Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday Review Post, 5/28/10

Trudi Canavan - The Magicians' Guild - interesting question - what if you were offered a way out of a bad situation, but decided to fight to stay in the bad situation? Are situations ... situational? Does it matter where you are standing - from within the situation, is it less bad than from outside?  Canavan's principle protagonist is a young girl, raised on and just barely off the streets in a city where the king has the Magicians' Guild annually purge the streets of the city of beggars and other undesirables. Not a good place to have grown up in a marginal situation. In the opening scene of the book, Sonea (the girl) discovers entirely by accident that she is a magician herself. So the first half of the book, the Guild is trying to find her before she destroys a sizable part of the city playing with power she doesn't understand, and Sonea is trying to avoid the organization which has made her life, and the life of people like her, miserable for generations. This is a book about trust, and about magic, and about love, a little. Canavan has an interesting set of core characters who, for the most part, are well rendered and enjoyable. This is also the first of a trilogy.

Things I liked - good characters, excellent world building.  The behavior of the characters was logical in context, the behavior of the government was logical in context too. I wish Canavan had expanded her discussion of magic a little - how does it work, why does it work? - but that wasn't central to the book. Things I didn't like so much - potentially complex villain turns out to be pretty two-dimensional - this bugged me, actually. Canavan could have given her villain a nice juicy motive, and some depth, instead he was duplicitous and out for petty revenge. At least there was no extended period in which Sonea was convinced that said villain was the bees' knees while everyone else knows that he's evil. Or vice versa. That gets tired fast. The defeat of "big bad" reveals "bigger badder", which flows neatly into the sequels, naturally. Fair enough, you're giving Sonea a reason to stay in a situation she isn't entirely happy with; otherwise the series goes in a different direction. However, there is going to need to be some significant establishment of background for bigger badder at the beginning of book two. The sense that protagonist compromised her values, although that is likely to become a "changing the system from within" type deal, which works quite nicely. I will pick up book 2 of this series, but not until I've hacked at my "to read" list a little.

Jason Kersten - The Art of Making Money Kersten tells the story of Arthur Williams, Jr, the counterfeiter who "broke" the New Bill - the $100 which was released in the late 1990s, and was supposed to be un-counterfeitable. If, in fact, that is a word. Kersten writes for Rolling Stone, and this book started as an article on Williams. Kersten was clearly looking to write about a Frank Abagnale, Jr [1] for our generation, and Williams comes close on a couple of levels to Abagnale. However, Abignale was a conman, and part of what made him tick was a pathological need for people to like him. Consequently, when you write his life story, you are writing the story of a man who people like. Kersten describes Williams as likeable on several occasions, but the overall sense I got from the book was the Williams saw himself as much smarter than everyone around him. He used his fake $100 bill as a business card, offering it to prospective clients and challenging them to find fault with it - in effect, saying "I'm smarter than you because I can do this and you cannot". I think it was this factor which ended up getting Williams into trouble. Kersten suggests that this is actually a common problem for counterfeiters - they get so caught up in the thrill of being able to do something that others cannot that they don't stop to find a safe way to turn that into profit. Kersten frequently says, or quotes others as saying, that Williams could have done anything he set his mind to, and it's probably true. The problem is, Williams got caught in the fact that he could literally make money, and didn't stop to come up with a plan whereby he could safely stop making money. At any rate, the smartest guy in the room, especially if he's particularly interested in showing how smart he is, tends not to be the most likable guy in the room. As a result, Williams is not the most likable protagonist. In the end, Kersten tells the story of a badly damaged man caught in a series of bad situations - abandoned by his father, trapped in the projects in Chicago, forced into a gang, forced into crime - who found a way out which ended up being as bad as the life he was trying to escape. Williams is presented as a womanizer, as a foolish risk-taker, and as a very smart, very talented, man who lacks the ability to plan for the long term. This was a good book, a fascinating discussion of counterfeiting as a phenomenon, and a brilliant character description of Williams. I would have liked to see some sources listed, if only for the historical material - this is the problem when journalists write historical pieces - but the book was readable and generally enjoyable. If I care, I can probably look up Kersten's historical sources.


[1] Abagnale was the subject of the book and movie Catch Me If You Can, Leonardo DiCaprio played him in the movie. The movie was good, the book was better. Abagnale ended up working for (indeed, as far as I know, still works for) a company devoted to preventing the sort of check fraud for which Abagnale was known. In an odd coincidence, while shopping recently I ran across a pen endorsed by Abagnale - it's designed to prevent "check washing", a process whereby a criminal could bleach your original text off of a check, put a different "pay to the order of" and a different amount, and empty your bank account. This pen, apparently, leaves ink residue which prevents check washing.