Reading Challenge 2020

My Authors Water Cooler reading challenge list for 2020. Out of a list of 50 categories, the participant chooses 12, the idea being you read one a month.

 

Cobalt Jade’s 2020 Reading Challenge List

2.    Armchair voyages: A book taking place somewhere you have always wanted to go, but have never been.
Henry Lawson’s Best Stories, Henry Lawson (Australia)
The National Poet of Australia.

12.  Take note: A book where music features prominently, or about musicians.
Buried Alive, Myra Friedman
Bio of 1960s rock star Janice Joplin, acclaimed in its time.

14.   No Cliff Notes this time: A book that’s required reading in most high schools or universities. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
OK, it’s time to tackle this.

18.   Out of Africa: A book taking place in Africa (including North Africa).
The Fate of Africa, Martin Meredith
History of Africa after colonization up to the 1990s.

22.   Setting sail: A book taking place mostly or all on water.
Blackfish City, Sam J. Miller
SF novel taking place in a floating city in the North Sea.

25.   Support the home team: A book by a fellow AWer.
TBA

26.   Face your fears: A book that intimidates you, for any reason
The Tale of Puddin’head Wilson, Mark Twain
Been wanting to read this for a while but haven’t read Twain since Huckleberry Finn.

29.   Three-color mythology: A graphic novel or comic book.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
Life in Iran from the perspective of a child who lived it.

34.   Out of this world: A book taking place in space or on another planet.
Brightness Falls from the Air, Joan D. Vinge
The adventures of Cat the telepath continue.

37.   Literary literal alliteration: A book whose title or author’s name is an alliteration.
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
On my bucket list.

41.   Succinct: A book with a one-word title.
Lolita, Vladimer Nabokov
My cousin read this and I feel I should too.

47.   Just the facts, Ma’am: Non-fiction on any subject.
To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire, David Cowan
Account of the terrible fire in a Chicago Catholic school.

Worldbuilding Wednesday 1/15/20: Martial Arts Movies

Martial arts movies (kung fu in Hong Kong, wu xia pian in Mandarin) burst onto the international scene in the 1960s and early 1970s with the rise of charismatic actor Bruce Lee (he’s at the center of the pic above wielding nunchucks.) If you were not alive at the time, it’s hard to understand the impact he had. Kung fu schools sprang up in the most unlikely of places, and stores, too, selling exotic equipment such as ninja throwing stars. In metropolitan areas, there was always a UHF Fists of Fury Theater or the like broadcasting old movies on Saturday afternoons. A hit song, Kung Fu Fighting, was composed about the craze. Above it all, Bruce Lee reigned as the undisputed king, even after his death in 1973. **

The names of those movies shared common elements. Animals, types of fighters, locations were mixed and matched, often having the slimmest of relations to the movie’s content. Here’s some I generated myself.

 

Martial Arts movies that were never made

Inn of the Curious Dragon

Steel Monkey

Dirty Tiger

Black Iron Venom Boxer

House of Silent Blades

Two-Phoenix Fist

Tiger Town Beggar

Clan of the Red Dagger

Fox Flower Protectress

The Volcano Gang

Rogue Monkey Temple

One-Eyed Snow Hero

The Blind Leopard

Undisputed Street Fighter

The Red Kickboxer

Cousin of the Jade Panther

Blood of the Young Knight

Hyena Mountain Fighter

Invincible Cabal from Shantung

Number Five Octagon

Bodyguard of the Little Buddha

Kwangtung Blades

Drunken Force

Lotus Mask

Sisters of the Jade Wolf

Iron Under Fire

Cousin to the Bear

Sister Chrysanthemum

Clan of the Hand

Bangkok Buddha

The Big Boss of Little Tokyo

Ox Statue Butcher

** Another King, Elvis Presley, earned an eight-degree black belt in karate.

The Suitor

Apparantly he was a cold fish.
(Artwork by Randy Mora)

Worldbuilding Wednesday 1/8/20: Nail Polish Colors

Cutex introduced the first commercial nail polish in 1916.  Amazingly, the formula was derived from nitrocellulose, a chemical used in automotive paint, another new innovation of the time. Before this, people made do with henna, or concoctions of wax, egg whites, and gelatine. No longer! A new kind of beauty salon was born, and a new way of highlighting a mundane part of the human body. The trend was given a strong push by the Hollywood film industry and its attending glamour, and the manicure (as well as the pedicure) became a must for the fashion-conscious woman.

Early colors were fairly factual and only a little exotic in their description, such as Cutex’s Orange Crush and Chen-Yu’s Dragon Plum. When French company Revlon entered the business, however, names became more fanciful, like the classic Cherries in the Snow and Love That Red. The latter marks the point at which the name began to serve more to intrigue than to describe. What is the shade of the red in Love That Red? Is it a brick red, a fire engine red, what? We only know that we love it, and that everyone else does too. That was enough.

Today’s colors named by giants Essie and OPI take a further shift away from mere description, their punny names describing far-off places and situations, often sexual. A few from my collection are Don’t Be Koi, Play Date, and I’m Not Really A Waitress. You’d never know the colors were a dark orange, a purplish lilac, and a pinkish-red, respectively.

Interested in the history of nail polish?

Stumped for a nail polish (or lipstick) name? Here’s some randomgenned ones.

 

Nail Polish Colors

Scarlet Ever After

Shrimp for One

Venetian Ruby

Let There Be Cherries

Roll Out the Licorice

Violet Rose

Temple of Garnets

Sugarplum Confetti

Gaucho Plum

Auburn Brandy

Rum Butter Berry

Sunrise Metal

Papaya Bodega

Caribbean Copper

Orchids Forever

Skies of Violet

Free and Fired

Arabian Cardamom

Saffron Buick

Tropic Nude

Papaya Silk

Huckleberry Nectar

Crush n’ Blush

Mocha Twilight

Sugarplum Lily

Triple Nude

Parisian Tea

Hibiscus Rain

Oktoberfest Fire

Mocha Persimmon

The Raven Tower [Review]

The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie

The Raven Tower

by Ann Leckie
Orbit Books, 2019

Ann Leckie’s fantasy novel The Raven Tower came out last year and received immediate buzz because of its unique structure and voice. Told in second person (that is, an unseen narrator addresses the main character as “you” and tells this You everything the You thinks and does) it wobbles between the present and past, the latter aimed not so much at the You as the reader to give them background on the story’s plot. Was it successful in this? Yes.

The tagline promises “there will be a reckoning” leading the reader to expect Game of Thrones shenanigans, but honestly, the plot is more like that of a mystery. Iradon is a land ruled by a human council and a leader-priest who is the Lease, or protégé, of the country’s patron god Raven. The god Raven rules in the actual body of a raven, and when that bird body dies, the Lease must commit suicide as well to “pay” the Raven with the sacrifice of life so it can reincarnate in a new bird body. The role of Lease is hereditary, passing from father to son, and accountable to a human council and the female priesthood of another god, the Forest.

The trouble begins when the god Raven’s bird body dies, but instead of killing himself the human Lease disappears, and his brother is sworn into the position under a cloud of suspicion.

Maawat, the son of the vanished ruler, is summoned from the south where he has been defending the borders of the kingdom, but he arrives too late to be sworn in as Lease and so sees his uncle sitting on the throne. So there’s a Hamlet subplot as well, but with a twist: Maawat is dogmatic, stubborn, and hot-tempered, and can’t accept that his father did not do the correct thing and kill himself. His aide Eolo, a transgender man, is the You of the story the narrator tells it to, but Maawat, in a sense, is the real protagonist. Eolo tries to help him and discovers a conspiracy between the usurping uncle and some foreigners to do away with the Raven god forever. In spite of the simplicity of the characters and setting – think Bronze Age — the plot was surprisingly intricate, like a Greek tragedy, complete with chorus.

That chorus, and the unseen narrator talking to Eolo, turns out to be Strength and Patience of the Hill, whom I’ll call Sapoth for short. Sapoth is a god embodied in the form of a picturesque boulder in the forest north of Vastai, and here Leckie gives her tale another unique twist. There are many gods in Leckie’s world, perhaps too many to count, but most of them are small potatoes. They have alliances apparent and not so apparent, between the humans who worship them and between themselves. It’s an ecosystem of worship, for Leckie’s gods enjoy human offerings and are sustained by them, growing in power by them in some unexplained way. (That way is not said, but IMO it didn’t need to be said – this is fantasy.)

There are also many rules about what they can and cannot do, rules similar to the wizardly powers derived from true names in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series. God powers are in the main kinetic, and most of the time they perform small, carefully considered favors, such as guiding an arrow’s flight. In the one instance of war their powers are more extensive, goading wild animals to attack and creating warriors of wood. But such performances tax their powers greatly. They have a childlike mentality in that they consider consequences, but morality, ethics, and life and death do not occur to them. Their model is that of animism and the Japanese concept of kame or kami — imposing phenomena, or landscape features, which are divine simply because of their imposingness. I’ve never read a fantasy story with gods quite like Leckie’s. As an authorial creation, they are unique. These are the gods Earthsea might have had if it had not been anti-religion and pro-magic.

(The author also makes a subtle case to the reader, as Richard K. Morgan did in The Steel Remains, for the gods being disembodied alien intelligences, as they are presented as arriving on Leckie’s Not-Earth as fragments from a falling meteorite. The whole story might have been written as a what-if scenario for Bronze Age deities being actual existing entities for primitive human tribes. The mix of the divine with modern physical science also reminded me of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms… this novel had something of everything I’ve read in 2019.)

To the humans of the story the god’s existence is always in doubt. Only rarely do the gods speak clearly. It takes a lot of power to form human speech so most of the gods communicate by tokens or cards, using their kinetic powers to arrange them in patterns that communicate. The author implies ambiguity by showing how humans read meaning into this form of language where there is none, either because the god is sleeping, or is absent or dead. As in Richard Adams’ work, like Watership Down where farmers, cars, and trains are mythic and terrible to rabbits but mundane to the reader, there’s a sense of irony. The humans of the book are always questioning. At times they shifted toward the view that all of this was nonsense, only to be pulled back.

The book thus raised these questions: What is a god? What are the limits of its divine power and how does it help or harm humans? How does a god’s consciousness differ from a human’s, and what role does language play in it? Perhaps there was too much theorizing on these points, which periodically interrupted the narrative; but I did find them enjoyable and intelligent to read. The intellect behind the book always shone through, despite the simplicity, and sometimes naivete, of its style.

It also seems the author learned a lesson from feminist criticism of Earthsea. Sex and gender roles do not play parts in the plot either directly or indirectly, which I found very refreshing. In this it reminded me of some of Vonda McIntyre’s fiction, as well as Elizabeth Lynn’s: conscious, careful efforts by the author to create a plausible non-sexist society. Unlike them, though, Leckie doesn’t push a free love agenda, by which I mean a sexual milieu where everyone is at liberty to screw around with everyone else and no gets upset or jealous about it. There are consequences for sex in Leckie’s world, both traditional and untraditional. One character is pushed by her father to marry Maawat, and she refuses (but she is not ordered or forced to, as usually happens) and Eolo, as a transgender man, cannot serve in the army because born-women aren’t allowed to serve. There is also a story mentioned of a young man that pines for another young man, with no humans blinking an eye at it. These small mentions were effective at creating a believable, inclusive world, and I found them way less preachy that the free-love broad strokes.

But if there were looser gender roles in Vastai than Earthsea, there was also less grandeur. The Raven Tower doesn’t reach for stars like LeGuin did; there’s no resonance with myth. But then there isn’t any pesky cultural baggage or sex bashing either, and to give the author credit the various sexualities are presented as matter of fact and not exalted or idealized. Leckie’s civilization is a small, cozy one, taking place in a mid-sized town where silk fabric and honeyed dates are extravagant luxuries, and her earnest, simple prose didn’t wow me the way LeGuin’s did. But then Earthsea was based in the language of real world myth and poetry — and misogyny — which Leckie managed to wisely sidestep.

As the story progresses it becomes clear it is not a simple tale of good vs. evil. Twists and turns occur but there are no moral judgements on display, just the fallibility of the human spirit. The god Raven, initially a victim, is revealed as a pitiless aggressor, while the god Forest, which might have eco-friendly and female-centric in some other fantasy, is here an alien intelligence looking after its own interests. Maawat the prince, who is the story’s main character in spite of Eolo being the “You” and the one who figures things out, is selfish and hot-tempered, yet a calm and nonplussed leader. The ending comes in a rush, without the epic calamity the blurb seemed to call for, and then there’s one final twist to clean up the mess.

It was the final twist that exposed the story’s most visible flaw for me. Eolo should have been someone special to Sapoth to be worth all that narration time, yet he wasn’t. In the plot he served as the everyman character who witnesses the unfolding tragedy, like Hamlet’s Horatio. But Sapoth could have chosen any of the other major characters to serve as a sounding board. In other words, there was no resonance between Sapoth and Eolo. This was disappointing and left a loose end that would have been OK for me as a reader, but not as a writer. Eolo might have been depicted as the only one who could sense Sapoth, or Sapoth found something intriguing about Eolo, like his gender, which otherwise served no purpose in the plot.

That said, I did enjoy the book a lot, and even writing this I feel the enjoyment coming back. As much as I liked it, though, it’s not the kind of thing I would read again, because the solving of the mystery was such a great part of it. I would enthusiastically recommend it though. It’s a philosopher’s fantasy, a thoughtful and at times playful experiment of how ambiguities shape events, people, and societies. It’s something new.

 

 

Turn to the Left

FASHION! Turn to the left… no, right… aw hell with it.

2019 Reading Challenge Conclusion

Like 2018 and 2017, it’s been a mixed bag; but I must say that by challenging myself I am reading books that I never would otherwise, like reading Lolita in Tehran and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s also given my the opportunity to tackle those I was thinking about reading but never have, like The Years of Rice and Salt. Have I learned much for my own writing? Hell yes.

All the books I’ve read for my 2019 Reading Challenge with ratings and links.

4. What you will read to your grandchildren: A children’s book (middle grade or younger).
A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeleine L’engle.

5. East meets West: A book taking place in Asia (Turkey to Japan, Siberia to Vietnam)
The Last Samurai, the Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori, by Mark Ravina.

6. Just the (alternative) facts, Ma’am: An alternate history.
The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

9. Best friend: A book with a dog on the cover.
Being a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz.

14. Crossing the (color) lines: A book about a person of color (PoC), any variety, written by an author of the same variety.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemison.

17. Back in the day: A historical of any genre.
A Murder in Thebes, by Anna Apostolou.

18. Do you deliver?: A book where food, cooking, restaurants, chefs, etc. play a major role.
Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Classics, & Little Known Wonders, by Rowan Jacobsen.

25. Flights of fancy: A book in which airplanes figure prominently.
Jet Age, by Sam Howe Verhovek.

28. Keep up with the Joneses: A book everyone else seems to have read but you have not.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,
by Hunter S. Thompson.

39. Tuesdays with Balaam’s Ass: A book with a non-human (animal or fantastic creature) main character.
Tales from Watership Down,by Richard Adams.

48. Matryoshka books: A book mentioned or discussed inside another book.
Reading Lolita in Teheran,
by Azar Nafisi.

49. What you read: A book you loved as a child.
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin

EXTRA CREDIT:
Tales from La Vida, a LatinX Comics Anthology, edited by Frederick Luis Aldama

Worldbuilding Wednesday 1/1/20: Video Games

The late, lamented Simpsons Grand Theft Auto parody.

The names of modern video games share a certain something. They are vague enough to serve any kind of content, yet intriguing enough to pique one’s attention. They are abstract, yet speak of journeys and quests, battles, danger. They are mostly male and refer to male myths and archetypes.

I present a list of randomly generated titles in you need one for any use. (They also would work well for anime or manga titles.)

 

Video Games

Paths to Annihilation

Galaxy Ninja

Beyond the Field of Vision

Eclipse of Honor

Blades of Apocalypse

Midnight Titans

Pilot of Chaos

Vampire Colossus

Ace Challenger Battlesuit

Recalcitrant Code

Above Honor

Zero Loop Darkness

Vector Runner

From the Siege of Darkness

Wizard Weyr

Gladiator Tank

Particle Assault

Wolf Village Warriors

Ultimate Rise

Sons of Extremis

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
[Reading Challenge 2019]

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

by Hunter S. Thompson
Random House, 1972
(originally published in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971)

[Challenge # 28 : A book everyone else seems to have read but you have not.]

I’ve heard a lot about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, so that made it a natural for the “Everybody’s read this but me” category. From what I had heard, it is venerated in counterculture circles, as a 1960s (or early 1970s as the case is) journey into drug-addled weirdness and American hypocrisy. Something similar to The Great Acid Kool Aid Test. As a person I find that kind of literature tiresome, but I thought I’d give it a chance. That is the nature of a challenge after all.

Hunter S. Thompson I was familiar with only as the Dr. Duke character from Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic where he’s a sort of black sheep, always pursuing illegal means to make a buck and befouling the liberal ideals of the other characters. I don’t like Dr. Duke much, especially the demeaning way he pushes around his Chinese Communist girlfriend, Honey, and the way she takes it. It’s every American male-female cartoon relationship every written – man’s a jerk, the woman puts up with it Because She Loves Him. It’s a damaging trope that shows no sign of dying. Even cartoons that see themselves as edgy and cynical, like Family Guy, buy into it. But my loathing for the trope is a whole other story.

The novel is a fictionalized account of a trip Thomson and his friend, whom he calls his attorney in the book, take to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle event, but they really use it as a cover for buying and doing drugs, driving around in a fancy car, and eating lots of hotel food. They tell themselves they are looking for the American Dream, but that’s just a cover too. What they are really doing is consuming, which is the American Dream. Like Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, they possessed what they were looking for all along.

In a story like this I expected the Thompson character to act like a jerk, and he did. His jerkiness arose from pretension, not from any interior flaw such as one would expect from a Greek tragedy play. As I saw it, being in his mid-thirties when the story takes place, he was secretly envious of the wild counterculture youth of the past decade, and set out to outdo them in “drug-fueled excess” and screwing around with the straights, who are all perfectly nice to him and thus deserve being laughed at by the reader for not being in on the joke. It short, he was juvenile. There are flashes of adult wit here and there, but for me it never rose above National Lampoon territory. The sacred cows he attempts to slay are all dead now. I didn’t feel much resonance with it.

The story gets more hallucinogenic and wilder in its last fifth, and I did enjoy that part because it was more of a fantasy and had no grounding in real life. There’s a car chase that recalls a scene in the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever and the villainous Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd of that movie, who resemble Malcolm McDowell and David Crosby respectively, certainly act like the anarchic Raoul Duke and Gonzo of Thompson book, so I’m betting the scriptwriter stole a scene or two. And I did like the illustrations by Ralph Steadman, which seem to be parodying Thompson even as they depict his truth. The illustrator is still active today well into his 70s and producing political cartoons, most recently of Trump.

Raoul Duke sneaking out of a Las Vegas hotel without paying, by Ralph Steadman.

After I read the book a friend pointed me to an article by Thompson that I did like, so I can say I can’t fault his intellect and style; only his pretensions.

The Years of Rice and Salt
[Reading Challenge 2019]

The Years of Rice and Salt

by Kim Stanley Robinson
Random House, 2004

[Challenge # 6: An alternate history]

Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt caused a sensation in the SF world when it came out in 2004. In this timeline, the Black Plague kills off the entire population of Europe in the late 14th century, so it’s up to the Muslim world, China, India, and the Native Americans to advance human civilization forward.

But for all the excitement of the premise the execution was tepid. It wasn’t the epic, adventure-filled journey through time I was expecting; it was more a novel of ideas, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. There was nothing I hated about it, but nothing that I loved or admired, either. It’s a hard book to summarize and an even harder one to come to an opinion on.

The structure of the novel consists of eight parts, or books as the author calls them, set in different pivotal eras such as Medieval China, India during the Mughal period, etc. The alt-history stuff doesn’t even start until Book 3, when China discovers the New World (which is, amusingly, the San Francisco Bay area.) Some references, such as different place names, are thrown around before then, but honestly, most of the first 188 pages could have been taking place in this same old boring timeline.

The exception was a section of Book 1 in which Bold, a self-exiled warrior from the Golden Horde, wanders around a ruined Europe of abandoned towns and farms. But this doesn’t have the impact it should because as a foreigner he has no context for the plague event, and his capture by slavers, and subsequent journey, nearly made me put the book down. Specialized Tibetan Buddhist terms were thrown around with no explanation. The author seemed to want to play around with these religious concepts and so created a custom-tailored character — a half-Tibetan, half-Mongol — to stick them on and so describe the death of White Europe to the reader, but the extended purple-prose travelogue seemed to go on freakin’ forever. It read like something from a history textbook, a fictional depiction of the everyday life of an everyday man of the period.

On the way Bold, the half-Tibetan everyman, makes a friend of a Kyu, a black slave turned into a eunuch, and they go to China together which leads to more travelogues and a side story of the eunuch’s rise through the Imperial Palace ranks, only to be murdered for a reason never made clear. So is Bold, and in the Bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist version of Limbo, they discuss their experiences before being reincarnated again. The eunuch is rather pissed about how his most recent life turned out, which was amusing and added a note of levity as the sanctimonious Bold points out his mistakes. But again, this wasn’t very promising for a novel as huge and lauded as this one was, and I didn’t know what in the adventure was meant to be the alt-timeline tweak that would set the world developing in a different way than our own. In reading the actual history of this period, the characters’ actions didn’t change things at all: China still scuttled its treasure fleet, the one responsible for the slavery of both characters, and I am still not sure if Kyu’s revenge-filled actions for his lost penis were to prevent this or encourage it.

Both characters, as well as seven or eight other ones, reincarnate as the main characters in all the stories thereafter, all bearing names having the same initial. B and K are the most active ones, followed by I. They keep the same personality traits: I is intellectual, science-driven, innovative; K passionate for justice and a natural born leader and skeptic; B laid-back, humanistic, and kind of a smug know-it-all. I thought of them, respectively, as Spock, Kirk, and McCoy. This main trio, and their compatriots, has its own story concurrent to the epic one as they seek to expunge their shared karma and reach Nirvana. It’s not a bad plot device, but as I read some reviews of the book beforehand, it’s one I had foreknowledge of. If I had started my reading cold I would have had no idea what was going on.

The eight books of their adventures are more like novellas, though they aren’t structured as such; as was established in Book 1, most of the prose sounded like extrapolation disguised as narrative. Any of them might have made a complete novel in itself if they were fleshed out. IMO they didn’t hang together that well. The Bardo episodes connected them, and as a lapsed Buddhist I had to chuckle at the characters’ reactions to each setback and triumph and their very real complaints (as every good Buddhist knows, the goal is to overcome one’s karma and rise through the eight worlds to reach Bodhisattva status and finally Nirvana.)

But the stories didn’t show them progressing or regressing, making the choices that would determine their fate. The choices that would lead them to overcome their Lower Worlds – Hell, Animality, Hunger, Anger. I felt that the author was telling their stories, not showing them, and for the life of me he couldn’t write an engaging conflict or a character arc. Though he could write — the book wasn’t painful to read, I enjoyed it for the most part, even the long-winded bits which were reminiscent of discussions I’d had with my fellow Buddhists.

In earlier chapters the idea of karma is addressed, as K, having set a neighborhood on fire in China, and then murdering a corrupt headman and his no-good son in India, must atone by being reborn as a lower creature — a tiger. By which I think the author means the reader to think “Bad K, no cookie for you.” But by showing K’s actions as justified by having him/her kill people who richly deserve it, the point gets lost. The moral seems to be K should just shut up and let bad things happen to good people. That kind of passiveness is not what being a Buddhist means at all.

There’s also some racism flung around. Throughout the book the Chinese are painted as a numerous, ever-replenishing horde out to mindlessly conquer the world, inserting a white male American’s opinion into the heads of characters who are supposed to Muslim and Mongol. Gee, I guess he forgot all about those plagues and typhoons and devastating floods that trouble that nation.

With a few exceptions, the characters don’t really come to life either. They’re genial, but in many cases they serve merely as conduits for the author’s scholarship. By the time we get to the Industrial Revolution, which takes place in India, not England, the stories have become repetitive too, mostly about how B is a spineless, hero-worshipping type who seeks a higher spiritual awareness, but constantly chooses the wrong sponsor. Most of the time that sponsor is S, a craven, selfish type who always reincarnates as a powerful ruler and abuses that power to make others suffer, which makes no sense at all, karma-wise.

Of course, that may be the way the author sees it, or thinks Tibetan Buddhism sees it, because that’s the framing religion of the book. At times he even portrays it as a clunking, bureaucratic, impersonal machine that processes each freshly dead soul and shoots them out again willy-nilly to try again in a new rebirth, devoid of the memories that might make them remember and progress. It’s amusing, but the effect is a lack of gravitas and a higher spirituality. A reborn soul, in Buddhism, would know, or feel, what is right and what is wrong to overcome their karma; good and evil are absolutes, and so are mercy and hate, and by not showing the characters’ interior thoughts about their moral dilemmas, this system of belief is seriously shortchanged.

The author missed an opportunity to tie up this story of shared karma among B, K, I, and the others when he shows, in the next-to-the-last book, how the ancient Tibetan village in which they all died centuries ago was unearthed in an archaeological expedition, with all their original identities; surely that must have led to some realization of shared karma and its expungement? But it’s brushed aside.

There were other things I did not like. There were too many unfamiliar terms thrown around, for one thing. I was fine with the Buddhist concepts, but many others needed a glossary to make sense of. The maps were not all that helpful, either. The author enjoyed making readers play a guessing game about which familiar modern-day places were transposed into the changed locations of his alt-history. I only understood the fabulous city of Fangzhang was San Francisco by the mention of Mount Tamalpais, for example, as the scenery described could have been anywhere coastal USA. And the great Muslim city of Nsara was… modern day Bayonne? Rochefort?

How a fan imagines the world of Rice and Salt. Artwork by Quantumbranching.
Click to see full size version.

Who knows.

As I am writing this, I am still not sure how I feel about the book. I enjoyed it intellectually in spite of its narrative faults, yet felt it could have been more disciplined. I was going to rate it two and a half stars, but the last chapters surprised me, tying up the various philosophies and plotline in a way I thought made sense, as well as adding an ominous, or ambiguous note. So, three stars.

Caveat: It’s a big commitment to read and probably will frustrate you at some point, so if you’re merely curious about how this timeline worked out, I’d pass. It’s not worth it.