looks up, and if you program the drones to operate independently, there’s no control signal to track. Heck, you could organize a multi-day terror bombing campaign without ever actually physically entering the city you’re bombing; if the city’s near a large body of water, you could have your drones dispose of themselves in it once they’ve dropped their payload, and make it really hard for anyone to find them and trace them back to you.

Scary, huh? Did anything here make you want to regulate or ban aerial drones? Well, that’s an understandable reaction, but also a pretty futile one. See, this whole plan of attack is stupidly impractical. Drones are great, but they’re not magic; they suffer electrical or mechanical failure, they’re sometimes built with bad parts, they sometimes get gusts of wind at just the wrong time, and they’re really noisy, and quite visible until they get some serious altitude.

The scary thing in these examples wasn’t the drones, it was the bombs. And there are dozens of potential bomb delivery systems that we interact with each day and don’t even think about. If we actually want to be safe, we can’t just look at something that’s new and foreign and declare it scary, and think that banning it will do anything to make us safe. We need to actually look at the mechanics of the threat we face. And we need to remember that the bad actors are looking at them too, and also looking at our reactions, and that overreacting in response to new, scary threats just means that when you build a million-dollar drone detection and interdiction system, your enemies instead attack you with dumbfire RPGs.

Other Books I Have Read Recently

Freelancer, by Jake Lingwall
I’m not a fan. I like the idea of this book a lot. It takes place in a near future, where the U.S. is undergoing political change and certain technologies like 3D printing and drones have taken off. But the actual execution? The revolution in 3D printing and assisted software development kicks them to Star Trek replicator-and-holodeck levels. We learn in passing that the 2nd amendment has been repealed and this is not a big deal, in a world where a random teenage girl can print up literally thousands of aerial attack drones armed with lethal weaponry. (Yes, you can 3D print full machines with batteries and circuits and stuff. No, no one asks “Why don’t we start 3D printing 3D printers and go full Von Neumann up in this schizzle?”)

The protagonist is…well, I’ve been in recap mode of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, so she doesn’t seem as bad as she would have otherwise. We keep getting told that she’s a genius, but we never see it; we only see that the people who oppose her are morons. And she also has that Spiderman-esque “Although I am looked down on in my high school for being strange and weird, I have a complicated and fulfilling inner life as a superhero weapons designer for anonymous clients!” going on, which just makes me roll my eyes. Because I’ve been the too-smart awkward guy, and one of the things I learned is that actual, genuinely smart people either learn to harnass their smarts into learning how to perform the basic fitting-in steps and making themselves minimally likable, or do the cost-benefit valuation, determine they’re surrounded by ignorant assholes, and proceed to ignore the status games around them and get on with their lives. The protagonist, being an obvious, obvious teenage-girl stand in, does neither.

There is promise here, though. A lot of the questionable things seem like they might actually be set-up. We might be getting sequels in which the protagonist learns that being the smartest person in suburban North Carolina makes her a small fish in a very big pond, and there is room for her “Look at me, I’m so adult and clever!” decisions in this book to come back to haunt her. My problem is…well, after reading Mercedes Lackey, I no longer have a lot of trust that this kind of set-up is intended, versus the author just not noticing or caring that their protagonist is doing things that, absent protagonist-glow, look deeply sketchy.

The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass, by Jim Butcher

This is a fun read. It has an interesting world (although one that will be very familiar to anyone who’s read Weis and Hickman’s Death Gate Cycle), airships, crystal-based magitech, monsters, mystery, intrigue, and talking cats.

The one thing I don’t like about it relates to those cats, however. The cats are, as you would expect, arrogant furry bastards who won’t shut up about their superiority, and eager and willing to lash out with physical violence to ensure their social dominance. That’s all well and good, but the book also tries to play the prickly noble house what duels as a drop of a stylish Victorian stovepipe as an antagonist, and part of a significant subplot, and the dissonance between the two asshole groups just because one is cute and fuzzy is telling, especially when the story evolves and you see more and more parallels between cat culture and the nobles. This might be deliberate, but it doesn’t come across that way.

No Complaints Here: One Punch Man

Since I’ve been talking a lot about media I wasn’t that fond of, I figure I might as well go ahead and recommend something unreservedly: One Punch Man.

Stories of heroes and legends are as old as man. And every hero has their nemeses. Batman has his Joker, Superman his Doomsday and Lex Luthor and Darkseid and so forth. Even Hercules, the original superhero, had Hera to torment and vex him, and drive the story of his Labors forward, and mix things up when things got too complicated.

But what if they didn’t? The universe is not fair, and it is not symmetrical. It is not driven by the constraints of narrative to produce exciting battles between plausibly-equal agents. Some times, battles come up in which one side is unmistakably superior.

One Punch Man is such a universe. The hero, Saitama, is a man who sets to be a superhero, ends up gaining superpowers…and in getting them, becomes the absolute strongest thing in his vicinity. He is fast enough to dodge any blow, strong enough to endure any blow he doesn’t feel like dodging (if he’s worrying about his grocery list, for example), and strong enough that every fight, against every foe he faces, ends with one punch. (This is excepting the case in which he uses his deadly ultimate combo attack Sequential Normal Punches.)

This is a story that can only exist in the rich narrative ecosystem of superhero and fighting shounen anime. It takes the piss out of a great deal of them, but it doesn’t ever come across as ironic or winking at the audience. The universe is frequently ridiculous, but the characters of the universe are forced to confront it head-on, and laughable villains can have very serious body counts, if not stopped.

The story is not yet done, and it’s already raised a bunch of interesting questions about the nature of power, heroism, courage, and stories themselves. We know that the hero will triumph, that courage will prevail, that even if the villain has the hero on the ropes and all seems lost, the hero will pull a win out of their back pocket somehow. This is how stories work. What happens, then, in a story where the author dispenses with the premise that the hero might lose, and makes the story not about whether or not the hero will win or lose, but what happens as a result of the hero’s ever-increasing string of victories? What, ultimately, are the limits of the good that can be achieved with punching, even irresistible punching?

The series is well-written, well-animated, well-voiced, with one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard to date in any media. If you have any interest in superheros or anime, check this series out.

Clean Sweep: Not the target audience, definitely not a fan.

To be clear, I don’t think that this is a bad book. It just fails to pass through a few critical gates that a book (or media of any kind, really) need to make it through to get a second glance from me.

In theory, this could be called hybrid sci-fi/urban fantasy, but in honesty, it’s straight urban fantasy, which just uses Space Technology!! as a kind of technobabble, and doesn’t do anything with its other planets that Dresden’s Nevernever doesn’t do. And that’s Gate One faceplanted into. Magic and science are different. To invoke magic is to reify a high-level concept into the rules of the universe, as an absolute thing. And that’s fine! That’s perfectly acceptable within the story. Take bargains, for instance. There’s a lot of stories about magic bargains. The stories about the devil out to buy your soul from you make the concept of a bargain an absolute thing.

But what if it wasn’t? What if there was just some devil-shaped alien who could do technobabble tricks if they got you to sign something? Well, then you’re in the realm of technology. And technology improves. You’d expect those aliens to jump straight to mass-marketing, click-through Faustian EULAs, or simply skirting the level of whatever coercion isn’t allowed and making up for it in volume, with people opposing them looking for similar story-breaking ways to cheese their way out of their own bargains. Technology is fundamentally different from magic.

Anyway, technology is where it’s at. Vampires and werewolves exist; they’re aliens and alien genetically-engineered super-soldiers. We get one of each, who of course square off and have a sexy ab-off at our heroine for most of our book, when they’re not engaging in witty banter and apparently-supposed-to-be-clever repartee with said heroine.

And here’s where he hit Gate 2 hard. This book makes me feel like the author(s) have genuinely never imagined how people in honor-based cultures where you might have to draw down and kill people to protect your good name (lest you be shamed and killed in turn). The book wants us to believe that there’s Tension! between Wiry Muscular Male Lead and Brawny Muscular Male Lead, that both are live wires who might erupt into violence at any moment. But they sure don’t act like it. They both treat each other (and the protagonist treats them) with less caution and respect than you’d grant strangers on a gun range. There’s no narrative treatment of anyone as actually, genuinely dangerous.

This leads into a kind of sub-gate that makes me not put books down, but only because if I did, I’d barely read anything. The book reflects as unexamined truth that social dominance is always and forever equal to physical (and/or technomagical) dominance. Winning an argument means you win the fight that follows the argument, always. There’s a duel in the book at one point that’s glossed over, because we know that the good monster has Righteousness on his side and has publicly accused the Bad Monster of great dishonorable cheatery and thus cannot possibly lose, and of course couldn’t get bushwhacked by further dishonorable cheatery in the duel itself.

Now, there is a lot to like here. We get a good variety of monster-aliens and alien vistas. Character motivations (when not swept up into the Black Hole Of Wanting To Bone The Protagonist) are fairly sensible, and aside from the stupid-ass posturing, most of the actions characters take make sense within that they know when they choose to take the actions. The Female Gaze stuff looks like it’s doing its job, as far as I can tell. So if you ever read the Anita Blake books and thought “I want more of these, but with sci-fi instead of magic and more of a PG rating.”, this appears to be the series for you. (And it is very reasonably priced, if this does sound appealing and if the gates I describe aren’t hard stops for you.) But for all that I did like the new perspective on werewolves and vampires and witches, oh my, I’m not interested enough to keep reading.

Now, if someone makes an RPG sourcebook out of this universe, then we might be in business…

[WIR, What Hath Gone Before] Oathbreakers

RPG.net link here.

In which…goddamnit, just read the summary.

This book, man. This goddamn book. Ok. First act is mostly fine, but with one big warning bell. Here, Tarma and Kethry have signed on with an elite mercenary company, and we follow them on a campaign. It continues to level-set them as high-level D&D characters. That warning sign, however, is the complete disconnect between what the book tells us and what it shows us in terms of women on the battlefield. The book (and other books) tell us that women make up a distinct plurality of the combat forces. What it shows us, however, is that of the characters who we don’t get zoomed in on, and who aren’t both important and on the protagonist’s side, none are women.

Now, my hope was that we’d follow up on the last story of Oathbound with the realization that in a world with equal-opportunity brigandage and robbery, having a magic sword that put you always and irrevocably on the side of women could very often be a crippling weakness. But we don’t get that. Apparently, the idea that someone could be a woman and oppose the protagonists while not being a demonic thrall who went through an involuntary gender-swap didn’t occur to the author.

OK. So, not great, but not terrible. Then we get into the meat of the book, and things start looking really interesting. The commander of their mercenary company (who was in the line of succession of a generic far-off nation, but left because it was a nest of vipers and backstabbing and she wanted an honest career of mercenary work) gets news that things are afoot in her home country, heads back, and then apparently vanishes, and now our protagonists need to head to a strange land, to deal with a problem of intrigue and politics, neither of which are skills in their wheelhouses.

And this works really well! We get tension built because there are other mages and so Kethry can’t just roll over the opposition like she’s done before, Tarma has to deal with the fact that her people have a very poor reputation in this nation, and the one person who looks like he’s able to give them a straight answer on what’s going on doesn’t trust either of them as far as he can throw them, and he’s middle-aged with a chronic health condition of some sort.

Then there’s an assassination attempt on the guy which the protagonists foil, the team has to hit the road in a hurry, while pursued by shadowy magical agents. Things are exciting now! The team has a path into their investigation, they can pit their skills against the specific problem facing them, and then…

Then it all falls apart. No, wait, it’s worse than that. Then it all falls together. Then the story abandons abandons even the pretense of dramatic tension.

There is again a warning sign in the fact that Team Heroine finds a legendary magic sword on a random dead body while crossing a winter pass. This is basically Excalibur for the nation they’re from, and can in theory resolve the succession crisis (but they don’t know this yet.) Now, this is stupidly convenient, but hey, protagonists tripping over legendary magic swords goes back to Tolkien, so there’s nothing too outrageous here.

Then the team crosses over into Valdemar, meets a Herald, and Tarma’s interventionist goddess does step down to let her know that she’s got the combined divine go-ahead from both her and Team QHAT, and OK, that was worrying from a dramatic point of view, but in keeping with both her and the Companions, so again, not outrageous.

Then Kethry becomes an Adept. Adepts are the name-level of the wizarding world in Valdemar. They’re the highest rank of wizard there is; they’re the Plot Device Wizards Who Did It, who are involved in all of the legendary acts of historical magic.

And Kethry’s still a D&D character, so OK, having the little bit of quest XP bump her into taking that Archmage prestige class is a little disjointed from a dramatic point of view, but I buy it.

Then we finally meet the pursuit. He’s another Adept. Another, much-more-experienced Adept. And of course there’s a random out-of-nowhere Adept dueling protocol where they show off their spirit animals and the like, and it’s at this point that a fell premonition creeps over me.

There is one way this fight should go. This is someone who just got their black belt stepping into the ring for their first black-belt-on-black-belt match with a 5th dan veteran. If the story wants me to take the idea of magic ranks and experience meaning anything, Kethry needs to lose this fight.

She wins, of course, but her opponent cheats! He secreted a golem under the combat area, which unburies itself and mauls Kethry! Happily, this the exact kind of golem that the team’s cranky sick old guy happens to know the secret weakness of (and Evil Adept apparently doesn’t), so he takes out the golem. And in a scene which is actually decently-written, Tarma calls on divine intervention for Kethry to be healed, and gets it. And that, by itself, wouldn’t have been terrible, but it on top of everything else cements that nothing seriously bad is going to be allowed to happen to our heroines for the rest of the book.

The book, of course, doesn’t even pretend to ask “Why, if Adepts are such hot shit, didn’t the Adept following them overtake them and do something? Why, if Adept magic can be made undetectable to non-Adepts, did Kethry get wind of him following them in the first place? And what’s the plan for all of the other mages back in the capital, many of whom are presumably also Adepts, since they could spare sending this guy out on a rather random mission of questionable utility?”

Instead, the heroines enact their plan, and this is where I go from disappointed to darkly, bitterly amused. See, the title of the book is Oathbreakers, because there’s some ancient ritual mystical stuff about mercenaries and oaths. There’s a doom ritual that can be pronounced on oathbreakers and traitors to declare then anathema, but it requires a mage, a cleric, and an honest man all wronged by someone, and its effects are questionable and mystic. So of course we’re going to get our heroines (and less-sick-under-magic-HMO-plan guy). But first we need the dirt on the guy in charge. And how do our honorable mercenary heroines get it? Disguise Tarma as someone else, join his guard, take his money and swear falsely to serve him, and then pump him for information.

It works, of course. Guy in Charge drove out his good brother and had Mercenary Sister killed in the designated way Romantic Fantasy villains have women killed, of course. Despite being described as competent at plotting and intrigue, he suspects nothing when his Adept never reports back, of course.

Team Heroine get word back to their company and they infiltrate the kingdom in small groups, to form the core of a revolutionary army. This goes smoothly, of course. Kethry comes up with a revolutionary new kind of magic trap she can drop on the opposing mages all at once to neutralize them. It works perfectly and none of them do anything else in the story, of course.

Kethry blasts aside all opposition with overwhelming magic as the coup attempt happens. They run down the evil prince, and Tarma captures him because he trusts her guise. Then they drag him to some ritual area where they call up the ghost of Mercenary Captain, she kills him horribly over a long period of time, then they drag out his body to the people of the nation, proclaim that Good Brother With Excalibur is king now, and everyone is happy. The end.

It really didn’t help that I was reading Honor and Violence in the Old South at the same time as this book. But really, consider this in the general case. You’ve got Group A who is out to avenge a slight on their honor. They invoke harm done to one of their women by a perfidious member of group B. So they smuggle in large numbers of people, attack from surprise, overwhelm group B’s defenses, kill a fair number of group B, torture the accused member of group B to death, then parade around his body while also showing off their numbers and martial power.

In what world are we supposed to assume Group A are the good guys? Team Heroine could have done a thousand things differently. They could have quietly assassinated Evil Prince for ages, and with Kethry’s Adept super-magic, made it look like an accident. They could have saved dozens of their own lives and who knows how many lives of their enemies. But they wanted a big fight where everyone would see what happens when you cross Team Heroine. It wasn’t about justice, or saving future victims of Evil Prince. It wasn’t even about revenge. It was about having their honor satisfied, and having the world know what happened to people who cross Team Heroine.

There is a silver lining to this, however. This book does have Team Heroine retire, as far as I can tell. And as far as I can tell, at some point between this and the next series, Mercedes Lackey has her own “Hans, are we the baddies?” moment. And the next series, set in Valdemar’s Past, is the Last Herald Mage series, and goes in a very different and much more interesting direction.

I am a bastard, part one of many.

A quick story from my past that I feel like sharing:

Friend: *listening idly to news as disliked media figure speaks* “There he goes, blowing the dog whistle again.”
Other friend: “I dunno, it’s not like he’s being subtle.”
Me: “Yeah. Talking about ‘political correctness’ at all is only done to attack it. It’s a sibboleth, basically.”
Friend: “A what?”
Me: “A sibboleth! You know, it’s language you only use to prove you’re a member of one group or another-”
Other friend: “You mean a shibboleth.”
Me: *quirks eyebrow* “Yes, a sibboleth. That’s what I said.”
Other friend: “No, you said-”
Friend: *holds up a hand for pause, googles*
Friend: “…You are a bastard.”

He was not wrong.

Book Review: Rogue Planet: Fortress At The Top Of The World

Rogue Planet: Fortress At The Top Of The World, written by Ian Harac, better known in the blogosphere as Lizard, is a rousing planetary romance. Lots of excitement, action, exploration, lost civilizations, found civilizations, and really good interaction between the protagonist characters.

There is a lot to like here. The book’s well-written, well-paced, and there are a lot of really clever nods to the genre. Furthermore, Ian does a really good job of taking some of the less-savory elements of the genre, and either simply dropping them in front and center to acknowledge them, or working around them with modern sensibilities in a very adroit way. One of the problems with Deja Thoris is that she always came across as an ancillary of John Carter; it wasn’t that she failed to be brave and clever and a good leader and such, it was just that those attributes only defined her so as to make her a good match for John. Here, the female leads are much better realized as independent characters in their own right.

There are a few weaknesses, though. The otherwise-strong pacing falters a tiny bit at the end of the novel, as material for sequels is being set up, and without those sequels, the book doesn’t really end in an optimal position. It resolves the story arc that was raised initially, but there’s stuff left unanswered, and not in a tempting-mystery way. Also, the bad guys lean way, way, too hard on the “And he must be taken alive for my nefarious and sadistic purposes!” for my preference; having this happen once is acceptable, but anyone who’s gamed as long as Ian has should know that the moments of most tension are when the villain has been forced to throw away their pride, their glorious self-image, and all of their plans other than surviving the next few seconds, and throws all of the power that has opposed the hero throughout the story at them at once in sheer desperation.

For those weaknesses, however, it’s still a very worthwhile and entertaining read, and one I recommend.

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