Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Cold Days

Well... I haven't posted in about two weeks.  I've been on holiday!  I've actually mostly been at home, but that doesn't mean that I'm sitting around waiting to make posts!  I've seen The Hobbit twice, I finished Jim Butcher's latest novel, and, of course, I celebrated Christmas with my family, which is quite an involved procedure.  Celebrated New Years as well.  Also went to Cabela's, which is always An Event™ because it's so big and complicated, and from there we went to the Toledo Zoo and did the Lights Before Christmas event (even though we actually went between Christmas and New Years.)  After some recovery, all that walking around Cabela's and the zoo gave me tendon soreness and stiffness and I'm going to have to accept that I got a little too carried away in walking miles and miles and miles on concrete and given myself some kind of Achilles tendinitis or even tendinosis.  Sadly, that means I will have to stay off my feet as much as possible, and any workout goals I had won't involve running or long-distance walking, if I want the situation to actually improve.  Better figure out some kind of exercise bike action or something.

That's the bad news about the Cabela's and Zoo trip; the good news is that we went when it was cold and somewhat snowy.  The monkeys and many of the animals that we usually watch were not to be seen, but the Siberian tigers (there are four of them), the snow leopards, and the timber wolves were all out, about and much more active than I've ever seen them before (normally they sit in the shade and sleep) so I think it was a fair trade.  In fact, the snow leopards were... uh... well, it was mating season and there's a boy and a girl snow leopard, so that was interesting.

Oh, and I was quite sick with some kind of flu too.  I'm still coughing up mucus, although I'm otherwise fine now.  But it knocked me out for several days right before Christmas.

Other than Cold Days, which I did read and will review in a moment, I've also had several mammal paleontology books that have come in, mostly via interlibrary loan.  Quite honestly, I got them because they had Mauricio Antón illustrations, a guy who's managed to become a bit of a specialized paleoartist focusing on the Age of Mammals.  I got carried away with it looking for more detail on appropriate European and African NALMAs (or equivalent) that would coincide with the Rancholabrean NALMA that I use for the northern portion of my setting.  This is a somewhat recent development; I used to say that the Rancholabrean was current for the entire area.  Honestly, I'm not sure it's a major difference, or one that most fans would even notice, but since I decided that the southern portions of the map are more interglacial Europe rather than North America, and that the Kurushat area might be even African in nature, I thought I better do a bit of research on exactly what that means.  And, as it turns out, that wasn't quite as easy to discover as I'd hoped.  Wikipedia and Google both let me down, and I had to turn to the actual printed word in semi-specialist literature to find what I was looking for.  The good news, however, is that the trip was fun, I learned a lot of other stuff that I wasn't necessarily looking for but which was interesting, and my position on the faunas of my area is still evolving slightly (there's no actual need for an African fauna in the Kurushat region, since all I really need are hyenas, and cave hyenas, or even Pachycrocuta and Chasmoporthetes--depending on the time frame I pick--were all southern European at one point.

In any case, I had four books on prehistoric mammals, and technically I've only finished one of them.  And by "finished" I mean it's due, so I'm taking it back.  I didn't read it cover to cover (although with this particular book, I have before in the past.)  I'll probably only make the attempt to read one of the remaining three cover to cover as well.  Sadly (or maybe not) it's the most technical of the bunch, and the least appealing to the non-specialist.  I like to consider myself capable of reading technical literature, but I'm finding this one somewhat dense, with casual referrals to clades that I've never heard of being quite common.  I think as I advance in time (this one is a survey of the entire Age of Mammals in Europe, and the changing faunal assemblages over time) I'll do better, though.  It's perhaps less surprising that I'm less clued in about Paleocene and Eocene faunas.  As I get to the Miocene I get all kinds of interesting things like the Messinian salinity crisis and the Zanclean flood.  Plus, I get (in many ways) a recognizable fauna by then, with large machairodont cats, elephants (or gompotheres and mastodons), rhinos, horses, and whatnot.  One thing I discovered reading Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives was that the faunal turnover from the "last" prehistoric assemblage to an essentially modern one happened at different times in different places.  Africa, then, has the earliest example of a modern fauna taking over, and North America lingered in a Pleistocene fauna the longest.  Europe was somewhere in between.  So, do I want a middle Pleistocene fauna for the south and a late Pleistocene fauna for the north?  Like I said, it doesn't really matter.  And any fans of DARK•HERITAGE, if there were such a thing, wouldn't be as keen on the paleontological details as I am.  Meaning, it really doesn't matter.

Anyway, here's some cave hyenas eating a woolly rhino.  Nice pic.

Cold Days as the title of my post doesn't really refer to Ice Age mammals, though--it really refers to the Jim Butcher novel of the same name that came out a few weeks ago; the latest installment in the Dresden Files series.  After feeling that the series was on a climbing note--with a notable hiccup for Proven Guilty, it seemed to kind of peak in Changes and Ghost Story was a major let-down, a novel that was big on high concept, but short on... most of the other things that a good novel needs.  Cold Days was, on the other hand, a triumphant return to the Dresden Files stories that I like.  It is a really, really well done book.  And while, by its nature, it can't cover everything in the series, naturally, it did do some really nifty things.  Specifically, it really expanded the universe in dramatic and really cool ways, including giving a lot of info on the true natures of the Fairy Courts, and giving lots of new info on the Outsiders, the kind of lurking threat that has been merely glimpsed before now, but never really shown.

This is largely because Dresden starts the book off recovering from his coma, but still definitely a vassal to Mab, the Winter Queen.  That mantle won't be going away anytime too soon, although Vadderung (i.e. Odin) hints that it can be discarded safely at times.

More about the nature of immortals beings of pagan god-like status (including Odin himself, and Mab and the other Fairy Queens, the Goblin King--who doesn't look too much like David Bowie, sadly, but who is the leader of the Wild Hunt and is largely informed by Wild Hunt folklore, and the Erlking figure of folklore and literature of Central Europe) is given, including the importance of Halloween.

But mostly, it's just a good story.  The plot is well done.  The characters are, as always, interesting.  Butcher manages, when he's writing really well, to find an odd symbiosis of humor and horror that works extremely well for him, and I actually laughed out loud more than once while reading this book--but it still feels very much like a dark fantasy/horror novel in most respects.  The climax is great.  The glimpses into the magical society of the Dresdenverse is expanded, and in ways that are fascinating and really add to the mystique of the setting.

And more big changes for a number of characters.  The nature of the elusive enemy who's been manipulating things behind the scenes is hinted at and a name is given for the first time.  Dangling plot threads that go back to Proven Guilty (the mysterious attack on Arctis Tor, for instance) are addressed for the first time in over half a dozen novels.  Wow, I'd almost forgotten about that one.

All in all, I think Cold Days is one of the stronger entries in the series.  Let's be honest; I was going to read it anyway, but I do admit I was a little bit discouraged after Ghost Story was quite the let-down.  I think that's why I wasn't really paying very good attention, and I didn't even get the first hold on Cold Days when it came to the library.  I would have borrowed it from my friend Franz, but the Deacons weren't done with his copy yet, so I ended up getting the library copy after all--just a little bit later than I have in the past.  I think I'm going to be paying better attention in the future, based on this revival of the series.  Next time a new book is out, I don't want to miss several weeks.

Anyway, now that I'm done with that, I'll continue to tinker with my Age of Mammals books--including one on the changing megafaunas of Europe, one on the same subject for Africa, and one specifically about the history of the canid family (a nice counterpoint to my earlier book on the felid family--with some discussion here and there about nimravids and barbourofelids too.)  Once I'm done with them, I have the fourth Monster Hunter book in hand (borrowed from Franz) which is also a new release.  After that I can finally return to my own books, and I'll read the third and final book in the Heirs of Dhakaan series.  After that, I've had new copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for a few years, which replaced my aging copies that I got in middle school.  I haven't read either yet, and given that I quite enjoyed The Hobbit movie--more so than I expected to, I might add--I might read them next.  Beyond that... well, beyond that is more than half a dozen books out, so I don't need to be in too big of a hurry to commit to what happens next.


James Sullivan said...

I am still on the fence about The Hobbit. I think I need to see it in the normal format rather than the 48 frames/second format. I found it very distracting to watch that way. I also didn't care for the expansions to the story. But now that I know what is coming, I might enjoy it more.

I have been thinking of starting the Harry Dresden books for a few months now. I keep hearing recommendations from everywhere: from Instapundit to my Sergeant at work. And you. I would probably like them but I'm in the middle of a John Ringo series right now and time is a premium with 3 year old twins.

We'll see.

I entered the Paizo RPG Superstar 2013 contest, so that has been consuming a lot of free time too.

Joshua Dyal said...

Most of the expansions are in the appendices to the Lord of the Rings, for whatever that's worth. Meaning that rather than expansions, they're... well, they're supplemental, but "canonical."

I was all prepared to dislike The Hobbit immensely. Peter Jackson has a tendency to be way too overwrought, and I had a hard time imagining how a roughly 250 page book could plausibly be stretched out into three movies. But maybe going into it with low expectations was helpful; I liked it a lot more than I ever thought I would.

Like I said, it's motivated me to reread my Tolkien; something that I used to do regularly, but have only done once or twice in the last fifteen years or so.

The Dresden Files are also excellent reading. I picked them up from my local library and read them leisurely, but I liked them well enough, and I felt like I needed to reread every so often when new books were coming out so I could have the story fresh in my mind, that I finally broke down and bought all of it (so far) in mass market paperback, just so I can have them handy when I want them. Of the thirteen or fourteen novels in the series so far, I think the first one is a bit weak, but only relative to the much better ones that followed. And two of the other entries didn't quite do it for me; I found them poorer than their brothers. But the rest are incredibly good, just very fun pulp action/comedy/horror. It's as if Raymond Chandler decided to take the setting of Harry Potter and make it his own. Harry Dresden is a PI wizard in Chicago rather than a scrubby boarding school student in northern England, and everything is a great deal scarier.

Loads of fun, though. Quick reads, and readily available, so you never have to feel in a hurry to catch up with the series. Not only that, Butcher keeps them coming at a steady clip; nearly one a year. I never thought he'd be able to keep it up so many volumes without slipping in quality and getting tired, but so far he has not disappointed.

James Sullivan said...

I know the expansions are canonical. But after The Lord of the Rings trilogy movies (which I detest), I was hoping that 250 pages of story might be "just right" and Jackson wouldn't feel the need to expand upon it, canonical or not. Apparently, he just couldn't resist. It seemed that every time I read update on The Hobbit movie, another movie was added. Ugh.

As an avid reader, I've come to accept that books are usually too much for one movie. I used to hope a director would come along and do a book justice, keeping as much as possible. What bothers me is Jackson adding new stuff, especially the non-canonical stuff in LOTR. There was just no need for it. He had plenty to work with already.

Oh well.

For all that, I think The Hobbit was light years better than LOTR. I'd actually give it a second chance, in the standard frame rate. And I am very eager to see Smaug in all of his glory.