In which I read The Witcher

… or, rather, I read the first two hundred pages of Blood and Elves, which I’ve come to discover is technically the third Witcher book, after two books of short stories, but is branded as the first book because it’s the first novel.

And it’s terrible. Absolutely unforgivably terrible. I went and looked at other bad reviews of it on Goodreads, and many of them seem to feel like the first two books (the short stories) were pretty good and then this one shit the bed, but that sentence with all the arrows pointed at it up there is where I decided I really was going to put this down, and then I read a few more pages anyway, and it’s just a Goddamned awful book. I’m going to lay a bit of the blame on the translator– I am willing to wager a small sum that the words she translated as “bite your own backside in fury” are a Polish proverb expressing angry frustration, but if that’s the case it should never have been translated literally. As a guy with a couple of degrees in Biblical studies I take translation pretty seriously, and there is no good reason to ever translate a proverb literally when you’re translating for a different culture. But it wasn’t the translator who wrote the endless conversations where characters explain things to each other that they already know, or the utter disgrace to women everywhere that is Triss Merigold’s character, or who decided to write two hundred pages about a guy called a Witcher where he does no Witching of any kind.

Seriously, the dude’s supposed to be a monster hunter. There is none of that in this book, or at least not in the first half. It’s dreadfully boring. And I was dumb enough to jump straight to the box set of the first three novels, so I not only have this thing sitting on my shelf now but two other books that I have no intention of reading. Bah.

And so long as we’re talking about works read in translation, the book before dipping into the world of the Witcher was Jin Yong’s A Hero Born, which is the first book of a massively successful series in China that has only recently been translated into English. This is one of those books that I ordered because I got flooded with people talking about it in a short period of time, and the phrase “Chinese Lord of the Rings” kept coming up.

I don’t know what the Chinese Lord of the Rings might be, but it is not Legends of the Condor Heroes. To be honest, having read it, I cannot for the life of me imagine what the hell possessed anyone to compare those two books to each other, other than the knowledge that it would get my specific subtype of nerd to order a copy. They were both initially published in the fifties. That’s all I’ve got. What A Hero Born is is a perfectly serviceable wuxia novel, or in other words a book set in ancient China that is all about powerful martial artists going around and doing things.

What things are they doing? Hard to say, because rather than describe the action most of the time Jin Yong just names the move and either expects you to know what that is (which I can’t believe is actually the case, but I suppose might be) or expects you to fill in the details yourself. In other words, you might have one character attack another with a Rooster Masturbates the Moose move and have that move be countered with an Insipid Charlatan, but the variant from the Batman Eats a Blueberry Crepe school of kung fu, not the normal one.

What’s that mean? Hell if I know. And clearly this works in China, and I didn’t hate the book by any means, but it was sort of a slog.

So, yeah. So far, not regretting writing my Best Books of the Year post with a couple of days left in the year.


I was a big fan of the first book in R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War series– it ended up being very highly ranked in what was a very good year for reading– and I jumped on the sequel as fast as I could when it came out.

And … well, brace yourself. This is not one of my usual hyperbolic slobbery OMG GO READ THIS RIGHT NOW reviews. I still think you need to read it, but there’s gonna be a proviso or two, some quid pro quos … anyway, read on.

Trigger warning, for, like, everything that is bad. If you’ve ever needed a trigger warning of any kind do not read this book or this review.

The Poppy War starts out almost sorta feeling like a Harry Potter knockoff set in a China analogue, only Hogwarts is a military academy and Hermione is the main character instead of Harry. Oh, and she’s explicitly described as being an ethnic minority rather than being shoehorned into being one years later on the strength of her hair being described as curly, but that’s a whole different conversation. That conceit will last you about a third of the first book, and then Hermione, whose name is Rin in this book, burns out her fucking uterus with drugs because menstruation distracts her from her studies and then all the sudden it ain’t Harry Potter no more and it really never goes back. It goes dark and it goes violent and it goes really war-crimey and this is a book that I enjoyed reading quite a lot but it absolutely 100% is not for everyone. Rin eventually acquires the ability to produce and control fire, and … well, she doesn’t really use it to keep people warm.

I mean, they are warm, for the second or two until they burn to death, but not, like, in a good, comfy sort of way. The bad kind of warm. Where you’re screaming. And then you die. There’s lots of that. And the book honest to God ends with Rin committing what is basically genocide. Spoiler alert, I guess. That was book one, you should have read it by now.


The thing about The Dragon Republic is that it doesn’t start off with the comforting (ha, “comforting,” he called it) Harry Potter-esque maybe this is sorta YA beginning. No, the Rin in this book is already jaded as fuck and is basically a war criminal leading a gang of war criminals, and she spends the first 2/3 of the book drug-addicted, angry, depressed, suffering from massive holy shit-level fucking PTSD, and mostly unable to use her powers for various reasons. Oh, and also racism. Like entire groups of people in this book refuse to even treat Rin like she’s human. Lotsa racism.

The first book got dark. The Dragon Republic starts off dark, stays dark, and then trades that dark for a chic slightly darker dark once it gets going. And by the end of this one, we’ve completely upended everyone we’re fighting against and everyone we’re fighting against and the status quo is status gone, and everyone is miserable or dead or a refugee or all three except the ruling class, and fuck those guys anyway.

I four-starred it on Goodreads, but this is one of those books that really resists a star rating, because in many ways it’s just as good a book as the first one, and again, I really liked the first one. It’s just that it’s so fucking unrelentingly gritty that you want to wash your hands when you’re done reading it, and it’s hard to read because of that. It may end up on my end-of-year list anyway despite four-starring it, because it is what it is very, very effectively. It’s just that it’s a book where terrible things are happening all the time to main characters who are really only moderately sympathetic to begin with– saying Rin is kind of an asshole is a muted understatement– and … well, if you don’t want to read something like that, I’m not going to get mad at you. The first book Ain’t for Everybody. This book, I think, is for a slightly smaller subset of Ain’t for Everybody, because I think there will be people who read and enjoyed The Poppy War who will check out of this anyway, and again, I can’t be mad at them about it.

If you liked the first book, definitely pick this up, but if anything about this review made you think that you might be part of the Everybody that this Ain’t For, I’d gently suggest you listen to that intuition. R.F. Kuang is absolutely a writer of staggering talent, and I’m just as in for Book Three as I was for The Dragon Republic, but I just can’t recommend this book unconditionally. Enjoy, but enjoy with care.


The-Poppy-WarI will say this about R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, and that will probably be enough to make it clear how much I enjoyed it without the distraction of the rest of this post: I lost quite a bit of sleep over this book.  I read it in a couple of big gulps over a few days, and both nights I was reading it I was up much later than I wanted to be because I couldn’t put the damn book down.  I was even carrying it around with me in the house and reading the occasional chapter or few pages whenever I had a chance to during the day.  A huge percentage of my book-reading is done in bed nowadays, so if I’m setting aside time I could be spending doing something else during my limited free daylight time it’s a really impressive sign.

Early on while reading it I described it to my wife as “Harry Potter, only in sort-of-China, and the main character is Hermione instead of Harry.”  It does start off very much in that vein, almost a YA-ish format, right down to the character’s Big Bully Enemy being identified right away.  That’s only about the first 20-30% of the book, though, at which point the nation goes to war (the school the main character, Rin, attends is a military academy) and all fucking hell breaks loose.  This book lulls you in, see, and makes you think you’re in a comfortable, recognizable sort of narrative only with some East Asian cultural influences thrown in instead of Hogwarts’ staid Britishness and some occasional swearing, but once it goes off the track it goes off the track hard, and once it starts surprising you it never really stops.

Hermione was super-dedicated to her schooling, right?  Did she take medicine to burn out her own uterus so that she wouldn’t have menstruation distracting her from her studies, thus rendering her permanently infertile?  Hermione ain’t shit, then.  And once their country is invaded, genocide becomes a major theme of the book.  I don’t remember anything about genocide in the Harry Potter books.

I’m going to spare you much of a plot summary, because you deserve to see the twists and turns as the story unfolds, but be warned that R.F. Kuang does not hold back.  Once the war starts there are some scenes in this book that would have made Genghis Khan himself think man, they’re going a bit too far with this.  Oh, and drug abuse.  Lots of drug abuse.

Seriously: this is not a book for the faint-hearted, but if you aren’t too bothered by profanity and hyperviolence and drugs in what, again, starts out feeling like a slightly more grown-up version of a kids’ series, you’re going to love it.  This is definitely the first book of a series, at least a duology– and I can’t wait for the next book in the series.

That said.

(Some spoilers after this part, but I think you want to read it anyway.)

I did the thing I usually do when I really like or really hate a book and went to read a bunch of Goodreads reviews once I was finished with it.  I generally start with the bad ones; they’re more fun.  The Poppy War does not have a lot of bad reviews, but one of the one-star reviews described the book as “super-duper racist,” or something along those lines.  I blinked a couple of times at that, utterly unable to figure out what the person was talking about, and looked around some more.

So here’s the thing: this book is set in a fictional China analogue.  And the event that kicks off the last 2/3 of the book is the mainland country being invaded by the natives of the small, “moon-shaped” island not far off the coast.  In other words– and I needed this pointed out to me; I didn’t pick up on it on my own– Japan.

I do not know a lot about Chinese and Japanese history, but I know that historically Japan has not been nice to China.  And this book’s Federation of Mugen has occupied Nikara (pseudo-China) in the past, and … well, they’re not very nice either.  Now, the interesting thing is that over the course of the book Rin develops some rather major shamanic powers, to the point where by the end of the book she basically calls down the literal wrath of God on an entire island full of these people and razes it to the ground.  Now, it’s an island where the Mugen have been doing experiments on people from her ethnic group, so it’s not as if it’s unjustified, but most of her compatriots react with horror at what she’s done, and it’s set up that Rin is becoming just as bad as the Mugen were by forgetting that they’re people.  There is lots of innocent blood shed here, on both sides, and plenty of it by our protagonist.

I simply don’t know enough about the history here to be able to confidently state whether Mugen is a clear Japan analogue– I mean, there are definitely parallels, but it’s not like Kuang (who was born in Guangzhou in mainland China) dwells on racial differences between the Nikara and the Mugen very much, and this is a book where Rin’s dark skin causes a lot of friction at her exclusive military academy, so it’s not like race is something Kuang ignores.  It may be that my own ignorance is keeping me from seeing how bad this is.  So, while I absolutely enjoyed the hell out of the book, and everything I said before the line is still true, it might be that there are things about it that make it problematic that I haven’t fully explored.  Be aware of that, I guess.  I would be interested to know if someone from Japan was bothered by this; I don’t know enough to say.


51kxQMvzMeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Here is my normal approach to starred reviews.  I admit that this is probably more generous than many, but I’m not worried about it.  For every guy like me who hands five-star reviews out to a third of the books he reads, there will be someone else who reserves them for books that should win awards.  It balances out.

  • A five-star book is not only a book that I really enjoyed, but (this is critical) a book that I will evangelize and recommend to others.
  • A four-star book is one that I enjoyed, but not necessarily enough to be evangelical about it.
  • A three-star book is a book that I finished.

I usually don’t review two-star or one-star books, because most of the time I didn’t finish them.  I have to hate a book to finish it if I don’t like it; generally I finish it with horrified fascination as the overriding emotion.  Sometimes I like a book on some levels but abhor it on others; sometimes I just like looking at a train wreck.

I just gave The Three-Body Problem five stars on Goodreads, despite having some reservations about it, and I want to take a minute to explain why.  The book was originally written in Chinese and translated into English by Ken Liu, who I understand is of no relation to Cixin Liu.  And therein lies the first problem: there is no way to read this and not immediately recognize that it’s a translated work.  This is no slight on Liu, who is clear in the translator’s note (there’s a translator’s note) that preserving the Chinese character of the book was a priority, and the book isn’t hard to read, but I feel like the “this was obviously not written in English” character of the text is going to turn some people off.  This is especially clear in dialogue; English speakers simply don’t talk like the characters in this novel.

(See what I mean?  Not complaints, not flaws.  Reservations.)

The plot of the book is occasionally slightly impenetrable, particularly the first 20% or so, which require some background knowledge of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in order to properly appreciate– or, at least, I assume it’s required, since I don’t have it and found the first part a big of a slog.  Once the book jumps forward into… now?  Near future? I’m not sure– it becomes much easier going.  I finished the book in about a day and a half, so it couldn’t have been that rough.

The other thing?  The science. My favorite book of last year was Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I recommended enthusiastically to everyone, with the caveat that the book would involve math and chemistry and you should be prepared for that.  Half of the characters in The Three-Body Problem are physicists.  There’s a whole bit toward the end that is all about unfolding a proton from 11-dimensional space down to 2-dimensional space so that it can be turned into a supercomputer.  They fail to do it right twice.  That happens.

I am also not quite sure that Cixin Liu has ever played a computer game.  I won’t go into that particular gripe any more than that sentence, but there’s a lot of stuff going on with a VR game and it’s… weird.

But here’s the thing: this book?  It’s inventive as hell.  There are aliens.  They’re coming for us.  And they don’t get anywhere near us during the first book, which is part one of a trilogy.  And the whole thing is just as clever as hell in a whole lot of ways and I can’t wait to read the second book even though there were parts of it I don’t like and I’m going to have to be real careful about who I recommend it to.

So I’m calling that five stars.  Your mileage may vary, I suppose, but you should check the book out anyway.

In which I am ignorant: also, blogwanking


As of today I’m halfway through Winter Break.  Thus far I’m not– at least as far as I know– making myself or anyone else crazy, which is a good thing, because I’m bad at vacations.  On the other hand, other than the big renovation project, you may have noticed that I’m kiiiinda starting to run low on viable interesting blog topics since all I’m doing with my life lately is lazing about my house with a book in my hand and occasionally whacking something with a hammer or a saw.  I went to work yesterday; it was the first time I’d left the house for longer than two minutes since Christmas.

So, uh, let’s talk about… geography?  Sure.

I am, as I’ve already discussed this week, a data nerd.  I’m a math teacher in the real world, remember, and apparently I come by that shit honestly.  One of the unexpected fun bonuses of running a blog is that it provides me with a never-ending sea of data to play with:  how many hits did I get today?  Followers?  Likes?  What’s the ratio of unique visitors to page views today?  Have I set any records lately? I posted a comment on that site, it brought me over a dozen visitors!

Stuff, in other words, that is entirely meaningless in any real-world fashion but is fun for me to play with in my head. While I wouldn’t mind more detail, WordPress does a decent job of giving me my site statistics in a nicely visual, manipulable way and I spend more time than I probably should each day staring at my stats.

Way more time, if I’m being honest.  Way, way more time.

I said I was a nerd; shuddup.

That said, looky here:

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 10.21.33 AMAnybody with a WordPress blog reading this has seen this map already; it’s how WordPress shows you where your traffic is coming from.  I’m fascinated by this, and days where I get a new country (six hits from Guernsey today!  Finally picked up Thailand yesterday!) never fail to give me a little thrill in my jibbly parts.  WordPress is kinda weird about how they determine what is a country or not.  For example, I have no hits from China, which does not surprise me given China’s policy on censoring the internet.  I do, however, have a number of hits from Taiwan and Hong Kong, which are both part of China, so apparently WordPress is distinguishing the mainland from former territories, or something; I’m not sure.   Similarly, to use today’s example, from looking at Wikipedia I get the impression that no one from Guernsey would assert that Guernsey is its own country– yet there it is in my “countries” list.

Some interesting (to me) facts about my traffic:

  • The biggest countries are entirely unsurprising: the United States, followed by the other three English-speaking democracies:  the UK, Canada, and Australia.  Fourth and fifth place are Norway and Switzerland.
  • I have no traffic whatsoever from anywhere in Central America.  Not one damn country.
  • Most of Europe is represented except for some bits of Eastern Europe, mostly former Soviet republics and, annoyingly, Finland.  I don’t know why not having a hit from Finland annoys me except for the fact that Sweden and Norway are so well represented.  I know Finland was Soviet-dominated to a degree that Norway and Sweden never were, and all of the rest of the European countries I’m missing are former Soviet Union or at least Soviet bloc countries; that might have something to do with it but I’m not sure what.
  • Way more African countries are represented than I might have expected:  Sudan, for instance, which is probably the single most surprising country I’ve gotten traffic from.  Ethiopia, also.
  • Macedonia shows up as “Macedonia, the Former Yugoslav Republic.”  Its official name according to the UN is “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”  I’m sure that there’s some history behind that that I’m currently ignorant of (mental note: research) but it seems rrrreeeallly weird.  That said I may start a movement to rename the US as The Former British and French and Spanish Colony and Before That Indigenous Peoples-Occupied Land of the United States of America.  Sounds more fun that way.
  • I really want someone from Greenland to visit my blog, because Greenland is so damn big.  🙂

One thing that all this has brought to mind is that my geography isn’t what it used to be.  I had a teacher in seventh grade who insisted that every kid who passed his class memorize the globe.  Which I did, happily.  The problem is that that means my geography froze in about 1988– and the Soviet Union didn’t fall apart until 1991.  My Eastern Europe and Asia geography is therefore not nearly as good as I want it to be.

Don’t get me wrong:  the classical stereotype of Americans ignorant about geography is that they “can’t find XXX on a map.”  So long as we’re talking about countries, at least, there’s no place on Earth I can’t find on a map within a few seconds, and I suspect I’d do pretty damn well with capitals and major cities even if I hadn’t heard of them beforehand; I know enough about what languages sound like to be able to pin most places down to a region quickly and after that it won’t take long.  What I’m talking about is handing me a blank map and asking me to fill it in.  I’m not as good at that as I want to be, and I’ve been reminded of it enough lately (Slovenia!  Latvia!  Which ones are those, again?) that I need to fix it.

That’ll give me something to do over the next week or so while I’m not pounding on things, right?