The Books of 2020: Catching Up (Part 1)

Gone through a spell here of books that were alright-ish but didn’t make hugely deep impressions on me so you know what that means: LIGHTNING ROUND!!!

1) The Last Emperox, by John Scalzi

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I generally like this dude’s sci-fi, and enjoyed, more or less, the breezy ease of the first two books in this series, but the closing volume didn’t do it for me. Has a general vibe of “I want to be done writing this book/this series”, he pushed the unpleasant bitchiness of fan-favorite Kiva Lagos just over the edge to “no way nobody would’ve just killed this asshole by now” levels, I felt some of the major characters were sorted out with big-time deus ex machinas… I just didn’t care for it. And there’s a general aura of (and this may entirely be due to my own political radicalization over the last few years) Clinton-esque neoliberal positivism over the whole thing that I just found off-putting given the stakes everyone was facing here. Just a big “meh” from me on this book.

2) The Last Day, by Andrew Hunter Murray

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The Last Day was a pretty fun ride marred by a pretty unbelievable and unsatisfying ending. A fun setup: in the VERY near future, the Earth’s spin starts to slow down, eventually settling, after quite a number of years, into no spin at all, locking the planet into a permanent lighted side and a permanent dark side. Both are mostly entirely uninhabitable, leaving humanity to try and survive on the few dry lands that are riiiight on the margins of the terminator. The English Isles, for plot purposes, happen to lie right in that habitable band.

The book takes place in the 2059, a generation into this new, shitty reality. Traversing the few parts of England that are actually under the control of its wonderfully English military dictatorship that tries to not appear as such, a disillusioned researcher who doesn’t have much hope left in anything gets a glimmer of it from an old mentor who betrayed her when she needed him most. From there, it’s mostly a McGuffin hunt, but I enjoyed how the setting was described: the weird, nuclear but almost entirely-off-page American exiles as a lurking menace/savior in the background, the descriptions of how the pasty, grey, cold and rainy English have adapted to being in a permanent high noon of 90 degrees and humid… a lot of books I enjoy are heavy on the world-building, light on a particularly believable plot, and this book fits right onto that shelf. Ask me about it in six months and I’ll struggle to recall it in any detail, but I enjoyed the quick two nights it took to get through it.

3) A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, by Barbara W. Tuchman

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I’ll keep this short… I loved this book, as does most anyone who appreciates good historical writing. She won the Pulitzer twice for a reason (if not specifically for this book).

Starting with the idea that a book based around the century that contained:

  • The Black Death wiping out 1/3rd to 1/2 of the entire population of Europe
  • The bulk of The Hundred Year’s War between France and England
  • A series of peasant rebellions that gave voice to the lowest members of society for effectively the first time ever (Narrator Voice: they did not end well for the peasants, but still)
  • etc., and so on, through all of the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse…

might make for an interesting read, Tuchman then goes further by finding the one French aristocrat who somehow managed to be present for almost every important event that occurred during this time AND who left a thick enough documentary record to base a credible history on, AND THEN tops it all off by just writing the shit out of a book covering all of this in great but never-boring detail.

It’s a really great read that touches on all aspects of life for both the Royal Knight at the focus of it all, up to his lieges, Kings of France and England, the Popes of the era, all the way down to the roughest village peasant. She provides SUCH a wonderful sense of the era, rich in detail on how people lived, were fed, worked, worshiped, etc…

It’s a fuckin’ triumph, and anybody who’s interested in the slightest in medieval European history probably already has read this book. If you haven’t, get on it.