Sorcerer to the Crown

England’s magic is dwindling. It is a matter of great concern to the members of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, and contributes to the finger pointing, rumour mongering, and agitation in the ranks that is complicating the work of the one man who has a chance of actually doing something about it: the new Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias Wythe.

The diminishing magic is not the only cause of the general unhappiness. Despite being raised by the late Sir Stephen Wythe and his wife as if he was their own son, Zacharias is indisputably a Black man, born into slavery and freed by Sir Stephen. Nor does Zacharias have a familiar, a fact that is perhaps even more shocking. The Presiding Committee of the Society has accepted Zacharias as Sorcerer Royal—they had little choice after the Fairy King vouched for his qualifications—but even they do not know what happened on the night the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen, died, or what became of his familiar. There is gossip that things are not as they should be, and of course they aren’t, but not in any way the gossips could have imagined.

Adding to Zacharias’s woes, the British government is pressuring him to use his magic in the war against Napoleon, despite a long-standing agreement with the French sorcieres to remain disengaged; no sorcerer on either side wants the Mutually Assured Destruction that would follow their participation.

Zacharias didn’t even want to be Sorcerer Royal. His passion is for scholarship, not politics. He already has far too much on his mind when he acquires an apprentice, the troublesome, independent, and highly unconventional Miss Prunella Gentleman.

The first few chapters of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown are engaging but not overly exciting, especially as it takes a while to become comfortable with the author’s writing style. My interest in the story intensified considerably when the biracial Prunella is introduced. Self-taught and original, her organic magic is a match for Zacharias’s carefully studied and controlled spellcraft. And that’s even before her actions upend the stuffy and very privileged white male world of English magic.

Prunella is a treat: active, intelligent, competent, ruthless, and not in the least intimidated by pompous bullies. Zacharias is equally appealing: polite, principled, and courageous. They are the sort of characters you might find in one of Georgette Heyer’s novels (ignoring Heyer’s racism). Heyer’s Regency romances are an obvious influence, as is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, although Sorcerer to the Crown moves along at a much faster pace than that doorstop, lovely as it is. (Comparisons between the two are inevitable, with some reviewers expressing disdain for one or the other. Me, I like them both, for different reasons, and see no need to judge either one “better.” They just suit different moods.) I also see some parallels to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, with its friction between the rule-bound male magician and the intuitive female, although I am grateful that this story has a more believable romance.

The plot is a bit convoluted, involving someone blocking the flow of magic to put diplomatic pressure on the British, without anyone actually informing the British why the blockage is in place. (Nice touch there about diplomatic miscommunications.) Some of the machinations and plot twists were so far-fetched as to have me rolling my eyes, but that didn’t stop me from getting engrossed in it. The book touches on some tough subjects—racism, sexism, colonialism among them—but the tone is breezy and light-hearted. I thoroughly enjoyed this clean, funny romp.

Posted in Fantasy | Leave a comment

Banned Book Week 2020

I was not thrilled when I realised that this year’s Banned Books Week (September 27 – October 3) was coming up. I have been making annual forays into the arena of banned or challenged books since I started this blog, but I couldn’t get up much enthusiasm for it this year. I’ve been paying way too much attention to the news coming out of the United States lately, and it’s depressing as hell. In my free time I want to read something cheerful and optimistic, and I didn’t expect to find that in the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books. Oh sure, there are some charmers there, like George, and Drama, but the subject matter of many books that have been challenged—Black Lives Matter in Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, violent revolution in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, difficult family relationships in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, etc.—does not tend to lead to cheerful and optimistic.

And then I found this:

This story made me laugh. And, by God, I needed that laugh.

Laughter is not something I usually associate with either Banned Books Week or politics, but this children’s picture book is a delightful surprise.

Before describing the book itself, let me give a little background. There is a real rabbit named Marlon Bundo, who lives with Mike Pence (yes, that Mike Pence) and his family at the Vice Presidential residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory. In 2018, Pence’s daughter wrote Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President, an educational children’s book explaining the Vice President’s job, with the proceeds going to a couple of innocuous-sounding charities: Tracy’s Kids and the A21 Compaign.

I’m not a fan of Mike Pence. I probably never would have heard of these books or Marlon Bundo if the staff at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver hadn’t been inspired to write the parody, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, with text by Jill Twiss and illustrations by E. G. Keller. The proceeds from this also go to charity, but LGBTQ+ supportive ones: The Trevor Project and AIDS United.

Unusually for a parody, this one stands quite well on its own. A knowledgeable adult will have no trouble spotting the gentle pokes it takes at Mike Pence, but someone who doesn’t know or care about politics (like, say, a beginning reader) can enjoy the story, too.

On this special day, Marlon Bundo, a.k.a. BOTUS: Bunny Of The United States, finds love—love for another boy bunny who keeps his heart hopping. When they announce they are getting married, their friends say “Hooray!” because that is what friends do.

But not everyone says “Hooray!” The Stink Bug In Charge (although no one is quite sure how he got to be In Charge) says that’s not allowed. Boy bunnies can only marry girl bunnies. Boy bunnies marrying each other is different, and Different Is Bad.

The other animals stand up for the two bunnies, volunteering how each one of them is also different. (Although as differences go, some of them are not so divergent. I share a trait with Dill Prickles the hedgehog, who reads the end of his books before the beginning, to make sure they are not too sad for him.) When the stink bug continues to be stinky about it, they hold an election, and vote him out.

And so, in one slim picture book, we have several powerful messages: about democracy in action, about tolerance, and about love. The two bunnies get married because they enjoy each other’s company enough to want to spend the rest of their lives together, and that’s a healthy view of love for any age.

Although the political slant also plays a part, the LGBTQ+ theme is, of course, why this book has been challenged. It and seven other LGBTQ+-themed books make up the majority of this year’s ALA list of the top ten most challenged—a trend that would seem really sad if it weren’t so dangerous. When A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo came out, the company publishing the Pences’ book got a little huffy, but Marlon took it in stride, saying,

Not gonna lie, I do look pretty fly in a bow tie. The only thing better than one bunny book for charity is…TWO bunny books for charity.

Hard to argue with that.

On a completely different subject, I recently did an interview with Nikky Lee, another New Zealand writer. Check out the result on her blog.

Posted in A Writer's Life, Children's Fiction | 2 Comments

The Prince of Secrets

The Prince of Secrets, the second book in the Stariel series by New Zealand author A J Lancaster, takes us deeper into the world of the fae we were given only glimpses of in the first book, The Lord of Stariel. This review contains spoilers for the first book; if you don’t want them, bail now.

Where the first book focused on Hetta Valstar and her human family and neighbours, the second book splits the focus between Hetta and her family’s faithful butler, Wyn Tempest, now revealed to be a fae prince. With his cover blown, the two factions in a long and bitter struggle among the fae become very interested in his refuge in Stariel. On one side is the Court of Dusken Roses, whose Princess Sunnika he was pledged to marry at the command of the High King, in an attempt to end the war. On the other side is the Court of Ten Thousand Spires, whose King Aeros, Wyn’s father, has no interest in ending the war. With his magic diminished by Wyn’s broken promise, he has no compunction about murdering his own son in pursuit of power. Why should he? He has nothing but contempt for his son’s indulgence in those mortal weaknesses: empathy, compassion, and kindness.

With Hetta established as Stariel’s new lord, the estate’s boundaries are secure. No member of either fae court can cross into Stariel unless invited in. Hetta and Wyn, now assuming the role of steward, are paying less attention to fae intrigues than to recovering from the previous steward’s embezzlement and restoring Stariel to a sound financial footing. Once they have worked out a solid plan, they approach their bank manager for a loan, a task that requires leaving Stariel to visit the bank offices.

That journey, of course, kicks the story into high gear. The action weaves in and out of Stariel, eventually taking us into the Court of Ten Thousand Spires. Wyn’s eldest sister tries to kill him, and his other siblings, if not quite fratricidal, will use him and Hetta against their father if they can. There are monsters, a kidnapping, two unwanted and antagonistic ambassadors, and a fae land that is very, very protective of its lord.

Most of the issues I had with The Prince of Secrets are minor quibbles. I was a little disappointed that the other Valstars, Jack in particular, didn’t have as much to do in this book, but the new fae characters, Princess Sunnika and Prince Rakken, Wyn’s brother, are interesting. I didn’t like Wyn as a viewpoint character as quite much as I liked Hetta, there was a bit too much of Hetta’s raging hormones trying to break down Wyn’s self-control, and the resolution was not tremendously satisfying. This had more of a feel of a transitional chapter in a longer story arc, setting the stage for further conflict with Wyn’s family, than as a good standalone novel.

I did have one serious complaint with it, though. The scene with the bank manager’s wife jerked me right out of my wilful suspension of disbelief. Mouse over for spoiler.

Despite these problems, I enjoyed the book. I like the world the author has created. After all, what could be wrong with a world that contains cute half-fae kittens? I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series, The Court of Mortals.

Posted in Fantasy, Kiwi author | Leave a comment

Book Announcement: The Wordsmith

Irene van Gelder’s drudge job is killing her, but how can she earn a living as an air witch when her own guild calls her a fraud?

The Fire Warlock doesn’t ask for her credentials, but with tensions rising between the Fire and Air Guilds, proving her value to him is not a safe move. With the White Duchess and her son intent on revenge, what defences can a failure as an air witch muster? All she has is words. Will that be enough to save herself, and Frankland?

The Air Guild will regret spurning its most accomplished witch.

The Wordsmith, the fourth book in my Reforging series, is all set for publication in February 2021, and the ebook version can be pre-ordered from Amazon and Kobo.

I’m excited. I love this cover; it perfectly captures how I thought Irene, an exceptional but undervalued professional, should look. Artist Catherine Archer-Wills has done a lovely job on the entire series.

Posted in A Writer's Life, Epic Fantasy | Leave a comment

The Clockill and the Thief

Sin, street urchin turned trainee spy, is back in Gareth Ward’s YA novel, The Clockill and the Thief, the sequel to The Traitor and the Thief. Both books won New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel award for Best Youth Novel in their respective years. Like the first book, The Clockill and the Thief is a rollicking good ride as we dive deeper into Ward’s steampunk world filled with mad scientists, strange and awesome weaponry, and a global order hanging in the balance, dependent on the actions of Ward’s intrepid fourteen-year-old protagonist.

Most of the action in this instalment takes place in the air. An early scene shows Sin and the other Covert Operations Group (COG) trainees getting lessons in handling airships, including vertigo-inducing exercises in walking on the outside of the gas envelope in boots that clamp onto the ratlines. Sin tangles with old enemies, including the Fixer, his boss from his days as a member of a street gang, and Eldritch Moons, the traitor from the first book. When Eldritch steals an airship, the COG team takes off in pursuit, and have to deal with fires aboard ship, attacks by sky pirates and the creepy mind-controlled clockill, and other hair-raising adventures. Meanwhile Sin is struggling to keep secret his dependence on a hard-to-acquire medication, a result of the medical experimentation in the previous book. His medication is rapidly losing its efficacy, and when his supply is stolen, Sin’s days are numbered. Or are they?

Friendships are an important aspect of this story. It’s clear to both the reader and Sin that he couldn’t have accomplished what he did without help from the other COGs: Stanley, another recruit from the Fixer’s gang; Zonda, his most supportive teammate; and even Velvet Von Darque, the class snob. Sin’s relationship with Zonda is strained over friction with a team member Sin considers an incompetent coward, but they stand up for each other when it matters. His and Zonda’s relationships with Velvet continue to be complicated, and interesting.

Obviously, I read the two books in order, but I think The Clockill and the Thief would work as a standalone. You don’t need all the history to recognise Eldritch as a villain, or Velvet as a frenemy. My biggest beef with it is that Sin and his teammates just aren’t quite believable as kids in their early teens. Early twenties, yes, maybe even late teens, but fourteen-year-olds? Um, no.

The story also requires a great deal of wilful suspension of disbelief, somethings eye-rollingly so. If you have trouble with that, dial back your age. Remember, the primary audience is teen and pre-teens.

Ward’s writing is fast-paced, full of snappy dialog, narrow escapes, and sharp details that left me with vivid images of technical marvels and heroic action.

Looking forward to the next instalment.

Audience: YA primarily, but a fun, light read for adults, too. Some violence but no sex or foul language.

Posted in Children's Fiction, Fantasy, Kiwi author | Leave a comment


CoNZealand, the first online world science fiction convention, has come and gone. While there were some obvious teething pains, in general it turned out much better than I had feared. It wasn’t the same as meeting people in person, but there were compensations, starting with all the CO2 not emitted by thousands of people jetting around the world to converge on one spot.

For me—someone whose hearing is deteriorating, and whose auditory processing may never have been entirely “normal”—the zoom meeting format was actually a win. It cut out all the extraneous distracting audience noise and gave a surprisingly intimate feeling of being right in the middle of a small and easy-to-follow conversation. The audience chatter was still there, but forced into text in the chat room side panels, in the form of one big conversation instead of many small ones. The chat was usually at least as interesting as the panelists’ discussions, sometimes more so. I’m sure that for many people it was annoying to have to type out their thoughts instead of merely voicing them, but I loved it! No more nudging my partner and hissing, “What did they say?”

So, yes, I had fun and I would be happy to do this again.

A few other observations and tidbits, in no particular order:

  • The most annoying part of the online conferencing came from the few speakers who were using handheld devices. The camera shake threatened to give me motion sickness.
  • Discord worked well as the medium for carrying long threads of conversation, but it didn’t play nicely with an ongoing separate instance of itself, where I was in a game using a different login. I eventually gave up and took advantage of the unusual circumstance that my GM (my daughter) is living in the same house, telling her to let me know whenever it got to be my turn.
  • My TBR pile already reached to the moon. It now wraps around it a couple of times and starts back again, especially after one of the panelists (Valerie Valdes, IIRC) in the session on modern space opera dropped a list of some three dozen titles into the chat. So many lovely books, will I ever find time to read them all?
  • I didn’t watch the Hugo award ceremony, partly because I never seem to be very in tune with popular opinion, so I was pleasantly surprised that my pick for Best Novel won. Congratulations to Arkady Martine for her win with A Memory Called Empire. Great book!
  • Cyborgs are not only coming, they are already here. Cochlear implants, pacemakers, intraocular lenses, insulin pumps… We are already creating technologically-enhanced humans, and the pace and capabilities of the modifications will likely only increase.
  • This was Robert Silverberg’s 67th world con. Wow. Just…wow.
  • And one final random factoid: the colour orange was named for the fruit and not vice versa. Before the fruit was introduced to England in the early 16th century, the colour was called yellow-red. The lack of a distinct name is why people with bright coppery hair are called “redheads.”
Posted in A Writer's Life, New Zealand | Leave a comment

A Memory Called Empire

Lsel Station is a mining colony tucked into a Lagrange point near a metal-rich planet—a tiny, independent entity on the edge of the interstellar Teixcalaanli Empire. When a warship arrives at Lsel Station requesting—er, demanding—a new ambassador, without giving any hint what has become of the old ambassador, the Stationers, ever nervous about the intentions of their overwhelming neighbour, send Mahit Dzmere. Mahit is young, only twenty-six, but that shouldn’t matter. She is fluent in Teixcalaanli, has the qualifications and personality traits to be a good ambassador, and has her predecessor’s imago embedded at the base of her skull.

An imago machine is a sophisticated piece of electro-neural technology capturing and transmitting an individual’s memories. In the lean, fragile world of the Stationers, the hard-won knowledge passed on in the imagos is crucial to their survival. The loss of any imago line, particularly a twelve- or fourteen-generation line of pilots, is a blow to the entire society. But to the Teixcalaanli, if they can even conceive of such a thing, they view it as cheating. How dare you claim someone else’s experience and knowledge as your own?

Mahit’s imago, which she is not supposed to even admit she has, is out of date; it holds only five years of predecessor Yskander Aghavn’s time as ambassador. He had not returned to Lsel Station anytime in the last fifteen years to update it. Worse, her imago has been sabotaged. When Mahit arrives in the capital and discovers Yskandr was murdered, her imago fails, depriving her of his aid when she needs it the most.

With the Empire’s devouring attention turned towards Lsel Station, oblivious to the lurking alien menace threatening the Stationers from the other direction, Mahit, as Yskander’s successor, becomes a key player in a deadly game of interstellar politics. The Empire has its own problems, including an insurrection rising to pitched battles in the streets. Mahit is caught in the crossfire; her first week as ambassador is a traumatic one.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine, is one of this year’s Hugo contenders. It starts off a bit slow, seeming to promise more of a comedy of manners or talk-heavy political intrigue than a thriller, but then the action heats up with a bombing that may or may not have been directed at Mahit. Her personality grew on me as I got further in, and as more attempts are made on her life, the story became gripping.

With the imago embedded in the ambassador’s brain, who is she? Mahit? Yskander? Some melding of the two? I’ve been fascinated by the idea of memory transference, and the questions of what those memories do to the recipient, ever since I read Dune decades ago. (To me, Paul Atriedes’ sister Alia, who appears in maybe three scenes, was more interesting than Paul, the main character.) I like how Martine handles those ideas in this novel, ringing the imagos’ use with taboos and psychological conditioning to prevent abuse. I don’t quite buy the conversations in her head, but they do enliven the story.

Questions of identity figure throughout. When she has to ask her new friends for help, they have to grapple with the question of how wide is their definition of we? Can their concept of themselves stretch wide enough to include a barbarian outsider?

Cultural imperialism is another theme. The older Stationers resent the grip the Teixcalaanli have on the imaginations of their young cohorts, but despite her fluency in their language and love of their culture, Mahit knows the Teixcalaanli will always view her as a barbarian. This knowledge hurts, even though she is proud of being a Stationer, and she resents both her inescapable otherness in Teixcalaan and the fact that it matters to her.

Mahit is a strong character, in multiple senses. She is intelligent, likeable, politically astute, and is an active participant in the ongoing crisis. She fumbles a bit at the beginning, but once she begins to find her footing, learning who she can and can’t trust, she acts adroitly and decisively. Even under the “protection”—in reality a pampered prisoner—of Nineteen Adze, one of the emperor’s closest advisors, Mahit never quite gives up her agency. She consistently confounds everyone who tries to take advantage of her. The Teixcalaanli she comes to depend on, primarily her liaison, Three Seagrass, and Twelve Azalea from the Information Ministry, are equally engaging and competent. There is no plot-driven stupidity here. Yay! (Although Mahit’s decision on how to pay for her clandestine neurosurgery was jarring, after the earlier emphasis on protecting Lsel Station’s intellectual property.) The other women are equally active, competent participants.

(And yes, the Teixcalaanli names are a bit weird. I kept mis-reading Three Seagrass as Three Snodgrass, which didn’t help. The names are at least more descriptive than in some other speculative fiction novels I’ve read recently. Nineteen Adze is described by the poetry-drenched Teixcalaanli as the woman whose gracious presence illuminates the room like the edgeshine of a knife. How’s that for a memorable epithet? Besides being entertaining, the names are at least pronounceable. Try reading The Goblin Emperor aloud. Argh!)

Although the stories are very different, the imperial backdrop kept reminding me of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. Both empires have economies dependent on continual expansion, and neither is the least bothered by their overwhelming cultural dominance. If you are familiar with Leckie’s work, imagine this as the leadup to the first encounters with the alien Presger (the lurking aliens).

A Memory Called Empire is labelled as the first book in the Teixcalaan series. I am looking forward to the continuation of Mahit Dzmare’s story in the sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, due out in 2021.

Posted in Science Fiction | Leave a comment


Ingray Aughskold is an insecure, needy kid. Well, not a kid, exactly. She’s in her twenties, with a good job on her home planet Hwae, but her politically powerful mother has encouraged competition between her foster children: Danach, the son of an ambitious but less well-connected family, and Ingray, a charity case with no biological family to fall back on if her foster mother rejects her. Ingray believes their mother favours Danach as her heir to carry on the family name and traditions, so she makes a wild gamble to win their mother’s approval: she frees a convicted thief from prison to help her recover the set of priceless vestiges (artefacts or mementos) he is reputed to have stolen. Her plans go awry right from the start, and she is caught up in a deepening morass of forgeries, false identifies, culture clashes, political manoeuvrings, and murder.

The conflicts and stakes start small in Provenance, by Anne Leckie. In the opening chapters, Ingray is afraid of personal embarrassment in her rivalry with Danach, but the story soon unfolds into a series of multi-level interconnected conflicts with increasingly higher stakes: rivalries among Hwae’s power families for local political control, rivalries among several human societies in neighbouring systems, with the Hwae’s identity and autonomy at risk, and interspecies frictions threatening the peace established by interstellar treaty among the Significant Species—human and the alien Geck, Rrrrr, and Presger.

Despite the scope of the problems involved, the focus stays on familial tensions. An inconsequential romance could have been dropped with no damage to the story. Except for the climactic hostage situation, the drama is really in Ingray’s relationship with Danach, and in several parent/child relationships—hers, the freed prisoner’s, and one involving the alien Geck.

The story also delves into questions of personal and national identity through the accumulation of storied objects (like the Liberty Bell) or founding documents (like the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Waitangi, or the Magna Carta). Do the objects themselves have intrinsic value, or is the value in the ideas they represent and memories they trigger? In this story, when some of those objects are determined to be forgeries, the repercussions are life-changing.

This is a stand-alone novel*, but if you are familiar with Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, you will already have noticed that this is set in the same universe. It starts after the end of that trilogy (the Geck ambassador is on her way to the recently-called Conclave) but takes place in an independent human society outside of Radchaii space, with unrelated characters. Provenance is not as compelling a read as Ancillary Justice, and Ingray is not as interesting a character as Breq. If you understand and accept that, it’s still a fun read with interesting world-building and a complex plot.

Provenance does have a few problems. The biggest one is the inconsistencies in the point-of-view character, Ingray. She never quite jells as a real person. For someone who supposedly has been trained as a political operative from a young age, she seems incredibly naive at times. We’re told she can maintain a smile under the most trying circumstances, but she bursts into tears regularly. We’re also told she’s great at planning, but we’re never shown that. The situation she’s in at the beginning involves a serious lack of planning. She does prove resourceful in later situations, but they all look to me like she’s winging it. Which, I admit, I’m not good at. I am good at planning. I wouldn’t call what Ingray does, “planning.”

The book also gets off to a rather slow start. The first few chapters are mostly just conversations providing backstory, setup, and world-building. It doesn’t really take off until Ingray is home, interacting with Danach and getting whiplash from the freed prisoner’s lies, misdirections, and retractions.

The heavy use of gender-neutral pronouns also bothered me more than the exclusive use of she in Ancillary Justice did. They were mixed in freely with gender-specific pronouns; Ingray was she, Danach was he, and random other people were he, she, or e. I have no idea how someone in that society would know which one to use for a random individual, and that annoyed me a bit. (Does that make me a reactionary? I’m quite willing to use whatever pronoun an individual wants, but you can’t tell just by looking.)

*If you haven’t read the Imperial Radch trilogy, this is all you need to know:

  1. Other human societies are afraid of the militaristic, expansionist Radch.
  2. Humans and other aliens are afraid of the inscrutable alien Presger.
  3. The Significant Species Treaty requires non-interference between species, and everyone takes it seriously. Nobody wants to make the Presger angry (see #2).
Posted in Space Opera | Leave a comment


I first read Jane Smiley’s Moo years ago, but on randomly picking it off my shelf recently, found it still an enjoyable story. Moo is a humorous look at life in an agricultural university in the American Midwest, part soap opera, part satire. Covering the 1989-90 academic year, some details are a bit dated, but the personality clashes and political wrangling are surely still relevant. The characters will be recognisable to anyone who has ever had a brush with higher education. Recognisable enough, that when the book was published in 1995, readers at many different institutions claimed it was about their school.

This is a character-based, situation-driven novel, and the cast of characters is rather large, including faculty, students, staff, and some members of the surrounding community, with overlapping and intersecting threads. The characters are not all equally interesting, but among the more entertaining are:

  • Chairman X, Marxist head of the Horticulture department, who wants to kill the dean and who lives with Lady X (a.k.a. Beth), the woman everyone—including their four children—assumes is his wife,
  • Mrs Walker, the admin, who knows where the bodies are buried, and who actually runs the place,
  • Cecelia Sanchez, assistant professor recently arrived from Los Angeles, and who feels out of place in a sea of lily-white faces,
  • Loren Stroop, a local eccentric farmer trying to interest the university in the machine he invented and believes will revolutionise farming, and
  • Bob Carlson, a lonely sophomore who works for the University taking care of the hog at the centre of an experiment to see how big a hog will grow if left alone to eat as much as it wants.

That hog, Earl Butz (named after Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture whose policies pushed the United States towards large-scale corporate farming) is a major character in his own right. This is how Smiley describes him:

Earl’s business was eating, only eating, and forever eating… Earl Butz was a good worker, who applied himself to his assigned task with both will and enjoyment… At Christmas, Bob had purchased some large, sturdy red toys…They had been Earl Butz’ first toys, and he played with them when he could fit the time into his work schedule.

There is a list of the characters here. I wish I had had that the first time I read it; I sometimes found myself flipping backwards, thinking Helen, now which one was she, and who is she sleeping with?

The main plot, such as it is, is about funding. The governor threatens budget cuts; the administration scrambles to find additional funding from corporate sponsors. Belt tightening ripples through the system, triggering infighting and endangering some already precarious balancing acts. The novel also explores tensions within the university over what, exactly, it purports to be, as faculty yearning towards the more prestigious Ivy League schools threaten to drag the university away from its locally-relevant, vocational-education roots.

Moo is funny but warm, leaning more towards situational comedy and small tragedies than biting satire, although there is that, too. Don’t expect a riveting page-turner; approach it as a leisurely and Dickensian slice of life in academia. Some threads do follow bizarre, delusional, or abrasive characters, but most of them  are fairly ordinary, relatable people. Their stories are told with streaks of empathy and melancholy woven in.

Audience: anyone who has ever been through an institution of higher education.

Posted in Modern literary fiction | Leave a comment


On a ship at sea, out of sight of land, how do you know where you are? These days it’s easy: check your GPS device and it will tell you, to within a few meters. But before the technological leaps of electronics and satellites, how would you have known?

Finding out where you are relative to the equator—your latitude, or distance north or south—is straightforward, just a matter of using the angle of the sun or prominent stars. Mariners have been sailing by the stars for millennia; sextants and applied math increased the accuracy without changing the basic model.

Figuring out where you are east or west—your longitude—is much harder. To start with, east or west relative to what? For calculating latitude, there’s no debate about where the equator is: it’s firmly established by the motion of the earth relative to the sun. There’s no such celestial marker for longitude. Any line used as a starting point is an arbitrary decision. And with no celestial markers, how do you know how far you are from that arbitrary starting point?

The key is to be able to tell time accurately. As Dava Sobel explains,

To learn one’s longitude at sea, one needs to know what time it is aboard ship and also the time at […] another place of known longitude—at that very same moment. The two clock times enable the navigator to convert the hour difference into a geographical separation. Since the Earth takes twenty-four hours to complete one full revolution of three hundred sixty degrees, one hour marks one twenty-fourth of a spin, or fifteen degrees. And so each hour’s time difference between the ship and the starting point marks a progress of fifteen degrees of longitude to the east or west.

Before the invention of accurate clocks, it was impossible to tell how the local time differed from the home port’s time. On the night of 22 October 1707, the admiral of an English fleet carrying more than two thousand men believed his ships were safely out at sea, clear of any coastal hazards. They ran aground on the Scilly Isles, southwest of Cornwall. There were only two survivors. Other similar maritime disasters happened with appalling frequency, especially with the expansion of global trade in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1714, the British Parliament passed the Longitude Act, promising 20,000—an enormous sum in those days—to anyone who could solve the longitude problem.

Sobel’s book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, is a short (less than 200 pages) account of the longitude problem, the various attempts to tell time at sea, and the British clockmaker, John Harrison, who built the world’s first true precision timepiece. Harrison’s life and inventions take centre stage, but his work is described within the context of other competing efforts, ranging from ridiculous but entertaining crackpot ideas to abstruse but highly-regarded astronomical calculations. At the time, the cognoscenti expected an astronomically-based solution to win the prize. Harrison was not the first to imagine a clock-based solution—Sir Isaac Newton, for one, wrote about the idea—but most considered reliability at sea too difficult to achieve, given the problems of constant motion and fluctuating temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure.

Harrison began working on the problem sometime in the 1720s. After decades of work and several prototypes of increasing complexity, he made the technological leap resulting in a pocket watch that, in 1762, lost only five seconds on an eighty-one-day voyage.

Harrison’s work was undoubtedly innovative, but he was not an articulate man. Between his rivals’ political manoeuvring and his own inability to explain how his timepiece worked—and what good was it to the British government if it couldn’t be replicated so all the British navy and commercial navigators could use it?—he had to wait far longer than he should have for the recognition he was due. His sea-clocks are marvels. Nearly two and a half centuries later, they are still in working condition and on display in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England (or were, pre Covid-19).

Longitude, the book, is a lightweight read, part biography/history and part science writing. It is aimed at the general reader, no specialised knowledge needed. The subtitle may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the tale of the impacts of politics, personalities, snobbery, and greed on scientific advance and technological innovation is an intriguing one. The only complaint I had was that diagrams of the clocks’ internals would have helped in understanding them, but my copy is from when the book was first published (1995). Apparently there is a more recent illustrated version that fixes that lack, but there are also illustrations in Wikipedia, including animations in the article on escapements.

Audience: anyone interested in maritime history or the history of science and technology.

Posted in History (non-fiction), Science (non-fiction) | Leave a comment