Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Book Review: Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford

Pros: lots of images and maps, so much good information

Cons: dense, took me several weeks to read

The book consists of 8 chapters: The transformation of trade; Courts and consumers; From court to counting house; Helps and hindrances to trade; Trade in manufactured goods; Trade in foodstuffs, raw materials and slaves; Imbalances in trade; and Conclusion: the pattern of trade.

The book on the whole goes into the nitty gritty of all aspects of trade, so if you’re not interested in how long it took for couriers to go from one place to another vs the same route travelled by a 4 wheeled wagon, 2 wheeled wagon, or pack animal, then this isn’t for you.

I found the writing style rather dry and academic at times. At other times it grabbed my interest, even if the section wasn’t on a topic I was particularly interested in. For example, I found the sections of the cost of road maintenance and who was expected to perform and pay for it really interesting.

Each chapter is subdivided, though unless you know where the information you want is located, you may not find it easily. For example, the section on how quickly couriers can travel isn’t in the same chapter as that of wheeled wagons, though the author does put in page numbers at times to help you find complementary information. I tried to return to an interesting paragraph about bridge building done by merchants and experienced some frustration as it wasn’t in any of the sections labelled as being about bridges, but in a section called ‘Commercial pressure for improvement’.

If trade in the middle ages is of particular interest to you than you will learn a lot about it here. If you’re interested in fleshing out a novel, again, there are some real gems though you may find it a bit tiresome locating them.

A few things I learned: some merchants paid innkeepers to store and repack good, then arrange transit to the next inn. Rooms in inns contained several beds separated by curtains and travellers found themselves sharing beds with strangers. Merchants braved passes in the Alps during the winter, even when the passes were dangerous. In some cases merchant houses paid for repairs (and even the building) of bridges if the communities responsible for them neglected them. Cities quickly grew up around fairs, and died out quickly if those fairs moved. Though inns were profitable businesses, hospices (hostels for pilgrims or the poor/hospitals), even when properly run, were not. Slaves were traded by Southern Italians from the 1300s on, and owning them was only illegal if they were Christians (and some, captured in the Balkans, were). The children of slaves were free, so there was no ‘self-perptuating’ market.

Chapter 5 on where and how trade goods were manufactured was very interesting. Each section was fairly short but packed in a ton of information. Chapter 6 on bulk trade items (things like raw wool and grain) was also interesting, talking about which goods were worth transporting and how larger cities needed to import food as the local areas couldn’t support them.

The book has a large number of black and white as well as colour images illustrating medieval processes. These are often later woodcuts, manuscript images or close-ups of the background in paintings where painters added scenes from daily life. There is also a lot of maps so it’s easy to understand the various trade routes and manufacturing centres.

It took a while to read as the information is very dense, but it’s worth the time and effort and you’ll come away knowing a lot more about the interconnectedness of the medieval world.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Book Review: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Pros: very tense, interesting characters

Cons: is a bit gory at times

Ten years ago four friends went into the forbidden elder’s section of the reservation for their end of season elk hunt. Now the spirit of one of the elk they killed is back for revenge.

This is the first contemporary fiction book I’ve read in years so it took me a while to get into (in part because I’m not conversant with the shorthand for car names so spent some time trying to figure out what the character was talking about). The book is split into 4 sections, each dealing with a different point of view character involved with the elk event.

I wasn’t a fan of Ricky and Gabe, but really enjoyed reading Lewis and Cassidy’s stories, hoping they could shake the horror coming their way. The pacing was great, really ratcheting up the tension in all the right places.

In the first sections the author makes you doubt what’s going on, especially with Lewis. Is there really an elk spirit or is he having a psychotic break from reality? Either way things get horrifying fast. I almost stopped reading it was getting so intense.

While the horror is mostly one of anticipation, there is some gore. Thankfully the descriptions aren’t overly graphic. Part of the earlier horror is simply seeing the level of everyday, casual racism natives face. The characters are constantly double checking their surroundings for danger, ignoring slights, conscious of how ‘native’ their actions appear, due to criticism from others: natives and non-natives alike, for being both too native and not native enough. There’s a strong undertone that no matter what the characters do it will never be ‘enough’, whatever ‘enough’ even means. Because the characters aren’t just up against the supernatural, they’re against the biases and prejudices of themselves and everyone around them.

I was shocked by some of the people who died. Which made the ending, that last section, very tense. I DID NOT want that character to die. Not this way. I was on the edge of my seat urging them on, not to give up, just one more step.

The ending fits the story.

If you can handle horror this year (no shame if you can’t, 2020’s horror enough for a lot of us), this is a good read.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Books Received in August, 2020

Many thanks to the publishers that sent me books for review last month.

The Vanished Queen by Lisbeth Campbell - Sounds like an interesting story. 

When a country is held in thrall to a vicious, despotic king, it’s up to one woman to take him down.

Long ago, Queen Mirantha vanished. King Karolje claimed it was an assassination by a neighboring king, but everyone knew it was a lie. He had Disappeared her himself.

But after finding the missing queen’s diary, Anza—impassioned by her father’s unjust execution and inspired by Mirantha’s words—joins the resistance group to overthrow the king. When an encounter with Prince Esvar thrusts her into a dangerous game of court politics, one misstep could lead to a fate worse than death.

Esvar is the second son to an evil king. Trapped under his thumb and desperate for a way out, a chance meeting with Anza gives him the opportunity to join the resistance. Together, they might have the leverage to move against the king—but if they fail, their deaths could mean a total loss of freedom for generations to follow.

The First Sister by Linden Lewis - I've actually read this but chose not to review. I thought the first 2/3 of the book were interesting but that the ending didn't land. I had some issues with the world building, especially towards the end.

First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars—the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain—Saito Ren—whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is so much harder to do when you’re falling in love.

Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus, but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.

The Year's Best Science Fiction vol. 1: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020 Edited by Jonathan Strahan - Coming out September 8th the line-up for this collection is excellent.

A must-have collection of the best short science fiction and speculative fiction of 2019, showcasing brilliant talent and examining the cultural moment we live in, compiled by award-winning editor Jonathan Strahan.

With short works from some of the most lauded science fiction authors, as well as rising stars, this collection displays the top talent and the cutting-edge cultural moments that affect our lives, dreams, and stories. Authors include past award-winners Rebecca Roanhorse, Ken Liu, Carmen Maria Machado, Aliette de Boddard, Kim Stanley Robinson, Yoon Ha Lee, and Ted Chiang.

An assemblage of future classics, this anthology is a must-read for anyone who enjoys the vast and exciting world of science fiction.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Shout-Out: Divine Heretic by Jaime Lee Moyer

Everyone knows the story of Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who put Charles VII on the throne and spearheaded France's victory over Britain before being burned by the English as a heretic and witch.

But things are not always as they appear.

Jeanne d'Arc was only five when three angels and saints first came to her. Shrouded by a halo of heavenly light, she believed their claim to be holy. The Archangel Michael and Saint Margaret told her she was the foretold Warrior Maid of Lorraine, fated to free France and put a king upon his throne.

Saint Catherine made her promise to obey their commands and embrace her destiny; the three saints would guide her every step. Jeanne bound herself to these creatures without knowing what she'd done. As she got older, Jeanne grew to mistrust and fear the voices, and they didn't hesitate to punish her cruelly for disobedience. She quickly learned that their cherished prophecy was more important than the girl expected to make it come true.

Jeanne is only a shepherd's daughter, not the Warrior Maid of the prophecy, but she is stubborn and rebellious, and finds ways to avoid doing - and being - what these creatures want. Resistance has a terrifying price, but Jeanne is determined to fight for the life she wants.

But when the cost grows too high, Jeanne will risk everything to save her brother, her one true friend and the man she loves.

Not everyone is destined to be a hero. Sometimes you have no choice.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Book Review: The Mother Code by Carole Stivers

Note: I read and reviewed this title in March, just after my area entered lock-down due to Covid-19. The original release date for the book was May 5th, later pushed back to August 25th.

Pros: the relationship between the robots and kids was interesting

Cons: I intensely disliked the government personnel, the book made me feel angry and anxious

After a biological attack in Afghanistan goes wrong, a team of scientists is assembled to both find a cure and - if that fails - ensure the continuation of human life.

Reading this while in social isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic was… not ideal and definitely coloured my reception of the story. The novel has 2 halves and two narratives, that of the scientists and military personnel trying to get a handle on the manufactured virus starting in 2049, and that of some of the kids from the plan B of the scientists, starting when the kids are 6 years old, in 2060. As a Canadian, the US characters’ decision to kept the knowledge of the plague from the rest of the world, deciding in their arrogance that they and they alone could solve the problem, rather than asking for help from scientists around the world, was infuriating to read. I found myself really hating the US scientists despite the author’s attempts to humanize them with love stories and heartbreak. Even at the end it seemed they were hellbent on compounding their errors.

The kids’ story in the first part of the book wasn’t that interesting and really cut down on tension for the other storyline, as the reader knows from the start of the book that at least some of the mother robots succeed. I found their story more compelling and interesting in the second part of the book. The author nails the tension in this half and I was worried about what was going to happen to the kids.

In terms of characters, I did like learning more about the kids and their bonds with the mother robots. I was impressed at how capable the kids all were in terms of caring for themselves, despite their youth.

I felt conflicted by the Hopi inclusion. On the one hand it was neat seeing them, on the other it made them feel like ‘mystical natives’, only there to help the scientists survive. Aside from Nova, we never see them from their own point of view, living their lives. We only see how they help the scientists with medicine, scouting, and food, which made them feel like servants.

I was also unsure what the end goal of the scientists was. Even if all 50 kids survived, that doesn’t seem like enough genetic diversity to repopulate the world.

In better times I think I’d have enjoyed the story more. As it was, I found the book made me feel a mix of anxiety and anger.

Friday, 21 August 2020

Homemade Wax Tablet

 Sometimes it's fun to recreate historical items to see how they really worked. 

A while back I saw several people make wax tablets and thought that would be a cool activity. A LONG time ago I made rolled beeswax candles and still had them, so getting the wax was easy. (To make these, you roll sheets of beeswax around a wick.) I considered (and even started) carving a tablet base, but found a suitable wood piece at the dollar store in the lid of a small jewelry box. I unscrewed the lid, sanded the sides and filled in the holes with wood glue. I then painted the entire thing in a coffee stain (which made it feel grainy so I probably wouldn't do that again). I varnished it to keep the stain in and then got to melting my wax. I used a silicone cup in a pot of water as my double boiler. It took longer for the wax to melt than I expected and I had to do it three times to fill my tablet. I probably used around 1 cup of wax for this.

Here you can see the tools I used:

I used all of a black candle and half of a dark blue one, giving me a fairly dark writing space. The wax is denser than I expected, harder to scrape (though I don't have a proper tool). I was surprised how quickly - and how much - wax built up on the writing tool I used (I tried with a matchstick and then a crafting tool that has a small ball on the end). I wonder if proper styli had a way of dealing with this.

I'm using my heat gun to reset the top layer of wax. It appears you'd lose a layer of wax each time you change your message. But your message will stay there unless it gets very hot or you scrape it off. I wonder if people kept a jar for the wax they remove so they can melt it and add it back on...

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Book Review: The Tyrant Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Pros: lots of intrigue, thought provoking, nuanced


I’m using the publisher’s synopsis as there’s so much going on I can’t come up with a better one. You can read my reviews of The Traitor Baru Cormorant and The Monster Baru Cormorant by clicking the titles.

The hunt is over. After fifteen years of lies and sacrifice, Baru Cormorant has the power to destroy the Imperial Republic of Falcrest that she pretends to serve. The secret society called the Cancrioth is real, and Baru is among them.

But the Cancrioth's weapon cannot distinguish the guilty from the innocent. If it escapes quarantine, the ancient hemorrhagic plague called the Kettling will kill hundreds of millions...not just in Falcrest, but all across the world. History will end in a black bloodstain.

Is that justice? Is this really what Tain Hu hoped for when she sacrificed herself?

Baru's enemies close in from all sides. Baru's own mind teeters on the edge of madness or shattering revelation. Now she must choose between genocidal revenge and a far more difficult path—a conspiracy of judges, kings, spies and immortals, puppeteering the world's riches and two great wars in a gambit for the ultimate prize.

If Baru had absolute power over the Imperial Republic, she could force Falcrest to abandon its colonies and make right its crimes.

This is the third book in the Masquerade series, with a 4th book on the way. If you haven’t read the previous two books recently, it’s worth doing a reread as there’s so much nuance that you’ll be lost if you don’t remember the details of all that’s happened.

The book is told from several points of view including: Baru, Xate Yawa, Aminata, and Svir. There are scenes set in the ‘now’, contrasted with a direct continuation of the events from book 2 as well as scenes set 23 years prior, continuing Tau-indi’s story of when Cosgrad and Farrier stayed with the Mbo princes.

It’s not a quick read. There’s so much going on and so much nuance that I often had to stop to process what the characters were doing and what that might mean for their future. It’s easy to fall into Baru’s trap of forgetting there are other players on the board when she acts. Each time I assumed things would go the way she’d foreseen because she’s a savant, but everyone in the story has their own motivations and few align with hers, so there’s generally a mess of consequences you don’t expect.

It’s a book filled with hard truths about colonialism, racism, sexism, and what people and nations will do to gain power over others, and what they’ll do to keep that power. As such, it’s very thought provoking, forcing you to see people and ideas from varied perspectives. In several instances the author uses reversed language to get these ideas across, so ’matronize’ instead of ‘patronize’, ‘anti-mannist’ instead of ‘feminist’, etc.

I was surprised that I still found Baru a sympathetic and likeable character after all she’s done. I still want her to succeed. With all the horrors going on (and there are a lot of them) there’s still a sense of hope to the story, that in the end things just might work out the way Baru wants. I even started to like Yawa, which was kind of a shock given her previous actions. I really enjoyed seeing Tau-indi’s growth, overcoming what happened to them at the end of the last book. It felt like the various characters were all growing as people, learning more about the world and themselves and really taking a look a the world they were making and deciding if their choices had helped or not.

While this isn’t the series end, this book does tie up several plot threads into a satisfying climax. I can’t wait for the final book to wrap up all the remaining loose ends.