A Republic of Dissapointments: Review of Republic of Thieves

I cannot catch a break.  Everything I have read lately is decidedly mediocre.  This is the third in a series that started off with one of the great fantasy novels of all time with the Lies of Locke Lamora.  If you haven’t read it, do so.  Then safely ignore future books.  The second is merely passable and the third is a waste of time.  It’s like another The Name of the Wind, great premiere with no follow-through.  Maybe both series will surprise me, but I don’t expect a sudden revival in either series.  Must have something to do with living in Wisconsin.

As in previous books there are two timelines except that here I couldn’t care less what was going in the past here.  I have said it before and I will say it again, the series was best when it was fantasy Ocean’s Eleven.  Then he killed everyone off in the first book.  Then he killed everyone new in the second book and wrote a pirate adventure with a small heist thrown in.  The past timeline seems to be a combination of having his cake and eating it too by allowing him to use old characters that he killed off in the first book and some terrible fan service.  It’s not a particularly interesting plot by itself and none of it really relates to present events.  I guess it is supposed to flesh out the romance between Sabetha and Locke, but that deserves derision in a paragraph of its own.

So we come to the present.  Locke is dying and being a whiny bitch about it and Jean is such a groupie for Locke that at any moment he was going to profess his undying love for his friend.  I seriously questioned why I liked these characters enough to wait seven years for a new book in the series.  Thankfully the pain ends with a Bondsmagi offering to heal Locke in return for them working as campaign managers for a kangaroo election in the Bondsmagi’s city. They accept and then we get like fifty pages of exposition about the Bondsmagi that attempts to explain their inexplicable place in the world.  It doesn’t make a lick of sense and the irony is that at the end of the book they completely change the trajectory of their society, to in my mind, a more sensible one for dealing with the existential threat they believe in.  Never try to explain the inexplicable.  Better to let us craft a million reasons why something is as it is then to shred all of our rationalizations with the patchy truth.

Their opponents in this sham election are led by Sabetha, Locke’s old flame that he still burns a candle for.  The election itself is surprisingly boring stuff, despite offering a lot of promise.  Maybe the author though it a funny and insightful commentary that politics and positions never actually comes into play.  Rather, both sides engage in bribery, corruption and pranks in order to secure votes for their party.  Sadly, like the rest of the book, the pranks aren’t that amusing.   I rarely even grinned in wry amusement during this book compared to some quite funny bits in the first book.

The second book got carried on the strength of Locke and Jean, but the third has no such buttress.  Jean is a bit player in this book.  I can’t really think of a notable thing he does in either timeline.  Locke’s main advancement comes from his romance with Sabetha, but the romance is just awful.  First, Sabetha is drawn very poorly by Lynch.  Part of the problem is that almost all of her scene involve her interacting with Locke.  For whatever reason Lynch has decided that Sabetha will, when around Locke, act like a shrill bitch who either nitpicks everything he says or just oscillates rapidly between liking and hating him for no discernible reason.  It happens in both timelines, too.  Which suggests that while Locke has matured, Sabetha has not.  She is still a perfectionist mad that Locke is better at a few things than her and who has absolutely no idea what she wants in her life.  Instead she craps on Chains (her and Locke’s mentor) and constantly pushes Locke away.  It made me hate her.  A lot.  However, she is still better than that ho from The Name of the Wind, the name of whom appears to have been taken by the wind from my memory.

Also Locke is badly mishandled.  In the past for instance he just goes up against Sabetha without a plan.  Similarly during the election.  Yes he has always had a good hand at improvisation, but in previous books he starts with a solid and intricate plan.  Here he just derps around with really minor schemes.  It’s not even clear why thieves were hired as campaign managers.

The other new character that gets developed is the Bondsmagi Pateince that heals Locke and brings him into the election.  Except that she dies at the end.

Then there is the ending.  The election was a diversion so that one faction of the Bondsmagi could kill another and then go into hiding from this existential threat I mentioned earlier.  That’s it.  Also the bad dude from the first book is back with us after seemingly having gone into a coma and lost his magical powers.  Both problems are miraculously rectified.  Unfortunately, not a very interesting villain, being of the Terminator mold of nigh invincibility and implacability when Locke really needs a Moriarty.  Oh and Sabetha runs away again due to a minor revelation from the untrustworthy source of Patience.  Here I thought we might at least get back to Ocean’s 3.

Given that the plot was a dud and the character advancement minimal and overall not being very enjoyable to read, I cannot stress how little regard I have for this book.  That it took seven years to push out this meandering ode to mediocrity is quite infuriating.  Then again, long gaps from an artist almost never bode well, be it in literature or music.  I guess I should learn my lesson then.


Broken Empire Review

Another new author and another mild disappointment.  Lawrence has by far better writing chops than the author of The Lives of Tao.  He also has far more interesting ideas for his setting and how to subvert the tropes of modern fantasy.  Unfortunately, he runs out of steam about halfway through this trilogy and the ending is not germane to what came before.  The final book feels like it comes out of the blue, like he didn’t know where Jorg was going until he sat down to write it and the entire series suffers retroactively for it.

The first book is marvelous stuff.  It’s an intoxicating mix of the Fallout games, the exotic journeys of Tales of the Dying Earth and an extreme version of the anti-heroic exploits of Elric of Melnibone.   The genius is that Lawrence makes Jorg, the main character, utterly despicable, but still manages to put us on his side.  Part of that is a setting so vile and inhospitable that it almost excuses Jorg’s actions.  Furthermore, every time the weight of Jorg’s misdeeds threaten to overwhelm you, his father shows you how much further he can fall.

The setting is post-apocalyptic where castles are made out of parking garages and relics of the Builders, the pre-apocalyptic civilization, litter the landscape.  Technology is back to medieval levels, as is society.  In fact I think that is a weakness of the setting.  It is exactly like medieval times despite taking place two millenia later.  There are Moors south of Spain and Europe is dominated by monarchies once again.  Italian city-states specialize in banking and Saracens occupy the Middle-East.  Somehow all knowledge of the Builder’s language and knowledge is lost, but in remarkably short order technology reached medieval equivalents and promptly stagnated.  It’s a clever idea to create a typical fantasy setting from a post-apocalyptic scenario, but it’s simultaneously implausible and shackles the world too closely to reality.

The book is also a bit clunky in its prose.  It’s not Tao levels of awful as much as the fluency rises in the two following books.  It is clear he is new at this, but not untalented.  It has the feeling of each word being overthought rather than flowing naturally onto the page.  If one thing improves in later books it is this.

I also dislike that he made Jorg so young.  It stretches belief to see him manhandling grown men at the age of 14.  I guess he wanted to shock us with a teenager committing such shocking deeds, but mostly Jorg acts very mature so that point is mostly moot.

However, what the book does is invest you in the setting and Jorg’s rise to power.  Lawrence does an excellent job sketching out even the minor Brothers that follow Jorg.  Jorg himself is a bit one-dimensional in his malevolence, but there is an interesting dichotomy between his cunning and his young impulsiveness.  He instinctively rebels whenever someone nudges him in a direction or looks at him funny for that matter.

The book ends with the knowledge that he has been strung along this entire time by a mage.  He kills the mage and gains a kingdom while learning that there are powers behind all the thrones playing out their own ambitions.  Riveting stuff to explore in the follow-up.

The second book is where things start to come apart.  Again he has multiple timelines.  In the present his new kingdom is under siege.  The other timeline is 4 years earlier and mostly consists of a poorly motivated journey by Jorg and company.  I really disliked the shifting timelines in this book.  It robs the tension out of the past events since we know who lives and as I said it feels motivated only by a desire to provide background for the miraculous things that help Jorg in the present.  Also it detracts from the more interesting storyline which is that of how the hell is Jorg going to defeat an army 20 times his size?

The entire thing could have been told linearly.  It would have ruined the big reveal of the misdeed Jorg had wiped from his memory, but that ends up being such a minor plot point that it hardly matters.  Even as it is things happen that are not accounted for in this book like Jorg having a handgun (he finds it in the next book), so what exactly was the point of mixing timelines?

Jorg himself is a confusing mess as well.  Or maybe Lawrence is just brilliant, because Jorg seems to be gaining a semblance of a conscience but is quick to deny it with words and with actions.  One moment you see a spark of light in him and then he dashes it with some new horrible action.  The main problem is that Jorg of the third book does not cleanly follow from the schizophrenic Jorg of the second.  Instead he seems to have grown out of evil for evil’s sake and nothing he does in the third is not mitigated somewhat by circumstances.

Finally, we get to the capstone of the trilogy and it is clear Lawrence has no idea what he is doing.  The plot here is a complete mess.  Instead of sinister mages at work behind the scenes they are replaced by AIs from the time of the Builders who either want humanity to maintain them or just wipe out humanity so they stop using magic (which is a product of the Builders meddling with reality and using it threatens its very fabric).  While the shadowy mage cabal was only vaguely used in the previous book, it certainly had a bit more heft than the AI plot.  The only AI we meet is interested in a third way where Jorg repairs reality.  A very short interaction occurs between one of the bad AIs and Jorg, but it doesn’t dwell on the weighty matter of this philosophical battle in the AI ranks.  We are merely told that the AIs are behind everything, unleashing plagues and uniting empires when they wish.  I guess we are supposed to assume they are behind the mage cabal and the attempt to reunite the Empire?  Either way the threat of the AIs is never made explicit which saps the plot of any meaning.

The other major plot introduced here is that of the Dead King, which is easily puzzled out to be Jorg’s brother.  Again the threat of the Dead King is barely elucidated, you are just told that he is wiping out kingdom after kingdom.  The reunion of Jorg and his brother at the end is quite bland, as is Jorg’s heroic sacrifice to save his brother and humanity by repairing reality.  Though one wonders how you determine what the “real” reality is?  Why is one with magic so much worse than one without?  My hypothesis is that it was straining under the will of too many divergent views of what the world should be, but that is not explored at all.  Instead of expounding on this he creates inconsistencies by introducing people with magical affinity which seems at odds with the first book where magic is mostly “superstition” rather than accepted reality.

Finally, we come to the characters.  I already talked about Jorg, but the rest of the cast is pretty awful.  Katherine follows Jorg around despite ostensibly hating him.  We get a bunch of Chella and in fact she is the only other viewpoint the books are written from other than Jorg’s.  Sadly, she is boring and really does nothing interesting in the third book to warrant even existing, let alone getting her own chapters.  Jorg’s father dies off-screen despite his interactions with Jorg being the best part of an already awesome book one.  Makin is abusing painkillers, but it is never explored as to why.  The Dead King’s motivations are murky, his entire character resting on the fact that he is Jorg’s brother rather than because he is intrinsically compelling.  In short, it’s a far cry from the amazing characterization he showed in book one.

The plot itself leaves a lot to be desired as well.  The present day storyline (yes the timelines are split again) is mostly a carriage ride to the meeting of all the rulers followed by a quick denouement with the Dead King.  In the past, he ventures into the radioactive wastes at the AI’s beckoning and discovers nothing of importance except the handgun he used in the previous book.  Then he has a trip into Africa where I guess you see him thwart the AI’s first strike on humanity, but it feels irrelevant to the plot.

Finally, a note on his writing in all three books.  He hates describing things.  I am not one for overwrought description, but he takes it too far.  Many writers have described detail as the soul of writing and in that case Lawrence is soulless.

It’s hard to recommend this series.  Yes, the first book is promising and Jorg’s constant twisted wisdom is always entertaining, but Lawrence’s plotting leaves a lot to desire.  He seems to think his ideas are much cooler than they actually are and therefore he can ignore the hard tasks of characterization and description.  Nevertheless, I hope he improves as he shows remarkable promise.

Riyria Chronicles Review

This isn’t going to be a long review because you are probably already familiar with these characters and this author from reading the much superior Riyria Revelations.  If you want to spend more time with Royce and Hardian, then Chronicles will scratch that itch in at least satisfactory way.

The first book is better in that regard since it details the events leading up to the union of this unlikely pair.  Which means it has a lot of Hadrian and Royce in it.  Royce I find grating in this book.  By the time Revelations rolls around Gwen and Hadrian have softened Royce.  Here he is an unmitigated murdered with an extremely anti-social attitude.  Mostly you are repulsed at his casual disregard for life and you wonder how Hadrian could ever team up with him.  Sullivan doesn’t manage to salvage and answer to the last one from his singularly unpleasant depiction of Royce.  Hadrian though pulls out some moves and while his constant reference to his dark past is a bit overdone, his essential good nature shines through.  He really is a knight in shining armor, even later on.  I, for one, am glad Royce never really corrupts him.

I also enjoy that it chronicles one of their great heists that is mentioned in passing in Revelations.  That was the promise of these books, to see Riyria before the epic events of Revelations when they were just the fantasy equivalent of a fixer.  The second book is not like that at all.  It instead focuses mainly on secondary characters and leaves Hadrian in particular a bit player in his own book.  So the problem is mostly with the plot than the writing.  Sullivan still has a breezy style perfectly suited for the adventuresome duo of Hadrian and Royce.

Read the first, skip the second.

Why Are Americans Obsessed with Health and Still Fat?

I really can’t stand checking more matrix elements and the last post got me thinking about this topic.

Americans are the fattest people on Earth, no contest.  We also seem to have an unhealthy obsession with health.  There is always a new diet or a new  food item or a new gimmicky appliance that will make you lean and fit.  Yet we pound down Doritos Locos tacos like nobody’s business.  What is with the paradox, or is it even a paradox?

I have two theories that are not mutually exclusive.  One is that society has bifurcated.  We have the health nuts that are predominantly white and upper-middle class.  On the other side we have our poor who seem to be the big drivers in our fattening obesity problem.  This, sadly, also means the problem is localized predominantly in America’s minorities.

As an amusing but pertinent anecdote, my sister, who works at Starbucks, told me about a video of a (now former) Starbucks employee where he expounds on the drinking habits of various minorities.   My sister says he has the right of it when says that African-Americans and Hispanics almost inexorably order frappucinos.  That is 430 calories for a medium size drink according to the interwebs and most of it is carbs with a bit of fat sprinkled in.  Of course, most of these people probably order a large and inevitably add more whipped cream (which is apparently free at Starbucks).  Either way you are drinking a large number of mostly empty calories and drinking your food is never a good way to satiate yourself.

Maybe we as a society that just never gets the results we want.  After all, the Baby Boomers are notoriously vain and at the busiest time of their lives.  This would explain all the snake oil being sold when cardio+weights+diet is like 90% of what you need to do.  There are no superfoods that will make you live longer or magically burn calories.  There is no easy path other than pushing the iron and getting your heart burning and restricting your calories.  Nutrition science is mostly full of shit.  Even things that we have “known” are bad for decades like saturated fats don’t appear to be bad if from the right sources.  So rather than grabbing for those acai berries maybe you should grab a dumbbell.

However,  I am mostly leaning toward the first option.  I primarily associate with the first group of health nuts.  Maybe outside this bubble health is not such a big deal.  It certainly would not be the first time this privileged group managed to delude itself that what they care about is what everyone cares about (which is not to say I am not carried along with them at time).  Poor people probably just want to eat and they see that you can get 400 calories at McDonald’s for a buck and they go at it.  They don’t have time or money to go to a gym.  Who needs to be healthy when as a black male you are  going to die at something like 66 on average anyway?

Still, I see a not-inconsiderate number of middle class folk that are working on some world class guts.  What is their excuse?

Tips For Cutting Like a Goth

Just about finished with a cutting cycle and it went far better than last time.  When I first got into lifting I was doing Starting Strength and took Rippetoe’s advice on nutrition.  Don’t.  You don’t need to eat as much as he claims; a pound a week for a newb, less if you have been training a long time (after all you aren’t going to be turning as much of that caloric excess into muscle).  Furthermore, as I said in a previous post lower bodyfat seems to encourage your body to put on muscle and not more fat.  My hypothesis is that your leanness signals your body that you need more muscle to catch food, etc.  Too lean (<10% for men), however, and your body will preferentially put on fat since it, justifiably, thinks you are on the verge of dying.  As such, interspersing cutting and bulking fairly regularly is probably a better way to go.

Following my absurd diet (I was in fact drinking most of a gallon of milk a day), I plateaued at 200 pounds.  A hip injury at around that time that prevented squatting suggested to me that maybe it was a good time to lose some weight.  So I did. Over the next six months I dropped about 25 pounds, but especially near the end my lifts started to drop.  A lot.  I lost twenty pounds on my overhead press for instance.  And I wasn’t even that lean!  Also my weight loss started to stall near the end despite a rather harsh cut.

This time I just got off a 5 week bulk and went to cutting again to see if I could get closer to 10% bodyfat.  I like to take a week off between blocks of cutting or bulking for healing minor injuries and resetting the body’s response to exercise (I think a previous post mentioned the study where one group took three weeks off every six weeks and still made the same progress as an always “on” group because of catch up growth).  I try to line up my break with trips or when the school gym is closing, so this bulk was five weeks and this cut was seven.  Ideally it would be six, but real life always takes precedence.

As I said, I am finishing this latest cut and my lifts haven’t deteriorated at all and the stubborn fat around my lower abs has melted off.  This is in stark contrast to my long cut where my lifts went down, I started to look a bit softer in the midsection and weight loss stalled despite very low calorie deficit.  So what did I change?  Many things but here is a list of what I think worked.

1) Don’t cut for too long.  Months of cutting was probably a bad idea.  Your lipid levels are permanently low and who knows what other machinery you are messing up by sending the signal to your body that you are dying for months on end.

2) Don’t cut too hard.  In a similar vein, don’t cut so hard your body panics.  I was down to a protein shake and one meal at the end of my long cut and I stalled.  Now I am eating a larger meal and small meal before bed along with my post-workout shake and the pounds melted off just as fast.

3) Meal Timing.  Eating three meals spaced out turns on your muscle protein synthesis one more time than the two meals I was eating the first go around.  Also eating some casein protein before bed probably helped.

4) Refeeds.  When I was with my wife on the weekends I didn’t worry about my cut other than I didn’t want to pig out.  This gives a couple days for your lipid levels to return to normal and therefore more propensity to use fat for energy.  Also, some evidence that the first days after calorie restriction your body actually burns more calories.  Finally, they are also called cheat days for a reason; it’s good for your self control to indulge a bit.

5) Workout Volume.  You are on a cut so your body isn’t recovering as much so keep volume down.  I went to two rather than three sets on all my exercises.  Remember you aren’t going to put on any muscle during a cut, so just do enough to keep what you have.  According to the research maintenance is much easier than progression.

6) Higher Rep Work and Supersetting.  Evidence suggests that higher rep work is more likely to maintain muscle.  For much of my first cut I was still doing Starting Strength which is all 5 rep stuff.  This time I also started supersetting antagonist exercises together (bench and row, for instance) which burns more calories.

7) Cardio.  I hate it, but it works.

Sadly, that means I wasted half a year where I lost fat and muscle.  But lifting is a long game so I am not too upset about it.  The upside is that I know more now and there is something empowering about knowing that you can control your weight in either direction.  I think for a lot of people the scale is some number that inexorably goes up and is completely out of their hands.  It goes back to the old behavioral psychology result that people that believe they can get better at something (in this case fitness) are more likely to indeed get better.  It is an intuitive, but hard lesson.  We often think oh I will never be good at math or I will always be an unfit slob and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  But you can.  It will just take you 10,000 hours to become an expert in a mental skill and whole lot less to look good naked.