Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The End of Faith - Sam Harris

Sam Harris is America's answer to Richard Dawkins, another Big Name Atheist who is fightin' the good fight on the other side of the Pond. While the message is broadly the same, the style could hardly be more different - for all Dawkins's seething frustration, he maintains a reserved and matter-of-fact Englishness, whereas Harris is all bombast and apocalypse. The focus also differs between the books - where Dawkins concentrates on the perpetuation of ignorance and the damage religion is doing to science and education, Harris is much more concerned with the potential for global warfare and acts of terror.

As soon as the book opens, Harris goes straight for the jugular, tearing into moderate theists for allowing extremists to flourish in their midst. He makes a rather stronger anti-moderate case than Dawkins, if only because Dawkins' attack came a bit later in the book when he was starting to tail off a bit. Essentially, the moderates' worldview perpetuates the idea that it's OK to hold irrational beliefs, which means that the fanatics' ideals are only able to be ineffectively clipped, not dug out by the roots. It would be fine if he'd left it there, but Harris then goes on to undermine his points by a) attempting a bit of dodgy philosophy and b) coming across as a total arsehole.

After all his sweeping dismissal of the fundamentalist absolutes, Harris comes up with his own unsupported ideas about objective ethics and absolute morality; from somewhere, he's gained the notion that the laws of ethics should be as immutable as the laws of physics (not coincidentally, these absolute ethics tie in rather well with his own views). This is edging into Goodkind territory, especially when he basically advocates torture and genocide as a method of preserving world peace and saving us "from the fanatics". While his analysis of Islam makes for scary reading, his own views are far from comfortable; he's either badly misinterpreted the data on the universal moral sense, or he's just so full of hubris that he really believes Truth, Justice and the American Way to be some kind of natural law.

The final chapter is even stranger, as it takes a big sidestep and starts discussing theories of consciousness. The connection to faith is rather tenuous, and the purpose of this chapter seems to be largely an excuse for him to show off his own theories and research on the topic, none of which say anything particularly interesting. Like Dawkins, the rant just sort of fizzles out at the end.

Now, on one hand, it's a good thing that so many intelligent books are being published on the subject of atheism. On the other hand, I'm not sure Sam Harris is the type of guy I'd like to have in my corner. He's certainly educated and articulate, but his blind faith in his own rather dubious ethics is just as damaging as that of the fundamentalists he's assailing. In the same way that moderate Christians complain about the bad name given to their faith by the fundies (for example, this wonderfully scathing page-by-page demolition of Left Behind by a moderate evangelist - it's long but very funny), I would also not want Harris to be seen as the spokesman for all atheists. This may be a good book for sparking debate, but there's not a whole lot in here that I'd personally subscribe to.


Namble Genesis Truthelion


It was an odd looking continent. All boring and covered in ice, which is water when it's frozen. But on that day in 2000, something happened. Antarctica was shattered, sea levels rose, cities were flooded and civilization collapsed. Pinko communism began to spread and democracy was replaced by gang-rapes. When order was finally restored, people began asking themselves what had caused the tragedy. Many theories were offered: Some said that it was a meteorite impact. Others claimed it was punishment from the heavens. Still others claimed it was the result of an experiment prodding Ayn Rand's bloated corpse with the Tuning Fork of Truth. These people were taken out and shot in a professional manner. And fifteen years passed...


When Chickens Attack

A row of tanks sat along the road overlooking the submerged ruins of a city. The crews were watching and waiting like collectivist lemmings, incapable of thinking for themselves. Hovering above were a group of VTOL fighters, their crews slightly less lemmingish but garbed in red shirts for some unknown reason. All of a sudden, a war broke out. A monster rose from the depths, black and massive and misshapen. Flexing its giant claws and squinting its beady eyes, the giant strode onto the shore, heedless of the pitiful lemmings who began to fire upon it. It was Namble, the Third Chicken. Its purpose was as simple as the choice between Life and Death. Nothing would stop it from reaching Midlands-3. The Yeard was calling to it.


In another section of the ruins, a boy stood staring at a pay phone. He was somewhat short for his age but not the shortest because some people were shorter than he. His name was Richard Ikari. At this moment, he was also cursing. "Stupid operator, can't understand a word she's saying. Why does she have to speak in Jibber-Jabber? Stupid parents for being from a funny foreign country. Stupid country for not speaking English!" Frustrated, he looked once more at the photo of the woman who was coming to pick him up. Actually, he just looked at her impressive cleavage, helpfully circled in pen with a caption reading 'Check these out'. He felt his thing rise in him. Looking up for a brief second, he spotted a girl across the street. She had blonde hair so pale it was almost silver, red eyes and was wearing a school uniform that wasn't sexy at all. He turned back to the photograph. Whoever that girl was, she probably wasn't important or anything. Without warning, the ground shook and buildings trembled. Richard looked up to see a hideous creature smashing VTOLs. It paused to look at him with its eyes, squinting down that terrifying beak. Then it turned and moved on, leaving burning wreckage in its wake. Behind him, Richard heard the squealing of tires.

"Richard Ikari, right? Sorry to keep you waiting, get in!"

Turning, Richard saw that it was the buxom woman from the photograph. His thing rose once again and he hopped into the woman's '98 Scarlet. The car quickly sped off, carrying Richard to his rendezvous with destiny.


Deep in the heart of his underground fortress, Commander Zeddicus Ikari watched the antics of the lemmings below him. Bags, but they were fools, thinking that their collectivist soldiers could possibly stop a Chicken. Behind him, his second in command Warren stood in silence. He really didn't do anything but nobody could stand around and agree with the Commander as well as him. The lemmings on the command room floor seemed to have reached a decision. One was speaking very rapidly into his phone. Zedd smirked, the gesture hidden behind his hands which he held steepled in front of his face. Soon, he thought. Soon the lie would be put to their purpose.


At an outlook on the highway, Richard watched the woman looking at something in the distance through a pair of binoculars. He noted that her breasts looked even larger in real life than they did in the photo. He also wondered how he hadn't noticed that her hair was an odd purple color before now. Then his gaze wandered back to her chest and he forgot what he'd just been thinking about.

"Oh shit, the lemmings are using an N2 mine? Get down!"

Richard suddenly fell backwards as the woman threw herself over him. In the distance, there was a giant explosion as if someone had just detonated a really big explosive. The shock wave tossed the car end over end and the pair were thrown around for several minutes until the car finally came to a stop, somehow landing upright. Richard opened his eyes to see two breasts staring back at him. Opening her own eyes, the woman looked at Richard.

"You know, I don't think we've been properly introduced. I'm Major Nicci Katsuragi. Nice to meet you."

"Mffffgh ng Rrrrnnn"

"Oops, sorry about that." Nicci sat up, leaving Richard free but somewhat disappointed.

"They're very nice- I mean, it's nice to meet you too."


Back in the command center, the lemmings celebrated as the Chicken vanished in the explosion. Zedd continued to smirk and said nothing. A technician announced that visual contact was being restored. There on the viewscreen they could see the Chicken, unharmed. It cackled, a sound which turned the lemmings knees to jelly and their bowels to water. A flash of light came from its evil eyes and the visual feed was lost. From behind the Commander, Warren spoke.

"An RD-Field."

"Indeed, just like fifteen years ago."

On the floor, the lemmings rose from their seats and turned to look at Zedd. The Commander looked down upon them. Generals Muus and Mish and the one they simply called W. Lemmings all and now they had seen the lie that was their existence. It was written on their faces.

"It appears we will have to make use of your services after all, Commander. Do you think you can stop the Chicken when we could not?"

Zedd glared down at them. "That is why D'HARA exists."


The Scarlet sped down the deserted highway. Inside, Richard was struggling with something.

"Nicci, that monster I saw earlier, what was it?"

"Oh that? We call them Chickens. Our organization exists to protect mankind from them."

Ahh, Richard thought, that explains why I felt I was in the presence of Evil Incarnate.

Nicci turned around to stare at the back seat. "Say, was it really a good idea to do that?" Richard followed her gaze to where a large number of batteries and fuel cans were sitting.

"Of course it was. This is an emergency and we need fuel and power to get wherever it is you're taking me."

"Actually, I meant what you did to that little girl at the gas station."

"You mean that evil girl who told us we couldn't just take all the gas we wanted? Kicking her in the jaw was perfectly justified."

"She would disagree. Well, if it wasn't for the fact that she can't talk any more after you broke her jaw and severed her tongue. You even laughed about it."

"So what if I laughed? You did too. Eventually, even the parents laughed. That girl was choosing Death by trying to keep us from taking the supplies that we needed. By doing that, she turned her back on the Way and the Truth. Even a child can be used for Evil. If someone like me hadn't shown her the error of her ways-"

Realizing that he might go on for some time, Nicci floored the accelerator in an attempt to reach headquarters as quickly as possible.



Chicken Attack

Warren watched Commander Zedd watch the monitor. Being second in command wasn't really all it was cracked up to be. Lots of standing around and doing nothing while his boss got to do all the fun stuff. He heard a voice on the intercom say that Major Katsuragi had finally arrived with the Third Seeker. Zedd turned to him. "I'll leave matters to you." Then the Commander strode off, imperturbable as always. 'Their first meeting in years' Warren thought. On the monitor, he could see that the Chicken was approaching the perimeter of the city. He looked down at the bridge technicians and began issuing orders. The long-haired one and the one with glasses were quick to obey. They probably had names but Warren had never bothered learning them.


The motion indicator continued to click as the elevator descended deeper into the underground base. While watching the device, Richard thought over the wonders he had just witnessed in Midlands-3. A gigantic underground cavern blooming with life and light, an entire city under the earth, huge rooms full of machinery and giant walkways that must have been designed purely to look cool. Unfortunately he didn't have time to gaze in wonder because he had to keep up with Nicci's rapid pace. She kept muttering something about being behind schedule. What did he care for her schedule? Suddenly, their elevator reached its destination. Nicci strode towards the opening door, only to stop in her tracks when she realized a woman was standing behind it, waiting.

"You sure took your time. Don't you realize this is an emergency?!"

The speaker was Doctor Cara Akagi, head scientist of D'HARA. She wore her lab coat over a tight red leather outfit which accentuated her generous assets. A zipper ran down the front, fastened at the top with a pullring. No one on the base dared comment on that ring, much less attempted to pull it down. The older workers whispered of an intern named Deejay Krapt who had tried to do just that, once. It was said his screams echoed through the halls of the base for a week. At the moment, she looked most unhappy. Nicci attempted to diffuse the tension.

"Ahaha, sorry. I'm still getting used to the layout of the base."

"Oh fine. Come along, I'll punish you later."

"(Mumble mumble mumble)"

"What did you say?"

"I said 'Yes Mistress'"


Cara led the group into a darkened room. Richard's mind had wandered as Cara spoke of numbers and ratios and things that were probably meaningless but once he realized he was in the dark, his unmatched intellect began working again. Maybe his father had brought him here for a surprise party? All of a sudden, someone flipped a light switch. Richard found a pair of giant golden eyes staring back at him. He fell over backwards in surprise. "Hehe, got you! What do you think?". As Nicci spoke, Richard stood up and for once in his life, he was speechless. In front of him was a gigantic head formed in a rather capric shape, with two horns rising out from the back of the skull. Looking down, Richard could see the shape extend far down below him. The giant's body was white and if Richard was any judge, fleecy. It was, he thought, the most noble thing he had ever seen in his life. As he stared in awe, Cara began to speak again.

"Like it? This is Truthelion Unit-01, mankind's last hope in the battle with the Chickens."

"Did father build this?"

"That's right."

Looking up, Richard could see an observation window above and behind the noble giant. Standing at that window, smirking, was the father he hadn't seen in years.

"It's been a long time Richard."

"Why did you bring me here, father?"

Ignoring him, Zedd spoke to the women.

"Prepare Unit-01 for launch. Richard will pilot it."

"What?! Father, what are you saying? Why?"

"Because you have been identified as one of the Seekers, the only ones who can control a Truthelion. The Marduk Institute report also indicated that you possess the rare Garystu gene. You will become a pilot; it is your destiny."


On the surface, Namble strode through the deserted streets of Midlands-3. The Yeard was close now, it could feel it in its bones. Well, if it had bones, which it didn't. All it had to do now was find a way down. Raising its arm, it pointed at a section of pavement. Immediately, an explosion vaporized the concrete and a large chunk of the earth underneath, penetrating several layers of the armor concealed under the surface. The energy from the explosion was then forced skyward into a column, long and straight until the end where excess energy bled off diagonally downward, forming twin barbs.


Below, the room shook. Zedd looked upward for a second, his smirk briefly replaced by concern.

"We have no time left. Prepare Richard to pilot the Truthelion"

While the women argued over technical details, his son just stood there like a wayward pine, staring into space.

"Richard, why are you standing there? Get ready."

His son finally looked up.


"What did you say?"

"I sad no. You're trying to tell me what to do. That's telling me I should live my life the way you want me to live. It's obstructing my right to choose Life and decide my own destiny. You say that I'm special? You're right that I'm special. I know the Truth and soon, everyone here will know it too. They will join me in choosing Life or they will follow your orders like the lemmings they are and choose Death."

"Richard, shut up. Doctor, if you would?"

"I'm not done yet! By virtue of my understanding of the Truth I-"

Richard's pontificating was cut short by Cara's sharp blow to the back of his skull.

"Thank you Doctor. Now Richard, I'll only say this once. Pilot the Truthelion"


'Damn brats these days.' Zedd thought. An inspiration struck him and he activated his radio.

"Warren, our new pilot is useless. Wake Kahlan."

"Are you sure? After that incident-"

"She hasn't been raped yet."

Rubbing the back of his head, Richard mused darkly on all the things he was going to do to his father. He hated the old man, always trying to make him do things he didn't want to. Well, he'd never make Richard do anything again. He strode back towards the door but stopped when it opened in advance of him and a girl on a stretcher was wheeled through. It was the same girl he had seen earlier, only now she was wearing a skintight white bodysuit with artistically arranged bandages around her head and arms. Now that he was closer to her, Richard couldn't help but notice that she was racked for a fourteen year old. His thing began to rise once more. As she was rolled past, Richard looked into her eyes. They were trusting eyes he thought, intelligent and especially kind eyes. As she went by, Richard saw her smile, a special smile only for him. Or maybe it was a wince of pain, either way was ok as far as he was concerned. The medics stopped and the girl sat up, breathing heavily.


In the streets, the Chicken was practically quivering with anticipation. Only a little more and it would be through the armor. Then, it could become one with the Yeard. It fired once more, and the enormous shaft of energy the residents of Midlands-3 would come to call Namble's Cock rose skywards once more.


The room trembled as the hellish energies being wielded above vented themselves upon the earth. The pale-haired girl was thrown out of the stretcher and landed hard on the floor, her bosom heaving as she took deep, gasping breaths and moaned as if she was in pain. Richard ran over to her and grabbed her, noticing that as he did, her moans grew in intensity. Richard surmised that she might be in pain. Their eyes locked again and he felt something: A bond between them, something stronger than even the Truth. It was the Plot. Zedd's voice broke the magic of the moment.

"Son, if you don't get your ass into that machine, I'll make her pilot it. She's in no condition to so much as sit up so it will be certain death and it will be your fault for being a stuck up little bitch and I'll never let you forget it."

Now Richard had to decide.

"Mustn't choose Death. Mustn't choose Death. Mustn't choose Death. Mustn't choose Death. Mustn't choose Death. Mustn't choose Death."

"Did I mention that she'll be your co-worker if you say yes?"

"... Alright, I'll pilot it."


The group, minus Richard, reconvened in the control room. Cara's assistant Maya was already there, giving Richard last minute instructions prior to activation. The scientist reached for a microphone.

"Richard, how are you doing?"

"Fine I guess, aside from this Agiel thing. It's kind of... uncomfortable."

"It's absolutely required to synchronize your body with the Truthelion. Stop complaining, the burning feeling will go away in a while."

Cara then leaned over Maya's shoulder to press a button on the console. As she straightened up, she whispered something into the younger woman's ear which caused her face to turn bright red. Nicci shot the scientist a disapproving look. Over the intercom, Richard's panicky voice could be heard.

"Eeeewwww, what is this stuff filling the cockpit?!"

"That's LCL, it does all sorts of important things I can't be bothered to explain right now."

"It's really gross, just so you know."

"Did I mention it's made from the blood of slain enemies?"

"Really, in that case I guess it's ok."

Maya began running down the activation checklist. "Nerve connections, all green. RBL pulled. Ego borderline thingy whatsis looking good. Synch ratio... 399.99 percent?"

Cara leaned over Maya's shoulder again, this time so quickly that her chest brushed the woman's face in the process. Maya didn't seem to mind much. "399.99%?! That really is incredible."

"Yes, of course he's that good..." Nicci commented, a touch of bitterness in her voice.

"Did you say something Major?"

"Never mind."


Within minutes, the technobabble was over and the Truthelion moved to its launch platform. In the corner of the hangar, a technician was recording the scene so it could be used again and again. Nicci turned to Commander Zedd, who looked at the readouts and then nodded. She then turned back to the others.

"Truthelion, launch!"

The final restraints were released and the giant machine rocketed towards the surface at speeds well in excess of fast.


Hearing a sound, Namble turned. A hole in the street was opening behind it. Suddenly, a gigantic shape emerged. Woolen white armor and horns... the natural enemy of the Chickens, given form. Truthelion Unit-01 faced down Namble. In the mecha's cockpit, Richard stared at the Chicken with a raptor-like gaze. Watching all this on a monitor far below in the safety of headquarters, Nicci whispered a prayer.

"Richard, don't get raped."

To Be Continued...

Chickens, the mysterious invaders who threaten mankind. Truthelion, the only thing that can stop them. In the streets of Midlands-3, Richard fights for his life. What will awaken on this fated day? And what of the mysterious Kahlan? Next time on Namble Genesis Truthelion: An Odd Looking Ceiling/Bringer of Death. Of course, there'll be lots of Important Human Themes too!

- Dycedarg

Friday, October 19, 2007

Dragonhaven - Robin McKinley

From Harry Potter with his Norwegian Ridgeback, to the recent successes of Dragonology and the Temeraire series, the idea of dragons in the real world is a hot topic right now. The Young Adult novel Dragonhaven takes as its theme the concept of dragons as an endangered species, killed off by poachers in most parts of the world and only flourishing in an isolated sanctuary in the American wilderness. Our hero is Jake, a teenage boy who has spent his entire life on the reserve; while exploring a remote region of the park, he stumbles across a sight that could mean the sanctuary's closure and the end of all dragonkind - a dying mother dragon, and the remains of the poacher she has killed... and the mother's last surviving infant. The story then follows Jake's tribulations as he attempts to keep this dragonet alive and hidden from the authorities.

The "hidden" part hinges on the book's weakest contrivance, the idea that keeping a dragon alive is the world's greatest criminal offence. This is unlikely to bother the book's target audience of teenagers, who can probably believe in any insanity committed by grown-up lawmakers, but to me it never stopped screaming "IMPROBABLE PLOT DEVICE" in big flashing letters. As I say, not necessarily a mark against the book (when I was 13 I loved the book Futuretrack 5, which on adult reflection contains some of the most ludicrously unlikely social engineering I've ever seen), but it definitely sets an upper age-limit on who will be able to enjoy it. The limitation also covers geography; Jake's first-person narration is mostly in American-teenager slang, which jarred a bit to my British ears.

For all that Jake is a male protagonist, I can't see this being read by many boys; there's very little action, and the story mostly concerns the trials of "motherhood" - McKinley's interesting idea of dragons as marsupials means that the infant dragon is extremely helpless and needs round-the-clock intensive care for the first years of its life, which is all very worthy but not really that exciting. This is, in fact, exactly the kind of children's book that wins awards - it covers Important Themes (parenting, bereavement, responsibility) in an Accessible Way - and one that many parents will doubtless buy for the edification of their offspring. It's less preachy than Pratchett's attempts at the same thing, but despite some nice ideas, it was a bit too sensible for my taste. Maybe a good present for your nieces and granddaughters.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Writers of the Future XXIII

While I would not normally be seen dead reading something with the words "L Ron Hubbard" on the cover, it's hard to see what he has to do with this particular book, seeing as he's been dead for quite a while now. In fact, the book is the annual result of a regular contest for new writers, with no apparent connections to Scientology* (apart from Hubbard's big ugly name being splurged across the front), and actually contains some very good writing. Of course, there's some crap in here too, not least of which are essays by Hubbard himself and hackmeister extraordinaire Kevin J Anderson (one of the contest judges), but really no worse than you'd see in a collection by established authors.

The phrase "sense of wonder" is often used to describe the appeal of SF, which I rather dislike - it just conjures up the image of some small American boy in the 1950s with his mouth hanging open - but it's true that much of the joy found in SF comes from the wealth of ideas, making the short story its true home. Plenty of the stories here would not stand up to a book-long test of their central concepts, but they certainly provide the requisite wow! factor of sparkling new vistas and What If? scenarios. A few of the themes here have been doing the SF rounds recently (time travel by projection, life discovered on Jupiter's moons, reality TV and hippy new-agery) but the stories mostly avoided any feeling of staleness.

Not counting the Hubbard and Anderson essays, the worst thing in here was Tony Pi's The Stone Cipher - a promising idea about the world's statues all starting to speak, but hampered by clunky writing, waffly pseudoscience and the author's need to stuff in too much of his knowledge of linguistics. The only other contender for the bottom spot was Mask Glass Magic by John Burridge, some fantasy-lite new-age witchy chick-lit fluff with an incomprehensible twist, but it was well-written and harder to dislike than I expected. At the other end of the scale, we have a few good stories and a couple that even approached greatness - Karl Bunker's far-future survival tale Pilgrimage, and the moving time-travel story Our Last Words by Damon Kaswell. And a shout-out to Stephen Gaskell too, a local writer who kindly gave me this copy of the book.

The establishment of this contest for unpublished SF writers was a good thing, even if it was just to add a veneer of respectability to the Hubbard brand; on the other hand, having the association with Scientology may be as much of a hindrance as a help. Still, if the Hubbard name puts you off, you could always invest in a marker pen and scrub his name from the front to no great loss; there's no other reason to avoid the book. Go on, give some new writers a chance!


*Following the arrival, several months after this review was written, of a Hubbard disciple demanding I remove all my anti-Scientology comments (see below), I'm afraid I have to retract my recommendation of this book. It seems apparent now that the Writers of the Future brand is NOT separate from Scientology, and so I can't in all conscience recommend it to anyone, and would urge new writers to steer clear; there's better ways of getting published than by associating yourself with such a fraudulent and free-speech-hating organisation.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Fourth Bear - Jasper Fforde

The Fourth Bear is the sequel to The Big Over Easy, with DCI Jack Spratt and the Nursery Crimes Division investigating fairytale-related crimes in Berkshire, and it manages to be both a great crime story and a funny fantasy novel all at the same time. The Gingerbreadman, psychopathic biscuit-based killer, is back on the loose, and you'd think that would fall under Jack's jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the self-healing car he bought from Dorian Grey gets him suspended on mental health grounds, and his department are instead assigned the less prestigious task of finding missing reporter Goldilocks, last seen at the abode of the Bruin family. Could there be a connection to the illegal porridge-smuggling racket? How is the QuangTech corporation (run by the reclusive Quangle Wangle) involved? And what's the significance of the huge explosions taking out retired cucumber-growers?

Now this is more like it. After the disappointment of the last Pratchett book, it's good to know that there are still some comic fantasy authors out there who can write a coherent story and raise a few laughs. For all its layers of plot, bad puns and nursery-rhyme references, this book is tightly written and achieves a neatness that was missing from the previous instalment. There's no extraneous weirdness with the Jellyman or the Sacred Gonga this time; the plot here makes much more sense, and the way that the crime's solution comes entirely from the actual Goldilocks story is absolute genius. For all their groan-inducing awfulness, the puns are pretty clever, too - apart from the running joke about the right to arm bears, I am quite in awe of anyone who can take an obscure Swift reference and turn it into the idea of thermocuclear energy.

Being a story-about-stories (as well as a cracking police procedural), the book gets rather meta at times, so that's one thing to be wary of if meta is not your thing. I'm not personally that bothered by authors breaking the literary fourth wall and, effectively, winking at the camera, but I know that some people find it kills their suspension of disbelief - so, be prepared to have the characters occasionaly criticising the author's puns, and for Jack to get round the psychiatrist by revealing she's just a plot device. Otherwise, the book was a real delight, and I enjoyed it immensely.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Making Money - Terry Pratchett

Moist von Lipwig is the latest Discworld character to get his own spin-off series, and what a corker it is too. In Going Postal, he took on the cut-and-thrust world of, um, stamp collecting and telecoms regulation; now, in Making Money, he's faced with the bloody business of, um, banking, and the economy's reliance on the gold standard... is anyone else thinking that Pratchett's rather lost it? It can't be a dearth of source material - I mean, he hasn't even done a book on pirates yet! - so he obviously thinks that this is a suitable subject for a comic fantasy novel. Looking back at older Discworld menaces - creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions; bloodthirsty elves from Over There; dragons, religious dictatorships and insane gods - it's clear that he's lowered his horizons somewhat, and the world is a greyer place for it.

So, Moist is bored now that the Post Office is running smoothly; the Patrician is well aware of this, and "persuades" him to take over the Bank. It's running at a loss; the Chief Cashier has an unnatural love of numbers and a dark secret; the shareholders are a posh and vicious Old Money family; there's an Igor in the basement supervising dastardly experiments; and the casting vote on the Board is held by a small dog. All very wacky, as you can see. There's also a sub-plot with Moist's girlfriend off digging up golems, too. And someone from Moist's own shady past is threatening to expose him. Yawn yawn yawn. As usual, Moist wings it with flair, and succeeds by the skin of his teeth, etc. Pratchett's not even trying any more.

The book was an easy read, but overall was just a catalogue of disappointments. Moist's adventures with paper money and currency conversion were frankly boring; Mr Bent's Dark Secret Hidden Past was a huge anticlimax, and Adora Belle Dearheart's golem issues were badly built up to a flash in the pan near the book's end, fizzling out ineffectually as soon as it started. For a supposed "comic" fantasy, the jokes were pretty thin on the ground too; it barely raised a smile, let alone the falling-off-my-chair laughs that Pratchett's books used to generate. I was looking at this one as Pratchett's last chance to stay on my hardback-buying list, and it's fallen quite comprehensively short of the mark. I'll probably still buy his books, but from now on, I'm sticking to paperbacks.