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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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

Patricia A. McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974)

Author: Patricia A. McKillip

Title: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Format: paperback

Pages: 200

Series:

Patricia A. McKillip won the first World Fantasy Award for this novel, third she had ever written. And let’s be frank: her writing skill by that time was already masterful. The prose of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld echoes the mythopoeic style of A Wizard of Earthsea, and McKillip’s novel seems to have been inspired by Le Guin’s masterpiece in more ways than one.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld tell the story of Sybel, the heir to the wizarding family tradition of acquiring power over sentient creatures through the subtle yet ruthless art of name-calling. Sybel doesn’t conjure fireballs or ice towers, and yet is extremely powerful: gaining knowledge gives her total control over others who, bereft of free will, become her slaves. Oh, she’s a benevolent master, but a slave master all the same. She controls fantastical beasts from myth and legend, and while they retain their individuality, they are tightly leashed indeed. Only when she herself becomes an object of such magic does she begin to realize how harmful that control can be. And then she just flips out and embroils several kindoms in an all-out war in her quest for revenge. Hell hath no fury like a woman disrespected and abused.

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Larry Correia, The Grimnoir Chronicles (2011-2013)

Just the original trilogy, haven’t read any of the short stories.

Some time ago, when deliberating on Audible, whether it’s time to take a break or continue my subscription for a few more months to accumulate more titles, I noticed Hard Magic among the recommended titles. I remembered I read about Correia at Bookstooge’s, and I decided to go for the first volume, and delay cancelling. I share my listening time between audiobooks and podcasts, and I have other sources than Audible, so I only buy credits for a few months each year… but I ended up buying the entire trilogy, and some other stuff as well, including Rotherweird books recommended by Chris, also great but not a topic of this review.

Author: Larry Correia

Titles: Book 1: Hard Magic, Book 2: Spellbound, Book 3 Warbound

Hours: 16h 22m; 16h 52m; 17h 16m

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Andy Secher, Travels with Trilobites: Adventures in the Paleozoic (2022)

Author: Andy Secher

Title: Travels with Trilobites: Adventures in the Paleozoic

Format: e-book

Pages: 608

Series: –

Andy Secher’s book is a love letter to trilobites. Filled with purple prose and overly emotional at times, its enthusiasm and open admiration for its subject is nonetheless quite catching. A chapter or two of this book, especially if accompanied by careful examination of the photographs, and I’m ready to hit the road and roam the countryside, hammer in hand, in search of trilobites. Say what you will, trilobites were amazing creatures and their fabuluously strange bodies preserved for millions of years can be both a source of aesthetic pleasure and of intellectual curiosity. Looking at some of the species, you can almost see what inspired H.R. Giger… 😀

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