I can hardly believe I bought a book that’s part of a 10-book series, and yet I did – because of a Review at SF site that called the book an “astounding debut”. And it was pretty astounding, and I don’t regret buying it the least.

Gardens of the Moon is a book of fantasy in the truest sense of the world. Erikson (and his co-creator Ian Cameron Esslemont) have put their fantasies to work and imagined a fantastical world.

The result is a complex, dense, sprawling, opaque book. There are lots of people and peoples, as well as gods, demi-gods, and other kinds of entities. There are varied, lively cities, hundreds of thousands of years of history, a system of magic not like anything else, and much more. It is clear that a great deal of work has gone into this world. (I found out afterwards that part of the explanation is that the world was created for an RPG and the books came later.)

The setting: The Malazan empire is at war, aiming to conquer a neighbouring continent. The war is not going well, but nevertheless the empire has conquered the next but last Free City on the continent, and is setting its sights on the last one. Meanwhile tension is growing within the empire and the army – the new empress doesn’t trust anyone from the old guard and tries to get rid of them all.

The plot is almost impossible to summarize. There are many threads, crossing and meeting and then separating again. Each one on its own is complex enough to be hard to describe in brief. There is the thread of a squad of elite soldiers sent out to sabotage Darujhistan, the last Free City, in preparation for conquest. There’s the thread of a young army captain trying to catch up with them to save them from the Empress’s plan to get them killed. There is an assassins’ war, there is a group of magicians chasing another, mad, magician, there are attempts to revive an ancient all-powerful monster, and attempts to hinder these attempts, and so on. Oh, and then there are the various gods, meddling in all these affairs: Greek style gods who take a close interest in the mortal world, and have a tendency to manifest physically and push events in their desired direction.

It’s intense, to say the least. And Erikson’s writing style underscores the intensity. The reader is thrown right in, in the middle of the story. It’s sink or swim. There are no info dumps: you either figure it out as the time and the pages pass, or you don’t. Refreshingly challenging.

After the first few chapters, just when I thought I wasn’t up to the challenge, the threads started coming together, and I felt I understood roughly what was going on. Then the story got more complex again, and then some things got their explanations again. The complexity stayed just this side of being unmanageable.

The complexity of the book is simultaneously its strength and its weakness. It makes for a thrilling read, an immersive world, a captivating story. But it also makes for work. This is a cult book rather than mass market fantasy.

This is not a book to be read in one sitting. I felt I had to put it down now and again so my brain could rest. But it was well worth it. I’d say that in order to get through the book without giving up in frustration, you have to go with the flow rather than trying to catch every last detail – but stay focused.

The book, its world and its plot are refreshingly non-tolkienesque. There are no clichés – no dwarves, no elves, no quests. Well, no clichés apart from a thieves’ guild and an assassins’ guild. Sigh.

It’s a dark book, of war, malice, manipulation, ambition and power. This is no war of heroes. There are no heroes, and barely any good guys. There isn’t even a good side and a bad side – it’s everyone against everyone else. In fact at times it’s hard to know who’s on whose side, or indeed how many sides there are. There are real people on each side of each conflict, and we see the conflict from all their points of view. Even though they aren’t good guys per se, they are all easy to sympathise with. And everybody has surprises in them.

While the characters have depth and, well, character, this is still a book driven mainly by plot rather than by character, by intellect rather than emotion. We never really get into the characters’ heads, and it is at times hard to know what moves them. They are instruments for moving the plot along. Erikson has no sentimentality for them: even important people are killed off when it suits him.

And – last but not least – while Gardens of the Moon is a part of a sequence, it is supposed to stand on its own, and I thought it succeeds at that. The story arc was completed, the various spying and assassinating factions mostly sorted out, and a phase of the war concluded. While I’m looking forward to reading more about this world, it’s not a necessity in order to enjoy this book.

Amazon UK, Amazon US.

Some fresh bookmarks from delicious.com

  • Hilbert Curve + Sorting Algorithms + Procrastination = ? – Beautiful visualizations of sorting algorithms
  • NY Times: James Patterson Inc. – Patterson may lack the name recognition of a Stephen King, a John Grisham or a Dan Brown, but he outsells them all; even all of them combined. This is partly because Patterson is so prolific: with the help of his co-authors, he published nine original hardcover books in 2009 and will publish at least nine more in 2010.
  • The Economist: The price of salt – THE stuff is everywhere, but in snow-blanketed Britain there is not enough of it. Fears grow that the gritting salt that is keeping the country’s transport system open is running out. Britain’s salt mines are working round the clock and rationing is on the cards.
  • Schneier on Security: The Abdulmutallab that Should Have Been Connected – Why the notion that U.S. intelligence should have "connected the dots," and caught Abdulmutallab, may seem sensible but isn't. The dots are only visible after the fact.
  • Mother Earth Mother Board – Essay from 1996 by Neal Stephenson about the laying of a new submarine fiber optic cable.
  • Maailma lindude nimetused – The names of the birds of the world, in Estonian, Latin and English.

The topic of survival fascinates me, and especially the non-physical sides of it. I am not so interested in the mechanics of surviving an avalanche, or the knowledge of how to build a shelter out of sticks and how to build a rabbit snare – I want to understand the mindset. Why do some survive all sorts of calamities, whereas others freeze or panic, or just give up?

Gonzales has got some really interesting points. First of all, what leads people to make the – in hindsight – obviously stupid decisions, ignoring glaringly obvious warning signs, that lead to a possibly lethal accident? Among the answers:

  • habit – it’s always worked before
  • stress leading to confusion
  • rigidly following an outdated plan, when reality changes
  • holding on to an incorrect mental model of the world even when the map doesn’t seem to match reality
  • taking shortcuts, being in a hurry
  • group dynamics – not wanting to be the coward, or the one to slow everyone down
  • underestimating the forces of nature, the weight of snow, the force of falling from a certain height, the power of ocean waves
  • unwillingness to turn back, to give up – the uncertain but hopefully nearer goal is more tempting

And second, what does it take to survive one, after it’s happened? The right mindset.

  • focusing, not give in to the shock and confusion of realizing that you’re lost
  • have a reason to live, something or someone they want to survive for
  • not giving up, even though surviving looks hopeless
  • not expecting rescue, not counting on God to save you
  • positive thinking: taking delight in small victories

Interesting fact: the youngest children often have very good survival rates, because they follow their instincts. They rest when they’re tired, crawl into a hollow tree when they’re cold. On the other hand, kids between 7 and 12 years of age have one of the worst survival rates, because they think more like adults (and less instinctively) but they cannot yet control their emotional responses, and panic.

On the minus side, the book is not very well organized. It sort of has a structure, but is mostly built out of case studies. The key points lost between anecdotes and quotes.

There’s too much talk about Gonzales’ father and what a cool survivor guy he is, and there are silly attempts to bring chaos theory and self-organizing systems into the picture.

Finally, the book was too narrow for my taste. There’s too much focus on risky adventure sports. (Although there were ordinary cases of getting lost in the woods, too.) I would have preferred something more varied – surviving PoW camp, or an ordinary fire.

Underlying it all is the view that you’re not living a full life unless you engage in activities that could lead to your death, and ideally survive a few accidents that almost do lead to it. This view that your own preferences are universal, that everyone should live life your way, is immature and annoying.

On the whole, it’s got its points but it’s not very well written, and I come away from it slightly disappointed.

Amazon US, Amazon UK.

This is the second book I read by Susanna Clarke, after Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a collection of short stories in what seems to be the same world as in the novel – England but with magic – although not always in the same era. And as with JS&MN, it is written in 19th century style (even for the stories that take place earlier) – dry, witty, charming and mannered.

The stories are faery tales, i.e. tales about faeries. Faeries as powerful tricksters, who do things for their own reasons, and whom you cannot trust even if they seem to be helping you. For one reason or another, in most of these stories, humans come in contact with the world of faeries, and stuff happens.

“Kind of nice”, is the best I can say about this book. There’s nothing exactly wrong with it, but overall it felt a bit tame and repetitive. Most of the stories lacked that special spark. Looking back at it, I would probably have found the stories more entertaining if I had read each one on its own.

Amazon US, Amazon UK.

Here’s a poster I spotted the other day. (Sorry for the glare; I couldn’t get into better position because that would have entailed standing right in front of the exit from a busy escalator.) It reads roughly Tulips bring a feeling of spring – buy a bouquet today. And then in smaller type, Campaign financed with the support of the European Union and the International Flower Bulb Center.

Questions arise, and jostle for attention in my head.

First, what kind of spring feelings can they possibly be talking about, when it is barely the middle of January and the ground is covered with a thick blanket of snow?

Second, what is the EU doing, spending money on advertising for flowers?!

Third, wait a moment, is that the same poster they had last year? Yep, identical. Same photo, same layout, same photo, same financing information. Well, at least the EU doesn’t waste money on frivolously making up new posters every year.

Our first winter with a garden (meaning last winter) we put up a bird feeder for suet balls. We had quite a lot of visitors during late autumn, to the point where we started thinking that we’d need to ration the balls because of cost. Then winter came, and suddenly there were hardly any birds at our feeder. Our theory is that they found better food elsewhere.

This year we upgraded to a seed feeder. We kept the suet ball feeder, too, but now we also have a little hut on a stick, filled with seeds. This way we can vary the food. It also allowed us to move the bird food further away from the house. The suet ball feeder hangs off the kitchen window, which meant that the twitchier birds would fly away as soon as anyone moved in the kitchen.

The new location seems perfect. We’ve got a good view of it from our dinner table. It’s far enough to for the birds to consider it mostly safe. It’s got various trees, bushes, eaves etc. within a few metres, in several directions, which allows the birds to scout out the area before coming in for a feed.

First we bought some sort of seed mix consisting mainly of oats and sunflower seeds. The sunflower seeds got eaten, but the birds totally rejected the oats. These ended up on the ground below the hut in such amounts that I couldn’t even see the ground underneath. They even started sprouting, so in November we had a thick mat of oat shoots underneath the bird feeder.

Then I checked which kinds of birds were supposed to like what kind of seeds, and mixed my own seed mix: peanuts, sunflower and hemp, since we mostly had small birds such as sparrows and tits. Turns out all the birds visiting us adore peanuts, and the sunflower seeds generally get eaten too, but no one touches the hemp. We’re forced to scrape out the hemp seeds now and again, or the hut will just fill up with them.

This season we have seen:

  • Sparrows, en masse, especially before the snow came. They preferred eating on the ground, and would eat the seeds that other birds had kicked to the ground, or kick down their own. They often travelled in gangs; sometimes there would be up to thirty sparrows underneath the feeder. Now during winter they are far fewer.
    I assumed at first that they were common House Sparrows (Passer domesticus, koduvarblane, gråsparv) but closer observation showed that most, or possibly all, were really (Eurasian) Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus, põldvarblane, pilfink).
  • Tits. We have two kinds, Great Tits (Parus major, rasvatihane, talgoxe) and (Eurasian) Blue Tits (Parus caeruleus, sinitihane, blåmes). For some reason the Blue Tits all look really scruffy, while the Great Tits look well-fed and sleek.
    The tits like to scratch away the less interesting seeds, then take a peanut and fly away with it to a tree, where they hold the nut with one foot while eating it. They often hang around the feeder together with the sparrows – neither seems bothered or scared by the other.
  • Nuthatches (Sitta europaea, puukoristaja, nötväcka). Beautiful sleek birds with a very distinctive behaviour – they often turn around to face downwards, both on the feeder and in the tree. They seem to like sunflower seeds best. They also often share the feeder with tits.
  • Jays (Garrulus glandarius, pasknäär, nötskrika). Even more beautiful than the nuthatches. Cautious birds who often abort their landings at the feeder, fly another scouting round, and then come back to feed. They’re also big, so the feeder wobbles whenever they land, and it’s hard for them to get into a good feeding position. But they manage. I get the impression that they travel in pairs – often when I see one, there’s another one somewhere nearby.
  • Magpies (Pica pica, harakas, skata). Brash and confident, often they scare away the other birds. Sloppy eaters: when they first arrived at the feeder, they would scratch around so much that much of the seed ended up on the ground. Eric had to modify the feeder (put up bars along the sides, so instead of one large opening on each side there are two or three small ones) so that the magpies don’t spoil all the food.
  • Blackbirds (Turdus merula, koltrast, musträstas). At first they would mostly land in our whitebeam tree and eat the berries, but now they’re also feeding off the seeds on the ground beneath the feeder. I think there might only be a single couple visiting us: I’ve seen a single male and a single female.
  • Green Finch (Carduelis chloris, grönfink, rohevint). It’s a rare visitor here; I’ve only seen it a couple of times.

Sparrows

Nuthatch

Blue tits

Jay

Some fresh bookmarks from delicious.com

The big news of this month is that Ingrid has stopped sucking her thumb during the daytime. Some days before Christmas I mentioned a couple of times that around Christmas she should stop sucking it, because it’s no good for her teeth. (She knows that’s true because the dentist said so.) She remembered it and took it more seriously than I had hoped, and reminded me on Christmas Eve that she would stop sucking her thumb.

And she did. That was pretty much it. The first few days I had to remind her at times, and sometimes she really wanted to, but managed to do without. I was really proud of her, and she was very proud when she told everybody at nursery. Since then, no problems whatsoever. She still needs/wants the thumb when falling asleep, and I’m willing to let that be for now. An unexpected but very welcome side effect is that she rarely wants to touch my cleavage any more. I guess the two activities together were some sort of effort to recreate the feeling of breastfeeding.

The first half of this month was dominated by Christmas: waiting for it, and then getting presents. The second half was, in turn, dominated by one of the above-mentioned presents: a board game. This was the first board game in our house, and Ingrid absolutely loves it. We have played it almost every day, sometimes several times.

It’s one of those games where you follow a path, rolling a die to decide how many steps to take, and special events happen at various places on the board. (Wikipedia tells me these are called “roll-and-move games”.) This particular game is called Drakguldet (The Dragon’s Gold), and the aim is to gather pieces of gold. On some squares you get a marker for a piece of gold, on some you lose one, on some you double your hoard, on some you have to run forward or fall back, etc. Ingrid is actually not that interested in getting the most gold, but would rather be the first one to reach the finish.

Ingrid loved the game from the moment she saw it. And it seems to be just right for her. During the first few evenings the challenge was to get her to follow the rules. She’s well aware of the concept of taking turns, so that wasn’t a problem. But there are also rules such as “you have to move forward all the time, not backwards” and “no, you cannot skip squares you don’t like” – not to mention “when counting steps, you don’t count the square you’re standing on”.

Naturally there is a lot of counting going on here: of pips on the die, of steps, and of pieces of gold. This has exposed some interesting things about her maths skills.

  • She doesn’t subitize any amounts larger than about 3 – she almost always counts them.
  • She cannot reliably tell the difference between the 4 and the 5 on a die, and either guesses or counts the pips (but always recognizes the 6).
  • She cannot translate numbers greater than 3 between languages. When she counts to 10 pieces of gold (in Estonian) and I ask her what that is in Swedish, she is totally lost. Four? Five? I guess it’s like being asked to translate 1001011 from binary to decimal. I can do it but not off the top of my head.
  • She doesn’t miscount when she physically moves objects, but she can easily miscount when just pointing at them, whenever the finger moves faster than the mouth.

Ingrid has also discovered that houses have numbers. She knows the number of our house (and the street name, although if a stranger asked her for it I’m not sure if theyd’ be able to decipher her pronounciation). On our way home in the afternoon, once we’ve made our way from the big road to the small streets, we stop briefly at almost every gate to look for the house number. She’s learned that the numbers can be found on the post box, or the gate post, or sometimes the house itself. However the number on the garbage can is not the house number. She cannot always tell which number is which (so I help) but she’s got 1, 2, 3, 5 and 0 down pat. And she knows that 2 and 2 side by side means twenty-two, and 1 and 2 is twelve (although 2 and 1 sometimes also make twelve) etc.

Continuing further on the topic of numbers, the number after twenty is “done!” because that’s what we used to say when counting was the only way to get her to allow us to brush her teeth. In fact it is “fourteen, eighteen, sixteen, nineteen, twenty, done!”.

Another game she played and liked was Memory, also known as Pairs. She’s encountered cardboard versions of it before, but this was an electronic one (at IKEA) which was more interesting and got her to pay more attention. She played it quite systematically: turn over a card, and then try all other cards against it until she finds a match. A, B, A, C, A, D, A, E etc.

Sometimes she likes typing on my laptop. I put Caps Lock on and turn up the font size to 48, and she types. She likes letters, sometimes numbers, but not punctuation marks or other weird wiggles. She knows the Backspace and Enter keys, and sort of kind of understands the arrow keys, too.

There’s more and more pretend play going on, now. All kinds of things are suddenly alive. Soft toys, of course, but also game pieces that must go to sleep, and pieces of potato that want to run away from the dragon and hide in Ingrid’s mouth. She likes to be a bear, herself (and I must be mother bear and we must go to sleep underneath the duvet because it is winter, and then it is spring and she wakes me).

Like last month, she likes to pretend she’s a baby, and her dolls are often babies, too. Babies want to be with mummy, and babies cannot do anything themselves, and they say “ääh” when they want something because they cannot talk.

There was a brief period when she was keeping a running commentary on everything she did – “now I will go and sit on the chair and have some milk” but that passed. There was also a period when she’d tell sing random stories, with a random melody – “when the bear was in the woods and picked berries there was another bear that came and he wanted to join” but that also passed. There were also several periods when Ingrid had a runny nose and would, at unpredictable points, insert the word “snor!” or “nohu!” in her speech (meaning “snot”, meaning “please wipe my nose”) without even changing the tone of her voice – “I took a book and now I want to read it snot!” and those also passed.

On the social side, Ingrid’s developed a clear understanding of the fact that others have moods and wants, and also of social expectations. When I sound curt or impatient, she asks me if I’m happy (“Kas sa oled rõõmus?). She asks about the moods of cartoon characters, and I explain that Donald Duck is looking sad / scared / anxious / angry / excited / impatient, as well as why. Her vocabulary in that area is clearly expanding.

She knows what “please” and “thank you” are for, and is willing to use them at times. She’s also wise enough to know that these words make me happy, so when she knows I am annoyed with her behaviour, she suddenly becomes extra polite.

And yet that understanding only goes so far and no further. A new and frequent feature in her conversations is a categorical “but you must!”. I tell her I cannot play just now / don’t want to sit by her side while she’s on the potty / will not read for her until I’ve finished cooking dinner. Her response is always “but you must!”, and she doesn’t really listen to any of my replies.

Favourite foodstuffs: julmust and, still, liver pâté. And cookies. Liver pâté is by far her favourite sandwich spread, and almost every dinner is concluded by a dessert of one or two cookies
Favourite colour: green. She appears to have decided, one day, that she likes green. Now almost every day she tells me that she likes green things. I think she ate broccoli today only because it was green.
Favourite movie: all kinds of Disney classics.

Favourite books: varied; the ones I can recall now include Nicke Nyfiken på sjukhuset (Curious George Goes to the Hospital), Mattias ja mamma, Mamma Mu, När Findus var liten och försvann.

Not favourite activity: sledding. I thought all children loved sledding, but Ingrid is not particularly interested. She does it at nursery, but when we’ve suggested it during the Christmas holidays, she’s declined.

Random observation: she moves like a child and not a toddler now. I remember noticing half a year ago, back in July when we were in Estonia, how she ran like a toddler, with her hips and legs moving sort of stiffly, with a bit of a waddle. That’s all gone now.

PS: The solution to our afternoon nursery pickup problems was to make it into a game. I would suggest or try to put her clothes on wrong – socks on her head, mittens on feet, fleecy trousers around her neck – and she would squeal with laughter and correct me. The fun is slowly going out of this game, there’s no squealing any more, but she still reminds every day that I should put her clothes on wrong.

Some fresh bookmarks from delicious.com

Plot summary: Pug, an orphaned boy brought up in a small keep in the far backwaters of the kingdom, finds himself apprenticed to the keep’s magician. Before he really has time to learn much magic, however, strangers – apparently from another world – are seen in the lands around the keep, sneaking around, seemingly preparing for an invasion.

Indeed, a rift has been opened between two worlds, by the magicians in the other world, in order to invade this one. This gives them a great tactical advantage. In order to figure out the nature and limitations of the rift, Pug and his master join a scouting foray. Unfortunately Pug is captured and taken to the other world. He stays there a long time, learns their magic and becomes a powerful magician.

Let me get it off my chest: Magician sucks. It is described as a “classic fantasy epic”, gets overwhelmingly positive reviews on Amazon and elsewhere. I found it boring and badly written. It isn’t awful. I actually finished the book (unlike some). But it is bad enough that I find it hard to come up with anything positive to say about it. Even Robert Jordan is better than this.

There is no originality. Pug’s world is a standard Tolkien-slash-medieval world: we’ve got humans (check), elves in the forests (check), dwarves in the mountains (check), and some killing robbing dark elves too (check). They have a standard feudal system, and that standard kind of magic where the magician mumbles a cantrip and waves his arms and stuff happens.

None of it comes to life. There is no depth to the world. I get no feeling of history, or life outside of the story line of this book. That other world is not described vividly enough to ever feel real. The characters are flat, all average and likeable and dull (except for one, who’s mad in a very standard way).

Even the magic feels fake. While magic, and the differences between the magics of the two worlds, are crucial to the plot, we only see very superficial examples of it, and with no understanding of how it works. It is all on the level of “he waved his arms and chanted and magically created some mist”.

The language is dull and plodding. The tone is monotonous. There is no sense of humour, no beauty, no power. The dialogue is embarrassingly bad, stilted and formal in an effort to make it sound medieval. It has no personality – even in the end I couldn’t keep some of the characters apart because they sounded exactly the same.

The pacing is weird, to say the least. At times, several years pass and you almost don’t notice. At other times, a single afternoon’s conversations are rendered in great detail. The siege of the keep takes 30 pages, and yet many more important and potentially more interesting events of the war are over in a few paragraphs. It seems that the expositions are only there to shine a spotlight on some particular person or relationship between persons. It is such painfully clumsy character-building that it’s embarrassing.

The story has no particularly interesting aspects or ideas. It’s hard to see what it’s about, what the point of it is. The plot just plods along, except for an occasional interruption from some very contrived scene. (For example: a commoner of no particular import, who’s barely learned to ride a horse, gets to accompany the princess on her daily rides – just so he gets an opportunity to rescue her.)

I wouldn’t recommend anyone to read this; there are much better examples of fantasy out there. And I have no intention of reading any other works by Feist.

Amazon UK. The book was published as two separate volumes in the US: Magician: Apprentice, Magician: Master.