Tuesday, August 22, 2017


It's considered simply scandalous in many of my circles to have never read any of Lois McMaster Bujold's famous and sprawling Vorkosigan saga, but as it turns out, I'm pretty glad that I hadn't until now, because that scandalousness landed me in the best and most amusing circumstances in which to read these books at long last, to wit, I am a Reading Ranger over at Skiffy and Fanty*, part of a revolving crew of podcasters who occasionally get together for a group geek-out over them now. Some of us are Vorkosigan veterans (of the likes of Alex Acks and Paul Weimer) and some of us, including Stina Leicht (yes, that Stina Leicht) and myself, are reading these books for the very first time. There are two episodes of Reading Rangers so far, covering the first two books (going on narrative internal chronology, rather than publication order), Shards of Honor and Barrayar, over at Skiffy and Fanty, so if you want to hear my thoughts as well as the rest of the gang's, go give those a listen. I'm only a little bit of a heretic over there.

But so, this time around I'm not in the rotation for the show, so I'm just treating this third novel, The Warrior's Apprentice, as a regular read here at Kate of Mind.

Spoiler alert: I loved it.

I wasn't entirely expecting to, mind. As those who've already listened to Reading Rangers know, I was quite taken with the heroine of the first two novels, one Cordelia Naismith, who is the mother of the hero of, I gather, pretty much all of the other novels. When I learned that the focus was going to shift rather abruptly (from my perspective) to her son, Miles, I was a little let down, because Cordelia is everything I never get in a space opera hero: not only a woman, but a single and middle-aged woman, who nonetheless kicks a lot of ass and only takes names when she marries maybe the only dude in the universe possibly worthy of her, a crusty, battered, smart and tough-as-nails artistocrat from another world.

But so, Miles. Remember Miles? This is a book about Miles. Except to understand Miles one needs a bit more backstory: Cordelia's aristocratic military husband, Aral Vorkosigan, is a man of such high position and influence, and so incorruptible, that he has a ton of enemies, some of whom want him dead, one of whom actually tried and almost succeeded, but Cordelia, while pregnant with Miles, was also affected by the attempt, and fetal Miles even more so. So he's short, a little malformed, and has extraordinarily brittle bones. And he's grown up in a culture that is equal parts Roman and Russian Empires, meaning that quite a lot is expected of aristrocrats' sons, including excellence in military service. Which means it's a wonder he's even been allowed to live.

So Miles has grown up watchful and wily, smart and observant and thinking around corners and pretty much like the literary bastard offspring of Tyrion Lannister and Francis Crawford of Lymond, except he's not a drunken lecher, nor is he a pretentious emo pain in the ass. One of the greatest characters ever to grace genre fiction, is Miles Vorkosigan.

Here in his first novel we meet him as a young man, struggling through the entrance requirements for a military academy/officer candidate school. He's aced all the written stuff but as for the physical stuff, well, not-quite-dwarf and not-quite-straight-spine and brittle bones, what do you think? Soon his career is under a cloud and no one is quite sure what to do with him, so he gets sent off to visit his maternal grandmother on Cordelia's home planet, which has a very different and more accepting culture, by the bye.

Not that he's there long, either. Along with his bodyguard, the gruff and dangerous Konstantin Bothari (who has a long and complicated history of his own and whose fortunes are very much tied up with Miles' parents) and his beautiful daughter Elena (Miles' childhood friend, very much an Arya Stark type, as her father is trying to shoehorn her into a life of genteel femininity, but she likes to fight and think and drink and know things), he's soon off on a half-assed adventure out in space on an obsolete freighter he's mortgaged himself to the hilt to lease/purchase because of reasons and he's running blockades and bluffing mercenaries and telling lies and meanwhile, back at home, his adventures are having bizarre and Byzantine consequences because did I mention his home world is an honor culture nightmare?

All this told in a great, elegant prose style with a lot of vivid imagery and analogy. We like, at Reading Rangers, to linger and dote over our favorite bits, and I have a lot of them, but probably my favorite favorite bit is really Bujold's style in a nutshell. As Miles prepares to go into battle, he thinks "This must surely be the worst part, waiting helplessly for Tung to deliver them like cartons of eggs, as fragile, as messy when broken." Oh man, that is the stuff!

So, it's with difficulty that I'm not plunging right into Miles' next adventure, but I'm waiting for more Reading Ranger adventures, and meanwhile, I've got lots of ARCs piling up for review over at Skiffy and Fanty. And other things.

And I'm not sure what Vorkosigan book we're doing next anyway.

*Speaking of Skiffy and Fanty, I'm now a book reviewer over there, too, which is why I've not been posting on books to this blog as often as I once did. It's a WordPress blog so I'm having difficulty creating an overall link to my posts there, but the most recent one, on a recently Kickstartered anthology called Strange California, is here.


I always pick up a volume of Michael Lewis' special brand of financial crisis literature expecting a whole lot of anger, a whole lot of despair, and a whole lot of edification about just how messed up our System of the World* really is. As I've mentioned before, it's kind of a sickness of mine. I can't stop reading about it, but to no end other than to raise my blood pressure, it would seem, because what can I do about it? I'm not an investor and never will be. I've been a politician and don't ever want to do time in that barrel again. And since my arms and hands went to hell, I don't even write much anymore. But still, these books.

But then comes Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, and what's special about it is all there after the colon in the title. For while of course this book lays out in gruesome detail yet another way in which the world of high finance is designed to screw over the little guy, right alongside its anatomy of a giant scam is the story of a handful of very smart and very strange guys who not only figured out how it all worked, but figured out a way to fix the problem and actually put their plan in motion and created a whole new stock exchange built on the principles of fairness to the investor.

The problem these Flash Boys tackled is the kind of thing that should make any decent person's blood boil: with the computerization of all of the world's stock markets came a myriad of opportunities to rig the game against not just the ordinary Joe Blow investor throwing a few thousand dollars around trying to get rich, but also against all of the even more ordinary Joe Blow workers whose pension funds are being thrown around Wall Street, too. And of course those opportunities were not overlooked.

It's all to do with High Frequency Traders (HFTs), many of whom invested ungodly amounts of money in high speed data connections to the stock markets and to investment banks' dark pools, and in computer server placement as physically close to the machines that actually run these as possible, because this allowed them to engage in front-running. When their software bots saw someone buying shares in a particular stock, they triggered other software bots to buy up all of that stock that was available in fractions of a second before the original schlub's order was fulfilled, and thus to drive the price of that stock up a little, and make the schlub pay more for the stock than he should have, to the slight profit of the HFT. Thousands and thousands of times a day. Meaning ungodly amounts of money was transferred from small time investors, hobbyists, pension funds, hedge funds, what have you, to these HFTs, making an incredibly handsome return on their ungodly investment in fiber optic cable, land easements, construction fees and server real estate. Yeah, I know. And it gets worse, because this was all made possible by some newish Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rulings. That were, of course, made by members who have worked in and later tend to go back to jobs in the big investment banks, etc. Foxes, henhouse....

But so, most of Lewis' books that I've read so far have been concerned chiefly with financial villains, and this book certainly felt like another one of those for quite a while. I was hunting up my pitchfork and rounding up some torch-bearers (this was before Charlottesville, OK?) and ready to go knocking on doors in New Jersey, if not Manhattan itself.

But that's not who Lewis' Flash Boys are. The Flash Boys are Brad Katsuyama, once an obscure employee of the Royal Bank of Canada, and the team he put together to figure out why his trades had suddenly become impossible, and then to try to figure out how big the scheme was, and lastly to design and build a stock market that leveled the playing field again. I could almost cheer them as heroes, but in doing so, I'd be celebrating something that in itself still makes me mad, because this is what regulators are supposed to do, except over the years we've cut back on regulators' power, numbers (as in staffing), scope and compensation, all assuring that the revolving door between the public and private sectors of Wall Street keeps spinning faster than Karl Marx does in his grave. How many Brad Katsuyamas has this world produced, this man who would rather figure out a problem and fix it than figure out a problem and profit handsomely from it?

At bottom, Flash Boys is a pretty good detective story, unraveling and explaining very well a very complex and bewildering scheme in a way that gave me a nice strong illusion that I sort of understand it now, but am still powerless to do anything about it except vaguely cheer for Katsuyama and continue to nurse a major hate-on for Wall Street, even as I know that most of what makes my life possible is inextricably tied to its machinations, for good or ill.


*To borrow Isaac Newton's phrase by way of Neal Stephenson.

Friday, August 18, 2017


Ever since my mother got a Kindle Paperwhite of her very own and she and I joined into a single household on there, all kind of surprises await me every time I hit the "cloud" tab and start sorting through the backlog for my next read. And as I've mentioned before, my mom has pretty excellent taste in books, for all that she likes murder mysteries a lot more than I do.

She also likes historical fiction, especially about Egypt, especially about Egyptian women, so this first book of Libbie Hawker's "Book of Coming Forth by Day" trilogy probably didn't linger long on her TBR pile -- nor did it on mine, once I knew it was a thing.

House of Rejoicing is set early in the reign of the Pharaoh we mostly know as Akhenaten, and concerns itself with four women who are usually just decorative bits in the background of his story of attempted imposition of monotheism on the land of jackal-headed and crocodilian deities: his mother, Tiye, her daughter Sitamun (whom first Tiye's husband Amunhotep III and later Akhenaten himself married, and yes, Sitamun was Amunhotep's daughter, too; this is Egypt, remember? Targaryens except for real, yo), and two of Akhenaten's other wives, the famous Nefertiti (of the iconic bust) and the lesser-known Kiya.*

In the style that has become fashionable since George R.R. Martin first started singing of Ice and Fire, the story is told in point of view chapters that shift the focus among the four women, though overall this first book seems chiefly concerned with the experiences of Kiya, who serves as our naive guide into this world as she discovers how different it is from her native land, and Tiye, whose power is waning at the worst possible time. As in Martin et al, the narrative voice does not shift, as it's all written in the third person, but the experiences of the four queens are different enough to keep the reader from confusing them, and their stories are all compelling and full of convincing and appealing detail.

Being the first novel of a trilogy, House of Rejoicing mostly just lays groundwork for tensions to come. We are given a multifaceted look at the man who will be Akhenatenm, from his mother's disappointed concern to Nefertiti's disgusted scorn (she was supposed to marry his handsome and talented older brother, but he died in what might not have been an accident, of course), to Sitamun's resigned acceptance, to, perhaps surprisingly, what often seems like genuine love and affection for the man on the part of Kiya, to whom he was the only one who really paid attention when she came originally to marry Akhenaten's father. We get just glimpses of what this man's eccentricities are going to mean for his realm later on. I hope that the later books broaden the scope a bit, but only if Hawker can pull that off without losing what makes her take on these characters unique, which is largely the perspective of Kiya and what Hawker portrays as her genuine love for the young Akhenaten.

I'm down for the other two!

*Whom many have suggested might have been the same person as Nefertiti, but I think most scholars nowadays them to have been different people, with Nefertiti being a daughter of native Egyptian nobility and Kiya a foreign princess from the kingdom of Mittani. This is the history Hawker follows for these novels, anyway.