Sunday, April 28, 2019

Book Review: Tiamat's Wrath by James S.A. Corey

My spoiler-free review can be summed up in one image: I received this 531-page book on paper at a very busy time in life, and yet somehow still finished it in less than a week. It's a satisfying continuation of the story of The Expanse, and keeps the pace up after a previous book that was a little slow. It also sets up Book #9 very nicely. The science in the sci-fi reveals a few more things about the overall arc of the story, and I like how they do it. Even the aliens are super-weird but in a way that's consistent with quantum physics and what we know about the universe. The mystery of consciousness is one of the fundamental themes, and now that I see where they're going, I admire what they've done (though I disagree on philosophical and theological points). Not to mention one of My Favorite Things, convergent evolution, makes more appearances than it has since Book #4. This book is about the underdog vs. the (sort of) evil empire and there's two indelible scenes I will remember long after I've put down the last book: the empty space ring scene and the woman vs. machine scene both wowed me as much as anything in any of the books. More than anything, I found myself admiring the craft of how the authors dole out information: they out-splash the best final splash pages of comics in chapter after chapter. Even as they telegraph the future to the attentive reader, it doesn't feel predictable, it feels like you're in on the joke. This story has a fantastic shape so far, and even if they don't quite stick the landing in the upcoming ultimate volume, The Expanse is going to be one of my all-time favorite epics.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Book Review: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

I hate to break it to you, but this story isn't all that remarkable. It's more like an old story updated to the 21st century, the story of The Mysterious Artifact and the Puzzle Posed to All Humanity. What it gets better than I expected was the hall of mirrors that is mimickry and rivalry on social media, and how it can lead you into an addiction to likes, views, and clicks. The hollow nature of fame and the cost of constant self-branding, acting as Dr. Henry Higgins on yourself, that strikes home and even resonates with the writing of My Favorite Intellectual This Year (Rene Girard). It's truly insightful about modern communication, and if the author dared to be a little more critical of his own characters, and become a little more satirical, this could almost touch the hem of writing like Stendahl's. But the other parts of the story don't work so well. The Puzzle Posed to All Humanity is OK but feels far too much like Ready Player One. At least here it's decidedly not the main point. The fact that it feels so half-hearted is kind of charming, and some of the puzzles involve chemistry, so that will always get you extra credit with me. The real disappointment to me was how it deals with relationships. Nothing in the attraction or flirting even seems to approach actual selflessness or love, and none of the other characters seems real, even when one narrates a short section himself. I know that we're dealing with a flawed central character, but I find the whole scene and set of assumptions to be lifeless and discouraging, and the "everyone loves her" element that drives the plot annoys me rather than intrigues me. There's no evidence that she's earned admiration for anything but a pretty face, and you can't write about a pretty face and expect the reader to buy it. The real problem is deeper in the well. Characters have freedom to do anything they want and it destroys and deflates romantic tension rather than enhances it. Oh, and don't expect anything of the sci-fi to be explained satisfactorily. They really should retitle this book, and I should stop writing before I talk myself out of the three-star review for the Girardian themes alone.

Book Review: Christians at the Cross by NT Wright

This little book of sermons was fruitful for me, which is all the more striking because I found this by chance, needing some reading material in a pinch on Good Friday. It's a window into NT Wright's pastoral side: his messages to a neglected community during Holy Week. I'm familiar with the main points of his speaking, but seeing them adapted to a specific group of parishoners brings them alive in a new way. Also, most of these sermons pair a passage from the gospel of John with a passage from Isaiah, and they sent me back to read the Servant Songs of Isaiah more fully. In this context, they came alive for me in a new way as well. The Servant is a teacher, and we see his thoughts and doubts transparently, as well as his conviction that God is near and God will save. That spoke to me most of all, and isn't the point of Holy Week to hear God's word in a new way?

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Book Review: The Fall of Gondolin by JRR Tolkien

With this book, Christopher Tolkien's repackaging of his father's legendarium should be complete. Although there have been versions of Beowulf, Sigurd, and even Lancelot from Tolkien's old cabinets, the books like this centered on Middle-Earth form a trilogy, and each has a purpose: The Children of Hurin shows Tolkien's tragic roots, Beren and Luthien shows his heart, and The Fall of Gondolin shows his trajectory.

The Fall of Gondolin doesn't have any of Beren and Luthien's crystalline, transcendent moments, nor does it have any of The Children of Hurin's depth of narrative or mythological resonance. What it does have is both early Tolkien and late Tolkien telling the same story, so you can contrast his growth as a writer. The last version of the story was written after Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings and leaves off in 1951 at a low point for him, when he despaired that his grand story would never be told. But the last version has some turns of phrase and imaginative inventions that only Tolkien can really pull off.

The first half of the book only shines in contrast with the last half. The real surprise for me was in the retellings of the story of Earendel at the very end of the book, because those put Tolkien's theodicy and eschatology -- what's wrong with Middle-Earth and how it will all be fixed (basically the Purpose of Middle-Earth) -- more clearly than even the Silmarillion does, possibly because they're repeated and redrafted in quick succession. I KNEW why the Elves had to leave Middle-Earth, but I had forgotten, and now I'll never forget again. It's a revelation that I believe puts to rest all the misgivings people have about Tolkien's old-fashioned talk about bloodlines and light vs. dark. If Peter Jackson had this book (and paid attention to it), I'm convinced the Hobbit movies would actually have been good.

So this is a fitting conclusion to Tolkien, and this trilogy is far more approachable and digestible than the Silmarillion. It scratched my Tolkien itch, probably for the last time (with new material). Guess it's time to start reading it again, then.