Monthly Archives: May 2021

The Hidden Palace (The Golem and the Jinni #2) by Helene Wecker

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If you have not yet read The Golem and the Jinni, stop! Right now! Go back. Read that, then we can talk about the sequel. Read it already? Great. Not yet? Ok, I’ll wait, but not for a thousand years, like some.

You’re back? Cool. Great book, right? So Chava, the golem of book #1 and Ahmad, the jinni of that tale, are a bit older, and a bit wiser. They are also a bit more rounded as characters. We’ll get to them in a bit.

The story begins with an extremely devout rabbi, Lev Altschul (very old school) on the Lower East Side (not the guy from the earlier book) He has come across some ancient texts, books with arcane knowledge. He is not the greatest parent in the world, a widower, much more devoted to his studies than his daughter, Kreindel. She is taken care of by, essentially, a committee of congregation members. But she loves her pop and wants to learn, wants to study. Of course, girls were not welcome to imbibe the texts that Jewish boys were encouraged to learn. She spies on lessons and picks up what she can. As it happens there is a pogrom underway in one of the usual places in Eastern Europe. The rabbi, with the help of those old books, can now do something about it. He determines to send to a rabbi in Lithuania a weapon that can be used to defend oppressed Jews there. He works day and night to construct a golem for them. It does seem that Wecker’s golems always run into transit issues. Instead of heading across the Atlantic, as planned, this one, Yossele, remains in New York, due to an untimely building fire. He awaits only wakening.

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Helene Wecker – image from Fantasy Book Cafe

Speaking of golems, Chava is trying her best to be as human as possible, given her natural limitations.

Q: When you thought about writing a golem character, did you think about other legends and myths about people being created out of inanimate matter? Adam from earth? The famous Golem of Prague, the greek myth of Prometheus, or Pygmalion? Frankenstein’s monster? Or even the idea of creating a modern robot? Did you want to write from those traditions or come up with something completely different?


A: I certainly wrote the Golem’s character with those legends and stories in mind. In fact, in early drafts she was much closer to something like the Golem of Prague. She had less emotion, and less insight into the emotions of others. But it became clear that that wouldn’t do for a main character. So I made her more empathic, more “human” in that sense, and I think that brought her closer to the androids and cyborgs of modern science fiction, like the replicants of Blade Runner and Star Trek’s Lt. Commander Data. But I think all these stories have the same sources at heart, and the same central question, of what happens when we create life that approaches human but isn’t quite. – from LitLovers interview re Book One

Despite being a magical clay being conjured by a spell, Chava still feels the compulsion to help others. And being telepathic allows her to have a pretty good idea of what folks feel, and need. Shutting out the onslaught of telepathic noise remains a challenge, but a much reduced one, as she has learned how to block a lot of it out, and she tries to stay away from overcrowded places. Concerned about people noticing her agelessness, after so long a time at the bakery, where she has been working since she arrived, Chava decides it is wise to move on. After completing a course of study at Teacher’s College, she finds an excellent gig at a Jewish orphanage in Manhattan, teaching cooking.

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Lt Commander Data of Star Trek NG – image from Wikipedia

Speaking of hot things, in Book One, Ahmad was mostly an elemental character, all fire and immediate gratification. Book Two shows a bad boy who can still bring the heat, but who has gained considerably more awareness, of himself, and of the world around him. He has grown a sense of decency, personal responsibility, and a need for purpose. He remains in business with Arbeely, the man who had released him from his thousand-year imprisonment in a flask. He molds iron with his bare hands. Business is good, booming even, so they expand to grander quarters, where Ahmad’s smoldering creative ambitions ignite to full blast.

Sleepless in Manhattan, Chava and Ahmad walk the streets and rooftops in the wee hours. They are best friends, committed to exclusivity with each other re the benefits of their connection. The young man enamored of Chava in Book One, her husband, is no more, killed off in that earlier tale. She is rightfully concerned about the downsides of having a husband or bf made of flesh and blood, and who might not live, ya know, forever, not to mention the risk of him discovering what she really is. Ahmad has sworn off humans, after the damage he did to Sophia Winston in the first book.

And, speaking of damaged heiresses, Sophia has been promoted to a top-tier character. She struggles to cope with the affliction that resulted from her getting jiggi with a jinni. I guess you could call it an STD, but not the usual sort. (Even had penicillin been invented, it would not have done the trick.) She cannot get warm. Sophia is convinced that only place where there is any hope of succor is the Middle East. She travels to many ancient sites, in a constant search for local experts in pharmacology able to concoct potions that alleviate her perpetual chill. (I suppose one might see in Sophia’s inability to douse her inner flames a symbol of her carrying the torch for someone. I wouldn’t. But some might.)

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Cleopatra’s Needle, was transported from Egypt and installed in Central Park in 1881 – image from Wikipedia

In case there were not enough magical beings wandering about, Wecker balances the scales, tipped by the weighty presence of Yossele, by adding one more. As it happens, Sophia encounters in her travels yet another fire being, a jinniyeh, Dima. It appears that the iron-bound jinni (Ahmad) is a character of legend in the jinni world. This female jinni has something special about her too, (I mean, aside from being a jinni, and going about her business unimpeded by attire) and is hoping to meet up with the only other jinni she has heard of who is also an outsider in their particular circle. She stands in contrast to Ahmad, presenting as the self-centered ball of fire he used to be.

Everybody wants something. Chava wants to be human; Ahmad wants a purpose; Sophia wants a cure; the jinniyeh wants a compatriot, maybe a partner. And in case that is not enough, Yossele wants to protect his master. Kreindel wants to study Hebrew and learn all that her father had learned. More? Remember Anna, a former workmate of Chava’s at the bakery? Chava had seriously put an end to Anna’s husband whaling on her, and subsequently helped Anna and her son, Toby. Anna is terrified of Chava and wants her to stay away. In this book, Toby is a fifteen-year-old Western Union messenger, who wants to know who his father is, and who that creep in his recurring dreams might be, and what the deal is with Chava and that Arab guy.

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Replicants from Blade Runner – image from NME

Wecker has seriously kicked up her game for this novel. There was plenty going in in the first book in terms of discussions about serious questions of religion and morality. That is no less the case in this one, with the exception that these characters are better drawn, more complex, and more interesting. They struggle with ethical dilemmas, and are challenged to make difficult decisions. There are some lovely interactions among them that will make you smile, maybe even recognize similar tete-a-tetes from your own experience.

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Pennsylvania Station – image from Traditional Building

This is not a ha ha funny book, but there are some elements of humor here and there. In a way it is a running joke that Ahmad, while working on a large construction, has continual problems keep the over-sized glass panels he has designed from smashing. Given that the primary ingredient in glass is sand, it seems fair to ask if Ahmad might be trying to build a literal sand-castle.

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Washington Square Park – circa 1907 – image from NY Public Library

Speaking of palaces, not all are hidden. The newly opened Pennsylvania Station, a glorious structure, is seen as a kind of palatial caravansery, a roadside inn for travelers from all over, where information was exchanged and commerce was conducted. It is a favorite spot for Ahmad on his urban peregrinations. He does not tell Chava about it, however, which makes Penn Station a bit of a hidden palace for him. Enough, certainly to merit being shown on the cover of the book. The ancient city of Palmyra, which we visit in Sophia’s wanderings, had once been a center of trade, and had a caravansary, but was mostly a ruin at the time of her visit. Palatial buildings are not the only old-world structures that echo in early 20th century Manhattan. The famous arch in Washington Square Park, erected in 1895, which was featured on the cover of The Golem and the Jinni, is reminiscent of the famous arch of Palmyra. The Greenwich Village arch is encountered again in Book Two. Cleopatra’s Needle, a two-hundred-ton obelisk, originally built in Egypt in the 15th century, was transported to Central Park in 1881. Sophia’s father visits it often.

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The arch in Palmyra – image from Wikipedia

There are many historical touchstones, as the book begins in 1900 and ends with the approach of World War I. Wecker notes the completion of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, the 911 of its time, with mass casualties, and people jumping from the top three floors of the ten-story Asch building to keep from being burned alive. We hear news of the start of World War I in Europe, come across the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and see the Arab community in lower Manhattan’s Little Syria neighborhood beginning its move to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

We also see some of the anachronistic social and legal norms of the time. Kreindel is not allowed to study what Yeshiva boys can. Chava is not allowed to own property. Women walking alone at night are considered suspect. So the women in Wecker’s stories have to be extra strong.

I don’t think I set out to deliberately showcase strong women, but I did consciously work to give every female character her due. I was very aware that I couldn’t be lazy about the women in my book, that the Victorian setting and the “fairytale” aspects might pull me toward more stereotypically weak or flat female characters if I wasn’t careful. At the same time, I couldn’t be anachronistic; I had to be true to the constraints that women lived with in that era. In the end, I became very interested in how they lived with those constraints, how they either chafed against them or found a (perhaps uneasy) peace and a certain amount of self-expression despite them. – from the Fantasy Literature interview in 2013

Secrecy is a theme that permeates. Chava thinks Ahmad would prefer having a jinniyeh to her, but cannot bring herself to ask him. He is hiding from her what he has learned about a huge sacrifice Arbeely had made for him. Kreindel lies about her age, and is hiding the fact that there is a golem under her control in Manhattan. (For my money, Kreindel is the most intriguing character in the novel, a child with limited tools forced to cope with life and death decisions, in an often hostile environment. She generates both admiration for her tough-as-nails exterior and empathy for her suffering.) Sophia is hiding her need for a special potion. Dima hides from her kind what her special characteristic is. In addition to hiding from humans what she actually is, Chava keeps Riverside Park and the streets she walks by day secret from Ahmad, as he keeps Penn Station secret from her. Ahmad is working on a huge project in his building that he will not let anyone see. I suppose one might see each of these characters as their own walking, talking hidden palaces.

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The Williamsburg Bridge under construction circa 1900-1906 – image from the Library of Congress via Untappedcities.com

The whole Golem/Jinni duology (so far) might have gone in a very different direction. Wecker talks about how it all got started in a lovely interview with the blogger Lady Grey, who has, in fact, been a friend of Wecker’s since childhood. It was during her MFA program that Wecker ran into a problem. She had wanted to write a book of linked stories, family tales of cultural background and immigration. Wecker is Jewish and her husband is Arab-American. She was impressed by how similar their family stories were, and wanted to highlight that.

You don’t pay all that money for them to be nice to you. They’re gonna tell you what they think. I was having this conversation with a friend of mine, Amanda, who was in my workshop with me. She gave me probably the best tough love conversation I’ve had in my life. She said, “Helene, can I ask you a question? Why are you writing like this?” I said “What do you mean, writing like what?” She said, “Ok, you’re doing these very Raymond Carver, very realist short stories. Very MFA model. But that’s not who you are. I’ve been to your apartment. I’ve seen your bookshelves. I know what a nerd you are. And you are always talking in class about injecting the genre into literature, and busting down the barriers and bringing magic into stories and that’s what you groove on. So why are you not doing that?” I honestly had never thought of that. She had taken my head and whipped it around to where I needed to be looking at. You know I’m still like “But that’s not…these stories…don’t…with the,…that, no.“ She said “ok, look. The next thing I see from you in the workshop, I want it to be about your family, but I want it to be magical.” I was like, “Ok…well that’s my marching orders. I’m going to do what she said. I went home and sat and thought about it. It was, literally, two hours later I had the rough outline for what would be The Golem and the Jinni.” – from the Lady Grey interview

It has been eight years since The Golem and the Jinni was published. Why did it take so long to wrote Volume Two? When her first novel was published, Wecker had a one-year-old. That child is now nine and a second has joined the family. Go ahead, try writing a novel with a baby, then giving birth to another, then having small children to take care of, even if you are sharing the duties with your mate. Piece of cake, right? Her editor was pretty understanding, at one point even telling her that if she was not ok with what she had written so far, to take another YEAR! So, supportive beyond belief.

I was lucky, and The Golem and the Jinni was successful enough that, before long, I could start thinking seriously about selling my next book. Readers seemed interested in a sequel; my publisher, too, liked the concept. I had a few vague ideas for other, non-Golem-and-Jinni books, but none of them were clamoring to be told. I was now mother to a two-year-old, with a baby on the way. I was turning forty, and I was tired. The first book had taken me seven years to write. I really, really didn’t want to do that again. Write a sequel, said my weary brain. It’s got to be easier than starting over from the beginning. – from the Fantasy Café interview

I guess that may have provided the needed direction, but her real -world constraints remained, and the work took much longer than hoped. I have seen no affirmation that a third Golem/Jinni book is planned. A third book is expected from Wecker, but there is no certainty that it will be another Golem/Jinni novel. In the interview with Lady Grey, Wecker talks about having a slew of material that was cut from this book. It sounded to me like she was contemplating a volume of stories that could accompany her two novels. But the ending of this one presents several hooks that could be developed into a third novel. I know which direction I hope she takes.

My gripes are minimal. While there is some humor in the book, it could have done with a bit more. The larger concern is that, even with some elements resolved, there are some in need of further exploration, and, in the absence of a third novel in the series, the ending leaves one hanging. While I would place a cautious wager on the series being made into a true trilogy, it is far from a certainty that this will happen, so far as I know.

Her lead characters are complex, and sustain our interest; their wants and challenges are clear; the secondary characters work well to support the narrative stream; Wecker offers an insightful portrait of a place and time; the action keeps us flipping the pages, eager to see what happens next; there are intelligent and emotional discussions about real-world concerns and moral issues; and there are sane outcomes offered to the challenges the characters experience. Ultimately, as will become clear when you read this book, it was worth the extra time it took for The Hidden Palace to find the light of day. It is as intelligent, engaging, and delightful a read as you could possibly wish for. Helene Wecker is a gifted weaver of tales, a fabulous, magical story-teller, and she is only getting better.

Review posted – May 28, 2021

Publication date – June 8, 2021

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, GR, Instagram, and FB pages

—–Library Love Fest – An Interview with Helene Wecker, Author of THE HIDDEN PALACE – with Chris Connolly – audio – 36:21
—–Fantasy Literature – Marion chats with Helene Wecker by Marion Deeds – this one is from 2013, and deals directly with the first Golem/Jinni book, but the content of the interview is still very informative for readers of the current book
—–LitLovers – An Interview with Helene Wecker
—–Discovering Magic with Helene Wecker – audio – 42:19 – with Lady Grey – they were friends since grade school – Trek nerds

Items of Interest from the author
—–Fantasy Café – Women in SF&F Month: Helene Wecker – on her challenges in writing The Hidden Palace
—–Jewish Book Council – Excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Odessa pogrom of 1905
—–Wiki on Palmyra
—–The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
—–The Hotel Earle
—–Penn Station

My review of The Golem and the Jinni

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, New York City

A Legend in His Own Time

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Daniel Boone had always despised, and would for the rest of his life, his outsize reputation as an Indian fighter. He maintained that dealing with belligerent Native Americans, whether via combat or negotiation, was for the most part a matter of luck and instinct. His rescue by Simon Kenton was evidence of the former, his quick thinking on the Licking River, the latter. He was vastly more proud of his ability to endure the burdens of a huntsman’s life with a seemingly preternatural stoicism. Now, it was as if the patience he had honed over a lifetime of stalking game through the deep woods was in anticipation of this moment. He would need that gift in the coming months.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite possessions was a bona fide, official Davy Crockett coonskin cap. No actual raccoons suffered to create that bit of headgear. Disney had made several live-action films in the 1950s (TV mini-series’ really) celebrating Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. Crockett may have actually worn one that wild creatures suffered to provide. Daniel Boone preferred beaver hats. Although Crockett and Boone were born a half-century apart their deaths were separated by a mere sixteen years. But to young TV viewers in the 1950s the two seemed inseparable, played on the screen by the same actor, Fess Parker, wearing pretty much the same costumes, no doubt saving Disney some wardrobe expenses.

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Fess Parker – image from the California Wine Club

The memories I retain of the shows are much-faded, but I doubt much has been lost. Civilized American good guy frontiersmen (Crockett) or pioneer (Boone) doing battle with hostile indigenous residents, and battling corruption among his own people. Standard TV fodder of the 1950s and early 1960s, with the usual doses of humble wisdom, and little mention made of the genocide that was being foisted on sundry North American native peoples.

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Bob Drury – image from Macmillan

It was the chance to fill that cavernous memory hole with some actual information, on at least one of Fess Parker’s greatest roles, that drew me to Blood and Treasure. On finishing the book, it was possible to drop a coin into that chasm and hear it hit bottom, after a reasonable wait, much better than hearing nothing prior.

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Tom Clavin – image from The Southampton Press

There is history and there is Boone. It is the information on both that is of great value here. Those of my generation at least know the name Daniel Boone, even if our image of him may have been the product of Disneyfication. I expect there are many, born later, to whom the name Boone is likelier to summon images of a baseball figure, a town or city by that name, or a brand of sickly alcoholic beverage. He was a fascinating real-world character, whatever hat he chose to wear. The authors report in the C-Span interview that, unlike Parker’s cinema-friendly 6’5”, Daniel Boone was actually 5’7” or 5’8,” a typical height for a man of his times. He had several cousins, however who were over six feet and Boone was concerned that a raccoon skin cap would make him look even smaller. He favored a felt hunter’s hat that was made of beaver.

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A child’s “Davy Crockett” hat – image from the Smithsonian

The character himself is fascinating, presenting both as a man of his era, and a person with some 21st century sensibilities. Daniel Boone was born in what is now Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 1734, the 6th of eleven children, to Quaker immigrants from England and Wales. The family ran afoul of local public opinion when one of their children married outside the religion, while visibly pregnant. When another, Boone’s brother, Israel, also married outside the faith, and dad stood by him, Pop was excommunicated. Daniel stayed away from the church after that. Three years later the family moved to North Carolina. While Boone carried a bible with him on his long hunts, considered himself a Christian and had all his children baptized, he was not exactly a bible thumper. He was open to other ways of viewing the world. This willingness to learn would serve him well. Boone was fascinated by and respectful of Indian ways as a kid. He spent considerable time with Native Americans, studying their culture, and learning their woodland hunting, tracking, and survival skills. He learned the birdsongs of local avian life, studied the use of plants for medicinal purposes, learned Indian crafts. He was a proficient enough hunter that by age twelve he was providing game meat for his family. His gift for frontier life was clear very early on. In a way he was a frontiersman savant, like those 7-year-olds who play Rachmaninoff as if it’s no big deal. By fifteen he was considered the finest hunter in the area.

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Daniel Boone by Alonzo Chappel – circa 1861 – From the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia

He had considerable respect for his wife, Rebecca, maintaining impressive wisdom about their relationship. After he had been away on a long hunt, for a year, for example, he returned home to be presented with a new daughter. He could count high enough to figure that the child was not his. Rebecca told him that she had thought he was dead (not an unlikely excuse at the time) and had fallen for someone who looked very much like Daniel, his younger brother. Daniel coped, noting with an impressive sense of humor that he had married a full-blooded woman, not a portrait of a saint, raised the girl as his own, and was grateful that Rebecca had at least kept it in the family.

He confronts many personal challenges over the years, losing several children (he and Rebecca had ten) to illness or Indian attacks. The book opens with the torture and murder of his teenage son, James. He is called on time and time again to work with militia or government military units. He served with the British in their conflict with their French rivals for North American influence. He was a part of many of the conflicts that took part in the western colonial lands in the late 18th century. I had not heard of any of these. Drury and Clavin point out their often very surprising significance.

Boone was not initially cast to star in this novel. Drury and Clavin, with more than a few history book pelts in their saddlebags, had written about the wars waged on the plains Indians, many of whom had been pushed west by the advancing white invaders, and wanted to trace that process back. The book covers, roughly, the period from the 1730s,when Boone was born, to 1799, when he moved his family west to Missouri. The book was supposed to be about how the Indians had been driven out of the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. In doing their research, however, Boone kept turning up, a Zelig-like character, involved in many of the seminal events of his time. Served with a British regiment? Check. Served with George Washington? Check. Developed the primary trail through the Cumberland Gap? You betcha. He even established a town that would be named after him, Boonesborough, and led the defense of a western fort, the loss of which might have changed the outcome of the American Revolution. The man really was a legend in his own time. A natural leader, he partook of many of the important battles that occurred between settlers, through their militias and their English backers, and both the native people they were attempting to displace and their French allies. He functioned as a diplomat as well, respected by many of the Indians and seen as a man of his word, not a common attribute at the time. And so he became the narrative thread that pulled together a large number of related, but disconnected parts.

The frontier in the 18th century was the Appalachian Mountains. The Wild, Wild West was the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. The English had entered into treaties with Indian tribes that basically drew a line there. We will allow our colonists to advance only so far, and no farther. The colonists, however, were more than happy to roll their eyes, mutter a “whatever” or the 18th century equivalent, and continue pushing westward, making life difficult for just about everyone. I was reminded of contemporary settlers, eager to occupy land outside their legal realm. At least some of this westward movement was driven by land speculation, including by some founding father sorts. I know it is tough to believe that real-estate developers might be anything other than sober, law-abiding capitalists, but, like the poor, it appears that we will always have them with us.

Drury and Clavin offer a look at the diverse tribes that occupied the areas in conflict, showing differences among them. One particularly horrifying episode involved a group of Indians who had converted to the Moravian faith, a sect of Christianity. They were pacifists, took up no arms, but were slaughtered anyway by a group of American Rangers in what became known as the Moravian Massacre, a shameful episode, widely talked about at the time. We also see leaders of one tribe, in negotiations, willingly ceding land to their white counterparts, when they, in fact, had no hold over that land at all. I was reminded of the contemporary situation in Afghanistan, among other places, where tribal allegiances easily trump larger national demands. Many of the most effective, and memorable of Indian leaders are shown, impressive in their tactical leadership, creativity, and tenacity.

The American Revolution was more an eastern than western conflict, but there were times when battles on the western frontier might have determined a different outcome to the colonial attempt to separate from the motherland. These were mostly, no, they were entirely, news to me.

It is in learning about so many of these turning points that the value of the book is most manifest. If, like me, your knowledge of American history has been shaped primarily by what we learned in grade school, high school, and college, and absorbed from popular culture, you will get a very strong sense of just how much we do not know, and had never suspected. In a way, it was like opening up the back of a mechanical watch and seeing all the intricate gears at work, impacting each other to produce the simple result of indicating the time of day. Getting there is not so simple. Nor is truly appreciating how 21st century America came to be what it is today. This book offers an up-close look at some of those gears.

My reading experience of this book was wildly divergent. I found it to be a very difficult read for the first half, at least, dragging myself through anywhere from ten to thirty pages a day for what seemed forever. Even then, I recognized that there was a lot of valuable information to be absorbed, so stuck with it. It is true that there are a lot of characters passing through these pages, a bounty of place names, a plethora of battles, skirmishes, and conflicts that were significant and interesting. But it felt so overwhelming that the TMI sirens were blaring repeatedly.

But at a certain point, some of the characters, through repeated appearance, became recognizable. Oh, yeah, I remember him now. Wasn’t he the one who…? Yep, that’s the guy. At a certain point it was not a duty to return to the book, fulfilling a felt obligation, trying to learn something, but a joy. Quite a switch, I know. But as I read the latter half of the book, it became clear that this was not just a rich history book, but quite an amazing adventure story, a saga, filled with deeds heroic and dastardly. There are many compelling characters in these pages, and so many ripping yarns that reading this became like sailing through something by George R. R. Martin. Taking the analogy to the next step, I have zero doubt that, with the many compelling narratives at play in this book, it would make a fantastic GoT-level TV series. It certainly has the blood and gore to play at that level, the territorial rivalries, the vanity, backstabbing, the double-dealing, the battles, sieges, murders, tortures and war crimes, but also the underlying content to give it all a lot more heft. This is how nations are created. This is how they grow. These are the people who paid the price for that creation. These are the decisions that were made, the promises broken and kept, the lies told, the excuses offered. Sorry, no dragons, or other mythical beasts, but there is, at the core, a bona fide legend. (James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohican was inspired by Boone rescuing his kidnapped daughter, Jemima) Thankfully, it will require no blood for you to check this one out, and only a modest amount of treasure.

Like the Cherokee, the tribes north of the Ohio River strongly suspected that America’s War for Independence was being fought over Indian land despite high-minded slogans about taxation without representation. It was the Shawnee who recognized the earliest that this internecine conflict among the whites could only end badly for the tribe should the rapacious colonists prevail. Native American support of the Crown, in essence, was the lesser of two evils. It was not the British, after all, who had begun desecrating Kanta-ke with cabins and cornfields.

Review posted – May 21, 2021

Publication date – April 20, 2021

I received this book as an e-pub from St Martin’s Press via NetGalley in return for a fair review. No raccoons, beavers, or other wildlife were harmed providing headgear used during the writing of this review.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Bob Drury’ personal site, and to Tom Clavin’s personal and FB pages

Items of Interest
—–C-Span – Interview with Drury and Clavin – video – 50:08 – This one is all you will need
—–Gulliver’s Travels – Boone’s favorite book
—–National Museum of American History – The saga of Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap
—–Wiki on the Moravian Massacre
—–Wiki for Last of the Mohican
—–Gutenberg – full text of Last of the Mohicans

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Reviews

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

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Thirty years. I looked out at their little faces. In thirty years they’d all be in their early forties. They would bear the brunt of it all. And it wouldn’t be easy. These kids were going to grow up in an idyllic world and be thrown into an apocalyptic nightmare.
They were the generation that would experience the Sixth Extinction Event.

Knock-knock-knock.
No, that’s not creepy at all. Being in a spaceship twelve light-years from home and having someone knock on the door is totally normal.

At least Mark Watney was in the same solar system. At least Mark Watney had a rescue ship that might, at least, have been on the way. At least the sun that was shining down on Watney’s potato garden was not being nibbled to bits by some intergalactic pestilence. At least life on Mark Watney’s home planet was not looking at an expiration date measured in decades. Pretty cushy situation next to the one in which our astronaut finds himself in this story. At least Mark Watney knew who he was.

I slide one leg off over the edge of my bed, which makes it wobble. The robot arms rush toward me. I flinch, but they stop short and hover nearby. I think they’re ready to grab me if I fall.
“Full-body motion detected,” the computer says. “What’s your name?”
“Pfft, seriously?” I ask.
“Incorrect. Attempt number two: What’s your name?”
I open my mouth to answer.
“Uh…”
“Incorrect. Attempt number three: What’s your name?”
Only now does it occur to me: I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I do. I don’t remember anything at all.
“Um,” I say.
“Incorrect.”
A wave of fatigue grips me. It’s kind of pleasant, actually. The computer must have sedated me through the IV line.
“…waaaait…” I mumble.
The robot arms lay me gently back down to the bed.

The astronaut struggles to find out not only who he is, but where he is, and how he got there. Part of that is a running joke in which he makes up names to tell the computer. It’s pretty adorable. After working on a pendulum to help with an experiment, for example, he answers the computer with I am Pendulus the philosopher. Incorrect. He does, eventually, remember his name.

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Andy Weir – image from his Facebook pages

The title of the book may seem opaque to some folks outside the US. Weir is referring, of course, to a last-ditch play to win or tie American football games. It is called the Hail Mary pass. Keep enough blockers back to protect the quarterback while all available receivers head for the end zone as the quarterback lofts a pass, usually of considerable distance, in the hope that one of the receivers can haul it in through an act of divine intercession. The play is named for the prayer of course.

It’s caused a lot of headaches with the translators. Nobody outside the U.S. knows this phrase. Even English-speaking countries like the U.K. don’t have that expression. In most of the language translations, they’re changing the title. In one of them it’s just called The Astronaut or something like that. – from the GR interview

In Andy Weir’s latest novel, the survival of life on planet Earth, and whatever other life might be swimming, flying, creeping, or otherwise meandering about in our solar system, is imperiled by an invasive species. (Not really a spoiler, more of an aside. OK, a pet peeve here. We have a few names for our home planet, and for the rest of the rocky and gaseous chunks floating about our particular star. So why has humanity been so singularly unable to come up with a decent name for our solar system? I mean calling our solar system “the solar system” is like slapping a label on a can that says “food.” (Yes, I know this was done in the movie Repo Man, but it was intended to be ironic. At least I hope it was.) I mean how generic and undescriptive can we be? There are billions of solar systems out there, and I bet there are plenty that have nifty names. So, I am gonna go for it and claim that from now on our solar system should be called the Will Byrnes Planetary System (WBPS). Recognizing that this is in no way deserved, I will happily cede it to a more reasonable name, one grounded in actual achievement or cultural significance…for a cup of coffee (20 oz at least) and a couple of doughnuts (one glazed, one jelly). Until then, it’s mine, all mine. The nasty little buggers have a talent for converting energy to mass and mass to energy. Their little eyes (if they had eyes) light up in the presence of an active power source the way some of us feel compelled by the sight of pastries in a shop window. Which would make our sun a doughnut shop with a few quadrillion hungry customers beating down the door. Not a wonderful situation for the shop. A more apt, if somewhat less entertaining image, is that of a vast swarm of locusts denuding a landscape.

Hoping for an act of god might be worth a shot. His ship, and the project that spawned it, are named for the prayer, even though by way of a sport. Hail Mary full of…um…Ryland? Well, Ryland Grace. It remains to be seen whether or not the Lord is with him, or his ship. But he is not alone, although, after finding that his crew-mates did not travel well, it seems like he would be.

Luckily for Ry, Earth is not the only populated planet imperiled by this galactic pain in the neck. He encounters another, and thus begins a beautiful friendship. I won’t bother with describing Rocky, other than to say that Rocky is not at all humanoid. Through engineering ingenuity and commonality of purpose the two find a way to communicate with and help each other in their mission to save their respective planets. There is a child-like quality to Rocky, as well as a very creative brain, and a universal decency, that will make you care about him/her/it/whatever. There is no one better than Weir at writing adorable.

Weir, the Ted Lasso of science fiction writing, has been trying to work on his character-writing skillset. He is amazed that so many people loved The Martian, despite the fact that his hero goes through absolutely no change during his ordeal. He had given Watney his best personal characteristics, on steroids. Then had a go at a less idealistic character in his novel, Artemis, using what he saw as some of his lesser personal characteristics to inform his lead.

Ryland Grace was my first attempt to make a protagonist not to be based on me. He’s a unique character I’m creating from whole cloth, and so I’m not limited by my own personality or experiences. – from the GR interview

I am not sure he has succeeded. The special energy that powered astronaut Watney was a combination of superior technical skills, a wonderful, wise-ass sense of humor, a can-do attitude, and a deeply ingrained optimism. Mark Watney could have been on the Hail Mary in place of Ryland Grace and I am not sure most of us would have noticed, well, except for a couple of personal downsides. The sense of humor is pretty much the same. Ditto for the technical talent and scientific problem-solving predisposition. He may be a tick down from Watney on the optimism chart, but you will get the same satisfaction from watching Grace as you did his Martian predecessor. But while Weir’s character development skills might still be…um…under development, his story-telling skills remain excellent.

The stakes are high, global extermination, multiple global exterminations actually, and the future of life as we know it, and some life we know very little about at all, is dependent on two creatures working together to solve the biggest problem of all time. No pressure. So, a buddy story. A tale of friendship far from home.

The narration alternates between two timeframes. In the contemporary one, Ry uses his special scientific-method powers plus base of knowledge to figure out the situation he is in, and come up with serial solutions to serial challenges. This is totally like The Martian, although this guy is maybe a bit less funny.

I’m a smartass myself, so smartass comments come naturally to me. For me, humor is like the secret weapon of exposition. If you make exposition funny, the reader will forgive any amount of it. And in science fiction—especially with my self-imposed restriction that I want to be as scientifically accurate as possible—you end up spending a lot of time doing exposition. – from the Publishers Weekly interview

The other is the history of how he came to be there. This will also remind one of the back and forth of the on-Mars and Earth-politics alternating streams of Weir’s mega best seller.

Although his writing is out of this world, Weir’s process ain’t exactly rocket science. Like his characters, he uses available parts, plus a base of knowledge, to build what needs to be built. He had a few lying about in his shop.

After The Martian, I had this idea for this massive space epic—a traditional sci-fi pilot with aliens, faster-than-light travel, and telepathy and a war and, yeah, a ten-book series and everything. I worked on it for about a year; it was going to be called Zhek. I got 70,000 words in, and…I realized that it sucked…But there are a few nuggets in Zhek that were solid. There was one interesting character who was this absolutely no-nonsense woman with a ruthless drive to get what she needs to get done and a tremendous amount of secret authority. And she became Stratt in Project Hail Mary. The other thing is, in Zhek there was this substance called black matter, which was a technology invented by aliens that would absorb all electromagnetic waves, all light, and turn it into mass and then turn it back into light…if humanity got ahold of some of that, it would be neat, but it would suck if we accidentally let any of that get into the sun—that would be a disaster. I’m like, “Wait a minute, that would be a disaster! That’s where books come from!” – from the Goodreads interview

And divorce lawyer billables. Love his evident excitement at this EUREKA moment. There is a decided innocence to it, and a natural-born optimist’s way of seeing the bright side of life, a characteristic with which Weir very successfully endows his leads, well, some of them anyway.

I quite enjoyed The Martian, despite Watney’s immutable self. And I liked Artemis as well, with its more nuanced lead. This one feels like more of a throwback to his earlier work. If you loved The Martian you are gonna love this one. Tough situation, far from home, charming, brilliant, smartass lead, with an adorable, brilliant, very non-human mensch of a pal, lots of mostly accessible science, and some fabulously interesting concepts. For a book that is pretty down to earth in many ways, Project Hail Mary is absolutely out of this world.

Science teachers know a lot of random facts.

Review posted – May 7, 2021

Publication date – May 4, 2021

Thanks to Ballantine books for an early look at Project Hail Mary and to MC (you know who you are) for interceding on my behalf to make that happen. You have been an answer to my prayers.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interviews
—–GoodReads – The Science (and Math) of Andy Weir’s Sci-Fi Success by April Umminger – a particularly good one
—–Publishers Weekly – Weir(d) Science: PW Talks with Andy Weir by Lenny Picker
—–Writer’s Digest – The Writer’s Digest Interview: Andy Weir, Author of ‘The Martian’ and ‘Artemis’ by Tyer Moss – as is obvious from the title, this 2018 interview was done when Artemis was released. But it still offers a good look at Weir
—–Salon – “I don’t want to be L. Ron Hubbard”: Andy Weir on writing escapism & new book “Project Hail Mary”

I do not put current events or modern analogs or anything of that sort into my stories. My stories are 100% focused on entertaining the reader with no message or moral. I’m not trying to educate you on anything or change your mind about anything. When you’re done with my book, I want you to put it on the shelf, and the only emotion I want you to have is, “That was fun!” and that’s it. Then you move on with life. I’m not so arrogant as to think that I have some duty or even the right to tell people what they should think or how to live their lives. I just want it to be fun. It’s simple. My books are simple light-hearted reading. They’re not deep. They do not have any hidden meaning. I just want you to have fun. That’s all.

My reviews of other work by the author
—–Novels
———-2014 – The Martian
———-2017 – Artemis

—–Short Stories
———-Annie’s Day
———-Diary of an AssCan
———-The Egg

Songs/Music
—–The Beatles – Get Back
—–The Beatles – Sergeant Pepper – Chapter 18 – refs the album – I linked the title song
—–Aretha – Chain of Fools – Chapter 19
—–Monty Python – Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life

Items of Interest
—–A stack of Weir’s writings
—–Amatersu – no, not named for amateurs, but a Japanese sun goddess. This is the name of a Japanese probe that is studying the sun.
—–JAXA – the Japanese space agency
—–Panspermia
—–Spin Drive
—–Poseidon Adventure – Chapter 20
—–Aeon – Proof of Life: How Would We Recognize an Alien If We Saw One? by Samuel Levin

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Filed under Action-Adventure, Artificial Intelligence, Fiction, Reviews, Science Fiction