Thoughts On s08 ep5 of Game of Thrones, Posting Here So Nobody On FB Who Hasn’t Seen It Yet Can Get Mad At Me About Spoilers

Better-written piece that really nails why this episode worked wonderfully, for all its faults.

This essay gets it.

SPOILERS GALORE IN IT AND THE REST OF THIS POST, SO PISS OFF IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED IT YET.

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I was genuinely surprised last night at how many people immediately hated this episode. Sure, everything leading up to this point has been incomprehensible, rushed nonsense (if also unavoidable due to the differences in how times passes in books vs TV), but Dany’s path has been written all along. There are no good rulers or bad rulers; there are simply dead ones and alive ones. She aims to be an alive one, but everybody who’s supposed to be on her side betrays her.

Every. Single. One.

Varys? Betrayed her. Tyrion? Tried to save fucking CERSEI, Dany’s deadliest enemy. Jon? Told his secret to fuckin’ everyone, making him an immediate and absolute magnet for anybody who doesn’t want to be ruled by this weird foreign chick from the East, which is everybody still alive in Westeros who didn’t come there on a boat with fuckin’ Dany in the first place. Well, except maybe Gendry…

They’re all traitors, and she has lived a life of seeing where that gets you.

It won’t happen, but I genuinely hope she kills all of these waffling fuckers and takes the fucking throne in the last scene of the last episode. She’s the only fuckin’ one of them who knows how power works in feudal societies (or, arguably, ever), and I really don’t want this fucking show to end with the fan-favorite Good King Jon and His Hillrod Sisters taking power over Dany’s corpse.

This episode kicked ass, and I fully expect the writers to fuck it all up in the finale next Sunday.

Reading Log 2019 #9: A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, by William J. Bernstein

A pretty stellar, detail-driven overview of the history of human trade marred slightly by the author insisting on inserting not-quite-relevant personal asides here and there.

That’s the gist of it, really. The book works best when it’s describing in detail how trade has functionally worked at various points in human history. Deep-dive details on the minutiae of, say, Spanish barbers in 1650’s Mexico getting pissed off at immigrant Chinese barbers undercutting them… that’s where this book shines. And that makes up the bulk of the book, thankfully.

The pre-modern section of the book focuses quite heavily on trade via the Indian Ocean, which will seem odd to the standard reader as *gasp* what about Europe!?!?!? but that is where the bulk of Europe’s and frankly the world’s long-range trade occurred prior to the full-bore colonization of the Western Hemisphere so, in a book like this where each era has a representative, not comprehensive, focus, it’s an absolutely fine choice. And, frankly, fascinating, and Bernstein does a very good job of showing the reader why.

If there’s a ding I have to give this book, it’s with the author sticking weird, current-events-based (well, at least “current” as in “the mid-aughts”, as that’s when the book was first published) bon mots here and there, that are quite snarky and almost never relevant to the text at hand, even if I agree with some of them. These are going to age very poorly in a book like this that shouldn’t really otherwise lose utility anytime soon.

The shitty little asides are mostly front-loaded, though, and I’m straight-up impressed by the even-handed appraisal of globalization and it’s impact on all sides of the associated trade, good and bad. Given that the implosion of the global economy of 2008 happened after this book was written, that an author who seems to otherwise come from a very centrist POV was already looking askance at many aspects of modern global trade in the capitalist era is noteworthy.

For as much as I’ve read a ton of the usual military/political histories that dominate the field, I increasingly find myself more drawn to books like these that focus on something other than Kings and Generals as the main theme through which history is viewed. Trade is a dominating impulse of humanity, right up there with religion and power, and this book is a very good entry into seeing history in that particular light.

#books, #reviews

Reading Log 2019 #8: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

Yeah, yeah, I know, everybody and their mother read this book years ago. It’s new to me.

But… enough time has passed, my mom raved about this entire series, I generally like Scandinavian cultural things (Black Metal, Church Burnings, Volvos, etc.) and it had been a spell since I dug into a good old-fashioned straight-up Crime Mystery.

I knew absolutely nothing about the books or movies going in, so I was able to enjoy this without any preconceptions.

And enjoy it I did. It’s EXTREMELY Swedish, but I don’t mind that. I can see why the movie didn’t do so good with American audiences, though. The plot is convoluted as hell, and I’m not sure Larsson 100% pulled it off, but it was close enough for me.

I’m not a huge reader of murder mysteries, so I don’t know if the format is common, but I enjoyed that the book basically wraps an entire, separate story around a central mystery. Like, the beginning and ending of the book could be jammed into their own separate story and it would work. It would also have little to do with the main mystery that occupies 80% of the story. Basically felt like I was getting a hell of a lot of story in one book.

There were some things to not like…

The whole “older man rejuvenating himself via a hot younger woman” thing is present here between the two mains and just… *yawn*. Added nothing to the story.

Worse, the (I’d put a spoiler alert here but the book came out fuckin’ years ago, man) rape scene also adds nothing… the book establishes a whole lot of proper reasoning for why Lisbeth is the way she is. The rape scene and revenge story that follow it have fuckall to do with either of the main plots and just felt entirely gratuitous and weirdly cruel.

Those are pretty big negatives for a book that I otherwise enjoyed. I’d like to read the sequels someday, but if more of that shits shows up, I’ll probably set them aside. There is a way to use sexual violence in a novel that actually adds to things, but the way this book does it ain’t it.

That aside, the set of characters and possibilities for future tales the book ends with intrigue me; the two main stories were well-done and had satisfying, almost TOO satisfying, endings in both cases. Leaves me wondering what else could possibly come Lisbeth and Mikael’s way in the sequels that could live up to what they accomplished during their first pairing.

I’ll probably hit the second book sometime this year, so I guess we’ll see.

#books, #reviews

Reading Log 2019 #7: The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China by David J. Silbey

After the glorious triumph that was Julia Lovell’s The Opium Wars , I was in the mood to keep reading about this period of Chinese history, and knew that the Boxer Rebellion was the next epochal event, so I went looking for a book that covered that. Silbey’s tome here is what seemed to be the most recommended, so I went with it.

It was… fine. I finished it like two months ago and am already struggling to remember it in any great detail, unlike Ms Lovell’s masterpiece, which should tell you something.

It covers the details well, even if it focuses too strongly on the Western and Japanese perspectives instead of the Chinese. It also spends too much time in the military weeds and not enough giving a perspective on the greater impact of events.

Starting off with a pretty thin grounding of how the Boxer Rebellion started and its initial path (which, unfortunately, focuses too much on its impact on the Western communities in China rather than, say, its own inherent goals or impact on the Chinese people themselves), it then goes into great, nay, exhaustive detail on the Western military response to the Boxer Rebellion.

EXHAUSTIVE detail.

And that’s the problem; this is more a ground-level history of a specific military campaign than it is an exploration of a collision between two major civilizations that has had direct repurcussions into two World Wars and relations between the two biggest powers on Earth to this day. And I feel like the jacket sells it as more of the latter than the former.

If you just want a military history of the Western campaign, such as it was, to rescue the westerners trapped in Beijing, it tells that story very well. But it’s quite uninterested in telling the wider story of how it ties into the wider scope of Chinese history, or even the more-specific story of Western Imperialism in China and that impact on current Sino-Western relations. The Lovell book about the immediately preceding Opium Wars discusses all of that quite well, which makes The Boxer Rebellion disappointing.

So maybe it was just a matter of my expectations, but those derived from the back copy and press around the book to begin with, but it didn’t quite do the job I wanted it to. Again, if you want a pretty tightly-scoped history of the actual interactions between the Boxers and the Western armies that fought them, this book will be your jam. I, however, am going to continue to look for something that gives this event a more widely-scoped treatment.

#books, #reviews

Reading Log 2019, #6: The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China by Julia Lovell

The modal American knows fuck-all about The Opium Wars. Maybe one in a hundred could tell you they involved China, maybe? One in a thousand could possibly identify the other participant, Great Britain. The number who could go into any amount of detail on the war beyond the phrase “treaty ports” would surely not tax the capacity of a minor-minor league ballpark in one of those flyover states whose borders were drawn by a government bureaucrat having only a ruler and a time limit.

Point being, a book like this, in English, is a massive undertaking. The author basically cannot assume any level of background knowledge on behalf of her reader; you have to cover EVERYTHING. Which probably leads to my one, quite thin, complaint with the book; I’d love to have seen it cover the Second Opium War in as much detail as the first, which is the actual topic of this book. It’s a thin complaint because a) the book quite specifically states that it is primarily about the first war and b) it still manages to cover the second in decent detail anyways.

But I get ahead of myself… The Opium War is a magnum opus, the finest history of the event available in English. It is more than just a history of the rather brief conflict that ran from 1839-1842 between a Britain that was essentially bullied into the conflict by her own merchant class and a Chinese Empire so vast, so decadent, and so dismissive of foreigners in every possible way that its court was, for most of the conflict, not even aware that it was at war.

The conflict itself is covered extremely well and in great detail. More importantly, though, is the back third of the book, which covers how the various Chinese governments since the war have viewed the war and presented it to their governed populace. If the phrase “Century of Humiliation” means nothing to you, this book might be a good place to start, and it’s something you should want to understand because undoing it undergirds the entirety of the Chinese government’s foreign policy.

The bad reviews I’ve seen of this book tend to come from, well, Chinese nationalists… they dislike some of the lightness with which Lovell occasionally treats the topic, but let’s be honest: some of the happenings in these events WERE comically absurd, period. She doesn’t stint on mentioning the awful, hypocritical nature of British rapaciousness in their conduct of the war, nor does she try to short-sell the deaths that resulted on the Chinese side. I feel it’s a balanced look at the causes and blame all around.

For a pretty obscure (in the West) topic, I think that this is a great book to pick up if you’re at all interested in rendering it not obscure for yourself, personally. A fascinating read on a frankly fascinating event.

#books, #reviews

Reading Log 2019 #5: Babylon: Mesopotamia And The Birth Of Civilization, by Paul Kriwaczek

Writing a book about any aspect of the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations has to be a right bastard to begin with. Writing a book about ALL of them is basically a monument to hubris. That said, Kriwaczek does a very good job of tackling this huge span of history in his Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization.

To put this in some perspective, the END of this book is as far removed from its start, in terms of years passed, as we are from the end of the book ourselves. He’s covering THOUSANDS of years here.

Starting with the first stirrings of civilization in the city-states of ancient Sumeria, such as Ur and Kish, and ending with the long fall of the Assyrian/Neo-Babylonian Empire at the hands of the upstart Persians, Kriwaczek takes us through what narrative we can construct from the available evidence.

And there’s a lot of evidence. There’s also a lot of gaps. The author’s job in such a case is to simply make sure the reader is aware of these factors, and Kriwaczek does a solid job on that front throughout.

Each chapter generally begins with a retelling of the archaeological dig that turned up the evidence that’s then used to provide the chapter it’s part of. It’s a nice way to let the reader know how confident the author is in the specific info he’s about to present.

As much as is possible, he includes details about the life of regular people as well as, of course, the ruling classes. That so much of the clay tablet-based evidence available is about economic and material transactions helps somewhat in this regard. We know more about how ancient Babylonian societies fed and clothed themselves than we do say early Ancient Greece or Ancient Egypt solely because their records-keeping took place in a physical format that could survive quite well for millennia, unlike any paper or papyrus-based writing systems.

This is shown by how much less data we have on the latest, Akkadian and Assyrian Empires that had converted to recording their language via an Aramaic, alphabet-based script on more paper-like substances that did not survive than we do on empires that existed a thousand years prior to them.

Kriwaczek also tries to tie a lot of how these civilizations operated to modern-day equivalents, which is… a stretch, to me. Sure, a lot of the evidence we have may relate to economic transactions, but making the leap from that to “they were obviously full market capitalists” seems a bit much. It’s a type of comparison the author makes repeatedly, and it never quite lands for me.

That nit aside, I like and recommend this book mostly because it’s engagingly written, and covers a vast territory and time about as well as any non-academic tome could in one volume.

Reading Log 2019 #4: Semiosis, by Sue Burke

Fun read, this. Classic sci-fi that takes a small group of plucky humans fleeing an increasingly ravaged and warred-over Earth to try again but better on an earth-ish planet elsewhere.

This new planet, which the colonists dub “Pax” (didn’t love that; a little on-the-nose), is juuuust-barely able to provide for the newcomers, at least under their original plan. Life is downright hostile, for the most part.

So, things therefore get weird when the younger generation of native-Pacifists (what the colonists refer to themselves as, in case the planetary name wasn’t clear enough for you that these folks are rejecting the violence of ol’ Earth and doing things differently) realize that their parents have set them up for suffering and are actively refusing to take steps that would make their lives materially easier to deal with on Pax. And, oh irony, are willing to use violence to enforce that suffering.

That may sound like spoilers but it’s not really, it’s effectively set-up and a good dose of world-building to get us situated in the environment and its unique properties that differ it from Earth (since it is alike in most ways). The actual Earth-born humans and their concerns are not the point of this book as Burke uses the enjoyable tactic of time jumps quite often to get us past the whole “struggling colony on the edge of disaster” thing that isn’t really the story she wants to tell. So, we quickly move along through a number of generations of the original Pacifists’ descendants, with each generation getting a star turn and a protagonist, though there’s plenty of overlap between chapters as well.

Books using this trope tend to suffer from the lack of a single protagonist for the reader to identify with, but that’s not a problem here. There IS one character who travels through the entire book with the reader, but I won’t spoil that… entirely

I will spoil it enough to note that it’s not an omniscient computer, a trope that exists in far too many books of this nature. Refreshingly, Burke acknowledges that, in the absence of the ability to bring along the entire industrial fabric that makes spaceflight from Earth possible in the first place, all of their computing and machining power will eventually, and not in TOO long a time, fail and become useless. This happens here, after a brief and expected period of cannibalizing dying tools to keep other ones going.  

I genuinely enjoyed this aspect of the story; the original settlement mission doesn’t happen TOO far from now, so there aren’t deus ex machina-style self-healing, self-replicating nanofactories or any of the usual suspects authors bring along when they want their tiny precarious space colonies to generally resemble future Earth as much as possible. In effect, the Pacifist society, for the bulk of the story, is at about a late medieval-level of technological advancement. They have their forebears’ modern knowledge, which certainly puts them above the level of actual medieval societies, but, lacking modern infrastructure, they can rarely act on that information, which to me is almost worse. Things are not helped by the great scarcity of mineable ores on Pax.

This is what provides the tension in the tale; the original colonists barely have enough folks to provide the basement level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and for all of their knowledge and still-working computers, they’re still dealing with a very alien ecology that seems actively engaged in killing them.

This tension then turns, in later generations, to the Pacifists figuring out how to make accomodations with at least parts of their environment and to start to thrive, if never to the point of what the reader would understand as modern levels of physical comfort and material satisfaction. This culture seems to be pleasant to live in, but everybody works hard, and the random death of young, healthy people is a much more common event than it is for ours.

After setting all of this up, the book moves into essentially two primary conflicts, both of which are very enjoyable and which introduce concepts that aren’t entirely new to sci-fi, but whose extrapolations at the hands of this author are very fun to read. I don’t want to spoil those, but suffice to say that I’m greatly looking forward to the sequel.

That said, Semiosis stands as a complete story on its own as well, so don’t be put off by the fact that a sequel is coming. It ends at a good point, having wrapped the major points up but leaving the reader able to easily speculate any number of possible options to start new stories with in a sequel. It’s a solid basis for a universe of stories, but also a cohesive novel of its own.

I did have a few gripes, all of them pretty minor; characterization is mostly excellent, but a few characters were a bit one-note. The cast is large, given the time period covered, so of course not everybody can get a full fleshing-out, but some folks were pretty one-dimensional in a way that strongly hinted “I need someone like this to move this part of the plot forward, so here she is”. Again, though, most of the major characters were quite believable given the time available to spend on them.

Certain happenings also happened in time frames that just seemed entirely too short, but said shortness was obviously necessary for plot tension purposes. Explanations are given, but they don’t always land as completely believable. Also a minor issue, but one that had me swallowing some suspension of disbelief here and there.

Overall, though, this is a stellar debut novel and I eagerly await the sequel and what else Ms Burke has in store for us.