Archive for December, 2011

Book review: Goliath, Scott Westerfeld

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

GoliathIt’s been a looooong time between instalments, but Scott Westerfeld‘s Leviathan trilogy wraps up with a sterling conclusion in Goliath. Probably the best word to describe the third and final part of the series is “cracking”… which is also the best word to describe the series as a whole.

Minor spoilers ahead for Leviathan, Behemoth and Goliath.

So! Fresh off their adventures in Constantinople, our heroes Alek – secretly a prince – and Deryn – secretly a girl – venture to Siberia, Japan and then New York City in the flying warship Leviathan. On their quest the duo encounters several historical figures – including Nikolai Tesla, William Randolph Hearst and Pancho Villa – and finally confronts the romantic tension that’s been brewing between them the past two books.

Alek and Deryn are terrific characters, but Westerfeld’s greatest accomplishment is the world he’s built: set in the lead-up to World War I, the Leviathan trilogy pitches “Darwinists” (roughly equivalent to the Allied powers, who genetically engineer animals into terrifying war beasts) against “Clankers” (the Central powers, who battle with colossal hulking machines). There’s a lot going on here. It might’ve been laboured, or too complicated. But Westerfeld handles it all so cleverly!

Grown-ups will get into Goliath but be aware it falls squarely into the YA camp (never a bad thing, but some adults are weird about reading books “for” teens). Know a smart kid who you want to indoctrinate into the awesomeness of steampunk and alternate history and science-fiction? Give them this whole series.

If there’s a problem with Goliath, it’s that the story hints – and Westerfeld’s afterword makes it explicit – that 20th century history turns out very different because of Alek and Deryn. Their actions basically stop a world war. And that’s only a problem because World War I is this huge terrible epic thing, and the threat of it looms over all three books, but then it… doesn’t happen (or at least, happens on a much smaller scale than in our timeline). Which, on the one hand: yay, WWI averted, millions of lives spared. But on the other hand, from a narrative perspective, the climax loses some of its oomph.

But it’s a minor quibble. Especially since I don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of Alek and Deryn – or at least, not the last we’ve seen of the Darwinist/Clanker universe. With an entire century of history ready to be rewritten, Westerfeld’s got loads of territory left to explore. (Also, I want to see the perspicacious loris Bovril talking for reals.)

Lastly, major credit must go to Keith Thompson’s beautiful, lively illustrations, one of the true delights of all three books.

Previously: Book review: Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld, Book review: Behemoth, Scott Westerfeld

12 interesting Wikipedia articles about Christmas

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011
Santa Claus

See #6

  1. ‘Winter Wonderland’. The bridge of the song contains the following lyrics: “In the meadow we can build a snowman,/then pretend that he is Parson Brown./He’ll say ‘Are you married?’ We’ll say ‘No man,/but you can do the job when you’re in town!” In the period when this song was written, parsons (now known as Protestant ministers) often travelled among small rural towns to perform wedding ceremonies for denominational followers who did not have a local minister of their own faith.
  2. Caganer. A caganer is a figurine appearing in nativity scenes in Catalonia and neighbouring areas with Catalan culture… The figure is depicted in the act of defecation.
  3. Zwarte Piet. During recent years the role of Zwarte Pieten has become part of a recurring debate in the Netherlands. Controversial practices include holiday revellers blackening their faces, wearing afro wigs, gold jewellery and bright red lipstick, and walking the streets throwing candy to passers-by. Foreign tourists, particularly Americans, often experience culture shock upon encountering the character.
  4. Reindeer in Christmas. According to the British comedy panel game QI, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and all of Santa’s other reindeer must be either female or castrated, because male reindeer lose their antlers during winter. (Snopes has a bit more on this.)
  5. Christmas Eve. In [several European countries], Christmas presents are opened mostly on the evening of the 24th – this is also the tradition among the British Royal Family, due to their mainly German ancestry.
  6. Santa Claus. Images of Santa Claus were further popularized through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s. The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was invented by The Coca-Cola Company or that Santa wears red and white because they are the colors used to promote the Coca-Cola brand. Historically, Coca-Cola was not the first soft drink company to utilize the modern image of Santa Claus in its advertising. (Coca-Cola’s official website does claim the ads influenced Santa’s look, though.)
  7. Jesus’ year of birth. Although Christian feasts related to the Nativity have had specific dates (eg, December 25 for Christmas) there is no historical evidence for the exact day or month of the birth of Jesus.
  8. ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’. A bit of modern folklore claims that the song’s lyrics were written as a “catechism song” to help young Catholics learn their faith, at a time when practising Catholicism was criminalized in England (1558 until 1829). There is no primary evidence supporting this claim, and no evidence that the claim is historical, or “anything but a fanciful modern day speculation.” The theory is of relatively recent origin.
  9. Three wise men. The Gospel of Matthew, the only one of the four Canonical gospels to mention the Magi, states that they came “from the east” to worship the Christ, “born King of the Jews.” Although the account does not tell how many they were, the three gifts led to a widespread assumption that they were three as well. In the East, the magi traditionally number twelve.
  10. Boxing Day. The exact etymology of the term “boxing” is unclear and there are several competing theories, none of which is definitive.
  11. Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, according to which the Virgin Mary was conceived without any stain of original sin. It is completely distinct from the virgin birth of Jesus, though it is a popular mistake to confuse them.
  12. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. May considered naming the reindeer “Rollo” and “Reginald” before deciding upon using the name “Rudolph”.
And, because it’s Christmas, here’s some extra bonus interestingness about the season: Modern reinterpretation of candy canes; Boar’s Head feast; Christmas truce; Did Christians Steal Christmas?; Christmas gift-bringer; Christmas around the world; WintervalEtymology of Christmas; Festivus; Krampus (which, incidentally, is by far the creepiest Christmas-related thing I’ve ever seen).

And here’s the whole collection of interesting Wikipedia articles.

Book review: The Magician King, Lev Grossman

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

The Magician King

Remember that feeling after you finished school or university or college or whatever but before you got moved out into the Real Adult World? That feeling of being surrounded by an overwhelming number of opportunities, of being paralysed by the dread of choosing the wrong one, of not really being sure what was going to happen next, of wondering if this is really what life is meant to be like for the rest of forever, of not wanting to move forward but not forward but not wanting to stay? The Magician King is about that feeling. And magic.

(Some spoilers ahead for the prequel, The Magicians.)

Quentin Coldwater is a king of Fillory, the magical land from a series of books he adored as a child, which he discovered was real in the previous instalment. He’s growing fat and comfortable.

But Quentin being Quentin, he’s still unhappy. He wants more, and he gets it when he ventures out on a seemingly straightforward tax-collecting mission in Fillory’s farthest-flung tropical corners: circumstance tosses him and his co-royal Julia – his childhood friend who, you’ll remember, failed the entrance exam to magic academy Brakebills in The Magicians – back into the real world, where they stumble into a quest to save Fillory and magic itself.

The synopsis reads like standard magical-fantasy-land stuff, but Lev Grossman is awesome at blowing up your expectations of those kinds of stories. In Magicians he turned “boy finds out he’s magical, is educated in the ways of magic” tropes on their head. In Magician King he does the same for “boy finds out he must save the world”.

These books also address the realities of fantasy, as dumb as that sounds. If your teenage fantasies came true as an adult, you’d probably be pretty disappointed, as Quentin is. And, like Quentin, you’d soften the blow with layers of hip, disaffected cynicism and knowing pop-culture references. (You wouldn’t see Hermione using as iPhone, as King‘s Australian witch Poppy does)

And this attitude is important because, you know what, fantasy – if taken literally – is kind of lame. (I say that as a fantasy aficionado, FYI.) Grossman recognises this, which stops his work from falling into the twee trap of the classics he’s working with.

Like The Magicians, The Magician King meanders all over the place: Quentin visits Venice and talks to a dragon, then later descends into the underworld. He meets a sloth called Abigail along the way. It’s dreamlike, patched together, and it suits the story wonderfully.

Unlike its predecessor, King is not just about Quentin. Julia’s desperately sad, compelling backstory unfolds in tandem with the A-plot: these flashbacks to her magical education tell a dark, grimly satisfying tale with a devastating kick-in-the-balls climax. Julia’s magic is old and dangerous, nothing like Harry Potter or even grown-up stuff like True Blood: magic is barely under human control, and there are real consequences to using it. It’s fascinating.

I guess with sequels there’s always the question: is The Magician King better than The Magicians? But I don’t think the question even matters here. One is foundation, the other is build. Magicians was startlingly fresh, but Magician King enriches what we already know.

Grossman has confirmed there’s a third book coming (yay!) – he’s created too rich a universe not to explore further, and the end of King leaves Quentin’s story wide open. Like the magic in his books, the potential of Grossman’s fantasy world is near-limitless.

Previously: Book review: The Magicians, Lev Grossman