Unique Critiques

The Witchwood Crown: The Last King of Osten Ard Book 1

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Tad Williams wrote one of the best fantasy series ever written with his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn books. It captured the mooncalf Simon, a scullery boy who became high king through a riveting series of adventures. I feel like the grandfather in The Princess Bride when talking about it, there were princesses, sword fights, battles and Norns. It hit me at an impressionable age and I still remember the feelings it invoked as it sucked me into the world.

This is the follow up series, some forty years later, The Last King of Osten Ard, which begins with the Witchwood Crown. In this first installment, Simon has become an old man. He’s still the High King of the land but he’s a grandfather struck by the tragedy of the loss of a son and the raising of an errant grandson, Morgan. A lot of the old cast of characters is back, aged and greyed with experience and heartbreak. Being reintroduced to these characters felt like a homecoming that highlighted my own grey hairs and creaky knees. It was wonderful to reexperience the marshy constructed language of Tiamak and the yoda-like Binabik again, even as old men. Especially as old men. These two have always wielded outsider’s wisdom without sounding preachy or condescending, something rare in the fantasy genre of late. That wisdom has aged nicely into something timeless.

The kingdom is once again under threat, though that threat doesn’t have any sense of urgency behind it. In fact, that is the theme of the book. Coming in at roughly 750 pages, ninety percent of those pages is dedicated to world building, scene setting and foreshadowing. Which means very little of it is spent on anything actually happening. Picture the Fellowship of the Rings where ninety percent of the book is the long and expected party at the very beginning.

The threat appears to be from the Norn Queen, the immortal enemy that our cast of characters went head to head with in the first series. She’s waking up and gathering an army. I think. Not enough actually happens to truly know what the threat is.

Williams has a gift of bringing characters to life. He goes into extraordinary detail via the actions of the characters. His characters are amazing. That said, one of the big issues I have with the Witchwood Crown is that I don’t know who the protaganist is. Is it still Simon? Is it his grandson Morgan? Could it be the half Norn, half human, Nezeru? Is it Unver the clansman? I struggled with this. Williams introduced so many characters in this first offering that I don’t even know who I should be rooting for.  I don’t really even know who the bad guys are yet.

All of this set up, with so many characters, makes the pacing of the novel glacial. I don’t know if that is because of the author or because of how our tastes and consumption of media has shifted. I’m sure it’s a bit of both. When I was younger, in the days before the iPhone, I could sit down with a book and read for three or four hours straight, chewing through hundreds of pages. Nowadays, after five minutes my phone starts whispering to me with it’s buzzes and dings about things it pretends to be urgent which have no relevance to my life. These insidious devices have conditioned us to have the attention span of golden retrievers.

This is how we end up in the age of Marvel and bloated Star Wars offerings. The canon has already been established, so now they just throw CGI action scene after CGI action scene with very little story at us. And we eat it up. Creativity dies as profits rise. User created content is not much different. If it doesn’t shock you or crack you up in the allotted 30 second TikTok period, you’ve become an unfluencer.

I’ll hop off my high horse and say I’m glad Williams is going for this level of depth. It gives us a chance to get invested in these characters. To really care if something happens to one of them. That’s worthwhile. As a species, we need to rediscover our love of the written word. We express ourselves differently when we have time to think, time to make the words sing.

Williams knows how to do that.

That said, I’ll take another U-turn and say, I really wish he threw in a bit more action because this book flirts with Dickensian style prose which felt bloated even in the pre-television days.

I’m going to start the next book in the series soon. You get the sense the storm is building and I want to see what happens when it strikes.

The Wizard’s Crown: Art of the Adept Book 5

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

I am a big fan of Michael Manning’s writing. I have devoured the Mageborn series, the Embers of Illeniel series and several others along the way. He always manages to blend a well crafted plot with excellent world building and character development. He’s not quite at Sanderson’s level for inventiveness but the worlds he builds feel real. That is a gift.

I have been all in with the Art of the Adept series from the beginning. I love the way he introduced then explored the magic system. The main character Will has to rely on his own intellect, scrappiness and grit to get ahead in a world of sorcery and wizardry. Yes, there is a serious distinction between the two that defines the class system as well as what makes Will so special as a wizard.

The plot line and characters of the first three books are excellent. We have Will falling for a woman that is so out of reach it hits fantastic levels, which is why we’re reading it. Reaching for the unattainable is why you come to love the main character. If he has a superpower outside of wizardry it is self-confidence, he will figure out how to make the impossible work. He is surrounded by a strong cast of supporting characters. There’s the enormous warrior, aptly named Tiny, a gentle giant with the heart of gold. The bookish Janice who’s the only one in the Academy with the drive and intelligence to go deeper than Will to find obscure references that gives him an edge and moves the plot forward.

Then, of course, you have the wise sage that starts him off on the path of wizardry in the first place. His grandfather plays his role in the hero’s journey perfectly, teaching him wizardry and disappearing when he has learned just enough, with a cool catch that allows Will to tap into remaining pieces of Grampa’s knowledge when he’s desperate. Then, there’s the goddamn cat, quite possibly one of the coolest characters in any series.

The plot moves you along brilliantly, as it should in the ’10s and ’20s of this century. He doesn’t make you suffer through Dickensian descriptions like much of the older gems of this genre. Instead, he competes directly with television for your attention. You move from interaction to interaction fast enough to make every page interesting without falling into a Michael Bay action orgy. The approach allows for character building and a crescendo at the end.

However. I started getting the sense that Manning himself is getting bored with the series starting with the fourth book. By the fifth book, the enemies are becoming too cliché for my tastes.

Spoilers ahead.

If you are thinking about reading this now, stop here. Was there a good reason to turn the bad guy into a dragon? That seemed lazy, especially when most of the previous villains were so well thought out. Maybe that’s the only way he could justify the cold-heartedness of the primary villain, Selene’s dad. Sure, make him a giant lizard.

I didn’t believe it. Manning’s reveals are usually more creative.  The other thing I couldn’t believe in this one was how dark Selene got. She’s always had the capacity to go Sith lord but her transformation in this novel didn’t seem in line with the character who vowed never to become her father. There may yet be a twist here but I had a hard time stomaching that transformation. The final thing I couldn’t believe was how rapidly and viscously Tiny turned on Will. Even for all the crappy things Will has done, this didn’t seem warranted.

The thing I loved the most about Manning’s books is there is always a cool training sequence, the montage scene made popular by damn near every ’80s movie. This was also missing in this novel. He hinted at it with Will’s younger cousin but it would have been rehashing old ground to go through the same paces, so he rightfully skipped it. As a reader, it leaves you wanting. The thing I loved most about this book was the introduction of Evie, the slightly different flavor of goddamn cat that we had in the first books.

Overall, I highly recommend the first three books in this series but found myself wanting on this latest. I’ll keep you posted if Manning is able to close this series out in six with something that can’t be missed.

Queen of Storms: Book Two of the Firemane Saga

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Raymond Feist holds the status of mythical creature for me akin to Hercules, Thor or Pug. He was an author I read at an early age so I assigned him the same gravitas as Tolkien, Heinlein or LeGuinn. He was a forger of ways, an architect of worlds, a deity of character development.  The original Riftwar series is canon in my household.

It could be that I read him at such a young age that I place him on this pedestal next to Eddings and Lewis. The ten year old mind is easily and completely swept into new worlds. There are very few ten year old cynics pointing out the unbelievable and saying ‘nah uh’. Those ten year olds that do invariably end up joining young republican groups and should be avoided at all cost. I wanted to believe and he made it easy with a style and prose that made reading each page feel like a holiday. Even a stupid name like Pug didn’t deter because the character was so relatable.

That’s why I find myself dissapointed by this new series. The Midkemia world had a wonderful run and he did a brilliant job ending it in such a loving fashion.

This new world is boring. I can’t believe I’m saying that about a Feist novel. It’s like somebody took all the passion of Midkemia and Kelewan and threw it into a Vitamix with some Metamucil then strained it of anything resembling fun.

I believe he is trying to get a little darker and nuanced with his characters, a little more Joe Abercrombie perhaps, but he struggles with bereft and dirty. It comes across as stilted and unrelatable.  I just finished the second book and I find I could care less whether any of the three main characters live or die.  With Abercrombie’s work, you find yourself disgusted by the characters’ choices, hoping they’ll make better ones and rooting for them to do so.  When they don’t, you’re struck by the reality of dreams missed and lives changed.

Not here. Learning about Declan, Hatu and Hava is like learning about the trio of emo kids in high school that chose that path because they weren’t interesting enough to choose another. You talk to them for a while and realize that they’re not hung up on existentialism, they just can’t figure out another way to fit in. They gave up on being themselves to cosplay an outdated stereotype.

The plot isn’t bad. The general idea of the heir of a dying line being sent to a secret organization to protect his heritage and teach him some kick ass skills in order to protect himself is a good one. But the pace is glacial. Hatu doesn’t find out about an even cooler, second organization that can teach him about his Firemane powers until the end of the second book! Maybe I’ve grown used to faster pacing as that seems to be the trend in fantasy these days but if you go back to his old works, even when things are a bit slower paced, they were never boring.

It may be that Feist is getting old and he’s forgotten how to dream big. It may be I’m getting old and a lot more cynical. It’s most likely a combination of both.

Even with this bad review, I’m still going to pick up the third(final?) book of the series when it comes out in July. Maybe he’ll find that magic again as he closes this series out. I hope so. I need him to.

The Banneret: Blood of Kings Book 2

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

I love most of Duncan Hamilton’s books.  I’ve reviewed a number of them here before.  His new series, the Blood of Kings, takes place in the same world as all of the rest that Hamilton has created with his other series, the Wolf of the North, the Dragonslayer, and the Society of the Sword. The world is not too far off from our own which adds the believability of any good myth. He has a knack for creating cultures and putting the reader on the left shoulder of the characters as he tortures them in the various, delicious ways.

In the first installment of the series, The Squire, we are introduced to the main character Conrad.  As a child, Conrad is a victim of a demon attack that kills his parents.  He is rescued by a motley group of sell swords from a range of different cultures and fighting styles.  There’s not enough angst in the group to make a nineties grunge band jealous but there is enough conflict to make them interesting.  The band is loosely led by a banneret of the grey by the name of Nicolo.  He runs a democratic outfit which is already outside the norm for this type of company but it fits the personality and cultures of the group. Left with very little options, they take Conrad under their wing and make him a squire for their small company.  Along the way, they teach him the basics which runs the risk of formulaic fantasy.  Thankfully, it doesn’t turn into one.  Hamilton twists it into a mystery where he invites the reader to uncover who’s behind the demon threat for the crown.

The Banneret picks up eight years later.  Conrad is fresh out of the Academy and he now holds a Banneret title of his own.  In Hamilton’s world, this means you have earned the right to wear a sword in the bigger city and amongst gentlemen.  It’s like being certified a badass.  Hamilton doesn’t waste much time in the set up, doing us all a favor by throwing us back into the mystery.

Conrad’s nemesis from the first book (1st book spoiler incoming), a duplicitous little prat with the well fitting name of Manfred, is down on his luck after Conrad exposes his father at the end of the first book.  Manfred and his family lose everything except for a small chest of seemingly useless junk, some papers and an amulet.  Manfred is smart enough to establish himself as a get shit done in the shadiest way possible character with some elements of the criminal underworld.  It doesn’t take long for him to discover that the amulet is the key to the communication with these demons that gave his father a serious edge in all his negotiations.  Manfred quickly discovers this same power and starts carving out a small empire of his own.

In the eight years between books, the demon activity has sputtered out, leaving the crown to minimize its importance and quit dedicating resources to the problem.  In actuality, the demons have been upping their game behind the scenes.  When they do make their second book debut it’s with a lot more chutzpah.

They uncover a bit more about what the demons want and what they need to do to stop them from getting it.  At the end of the book, Conrad gets a bit of an upgrade which gives him a real chance of standing up to these powerful foes.  It’s a good story.

The thing that stood out is the undercurrent of loss throughout the books.  Conrad is heavily defined by the people he loses.  One of my complaints is that the losses appear to be painfully random, the result of crappy luck.  I think this is the author’s intent but when I’m reading epic fantasy I have this little kid side of me that wants there to be more meaning behind each loss.  But there isn’t.  Fantasy imitating life I suppose.  It leaves you feeling a little empty.

My other complaint is that there is a pretty small cast of characters and while they have been well developed, you don’t build a ton of sympathy towards any of them except the protaganist.  Again, I think this is the author’s intent.  Since his new life since losing his parents is defined by loss, his relationship with others is a bit standoffish.  This is a more mature theme than some of Hamilton’s other books.  Or, maybe I’m just reading too far into it.

Either way, I look forward to the conclusion of this trilogy.

The Unspoken Name

Fantasy / Sci-fi Book Review

The Unspoken Name is a beautifully written fantasy novel by A.K. Larkwood.  She builds a very unique world populated with very unique characters.  There are some excellent experiments with language in these imagined worlds.  The author introduces us to cleverly constructed names of people and places along with a pronunciation guide.  It feels a little like Tolkien’s studies in Elvish. 

Unfortunately, the novel didn’t draw me in.  I found myself struggling to care about the characters or their fates.  This was due, in part, to the slower pacing.  Our current world of fantasy feels like it is competing with streamed shows that are forced to deliver maximum impact in under an hour.  Characterization is ruthlessly replaced with action masquerading as relationship building.  Today’s stories have replaced the interesting elements of getting to know a character and how that character might react to others with a made for Netflix, Tinder-esque style of swiping right into relationships.  I don’t like it, but it certainly colors everything else I read.

Why not spend a goddam minute investing in the characters themselves so that we care?  Someone like Robert Jordan would never make it today.  His towering epic comes in at the monumental sum of 4.4 million words.  Reddit trolls love to bash his work as something that should have been cut down to a trilogy to satisfy today’s moth-like attention spans.  Those of us that did read this once upon a time felt like we really knew those characters (despite many of their puritanical roots), and became friends with them.  I don’t get that in a lot of fantasy I read today.  Characters are far more disposable, mass produced paper plate Redshirts meant to impart the seriousness of a situation.  They often succeed in that goal but their disposability also makes them entirely forgettable.  Perhaps character development is yet another casualty of social media.

To be fair to Larkwood, she spends time on her characters.  The problem I had was relatability.  These characters were so fantastic, so alien, that I couldn’t imagine myself in their place.  My only other character complaint was that two of the primary characters (Sethennai & Shuthmili) had similar enough names that I often confused them.  This led to several – why the hell would he or she do that moments.  This is a risk authors run when experimenting with language, the reader can get lost in those experiments.

The final critical thing I’ll share is that I spent a fair amount of time reading the book and I don’t really know what it was about.  I believe it’s about the journey that ensues when one chooses not to follow the paths that have been laid down for them by others.  This discovery of choice leads to a path to self actualization and awareness.  I may be reading too much into it but I also think there are subtle undertones of deeper meaning that I’m not picking up on.

The novel starts with an introduction to our protagonist Csorwe, best identified by the tusks that jut from her lower jaw.  She plays a critical role in the religious institution on her world.  Before she is set to meet her fate, a mysterious stranger, Sethennai, sweeps in and offers her a different choice that gives her an out from her religion without anyone, but her god, being the wiser.  She takes it and Sethennai becomes a mentor / father figure for her.

He has her trained in martial skills and she effectively becomes an agent for this erudite man of leisure.  Sethennai is the master of playing it cool but he has his own ulterior motives.  He is trying to claw his way back into power by getting his hands on the reliquary, an object of historical importance that will bring him some unknown, mysterious knowledge and capability.

Csorwe has a contemporary by the name of Talasseres Charossa (Tal), who was also taken in by Sethennai.  The two met on one of Csorwe’s first mission where Tal proved himself to be talented but an incredibly self-serving jackwad.  The two loathe each other.  Tal is an unlovable rogue but he is my favorite character of the book.  While he is narcissistic and filled with resentment and spite, he is also the most relatable and interesting character of the cast.  Later in the book you find out that a large part of his shitty personally originates from the hurt of unrequited love, not of Csorwe but another member of the cast.  This doesn’t excuse his behavior but certainly garners him some sympathy.

On another mission, Csorwe meets Shuthmili, another woman bound by her religion.  Csorwe offers her a similar choice to the one Sethannai offered her.  Shuthmili struggles with the choice which leads to some healthy introspection and a budding relationship with Csorwe.  The first book ends with both Csorwe and Shuthmili forced to confront the religions and choices of their past to in a showdown battle for the reliquary. 

It’s obvious that this book is the first in the series but the revelations at the end didn’t feel like enough of a conclusion for the story thus far, or a tease that had me wanting to come back for more.  Larkwood’s mastery of the language is obvious and evident and I often found myself envious at the beauty of her prose.  It was the narrative that I found lacking and because of that, I don’t think I’ll be picking up the next installation of the story.

The Kaiju Preservation Society

Fantasy / Sci-fi Book Review

Scalzi has crafted some pretty amazing, award winning science fiction.  The thing I love most about all of his writing is that he never takes himself too seriously.  The Kaiju Preservation Society is more tongue-in-cheek than most of his stuff and that includes Red Shirts.  Yet, he can take an idea that is a little ridiculous then add a Michael Crichton pacing to it that completely drags you in.  You happily chase him down each absurd rabbit hole and find yourself wanting more at the end.

In the Kaiju Preservation Society, our protagonist is a motivated young professional marketing / customer service director that is taking the corporate world by storm.  He works for one of the hot new delivery service companies, by the name of füdmüd, which puts the mood in food.  I can’t imagine having to type all of those umlauts while writing the book. I had to look up how to put one in the text ( Ctrl :  – then type the vowel if you’re wondering).

Anyway, he is a young corporate hotshot for all of the first half of chapter one before getting fired by his douchebag CEO, a Travis Kalanick clone, by the CEO offering him a job as a deliverator.  That’s the other great thing about this book.  Scalzi assumes that you are well read in all the nerd greats like Snow Crash and he lavishly spreads the references around like a sci-fi Easter Bunny.  He doesn’t make you work too hard for it as the main character or some side character will inevitably call out all references somewhere in the text because the author wants you in on the joke.

After he gets fired, thanks partly to the pandemic rolling in, our main character swallows his pride and starts deliverating food.  This is where he meets an old buddy of his from college who offers him a very black ops role that he refuses to tell Jamie (protagonist) anything about.  This is when the fun begins.  Jamie and the others who sign up with him get a baptism by fire of sorts where they are introduced to the kaiju firsthand.  The Kaiju Preservation Society (KPS) has found over time that this is only the real way to convince people that the kaiju are real.

For those unfamiliar, the most famous of the kaiju is Godzilla.  This was followed up with movies like Pacific Rim (surprisingly good) and several other poorly thought out and horribly Americanized Godzilla sequels.  The primary question is: if these things are real, where could they possibly be hiding?  The easiest answer – another dimension.  Sometimes, due to interesting circumstances detailed in the book, the barrier between dimensions can be breached and that’s how Godzilla pops in on Tokyo like some terrible monster in law.

Scalzi doesn’t spend a ton of time on the science that would make all this possible but he spends enough.  Namely, he talks us through how the square-cube law is not broken by their unique biology which actually makes these creatures their own walking ecosystems.  It’s a stretch, but it’s a fun one.

Things go great for Jamie in the other dimension.  He loves the job and he loves who he is working with.  The whole concept of the kaiju is fascinating enough that he completely forgets about the pandemic.  I think this is a nod towards staying busy by finding something you can be passionate about.  This approach always pays far greater dividends than sitting on your couch watching Tiger King.

Everything is going great until the bad guy with the money shows up.  The sleaze that oozes from this character is Carter J Burke (Paul Reiser’s annoying character in Aliens) worthy.  There’s always an ulterior motive and that motive is meant to make cash even if it means some or a lot of people are going to die.  The bad guy becomes the turd in the KPS’s stew and the main characters are all forced to make difficult decisions.  Lest you worry, there is great schadenfreude to be had in the end.

Just read it.  It’s no David Foster Wallace because it’s too damn fun.  There’s not a ton but there is deeper meaning to be found here.  You get the sense that this was the book that helped Scalzi get through the pandemic, the insurrection and every other turd sandwich that 2020 and 2021 shot at us even before he confirms this in his author’s note at the end.  I’d look forward to a second one even though I don’t think it’s coming.

LitRPG – Defiance of the Fall

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Apologies for the five of you who read this blog on a regular basis 🙂  It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a review.  It’s been even longer since I posted a review for a fantasy or sci fi book.  I hope to change that over the next several months as I’m diving deep into the genre again just as the writing bug is beginning to burrow its way into the ol’ grey matter substrate.

The book I’ll review here is Defiance of the Fall by JF Brink.  Before we dive in, I’d like to start with a discussion of the LitRPG genre.  I’ll admit the LitRPG genre fascinates me.  I’ve played my fair share of RPGs and I’ve read loads of fantasy and science fiction.  The appeal is simple.  The story starts with someone in our mundane world who gets swept up into a new world.  This is not so different from other fantasy genres out there.  What is different is that they are almost always presented with some type of gaming interface.  This interface shares the progression of the main character with the reader in a discrete and structured progression.  This progression is often presented in Excel type charts that mimic what you’d find in a video game.  The character goes up levels, gains new skills and tackles harder and harder challenges.

It’s a similar appeal to a Twitch stream.  These are most commonly enjoyed by watching someone else play a video game.  Many from my generation (Gen X) and worse, the Boomers, will never understand this.  They pillory the younger generations for watching Twitch. 

“Wait, you’re watching someone else play a video game?  Why don’t you just play the game yourself?” 

I’ve seen this said, without a whiff of irony, by a dad watching football while sitting on the couch with one hand down his pants.  When I drew the obvious parallels, he said – “Yeah, but these are athletes in their prime playing at the highest level.” 

I then explained the concept of esports and how professional gamers also make millions for playing a game without destroying their bodies and buying into the gladiator culture of the NFL.  He refused to even look it up until there was a twenty dollar bet on the table.  Easiest twenty bucks I’ve ever made.

The buy in to a LitRPG book is a lot lower than traditional high fantasy.  The minute the interface screen appears in the text – you’re in on the joke.  Sure, the author still needs to do a fair amount of world building but they can employ lots of shortcuts because most of the readers are familiar with RPGs.  The reader can imagine themselves inside the world more easily because they already understand the general framework about how the rules of this world will be revealed.  This often creates an interesting second level of abstraction where the reader can imagine an avatar they’ve created in the past and can then imagine being transported to this new land as that avatar.  It’s a cool new mental architecture the author helps you to build.

I would argue that the shortcuts too easily make the world flat over time.  In the early stages of discovering the rules, like any reader does in a fantasy world, the charts and numbers satisfy that nerd itch that each of us has somewhere deep in our souls.  Over time however, as we are continuously exposed to the innards of the system the author has built, it becomes less interesting.  It starts to feel like reviewing math notes before a final.  All of those little discoveries that were so wonderfully crafted early on start to feel like a computer program rather than the fantastical world you wanted to escape into in the first place.  This may turn all the dials to keep some readers interested but this is where most authors of the genre lose me.  I start feeling like I’m listening to some ex World of Warcraft player tell me about a raid he participated in five years ago.  Sorry, not that interesting dude.  Same thing when an ex jock starts telling me about a football game he participated in twenty years ago when he was in his prime.  It feels a little sad.  Bring me something new and more interesting or you lose me.

Compare that to some of the great works of high fantasy.  They require a lot of buy in early.  I, the reader, understand almost nothing and you’ve tossed a ton of new terms and new environments that I’m struggling to even picture.  Once the author gets me there, they’ve done so through engagement, character development and feeling.  I’m much more willing to follow along as they continue to world build exactly because I don’t know the innards of the system.  It continuously opens the door wider to further exploration where the LitRPG world seems to narrow that aperture as the story progresses. 

There are exceptions.  Some LitRPG authors transcend into higher fantasy or science fiction due to the brilliance of their character development, world building and prose but I didn’t find that to be true with Defiance of the Fall.  It was an enjoyable romp but it didn’t transcend.

It starts off with our main character, Zac, winning a lucky die roll that allows him to survive Earth’s merging with the multiverse.  This lucky die roll and the corresponding luck attribute ends up being his primary advantage in the new Earth.  He finds himself isolated on an island out in the ocean where he has to fight for his survival against an invading tribe of demons.  He progresses through a series of difficult encounters that lead to several boss fights.  Ultimately, he builds some level of peace with the invaders and begins to build his base on the island.  Near the end of the first book he has built an interesting community and is starting to explore outside of it to visit other parts of the war torn and massively changed Earth.

The action scenes are numerous and gratuitous as Zac runs from one conflict to the next.  It feels a little like an 80s action movie with the non-stop violence.  With that said, it is fun to read even if the conclusion of each sequence feels inevitable.  Even as our protagonist is getting abused you don’t really get the sense that he will run into something he can’t defeat.

The character development continues the video game trend.  I felt like I could hit the skip button on each of the character cutscenes and feel like I wasn’t missing that much.

At the end of the day, I don’t feel like the author wasted my time and I got almost exactly what I expected from it.

Being Mortal

Science / Biz Book Review

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Atul Gawande is one of my favorite authors.  I loved the Checklist Manifesto and was able to take a lot of those ideas to improve business processes in pretty much any venture I’ve been involved with.  Gawande has the gift of identifying an obvious truth where others see only complexity.  In Being Mortal, he takes on the topic of death.  Knowing his background as a surgeon, I was concerned that he would tackle the topic as the medical establishment does today, clinically.  I needn’t have feared.  Not only is he a master storyteller that knows how to utilize emotion to make a point, this idea of medicine failing when death is inevitable is a major premise of the book.  He makes it clear that the clinical approach is failing and we have to look outside the numbers to empathy and understanding the person rather than just fighting the disease.

He starts by looking back, to the glory days of when we all died peacefully, surrounded by family.  He then destroys that myth.  Many people, especially the poor, would end up in poorhouses which were essentially elderly orphanages right out of some Dickensian nightmare.  For those lucky few elders that did have the opportunity to live with family, once the opportunity presented itself, they chose independence over veneration.  “Whenever the elderly had the financial means, they have chosen what social scientists have called ‘intimacy at a distance.’  Whereas in early-twentieth-century America 60 percent of those over age sixty five resided with a child, by the 1960s the proportion had dropped to 25 percent.”  He concludes that “The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by veneration of youth.  It’s been replaced by the veneration of the independent self.”

Death and medicine have an uneasy relationship.  The more effective medicine becomes at healing us, the less accepting it becomes of death.  Clinicians go into medicine to fix people and “we often regard the patient on the downhill as uninteresting unless he or she has discrete problems we can fix.”  Finding and fixing a problem makes everybody feel good, yet talking about death seems like an acknowledgement of failure.  A sad byproduct of this is that the geriatrics field is going away.  “When the prevailing fantasy is that we can be ageless, the geriatrician’s uncomfortable demand is that we accept we are not.”  What young kid coming out of medical school wants to play Debbie Downer when they can be the hero?  “97 percent of medical students take no course in geriatrics, and the strategy requires that the nation pay geriatric specialists to teach rather than to provide patient care.”

He then dives deep into how we are dealing with the infirm.  How did we go from the poorhouse to today?  “Our old age homes didn’t develop out of a desire to give the frail elderly better lives than they’d had in those dismal places.  We didn’t look around and say to ourselves, ‘You know, there’s this phase of the people’s lives in which they can’t really cope on their own, and we ought to find a way to make it manageable’.  No, instead we said, ‘This looks like a medical problem.  Let’s put this people in the hospital.  Maybe the doctors can figure something out.’  The modern nursing home developed from there, more or less by accident.”  Sadly, medicine ended up with caring for the old by default.  They were so competent in fixing other diseases that they got the inevitability of death foisted on them as well.  So what happened?  Pretty much what you would think.  Independence and living were replaced with safety because that is what works in a hospital.  Add a litigious society where cover your own ass starts to play a role and the nursing home becomes a bubble wrapped, baby-proofed nightmare existence.  As our author puts it, “our elderly are left a controlled and supervised institutional existence, a medically designed answer to unfixable problems, a life designed to be safe but empty of anything they care about.”

So what do we care about, especially when we know we only have a finite time left?  The studies Gawande mentions all seem to point to one universal fact – facing your own mortality changes your perspective.  “How we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have.”  Ambition and vanity start to fade away and comfort and companionship become paramount.  Interestingly enough, age doesn’t play any role in this, the amount of time you have left is the determining factor.  There are some cool tie-ins to positive psychology here as happiness also seems tied to keeping the end in mind.  My own conclusion is that facing your mortality, however you decide to do it, is a critical element in finding purpose.

The good news is people both outside and inside of the medical community are starting to deal with the purpose element of mortality.  There have been large movements that focus on assisted living.  The key word being living.  What the folks at these centers found was that their residents needed a reason to get up in the morning.  They needed a cause.  For some this was taking care of animals or plants for others it was community.  For none was it safety.  “The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society.  If you don’t, mortality is only a horror.  But if you do, it is not.”  This naturally leads to legacy.  Legacy is in many ways our lasting connection to that ‘something greater’.  “Yet while we may feel less ambitious, we also become concerned for our legacy.  And we have a deep need to identify purposes outside ourselves that make living meaningful and worthwhile.”  Outside of purpose, the two other big factors to living out a good life(not in a hospital or nursing home) were autonomy and connectedness.  The ability to still make your own choices and not withering away in isolation were critical elements to accepting the downward slope of requiring assistance.

Gawande also tackles the brutal subject of when we should consider if enough is enough.  The medical community, by default, will do everything they can to prolong life.  Doctors become myopic by looking for that one in a million cure and they are so focused on fixing the problem that they miss the big picture.  From our own research we have found that doctors hate having the ‘maybe it’s time to consider quality of life’ conversation as much as the patients do.  “The fact that we may be shortening or worsening the time we have left hardly seems to register.  We imagine that we can wait until the doctors tell us that there is nothing more they can do.  But rarely is there nothing more that doctors can do.  They can give toxic drugs of unknown efficacy, operate to try to remove part of the tumor, put in a feeding tube if a person can’t eat: there’s always something.  We want these choices.  But that doesn’t mean we are eager to make the choices ourselves.  Instead, most often, we make no choice at all.  We fall back on the default, and the default is: Do Something.  Fix Something.  Is there any way out of this?”

That’s where the conversation comes in.  Too many docs bias towards the most optimistic outcome because they hate giving bad news as much as we hate hearing it.  The problem is: “the people who opt for these treatments aren’t thinking a few added months.  They’re thinking years.  They’re thinking they’re getting at least that lottery ticket’s chance that their disease might not even be a problem anymore.”  There is a huge disconnect in our hopeful thinking and the average results of these treatments.  The fascinating thing is, if we have the real conversation, the one that leads to acceptance and often hospice the results can be stunning.  “The result: those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives – and they lived 25 percent longer.  In other words, our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on our patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality.  If end-of-life discussions were an experimental drug, the FDA would approve it.”  This conversation is no picnic and it can’t be rushed in to.  In fact, it will take a number of different tries with the patient and the family.  There will be a huge amount of anxiety and fear.  But it is possible.  As one of the palliative care docs said, “A family meeting is a procedure, and it requires no less skill than performing an operation.”  Only this operation requires emotional intelligence.  The key point to pull out of the meeting is how much the patient is willing to go through to have a shot at being alive and what level of being alive is tolerable.  One patient said, “Well, if I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV, then I’m willing to stay alive.  I’m willing to go through a lot of pain if I have a shot at that.”  That simple description gives the family a wonderful roadmap of the difficult decision that will need to be made as the treatments and surgeries continue.

Gawande gives a great outline of how to have this conversation with a loved one by describing his conversation with his father when they had to go through this.  First, “I asked him what his understanding of what was happening to him.” Then, “what were his fears if that should happen?”  Next, “What were his goals if his conditioned worsened?”  Finally, “What trade-offs he was willing to make and not willing to make to try to stop what was happening to him.”  Then, it is up to you as the family member to get the real information from the doctor.  Ask, “What’s the shortest time you’ve seen and the longest time you’ve seen for people who took no treatment?”  Then ask, what are those same time frames with treatment?  Too often, the difference is negligible.  Remember, the doc hates giving this news.  They want to continue to focus on fixing the problem where they have been trained and not on quality of life where they have not.

A truly wonderful book.  Gawande closes with remembering the value that death can bring.  “Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the ‘dying role’ and its importance to people as life approaches its end.  People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, settle relationships, establish their legacies, make peace with God, and ensure that those who are left behind will be okay.  They want to end their stories on their own terms.  This role is, observers argue, among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind.  And if it is, the way we deny people this role, out of obtuseness and neglect, is cause for everlasting shame.  Over and over, we in medicine inflict deep gouges at the end of people’s lives and then stand oblivious to the harm done.”  We can only hope that we can all experience this level of self-awareness as we contemplate our own mortality.

Designing your Life

Science / Biz Book Review

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans designed a pretty amazing book with Designing your Life.  They are both professors at Stanford but each of them had pretty amazing careers pre-Academia.  The way they write and the way they use their own goals comes across as two guys who have figured out quite a few things about life.  At least their own lives.  Not only does their communication style come across as very comfortable, both authors have that tone of calm competence that you always get from people who have mastered their craft.  The book comes from concepts that were pioneered and tested in the classroom and the boardroom.  The class they offered had the same title and it quickly became one of the most popular classes at the school.

You can see why this would be so popular.  So many kids get their first taste of freedom when they head off to college/university.  With this freedom comes some new accountabilities that can easily pile up to a massive oh shit question.  What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?

Up until this point, most kids have a pretty clear idea of what they are supposed to do next.  There is a fairly unambiguous scorecard that comes in the form of grades or scoreboards or even social pecking order.  Once you get into college, your previous standing in all these things becomes irrelevant.  Not only do you have to recreate who you are, you typically have to do it by yourself.  Sure, you have advisors throughout the process, but the road ahead is no longer obvious and your parents aren’t there for the day to day stuff.  Burnett and Evans help kids figure this incredibly difficult transition out.  Now that all this knowledge is in a book, they can help you figure it out too.  I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is just for kids.  No matter how old you are, if you are contemplating any type of change in career, relationship, health, etc. the knowledge in these pages will help.  We should all actively work to design our lives no matter where we start in the process because the alternative is to let the world do it for you.  That’s how the victim mindset begins.

Our authors start with sharing some facts.  First, only 27% of college grads end up working in something related to their majors.  Second, “two-thirds of workers are unhappy with their jobs.  And 15% actually hate their work.”  With just those two statements it becomes obvious we are not doing a good job of designing our lives.

They then take us through their definition of design.  Design requires radical collaboration, talk with many people from many disciplines to design something amazing.  Designers are also great tinkerers.  “Designers don’t think their way forward.  Designers build their way forward.”  To design your life effectively, you’re going to need “curiosity, bias to action, reframing, awareness, and radical collaboration.”  They also take on the passion mindset a bit and that you can’t just fall into it, “people actually need to take time to develop a passion.  And the research shows that, for most people, passion comes after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery – not before.  To put it more succinctly: passion is the result of a good life design, not the cause.”

Step 1: Start where you are

They outline an amazing roadmap of how to start this design.  Step 1:  Start where you are.  This is figuring out how to place the ‘you are here’ pin.  They ask you to break down where you stand in four critical pillars of life: health, work, play and love.  They walk you through creating a dashboard of how you stack up in each of these pillars.

Step 2: Building a compass

In this stage, they ask you to define true north.  They ask you to build a Lifeview by asking some fundamental questions: “What gives life meaning? What makes your life worthwhile or valuable? How does your life relate to others in your family, your community, and the world?  What do money, fame, and personal accomplishment have to do with a satisfying life?  How important are experience, growth, and fulfillment in your life?”  None of these questions have easy answers and each of them deserves serious introspection.  It’s worth it.  They ask you to do the same for your Workview which is a similar exercise but focuses on your craft.  The goal of both of these exercises is coherence.  You want to be able to articulate an internal compass to guide you through the many shades of gray that life tosses your way.

Step 3: Wayfinding

In this stage, the goal is to understand what makes work fun.  One of my favorite quotes from the book came from this chapter: “Flow is play for grown-ups.”  Wayfinding takes you through a set of exercises to understand what flow means for you.  In their words, “Work is fun when you are actually leaning into your strengths and are deeply engaged and energized by what you’re doing.”  They provide you with a good time journal that asks you to track what you’re doing at work for a couple of weeks.  When you scribe the task, they ask your engagement level while the activity was happening.  They then ask you to record your energy level for the activity when it was complete.  This starts identifying those tasks that bring you to flow already or point the direction for the work that can take you there.  If this does not become obvious after a couple of weeks, you can dive deeper using the AEIOU method.  You can look at each task/experience then ask: what Activities were actually involved?  What was the Environment like?  What was the Interaction like – people or machines, new or old?  What Objects were you interacting with?  What other Users were involved?

Step 4: Getting Unstuck

This section was all about brainstorming where they walk you through effective ways to build out a mind map which is essentially a post-it note guided brainstorming session.

Steps 5 & 6: Designing your life and Prototyping

They then ask you to take some of your results from the brainstorming exercises and to build out three five year plans.  These are three completely different things that you could see yourself doing over the next five years.  “We call these Odyssey Plans.”  Once you build these plans, it’s time to start doing some prototyping.  A lot of prototyping involves just getting out there and talking to people that have done something similar to what you’re trying to do.  Figure out why these folks love or hate what they’re doing.  Get their story and try to superimpose some of it on yourself.  Is this something you could really see yourself doing?

These first steps are the ones that resonated for me.  Like a lot of these personal development books, it started very strong but faded a little as it went on.  The authors continue with really good advice on designing and landing a dream job, but most of this was not as fresh or new as the earlier parts of the book.

They close with some great thoughts on how designing your life will actually create an immunity to failure.  If you are constantly designing your life, if you are constantly self-improving, any failure you experience is just part of the process.  That’s what life is after all, a constant trial and error experiment.  The big difference is that if you choose to design your life, you’ve decided to own that experiment.  You’ve decided to call the shots and play an active role in it rather than passively let your external stimuli control it for you.

The choice seems obvious to me.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Over the years I’ve read a lot of Neal Stephenson.  I was completely blown away by Snow Crash.  But then, who wouldn’t be entranced by a cyberpunk pizza delivery ninja?  I was just as enamored with the Diamond Age and even Cryptonomicon both of which launched Stephenson onto my must read author list.  Then he came out with the Baroque cycle which I slogged my way through, wondering the entire time: what am I missing here?  In retrospect, I realize it wasn’t much.  I believe that this series was simply Stephenson performing a little academia fueled intellectual masturbation where he forgot the one crucial no-no of storytelling – don’t bore the shit out of your readers.

After that snorer of a series, I gave up on him for good.  I felt justified by that decision when he released Anathem which looked like more of the same.  I refused to even pick that one up and removed Stephenson from any and all novel release alerts.  Then he wrote REAMDE which people I trust said was a must-read.  It wasn’t bad.  It was similar to Cline’s Ready Player One albeit quite a bit darker.  It wasn’t good enough to restore him back on the must read list.  After losing faith in Stephenson, I don’t touch his books unless they come with a great recommendation.  Right before the holiday, I met up with my old college roommates and one of them gave the rec that the Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O was worth the read.  So here we are.

The concept of the book is excellent.  It’s got all the physics nerd themes you could ever hope for.  Being a physics nerd, this really worked for me.  He dives deep into quantum theory using the famous Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment as a starter reference point then evolves the ideas from there.  That was one of the things I loved about the book, the science was on point.

The style of writing was pretty cool.  He constantly went back and forth between journal entries, email conversations, wiki posts and the more traditional third person view.  All told, it felt more like an experience than reading a book.  This was a good, modern way to experience literature.

The plot starts in a somewhat Jurassic Park fashion with a strange military dude looking for an expert on ancient languages.  You get the clear sense very early on that Dr. Melisande Stokes, our walking anachronism, will be put to good use and quickly.  The plot doesn’t disappoint.  You quickly discover that our military dude, Tristan Lyons, is part  of some covert government group looking to understand what happened to magic.  That’s right magic.

These two characters quickly form a much larger group of scientists, operatives, and witches that dive into the mysteries of magic and time travel.  It gets weird quickly.  But it’s a good weird.  The magic elements continue to be somewhat believable especially with the strong ties to quantum paradoxes and multi-universe theories.  Stephenson does a good job of implying these scientific elements instead of forcing them on us.  This keeps all these concepts well available for non-physics nerds.

As our characters start jumping back and forth through time, Stephenson finds his groove.  He definitely gets a lot of pleasure from historical fiction but this time around he does a good job of making these forays enjoyable for the reader as well.  Historical integrity is obviously very important to him and you can tell he did his research.  Each fall back into time felt authentic and he uses the time locked characters well to breathe life into each of these scenes.

As they pass through time, they realize that there are competing factions doing the same thing.  This has the smell of a really interesting rivalry but sadly nothing ever really happens with it.  That was the impression I got with most of the book.  There were a lot of really good ideas without any great resolutions.  Except for one brilliant Vikings in a Walmart scene near the end of the book much of the wrap up was disappointing.  Even the ending seemed somewhat anti-climactic.  I don’t want to ruin the ending by providing spoilers because some of those crazier scenes as well as the underlying theme still make it worth the read.  It just wasn’t one of his best.

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