Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, by Toby Wilkinson

Today I'm looking at a history of Ancient Egypt that covers history from the early origins of the Egyptian kingdom in the 3000s BCE up to the first century BCE with the annexation of Egypt by the Roman Empire. When dealing with a history of literally thousands of years obviously this is a very broad overview rather than a detailed history, which is further hampered by the fragmented nature of the information available. Compared to the biography of Hatshepsut which went into the life of not just Hatshepsut but her stepson and heir as well, this book takes a far more general approach. However, Wilkinson does have the advantage of drawing upon the centuries of written records and archaeological evidence to piece together the story of ancient Egypt.

For the most part Wilkinson does a pretty good job of talking about the history of Egypt and it's very obvious that he's spent many years in the field of Egyptology. Wilkinson relies not only on the written record but on artifacts ranging from temples to tombs to grave goods to ordinary items. Based on the fact that someone was able to write an entire book about Hatshepsut while Wilkinson barely mentions her at all, it suggest to me that Wilkinson picked and chose from what he thought were the most significant pharaohs to talk about rather than going into detail about all of them. Even when details are available (which apparently are in some cases) to go into detail about every pharaoh would be a much larger book. Because I know basically nothing about ancient Egypt I'm unable to comment one way or another on Wilkinson's decisions.

I will say that there were some comments that left me a little concerned, especially a comment Wilkinson made about the names of pharaohs sounding juvenile to modern English ears and offhandedly saying that maybe the cosseted lifestyle of the Egyptian royalty created a band of decadent and infantile pharaohs. This argument is so facile that I can't believe it ever made it past the editor, much less was included in the book. Even as a joke this comment is incredibly insensitive and makes me really concerned about Wilkinson. I know this is a really small and specific thing to worry about, but it feels like a really big deal to me.

There were a few other comments that concerned me but not as great as the comment about Egyptian names. Wilkinson placed a large amount of emphasis on the Israelites and their Bronze Age kingdoms. Now because I haven't studied a bunch of ancient history outside of Rome, I don't know the status of the Bible as a historical source but I know that it can't be taken as complete historical fact. However based on what I read Wilkinson seems to take the Bible as historical fact and seems to get downright confused when Egyptian sources don't mention King Solomon. He actually seems to get offended when the first Egyptian source that mentions the tribe of Israel only as a minor enemy. Except for all we know at this time Israel was a minor tribe, not a kingdom receiving ambassadors from the major powers of the ancient world.

I'm assuming that Wilkinson does a good job assessing the Egyptian sources but his comments raise some concerns on my part. Because I know so little about this I'm going to say for now this seems a good general overview but if I get more information I may have to change my analysis.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 20, 2018

League of Dragons, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm finally finishing with the Temeraire series with the ninth book, League of Dragons. As I mentioned in my review of the previous book, Blood of Serpents, I had started having concerns about this series because I knew we were close to the end and it seemed like there wasn't quite enough space to finish the series. I hate to say it but I feel like this kind of happened with this book as well. It seemed like Novik had a lot of really neat ideas that could have been developed further but there just wasn't enough time in the series to talk about those ideas. I'm left wondering if maybe Novik had gotten tired with the series and was just looking to end it with everything (mostly) wrapped up. The result is a book that feels alternately fast paced and meandering and with me wishing for more.

The book begins where we left off, with Laurence and Temeraire in Russsia after Napoleon's disastrous 1812 campaign. But after we spend some time in Russia, Temeraire and Laurence discover that Temeraire and Iskierka's egg is in danger of being stolen by French agents with the aim of binding the dragon within to Napoleon's son and jeopardizing the already tenuous alliance between Britain and China. Temeraire rushes off towards China, only to get halfway across Russia and be told that the French have already stolen the egg and he now has to rush back towards Europe to try and catch them in the Alps.

Temeraire and Iskierka rush towards France to get their egg back, only to be captured by the French. They then have to plot how to escape with Laurence, and Granby, and the egg. After spending a good chunk of time captured and plotting their escape, they then flee back to England and get involved in planning the counter-attack against Napoleon in the 1813 campaign. As the Peninsular campaign pushes towards the Pyrenees, Laurence finally is awarded the rank of Admiral and is sent with a British detachment of dragons to fight with the Coalition forces including Prussians and Russians and eventually the Chinese as well. Towards the end of the book the Coalition manages not only to crush Napoleon's army, but capture Napoleon himself. Napoleon is allowed to abdicate in favor of his son, and goes into exile on St. Helena.

This is kind of what I mean by the book being alternately fast-paced and meandering. When we're spending time with our main characters being kept prisoner or sitting in camp waiting for Napoleon's forces to come into Prussia, we seem to spend a lot of time sitting around talking about the rights that dragons are interested in getting, and dealing with issues like feeding hundreds of dragons. But then really important things happen (sometimes off-screen) really quickly and we spend some time afterwards catching up on events.

One of the most interesting things about this book was the idea of a concord, initially proposed by Napoleon. The concord is a collection of ideas and rights for dragons, putting them on an equal footing with humans. This initially gets quite a large amount of support from feral dragons, which prompts Temeraire and other English dragons to start working on their own concord. This eventually gets introduced as the Dragon Rights Act by Perscitia, who's the first dragon member of Parliament. This actually was a development I thought was interesting and would have been interested in seeing more of, especially after it's passed and Temeraire starts thinking about pursuing a career in politics. That's just something I would have liked to see more of and might have been more interesting than sitting around dealing with supply problems while on campaign in Germany.

Ultimately I'm a little disappointed with the results of the series. There was a lot of potential in this series and there were a lot of interesting ideas, but I'm left wishing for a little bit more in the end. I think this series has some good parts and there are some enjoyable parts, especially the characters. But I feel like there could have been some more development, especially towards the end of the series. They're enjoyable reads, but as I've said before this series is mostly literary candy.

- Kalpar 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Darth Plagueis, by James Luceno

Today I'm looking at another Star Wars book because apparently I'm a glutton for punishment. Of course this book is part of the Legends canon so it doesn't count as canon anymore within the new Disney canon. (Yes, Star Wars is confusing.) I think this was one of the last books written before the Disney takeover, though, so it kind of shows how complicated the canon had gotten. If you've had the misfortune to sit through Revenge of the Sith you probably remember Palpatine's speech about the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wiiiiiiiise. After the movie a lot of fan theories floated around about who exactly Darth Plagueis was with the favorite being that Darth Plagueis was Palpatine's own former teacher. This book confirmed that theory and expanded on both Plagueis and Palpatine. But I feel that this book in an attempt to answer questions just ends up raising more questions.

This book establishes that Darth Plagueis is a Muun. Now if you don't remember what the heck a Muun is, I certainly don't blame you. Basically they were these tall aliens and they were behind the Intergalactic Banking Clan, the major economic power in the galaxy. Darth Plagueis, like so many Muuns, is a major financial broker in his own right. Now on one level this makes a lot of sense because someone with massive financial power would be able to set the conflict of the Clone Wars into motion, both through political manipulation as well as underwriting the manufacture of armaments for each respective faction. In a way this makes a lot of sense. But the trouble with this book is that it just creates a disconnect between Darth Plagueis the manipulator and Darth Plagueis the immortality-obsessed maniac. Of the two, the chasing immortality plotline seems to have been almost forgotten at times, like Luceno was like, ''Oh right, the immortality and the midichlorians. Right. Got to include that.'' Plagueis's ultimate goal is to rule the galaxy for forever, but based on where the book spent its focus it felt like Plagueis's main goal was galactic domination and immortality was just a sweet bonus.

This book also focuses a lot on midichlorians (when Plagueis is actually working on the immortality project) and then all the financial and political debates that were in the prequels. Now I think it's pretty safe to say that there were a lot of people who didn't like the tedious political debates that were in the prequels, so having a whole book with a lot of those debates is probably not going to be appealing to the average Star Wars fan. Not to say that political intrigue and Star Wars couldn't potentially be an interesting story like Song of Ice and Fire, but in this case it's a more of the prequel variety which isn't that great.

The canon problems also start getting confusing. This book includes a reference to the Heir to the Empire with Jorus C'baoth making a cameo and I'm pretty sure that there's an inclusion of a plotline about Darth Maul taking out leaders of the Black Sun criminal organization.And I'm pretty sure I read a comic with that exact same plot back when I was a teenager. (It's called Star Wars: Darth Maul published by Dark Horse, if anyone's interested) And those are the only two references I was able to catch, I'm sure there were more that I missed as well. But this just made me think of the of the fact that Jorus C'baoth was cloned and his clone suffered from clone madness, all of which got forgotten with the new Clone Wars. So now I'm mixing canons that contradict each other in my head.

I feel like this book tries to answer some other questions such as ''What the heck were all those giant bottomless shafts in Naboo that the lightsaber fight was in? And for that matter why is the Trade Federation blockading Naboo? What space supplies could this lush, verdant planet need that would cause them to surrender?'' Well this book actually answers those questions that we had. It turns out that Naboo's entire economy is based around mining plasma and then the Trade Federation has a contract to ship it off world. So the blockade by the Federation is over a disagreement involving shipping rates and it brings Naboo's economy to a standstill because their economy is based on a single export. And those bottomless shafts are just plasma mines.

...except that plasma is an ionized gas either found in either the upper atmosphere or more commonly what stars are made out of. So...you...shouldn't be mining it from a planet's core. I...it just doesn't make sense. I'm sorry, I know I'm making a big deal about this but it bugs me on some level. And this is just the biggest thing that bothers me, there are a lot of other questions that I'm left asking about this book. It just raises more questions.

Overall I think this book is worth skipping. While it explains more of how the Clone Wars were set up, it does it in such a dry manner that I don't think most fans are going to want to read this entire book just for that.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Dear Dana Loesch and the NRA, What the Fuck is Wrong With You?

I am writing an extra thing today that is out of my usual purview of talking about books. As most of my readers are probably aware, I like trains. Really, really like trains. To the point that people joke the I Like Trains Kid is based off of me. I can safely say that the origin of this obsession began with Thomas the Tank Engine, whose stories I first encountered through Shining Time Station on PBS in the early 1990s. Thomas and his friends have long since grown beyond the original stories of the Rev. Wilbert Awdry, but continue to bring joy to millions of children (and children at heart) throughout the world. As you can imagine I have very, very strong positive emotions tied to Thomas and Friends.

So I found out today that Dana Loesch and the NRA got their panties in a bunch over new characters for Thomas and Friends and felt the appropriate response was to create an image of Thomas, James, and Percy wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods. And I'm going to be entirely honest, I have completely lost my shit. I am incandescent with rage. And as an...attempt at catharsis I'm writing this. I don't know if it'll help.

Dear Dana Loesch and the NRA,

What the fuck is wrong with you? What the fuck is wrong with you? Granted, this is a question I ask every time, Ms. Loesch, you get up there after a school shooting and tell us with a straight face that we actually need more guns to make us "safe". That I at least understand because that's the entire NRA's agenda and you're paid to say that. But getting offended over increased diversity in a children's tv show? That has absolutely nothing to do with guns or the Second Amendment, why are you even talking about this? What the fuck is wrong with you?

If you were a cynical person you could say that Mattel's decision to include more characters is an opportunistic move to sell more toys. You could also say that it's an opportunistic decision to expand the popularity of Thomas and Friends among a more global audience by including characters from across the globe, as well as introducing female characters to appeal to the half of the audience that is female in a series that has been historically light on female characters. (I don't think Annie, Clarabell, and Henrietta really count as characters per se as they have less agency than the engines do.) But you know what? It can be a cynical, opportunistic cash grab and a good thing.

Because you know what? Yes, the series has been short on girl characters. The original series only had Mavis and Daisy, both of whom were diesels and had a bit of an attitude until they had an inevitable incident with trucks and an incident with a cow respectively. I'm pretty sure Emily was the first female steam engine introduced to the series and even then she was the only female character for a long, long time. And sure, maybe I find the decision to include engines from different countries with special paint schemes a little questionable because most steam engines were painted black because of all the soot but kids like bright colors so let's make all the engines bright colors. Whatever, it's for kids. 

And I was emotionally invested in Thomas. If I'm being entirely honest, I find the new CGI weird and well into the uncanny valley and I really miss the old model trains even though they were probably expensive and a lot of work. And I hate seeing some of my favorite characters like Donald & Douglas getting shunted aside for new kids on the block, but fine. Whatever. I'm a little sad, but they're not making the show for me, they're making it for the little kids of today. 

But for whatever reason, you weren't satisfied. You had to go and get your panties all up in a bunch about the fact that Thomas and Friends is promoting things like clean water, gender equality, and quality education for everyone and doing it with a cast of diverse characters. What the fuck is wrong with you? Do you just hate clean water? Do you hate children? Do you hate fun? Why are you so angry about this? It's a children's show about trains who perpetually learn that it's better to work together and be kind to each other. How can you object to any of this? What the fuck is wrong with you?

What bugs me the most is this isn't even about guns. Like, far be it from me to tell people to stick within their wheelhouse but this is totally not in your wheelhouse. It's like you specifically hunted down something to be offended about, and it was something that is almost inherently inoffensive. Which is rich irony coming from people who are always complaining about "snowflake liberals" who are constantly being "triggered" by things they find offensive.  At least when we're offended it's because of the overt racism, sexism, and bigotry that seems to constantly spew from your mouths. When you're offended it's because we said clean water was a good idea. What the fuck is wrong with you?

How does a person become so filled with hate that they see something good and kind in this world and immediately say, ''I want to smash that!"? How does everything in the world become a personal attack on you and your beliefs? Are you exhausted from constantly being under siege?  Because I can't see how any person with intelligence, with compassion, with even a shred of empathy would do what you decided to do. I guess ultimately what I'm asking is: What the fuck is wrong with you?

- Kalpar 

Sister Queens, by Julia Fox

If you live in the United States you might vaguely remember Ferdinand and Isabella as the monarchs who hired Christopher Columbus before he ''discovered'' the New World. However Ferdinand and Isabella had a much greater influence on European politics beyond sending an Italian who didn't know what the heck he was doing to murder some natives. Ferdinand and Isabella completed the centuries-long project of the reconquista and united the states of Castile and Aragon into modern Spain. And the marriages of their children would affect dynastic politics for generations to come. This book focuses on two of their children, Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile, often known as Juana the Mad.

Katherine of Aragon was familiar to me because she was the first of Henry VIII of England's six wives. Katherine's depiction varies from source to source, especially depending on the religion of the writer, but she has understandably received considerable coverage in English history and literature. So a lot of the material in this book was a refresher for me. I think Fox did a very good job of portraying Katherine as a whole and complex person rather than a cardboard cut-out.

The biggest thing I learned from this book was about Katherine's older sister, Juana of Castile. Juana was the third of Ferdinand and Isabella's children and was never expected to inherit. However once their brother Juan and older sister Isabella died, Juana was left to inherit the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon after already being married to Philip, Archduke of Burgundy, of the influential Hapsburg family. When Isabella died before Ferdinand in 1504, this meant that potentially whoever could control Juana very likely would control Castile as well. This launched a fight between Ferdinand, Philip, and on Philip's death in 1506, his son Charles who would become Emperor Charles V. Eventually Ferdinand and Charles would both imprison Juana under claims of her insanity and Juana would spend the majority of her life imprisoned.

The story that is mostly used to justify the claims of Juana's insanity was a story relating to her husband's body, which Fox manages to explain really well within the context of dynastic and religious politics of the sixteenth century. Juana sought to have her husband buried in the Alhambra located in Granada, the final conquest of her parents in 1492, and importantly where Isabella herself had been buried. By burying her husband with her mother, the former Queen of Castile, Juana sought to cement her position as queen in her own right. However both her father Ferdinand and later her son Charles were able to turn the royal progress of her husband's body into the actions of a madwoman to legitimize  their own usurpation of her power.

The ultimate irony of course is that despite being held prisoner for most of her life, Juana eventually influenced all of Europe through her children. The Hapsburgs married into the royal families of Europe and the Austrian branch of the family would rule as Holy Roman Emperors and later Emperors of Austria-Hungary until 1918. And Fox argues that since Juana's actions always seemed to be for the good of her dynasty, she would perhaps be satisfied with the final outcome.

Overall I thought this book was a really good reexamination of at least Juana, who I really only knew the one story about her alleged craziness that's been perpetuated for centuries. Katherine it feels very familiar but on a much deeper level than some of the more general Tudor histories that I've read or listened to. I did appreciate Fox going into the details of Katherine's struggles with Henry VII, definitely one of the more avaricious Kings of England. I think this is well worth the time to check out and give you better understanding of the dynastic politics of the sixteenth century.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Today I'm looking at a book which does exactly what it says on the tin, looks at how the Roman Empire fell. In the first century CE the Pax Romana had reached every corner of the Mediterranean and for centuries it seemed Rome could weather any challenge, face down any enemy. However by 476 the Western half of the Empire had been occupied by Goths, Franks, Vandals, and other Germanic tribes and Rome itself was sacked. Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Emperor, was deposed and nobody bothered to replace him. The Eastern Empire continued for another millennium, but the power of Rome in Western Europe and Africa had forever been curtailed.

Even as the Empire itself fell, people were debating what caused the Empire to collapse. In the classical era people tended to attribute it to the displeasure of the gods. Pagan writers said the old gods were displeased by the empire's conversion to Christianity while Christina writers blamed backsliding to pagan rituals losing Jesus's favor. Later writers, including Edward Gibbon, blamed the collapse on the Roman Empire on the invasion of Germanic barbarians. As Goldsworthy explains, the underlying assumption is that the institutions of the Roman Empire were fundamentally sound, but the external pressures were simply too much for the empire to bear. Goldsworthy argues that instead it was internal issues that sapped the strength of the Roman Empire and made it susceptible to invasion by the Germanic tribes.

Goldsworthy illustrates this problem through centuries of evidence, showing that through the third and fourth centuries CE the Roman Empire was plagued by civil wars and usurper emperors, as a result much of the empire's strength was spent fighting itself rather than its enemies. Over time the empire's institutions including its military and civil bureaucracy were reformed in an attempt to keep the emperor safe from usurpation or assassination, dividing authority and reducing the power that any one individual subordinate might hold. Ironically this did nothing to stop the civil wars and for most of those centuries strong, long-reigning emperors such as Diocletian, Constantine, or Theodosius, were the exception rather than the rule.

Ultimately Goldsworthy's argument is that the Roman Empire managed to survive through ontological inertia rather than because it was an efficient and united regime. The Empire was simply too big, too rich, and too powerful for it to fall overnight despite the rot within the structure. The Germanic tribes, and even the feared Huns, were able to raid and bloody the empire, but almost never had the numbers to truly overthrow or replace it for most of its history. The only closest rival in terms of strength and money was Sassanid Persia and due to geography they would not have been able to strike at the cores of the Roman Empire.

Goldsworthy's methodology is well thought out and he makes excellent use of the available sources to make an argument that internal, rather than external, pressures made the Roman Empire collapse. What bothers me, though, is when Goldsworthy makes the comparisons to other nations and the inevitable comparison to the United States. As he explains, the United States has been comparing itself to Rome (albeit the Roman Republic) since 1776, so the comparison to the Roman Empire is equally apt. However, Goldsworthy argues first that the United States, much like Rome, had no serious challengers. When this was written in 2008 that was clearly not the case as our ongoing ''war on terror'' continues to quagmire in the Middle East with no real goal or end in sight. While the nature of asymmetric warfare means it's unlikely a terrorist army could invade Washington, D.C., the challenges that they pose are no less frustrating. And even in 2008 the rise of China and ambitions of Putin were plainly obvious as future security concerns.

Goldsworthy also, albeit not by name, makes a reference to the Roman Empire being ''too big to fail''. Although definitely not being tossed around at the time he finished writing (well before the publication date of 2008) the words ''too big to fail'' have come back to haunt us in a serious way. To members of the left wing, myself included, the notion itself that a financial institution can become so large that its collapse can threaten the world economy suggests that something has become seriously wrong with the system and is in desperate need of reform. And it does raise the question, if Rome was too big to fail and still failed, what does that mean about the banks?

Despite these concerns about Goldsworthy's attempts to compare Rome to the modern era (a difficult proposition even in the best of times), I think this book is well worth taking the time to check out. Goldsworthy makes a compelling argument that in the end, Rome's greatest enemy was itself.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 6, 2018

City, by Clifford D. Simak

Today I'm looking at an anthology of short-stories written by Clifford Simak that tell a story through short vignettes over a period of thousands of years. The stories of City follow mankind as technology allows them to abandon cities, then flee to the stars, then disappear, leaving behind sentient dogs and robots as the inheritors of the Earth, who end up taking their own paths. The stories, like so much of forties and fifties science-fiction, was first written for short story magazines before being collected in an anthology. This anthology uses a framing device of dogs in the distant future analyzing eight stories that have been passed down through the generations. Many dogs think that the stories are little more than myth, an origin story crafted by dogs to explain where they came from. Man is dismissed by most dog thinkers as a primitive tribal deity with no basis in fact and probably never existed.

The concept is an interesting one, much in the same vein as stories like Canticle for Leibowitz where we, the readers have knowledge about things in the distant past that other characters only vaguely know about. The dogs, for example, think that it's impossible to travel to another planet such as Jupiter, while we currently send probes to different planets on a regular basis and to forties and fifties readers travel to Jupiter seemed a real possibility. The result is an interesting conflict between the reader and the characters within the book and for whatever reason this is something that I enjoy in books.

There is a fairly melancholy tone throughout the novels and I'm not sure how I feel about it. The moral of the stories all seems to be that no matter how much we, or dogs or robots, advance, there will always be something to hold us back or something to distract us. There is an interesting contrast between the hope for the future and the obstacles that ultimately stumble us. The result is rather bittersweet and leaves the hope for the future in doubt. Which is a lot like real life in a way because our future is always in doubt.

Overall I thought this book was an interesting and short read. Even as a forties and fifties science-fiction anthology I feel like it hasn't aged as badly as some other sci-fi has. I think it's definitely worth taking a look for its unique nature.

- Kalpar