Book Review: The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

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Recently published in March 2017, this book had been on my radar ever since news of its completion dropped late last year.  Irreverently fun and thought-provoking, John Scalzi is an author I’m always looking to read more from, and the beginning of a new series gave me an excellent opportunity to do so.

Several hundred years in the future, humanity has spread out across the stars with the aide of the Flow, a naturally occurring phenomena that allows for rapid transit between fixed points in space.  Politically organized as the Holy Empire of the Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds, these settlements rely upon a complex system of trade to ensure their mutual survival since the Flow-accessible worlds, with one notable exception, are not particularly friendly to human life.  As the story opens we meet the dying leader of this Empire as he is offering final advice to a young woman named Cardenia Wu, his illegitimate daughter and unsuspecting heir to the throne.  Included in this briefing is the revelation that the Empire, and humanity as a whole, is threatened by one rather inconvenient truth; namely that the Flow is on the verge of collapse, an event which will mean the end of viable interplanetary travel and a slow death for the soon to be isolated settlements.  Planning for this catastrophe proves difficult, however, as most of the government is content to ignore the issue and at least one influential trade guild is scheming of ways to profit from the situation and use the resulting upheaval as a chance to usurp power.

This book was a lot of fun and went by very, very quickly.  A real pleasure to read, it featured plenty of the sarcasm, wit, and joyful cynicism I have come to expect from Scalzi’s novels.  The three main characters were great and each had their own particular charm to go along with their personal foibles.  Cardenia’s nonchalance and resigned acceptance of her new position brought a cool head to some otherwise extreme situations.  Marce was a relatable everyperson whose dedication to (peer-reviewed) science made him both easy to root for and a needed voice of reason.  In contrast, Kiva Lagos, the final main character, was an entertaining force of nature who could make a (space) pirate blush with her expansive vocabulary and unapologetic lifestyle.  Being someone who is predisposed to the general outlooks of these characters, I found it just plain felt good when Scalzi’s heroes would come out ahead.  On the other side of that, it was also a lot of fun disliking the scheming Nohamapetan clan.  The author’s less desirable characters so often align with the people I dislike in real life that it is equally rewarding to see them struggle.

As for the story itself, for all the absurd situations and convoluted schemes, it featured a pointed, yet amusing, satiric look at various social and political issues.  It is hard to miss the deterioration of the Flow as a symbol for climate change, and Scalzi has little patience or fondness for deniers and advocates of bunk science.  He comes at them in this story not so much from a place of anger, but of incredulity.  How the fuck (that word comes up a lot, see Lagos, Kiva) can people choose to be so willfully ignorant?  He answers that question in part through Cardenia, who learns that knowledge of the impending collapse is, in fact, old news, vehemently brushed aside and dutifully ignored for generations because it’s extraordinarily bad for business and also, well, kind of downer.  Not particularly surprising these days, the author’s unabashed support of views like this, in combination with other novel concepts such as supporting gay relationships, religious cynicism, and competent women in positions of power has made him something of a lightning rod for a vocal, thin-skinned minority of reactionary trolls within the sci-fi/fantasy community.  To his credit he takes this in stride, content to consider such folk being against him a sign of doing something right.

I am definitely on board with this series whenever the next book comes out.  The story was left very much wide open as to what will happen next, so I am curious to see where things go from here.  This also left me the mood for more from Scalzi, so don’t be surprised if another one of his books pops up here in the near future.

2017 Night Shift Barrel Society Release #1: Titus Andronicus

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I’d been hoping to get to this beer for a little while now, pretty much since its release back in March.  Scheduling conspired against me, however, so I am just now finally able to review it.  The good news I suppose is that with the Barrel Society switching to a quarterly release schedule this year I am not too far behind on the current lineup.  Naming theme this year is Shakespeare’s plays.

Beer Name: Titus Andronicus

Brewery: Night Shift Brewing Company (Everett, MA)

Style: Barley Wine

ABV: 11.2%

Description: From the front of the label, this is a barley wine aged in port finished bourbon barrels.  From the brewer’s notes: Titus Andronicus Brewer’s Notes: pours dark amber in color; nose of fig, plum, caramel, and bourbon; sips with big notes of port, molasses, toffee, and dark fruit; finish is sweet, mellow, and well-integrated.

Appearance: Dark caramel brown body with a thin tan head that did not stick around for long after the initial pour.

Smell: Sweet, brown sugar and caramel with a bit of heat on the end.

Taste: Toffee, caramel, and brown sugar sweetness upfront mixed with dark fruit about halfway through.  A slight bit of oak also came out in the middle as the beer transitioned to a moderately hot finish, the port influence coming out just a tad bit more than the bourbon.

Mouthfeel: Slightly slick, medium-plus thickness with low levels of carbonation.

Hype: I was hoping for a lot with this one.  Since there are fewer beers in this year’s series I am expecting them all to really stand out.  I was also excited by the style; I’ve always been on the lookout to get more into barley wine and it’s a style Night Shift has done very well in the recent past.

Overall: Very good, I enjoyed how the opening sweetness blended in with the port finish.  Definitely not a brew to drink quickly, this was a nice beer to sit down with at the end of the day and slowly sip at.  My one nitpick is that I wish the barrel influence was just a bit less noticeable in the middle, but this was only a minor observance and perhaps particular to my tastes.  Very curious to see how the other bottle ages.  Solid start to this year’s series.

Somerville Brewing Company (Slumbrew) – Heaven Scent

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I happened to be in Assembly Row last weekend and found myself having just enough time to make a stop at Slumbrew’s American Fresh Beer Garden.  The weather was warm and clear, meaning the tent was open to allow for maximum enjoyment of a beautiful day.  I had the Little Man with me for this adventure, but this spot is family-friendly during the daytime (a great decision given the location).  I got a beer and he got to dance to MC Hammer in his stroller.  Win/win right there.  An added benefit is that he almost makes up for my photography fail.

Beer Name: Heaven Scent

Brewery: Somerville Brewing Company (Somerville, MA)

Style: Sour Ale

ABV: 5.5%

Description: Five minutes of Googling didn’t turn up any additional info on this one, so I’ll just stick with the basic description of this being a sour ale brewed with passion fruit.  Cost was $7.50 per pour.

Appearance: Orange/amber body would have looked just about like a glass of juice if not for some wisps of thin white foam across the top.

Smell: Mellow tartness with a light funk in the background.

Taste: Super fruity and juicy!  Huge passion fruit presence throughout, sweet at the beginning turning to just a hint of tartness by the finish.  Extremely subtle bit of funk in there as well, the fruit was definitely the main component of this brew.

Mouthfeel: Medium bodied and low in carbonation, I noted a moderate level of that syrupy feeling I tend to get with this style ale.

Hype: None that I was aware of.  Slumbrew tends to fly below the radar in terms of beer hype.

Overall: Fruity and refreshing, this was an excellent choice for drinking outside on a hot day.  I was really into how the passion fruit took over the brew.  Had I not had my hands full with taking the baby and all his gear on the train, I would have picked up cans.  Check this one out if you’re into the style.

The Alchemist – Beelzebub

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Yet another amazing beer I received from a friend.  These are always greatly appreciated, even more so since they don’t mess around when it comes to their beer.

Beer Name: Beelzebub

Brewery: The Alchemist

Style: American Imperial Stout

ABV: 8.0%

Description: Nothing on the website, but there is a short video of co-owner and head brewer John Kimmich talking about it here.  Worth a watch.

Appearance: Poured out thick and black with two-plus fingers of tan foam up top

Smell: Sweet, creamy malts mixed with a sappy bitterness.

Taste: A mixture of two worlds, this tasted something like the fusion of an imperial stout and a West Coast DIPA.  Lurking beneath the surface of the beer was the sweetly rich presence of dark malt upfront followed by a bit of roasted coffee and bittersweet chocolate at the end.  On top of this there was a fruity bitterness that gradually transitioned to a resinous, pine sap finish.  Combined, these two parts resulted in a slightly sweet brew that featured a rich base of dark malts underneath an assertive sticky, piney hop presence.

Mouthfeel: Creamy and on the thicker side upfront before a moderate amount of carbonation comes through on the finish.

Hype: I think it’s pretty fair to say this brewery’s offerings still come with a good deal of excitement attached?  I know I was excited to have this again.

Overall: Perhaps closer to a black IPA than an imperial stout, I’m not quite sure this beer really fits that well into any category.  It combined equally intense elements of both styles and managed to bring them together into a single cohesive, and rather delicious, beer.  I definitely recommend checking this out if you have the opportunity, but go into it with an open mind.  Someone expecting a stout might find this overly hoppy while someone looking for hop juice may not be into the malt profile.  An excellent hybrid.

Trillium Brewing Company – Stumpy Duck

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While it isn’t the Bird Series beer getting all the attention right now, this had the distinct advantage of being the one I could get without having to wait in a long line.  By no means a consolation prize, I was going to pick up some these regardless of what else the brewery had available last week.

Beer Name: Stumpy Duck

Brewery: Trillium Brewing Company (Boston, MA and Canton, MA)

Style: Pale Wheat Ale

ABV: 5.6%

Description: Part of the brewery’s Small Bird Series, this seasonal wheat ale was generously hopped with Columbus, Centennial, and Citra.  More specs are available here on the company website.  Price was $13.20 for a four pack of tall boys.

Appearance: Super hazy orangish-yellow body with half a finger of fluffy white foam

Smell: Sticky sweet tropical fruit mixed with pine sap.

Taste: Juicy tropical fruits upfront blended into a mix of wheat and crackery light malts roughly mid-sip.  I want to say there was also perhaps a hint of yeast lurking underneath as well.  The finish was a moderately bitter mix of grapefruit and a combination of piney, floral, and earthy hops.  Slight bite of hops on the very end.

Mouthfeel: Medium bodied with just about moderate carbonation for the style.

Hype: Nothing out of the ordinary for this brewery.  The  beer is part of a well-regarded series, but there was a different release taking up all the excitement around the time I picked this up.

Overall: Great beer to sit out on the back deck with.  Although a bit stronger than your typical session brew, the slight dip in ABV is appreciated especially since this packs all flavor of the brewery’s larger offerings.  Don’t pass this, or any of the other Small Birds, up if you see them available.

Book Review: Babylon’s Ashes, by James S.A. Corey (Book Six in the Expanse)

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Here I am, all caught up on the Expanse.  From this point on I will be getting to the rest of the series at the mercy of publishing schedules and the speed with which my local library picks up the ebooks.

This book opens a few months out from the end of the previous novel.  Following its stunning attack on Earth, the Free Navy under the command Marcos Inaros is seeking to consolidate its power over the Belt and enforce its will on the movement of goods and people throughout the solar system and beyond.  The fanaticism of Marcos, however, is threatening to split the movement as not everyone within its leadership believes in either his heavy-handed tactics or his competence.  Meanwhile, having combined their remaining forces, Earth and Mars, in conjunction with Fred Johnson, are courting moderate OPA factions as they prepare for a major counter-strike against their common foe.  In the middle of all the action, of course, is James Holden, whose personal celebrity and past exploits, to say nothing of his private warship, uniquely position him as a central figure in the fight against the Free Navy.

I thought this book was pretty good in comparison to the last two, but at the same time I was hoping it was going to end up being something a bit more than what it was.  The Free Navy storyline is interesting enough, but it is also such a drastic departure from the first few books that it kind of feels like the authors are blowing things up just for the sake of doing so.  One of the things that really got me interested in these novels in the first place was the protomolecule storyline and the underlying threat of a mysterious alien menace.  Unfortunately, that arc has been conspicuously absent from the last two novels, ending rather abruptly in the final chapter of Nemesis Games.  Yes, there have been hints that there is more to come, but having this key aspect of the early story drop so suddenly has really affected the flow of the series for me.  Also notably absent are any Martian perspectives (I don’t count Bobbie since she is essentially Rocinante crew at this point).  Again, I get it that whatever the renegade Martian forces are up to will probably be a big part of the next books, I just feel like it’s a missed opportunity to have hardly any view of what’s going on inside Mars from either side.  In light of how many different people from the other factions get POV chapters this book, this feels like a pretty glaring omission.

This diversity of perspectives was probably my favorite part of the book.  It gave a great sense of scale to the action and allowed the reader a chance to check in on some familiar places and faces while showing the full impact of recent events.  On the other hand, this variety also served to highlight the thing I dislike most about the series; namely that despite a potentially engaging story and interesting locations, this vast universe isn’t populated by any characters I really care about.  I’m not going to rehash old criticisms of the main group, though at this point I’ve resigned myself to the fact that no one from the Rocinante crew is going to appeal to me.  Of the new comers who get the most page time, I just plain don’t like Marcos (which is intentional, though I do think he is a bit too one-dimensional as a villain) or Filip (whom I think was supposed to be sympathetic to some degree).  Michio Pa had potential, though unfortunately her scenes were too often focused on her polygamous marriage situation than the actual plot.

At this point I think a break from this series is exactly what I need to stay invested for the long haul.  I am still curious enough in the outcome to want to read the next book and give the rest of the series a chance, but after not loving the last few installments I would rather focus on reading other things that I am currently enjoying more.

Lamplighter Brewing Company – Sound & Vision (with Raspberries)

Relative newcomers to the local beer scene, Lamplighter Brewing Company opened their doors in November 2016 following a fairly lengthy period of permitting and construction.  In that time, their cans have gotten some pretty heavy distribution, becoming fixtures at most of my usual shops.  I’ve been tempted to try them out for a while, but never got around to it until now.

Beer Name: Sound & Vision

Brewery: Lamplighter Brewing Company (Cambridge, MA)

Style: Raspberry Sour

ABV: 5.7%

Description: Part of an ongoing series of fruited kettle sours, this version was brewed with, you guessed it, raspberries.  I couldn’t find an official link on the brewery website, a common enough occurrence but something that is starting to become a pet peeve.  Moving on, the four pack of tallboys cost me $12.99 and was from a batch dated 5/5/2017.

Appearance: Poured a reddish/light brown body through which I was just barely able to make out my fingers on the other side of the glass.  A thin off-white head formed with the pour but very quickly bubbled away.

Smell: Muted funk with a hint of berries.

Taste: Again rather mellow.  It started out with sweet raspberries upfront and turned a bit sour/tart about halfway through.  The finish brought on a moderate layer of hay-like funky yeast that mixed with just a touch of bitterness to linger on once the sip was complete.

Mouthfeel: Medium, syrupy body with a brief flurry of bubbles at the end.

Hype: Curiosity.  I’ve been eyeing this brewery for a while now.  Wanting something a bit different for an end of the week beer I decided to accomplish two goals at once.

Overall: I thought this was alright.  Not bad, but nothing to get particularly excited about either.  I wish that the berries stood out a bit more against the ending funk and that the two flavor profiles blended together a bit more. On the whole I thought this was a pretty decent pickup for a hot day, but I would go with a different style next time I try out this brewery.  This one was not quite in the same league as similar offerings I’ve had from either Night Shift or Idle Hands lately.

Revolution Brewing Company – Straight Jacket

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I’ve had this beer hanging around for a couple of months now but could never quite find the right to time drink it.  No time like the present.

Beer Name: Straight Jacket

Brewery: Revolution Brewing Company (Chicago, IL)

Style: Barley Wine

ABV: 12.2%

Description: Another entry in the brewery’s Deep Wood series of barrel aged goodness, the description on their website promises waves of dark stone fruits, bourbon, molasses, toasted coconut, and vanilla.  If memory serves me correctly the bomber cost $18, same as the previous one.

Appearance: Coppery brown body with a quick to fade tan head that formed with the pour.

Smell: Caramel and toffee sweetness mixed with rich dark malt.

Taste: Sweet upfront, with lots of brown sugar, caramel, toffee, and dark fruit.  A hot kick of alcohol comes on towards the end, with lingering bourbon notes in the aftertaste.  Upon sitting for a few minutes the sweetness and heat both intensified and blended into each other, while more subtle notes of barrel influence came out on the finish.

Mouthfeel: Silky smooth and slightly slick medium-plus body.  Carbonation level was low.

Hype: Primarily of the personal variety.  I really liked the last beer I had from this series and picked this up hoping for a similar experience.

Overall: Deliciously sweet and bourbony, this was exactly what I was hoping for.  Despite the heat and high ABV, this one left me feeling very mellow and relaxed upon finishing it which was pretty nice as well.  I’ll be keeping an eye for more from this series for sure.

Book Review: The Bands of Mourning, by Brandon Sanderson (Book Six of the Mistborn Series)

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A dreadful realization came over me as I was finishing this book.  As I neared the end it suddenly hit me that I was going to have to wait for the next one to be published before I could get closure on the series.  According to the author’s current timeline, it looks like I am going to be left in suspense until at least 2018!

This story begins six months after the conclusion of the previous book.  Mere minutes before the scheduled start of his wedding ceremony, Wax is approached by a small group of kandra seeking his assistance.  Their agent ReLuur has returned home from an investigation crippled and missing one of his hemalurgic spikes, but also bearing evidence of an incredible discovery.  Included among his possessions is information that could lead to the long-lost Bands of Mourning, the deceased Lord Ruler’s Feruchemic bracers thought to contain a considerable remnant of his power.  Feeling betrayed by Harmony and offended by the timing of the request, Wax initially refuses to have any involvement in either the search for the missing spike or the artifacts.  He comes around, however, after finding out Marasi has agreed to help and that the Set organization is most likely involved as well.  The journey takes out heroes far outside the familiar confines of Elendel to the city of New Seran and frontier beyond, where many new threats and challenges await them in their quest.

I was a bit unsure about this book after the first couple of chapters.  With Wax still reeling from the events and revelations that ended the last book, this one opened on kind of a down note.  This, in combination with Wayne’s usually amusing antics only serving to make him look like a real dick, had me worried that the series was about to take its first stumble.  How wrong I was!  Once the story got going the book recovered quickly and I couldn’t put it down.  Both Wax and Wayne redeem themselves, and we get to see some very different sides of each by the time the book ends. I also liked that Steris emerged as a strong, relatable character.  It is now very clear that she makes an excellent partner for Wax and I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes from here.  For a final thought on the characters, it was a lot of fun to have MeLaan back.  Let’s just say she is an excellent companion for Wayne and, as a kandra, brings a unique perspective to most situations.

The highlight of this book, though, was its implications for the story going forward.  With each of these novels, the world of Scadrial keeps on getting bigger and by the end of this particular installment we very clearly get a sense of how much the world has changed since Ruin’s  defeat and of how little we’ve seen of the planet thus far.  My guess is that the final book  is likely to feature a lot of new people and places; all made accessible by some pretty cool new technologies that appear.  This change in scope, in combination with the spreading social unrest and political resistance to Elendel in the surrounding cities, brought a sense of epic adventure to the story, giving it a Raiders of the Lost Arc-like feeling.  Hanging over everything, though, there was once again a lot to think about in regard to Harmony; in particular the extent and limits of his powers, his role in shaping life on Scadrial, and what, if any, equivalent forces exist.

Speaking to that last point, this novel marks the first time in the series that we see the word “cosmere” in print, used somewhat interchangeably for “universe” by some of the characters.  I am getting really curious how deep we are now into that shared universe.  Although it did not interfere with my enjoyment of the book, there were a few places where I strongly suspected that certain people or events might be part of a larger picture I am not yet privy to.  Cautiously looking into this after reading the book confirmed that was indeed the case, though not necessarily where I thought.  Since I seem to have about a year to go until I can pick up the last installment of this series, my goal now is to fill up my reading list with some books that might help me fill in some gaps.  I get the impression that some of our old friends were quite busy in the space in between the two sets of books.

Pipeworks Brewing Company – Ninja vs. Unicorn

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I’m just going to come right out and say it.  I was feeling indecisive in the store and bought this based on the name and artwork alone.  I think I’d heard of it in passing at some point, but it was the branding that got me.  Come to think of it, this is the second time in recent months that a Chicago brewery has lured me in this way.

Beer Name: Ninja vs. Unicorn

Brewery: Pipeworks Brewing Company (Chicago, IL)

Style: DIPA

ABV: 8.0%

Description: There wasn’t much on the official site about this release, though a few other sources have this listed an unfiltered DIPA brewed with over 5 pounds of hops per barrel.  I don’t remember exactly, but I paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $12-13 for a 4-pack of 16 oz. cans.

Appearance: Cloudy, dark straw yellow body with a thin layer of white foam on top.

Smell: Sweet, mostly tropical, fruits with a touch of resinous pine sap in the background.

Taste: Keeping in line with the smell there was a lot of fruity sweetness upfront, mainly pineapple, tangerine, and mango.  It finished with a dry, crackery malt base joining forces with mix of earthy and piney hop bitterness.  The initial sweetness lingered on through to the finish as well, culminating in a slightly hot aftertaste that lessened in intensity as the beer went on.

Mouthfeel: Fluffy, medium-plus body with pretty much the typical moderate carbonation you would expect for the style.

Hype: I was excited for this one.  Pipeworks in upping their distribution in my area so I was curious to try them out.  I also really wanted this beer to live up to the awesomeness on the label.

Overall: Definitely a quality DIPA.  I wish the finish was just a bit more tame, otherwise this would have been a smash hit for me.  Still a great beer though.  If I ever need a ninja or unicorn themed brew (which all things considered is actually pretty likely for me) I’ll be picking this up again.