Monthly Archives: August 2015

Outlaws of the marsh (水浒传)

Outlaws of the marsh (水浒传)

Outlaws of the marsh is one of (many) different titles of the Shui hu zhuan, one of the four classics of Chinese literature (the others are Journey to the West, The romance of the three kingdoms, and The dream of the red chamber). It’s also known as The water margin, All men are brothers, and occasionally by its Japanese title, Suikoden.

Note that three of the four classics are perpetual video game/anime fodder.

Plot summary

Told as a series of vignettes, The water margin follows 108 bandits/heroes as they eventually take refuge in a marsh fortress where they band together and seek revenge against the corrupt officials who have wronged them.

There’s also a third volume in which the bandits fight on behalf of the government but its authenticity is questioned and I haven’t actually read that one.

So how is it?

There’s a saying in Chinese that I think I’ve mentioned here before. It translates as “the young shouldn’t read The water margin, the old shouldn’t read The three kingdoms.” To over explain, The water margin’s heroes are not good role models. They spend most of their time as bandits and their only real redeeming feature is their commitment to each other. Even when one of them attempts to “lie low” they end up getting drunk, getting a giant tattoo, and ransacking the temple where they were supposed to be hiding out. Another chapter includes a discussion of the secrets to a successful seduction, one of which is “having a tool as large as a donkey’s.”

Really it’s not significantly different than the unexpurgated Book of one thousand nights and a night, or the Canterbury tales. Modern English editions of the latter tend to tone down the language considerably and for most modern English speakers reading Middle English is exhausting at best. The distinction between modern written Chinese and the language of The water margin is significantly less pronounced than with Chaucer, and since the target audience for most translations is academics the “low humor” is more evident for most readers. It’s closer to Rabelais than Chaucer in that respect, though Rabelais is more current.

Enough lit crit. The water margin actually reads pretty well for a moden audience. I’d go as far as saying it’s the most accessible of the four classics. That the protagonists are outlaws help to reduce the degree of baker puns knowledge required. 

It reads like a serial adventure. Each chapter is mostly self contained which makes it easier to pick up and put down without committing to a lengthy session. That’s mostly a benefit but after a dozen or so chapters the fact that almost every chapter follows the same basic formula can start to wear.

Translation notes

I’ve read parts of several versions, both in Chinese and English. Assuming that most people coming here who read Chinese won’t care about what I have to say about that, the best translation I’ve read is probably the one titles Outlaws of the marsh, but…

It’s out of print and incredibly expensive if you can’t find it at a library. 

Unfortunately, good translations are surprisingly difficult to find. Wuxia novels have this issue too, to the point where huge swathes of a fantastic genre are just completely unavailable in English. The translations that are available are frequently by graduate students rather than professional translators and frequently err on the side of the overly literal or overly poetic (see Fox volant of the snowy mountain for a translation that manages to be both).


The translation issues above, alongside poor availability, make it difficult to recommend. I do anyway, but carefully.

I generally recommend Outlaws of the marsh (that’s the edition available in my local consortium) to people who only read “literary” fiction or to Literature teachers looking to expand their horizons. 

If it was more widely available I’d recommend it to all those parents of teenagers who complain that their child only reads fantasy novels (or whatever genre is the current bête noir of excessively serious parents) but even then it’s still “literature” enough that teens or younger readers who aren’t reading above their grade level probably won’t stick it out long enough to get to the really fun parts.

In general I’d recommend the abridgment of Journey to the west released under the title Monkey, which is more accessible and more widely available before I’d recommend this but since Monkey is essentially a superhero story I’d recommend Outlaws of the marsh to the truly stuffy types as the “it’s one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature” will only go so far in getting the obnoxious literary snobs (who I didn’t believe really existed until I got a job at a public library in an absurdly wealthy modern-day Mayberry) to read it. Expecting them to read a book about an immortal flying monkey is probably expecting too much.


Let’s go now to something painfully serious.

Kindred / Octavia Butler

This is one of those classic sf books that appears to get overlooked with depressing frequency due to the authors twin failings of being neither white nor male. It’s too bad because it’s exactly the kind of depressing uncomfortable stuff that awards committees love (and I mean that in a good way).

Seriously the basic premise isn’t that different from Slaughterhouse Five but Kindred is way more impactful.

Plot summary

Kindred is the story about a young woman who finds herself “unstuck in time”. Unlike Billy Pilgrim, instead of randomly traveling throughout her own life she finds herself being continuously transported to a plantation in the antebellum South.
Continue reading Kindred


Foreigner / C.J. Cherryh

Foreigner is the first book in a series that as far as I can tell is just called “the Foreigner series”. Each book is usually described as the sequel to the one before it which makes figuring out the order somewhat time consuming if  it never occurs to you just to look it up online.

That’s something of a problem because Foreigner is less the first book in a series and more the first chapter of a huge romain fleuve, so reading them out of order is less desirable than usual.

It’s also one of my favorite books/series.

Plot summary

Foreigner tells the story of a colony ship knocked hopelessly off-course. In need of supplies and with no idea how to get home, the three major factions (officers, crew, and the colonists themselves) are unable to agree on the best course of action. Eventually, a space station is built around a habitable planet, home to a species, the atevi, that has just discovered the steam engine.

Over 100 years later, the human colonists are limited to a single island and only one human, the paidhi, is permitted to interact with the atevi. The paidhi is responsible for regulating the transfer of technology from the humans to the atevi, using years of study and immersion in the alien culture in order to avoid potential cultural destabilization. Bren Cameron is the newest paidhi and quickly finds himself the target of what appears to be an assassination plot. Bren is forced to decide who to trust in a culture that lacks even the concept of friendship as he attempts to make sense of the volatile political situation.

So how is it?

If you’d asked me that question two years ago, or even last year, I’d have said it was one of my favorite books. Now I’m les sure of that. It’s still great, and it is one of the most effective elucidations of Cherryh’s themes of cultural disconnect and the resulting challenges thereof, but it’s so long now that reading the whole thing is a major commitment.

For the average US reader, getting through this series would take years of reading nothing else. That’s a tall order, and to be sure the same is true of Aubrey-Maturin and sf readers, like romance readers, tend to read far more than the average, but still, for me, who generally reads at least 150 novels a year (more if you count comics and nonfiction) it ended up being excessive and I had to take a break. Which leads to the second pair of issues:

1) It’s really hard to tell what order these books are supposed to be read in

2) bookstores are horribly inconsistent when it comes to carrying the whole series, or even just a selection of consecutive books

For number 1, the internet makes this a little easier, and some libraries have taken to numbering the books themselves, but as it stands the only indication of the order of the books is generally a line on the cover that says “the sequel to [title]”. This led me to an entertaining reverse journey as I tried to find the first book in the series from the 7th or 8th. Some printings do feature a list on the inside, but as with historical romance novels that list isn’t always easy to find.

For number 2, this is where you’re better off checking your library. I have the advantage of living in an urban area with lot of public libraries. The libraries seem to have collectively decided: some will carry the entire series and some not carry the series but will carry all of her other books. We have a highly efficient ILL system around here so that works pretty well. Bookstores are really bad at it though (especially, I am going to call out the Oakbrook Barnes and Noble , for having one of the worst sf selections larger than 24 linear feet).

Now ow that I’ve wasted several hundred words on administrative junk I’ll talk about the book/series itself.

It’s really good. It features an incredibly complex storyline with close to a dozen different factions but no clear “bad guys”.  The length is a big advantage here, as no single book is tightly focused on a few events. Most books only cover a couple of days as Bren attempts to navigate the Byzantine power structures of atevi society. Anyone who has been an immigrant, or at least lived abroad for any length of time, will recognize the challenges he faces here. Returning  home is just as difficult, as Bren discovers that the changes he has made in order to succeed amongst the atevi have made him an outsider in his own culture as well. Many of the oning conflicts in the series stem from problems of translating between languages that don’t even share a biological context, let alone a cultural one.

It’s one of the most effective portrayals of a convincingly alien culture I’ve ever encountered, even if Cherryh isn’t always successful at completely hiding her inspirations (not that that’s exactly necessary). It truly is a work of anthropological science fiction in the best  sense of the label. Bren ends up attempting to balance the interests of half a dozen human factions and at least as many atevi associations. It’s a thoroughly complex work that does a good job of respecting the reader to be smart enough to figure out what’s going on, since the plots of each book are rarely explicitly laid out.


It’s a great book and series but to get the most out of it requires a pretty significant investment. As a result I’d probably recommend Cyteen or Downbelow station over this unless it was a really hardcore reader. The series is more or less broken up into trilogies that are more or less complete, so those who have already read those other books or who wanted to give this a try could assign themselves a “stopping place” at the third or sixth book and still experience some resolution.

As I mentioned above, Cyteen or Downbelow station are probably more accessible, so I’d recommend those first unless someone was explicitly looking for something lengthy.

A civil campaign

A civil campaign / Lois McMaster Bujold

A civil campaign is definitely my favorite of the Vorkosigan books to date. It features a significantly more lighthearted tone than most of the series, and Bujold herself has described it as a “romantic comedy”. 

Plot summary

After returning to Barrayar Miles is eager to court Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Unfortunately, the arrival of sex-selection technology around the time of Miles’s birth has resulted in a generation with a severe gender imbalance and Miles must contend with a horde of other suitors.

Meanwhile, Ekaterin is living with her aunt and uncle, both highly respected engineers. Deciding to pursue her love of gardening and landscape design she has sworn never to marry again. After the events of Komarr are classified at the highest levels, Ekaterin  and Miles discover themselves implicated in an ugly rumor, one that ImpSec refuses to dispel as it provides an effective cover story for what really happened during the Soletta Array disaster.

So how is it?

As I’ve said, it’s not the “best” Vorkosigan book but it is my favorite. There’s a playful silliness here that serves as a nice contrast from the drama of psychological abuse that serves as the center of Komarr. Together, the two books balance each other out wonderfully.

There are several interesting subplots in A civil campaign that sere as interesting social commentary, especially as they intersect. 

René Vorbretten, newly married and eager to start a family, discovers that his grandfather was the son of an officer of the Cetagandan occupation, not his great-grandfather. The conservative faction of the Council of Counts jumps on this opportunity to have Vorbretten stripped of his titles.

In another subplot, Barrayar’s system of male primogeniture is challenged by the newly available medical technology.

In a third subplot, one Count attempts to deal with both the underpopulation of his district and the general societal gender imbalance by taking unused donor eggs and growing himself several hundred daughters.

All of these subplots have some interesting things to say about the assumptions made by chauvinists about how widely their views are held, and the way different interests interact to create political coalitions. 

A civil campaign might be the “romantic comedy” of the series, but that doesn’t mean it shares the normal conflation of obsessive, possessive behavior with romance. Miles’s attempts to court Ekaterin without her knowledge end up working well as a deconstruction at the way the classic romantic comedy structure eliminates women’s agency.*

Miles is presented as much more flawed here than he sometimes is, and finds himself confronting that his standard strategy when dealin with people is attempting to manipulate them into doing whatever he wants.

The way everything comes together is perfect, complete with an obnoxious proposal and a Shakespearean pairing-off of most of the recurring characters, but there are some really poignant moments. The emperor Gregor’s discovery about the type of person his father really was from The Vor game comes back here as Ekaterin struggles with letting her son know what really happened at the end of Komarr.

It’s a great book, but it’s conceivable that it might be too silly for some. There are several Oscar Wilde-sequel moments, including a disastrous dinner party and a scene where one character’s creditors catch up with them. There’s also what amounts to a food fight in there. A civil campaign maintains the emotional depth of the series but never feels grim. My favorite Vorkosigan book, but Sam the Eagle types will be cranky at the tone.

*the best of the classic romantic comedies is obviously His girl Friday, and a major factor in that is that the original stage version was about a platonic relationship between two men.

The thousand names

The thousand names / Django Wexler

In my previous post I mentioned that I might do a longer post on this one. I’ve since finished the second book in the series (on the quatorze, no less) and have lots to say about it so I’m going to review this one first.

The thousand names is the first book of The shadow campaigns, a “flintlock fantasy” series heavily inspired by the time period of the French Revolution.

Plot summary

The Vordanian colonial troops in Khandar are in a rough place. After a religion-fueled rebellion, the Vordanian-backed Prince of Khandar has been forced to flee the capital. Stranded in a remote, barely defensible fortress, the Vordarians hope that the impending arrival of a new Colonel will come with orders to abandon Khandar to its new rulers. 

Unfortunately, the new Colonel is Janus bet Vhalnich, an absentminded noble who is convinced he can lead his undertrained, vastly outnumbered troops in a campaign to reconquer Khandar for its prince. 

So how is it?

It’s the first book in my favorite fantasy series I’ve read in quite a while. Still, some of my appreciation is down to very personal factors in that the series seems intent on catering to my whims so I’ll try not to oversell it to those who don’t share some of my more esoteric interests.

First, The thousand names is a novel about a military campaign before it is a fantasy novel. I picked it up off the new release shelf at the library where I worked during a time when I was having problems finding books to read. I almost abandoned it after reading the prologue and first chapter, as I found the apparent protagonists utterly unlikeable and it seemed like the book was going to be a rah-rah manly men love to fight kind of thing. It was only the references to thee petit caporal in the acknowledgement a that kept me going. Looking back on it and after rereading it I’m not sure where I was getting that from and am suspicious that I was just in a bad mood at the time. After reading it, I’ll say that it is one of the best campaign novels I’ve ever read.

The thousand names is significantly more straightforward than later books in the series. It functions well as a tight introduction to what will become an incredibly complex conflict. 

There’s an especially great sense of moral complexity. For the most part, the opposing factions are depicted as groups of individuals rather than monoliths. Neither side is particularly “good”, as both are just people. Wexler does a good job of writing about atrocities committed by both sides without absolving those responsible but also without using them to paint an entire culture as irredeemably evil. This moral complexity is further magnified in the sequel as the plot shifts from a military campaign with a specific well defined goal to politics.

The two easiest comparisons here are A song of ice and fire and The Malazan book of the fallen. It is heavily influenced by serious historical scholarship like the former and has the epic, strange, worldview of the latter.

I’ll say this again: I probably like this more than I would otherwise because the historical era Wexler draws from is near and dear to my heart. It’s also one where I have a more in-depth experience than is normal so I get extra pleasure from catching the little historical nods peppered throughout. Those who haven’t had jobs where they got to do things like translate Napoleon’s shopping lists might enjoy this less than I do.


I would recommend this whole-heartedly to anyone who reads fantasy OR historical fiction, but…

The thousand names is exclusively concerned with a single military campaign. The characters are great but if you don’t like to read about campaigns then you probably won’t enjoy this as much. Still, the sequel is very different so if it sounds intriguing but you’re less interested in the military history thing then you’d have to weigh whether or not it’s worth reading a 600 page prologue.

One could theoretically skip this one if one would prefer to get straight to the politics and more George R.R. Martin style fantasy and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who did so but my enthusiasm for the series makes that a hard course for me to recommend.

A few cross recommendations

The Aubrey-Maturin novels

The “Sharpe’s …” Novels

A song of ice an fire

The Malazan book of the fallen

The heroes and/or Joe Abercrombie generally