Gilded Cage, Tarnished City, and Bright Ruin by Vic James (Books 2018, 21, 22, 23)

Also known as the Dark Gifts trilogy. I bought the first while at the recent BSFA meeting where Vic James and Lucy Hounsom, another fantasy author, interviewed each other. I enjoyed their conversation so much that I bought the first book in each of their trilogies.

I don’t read fantasy much, and I don’t really care for dystopias in SF, as I’ve mentioned before. So this being a fantasy dystopia, it shouldn’t really appeal to me.

But it turns out it’s great.

Apparently it was pitched in jest as ‘Downton Abbey meets Game of Thrones in a world where Voldemort won.’ And… yeah, I guess. I haven’t read or seen Game of Thrones, and the time period is more-or-less present day. And none of the magical people (or Skilled ‘Equals’) is as out-and-out evil as Voldemort. But it’s not a bad description of the setup.

The idea is that there are people with magical abilities — referred to as ‘Skill’ — and they are the aristocracy and rule the country. Or at least they have since Charles the First and Last was killed by one of the Skilled, and they — also know as ‘Equals,’ ironically — took over running the country. Britain is an ‘Equal Republic.’ One thing that annoyed me at first is that there is no mention of what happened to Scotland. It appears to be part of Britain in the present day, but Charles the First (in our reality) was before the Acts of Union. Although not before the Union of the Crowns, so I suppose the Equals just took over Scotland too, by getting rid of the monarchy.1

Anyway, the worst part about the rule of these magical Equals is ‘Slavedays,’ wherein everyone is required to spend ten years of their lives as slaves. They get some choice in when they do it, but while you’re doing it you’re a slave, with everything that implies.

I found it hard to cope with the idea that people would just quietly accept this state of affairs. But I suppose if it’s been that way all your life, and it’s the law of the land… But I couldn’t help but think, wouldn’t people revolt against it?

Not surprisingly, of course, a trilogy like this is not about the maintenance of the status quo.

It’s really good. Well worth a read.


  1. Something of which under normal circumstances I would heartily approve, of course. But not the way it’s described here. []
Gilded Cage, Tarnished City, and Bright Ruin by Vic James (Books 2018, 21, 22, 23)

Same Desert, Same Day

Two places we visited in the Atacama Desert, yesterday.

This seems to be my personal altitude limit, though:

Screenshot of the iPhone Compass app, showing an altitude of 4990 metres.

Can’t wait to get the photos off the big camera and see what they’re like on a decent screen.

Same Desert, Same Day

Dreams Before the Start of Time, by Anne Charnock (Books 2018, 20)

I posted about Anne Charnock’s Clarke win a few weeks back, and I’m pleased for her. But when I was about a third through this, I had a dawning realisation: this appeared not to be science fiction. The Clarke Award being for the best SF novel of the year, of course.

At that point there were, to my reckoning, two things that don’t quite exist in the real world today: a self-driving car, and a kind of personal health sensor that can tell how much you drank last night, and if you’re pregnant. Neither is key to the plot or anything else, though.

There was also a hint that global warming has taken a turn for the worse. But it could just be a year with a bad crop, and anyway, that’s hardly fiction, never mind SF.

But then I hit part two, and it jumped forward 50 years, with corresponding technological advances. Part three takes us forward another fifty or so years.

So what we have is a series of vignettes about the experiences of several interlinked families, over a hundred or so years. It’s interesting enough, but it’s limited. It’s about families and the future of how humans conceive, bear (or not), and raise children. Which is fine. But there’s very little about what else is going on in the world, in society. Or even much about the societal effects of the technologies we are looking at. Yes, by the end there are reports of a visibly-pregnant woman being abused in public for giving her baby a bad start in life (by not using the artificial uterus technology and associated genetic cleansing). But that’s it.

It’s interesting enough, as far as it goes, but I’ve got to admit I’m surprised the judges considered it the best SF novel published in Britain in 2017.

Dreams Before the Start of Time, by Anne Charnock (Books 2018, 20)

The Algebraist, by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 19)

Funny what you remember. Almost all I could recall about this one was the monstrous figure of the Archimandrite Luseferous: a hellish tyrant of the worst sort imaginable. As the narration describes him: “that most deplorable of beings, a psychopathic sadist with a fertile imagination.”

And I remembered it was about gas giants, and wormholes. And an important Secret. I remembered the Secret. Oh, and of course the fact that — in a massive difference from the Culture novels — it describes a galactic civilisation which proscribes AIs; mercilessly hunts down and destroys any hint of machines gaining sentience.

But not really anything else to speak of. So it was really great to read it again.

Highly recommended if you haven’t read it before. Or even if you have.

The Algebraist, by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 19)

Walking on Glass by Iain Banks (Books 2018, 18)

A novel of three parts. Two of them are — probably — tightly linked. By some interpretations, anyway. The third — which is the first as presented — brushes up against one of those two, and is to a small extent influenced by it. But in no way that I can discern is it really linked to the others. Which kind of makes me wonder what it’s for.

I mean, sure, maybe he just wanted to tell that story, with no more reason than that. That would be fine. But since the three are presented under one common title, I’ve got to assume that they share more than just a passing brush with simultaneous walks and some sugar in a tank.

The title itself is interesting. The only people who are literally walking on glass at any point are the two exiles from a galactic war in the far future (if that’s really what they are). But glass suggests fragility, slipperiness: maybe everyone is walking on glass, as everything could collapse under them at any moment.

It also suggests transparency: maybe everyone can be seen at any time. If you walk on a sheet of glass, you can be viewed from below. Which sounds not unlike the crosstime telepathic viewing that people in the castle are apparently doing of people in Earth’s past.

All of which leads me to the conclusion — which I didn’t actually expect when I started writing this — that my long-preferred interpretation is the correct one: that Quiss and Ajayi really are former warriors who have been banished to the castle as a punishment for misdeeds. The castle has the technology to let people live vicariously in the minds of humans from its past. At one point Quiss probably touches Grout’s mind and partly causes the road accident.

Is Grout really an exile from the same war, or a similar one? Probably not, but maybe. Maybe someone like Quiss or Aliya touched his mind at some earlier, vulnerable time, and something of their experience passed in to Grout.

But again, what of Graham’s story, and Sara’s betrayal? What does that have to do with the bigger stories?

I remain unsure.

Walking on Glass by Iain Banks (Books 2018, 18)

The Great Banksie Reread

As you’ll have noticed, I have mainly been reading books by Iain Banks lately. This is all part of something I’ve been thinking of as “The Great Banksie Reread,” which has been going on haphazardly for… five years, as I now see.

Turns out that when I started rereading his works back in 2013, as well as doing so only very intermittently, I also didn’t keep records as I thought I had. The ones I know I read, but didn’t blog about, are The Bridge, The Crow Road, Excession, Look To Windward, and The State of the Art — or at least the eponymous title story.

As to why I didn’t blog about them, I guess I just didn’t write about my reading in some years. But it’s oddly lax of me. Blogging about them was kind of the point of the reread, surely — as well as my own enjoyment, of course.

Anyway, all these posts are now tagged with “The Great Banksie Reread“.

The Great Banksie Reread

“Radically Interoperable and Universal”

In In Praise of Email Dan Cohen writes of how email got things right, long before some of our other ways of interacting online came along and got so many things wrong.

I’ve long thought that email was the killer app of the internet, despite the problems that many people have with it. Those tend to be not inherent in email, but caused by the way we use it.

Here’s one point he makes, in regard to the algorithmic timelines that are ruining Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram:

Although some email systems algorithmically sort email by priority or importance, that is not part of the email system itself. Again, this can be added, or not, by the user, and the default is strictly chronological.

Although my main problem, as I’ve said before, is with some clients that insisting that “chronological” mains “newest first.”

“Radically Interoperable and Universal”

REPL Reply

Hjertnes talks about the joy of a REPL:

A REPL or read eval print loop is what we called an interactive prompt back in the day when I learnt Python and Ruby.

He goes on to say:

For a REPL to make sense you need to be able to test small chunks of code. Like this function or this expression; or my typical thing, “would this work” or how the fuck was that syntax again?

I’ve sometimes found that they have a downside. When you are looking for code examples, then if a language has a REPL, very often the examples show the use of a feature in the REPL. Which may be fine, but is not so helpful if you’re trying to find out how to construct a class or a function.

Which point, to be fair, Hjertnes does address:

In other words, if your language require a lot of “foreplay” to run code, like declaring a namespace and a class etc (I’m looking at you Java and C#) it will probably not be the right thing. But if you can evaluate code without much fuss it is.

Java is supposed to be getting one soon, I believe, if it’s not already in version 9.

REPL Reply