Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon (1999)

Author: Neal Stephenson

Title: Cryptonomicon

Format: e-book

Pages: 1152

Series: Baroque Cycle #0

Cryptonomicon is one of those bricks that can kill you, if thrown with adequate velocity. It can damage your metacarpals and wrists, and it may even make your head hurt. It’s a proof of the ultimate self-indulgence as much as that of sheer writing talent. So what can a poor reviewer do with such a conundrum?

Let’s be blunt: this is no Anathem. Cryptonomicon can claim more kinship with Seveneves, in that infuriating unevenness, disjointedness and political context that characterises both books; as Seveneves, it makes the readers follow two separate timelines, merging together, to an extent, through the generational and thematic links. Unlike Seveneves, it wears its juvenile, masculine self-obsessions on its sleeve, gladly offering pages upon pages to vapid ruminations on the necessity – or lack of it – of masturbation, virginity, and large wisdom teeth, and regaling the readers with facts about workings of the prostate. I would’ve gladly been spared all of it; and I’m also pretty certain the book would’ve been much better if a good editor went through it with the requisite ruthlessness and sharp eye. I’m also quite sure Stephenson thought back in 1999 that he was fearlessly pushing boundaries of custom and habit, introducing new hot cultural topics into the sanitized reality we purportedly live in; alas, there is a good reason for not having prolonged pooping scenes, or brushing teeth/ flossing/ pimple removal/ put whatever physiological activity you want here/etc. in mainstream novels. It’s not revelatory; just boring. It doesn’t bring value to the plot, doesn’t endear the protagonists nor does it make them more relatable – if anything, it makes them look more like self-obsessed, anally retentive jerks. Of course, there are hypothetical – and a few real – examples of when such literary devices might work, especially when making a self-obsessed, OCD asshole of the protagonist is the author’s intention; sadly, Cryptonomicon is not one of them.

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The Worst of 2022

We’ve presented The Best of 2022 in our previous post; now, it’s PSA time 😉

Fortunately for you, it’s going to be a much shorter post. There’s no need to wallow in misery of the disappointments and unfortunate choices, or to taste the lingering, unpleasant rot of bad books, movies and TV series more than strictly necessary. And also, this past year was marked by careful deliberation and lucky strikes on our part, thus rendering the list of the bad and worse rather short.

Ola: Let’s start traditionally, with books. My biggest bookish disapointment of 2022 was, in a way, something to be expected: Joe Abercrombie’s The Wisdom of Crowds (2021) did not constitute a sudden dip in quality, a remarkable pivot in writing skill or storytelling panache; on the contrary, this was a culmination of a long and winding way to perdition through the sins of authorial hubris and sloth. This was the moment of parting ways between me and Abercrombie, and although I’m certain he and his fanbase won’t notice my absence, it does bear some significance for me – a confirmation of a long-held suspicion that grimdark is in its essence as juvenile and simplistic as whatever it rages against.

My next disappointing read came from Netgalley and could serve as the illustration of the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Gideon Defoe’s An Atlas of Extinct Countries (2021) promised a fun romp through history and geography, but emphatically did not deliver. Avoid this like a plague. Ooops, these days this saying kind of acquired additional meanings ;).

The title I want to mention belongs to the manga category. One of them is Tite Kubo’s Bleach, a long-time fan-favourite which proved so traumatically bad that I renamed it to Bleh. If you want to see the worst in manga, you don’t need to look any further. Try Bleh, or One Punch Man, and you’ll realize manga also has its tropes, weaknesses, and shameful pandering to the lowest instincts of teenage boys. To be fair, there were also some pretty weak volumes of Naruto along the way, but I am willing to overlook their weaknesses because they are followed by some truly great ones. That’s the thing about manga – it lasts for hundreds of volumes, and inevitably some of these will be fillers, but for the titles I read and love the overall quality remains astonishingly high.

And lastly, one re-read. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Even the wonderful narration of Stephen Fry couldn’t help this rotten egg of a book. Oh, the teenage angst! As I mentioned in my GR review,

“It’s way too long, boring and terribly angsty, and for me it’s simply the worst part of the whole series. I had a hard time going through the entire book, because Harry’s angry special snowflakiness just grated on my nerves so much. Also, the glaring logical holes that this time around I couldn’t overlook even when I tried.

It was a re-read, and sadly looks like none of HP books can entirely live up to the first encounter – the first time around this one got 6/10 stars ;)”

Piotrek: I had some strong candidates to my “Best of 2022” lists. “Worst of…” lists aren’t as full. I was cautious in my selection, and most of the things I did not particularly like where kind of good, just not my thing.

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Favourite media of 2022

We did summarize our 2022 blogging, now it’s time for books, shows and movies… we’ll see how long it gets, but we’ll try to cover it all in one post. It’s been a busy year, but a lot was consumed nonetheless, just maybe a bit different stuff than usual 🙂

Piotrek: Lets start with books, the crown achievement of human culture and our blog’s main topic. According to GoodReads I read 107 titles in 2022 and that added up to 39,400 pages. One of my better years on record. Average book length was 368 pages and that is the record, I believe. I did some re-reads, I read some books that were waiting a long time on my shelf, and I read a lot on the most important topic of the year – Ukraine and its struggle against Russian colonialism and imperialism, and not only on the battlefields, but in the minds of people all around the world.

I’ll start with re-reads. There’s been more of that than usual, and I want to mention two. Shōgun disappointed Bookstooge during his recent re-read, but he made me wanna revisit the book myself. And it was just as good! I don’t mind profanity, or even blasphemy, and it’s such an epic adventure it makes me want to also replay the excellent Total War: Shogun 2 computer strategy. But I also had my disappointment and it sadly was The Legend of Drizzt. I like R.A. Salvatore, whenever I listen to an interview on some fantasy podcast he comes out as a nice human being. But reading his books just isn’t as fun as it used to be. This one wasn’t, and neither were short stories I loved in the 90-ties… there’s always a risk in revisiting childhood favourites, sometimes it pays out sometimes it doesn’t.

Now my favourite genre fiction. This year it constituted (fantasy and sf combined) about 1/3 of my reading, probably the lowest since… early elementary school? But these were mostly solid works. And I’ve chosen three that I liked the most (in no particular order).

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Tim Powers, Last Call (1992)

Author: Tim Powers

Title: Last Call

Format: Paperback

Pages: 560

Series: Fault Lines #1

Dang. I wanted to love it much more than I did. Sadly, the most well-known Powers’s book, the one that won both Award for Best Fantasy Novel (1993) and World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (1993), doesn’t hold a candle to Anubis Gates or even The Drawing of the Dark, or basically any other Powers’s book I have read. Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m simply older by thousands of pages and hundreds of books and, as a result, that much more picky. Maybe it’s the archetypes and myths, about which I tend to know a thing or two, and Powers’s version of them did not impress me Or maybe I just read it at a wrong time.

Whatever the reason, I did struggle with this book quite a lot, and after a quick start I got mired in a bog of indifference and was lured away, multiple times, by the will-o’-the-wisps promises of better books. (And they were better!) Only recently I did go back and I managed to finish it, at last, but it was a rather more bitter than sweet experience. I guess I’m not enamored of Nevada and Las Vegas, or poker, or the very literal interpretations of the Fisher King and sacred marriages, and cyclical rituals of death and renewal. It’s like Powers had read Frazer’s The Golden Bough at some point, was blown away by it, then and decided to adapt it to his own purposes. I mean, he had every right to do this, but by the same token he shouldn’t be too surprised if people who have professional interest in cultural anthropology are not impressed – particularly considering that The Golden Bough itself had over time lost some of its claims to veracity and overall allure.

I have to hand it to Powers, the story starts with a bang. Archetypal magic within Tarot cards, Poker played for eternal life, reminiscences of Saturnal quest for immortality… I was intrigued. I was immersed. I wanted to know more! But then, a sudden flat line – the main character, the prodigal son escaping the clutches of cannibalistic father thanks to the sacrifice of his mother, who sells himself away, unknowingly, to that same father, in a tragic twist of fate, inexplicably turns into a couch potato (if potato could drink alcohol). What’s worse, it seems that at least this particular transformation was irreversible – despite all the action and plot twists, and vestiges of agency Powers tried so hard to bestow on him, he remained a couch potato till the very end.

So, unlikable protagonist. Been there, done that. It still could’ve been saved. But this time around, the fabled magic of Powers’s twisted mind felt flat as well. The archetypes as giant figures residing deep in the unconscious and called to the conscious parts of the mind through Tarot cards? The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hijack the power of archetypes and become one in a special time of year and through a special set of circumstances? Literal interpretation of myths is a very tricky proposition, particularly when you’re trying to bind so many and so varied myths together. And maybe because I detect traces of Campbellian obsession with The Hero with a Thousand Faces, my last call is “bullshit.” I was fine with djinns working for Soviet spies, I was riveted by silicone-based vampires, but this was just a load of nonsense not better than a residue of a singularly bad trip. Can’t believe I’m writing this in a review of Tim Powers’s book, but the cardinal sin of Last Call is NOT ENOUGH RESEARCH. It’s still quite readable, and slick, but it’s not great, and it’s good only in places.

Now for some final thoughts. I don’t think I will be reading any of the sequels to Last Call. I’m going to read On Stranger Tides, and then I’ll see if Powers has anything more to offer that can keep my attention. One thing is certain: after that programming bootcamp, I have become ruthless when it comes to books. Fear me! BUAHAHAHAHAHA!

Score: 7/10

K. Eason, Nightwatch Over Windscar (2022)

Author: K. Eason

Title: Nightwatch Over Windscar

Format: e-book

Pages: 480

Series: The Weep #2

Hello everyone! I’m nearing the end of my course, and with the programming bootcamp safely behind me I decided to go back to some of my blogging and reviewing duties. I’m hoping to be fully back on WP within a week or two, and to have some collaborative summary of the year prepared with Piotrek before the end of said year ;).

Alas, I wish I had a better book to mark my blogging comeback. You’ll have to endure this withering onslaught just like I endured the book in question – bravely and with resolve. One thing that needs to be said upfront is that the name of the series should by rights be changed to The Bitter Weep. That’s how I felt throughout the reading experience, and while the tears had dried somewhat by now, the bitterness remained.

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