Off To Be The Wizard, Scott Meyer

Off To Be The Wizard, Scott Meyer

Off To Be The Wizard, Scott Meyer

Most people who are familiar with Scott Meyer’s name know him as the author of the webcomic Basic Instructions. Off To Be The Wizard is Meyer’s first novel, a time-travel fantasy that leaves the heavy lifting to other writers and sets out to offer the reader nothing much beyond a good time. For the most part, Meyer succeeds at this goal.

I feel compelled to start by pointing out that this book is self-published, and Meyer might want to make use of a professional editing service for future books—it’s riddled with misspellings and missing punctuation, mostly in the form of quotation marks missing around chunks of dialogue, which drives me bananas. Also problematic, to me, is the hand-waving away of sketchy plot points within his premise—there are vague explanations for these, but they’re deeply unsatisfactory. I don’t demand my fantasy novels have a factual basis in general (because, hey, fantasy), but when you start explaining away some things, you have to explain them all away in order to maintain some internal consistency.

So here’s the deal: a 20-something geek working a dreary, dead-end job (unspecified past the dreary and dead-end parts) who spends his spare time poking around in various corners of the internet stumbles upon a buried file. Out of habit, he pokes around in the unguarded file and discovers that it contains his name and basic info. On a whim, he adds two inches to his height in the file, and is surprised to find himself growing two inches. This leads to more poking around, and Martin Banks soon discovers that the human race is basically nothing more than a giant computer construct. From there it only takes a little computer, er, wizardry to figure out how to teleport and how to time travel, two skills he figures out how to manage by developing crude apps for his smart phone. Martin is smart enough to realize that he may, in the future, need an escape plan in case whomever oversees this file figures out that he’s messed around with it.

Martin decides the best place to escape to is the past, and chooses a benign time in the Middle Ages in England as his escape destination, figuring he can pass off his new crude skills as magic and himself as a powerful wizard. He’s forced to put his plan into action quite soon when all of his monkeying around with his bank account lands him in trouble with the Treasury Department. Dressed in Slytherin robes, Martin teleports himself back in time, landing outside the village of Leadchurch which, unfortunately for him, already has a wizard in residence. So the locals aren’t exactly impressed. Been there, done that.

As a premise, this has loads of potential, and Meyer milks it pretty well. He also doesn’t waste any time setting it up, which has positives and negatives. On the one hand, there’s not much in the way of info-dumping here. On the other, there’s not a lot of detail—one page, Martin is running from the feds and the next he’s hit his escape app and landed outside Leadchurch. But on the plus side, the swift removal of his character to the Middle Ages allows Meyer to get down to business and have a little fun.

See, it turns out ALL the wizards in his new time period are actually time-travelers who’ve come from various decades. Like Martin, they chose to escape to the Middle Ages thinking it’d be easy-peasy to pass their ability to manipulate the file off as magic. Eventually, they all created a shell file to standardize their wizardry. Leadchurch’s Wizard-in-Residence, Philip, takes Martin under his wing, offers to train him up in the use of the shell program so that he can pass the Wizard Trial, and shows him how to live a modern lifestyle in the Middle Ages. So Martin gets some snazzy robes and a hat, makes a staff, and eats a lot of stew while learning to pull burritos out of his hat, fly, and transport his bed from home to his hut in Leadchurch. He also meets a clutch of other time-travelers/wizards and begins to make friends.

The set up gives Meyers a chance to make zillions of funny pop culture references about everything from The Simpsons to Apple computers to Pontiac Fieros, and Martin’s adventures in learning his new trade are genuinely amusing. The problem, which you’ve no doubt figured out by now, is that these people all need computers to access the shell and make their tricks actually work because in this world, wizardry is actually nothing more than a series of macros that are created to respond to vocal commands, and there was no electricity in the 1300’s to run the computers on. Meyer gets around this difficulty by letting them use the shell to create certain fields around themselves and objects to preserve a constant, which is actually fairly clever—they can create fields to maintain their body temperatures at a constant level of their choice, and, more important in the world-building sense, they can create fields that will allow their computer batteries to forever remain at a full charge. Because Meyers is working from the premise that all of life is basically a computer construct, he can get away with this—manipulate the program to get whatever you want, be it a burrito or fully-charged computer battery.

Where it all gets a bit hand-wavy is with the use of cell phones and cell phone apps to control things. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how their smart phones could actually work in the Middle Ages. Because they can carry them back and forth, and they can conserve the battery charge at a permanent level, but it’s a fact that my cell phone, full battery or not, will not work if I’m in a dead spot. And I can’t think of a bigger dead spot than the 1300’s. I finally just gave up and waved my hands too. It was easier than imagining cell phone towers dotting the landscape of medieval England, and Meyer at no point described how they might make this work.

Martin has more adventures once he becomes a fully-trained wizard, and Meyer leaves himself enough room that he could easily make this into a series if he’s so inclined. I found this a fast, entertaining read. It’s not going to win any points for style, but it’s told in an engaging, undemanding fashion. My biggest issue with it was that the characters never really bloomed: they each seemed to have an assigned character trait (Martin, for example, is impulsive, while Phillip is very steady and conservative) and didn’t ever grow or change along the way; the result is that they’re not really driving the plot, just walking through it. If he does carry on with these characters in a series, he’ll need to work on that. But he has a very promising foundation to build on.

What’s New, Buenos Aries: an open letter to publishers

An Open Letter to Publishers:

Hi there.  You don’t know me, but you’ve certainly taken a lot of my money over the last 45 years—ever since I was old enough to receive an allowance and smart enough to spend most of it on books instead of candy at the corner store.  You can think of me as a long-running repeat customer.  I read.  A lot. And I want to talk to you about a growing issue in the books and other printed material I read.


That’s right.  You remember grammar, yes?  Punctuation marks, spelling, things like that?  You used to hire people as copy editors and proofreaders to catch mistakes and correct them before unleashing your books, magazines, and newspapers on the general public.

I realize that publishing has taken some financial hits lately.  People get more of their news online, for example, instead of on paper.  Is this really an excuse for allowing your standards to go to hell in a handbag?  Do you think that your online audience is less likely to notice the misused apostrophes, the run-on sentences, the incorrect forms of there, their, and they’re?  Sure they’re all on their social media sites, where internet-speak is more lenient and the audience more forgiving.  That doesn’t mean they don’t want to see things done right elsewhere.  I’m not going to recommend an article or opinion piece full of typos.  And I certainly am not going to finish reading one either.

As a writing teacher, I used to make it clear to my students that while it was certainly important that they have good solid ideas backed up by solid evidence in support of those ideas, they could have the best idea EVER and it wouldn’t be much use if no one could understand it because they were hacking their way through a forest of grammatical errors to get to it.  You might keep that in mind the next time you rely on spell-check, auto-correct, and Microsoft’s execrable grammatical suggestions.

I can’t be the only person annoyed by missing quotation marks around paragraphs of dialogue in a novel I’m reading.  Or by newspaper headlines where half the letters of a word are missing or transposed.  Or by an article headline that reads “Improvements Okd at Twon Meeting” (that last one appeared just like that in my local paper).  Or a published novel filled with random typos ranging from “teh” for “the” to my current favorite, “Buenos Aries” for “Buenos Aires”.  I paid money for a pleasant reading experience, not for the experience having to sit and mentally correct typos or grammar in order to actually understand what I’m reading.

I think computers are amazing things.  Mine certainly makes my life easier in so many ways.  But to rely on an algorithm to catch and correct very human errors is foolish and cheap.  My computer doesn’t know the difference between to, two, and too.  It only knows whether or not I’ve spelled them correctly.  It has no means of figuring out if I’ve used the correct form in that particular instance.

When these types of errors are passed on to the public for consumption, it makes the consumer mad and the publisher look lazy, sloppy, and unconcerned about the impression being made on the consumer.  So I implore you: give a recent English graduate a job and hire real people to proofread your product.  Consider it your contribution to boosting the economy if you like, but take my word for it—you’ll boost your sales, too.  I know I’m not going to repeat a bad experience with a product that I’ve repeatedly found to be shoddy.  If nothing else, have some pride in what you’re sending out to the public.


The Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

The Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

The Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

I came somewhat late to Connie Willis.  I don’t remember exactly who first recommended her to me, but it wasn’t that long ago—maybe 15 years—and I’ve been trying to catch up on her back list ever since.  I’ve always given The Doomsday Book a miss in the past because one, it’s reeeeallllly  long and two, The Black Death didn’t sound like a cheerful subject to me and I don’t think my brain was in the right place to read it.

I’m not sure why I decided to read it now.  But holy cow, what an amazing book.  It is long, but it doesn’t feel long.  And I can confirm that if you read it while the movie Chicago is playing in the background, you might have some very odd dreams about flappers during the 1300’s.

The Doomsday Book concerns two pandemics: The Black Death that swept through Europe and finally into England in 1348 and a flu pandemic hitting Oxford in “real time” (which is really in the future).  They meet in the person of Kivrin, an Oxford Historian set to travel to The Middle Ages and 1320.  Unbeknownst to her, Kivrin has been exposed to an influenza virus right before travelling, and she arrives disoriented, with a high fever, and other flu symptoms.  She is found by a “contemp” (a person contemporary to that time period) and taken to the local manor house, where the lady of the manor, Eliwys, her miserable mother-in-law Imeyne, and the local priest, Roche, tend to her.  Kivrin eventually recovers, but in her delirium during her fever she has completely blown her cover story, so she feigns amnesia in order to have a chance to get back to her drop.  If she can remember where it’s at.  What she doesn’t realize is that there’s been a terrible error on the other side and that she has not been sent to 1320, but to 1348 and that the plague is about to sweep through England.

Meanwhile, the tech in charge of Kivrin’s drop has come down with this new strain of influenza and the entire city of Oxford has been placed under quarantine.  Just before succumbing to the flu, Badri tells Mr. Dunworthy, Kivrin’s mentor, that something “is wrong” with the drop.  As the local authorities and medical staff work frantically to prevent Bahdri’s flu from spreading, Dunworthy obsesses about Kivrin’s drop– and Kivrin– when it becomes clear she has been exposed to the influenza virus that is now killing people in Oxford.  Previously worried about her being set upon by thieves or cutthroats, Dunworthy is now concerned that she is ill during a period of history where medical intervention consisted of ineffective herbs and the application of leeches, a time when people routinely died from infected scratches.

It takes a good deal of skill to stitch together two separate narrative strands occurring so far apart in time without showing the seams, and Willis does a great job of fitting the two narratives together seamlessly.  This is helped by a fundamental feature of time-travel: while Kivrin has no idea what’s going on in the Oxford she left behind, the people there certainly know exactly what’s going on in 1348.  Still, it’s crucial that the Kivrin character be someone capable of holding a nearly 600 page novel together across 700 years.  She has to be heroic, yes, but she also has to be someone others care about and whom the reader cares about.  She’s all that and more.

What I found most fascinating about this book is that Willis makes it clear that despite all the technological advantages and all the medical advances of the future, people themselves have not fundamentally changed much.  They don’t follow instructions , they’re selfish, and they’re always looking to assign blame for problems to anyone but themselves, but they’re also selfless, kind, and heroic.  There are parallel characters working throughout the two narratives that help tie them together—for example, the awful Imeyne who does nothing but assign blame, criticize, pray, and consider her own needs finds a counterpart in a contemporary woman who selfishly harangues the college staff about trivial matters when she’s not depressing flu patients by reading them gloomy passages from the Bible or smothering her more than capable son with what she sees as motherly love.  Dr. Mary Ahren  devotes all of her time to her patients with no regard for her own health, just as Roche, the priest, tends to his flock.  Mr. Gilchrist, the acting head of Brasenose College, takes steps to protect his own butt with no regard for anyone else’s needs, just as the majority of priests during the black death fled from it to protect themselves (the comparisons between the Bishop’s delegates and Father Roche make a powerful statement about what constitutes a true Christian without Willis ever having to connect those dots).  Nope.  People don’t change.

But that’s not a bad thing because ultimately what you learn here is that despite the odd bad apple, people are fundamentally decent.  Everyone rallies to help Dunworthy when it becomes clear that Kirvin is in trouble—rules are bent or circumvented, helpful tech people are scrounged out of nowhere—just as the people of the manor rally to help Kirvin in her illness, despite being suspicious of her.  And Kirvin, whom I’m sure no one would blame for fleeing once it becomes clear to her that she’s in the wrong time period, stays and does what she can to help these people she’s become attached to.  Watching the plague devastate the village and the characters you’ve come to admire is like being repeatedly punched in the gut—we already know the outcome, know Kirvin’s meager medical knowledge is going to provide palliative relief at best.  The end of this book is both heartbreaking and uplifting, somehow.  I challenge you to not find your eyes welling up toward the end.

Willis spent five years researching this book, and the sections set during the Middle Ages come alive.  Everyday life 700 years ago wasn’t all that different: mothers-in-law still criticized, children still whined and got excited about Christmas, edible food and potable water still had to be found. People were born, people died.  Only the trappings are different now—we drive instead of riding horseback, our water comes from a tap or out of a plastic bottle and not hauled by bucket out of a well, we rely on doctors instead of folklore when we’re ill.  We face medical and spiritual crises differently, but we still face them regularly.

The more contemporary sections of The Doomsday Book are a little more problematic, but only because the book, written 20 years ago, seems kind of dated, which is a weird, weird thing to say about a book set in the future.  But in our current age of instant communication, it seems odd that these people are struggling with landlines, even if they are landlines with video features, and not using cellphones, twitter, facebook, or email to communicate with both each other and the general population.  At one point, a character is putting up placards about the flu and I kept thinking “why don’t they just use the internet?”  In a world where computers are used to facilitate time travel and technology is able to allow translator implants in the brain, it seems a bit wrong that there are no cell phones or internet.  But it’s hardly Willis’ fault that our current communications tech has outstripped her book.  And that doesn’t make the book any less readable or less enjoyable.

I’m sorry I waited so long to read this.   The Doomsday Book won virtually every major SFF award in 1993, and with good reason.  If you’re like me and hesitant to read something that looks like it’s going to be depressing, take a leap of faith.  This is a great book.

Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey

Brat Farrar

Brat Farrar

So having reread The Franchise Affair recently, and still unable to locate my copy of The Daughter of Time, I turned to one of my other Josephine Tey books recently, Brat Farrar, but in this case, the question that I went into this reread with was wondering if it would still feel as relevant as the Franchise Affair did to me.  Because Brat is a very different kind of book, which is in my opinion one of the marvelous things about Tey’s work—there’s no “Tey formula” to them.  If you’re new to her, you’ll find that you’re never going to know what you’ll be getting.  It’s like a present.  I like presents.

So does Brat Farrar hold up?  I think thematically the larger questions of morality and the whole “ends justify the means” stuff certainly holds up just fine, and I’ll discuss those themes in a bit.  But the writing here feels somewhat more old-fashioned, although the book is still very readable—I gulped it right down, just like I did the first time I read it.  One thing I did notice this time that I apparently missed on my first reading was that the setting seems a bit off, and it took me a bit to put my finger on what the issue was.

The novel is not really anchored in any specific time that Tey points out, but it presumably takes place after WWII because there are references to people being “bombed out”.  So given its publication date (1949), one just assumes it’s set somewhere in that vicinity in time.  But it somehow feels like it’s set more interwar, and there are a few iffy timeline items as a result.  Given that the lynchpin events of the book—the disappearance and presumed suicide of Patrick Ashby following the death of his parents in a plane crash off the coast—take place some eight plus years earlier,that puts those events right smack in the middle of The Blitz.  I’ll leave it to you to work out the problem with that and just say that there’s no sign here that the war ever happened—no mention of rationing, of the post-war issues Britain faced.  It’s a little timey-wimey, to quote The Doctor.

The story itself is one of those things that seems so implausible that it’s actually believable: a young orphan named Brat Farrar is mistaken for Simon Ashby by Ashby’s cousin Alec Loding on a London street.  Loding, a down-at-heel actor, realizes that Brat bears a striking resemblance to Simon, who is due to inherit his parents’ estate in a few weeks upon his 21st birthday, and thus to Simon’s dead twin Patrick, who presumably committed suicide and whose body was never recovered from the sea.  A plot is hatched for Loding to tutor Brat in everything Ashby, for Brat to collect what would have been Patrick’s inheritance (as the older twin), and to split the money after.  Brat refuses the offer initially, but eventually gives in upon learning that part of his inheritance is Latchett’s, a stud farm.  Brat loves horses.  From there it’s a matter of convincing his “brother” and his “sisters” and his “aunt”, as well as the family solicitor, that he is indeed the missing and presumed dead Patrick Ashby.

If you’re wondering where the mystery is, well, the mystery is that Brat eventually becomes convinced that Patrick Ashby did not commit suicide, but was murdered.  This naturally puts him in a bit of a quandary, because he obviously can’t voice his suspicions to anyone because he’s supposed to be Patrick Ashby.  It’s not like he can go to the police and say “I suspect X killed me.”—to expose the truth about himself would most certainly land him in the quod.  So he needs to continue his deception, which he grows increasingly uncomfortable with, in order to unmask a killer.

It’s a pretty little ethical dilemma that takes the usual imposter trope and gives it a good shake.  Normally, we don’t get to see things from the imposter’s point-of-view in detective fiction.  We get lead up the path by them just like the great detective and assume that they are who they say they are right up until the point where the detective says “But you’re not really Old Murder Victim’s Nephew, are you?  You’re really X, impersonating the nephew in order to get his inheritance!”  But here, we know right from the get go that Brat is not Patrick Ashby.  So it’s not a matter of “is he or isn’t he?” but one of “will he get away with it or won’t he?” followed by “will he keep this up or won’t he?” and a host of other questions.  Seeing the action from his point of view allows us to develop some empathy for the character—a young man, a foundling, with no family of his own and no real prospects or talents save his amazing skill with horses, is suddenly impersonating a much-loved young man with a huge family, a trust fund, and a horse farm.  Talk about your presents.  It’s easy to understand why Brat agrees to Loding’s scam, it really is.

Plus he’s just so charming.  Tey is a whiz at building a character.  I remember the first time I read this that I wanted him to get away with it, to get the money and the farm and live happily ever after.  I began devising these complicated scenarios in my head while I was reading that would allow him to actually be Patrick Ashby so that he wouldn’t be stealing Simon’s inheritance, but taking what was rightfully his.  I was convinced there was some sort of double-double twist to the whole thing, I wanted it so badly.  And I found myself doing the exact same thing this time.  You know he can’t be Patrick, that he’s not him, but you want him to be.  Brat is really a very awesome guy for a liar and a con artist.

And his moral dilemma is tricky.  As he enters into the Ashby family situation, he feels a real affinity for the siblings and their guardian, Aunt Bee, and he comes to regret what he’s doing because he knows that if they find out the truth that the pain they experienced over Patrick’s suicide, barely suppressed for 8 years, will all come back to the surface, and stronger.  He does not want to hurt these people.  But to continue with his impersonation will hurt them financially as well as emotionally.  And when he uncovers the truth about Patrick’s death, they will be hurt even more.  So it becomes a matter of which pain, and how much, he has to inflict upon them, because no matter what, his agreeing to enter into the deception sets up a load of hurt down the road.  So he has to ask himself if it’s better to continue deceiving these nice people and letting them believe the beloved Patrick is alive while he tries to find out what happened to the real Patrick, or expose himself as a fraud, and he then has to decide whether to expose the truth about Patrick, and thus himself, or whether to allow someone else to get away with murder.  Do the ends justify the means?  Are they better off thinking Patrick is alive or knowing for certain that he’s not, and if it’s the latter, is it right that he should continue to let them think Patrick is alive while he finds and exposes the truth?

It’s all very well done: the Ashby family is so real and carefully drawn that you feel like you’ve sat down to dinner with them, and it’s their disbelief, then hope, then belief that Brat really is Patrick that helps build the suspense.  I’m trying to think of the best way to explain how the suspense in this book follows several paths at once—there’s the “will Brat get away with it?” trail and how he risks being discovered in his deception the entire way through.  Then there’s the “will Brat figure out what really happened to Patrick?” trail, closely followed by the “Will Brat realize who did this?” trail and “Now Brat is in danger!” trail, not to mention the “How will he solve his problem?” trail and the “Is this the right choice morally and ethically?” trail.  It’s very layered, and deceptively complex.

From where I’m sitting, that makes Brat Farrar utterly delicious.

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold



As I mentioned last week, I recently picked up a copy of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sidelines, her collection of speeches, essays, travel notes, and other bits and pieces she’s collected over the past 30 years or so.  While I pretty much mined the genre stuff out of the book for the post linked to above, there’s still plenty of interesting stuff in there, and while I think this book will appeal primarily to the Bujold Compleatist, anyone interested in writing or in a peek inside how a writer works will likely enjoy this as well, with one caveat: if you’re not familiar with Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan Saga, you’ll miss a lot of the nuance in what she’s saying.

The book is divided into easy, obvious sections: there are convention and other speeches where Bujold was the Guest of Honor or an award winner, and there are essays written for a variety of purposes—Hugo nominations, blog posts for Tor or Eos or the Baen Bar, local papers, etc., afterwards and forwards to omnibus editions of the books, travel notes covering three overseas trips (to Russia, Croatia, and Finland), and a few other things, such as the suggested reading order for the Vorkosigan books.  Everything is clearly labeled, and every piece comes with a paragraph or more of commentary to put that particular speech or essay into some context for the reader.  If you own the omnibus editions to the Vorkosigan books, you likely have a whole section of this book; likewise, Bujold, like any wily writer, reuses parts of previous writings in newer ones, both to save herself some time and because, hey, if she said it well once, it likely bears repeating.  So there is some overlap among the selections, a fact she herself notes from time to time.

As a Vorkosigan nut, I was mostly interested in those pieces that talked about Miles and the Miles books, and there are a lot of them.  Bujold ranges freely over her early years when she first began writing that series, how she overshot the ending of Shards of Honor and had to go back and find its ending, how she knew Aral and Cordelia would have a crippled child, and how her basic premise for dealing with the series has always been to make sure each book could stand independently to a great extent, and how her plans for each book basically involved her asking herself “what’s the worst thing I could do to this character?” and then doing it to him.  It’s an interesting glimpse into how she works.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, she also spends a great deal of time talking about Falling Free, which is set in the same world as the Vorkosigan books but takes place much earlier.  Bujold seems very fond of the quaddies, of Leo Graf, and of this particular book, which was her effort to make science the hero of the story instead of the villain and to explore the consequences of what happens to obsolete technology when that technology is bioengineered humans.  There is an entire essay devoted to Falling Free, a book I have not read for some years.  I’ll be rectifying that soon now that I have a new way to think about it.

Fans of her Sharing Knife and Chalion books will also find much to enjoy here, particularly her musings on how she set out to tackle the romance genre in the Sharing Knife books—there is, in fact, a set of six short essays she wrote for Eos on these books that explore the various themes in them and what she was hoping to achieve when she wrote them that I found both informative and interesting, and I should note that I have not read that series.

Of somewhat less interest were the travel notes—Bujold herself likens their inclusion to “looking at someone’s travel slides” and to some extent, that’s pretty accurate, although she clearly enjoyed her travels and glimpses into other cultures.  But they tend to be a matter of “They took me here, I did a signing, there were translation issues, I ate a meal, I did a signing, I gave a talk, I was carried off by fans, I fell into bed and got up and did it all again the next day” which, you know, if you’ve never been there, yeah.  Someone else’s vacation pictures.

Mostly, though, what I really enjoyed were her thoughts on writing, on genre issues, and what books are: “The book is not an object on the table; it is an event in the reader’s mind.”  True, and it leads to this thought she has later in the same essay:

“As a writer, I am keenly aware that I am not in control of half my art. The exact same text one reader finds exciting, subtle, nuanced, funny and moving, the next reader may find boring, dull, or unmemorable.”

That particular quote made me think very hard about what it means to be a reviewer, actually—not to get all sidetracked from what I’m supposed to be doing here, which is telling you if checking out Sidelines is worth your time, but my dilemma has always been just how much of my own prejudices and preferences should go into a review.  One of the things I like about writing here is that I can interject my own likes and dislikes and warn the reader of my own biases (note: I hate elves in books).  I try to be objective, I try to address expectations.  But unless you know me and what I like and don’t like, what I find interesting (like a 350 page book on how one writer I happen to admire a lot approaches her craft) you may in fact find mind-numbing.  And it really can’t be helped.

That said, I really did enjoy reading this—I found it enlightening in a lot of ways, and on a lot of different levels, and her comments about genre, about valuing any book based solely on its “social utility” (her words), and about how genres can be made to work together were especially thought-provoking.  But I’m a rhetorician by training, and this kind of rhetorical and narrative examination fascinates me.  If you’re not interested in that kind of thing, or in Miles Vorkosigan, then you might find this far less interesting than I did.