Book Review – The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

The blurb excites:

With what should have been the greatest heist of their career gone spectacularly sour, Locke and his trusted partner, Jean, have barely escaped with their lives. Or at least Jean has. But Locke is slowly succumbing to a deadly poison that no alchemist or physiker can cure. Yet just as the end is near, a mysterious Bondsmage offers Locke an opportunity that will either save him or finish him off once and for all. Magi political elections are imminent, and the factions are in need of a pawn. If Locke agrees to play the role, sorcery will be used to purge the venom from his body—though the process will be so excruciating he may well wish for death. Locke is opposed, but two factors cause his will to crumble: Jean’s imploring—and the Bondsmage’s mention of a woman from Locke’s past: Sabetha. She is the love of his life, his equal in skill and wit, and now, his greatest rival. Locke was smitten with Sabetha from his first glimpse of her as a young fellow orphan and thief-in-training. But after a tumultuous courtship, Sabetha broke away. Now they will reunite in yet another clash of wills. For faced with his one and only match in both love and trickery, Locke must choose whether to fight Sabetha—or to woo her. It is a decision on which both their lives may depend.

My feelings about this book are colored by the previous books in the series.

At the time I read it, The Lies of Locke Lamora immediately became one of my favorite books.  It’s one of the wave of fantasy books that uses modern language instead of medieval language in order to make the book more visceral, and it worked.  The author was pretty liberal with contemporary swear words, but in the context it worked really well.  The second thing that I really enjoyed about The Lies of Locke Lamora was the big plot twist (which I won’t spoil) – the author did something that most author shy away from, so it was refreshing to read.

I didn’t like Red Seas Under Red Skies (the second book in the series) as much, I think because of a combination of the different setting, the difference in the writing style (no more flashbacks) and the author’s inability to pull off a plot twist of the severity of the original.

Then there was a five year gap, caused by the author struggling with depression and panic attacks.  I have every sympathy, but as a reader I impatiently waited for the next installment.  About every six months Amazon would update the release date for the book and every time the date would be missed.  I suspect this was some sort of automated process, but it was aggravating for those impatiently waiting.

As you can imagine, when The Republic of Thieves was finally released I had high hopes and great expectations.  Mixed with this, I also feared that five years of waiting and my original love for the first book had raised my expectations to unreasonable heights.  I also hoped that the book would be well received for the sake of the author’s state of mind.

Fortunately for everyone, The Republic of Thieves is a home run.  I still think the first book is better by virtue of its great twist, but this book is a lot closer to that level than the second one was.  There is a return to the flashback style, so we learn about Locke’s past at the same time as we learn about his present, but what really makes The Republic of Thieves is the love story between Locke and Sabetha.  She had been mentioned in the first two books but we never met her, so there was an additional sense of anticipation to what was actually written.

I don’t generally seek out love stories but I really enjoyed this one, possibly because I could identify with Locke’s half of the relationship.  Unrequited love and feeling inadequate with respect to your intended is sort of how I expect love to work, so maybe this is a love story suited to geeky people like me.

There were a lot of references to events in the first two books, which I found difficult to remember because it had been so long since I’d read them.  I really don’t think it would be possible to read this book on its own and really appreciate it.  The antagonist for the next book is set up in the epilogue, but that’s sort of an adjunct to the events of the book so it doesn’t cause a problem with its plot arc.

I don’t usually comment on the cover art of books, but the cover of this book is super keen – before you even open the book it gives you an impression of a rich world in a style reminiscent of ancient Venice.

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Book Review – The Sensory Deception by Ransom Stephens

The Sensory Deception by Ransom Stephens

The Sensory Deception by Ransom Stephens

The blurb advocates:

“I can’t believe I ate a seal. And really enjoyed it.”

Moments after venture capitalist Gloria Baradaran experiences what it’s like to be a polar bear—really be a polar bear—she knows she’s found something revolutionary. Farley Rutherford and his team—migraine-tortured neurologist “Chopper” Vittori and über-geek engineer Ringo Hayes—have created sensory saturation, a virtual reality system that drops users into the psyches of endangered animals as they fight for survival, and they believe the profound experience could turn the indifferent masses into avid environmentalists.

Ringo’s hardware is ready to go, but the pressures to get the system off the ground are immense. The money-men want more bang for their buck, and that includes bigger, more dangerous animals, and—more than anything—the ability to turn the machines into profitable games. But to Farely and his team, this is anything but a game. To some, in fact, this is a cause they’d kill for…

The Sensory Deception is a mind-blowing, globe-trotting ride that will take readers from cut-throat Silicon Valley boardrooms to the pirate ships off the Somali coast to the devastated rain forests of the Amazon all to ask the question: What is a human life worth compared to that of an entire planet?

The awkward description of people in the beginning of the book (everyone has chiseled jaws and eyes like pools) and borderline preachy environmentalism through most of the rest had me on the fence, but by the end it had won me over.

As characters were revealed as being less than completely earnest and the world as not such a simple place it balanced out some of the naivete perceived in the early parts of the book.

Not everything is explained by the end of the book, but it was still pretty satisfactory.

Book Review – This Book is Full of Spiders by David Wong

This Book is Full of Spiders by David Wong

This Book is Full of Spiders by David Wong

The blurb warns:

WARNING:

You may have a huge, invisible spider living in your skull. THIS IS NOT A METAPHOR.

You will dismiss this as ridiculous fear-mongering. Dismissing things as ridiculous fear-mongering is, in fact, the first symptom of parasitic spider infection — the creature secretes a chemical into the brain to stimulate skepticism, in order to prevent you from seeking a cure. That’s just as well, since the “cure” involves learning what a chainsaw tastes like.

You can’t feel the spider, because it controls your nerve endings. You can’t see it, because it decides what you see. You won’t even feel it when it breeds. And it will breed. So what happens when your family, friends and neighbors get mind-controlling skull spiders? We’re all about to find out.

Just stay calm, and remember that telling you about the spider situation is not the same as having caused it.  I’m just the messenger. Even if I did sort of cause it.

Either way, I won’t hold it against you if you’re upset. I know that’s just the spider talking.

This book is a lot less fragmented than the first book in the series – it has a proper arc over the whole book and the ideas are more consolidated.  I assume this is because the first book was written episodically whereas the second one is more conventional.  The success of the first book should have given author the confidence, time and motivation to up his game and it looks like it did.

As in the first book there are a lot of gruesome scenes, a lot of bad language and a lot of envelope-pushing descriptions, for example:

The horizon was shitting a sun, casting a glow on a layer of fog that was settling in the low areas like puddles of ghost piss.

There are more viewpoints than the first book, and they blithely jump around forward and backward in time.  It’s a bit chaotic, but it works.

For a horror novel there are several pretty deep insights about life and the world in general.

Having finished the book there are still a few plot points that weren’t explained – I don’t know if they’ll be cleared up in a future book or whether it was a mistake.

 

What the hell is Urbit?

Urbit logo

About a week ago there was a post to Hacker News about Urbit, and a few days later another one.  It took me a long time to work out whether it was a hoax or a joke, because frankly it reads like one.

One thing that helped convince me that it might be for real was a video of it in action, which appears to prove that something exists:

If it is some sort of elaborate joke, then it’s one that someone‘s put a lot of work into.

So what the hell is Urbit anyway?  Its Wikipedia entry was recently deleted, which isn’t promising.  According to the website itself, it’s a stack which consists of a virtual machine called Nock, a programming language called Hoon and an operating system called Arvo.

OK, but what is it?  Having read a lot of the documentation, it’s a Linux app that runs a virtual machine which hosts “identities” which are basically instances of the operating system.  There is a lot of maritime terminology, like pier (a virtual machine), ship (an “identity” hosted by a virtual machine), submarine (an 128-bit ship) etc. which seems weird at first blush but at least is internally consistent.

There are some really weird things: like the fact that the virtual machine’s low level language can only increment, not add or multiply or even decrement.  Urbit’s creator seems to have gone through a lot of effort to make something interesting, but also to do it in the most difficult way.  The Hoon programming language is as opaque as assembly language, for example here’s the function to provide decrement functionality (using only increment):

++  dec
      ~/  %dec
      |=  a=@
      ^-  @
      ?<  =(0 a)
      =+  b=@
      |-
      ?:  =(a +(b))
        b
      $(b +(b))

Basically it loops from zero to one less than the value being decremented.  If you squint you can just about see what it’s doing, but why!?

In spite of the insanity, Urbit has a couple of really good ideas.  The filing system is immutable and version controlled, which means that it keeps a permanent copy of every change.  I’ve wanted something like this in Windows, but it’s tricky and you run of out disk space pretty quickly.  The other cool idea is the ship thing: the virtual machines connect to each other, so there’s a way of uniquely identifying them – they’re allocated a 128-bit, 64-bit, 32-bit etc. number with the rarer ones being both shorter to type and more valuable.

If nothing else, there are a couple of concepts that I’d like to “borrow” from Urbit:

Four-letter names that haven’t been overexposed are hard to find. But four letters fits in a 32-bit direct atom, so the attraction is pretty irresistible.

Old Unix commands were three or four letters long – I always assumed it was just for brevity but it makes sense to keep things short if there’re limited resources.

Also:

Decimal notation is the worst way of remembering a 32-bit number. IP notation is a little better.  Map every byte to a CVC phoneme, making names like “tomsyt-balsen”

Like he says, a lot of things nowadays involve large numbers, and converting that to something pronounceable is a really good idea.

EDIT: There’s a pretty good explanation of Urbit here.

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