The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi
The third and concluding volume of Rajaniemi's Jean Le Flambeur trilogy, after The Quantum Thief (BBN review here) and The Fractal Prince (BBN review here)
Jean must perform one last, audacious heist to free his partner Mieli from imprisonment on Saturn, while the final conflict between the mind-uploading Sobornost and the game-obsessed zoku of Saturn begins, with the fate of not just the Solar System and all the many branches of humanity that live within it, but whole universes, in the balance.
A thoroughly satisfying and thrilling conclusion to the trilogy. Rajaniemi has always delighted in throwing his readers into the deep end, with exposition almost always coming later, if ever. Finally, many pieces are put together in this last book, though not all of them. Lots of outlandish and fantastical technologies and science jargon that I'm just nerdy enough to know contain at least a kernel of plausibility. It was nice, also, to see some closure for the secondary narrators of The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince, though in at least one of those cases the closure is a shocking and tragic, if not a little beautiful, event.
If I have to levy one criticism, it is that the ending seemed a bit obscure for me, but perhaps that might change upon future rereads.
That niggle aside, I highly, highly recommend all three books, and look forward to see what Rajaniemi does next (the Acknowledgements indicate he has more writing in store).
Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik
An exploration of the materials that literally make our world, through not just the science of how they're made and why they do what they do, but the cultural, historical, and even psychological aspects of how they relate to us and the civilization they've literally built. Each chapter covers one of ten materials (steel, paper, concrete, chocolate, aerogels, plastic, glass, graphite, and porcelain) we so often ignore and take for granted, each examined in a variety of different approaches, most uniquely a screenplay about billiard balls and the invention of artificial plastic.
Stuff Matters begins with the biggest bang I've ever read in a book of this time, with what drove Miodownik into material science in the first place: his attack by a mugger in the London Underground as a student that left his back sliced open to the bone by a steel razor blade. From that trauma, came a newfound fascination for steel, and all the other materials around us, leading him into materials science. He's even created a library of materials at University College London that he runs. It's a really gripping way to start what might at first be feared as a dry book about concrete and such, and emblematic of Miodownk's writing talent.
Miodownik is an engaging writer, infectious in his enthusiasm and adept at connecting the personal and the theoretical. He's as interested in stories as in materials, making for a perfect marriage in a book like this. He seems a joyful person, and his joy translates to a buoyant read. He has a particular talent for connecting the mundane with the extraordinary, moving from his parents' wedding to Han China, a daily cafeteria run to comets. His personal stories connect us intimately to theses materials, making us care about them in a way our own mundane interactions with them typically doesn't, and then showing us how magical and extraordinary they really are. He's sensitive to the meanings of materials, their cultural, social, even emotional aspects: wood has a totally different feel, and associations, than metal. If one wanted to, one could say he's the perfect combination of "right brain" and "left brain"/science and humanities thinking, and wrote a book appealing to both.
A perfect little jewel of a book, Stuff Matters is sure to make you sit up and take notice of the stuff all around us and learn something about the magic in the mundane. We are surrounded, literally, by wonders, and we could all do to recognize them.
The Leopard by K.V. Johansen
A world of gods, wizards, devils, and demons teeters on the brink of chaos, as a cursed assassin, temple dancer, caravan guard, escaped slave, and contrite wizard converge on the ancient city of Marakand on the trail of revenge, redemption, and revolution.
That one-sentence summary took me over two weeks to work out. I find The Leopard a hard book to really summarize because it's deceptive in many ways. Who and what you think it's about in the beginning isn't really who and what it's about at the end, or even in the middle. It has multiple points-of-view and narrators, some of whom aren't even introduced until the last third, and some of whom disappear halfway through.
This might sound like the beginning of a scathing criticism, but it is not at all. The Leopard is exciting and lyrical. You have to pay attention, but it rewards such attention. It's diverse in its setting; this is not just another Ye Olde European fantasy world, but one with many races and colors, and lots of strong female characters who are not Strong Female Characters. One of its subversions is that one of those original "heroes" you think the story is about is a white man among darker throngs, which of course makes one think "Oh, it's up to the white man to save us from swarthy villains," but... well, he doesn't. And the villains are well-drawn, even sympathetic, too. It's one of my favorite fantasy reads of recent days.
Enemies at Home by Lindsey Davis
There aren't a lot of female gumshoes, working private detectives who do it for a living, in mysteries. Certainly not in historical mysteries. But Lindsey Davis's Flavia Albia is ancient Rome's answer to this shortage.
A well-to-do newlywed couple are found strangled in their wedding bed. The good silver has disappeared. A burglary gone horribly, horribly wrong, apparently. But according to Roman law, the slaves in the house, though they all claim to have heard nothing, are still responsible for protecting their masters and face death in the arena for not doing so. They've fled, then, to sanctuary at a temple. Manlius Faustus, one of the city's aediles, hires "private informer" Flavia Albia to get to the bottom of it all so that the temple can decide whether to maintain sanctuary or throw them to the wolves (or lions, or bears, or elephants, or whatever's on offer at the Coliseum that day). Who killed the couple? Did the slaves really know nothing? Could they have helped, or did they leave them to die? Did they cause them to die? What was on the surface a happy-enough, well-ordered household soon reveals all its hidden faultlines and swirling passions to Albia's jaundiced scrutiny, and the truth of who killed the couple proves anything but simple.
Enemies At Home is the second book in the Flavia Albia series, the spin-off/continuation of Davis's wildly popular Marcus Didius Falco mystery series. More lively and interesting than The Ides of April, the first Albia book, as in all of Davis's work, the mundanity, charms, and darkness of ancient Roman life paint a portrait of more than Imperial marble and mad emperors. She's interested in characters of all walks of life. A thoroughly enjoyable historical recreation; Davis has always had a talent for conjuring the feel of a living, breathing Rome from the ancient past. It's also a good mystery. I'm rather proud of myself that I actually guessed the killer before the reveal, but that's not an actual criticism, because Davis doesn't resort to baroque obfuscations when presenting the clues. They're there for you to follow with Albia. The solution to the silver's disappearance, though, I didn't guess, and it's clever and believable.
The continued romantic tension between Faustus and Albia, a plot point introduced in The Ides of April, continues apace. I often dislike "will they or won't they" kinds of relationships, mostly because they often turn on ludicrous and annoying misunderstandings, but I enjoy Faustus and Albia, because their attraction, and why they haven't quite gotten around to giving into it, seems more realistic and character-based. I also just enjoy the way Davis writes their courtship. It isn't sappy or angsty; they're both adults, and act like it. Like a good soap opera romance, the torture of the build-up will make the eventual coupling all the sweeter.