#REVIEW: Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, by R.F. Kuang

I admit it: I thought about just putting Babel in as the name of the book for the headline there, but really, when a book has this grandiose of a title and more especially when it earns this grandiose of a title, you really need to lean into it. So you get the whole thing.

First things first: this book does not come out until August 23rd. I have had absolutely incredible luck lately with getting advanced reader copies of books I was frothing at the mouth to read– first getting a copy of Jade Legacy several months early, and now lucking out and getting my hands on Babel by winning a Twitter drawing. I have reviewed all three books of her series The Poppy War, and two of the three ended up on my Best Of list at the end of the year. To be brief– because this book has nothing to do with those books except for some overlapping themes– they are an astounding achievement in fantasy, particularly when you take into account that even now, four books into her career, R.F. Kuang is somehow only 26 years old, meaning that I was in college when she was born.

Christopher Paolini, eat your fuckin’ heart out.

Anyway.

Babel is set between 1826 and, oh, the mid-1830s or so, primarily at Oxford, and is at least mostly a historical fiction novel. Why “mostly”? Because in the real world there wasn’t a gigantic tower in the middle of campus that housed the Royal Institute of Translation, which kept the British Empire afloat via a translation-and-silver-based magic program. That’s … new. And it’s weird to say that Kuang mostly adheres to real history other than this thing that literally touches every aspect of the British Empire, but she does. And this is where I’m kind of perfectly situated for this to be my favorite of her books: you might recall that at one point I was working on a Ph.D in Biblical studies– the Hebrew Bible, specifically– which means that while intellectually I can’t hold a candle to any of the four students who form the main cohort of this book, it does mean that I’ve had a lot of the same conversations that they have at various points in the book, and that I’ve spent lots of time thinking hard about a lot of the same issues that are inherent to the concept of “translating” something from one language to another, even before you get to the part where one of the things being translated is literally considered holy Scripture.

Also, one of my buddies from that graduate program is now an actual professor at Oxford, so while I’ve never set foot on the campus I know people who work there, which … doesn’t mean anything at all, actually, but I’m happy to bask in Bill’s reflected glory– and if you’re reading this, my dude, you must find a copy of this book when it comes out. And then send me one, too, because the UK cover is way better than the US one and books with sprayed edges make my jibbly bits feel funny.

The main character of the book is called Robin Swift, a Chinese orphan who is taken as a ward by a professor at the Institute of Translation and brought back to London, eventually to become a student at Babel himself. Why “called” Robin Swift? Because Dr. Lowell tells him that his actual name– never revealed in the text– is no fit name for an Englishman, and makes him choose another one. When Robin arrives at Oxford, he meets the rest of his cohort, composed of two women, one Black, and a young Muslim from India. You may perhaps be raising an eyebrow at this, and you’d be right to, as Oxford didn’t admit women or anything other than white people in the 1830s, but Babel has different standards and different rules than the rest of the university. The book follows Robin and his friends through their first four years at the university, as they learn more about Babel’s workings and about how the silversmithing that underlies so much of Britain’s power works, all while living in Britain and attending a university while, for three of them at least, being visibly Not British.

So in addition to being another really good R.F. Kuang book about a young scholar in over their head (no uterus-removals in this one, though) this book is also about racism and colonialism. In fact, I’d say it’s mostly about racism and colonialism, and specifically the way both manifest themselves in the university, and about what it’s like to be complicit in the oppression of your own people, and what “your own people” even really means if you were raised away from them. And all of that sounds really deep, and it is, but it’s also a hell of a good story, with fascinating characters and lots of worldbuildy magic stuff that may as well be serotonin injected directly into my brain.

I loved the Poppy War books. I loved this more than any of them, and if R.F. Kuang wasn’t one of my favorite writers before, she absolutely is now. Pre-order this, immediately. You can have it in August.

IT’S HERE IT’S HERE MY GOD IT’S HERE

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from a publicist at Orbit Books, who noted that I had read and favorably reviewed the first two books in Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga trilogy, and was asked if I’d like to receive an early promotional copy of the book.

An early promotional copy of the final book in a trilogy where both of the first two books were my favorite book released in the years they came out?

An early promotional copy of the single book I’m looking forward to most in 2021, if not the single literal thing I’m most looking forward to in 2021? Four months early??

I think the first line of my reply to her was “Oh, Jesus Christ, absolutely.”

Like, this makes every second of the last eight years of blogging, or however long it’s been, completely worth it.

And now it was here. It’s not in great shape– I was going to do a whole unboxing thing, but the book was supposed to be here yesterday, and from the condition of the packaging I think UPS had it strapped to the bottom of the truck, and it was halfway out of the package anyway, so I just took it out and gave it a little hug to make it feel better.

I will now go finish Empire of Gold, which I have maybe 50 more pages of, and then we’ll see how fast I can devour this book. If there’s not a review up by this weekend, it’s because something’s gone terribly wrong in my life.

#REVIEW: Upon the Flight of the Queen, by Howard Andrew Jones

Back in February I was able to get my hands on an early copy of Howard Andrew Jones’ For the Killing of Kings. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and said so, as I’ve been known to do, and miraculously just recently ended up with an early copy of the second book in the trilogy, called Upon the Flight of the Queen. I finished it today, a few days before release– the book comes out on November 19, next week.

I’ve been a fan of Jones’ for a while; he basically writes modern sword-and-sorcery, which is a genre that’s directly up my alley. The Ring-Sworn books are a bit more European in tone than the previous books I’ve read by him, and the first one basically ended up being a sort of fantasy murder mystery for about the first 2/3 of it, only the setup was that most of the characters were pursuing the rest of them for the murder that the book started with, while the main protagonists were looking for the shadowy villains who were actually responsible for the killing.

Upon the Flight of the Queen is, unapologetically and directly, a fantasy war novel. Killing of Kings ends with an invasion, and the entirety of Queen bounces back and forth between several locations all simultaneously being invaded by a group called the Na’or, who are 1) generally not very nice, 2) have dragons, and 3) are sort of allied with the Queen, whose role in the story I’m not going to talk about all that much because spoilers and I’ve probably already said enough, although if you’ve read the first book you’re already aware that something not quite kosher is going on with her.

The strengths of the first book were the characters and the fact that Jones never stopped stepping on the gas for basically the entire length of the story. This is much the same, really, except that the book’s timeline is really compressed compared to the first book– it takes place over no more than a couple of weeks, at most, I think, and there’s absolutely no point where the author lets the momentum of the book flag at all. Now, one mistake I think I made: I’ve read, conservatively, probably 75-80 books since Killing of Kings, and it might have been smarter of me to have reread it before jumping back into the sequel. There are a lot of characters and a lot going on in this book, and I spent a bit more time trying to figure out what was going on than I generally like to, which I think is more my fault as a reader rather than the fault of the book– which is, after all, book two of a trilogy, which one might not reasonably expect to stand on its own all that well. I also could have benefited from a map. Fantasy books should always have maps, even if they don’t need them. This one involves war and invasions so it needs them.

The first two books in the Ring-Sworn trilogy came out ten months apart, so one assumes Volume 3 will be out sometime next year. I didn’t love this one quite as much as I did the first volume, but I’ll make sure to reread them before the third book comes out. If you enjoyed For the Killing of Kings, I’d go hunt Upon the Flight of the Queen when it comes out next week.

#REVIEW: LAW AND ADDICTION, by Mike Papantonio

I received a free review copy of Mike Papantonio’s Law and Addiction from the same folks who were responsible for me receiving the two Thom Hartmann books I’ve reviewed and Closer Than You Think, by Lee Maguire. There’s been no promises of anything other than a fair review, and … well, read on.

Law and Addiction tells the story of Jake Rutledge, a fresh-from-law-school West Virginian who discovers the week before his graduation that his twin brother Blake has just died from an addiction to opiates that Jake was unaware of. Jake decides to honor his brother by suing the companies responsible for the opiate epidemic, including the three largest (fictional) drug companies in America, and … well, it turns out that’s kind of complicated.

(True story: a relative has recently casually suggested to me that I sue a drug company because of some events related to the Ongoing Medical Calamity last summer. I, uh, declined, because I do not have millions of dollars and unlimited time. Neither does Jake Rutledge, but he is apparently very, very good at gaining allies.)

Now, here’s the thing: Mike Papantonio is a lawyer, and according to his biography (which also describes him as a “skilled musician and athlete”) he has actually sued pharmaceutical companies in connection with the opioid crisis. So there’s very much a John Grisham thing going on here, where this actual lawyer’s actual practice is informing the events in his fictional novels.

Let’s start with the good stuff: I read this novel in two big gulps over two days, so there’s certainly a page-turner in here; Papantonio has a Dan Brown-esque talent for writing books that read quickly and keep you moving through them, and he’s a reasonably talented writer on a sentence-to-paragraph level.

Unfortunately, the novel as a whole has some problems. I was surprised to discover while reading that this book about a lawyer who is suing drug companies for pushing pills, written by a lawyer who has sued drug companies for pushing pills, really doesn’t read like it was written by a lawyer. All the lawyerin’ is sort of pushed off the page, other than some courtroom scenes, and it feels like the action of a writer who doesn’t really want to learn how something like suing a drug company might actually work, and is instead mostly writing based on half-remembered court scenes from Netflixed episodes of Law and Order and L.A. Law.

I mean … the book is really clear several times on the timeline. Jake’s brother dies a week before Jake graduates from law school, and Jake gets home from graduation and immediately dives into this lawsuit.

Take a second and see if you can figure out what’s missing.

If you said “the bar exam,” pat yourself on the back. And I actually looked this up– West Virginia is one of the few states that will technically allow you to take the bar without your JD, but you have to have completed all of your classwork and just not have actually received the degree yet, and I’m pretty certain that’s not what’s supposed to have happened here. The author either didn’t think of it or didn’t think his audience would. Jake meets with one lawyer who is really mean to him for no good reason and then in the next scene has talked two counties into becoming his clients, one in Ohio and one in West Virginia, but we never actually see that conversation and never once in the book does he actually talk to his clients. Frequently what should be big plot points are just skipped over. He talks another big Florida lawyer into working as co-counsel because he needs a firm with resources, and the conversation is literally “I wrote a paper on you in law school and so I know how to ask you about this in a way that will pique your interest.” And then the guy drops everything to basically move to West Virginia for the rest of the book, taking a bunch of his team with him.

At one point I found myself musing about the cover description of the book as a “legal thriller,” and thinking that other than a really ham-handed attempt at a bribe early in the book there hadn’t been a lot of thriller elements in the book. Ten pages later Jake was kidnapped (off-screen, mind you) and crammed into a hog pen somewhere in the woods, where he was injected in the ass with some sort of opioid on a daily basis and also only provided food and drink laced with the drugs, because the idea is you get him hooked and then that discredits him somehow, right? Only once he escapes (because, in this scenario, you either have to let him go or he has to escape) he basically just says yeah, I was kidnapped, and well, yeah, obviously he was fucking kidnapped, and this plan goes nowhere. There was some Sinister Villain Talk about how they couldn’t just kill him, but then just before he escaped they changed their minds, I guess, but he got away.

And then the book ends on a note so abrupt and ridiculous that I’m tempted to spoil the entire thing, but … yeah, the ending is bad, y’all.

Here’s the thing: Mike Papantonio obviously cares very deeply about this issue, and one of the things that is good about this book is that his passion about the subject bleeds through into his characters. I don’t know if he’s ever lost anyone to opioid (is there a difference between “opioid” and “opiate”? I’ve been using them interchangeably) addiction but he’s very clearly emotionally involved in the issue and I have no doubt that he was a fierce advocate as a lawyer. But where I might enjoy reading a book about the twists and turns of the legal case with a little bit of personal jeopardy in there to justify the “thriller” label, what we get instead is lots of speeches and polemics about how awful drug companies are and how opiate addiction has destroyed so many communities in West Virginia and elsewhere. Which is true! This is a huge, real problem! But it’s also not really how humans talk, and a much-larger-than-expected portion of this book is folks tossing facts and figures at each other in a way that is fine for a polemic but not necessarily fine for a legal thriller.

I dunno. This one really missed the mark for me. I didn’t have to force myself to finish it or anything; again, the book has enough energy to carry you through it, but it’s not strong enough to recommend.

Law and Addiction Amazon page
Mike Papantonio’s website

#REVIEW: The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America, by Thom Hartmann

Back in June I was lucky enough to receive an early review copy of Thom Hartmann’s The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment. I mentioned in the review that the book was part of a series– a series that I have since discovered is planned to run ten books— and that the second volume was to be out in October.

That was true! The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America was released on October 1 and should now be available anywhere you might happen to buy books. I was able to snag a copy of the second book in the series through the same folks that sent me the first one, and I sat down and read it tonight after getting home from work.

The book, and as I’m writing this I’m feeling like nonfiction needs a word similar to novella, is 156 pages long plus a dozen or so pages of footnotes and an index, and is divided into three sections. The first section is devoted to the founding fathers’ view of the Court and how the principle of judicial review became one of the Court’s powers. The second discusses the Court’s frequent rulings against the people in favor of the rich and powerful and corporate interests, and the third section– by far the shortest– is about how we might break the current right-wing stranglehold on the Court and, uh, save the world in the process.

I enjoyed Guns and the Second Amendment quite a bit. I was less a fan of this one, to be honest. To begin, it shares many of the weaknesses of the first book, weaknesses that are intrinsic to deliberately writing a book this short– I don’t have a wordcount handy, but I would suspect this book to be no longer than 30 to 40,000 words if it’s even that long, and it took me no longer than an hour or two to read. The sources, again like the first book, are almost entirely to websites, meaning that that entire part of the book will be useless in a few years, and this book feels a bit unfocused in a way that Guns and the Second Amendment didn’t. There’s simply a lot more to discuss when you’re talking about the Supreme Court– and as a result this book feels much more cursory and, to be honest, slapdash than the first volume did. This is, in large part, due to the deliberate decision by the author to write a short book, of course; I leave it up to you to decide if that aspect of it is going to be a problem for you or not.

A second problem is that I simply don’t have much sympathy for Hartmann’s core argument. I don’t believe that the first section ever actually directly states that Marbury v. Madison was decided wrongly, but it’s hard to escape that conclusion after reading it; describing the court as “despotic” in more than one place is pretty clear. And the thing is, I just … don’t care if it was the right decision, to be honest. The Constitution was fourteen years old when Marbury v. Madison was decided. We are, I think, well beyond the point where “The Court shouldn’t be able to overturn acts of Congress!” is a reasonable argument. If we’re talking about rewriting the entire Constitution, then okay, let’s discuss judicial review. But as an argument in what is supposed to be a history book? Meh. I just think it’s a silly discussion to be having.

The book is on stronger footing for the second part, although I’m not sure how hidden any of the history really is. The Court really has mostly privileged the wealthy and powerful over much of its tenure, although it’s not unlike basically all of human history in that regard, and there are certainly places where Court decisions have contributed materially to, well, justice. There is a brief review of judicial appointments to the Court since the Nixon years that was quite interesting– I wasn’t aware just how many of the Republican presidents (nearly all of them since Nixon, basically) initially took office under a cloud of some sort, which makes the hard-right turn that the conservative justices have taken over the last 40-50 years all that much more pernicious. And in more recent history, of course, we have Mitch McConnell stealing Obama’s last Supreme Court appointment, and the current occupant of the White House’s selection of perjuring rapist Brett Kavanaugh for the job.

The book wraps up with the rather grandiose claim that it is the composition of the current US Supreme Court that is causing the global climate crisis, or at least preventing us from fixing it, and goes into a few ways– court-packing and jurisdiction-stripping, basically– that we might choose to combat that. I, uh, kinda feel like Step One on this is to get Congress and the White House back, and if I were to line up a whole bunch of people in order of how responsible they were for the fucking mess human civilization is currently in I suppose the US Supreme Court would be on the list but they wouldn’t be as high as Hartmann seems to want them to be. It’s a bit of a stretch, is what I’m saying, and again the length of the book works against the author’s goals here, because you’re gonna need a few more pages to get me to blame the Supreme Court for climate change, particularly when you also make the point that the Supreme Court allowed the EPA to exist in the first place. We’d be worse off without them, in other words.

So … yeah. I wasn’t a huge fan of this book, although there were definitely some interesting parts to it; the series continues to be intriguing, however, and I’ll happily read the third volume– dedicated to the war on voting, which feels like a better fit to this series than the Court does– when it comes out even if my Mysterious Benefactors choose not to bestow a copy on me.

The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America is available now.