No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, June 15, 2012

2012/27: Flora's Fury -- Ysabeau Wilce

A famous criminal, assisted by a protection egregore and a flying octopus, have a knock-down drag-out ruckus in my lobby over a girl hiding behind a false name, who has arrived at my hotel in the company of a Pacifica express agent. Most people would be very curious. But I am not nosy by nature. All I care about is who is going to pay for the damages.
Flora's Fury: How a Girl of Spirit and a Red Dog Confound Their Friends, Astound Their Enemies, and Learn the Importance of Packing is the third in the series that began with Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog, continued with Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room), and (thankfully) shows no signs of stopping, or even slowing down.


Flora is no longer a schoolgirl. Now she is Lieutenant Fyrdraaca, seconded to the Commanding General's Office -- which means she's reporting to Buck Fyrdraaca, the woman who Flora has only recently discovered isn't her birth mother at all. Her true mother, Azota a.k.a. Tiny Doom, was allegedly executed by the Birdies -- Califa's Huitzil overlords -- shortly after Flora's birth. Flora's increasingly certain that Tiny Doom is alive and well, and she is not impressed by her mother's failure to make contact. Indeed, the novel opens with Flora preparing to locate Tiny Doom by arcane means. Circumstance, in the shape of unscheduled baby-sitting duties, intervene. But Flora doesn't see why one can't take one's five-month-old half-brother to a secluded Grotto to perform a magickal working ...

Flora is an excellent heroine: resourceful, witty, determined, romantic ... and bloody livid about all the ways in which she's been lied to. She isn't a Fyrdraaca at all, as she'd thought all her life; her erstwhile beau Udo has run off with the Warlord's granddaughter, Zu-Zu (who unwittingly (?) sticks the knife in by dressing as Azota for a masquerade); her military career consists not of glory, but of child-minding and running errands; she is a pawn in grand political schemes that she barely glimpses and certainly hasn't consented to be part of; and, though prone to travel sickness, she's travelling -- by land and by sea -- for almost the entire novel.

Like all good quest novels, Flora learns about herself as much as about her world and her circumstances. Part of that process is accepting that she's been wrong about a lot of things. And in the process of discovering (some of) what's really going on, she pays a price that's higher than she realises.

Still! In Flora's Fury, Wilce tantalises with further hints at the history and geography of this alternate world where the Aztecs (or their cognates) rule the southwest of the North American continent, and the United States never came into being. There are pirates, zombies and shapechangers (some better-dressed than others); there are dime novels (including the 'Red Top Rev, Vigilante Prince' series, based loosely on Flora's father, which I really want to read); there are supernatural entities from Springheeled Jack to the Lord of the Smoking Mirror; there are love spells, crossroad magicks and the Anima of Califa's greatest hero (who is fond of bathing). Flora faces it all indomitably, determined to make her own fate.

And now I have to wait for the next instalment ...

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

2012/26: Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project -- Spencer Wells

People constructing family trees are typically investigating events from the past few centuries, while population genetics starts there and pushes further into the past. Most of us have a sense of our family history, but eventually we all hit a brick wall. Our DNA breaks through that wall, providing a unifying path that leads from the present into the realm of deep ancestry. (p. 13)

This book is effectively The Genographic Project for Dummies: no scientific background required. Spencer Wells is the director of the Genographic Project, which was founded by National Geographic and IBM as a non-profit genetic anthropology study, attempting to map historical human migration. Proceeds from the sale of DNA-testing kits go to 'help indigenous peoples around the world' (174). Unlike its predecessor, the Human Genome Diversity Project, it does not concern itself with patenting genetic data or preserving cell lines.

The story so far, grossly oversimplified: about sixty thousand years ago (two thousand generations), the ancestors of the human race began to migrate from Africa. As they spread out over the world, their DNA mutated ('genetic drift'). These mutations, which persist in the DNA of an individual's descendants, are genetic markers which can be used to identify migration patterns. Small groups -- and they were all small groups: "Genetic data suggest that the human population size crashed to as few as 2,000 people around [the time of the last great ice age]" (p. 139) -- could be cut off from other groups by mountains, glaciers, rivers. If an individual in that group had a particular genetic marker, all his or her descendants would also have that marker. (Male progeny will carry it on the Y chromosome; female in mitochondrial DNA.) So everyone with the marker would have a single ancestor. By mapping the geographical distribution of a marker, and subsequent mutations, it's possible to identify roughly when and where that single ancestor lived.

Wells explores the science and culture of genetic genealogy in a number of case studies: 'Odine', a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings; 'Margaret', Wells' grandmother, whose DNA is a potted history of agriculture; 'Phil', whose Native American ancestry links him to Siberian populations; 'Virumandi', an Indian man who shares a rare genetic marker with some aborigines in Australia; and 'Julius', a Tanzanian hunter-gatherer whose DNA is used to illustrate the vast genetic diversity within Africa.

One thing I learnt as a result of reading this book is that there are actually only two types of people: those who think the Genographic Project is dead cool, and those who think it isn't. I am firmly in the former camp, not least because I know so little about my family history.

Well, I know a bit more now. I am (like 5-10% of the population of Great Britain) in haplogroup K, which means I have discovered a new cousin and that I share a common ancestor with a great many Ashkenazi Jews. Having opted for the basic, anonymous test, I was intrigued enough to sign up for Family Tree DNA, which might make it possible for me to trace my maternal grandmother's ancestry.

Deep Ancestry emphasises the is sometimes over-breezy, and sometimes poorly worded ("no two people look alike": er, you mean 'identical', don't you?) but it does what I've always loved in pop science books: it makes me want to know more, to learn, to understand.