oh noes

I think there might be a metaphor in here about exploitation or something

I loved Three Parts Dead so much that I immediately ran, did not walk, to borrow the sequel Two Serpents Rise from my roommate, and then I ate it (by which I mean I read it really fast; eating other people's books is rude).

The book started off inauspiciously with me catching two minor terminology errors in the first chapter, which depicts what is clearly a game of no-limit Hold'em, one in which our main character makes a very bad fold. But at least the book knows it's a bad fold, so it's got that going for it. Fortunately, things get better after that, as we learn more about the city of Dresediel Lex and the complex system of creepy magic that keeps it supplied with water.

Dresediel Lex, part Las Vegas and part Tenochtitlan, is a desert city that is trying to be very modern and run on Craft and ignore its prior history of human sacrifice, a history that only ended a few decades earlier. Our main character, Caleb, is the Dresediel Lex equivalent of an annoying finance bro, doing risk management and analysis for Red King Consolidated--the magical Concern that runs the city's water supply--and playing a lot of poker. He has daddy issues -- quite understandably, since his dad is one of the last priests of the old religion (the one that feeds its gods hearts) from before the God Wars, and he keeps running around trying to overthrow the Craftsmen and return to the old ways, and basically being a creepy terrorist zealot.

In classic annoying white bro protagonist fashion, Caleb picks up an Obligatory Love Interest by seeing a woman out and about and immediately becoming completely obsessed forever. In this case, the woman is a cliff runner named Mal, who turns out to be a Craftswoman for the firm that Red King is currently in the middle of a rather complicated merger with.

Meanwhile, back at Caleb's job, one of the reservoirs is suddenly full of creepy demons, and while that initial attack is sorted out easily enough, it really wasn't supposed to happen and it turns out to just be the first in a long line of complicated god- and demon-related acts of sabotage that somebody somewhere is committing against Red King Consolidated and Dresediel Lex's water supplies. The resulting complex web of law, religion, magic, explosions, and creepy lobstery water demons is fantasically difficult to sum up but it all makes sense in the book, I promise.

Despite my general underwhelmedness with both Caleb and Mal as people -- seriously, they're perfect for each other, because they're both irritating and I would not like to hang out with either one of them in real life -- I thoroughly enjoyed the book. They were still entertaining enough characters, and they certainly went through enough interesting shit. Plus a lot of the secondary characters were great, especially the Red King, a coffee-drinking skeleton who usually appears in a red bathrobe, because he lives in the creepy pyramid that is the Concern's headquarters. Caleb's dad is also actually quite hilarious, despite being a giant scary religious zealot.

Anyway, it's a book about unsustainable resource extraction, but it's also about giant fiery serpents and water gods and human sacrifice and all that good stuff, so it's quite a head trip in a good way.
wall wander

In which God is dead

For BSpec's book club I finally got around to reading the first book in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence, which I have been meaning to do for at least two years now. I have the last two books in the sequence signed, but the first one only in paperback, and am missing the second and third. To make it even more complicated, the books take place in a different order than they are published -- they are ordered by the number referenced in the title.

The first book, therefore, is Three Parts Dead, which follows the adventures of young Craftswoman Tara Abernathy as she is hired on probation at the necromantic law firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao under the mentorship of terrifyingly efficient senior Craftwoman Elayne Kevarian. Tara graduated from Craft school under dubious circumstances that involved her trying to kill one of her professors and getting thrown out of the school, literally, which is pretty dangerous because the school floats up in the sky, as all the best magic schools do.

Tara's first assignment is in the city of Alt Coulomb, which runs off the power of its god, Kos Everburning. Unfortunately, Kos has died under mysterious circumstances. Tara, with the help of a hilarious sheltered young priest (or Novice Technician, as he is called) named Abelard and his junkie policewoman friend Cat, has to help Elayne figure out who killed Kos and why and how and who benefits and all that stuff and generally unravel the massive conspiracy hidden in the heart of the Church.

While the story is plenty funny, it's not as much of a comedy as one might think from some of its elements -- demon lawyers! a vampire pirate captain! divine contract law! -- and the world of magical techno-corporatocracy that Gladstone builds is convincing, at once both weird and distressingly familiar.

Tara is a great protagonist, driven and talented and badass and definitely in a bit over her head, and Abelard is a great dual lead, being an earnest bumbling weirdo in an arcane religious order who chain-smokes to show religious devotion and doesn't know what a newspaper is. They're a fantastic, fantastic team, especially since the book very sensibly eschews the unnecessary romantic subplot that I think a lot of authors would have found obligatory.  Instead of romance we get, like, shape-shifting gargoyles and blood magic libraries and a nine-story demonic BDSM nightclub and stuff like that.

The philosophical underpinnings of the main conflict ends up having a lot to do with free will and consent and the dangers of clever, talented technolibertarian douchebags being allowed to exploit other people without adult supervision, so suffice it to say that the book is not all fluff and explosions, although like any good urban fantasy it certainly has quite a lot in the way of fluff and explosions, and even an instance of leather pants.

I think we're going to get a really good discussion out of it. I've already started reading the next book in the Sequence, so we'll see how many we get through by the time book club rolls around.
oh noes

Race, religion, and psychotherapy

Due to time constraints we picked a short book for our next book club, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and although I read it all in one evening I've been mulling over it for several days after before attempting to write a review, and will likely try to reread it before we meet. There's a lot packed into the 106 pages here. The pair of essays -- one short, at just a few pages, the other more than ninety pages long -- combines Baldwin's personal and family history, American history, sociological and cultural commentary, an unnerving dinner with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammed, and a call for all of us to truly reckon with America's history and legacy of racism.

The first essay, addressed to Baldwin's nephew (also named James), is personal enough that some of it almost feels a little voyeuristic to read, but its main point -- that at the time it was written, on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, celebration was premature, and black Americans had not really been emancipated yet -- is of interest to any reader who is at all invested in America. This letter also introduces a theme Baldwin expounds upon later as well, which that white people, while not "devils" as some movements at the time concluded, were nevertheless not very smart, and that they were in charge of everything was no reason to accept their infantile framing that it was black people who needed to be accepted/assimilated into white society and to become more like white people, because the existing white power structure was dreadful and, within it, people became weird and stupid and dysfunctional (Baldwin writes this in more elegant terms than that, of course) -- in short, he tries to each his nephew to resist internalizing what we now call the white gaze.

The second essay is a mostly autobiographical set of musings about growing up and learning to face the world and all its absurdities and atrocities, and the many temptations and pitfalls and escapes that Baldwin either avoided or did not. He speaks of his terror of falling into a life of crime as he became closer in age to the criminals that haunted the streets of Harlem where he grew up, and of the somewhat self-aggrandizing refuge he found in the Church as a youth pastor -- and then, eventually, how he grew to find it hypocritical and leave it behind him. He writes about the Nation of Islam movement and about why it appealed to people, and he explains both why he thinks it's wrong and that he understands what it's an entirely understandable response to. There is a tendency in much of American liberalism, at least right now, to expend much more fury and moralizing denunciation upon the people supposedly on one's same "side" who are doing it wrong than against the actual forces of oppression, in order to show off that you are one of the reasonable ones and to try and keep your "side" in line. The results are usually a bad look. Baldwin here manages to avoid any sort of ostentatious pearl-clutching or unsightly scrambling to distance himself from the Nation of Islam movement; it is in part a testament to his great empathy and in part a testament to his skill as a writer that he instead portrays the movement and the dinner with a profound sadness and with a tension and feeling of uneasiness that makes this section of the essay especially unputdownable. He writes about the people who join the Nation of Islam in largely sociological terms, describing them as sort of getting entangled in hatred and its weird mythology the way other excellent writers have written about family members sinking into addiction or crime. Though he's understanding of the course of despair and frustration that leads to people joining what is essentially a cult, he doesn't gloss over the fact that it is a supremacist hate group, and that no amount of explanation actually makes that anything other than ugly.

Baldwin reserves some of his profound sadness for his insights into the psychology of white Americans, some of which still rings 100% true and some of which rings slightly less true until you remember he was writing in 1962 and you figure that if it's not completely true now it squares 100% with everything we know about the '50s. Sometimes I forget how weird the '50s must have been until I see, like, advertisements or TV footage or something like that from then, and it's just modern enough that the ways in which it is alien make me feel like I'm on bad drugs, with people smoking on airplanes and all the movies in eye-watering Technicolor. Baldwin describes us as "slightly mad victims of our own brainwashing," which is certainly true, and as being terrified of sensuality, which is something we have made some progress on in some spaces and pretended to make progress on in others, and made no progress on whatsoever in large swaths of American life. Some of the things Baldwin says about stress and psychotherapy, about the aridity of life under the sway of capitalism and its fantasies, have only become more true since the postwar boom ended and the economic deprivation that used to characterize Harlem has hollowed out the entire middle class (even as Harlem becomes gentrified out of existence, from what I hear).

For me personally, it was Baldwin's criticisms of Christianity that interested me the most. He talks about Christianity's history as an imperial power, allied with imperialist nations and foisted upon unwilling populations to "save" them, though the only thing they really needed saving from was the Christians. And he talks about the role of the black Church in ways that echo with criticisms I've read about the Irish Catholic Church, especially in pre-revolutionary Ireland, but the Church he is describing is also in other ways clearly very different, and not only because Catholic Mass tends to be a very stiff and formal affair. But I'm always very interested in people's stories of apostasy, especially people who were once very serious and therefore whose apostasy had to be very serious as well. Baldwin discusses the purposes that his Church serves, both in the community and in his life, purposes both good and bad, and how he came around to where the good parts had outlived their usefulness and stopped outweighing the various hypocrisies that tend to accumulate in religions once they've been around a while.

It is distressing how much of this essay is still relevant, even as the Nation of Islam has been largely reduced to a set of footnotes on the SPLC's hatewatch map. But America as a whole has still not really gotten around to doing much of the real reckoning with race that Baldwin requested of us, though more liberal sectors have started to do more in just the past couple years, as the elections of Barack Obama and the ensuing "whitelash" have brought racial issues front and center in a way we haven't seen in quite a while. We also put an idiot racist kleptocrat and a bunch of Nazis in the White House, though, which unfortunately is going to have a bigger immediate impact on a lot of people's lives than all the interesting new documentaries that are out recently, and I say that as someone who think these sorts of documentaries are really important. (Everyone should go see I Am Not Your Negro.) I'm looking forward to discussing this book with the book group and probably to reading a lot more Baldwin in the future.
oh noes

Life in the Evil Empire

For reasons that definitely have nothing whatsoever to do with modern politics, I have lately become very interested in dictatorial regimes again, and especially World War II. I read a lot of Holocaust memoirs and stuff when I was younger, but not a lot of stuff on the military and political history end of things. I also remember reading a bit about Nazi propaganda as part of general study of propaganda both in history classes and in media classes, but not really in great depth. So I figured it was time to look more at the political situation around the rise and establishment of the Third Reich than I got in ninth grade history.

To that end was recommended to me In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson, who is best known for Devil in the White City, which I admit I have not read but which people seem to like. Garden of Beasts follows U.S. ambassador Charles Dodd and his daughter Martha as they establish themselves in Berlin in 1933, shortly after Hitler becomes Chancellor. Dodd is not a usual ambassador type, being that he's not a rich socialite; he is a history professor who just wants to work on his book about the Old South and finish it sometime before he dies. Martha is a 24-year-old boho type who falls in love with basically everybody, which is ordinarily something I would not necessarily judge her for, except that this doesn't stop when she goes to live among a bunch of Nazis, and I'm gonna judge anyone who dates multiple Nazis, I don't care that it was 1933 and you didn't realize. Dodd's wife and son are in Berlin too, but the book doesn't follow them as closely.

On the one hand, the book is a fascinating look into a historical time and place that I don't know all that much about, which is what I wanted, and it's exciting in that dreadful way that so much of the Weird History I like to read is. The surface pleasantries of 1933 Berlin, and discovering all the awful stuff going on just under its surface--police surveillance and basement prisons; the first concentration camps being built out in the countryside--is written in a brilliantly creepy way, peeling back layers of superficial urbanity with the mounting tension of a horror movie. The climax of the book, plotwise, is the Night of the Long Knives, an event I'd never heard of (I told you my early WWII political knowledge was lacking), although the Dodds stayed in Berlin for another three years before coming home and going on the lecture circuit, raising the alarm against the Nazis.

On the other hand, though, so much of this book was distressingly familiar. The various manifestations of liberal denialism--the it-can't-be-that-bad-ism, the it-can't-happen-here/now kind of thinking, the insistence that individual shocking events were isolated cases no matter how many of them cropped up, the assumption of rationality and earnestness where there was none just because people were in positions of power that are supposed to be occupied by respectable people, and above all, the constant refusal to believe the people who were pointing out what was going on, insisting that they must be overreacting--it's all so dreadfully, stupidly familiar, and it worries me, and it makes me think I should be doing more, now, before things get worse, although I still don't know quite what to be doing. Much like in Germany in 1933, the U.S. already has some of its infrastructure of horror built--our massive system of prisons, the ICE detention facilities where migrants wait for deportation for months, our terrifying surveillance and data-scraping capabilities, invasive security theater at airports--and many of our institutions are shockingly weak, but utterly resistant to doing the self-scrutiny that would allow them to strengthen themselves. At this time, the Holocaust hadn't started--Action T4 hadn't even been officially established--but Jews were losing their jobs, the concentration camp at Dachau had been built and was being used to warehouse political dissidents, and there were several secret torture basements around the city in use by the Gestapo. On the surface, people went to work and shopped and hung out in fancy restaurants in Berlin, all modern and normal.

So, basically, I did a lot of stopping to panic while reading this book. It hit home in a suffocating sort of way, giving me the sort of tilting feeling I sometimes get when I'm walking down the street in Allston and it's all perfectly normal and then I remember that there are other streets in the U.S. right now where unarmed people have been shot to death and left to die, or even when I go to a protest and it's the middle of the afternoon and the cops are quietly monitoring it all bored-looking and I remember that this is not what all protests are like and I've just been very lucky so far, or maybe lazy, that I've only attended preplanned marches, mostly in the daytime, that never got out of hand.

But I also learned a lot. I learned about all sorts of interesting characters with shocking life stories, Nazi and non-Nazi alike. I learned about the rivalries between the different arms of the Nazi brutality machine--the SA and the SS and the Gestapo and the regular army--and the intrigues that had Rudolf Diels fleeing the country on the regs and that eventually did in Ernst Rohm. I think the book did a good job of hitting that difficult balance of humanizing the Nazis, as in showing that they are, indeed, humans, but not soft-pedaling or excusing or minimizing any of the horrible stuff they did, the usual byproduct of "humanization," of the liberal instinct to study and explain butting up against the liberal belief that people are fundamentally good. The Nazis were fundamentally real humans, but they weren't fundamentally good. They were fucking Nazis. And apparently, living in Berlin by 1934 was like living with a bunch of pod people, as the surveillance increase and the state program of Gleichschaltung (coordination, i.e., normalization) sank deeper into the bones of the country.

Dodd and Martha seem idiotically naive at the beginning of the book, but Dodd quickly grew on me, being a very principled dude who never really buys into the whole Nazi thing, even though it takes him a distressingly long time to fully admit to himself just how bad it is. Martha is more actively irritating at the beginning since she's very taken in by all the uniforms and fit young dudes marching and stuff, but eventually grows disillusioned and, due to her love affair with a Russian diplomat named Boris, who is actually an intelligence operative, is eventually sort of half-assedly recruited as a Soviet asset. George Messersmith haunts the first half of the book like a longwinded Cassandra, warning a denialist State Department of just how "psychopathic" the Nazi leadership was. He and Dodd do not get along, and not long after Messersmith is transferred out of Germany, Dodd finds himself taking up mantle of giving long-winded warnings that go largely ignored by the U.S.

While the whole story has so much plot it's hard to believe it all really happened like this, the most important stuff in the book is its portrayal of how a bunch of utterly hateful, thuggish manbabies manage to take control of a country of nice, friendly people--the way they capitalize on the earnestness and disbelief of other people, their willingness to lie and dissemble, the feints toward moderation, the secrecy of the true extent of their plans and the visibility of the dysfunction that made their smarter, more rational opposition underestimate their danger. This is hardly unique to Garden of Beasts, though; the most important takeaway of any material about the Nazi's rise to power is always understanding of the tricks they use, and especially the pitfalls that educated, rational, nice, liberal, or otherwise "normal" folks fell into to allow it to happen. But Garden of Beasts illustrates some of them excellently, in a viscerally familiar way that feels like watching a car crash with that slow-motion affect that happens by itself when it's too late for you to do anything.

TL;DR This was an upsettingly excellent book and I recommend it highly.
oh noes

A ballot's a ballot, no matter how small... or is it?

One of the many, many drivers of the outcome in the past clusterfuck of an election was the under-reported but extremely serious wave of voter suppression that GOP legislators have been enacting since the VRA was gutted in 2013. Ari Berman had been valiantly reporting on this issue at The Nation for most of the circus, so I knew that his book on the subject, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America was going to be near the top of the list of books to read in the book club. (Side note: Anyone want to join my politics book club?)

I'm very much looking forward to discussing this one, as infuriating as it is, especially at the end.

The book begins with the Selma march where John Lewis got his head beat in, and vividly illustrates all the drama surrounding the passage and implementation of the Voting Rights Act. Sometimes it's hard to realize that it wasn't all that long ago--there's such a Wild West-y amount of shooting, firebombing, and random street beatings going on. Then I remember that it was only 50 years ago, and also I'm lucky to live in relatively safe areas that are not "gun country," so probably even some of these places aren't as different now as I'd have assumed.

Despite all the shooting and firebombing and stuff, the earlier part of the book is still the cheerful one, because Act One ends with the Voting Rights Act being passed and implemented. Act Two is basically Adventures in Vote Dilution, and Act Three, most depressingly, is the legal counterrevolution that led to the Act being gutted, starting with the sick fucks in the Reagan administration.

The most depressing part of whole thing, oddly, was the "unholy alliance" between the Congressional Black Caucus and the GOP to draw majority-minority heavily gerrymandered districts in order to ensure any kind of minority representation in Congress, even though it made districts less competitive and increased the number of GOP-stronghold districts in the South by basically getting rid of all the moderate white Democrats. This turns out to have been a bad move given the degree to which partisanship has increased as a force in American politics relative to literally anything else. Also, gerrymandering is bad; the more competitive districts are, the better for democracy. So that was a bummer; it read like the fatal flaw that leads to the hero's downfall in a Greek tragedy. Of course, the reality is much more complicated than that, but it seems like a thread the consequences of pulling on were farther-reaching than anticipated.

The real problem, of course, is the cadre of "neoconservative" lawyers brought into the White House during the Reagan and both Bush administrations, "neoconservative" being the bullshit euphemism for "authoritarian, burn-it-down-if-we-can't-control-it reactionaries" that we had before we came up with "alt-right" to push the backwardness into straight-up Nazism. Among other things, they utterly weaponized the Supreme Court, turning it into the anti-human clusterfuck it is today and that the Republicans are hellbent on keeping it. There are many new names on my list of People Who Haven't Been Punched Enough after reading this book, although I probably won't remember the names.

The book ends with a discussion of the Moral Monday marches and of North Carolina's descent from reasonable moderation into an unsterile petri dish of retrograde GOP democracy-fucking experiments. It's simultaneously heartening and depressing.

Voting rights are the single most important issue in our democracy right now outside of not actually killing off the entire human race via nuclear incompetence or the drastic acceleration of global warming. Voting rights are the only hope we have of taking ourselves off the road to fascism, and the power-hungry sociopaths of the GOP know that and are going to do their best to destroy it.

Let's not make it easy.
oh noes

In which I cannot even focus on reading fiction anyway

WELL THAT ONLY TOOK ME THE ENTIRE MONTH OF JANUARY.

But I did pull it off just in time for book club, by which I mean I was reading the last twenty pages or so at book club.

This is the BSpec book club, and we read Ken Liu's Grace of Kings, which had been on The List for a while. It's a political/military epic fantasy, drawing on pseudo-medieval Chinese myth and history rather than pseudo-medieval European myth and history. I do kind of wish I'd read it closer to when it first came out, though, if only because it's really hard right now to get invested in the collapse of fictional empires when the real-world empire I live in is actually for reals collapsing right around me. Also the real world one has more spies. Like, there are some spies in Grace of Kings, but the news is like ALL SPIES lately.

Anyway. The short version of the plot is that a bunch of squabbling kingdoms have been forcibly united under an oppressive Emperor for about a generation. When the Emperor dies, his young son becomes Emperor, but the kid is deliberately spoiled and kept away from governing so his aides can jockey for power. Against this backdrop, a popular uprising against the Empire starts, which eventually becomes a whole bunch of different factions reclaiming their own lands (sound familiar?). The two biggest players in this struggle who emerge are Kuni Garu, a jovial trickster type, and Mata Zyndu, a preternaturally tall and strong scion of a deposed royal family who is fearsomely unbeatable in battle and super uptight. He's basically a Terminator. Despite being polar opposites, they team up to become the rebellion's power couple for a while, but eventually fall out over something stupid that Mata is too rigid-minded to ever patch up properly. In the background of all this, a pantheon of gods all designate certain characters their pawns and try to influence the situation so "their" favorite mortals can "win."

We discussed our nitpicks at book club--such as that the female characters were memorable but there were a limited number of them; meanwhile, the overwhelming number of male characters with often-similar names meant I got a lot of them except the two leads mixed up--but overall this was a pretty solid example of the type of book it is, with a lot of factionalism and strategy and death and fighting. Some elements of the worldbuilding were a little inconsistent or episodic--like, at one point there were mechanical giant whale submarines, but then they were done being used so there just... weren't any more whale submarines. You can't just do this to a girl--if your book is gonna have giant whale submarines at all, it's gotta give us a LOT of giant whale submarines. They are too awesome to be a minor throwaway plot point.

That said, the intrigue is really good, and it's got some interesting meditations on power, morality, the limitations of militarism, and all that sort of stuff that's necessary to make the gods' chess game have more meaning than just a chess game. I'm not as enthused about the sequel as I'd hoped I'd be, though, but that might be partly because I've decided to dedicate the next two years to reading about Nazis. It's really not Ken Liu's fault--anyone writing political fantasy has just had their job made infinitely harder by the vagaries of reality.
oh noes

And the world is beautiful, just look at all your friends

Aaaaaaaahhhhh it's the last Harry Potter book!

I'd only read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows once, since it came out, and since then I've seen bits of the movies, but I basically remembered next to nothing of the plot other than a) Horcruxes and b) the epilogue was boring, because those are the two things that have the most filtered into our cultural consciousness in the decade (!!!) since it was published. So most of this book was very much like reading something brand new.

This book deviates from the previously established structure of uncovering a plot over the course of a year at school, and instead borrows that timeless (or, in some hands, timeworn) fantasy classic structure: a Quest, or more specifically, a Long Ride. After aging out of the blood protection he got from the Dursleys and escaping with the Order of the Phoenix, Harry and Ron and Hermione wander around England for several months, searching for Horcruxes. Over the course of this quest, Harry is systematically stripped of most of his support system and prized possessions — starting, heartbreakingly, with Hedwig, who could easily be included in both categories — in a process that is clearly a metaphor for something. We've had this sort of thing in miniature before, right from the very first book, when Harry goes into the obstacle course defending the Stone with Ron and Hermione but ultimately must face Voldemort alone.

In Deathly Hallows, though, you know stuff has gotten real destablizing, because people are losing their wands. Ron memorably had his wand broken in Chamber of Secrets, but it was a secondhand wand (which means it probably didn't work all that well anyway), and its being broken caused problems for an entire year. But here, people are losing wands and having them broken and confiscated and stealing them from one another all over the place. It kind of makes you wonder why this sort of thing didn't happen more often earlier in the series, but maybe it's also just one of those things that happens more when society has largely collapsed. And make no mistake — wizarding society here has indeed collapsed.

In among the examination of authoritarian takeover and its attendant ills — mass surveillance, militarized public life, blackmail, betrayals, schools being turned into police states, propaganda about "undesirables," registering people based on their "blood status," does any of this sound familiar yet — is a Redwall-esque riddle quest (ha, do u see what I did there) through the history of the wizarding world and its great families to find and destroy the Horcruxes. The heart of the mystery is at Godric's Hollow, ancestral home of Godric Gryffindor, of the Peverell family, and of Harry's father. The crux of the action, however, occurs on the hallowed ground at Hogwarts, as it assuredly must. Harry has to figure out when to rely on his friends and when to stand alone; when to hide and when to draw attention to himself; when to fight and when to face death unarmed and accepting.

The body count is high, and whether the victims are characters introduced in the first book or in this one, they're all pretty devastating. Having grown up with these characters and this series, having so many of them die right when this book came out, as I was at the end of my teens, felt like my childhood was being killed off in a way that's more viscerally upsetting than I wanted to admit. It was no less traumatic the second time around, ten years later, even though in the intervening time I've read dozens or probably hundreds of books with vastly more death and violence.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows marks the end of an era, the end of the formative years for a generation that became better people because of this series, according to science. And now, it's time for us to take what we've learned and to go out and fight fascism in the Muggle world — without wands, but with love and courage and inquisitiveness and a sense of justice and a commitment to equality and all of our wonderful friends.
oh noes

Felix Felices makes me feel invincible

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published in 2005, the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, when I was 17. By this point, I had largely stopped rereading books on any sort of regular basis, which is why I've only read this one three times: Once when it came out, once when I reread the series before Deathly Hallows came out, and this winter. My strongest memory of the summer it came out was that viral video of some guy yelling spoilers out of a car and making people cry. That never struck me as a thing very much in keeping with the spirit of the series, frankly.

Anyway. Considering I was not inspired to reread it very often, it turns out that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is just as devastatingly good as all the other books. Clearly it's me that has changed, not the quality of the story.

It is worth it to say that the lighthearted, whimsical children's book world of Sorcerer's Stone is by now nearly gone, in the same way that the safe, economically stable, end-of-history world of Bill Clinton's '90s as viewed through the lens of a small nerd girl is now gone, and we are now maybe a vassal state of Russia and China is going to declare war on us by Sunday. Half-Blood Prince is DARK. The war is on, everyone knows Voldemort is back, people's family members are starting to go missing, and somebody is half-assedly trying to commit unnecessarily elaborate murders at Hogwarts. We do meet our first halfway decent Slytherin, a schmoozy type named Horace Slughorn who, while frequently annoying, is more of a regular kind of status-conscious rather than being murderously evil.

In this year at Hogwarts, Harry mysteriously becomes good at Potions due to help from a heavily annotated used textbook; Snape finally becomes the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher; Ron is still having self-esteem issues about being Keeper; and Harry starts taking private lessons with Dumbledore.

The private lessons in question are basically all trips into the Pensieve, a sort of magical receptacle for memories. It turns out that Dumbledore has been painstakingly piecing together the backstory of Tom Riddle and his eventual transformation into Voldemort. It's a fascinating, Dickensian story of pride, resentment, alienation, greed, revenge, fear, and ambition. It also illustrates well the self-defeating cycle of poverty and bigotry that occurs when people hold onto the idea that they are "better" than others when they don't have anything else to hold onto, but the resulting entitlement makes them such lazy assholes that they refuse to do anything to better their circumstances or develop any kind of community that could help them. (There's even an excellent dig at Merope Gaunt's father and his refusal to do housework.)

There's still some funny bits, though, and the best ones relate to the magical luck potion called Felix Felices. This includes one of the funniest drunk scenes I have ever seen — at Aragog's funeral — and an interesting study on the placebo effect on Quidditch performance. But overall, the experience of reading this book in one day was emotionally exhausting in ways I haven't been emotionally exhausted in years. I cried a bunch of times (ESPECIALLY AT THE END), because I am officially a sappy old lady now. I felt like all my feelings had been beaten up. It was great. This book is a freaking masterpiece.
oh noes

These days are dark but we won't fall

Sometime around the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my constant rereading habits started to drop off. I’ve probably only read this one five times or so? Maybe ten at the outside. At any rate, it’s not one of the ones where I’ve got all the words engraved deep in my memories. But I did remember the most important bits.

This is another one that’s often derided as being a little bit not as masterful as the others, mainly because Harry is annoying as crap throughout it. Everyone in this book is fifteen and has a bad attitude, and the publishers apparently made Rowling squish a bunch of romance into it that you can tell she doesn’t care that much about.

On the other hand, though, Order of the Phoenix does a bang-up job exploring issues of how fascism establishes itself in public institutions. We see the use of denial, of a compromised press, of scapegoating, of the use of crisis as a pretext for tightening government control, of the wrecking of checks and balances of power, and of the difficulties of dealing with people who are mendaciously, stone-cold indifferent to truth.

Although Voldemort returned at the end of Goblet of Fire, he’s really not the main antagonist throughout most of this book. Instead, our main villain is petty, power-mad bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge. This is because the wizarding world has split into three factions: pro-Voldemort, anti-Voldemort, and then the Minstry’s official position, which is that it definitely would be anti-Voldemort if Voldemort were around, but it simply cannot accept that it is so, and its ire is focused predominantly on those who insist upon being all disruptive by saying he is. It is traditional in children’s literature to throw in a character or two to add a minor note of Moral Complexity to the good and evil binary by having someone who is more cowardly or maladaptive than malicious, such as Gollum from Lord of the Rings. In this book, it is that cowardly, head-in-the-sand faction that bears the full brunt of the author’s ire. The cowardly faction actually has two factions within it: the people who will turn out to be anti-Voldemort once they can’t avoid accepting that he’s back, and the people who will happily collaborate knowingly with the Death Eater’s regime once it moves into the open. But for the purpose of this book, they are one faction, and it is as yet unknown who will go which way when the truth comes out.

Dolores Umbridge, as everyone knows, is THE WOOORST. Voldemort may be magic Hitler but Umbridge is the sort of grasping petty abusive condescending bigot that we all personally recognize from somewhere because our society is set up to reward sociopathic assholes. Every time someone does the tiniest thing she dislikes she comes up with sweeping decrees banning it—up to and including banning teachers from speaking to their students about anything not “strictly related” to their subject—and generally makes the North Carolina legislature look like stalwart defenders of decentralized democracy. Fortunately for our heroes, she manages a couple of spectacular own goals that allow both students and faculty to resist her—mostly in quiet and troll-y ways, like Professor Flitwick deliberately refusing to take care of pranks his students pulled because “he didn’t know if he was authorized” and letting Fred and George’s swamp sit around for ages.

But of course, there’s also Dumbledore’s Army.

Though it’s only in play for a chunk of the book in the middle, Dumbledore’s Army is the beating heart of the story. It’s where Harry becomes not just a lone hero, but a leader—and, in keeping with the themes of the book, a teacher. It’s a group of young people coming together in an act of organized resistance, something that is very pertinent to young Americans at this particular point in time AHEM. It shows that loyalty isn’t about waiting for dear leader to save you—sometimes it means you have to fight to save the leaders you’re loyal to. Above all, it shows that fascists can be beaten—not just with magic, which is not at most of the readers’ disposal, but with tenacity, solidarity, noncooperation, telling your stories, and an unwavering commitment to the truth. These are all lessons that may be more pertinent in times of crisis than in times of peace, but they are never unimportant.