March 31 2011

The Wise Man’s Fear

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss is the second book of his Kingkiller Chronicles. He has stated that there will be three books in all. I read the first volume (The Name of the Wind) last week and read this one this week. So, I didn’t have to wait for the four years separating the two volumes.
In this volume, Rothfuss shows that the first volume was not in any way a fluke. To be succinct, I liked it very much. If you liked The Name of the Wind then you will like this. If you haven’t read either volume, then go read them now. If you haven’t read just this one, then go get it and read it now.
It is written in a similar fashion as the first, third person in the ‘present’ and the story of Kvothe as told by Kvothe to Chronicler in the first person. Again the tone and style is marvelous and magical. It flows, well it flows much like the wind.
Without revealing very much, I’ll say that the book continues pretty much where the last one left off. Kvothe is at the university. We learn more about his studies as Kvothe does. As the story progresses, we travel to various new places, and learn a few helpful things about the background of the world and the background of Kvothe.
There are a host of wonderful details. Pay attention to the poems and the songs and the stories within stories. Well, and all the other parts also.

March 29 2011

The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss was a wonderful story (I liked it a lot in other words).
First, there are the tones in which the story is told. Specifically, there are two of them. I’ve always found authorial tone to be an interesting thing. It is the way the story is told. The words that are used and the manner in which they flow together. As an example, take the opening of The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it do sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

That’s a beautiful opening. It flows like a sparkling brook and draws us into the story. I love that opening.
Here is the opening of The Name of the Wind:

IT WAS NIGHT AGAIN. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

That is also a beautiful opening. A narrative stillness–a deep midnight lake. I use a water analogy for both of these little excerpts on purpose. They are both smooth and naturally alive. And, that is the first of the authorial tones of The Name of the Wind: a smooth third person narrative. The tone reminded me of the tone of The Hobbit mainly in its effect upon me. It was friendly and authoritative, mysterious and informative–altogether wonderful to read. The story itself is quite original, not at all derivative of Tolkien–but that tone, ah, that tone.
The first seven chapters use this first voice to introduce us to Kote, the owner of the Waystone inn in a small town just a bit west of nowhere. In these chapters we learn a bit about the world. There seems to be magic, there are vicious spider-things called skrael and Kote seems to have some secrets. We are also introduced to Chronicler–a wandering scribe.
For various reasons, Kote decides to tell his tale to Chronicler. We learn that his name is actually Kvothe (pronounced quoth) and that he started life as a wandering trooper–at least his parents were the leaders of a troop of which he was part.
This brings us to the second tone. As Kvothe tells his story to Chronicler, he does it as a spritely first person account. Once he begins the tale, we get mostly first person chapters with small insertions of the third person as we switch back to the inn.
The first person tone is very distinct from the third person tone. We start with a Kvothe who is around eleven. He is precocious and somewhat of a smart alec. We learn of his life in the troop and the events that unfold to gradually bring him from his life as a traveling trooper to be a student at an arcane university. I won’t say much about the actual events as that would spoil a few things–I’ll just say that there is magic and there is tragedy. There is triumph and there is despair.
These two tones of the book fit together to produce a marvelous result. They don’t clash–they blend and build on one another. In one voice we hear a weary traveler in life, in the other we hear the excitement of youth. Both color each other to add depth and wonder to the story.
So, you can tell that I like the writing. I also like the plot. It is a plot about the life journey of Kvothe. How he grows as a person and how his talents grow (music and magic) and presumably how he arrives at where he is when we find him at the beginning.
I’m not going to say much else about the direct plot. If you like finely written fantasy, you will like this.

March 27 2011

More fun with Lovecraft

Really, how can you not have fun with H.P. and the crawling chaos. The Cthulita thread at Ian Tregillis blog has been a blast. Here’s another mashup with regards to the Moody Blues.

Nights in old Arkham, never dreaming alone,
Letters I’ve chiseled, deep in the stone.
Things on the doorstep, are not what they seem.
Witch cursed and haunted, the face in the dream.

Because I’ll find you, yes I’ll find you, oh how I’ll find you.

Gazing at altars, some now just sand,
Whispers at midnight, Azathoth is at hand.
Some try to tell me, thoughts that must bend,
Just what you want to be, you will be in the end.

And I’ll find you, yes I’ll find you,
Oh how I’ll find you, oh how I’ll find you.

Nights in old Arkham, never dreaming alone,
Letters I’ve chiseled, deep in the stone.
Things on the doorstep, are not what they seem.
Witch cursed and haunted, the face in the dream.

Because I’ll find you, yes I’ll find you,
Oh how I’ll find you, oh how I’ll find you,
Because I’ll find you, yes I’ll find you,
Oh how I’ll find you, oh how I’ll find you,

Breathe deep, the gathering doom
Watch stars fade, turning to gloom
Elderly hermits, by the blasted heath
Tell tales of what lies beneath.

Impassioned Shoggoths, merging as one
There in the darkness, never knowing the sun
The Deep Ones have sung
Where they were young.

Cold intellects, rule the night
The colours of darkness, stamp out our sight
Too frozen to feel,
Nyarlathotep decides, which is quite real

And which is a dream.

March 24 2011

Today’s bit of fun–Lovecraft mashup’s

Over on the inestimable Ian Tregillis’ blog today, he did a fun mashup between Nabokov and Lovecraft entitled Cthulita. This sparked a bit of fun in the posts. Here’s my entry. I kind of like it so I’m reposting it here (with my compliments to the Kinks):

I met it in a cave down in old Dunwhich
Where you drink absinthe
It tastes quite eldritch, E-L-D-R-I-T-C-H, eldritch

It walked up to me and it asked me to dance
I asked it its name and in a dark chthonic voice
It said Cthulhu,C-T-H-U-L-H-U, Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu

Well, I’m not the world’s most psychical guy
But when it squeezed me tight it nearly broke my mind
Oh my Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu

Well, I’m not squamous but I can’t understand
Why it walked like a cephalopod but talked like a man
Oh my Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu

Well, we drank absinthe and danced all night
Under flickering torchlight
It picked me up and sat me on its bothria
And said, “Dear boy, won’t you visit my plane?”

Well, I’m not the world’s most passionate guy
But when I looked in its eyes well I almost fell for my Cthulhu
C-C-Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu
Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu

I pushed it away, I walked to the gate
I fell to the floor, I got down on my knees
Then I looked at it and it at me

That is not dead which can eternal lie
I always want it to be that way for my Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu

Gods will be boys and boys will be gods
And with strange aeons even death may die
Except for Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu

Well, I left home just an aeon before
And I’d never ever met an old one before
But Cthulhu rose and took me by the hand
And said, “Dear boy, I’m gonna make you mad”

Well, I’m not the world’s most ethnologic man
But I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man
And so is Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu
Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu

Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu
Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu
Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu

Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu
Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu
Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu, C-C-Cthulhu

March 22 2011

When in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout–or not so much

A very popular movie/TV trope that always makes me grit my teeth is that of mass panic in the public. You all know the setup: something has happened–a disaster, an alien landing, a virus… Eventually there is a scene where the government official/military person intones that they just can’t release information because there will be mass panic. People will rampage and quickly devolve into roving bands of vigilantes and cannibals.
There are certainly a number of examples of decently sized groups of people panicking. Often, these are in response to an immediate danger–like a fire in a building with too few exits. There are also lots of examples of wide spread disasters in which people don’t panic. In fact they do the opposite–they help people out, they work together. It turns out people are good at working together. It’s easy to think of positive examples: the Blitz in London, the San Francisco earthquake/fire, the recent earthquake in Japan, …. Now, try to think of an example of widespread mass panic–involving cities or entire regions. That’s not so easy. Maybe you’ll think of the War of the Worlds broadcast. Well, that is certainly often cited, but it turns out there wasn’t that much actual panic. I can’t really find any evidence that any such event has ever happened.
People will certainly move away from a source of immediate danger. But, once the immediate threat is done they don’t keep moving. There is an excellent essay on this very thing over on the Huffington Post.

March 21 2011


Aftertime by Sophie Littlefield is the second book I’ve bought based on reading about it in a “The Big Idea” post on John Scalzi’s Whatever blog. (The first book was Ian Tregillis’ excellent Bitter Seeds.) Here is a link to Sophie’s post there. “The Big Idea” posts are a really nice place where the author of an upcoming book gets to tell why they wrote the book. They can give some pretty interesting insight there.
In this, Sophie mentioned that she wanted to write a zombie book and she wanted to have a compelling heroine. Her description sounded interesting enough that I put it in my queue.
I liked Aftertime and would say that Sophie Littlefield accomplished both of her goals. In Aftertime , we start following a woman named Cass. She is the narrator and we gradually fill in that something very bad has happened. She is trying to avoid Beaters and it fairly quickly resolves that the beaters are the zombie-like aspect of the story. It seems that there were a number of biological terrorist actions against the US that resulted in the dying off of a fairly large percentage of plants and animals. In an effort to fix this the government aerially seeded a genetically modified plant that could provide people with all their daily nutritional needs. Unfortunately, included in the seeds was a mutated variety that had the effect of inducing a fever. Many people died from the initial fever. If you survived that things got worse. You rapidly lost the capacity to reason and developed a hunger for human skin. In other words, you essentially became a zombie-like creature.
When we meet Cass, we come to realize that she has been a victim of a beater attack. There are scars on her arms that are somewhat healed and scars on her back that are starting to heal but still raw.
Cass also has her own internal scars. Before (people think of the times before all this happened as before), she had been a recovering addict. Her daughter had been taken away from her by her parents. After, she had been living in a library with others when she was attacked by beaters and separated from her daughter (a toddler).
Finding her daughter becomes the driving force to her story–the quest that fuels the story. As we travel with Cass, the holes in her memory gradually fill. We spend quite a bit of time inside Cass’ thoughts and this isn’t always pleasant time. She has a lot of problems to work though–both physical, environmental and mental. So, Cass is not a perfect heroine but she is a compelling heroine. So, I would say that Littlefield accomplished both of her goals for the story.

March 16 2011

Rare Earths

The first interesting thing to note about Rare Earths is that they aren’t all that rare. Out of the 17 elements considered rare earths, only Promethium is really rare (it’s radioactive and has a half life of 17.7 years at the best). The reason they are termed rare is that for the most part they don’t occur in large concentrations. Mineral deposits with enough of a concentration to make extracting rare earths economically feasible are somewhat scarce.
Currently, rare earths are used in all sort of things. These include cell phones and catalytic converters.

The second interesting thing you will often see (often with hints of conspiracy) is that the Chinese control 97% of the worlds supply. Oh my Eleventy! 111! A more accurate statement is that China currently produces 97% of the worlds supply. There are a couple of reasons for this.
Until about 20 years ago demand for rare earth elements was much lower (and increasing at a lower rate) than it is today. So, someone sitting back 20 years ago might have forecast that demand (and thus) price for rare earths wasn’t going to change much in relative terms and so developing new mines wasn’t that much of an economic priority. In the US, the largest mine was the Mountain Pass rare earth mine
. Through a combination of mismanagement (lots of environmental leaks) and misjudging of prices, this mine went inactive between 1998 and 2002. Chinese production had increased at that point and demand hadn’t quite caught up. So, for a while people were mostly happy to let the Chinese mine and produce the rare earth elements in China with cheaper labor and shall we say less than strict environmental regulations.
Here’s a nice supply and demand chart:

Since about 2009, a couple of things have happened to change this whole picture. For various reasons, on September 1, 2009, China announced plans to reduce its export quota to 35,000 tons per year in 2010-2015. Looking at the chart, on the left, you can see that the demand outside of China is greater than 35,000 tons per year. What happens when demand is greater than supply? That’s right, the price pretty much has gone vertical.

Now, the nice thing about the price increasing from a supply point of view is that now there is incentive to either open new mines or reopen old ones. For example, the Mountain Pass mine that we mentioned earlier is expected to resume operation this year.

That all seems fine, supply and demand working as they should. So, is there a potential for running out of rare earths anytime in the near future? An excellent report from the USGS is available here that describes US and global known reserves of rare earth elements. The report concludes that global reserves are at about 99 million metric tons with the United States having 13 million metric tons of rare earth elements. From the above chart, current usage is about 250000 metric tons. This is steadily increasing, but reserves look like they should last for quite a while. This is especially true in that many of the uses of rare earths could be recyled.

March 15 2011

Magic Strikes

Magic Strikes by Ilona Andrews is the third book in the Kate Daniels series. The first two books are Magic Bites and Magic Burns. This is definitely a series, so starting at book 1 is a good idea.
In these books we find ourselves in our world except that magic has returned. Or, at least it has somewhat returned. There are times when “magic” works very well. These are termed magic waves. When magic is up, you can do spells and various scary things gain power. Things like cars tend not to work in these periods. When the magic wave subsides, technology works again. The magic waves also tend to eat away at thing, like skyscrapers, that would have required a high technology to build–kind of an increased entropy. From bits that drop here and there, it would seem that we had just been experiencing a long drought of magic and that magic had been operating in the past. This is the source of many of our myths and legends. I found this world premise very nicely worked out. It flows smoothly showing that the author has spent some time thinking things through. I really like it when authors do this.
In the midst of this world, we find Kate Daniels. Kate is around 25. She has very good fighting skills in general and excellent sword skills in specific. She also has strong magical skills of a couple varieties (there are multiple ways to manipulate magical powers while the magic is up). She is a heroine of the self-sufficient, somewhat wisecracking variety that I generally like. She doesn’t just happen to have all of these skills, but has a very interesting back story that we have gradually learned through the course of these three books. It isn’t exposing much to just say that her father is a powerful figure who wouldn’t be pleased to even know of her existence. She has inherited her magical abilities from her father and gained her fighting skills from her “stepfather.” She is currently living in Atlanta. Atlanta has been heavily modified by the magic waves, but is still a functioning city.
Various groups maintain (or try to) law and order. The government is still mostly functioning in a recognizable fashion and so there are various police forces. Kate is a member of both a mercenary organization and a group called the “Order of Merciful Aid.” The Order provides assistance to people needing help from magical problems. They provide this semi free, but the catch is that they do whatever is necessary. For example, if you call them because your grandmother has become a monster of some sort, the help you receive may be that grandma gets “removed” rather than cured (there may be no cure).
There are many varieties of shapeshifters (and other beings) in this world. Shapeshifters must maintain firm mental and physical discipline to prevent Lyc-V, the virus that causes lycanthropy, from running amok and basically causing them to go dangerously insane. This results in basically a strict hierarchical social structure for them. The local (Atlantan) shapeshifters are called the “Pack” and are under the control of Cullen, the Beast Lord, who happens to be a) a lion shapeshifter and b) attracted to Kate. This provides the romantic portions of the plots. So far, this has been decently handled, although it is probably my least favorite part of the storyline. I’m never that enthralled with the girl falling for mega-hero portions of stories. In this case, so far, Kate has been resilient enough for that part of the story not to out weigh others.
Vampires also exist. Definitely not the sparkly kind. Here, vampires are again the result of a disease that turns them into blood craving, mindless killers. Mostly, they are under psychic control of various “Masters of the Undead.”
In each of the books, all of these pieces intertwine nicely. In Magic Strikes, Kate comes across a scene where a shapeshifter has been murdered. As she investigates further into this, she is lead to the Midnight Games. These are an invitation only tournament, often to the death. What the linkage between these events is will let us explore Kate’s past and help set up events for the future.
Magic Strikes is a fine addition to a fun series. It is well paced with a lot of good action and a fine background. I found it quite enjoyable.

March 10 2011


Jhereg by Steven Brust is the first book in Brust’s Vlad Taltos series of which there are now 12 published out of a planned 19 total. It was published in 1983 and I first read it in 1984, picking it up at the Campus Book Store in Ames, Iowa. Interestingly, while it is the first book published, it is the fourth book in chronological order. There are endless debates on whether to read books in published order or internal chronological order. I pretty much always go with published order.
Jhereg, the book, is a lot of fun. It introduces us to Vlad, the narrator. Vlad is a human (like us) living in the city of Adrilankha. Humans (like us) are a minority in Adrilankha and are referred to as Easterners by the native Dragaeran’s (who think of themselves as human) and who make up the Dragaeran empire. There are 17 “Great Houses” of Dragaeran’s–each of which has different traits and are named after native animals. Vlad’s father had bought them a title into House Jhereg–the only house that allows such an action. The animal Jhereg is a poisonous sentient flying reptile (they’re also fun). The members of House Jhereg are basically the criminal element of the Dragaeran empire.
Vlad, being a member of House Jhereg, has his own territory as essentially a mob boss. Vlad also does “work” as an assassin.
In Jhereg we find out that Vlad is also a witch (kind of a psionic “magic”) and we see how he acquired Loiosh, his Jhereg familiar, sidekick and companion (“Shut up Loiosh” is a running internal dialog as Loiosh communicates mentally to Vlad.)
While his profession of assassin is not a particularly nice thing, Vlad himself quickly becomes very likable. He is the narrator, so we see things from his point of view, but it is a fun point of view–full of wisecracking detail. Vlad’s voice is has echo’s of some of Zelazny’s characters, but it is wholly his own.
The main thrust of the story begins when the Demon (a higher figure in the Jhereg) schedules a meeting with Vlad and hires him to kill another Jhereg crime lord, Mellar, who has stolen the Jhereg treasury. The Demon offers Vlad a very large amount to do this with the understanding that it has to be done quickly since, if word leeks out, every two bit thug in the Empire will be trying the same thing from here on.
Vlad agrees and uses his acquaintance Daymar to psionically locate Mellar. That’s when the real complications set in.
Mellar has managed to make himself a guest of Morrolan e’Drien at his home, Castle Black. Castle Black is a floating castle (like a mile up). Morrolan is a friend of Vlad’s and Vlad happens to be head of security for Castle Black. Should make thing easy right? Nope, Morrolan has gone to great lengths to make Castle Black a place where guests can not be harmed. He’s quite serious about this. Morrolan is a lord of the Dragon house and is quite serious about his honor. It turns out the last time a Jhereg assassin killed a guest of a Dragonlord, a war started between the two houses that nearly destroyed both of the houses. Thus, it would seem that Mellar has found a great place to hide in plain site.
It is up to Vlad (with a little help from his friends) to figure out how to kill Mellar, restore the Jhereg treasury, maintain Morrolan’s honor and keep his own skin intact.
While the main plot proceeds, we also learn a few things about the history of Dragaera and the complex society that exists there. For example, each of the 17 houses takes their turn as ruler of the empire as their place in the Cycle occurs. The actual fortunes of the houses are tied to this as their influence waxes and wanes through time. The Emperor/Empress wields the Imperial Orb. Every citizen of the Empire has a link through the Orb and can draw power through the Orb to perform what they refer to as sorcery. Sorcery is distinct from witchcraft and is also distinct from mental psionic disciplines. Sorcery allows a skilled user to do many things, like teleport. Vlad, being a citizen also has access to sorcery. Teleporting makes Vlad want to throw up.
So, there is a lot going on in Jhereg. Brust keeps it moving along very nicely. An excellent read.