Book review: Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of LondonThis is going to sound like an insult, but it isn’t: Rivers of London is a mix of the magical and the mundane. But “mundane” here isn’t a bad thing. Think Harry Potter meets The Bill. The end result, with characters throwing spells in one scene then grappling with the modern bureaucratic nightmare of the London police force in the next, is pretty hilarious.

The set-up is pretty standard stuff: Peter Grant is a regular cop who stumbles into a previously undiscovered magical underworld. He’s apprenticed to the mysterious and charming Inspector Nightingale, one of the last of the wizards, who’s formed a complicated working relationship with London’s Bobbys (that’s what English people call police officers, right? Right?).

In between dropping one-liners, Peter gets to work on his first cases: solving a string of deaths caused by a malevolent trickster spirit; and working out a dispute between London’s river spirits. London is, obviously, a big part of the novel, and while it never really achieves “another character” status, the London details threaded through the story add to its charm – Aaronovitch has a clear affection for the city. (Also, kudos to Aaronovitch for attempting to work out the physics behind magic, something many fantasy authors ignore, cough J.K. Rowling cough.)

I do most of my reading on my commute to and from work, and Rivers of London is one of those “Aww, I’m at the office already? I wanna keep reading nooooow“-style books. It’s also the first entry in a series (followed by Moon Over Soho, which I want to read nooooow, and the forthcoming London Under Ground), and it shows. While the A-plot is resolved, most of the lesser-lettered plots are left hanging. Which is a little frustrating, but standard operating procedure nowadays.

PS: In the US this book is called Midnight Riot, and has a cover that cuts back on the whimsy and ramps up the action-packed-ness. Oh, America.


Book review: I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett

I Shall Wear MidnightIs Sir Terry really suffering from a debilitating cognitive disease? Really? Him? Is probably what you’ll ask yourself after finishing I Shall Wear Midnight – the man’s still got it, where “it” stands in for “a sharp wit”, “great characters”, and “straight-up top-shelf writing know-how”.

So this most recent instalment of the super-long-running Discworld series (“saga” is a better word) returns us to witch-in-training Tiffany Aching, who’s now 15. The Nac Mac Feegle still assist (obstruct?) her in her witchly duties, though said duties are darker and tougher than before: there’s violent dilemmas happening on the chalk downlands where Tiffany lives; she must travel to Ankh-Morpork to inform the Baron’s son Roland – who’s engaged to be married to a girl who isn’t Tiffany, dun dun – that the Baron has died; and, oh yeah, there’s a malevolent witch-hating spirit known as the Cunning Man out to destroy her.

The plot is a bit slapdash, its climax not holding together as well other Discworld instalments, though the final scenes are pretty much perfect. Midnight gives Tiffany a satisfying send-off, though fingers crossed Pratchett is up to writing another adventure for her – she’s one of his best creations. The powerful witch Granny Weatherwax – who has a role here, alongside many other familiar faces (and Esk!) – has long ranked among my favourite Discworld characters, and what’s interesting about Tiffany, I think, is that her stories are basically a chronicle of how these powerful witches are made.

PS, I saw Sir Terry at the Sydney Opera House when he dropped by Australia in April. Perhaps the wisest thing he said was that the world would be a better place if we all allowed for the possibility that even our most strongly held beliefs  might be wrong. True dat.


Short story: The Angel Hunter

The Angel Hunter

The Broken Wing has wooden slats nailed across its windows and a paint job that flakes from the walls in brittle scales. The only sign it’s not abandoned is the rectangle of yellow light outlining the door.

It’s where the angel hunters drink.

What a lonely, desperate job angel hunting is. The work is too repulsive for society’s palate, its participants too ruthless for friendly bonding. They don’t come to the Wing for conversation or company. There’s no jovial gossip here. No swapping tricks of the trade. Miserable nights are wasted staring into the dregs at bottoms of mugs. They come here because… where else?

Angel conservationists — those pale papery types who hand out leaflets on street corners far away from the Wing — estimate there are fewer than a hundred angels left. Maybe much fewer. That’s one reason hunters don’t talk among themselves. You can’t turn a profit selling a dead angel’s feathers if your rivals snare them before you do.

Grimy silence hugs the Wing’s interior. Trains rumble past across the street. The fan’s blades whirr through thick smoke. The barman’s name is Eddie Staunch and he’s the offspring of a side of ham and a row of knuckles. You never have to tell Eddie what you want to drink. He always knows.

The Wing’s door croaks open. No one looks up. It’s always just some loser hunched in the doorway, fresh off another failure.

But this time…

Even Eddie Staunch puts down the glass he’s wiping. … 


Book review: City of Fallen Angels, Cassandra Clare

It doesn’t feel right to call Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series “so bad it’s good”. It almost feels right. But – like the first season or so of Gossip Girl – while the books border on trashy, they’re smart, knowing trashy. Not so much “guilty pleasure” as “straight-up pleasure” – I’ve often recommended them as “Like Twilight, but good”.

So basically what happened is this: Clare wrote a trilogy of books (City of Bones, City of Ashes, then City of Glass) about the demon-killing Shadowhunters and their varied adventures and romantic entanglments. Trilogy becomes bestselling trilogy, and when you have a trilogy on your hands you do the sensible thing and extend it. Hence the fourquel City of Fallen Angels (which will be followed by two more sequels, comprising a second trilogy).

Which means Clare has to find more stuff for her heroes – including hunky Shadowhunter Jace Wayland/Morgenstern/Lightwood/Herondale/Whoevenknowsanymore, whose aforementioned hunkiness is endlessly purple-prosed at us; his girlfriend Clary; and her best pal Simon – to do.

And therein lies one of Fallen Angels‘ biggest problems: nothing really happens. The first three-quarters are mostly just melodramatic hand-wringing, with all the meat of the plot at the end.

Which wouldn’t be so bad if the melodrama wasn’t so forced. For example. We’re repeatedly reminded how passionately in love Jace and Clary are, yet their relationship is filled with vague problems-for-the-sake-of-problems. Sure, I get that conflict drives narratives and the course of true love never did run blah blah blah, but the couple’s impenetrable woes eventually become frustrating.

The bigger, unseen problem, though, is the book’s troubling subtext: three male characters (Jace, Simon and newcomer Kyle) physically hurt women, often greivously, and are forgiven because, basically, they weren’t themselves or weren’t in control of their actions at the time, and thus aren’t actually bad guys. This is… worrying, is the mildest way to term it, and I wonder how other readers reconcile it. (I’m guessing “easily”, given the number of rabid fangirls these books have.)

On the bright side, this is the best written Mortal Instruments entry so far (though not as good as in Clare’s spin-off, Clockwork Angel). The previous three books were marred by flat background characters, some of whom are fleshed out a little more in Fallen Angel.


Yet another 50 interesting Wikipedia articles

Tijuana bible

See #10.

  1. Schmidt Sting Pain Index.”Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.”
  2. Spirit of Ecstasy. The reason for the secrecy was Eleanor’s impoverished social and economic status, which was an obstacle to their love… She died on 30 December 1915, going down with the SS Persia, when the ship was torpedoed off Crete by a German submarine.
  3. Pintupi Nine. They are sometimes also referred to as “the lost tribe”.
  4. Devil’s Town. It features 202 exotic formations described as earth pyramids or “towers”, as the locals refer to them.
  5. 2012 phenomenon. It will somehow create a combined gravitational effect between the Sun and the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, thus creating havoc on Earth.
  6. Eschatology. History is often seen as being divided into “ages”… So, instead of “the end of the world” we may speak of “the end of the age” and be referring to the end of “life as we know it” and the beginning of a new reality.
  7. Silbo Gomero language. When this unique medium of communication was about to die out in the late 20th century, the local government required all Gomeran children to study it in school… It now has official protection as an example of intangible cultural heritage.
  8. Garum. Garum appears in most of the recipes featured in Apicius, a Roman cookbook, which also offers a technique to render palatable garum that had gone bad.
  9. Language of flowers. The nuances of the language are now mostly forgotten, but red roses still imply passionate, romantic love and pink roses a lesser affection; white roses suggest virtue and chastity and yellow roses still stand for friendship or devotion.
  10. Tijuana bible. Also known as bluesies, eight-pagers, gray-backs, Jiggs-and-Maggie books, jo-jo books, Tillie-and-Mac books, two-by-fours, and fuck books.
  11. List of animals with fraudulent diplomas. George, a cat… was registered with three professional organisations… securing George’s accreditation as a hypnotherapist.
  12. Proprioception. This remarkable proprioceptive reflex, in the event that the body tilts in any direction, will cock the head back to level the eyes against the horizon. This is seen even in infants as soon as they gain control of their neck muscles.
  13. Hell. The geography of Hell is very elaborately laid out in this work, with nine concentric rings leading deeper into the Earth and deeper into the various punishments of Hell, until, at the center of the world, Dante finds Satan himself trapped in the frozen lake of Cocytus.
  14. Pulp magazine. The collapse of the pulp industry changed the landscape of publishing because pulps were the single largest sales outlet for short stories. Combined with the decrease in slick magazine fiction markets, writers attempting to support themselves by creating fiction switched to novels and book-length anthologies of shorter pieces.
  15. List of commonly misused English words. Something is ironic if it is the opposite of what is appropriate, expected, or fitting… It is ironic that Alanis Morissette wrote a song called ‘Ironic’ with many examples, not one of which is actually ironic.
  16. Ornithopter. Birds inspired Leonardo da Vinci when he designed his ornithopter in 1490. He never saw his dream of flight take place because his ornithopter was too heavy and required too much energy to produce lift or thrust.
  17. High Altitude Platforms. A HAP differs from other aircraft in the sense that it is specially designed to operate at a very high altitude… and is able to stay there for hours, even days. The new generation of HAPs, however, will expand this period to several years.
  18. Mystery airship. Early citations of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, all from 1897, include the Washington Times, which speculated that the airships were “a reconnoitering party from Mars”; and the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, which suggested of the airships, “these may be visitors from Mars, fearful, at the last, of invading the planet they have been seeking.”
  19. Samael. One of Samael’s greatest roles in Jewish lore is that of the angel of death. He remains one of the Lord’s servants even though he appears to want men to do evil.
  20. Seven Heavens. The seven heavens are the seven layered realms of the spiritual celestial sphere or the upper world where generally angels and other spiritual beings such as Paradise and Hell or the souls of the prophets exist.
  21. Nephilim. The Nephilim are said to be the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men.” Traditions about the Nephilim being the offspring of unions between angels and humans are found in a number of Jewish and Christian writings.
  22. Uncontacted peoples. The Sentinelese continue to actively and violently reject contact. They live on North Sentinel Island, a small and remote island which lies to the west of the southern part of South Andaman Island. They are thought to number around 250.
  23. Mesoamerican literature. Often however the mythological narratives are mistaken for historical accounts because of the lack of distinction between myth and history in Mesoamerican cultures.
  24. Flood myth. The Greeks hypothesized that Earth had been covered by water several times, noting seashells and fish fossils found on mountain tops as evidence.
  25. Ring of Gyges. He discovered that the ring gave him the power to become invisible by adjusting it… Arriving at the palace, Gyges used his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murdered the king
  26. Orrery. They are typically driven by a clockwork mechanism with a globe representing the Sun at the centre, and with a planet at the end of each of the arms.
  27. Lightning Bird. It is a vampiric creature associated with witchcraft which was often the servant or familiar of a witch or witch doctor, attacking the witch’s enemies. It is said to have an insatiable appetite for blood.
  28. Tennin. They are usually pictured as unnaturally beautiful women dressed in ornate, colorful kimonos (traditionally in five colors), exquisite jewelry, and flowing scarves that wrap loosely around their bodies. They usually carry lotus blossoms as a symbol of enlightenment.
  29. Erebus. Erebus was later depicted as a material region, the lower half of Hades, the underworld. It was where the dead had to pass immediately after dying. Charon ferried the souls of the dead across the river Acheron, or in later texts the river Styx, upon which they entered the land of the dead.
  30. Orphan Train. When the movement began, it was estimated that 30,000 orphaned or abandoned children were living on the streets of New York City. Many were sent west to find families and new homes, on trains that became known as “orphan trains”.
  31. Luck. If “good” and “bad” events occur at random to everyone, believers in good luck will experience a net gain in their fortunes, and vice versa for believers in bad luck.
  32. Voynich manuscript. Since the manuscript’s alphabet does not resemble any known script, and the text is still undeciphered, the only useful evidence as to the book’s age and origin are the illustrations.
  33. Nāga. A female nāga is a nāgī or nāginī.
  34. Alicorn. In some modern fiction and art, an alicorn is a winged unicorn.
  35. Fairy chess piece. One of the most popular fairy chess riders is the nightrider, which can make an unlimited number of knight moves.
  36. List of names for the biblical nameless. Of the six unnamed archangels, Michael is named in the Book of Daniel, and Gabriel is named in the Gospel of Luke.
  37. Trysting Tree. Many trees have through their isolation, appearance or position been chosen as popular meeting places for young courting couples, soldiers called to gather at a distinctive venue prior to battle, etc.
  38. Secret societies in popular culture. The Cult of Gozer or “Gozer worshippers”, is a secret society in New York City followed by at least 1000 people in the 1920s.
  39. Pineal gland. Historically, its location deep in the brain suggested to philosophers that it possessed particular importance. This combination led to its being a “mystery” gland with myth, superstition and occult theories surrounding its perceived function.
  40. Apocrypha. Augustine defined the word as meaning simply “obscurity of origin,” implying that any book of unknown authorship or questionable authenticity would be considered as apocrypha.
  41. John Titor. He made numerous predictions (a number of them vague, some quite specific) about events in the near future, starting with events in 2004. However, as of 2011, these events appear not to have taken place.
  42. Many-worlds interpretation. Occam’s Razor rules against a plethora of unobservable universes — Occam would prefer just one universe.
  43. Classifications of fairies. A fairy belonging to this court will avenge insults and could be prone to mischief.
  44. Bluestocking. It was applied primarily to intellectual women, and the French equivalent bas bleu had a similar connotation. The term later developed negative implications, and in some instances such women were stereotyped as being “frumpy”.
  45. Spite house. The Skinny House in the North End of Boston, Massachusetts is an extremely narrow four-story spite house reported by The Boston Globe as having the “uncontested distinction of being the narrowest house in Boston”.
  46. Traveller’s dilemma. These experiments fail to show that either the majority of people use purely rational strategies, or that they would be better off financially if they did.
  47. Guess 2/3 of the average. This game illustrates the difference between perfect rationality of an actor and the common knowledge of rationality of all players.
  48. Emperor Ai of Han. Emperor Ai was highly controlled by his grandmother Consort Fu, who improperly demanded the title of Grand Empress Dowager – even though she had never been an empress previously and therefore did not properly have that title.
  49. Tulpa. The term comes from the works of Alexandra David-Neel, who claimed to have created a tulpa in the image of a jolly, Friar Tuck-like monk which later developed a life of its own and had to be destroyed.
  50. List of company name etymologies. The pen company was named after one of its founders, Marcel Bich. He dropped the final h to avoid a potentially inappropriate English pronunciation of the name.

Click here to read the full collection of interesting Wikipedia articles.