Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm looking at the fourth book of the Temeraire series, Empire of Ivory. When we left off Captain Laurence and Temeraire were helping to evacuate remnants of the Prussian army from the besieged city of Danzig. When we rejoin our heroes they're making a mad dash for the coast of England pursued by French dragons. Despite firing signal flares it's only a shore battery that manages to keep the French dragons at bay and allow Temeraire, Iskierka, and the feral dragons to land safely in England.

Understandably they're perplexed by this situation and much to their dismay that the dragons of England have been struck down by a mysterious plague. Many of the dragons have been sick for a year or more and Britain faces the very real possibility of losing all its dragons. The strategic considerations are gravely concerning, but it's emotionally terrifying for the aerial corps as well because of the deep emotional attachment between the dragons and their crews. Temeraire, Iskierka, and the feral dragons have to protect the shores of England from invasion. When Temeraire accidentally gets exposed to infected dragons Laurence braces for the worst...until Temeraire fails to get sick. It appears Temeraire already had the illness during their trip to China and something, whether the environment of Cape Town or something he ate, fought the illness. Temeraire and his ill friends are packed back back up onto the Allegiance and dispatched back to Cape Town to find a cure.

The thing I liked most about this book was the result of the expedition to Cape Town and their search for the pungent mushroom which is the cure for the dragons' illness. As it was established previously in other books, expeditions into Africa's interior had disappeared without a trace leaving the interior of the continent a vast unknown. The assumption is that feral dragons are in such large populations that any expedition is simply killed. What our characters discover is that the interior is ruled by an organized empire, very similar to the Zulu nation, with the support of dragons who the Africans revere as reincarnations of their honored ancestors. The Africans have been willing to tolerate European interlopers, despite the ongoing slave trade, but with the arrival of European dragons the Africans assume the Europeans are making a serious bid for settlement. In response the Africans launch successful attacks not only against Cape Town, but all the major slave-trading ports up and down the African coast.

I liked this development in particular because it shows an advanced civilization in Africa, as well as a reference to an Incan empire in the Americas that kept Spanish colonialism at bay and the state of Mysore that has used their dragons to keep Britain at bay in India. With the Chinese culture which we saw in Throne of Jade, we see how multiple cultures, with the aid of dragons, have managed to curtail European encroachment, something that took off in the nineteenth century but the seeds of which were sewn in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries. Granted, these are oversimplified versions of various global cultures, but it's not necessarily something I expected from a fantasy series. (Incidentally I also find it somewhat ironic that the deadly dragon-killing disease came from North America and infected European dragons in an inversion of the historical smallpox epidemic which killed upwards of 90% of the Native American population.)

Another theme that's been growing ever since at least the second book is Laurence and other people seeing dragons as people with rational minds, rather than highly intelligent animals. European cultures, at least, think of dragons as highly sophisticated animals that need to be tamed but you can't expect to reason with them. This is in decided contrast with China where dragons are practically equal members of society, and in Africa where dragons are leaders and advisers. As the series goes on the Europeans are going to be increasingly faced with the fact their dragons are just as intelligent, or perhaps more so, than their human companions.

Overall this was a good installment in the series and I look forward to more.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

Today I'm looking at the second book in the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, Before They Are Hanged. I do hate to say that this book seems to suffer a lot from the issues that second installments in trilogies have. It kind of meanders and while we have some development, we're left with a lot of things unresolved because the third act needs things to accomplish. Obviously this isn't true of every second act in trilogies, but it feels particularly apt in this case.

The last book, The Blade Itself, established the setting, the characters, and the initial conflict, although what I found most interesting was the characters that Abercrombie created. There are a couple of characters who aren't terribly good people. For example, Inquisitor Glokta is an angry, ruthless, and bitter man influenced by his torture at the hands of the Gurkish and Captain Luthar is a vain, spoiled pretty boy who almost gives up the minute he starts running into a challenge. Despite their shortcomings I found the characters rather compelling, especially Inquisitor Glokta. I think the best thing that Abercrombie does in this book is work on the development of his characters, Glokta in particular. I got the impression from the first book that Glokta didn't have much of an ideology as an Inquisitor, he just tortured people as a sort of revenge against the universe. However I got the impression that in this book Glokta has become aware of the larger political struggle and is becoming more than an unthinking subordinate.

Luthar's development is a lot less subtle, to the point where Luther gets literally beaten in the face with his character development. Seriously, he gets his face bashed in with a mace that makes him try to be a better person. Granted, he's not great at being a better person, but he tries. I definitely get the impression based on how Bayaz keeps giving Luthar lessons on leadership that Bayaz is planning on making Luthar king of the Union in the third book. I say this because both princes of the Union die within this book, but it also kind of strains credulity because Bayaz in no way influenced the deaths of either princes, unless Bayaz is part of a long two man (or three man) con, which seems unlikely.

There are plenty of things that I liked in this book, though. As I said, the development of Glokta was compelling to me, personally and I thought it was the most interesting part of the book. I also really liked Colonel West's story. Granted, Colonel West's story is a pretty normal war story and I was able to predict how at least part of the war was going to go, but that didn't keep me from enjoying it nonetheless.

We also get a lot more exposition in this book explaining the history and the larger conflict which is driving the plot of the book. Now, I have much higher tolerances for exposition than most people so I didn't find it as excessive in this book as I've found it in others, but that's probably a matter of opinion. There is also some debate about how exactly events happened in the past of the book depending on who's telling the story. Personally I liked this because it makes the history of the book feel more realistic because there's always two sides (or more) to any story.

Overall I think this book had some issues because it's the middle installment. I do find myself enjoying the characters and interested in the plot, especially because I understand the stakes for the book, so I'm looking forward to the final installment. Hopefully everything gets resolved in a satisfactory manner because I am a little worried Abercrombie will try to cram too much into the last book. We'll just have to see what happens.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig

Today I'm looking at the first of three books in the Aftermath trilogy which helps to fill in the gaps between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. I'm hoping that these books will answer some of my questions about the political situation in the galaxy, although I'm not overly optimistic about the results. To start with as I've said before about Star Wars as a franchise, I worry about the multimedia nature the franchise is starting to take. I've been getting the feeling that to truly understand everything going on in the Star Wars universe, you have to go track down all the comics, books, video games, movies, and whatever other versions of media they decide to utilize. On the one hand, the old Expanded Universe was very much like this and so for people who really like Star Wars it gives them a lot of stuff to explore and enjoy.

On the other hand, to paraphrase Mr. Plinkett, we shouldn't have to read a book to understand a movie. The original movies were self-contained and while not everything was explained in agonizing detail, we didn't have to go check supplemental sources to understand the plotline. We weren't told how the Emperor became Emperor, but for the purposes of the story that wasn't terribly important. We knew he was the Emperor and was in charge, how that came to be was largely secondary. However in the case of Force Awakens, we don't really get an explanation as to who the First Order is or where they came from. Or for that matter what the situation with the Resistance is, because they're apparently not the military of the Republic but they're Republic aligned. So why is the Republic being defended by a paramilitary force? These are questions which probably should be answered within the movie, and we don't even need a super long explanation, a few lines of exposition would be necessary.

As for the plot of this book, Wedge Antilles is doing some post-Endor scouting operations for the New Republic and finds not one but three Star Destroyers in the backwater system of Akiva. Wedge concludes that something big is going down but before he can get the word back to the Republic he finds himself captured by the Empire. He manages to get a message out to Norra Wexley, another Republic operative, who puts together a team on planet to disrupt the Imperial meeting and strike another blow for the New Republic.

Plot-wise this book is okay. Mostly I got the impression that the Empire has bases and resources out in the Outer Rim and beyond the edges of known space where they'll regroup and possibly form the New Order. Otherwise this feels a lot like other Star Wars books which I've read before and I don't know if it brings all that much new to the table. Republic wins and the Empire gets driven further back. I think what I liked most is the vignettes of other things happening around the galaxy to show that the Civil War is not yet over and there are still battles to be won and work to be done to make the galaxy a better place.

The thing that bugs me the most about this book, though, is the character Temmin Wexley, Norra's son. Norra left Temmin behind three years ago to join the Rebel Alliance and has been involved in battles like Endor. She returns to find her son Temmin has gotten involved in black market dealings and basically turned into a typical shitty teenager. I actually found myself really disliking Temmin throughout the book. He isn't interested in the galactic struggle, just wants to keep his head down and make money. By the end of the book he's gotten fully on board with the Republic cause, but I feel like he hasn't learned as a character at all. What annoys me the most is that Temmin doesn't experience any loss during the book. At multiple points his mom Norra almost dies because of her fights against the Empire and towards the end of the book Temmin's robot Mr. Bones (a psychotic patched together battle droid) is shot by the Imperials. But at the end of the book Temmin has his mom and he has Mr. Bones. I felt like this really undermined the book because Temmin didn't experience loss forcing him to grow as a character. Everything turned out okay for him at the end and he goes on further adventures.

I'll have to see where the rest of the books in this series go because so far it's been kind of a disappointment. It's certainly not the most interesting Star Wars book I've read or feeling all that vital yet.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Black Powder War, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm looking at the third book in the Temeraire series, Black Powder War. The book begins where Throne of Jade left off, with Temeraire, Captain Will Laurence, and still in China. The crew are planning to travel with the dragon carrier Allegiance back to Britain via the Cape of Good Hope when an emergency message from the admiralty arrives from overland. Temeraire and Laurence are ordered to head directly for Istanbul and take possession of three dragon eggs and return them to Scotland post haste. Considering our heroes are halfway around the world and there should be British dragons in the Mediterranean, they find these orders rather curious and it implies the military situation back home has deteriorated in the year since they left. After some wrangling, the crew decide to head back overland, hoping to shave at least some time off by avoiding waiting for repairs for the Allegiance and taking a more direct route.

A pretty significant chunk of the book is spent on getting Temeraire, Laurence, and company from China across the center of Asia and finally to Istanbul. Considering the terrain they have to cover includes some of the world's larger deserts this is hardly a simple task and our heroes have to face the challenges of feeding and watering a dragon when logistics are hardly easy, as well as fighting off brigands and feral dragons.

The last half of the book brings our characters out of the wilderness and back into the struggle of European politics. Arriving in Istanbul our protagonists find the British ambassador dead, his staff gone, and all requests for information regarding the purchase of dragon eggs blocked by a byzantine network of pashas and advisers. Eventually our heroes have to take matters into their own hands. Under the logic that the eggs have already been paid for and therefore are British property, the crew breaks out of the sultan's palace and absconds with the eggs. Unfortunately they lose one of the eggs during their escape, but more concerning still the egg of a valuable fire-breathing species is mere weeks away from hatching.

The final part of the book is probably what I enjoyed the most, and that's because Laurence and Temeraire head for the relatively safe harbor of Prussia. (My people). The Prussians have decided to bring their much-vaunted military against Napoleon and expect an easy victory. If you're a student of history like myself, then you realize that this is just a prelude to the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt where the Prussians were crushed by the modernized French forces, prompting a flurry of civil and military reforms in Prussia that enabled it to become a key player in the victorious Sixth Coalition. However Novik manages to capture the stunning overconfidence of the Prussians prior to their thrashing at Jena-Auerstedt and makes even me shake my head at the poor deluded fools. Despite their need to get back home to Britain, Laurence and Temeraire find themselves dragooned into Prussian service and if not unable, at least unwilling to leave the Prussians in the lurch. Apparently the British promised the Prussians the support of a wing of twenty dragons, but those dragons never arrived. This raises more questions about the situation back home in Britain and perhaps things have gotten worse while our characters have been away. Hopefully we'll get some answers in the next book.

Another thing I really enjoyed is when Iskierka, the dragon close to hatching finally does hatch. Appropriate for a fire-breathing dragon she is an absolute firecracker and from the moment she hatches she's ready to go into a fight with the French. I found her absolutely hilarious and I'm hoping to see more of her in the later books.

Overall, I think this was pretty good. There are some funny bits and I feel like Novik is at least incorporating dragons into Napoleonic Wars in a way that makes it plausible. As I said in my last review, if you like dragons and you like the Napoleonic Era, this is a book worth reading.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Wars of the Roosevelts, by William Mann

Today I'm looking at a biography of not one Roosevelt in particular, but more about the Roosevelt family in general. Like anyone who has any familiarity with the Roosevelt family, you're probably aware of the history of mental illness within the Roosevelt family, with several members succumbing to alcoholism. More specifically several members including Eleanor and Theodore show signs of depression or bipolar disorder. The Wars of the Roosevelts is a delve into the ''dirty laundry'' of the Roosevelt family and the revelation of the deep emotional issues that plagued multiple members of the family.

Because I've read so much about Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor a lot of the subject matter was familiar to me. Because the book focused more on Eleanor's father (and Theodore's brother) Elliot, as well as Theodore's children there was more information than what I knew before. Mann specifically talks about the son Elliot had with Katy Mann, Elliott Roosevelt Mann, an illegitimate child and one of the dirty secrets of the Roosevelt family. Mann talks about Elliot's rise as a banker and eventually enter the ranks of the middle class. Despite his success, Elliot Roosevelt Mann never got acknowledgement from his more prestigious relatives. However at the 1991 Roosevelt family reunion the Manns were finally accepted into the fold.

Personally I think it's hardly surprising that the Roosevelt family, like so many families, had its share of internal division and strife. There are plenty of happy families, but there are just as many dysfunctional ones as well. Considering the high amount of pressure put on the Roosevelt family to succeed and the ambitions for political power it's hardly surprising that so many of them struggled emotionally. Throw in a family history of alcoholism, depression, and bipolar disorder and it's a recipe for emotional molotov cocktails.

From the description of this book on the library's website Mann implied that the struggles among the Roosevelts would reach the level of warfare or bloodsport. I will admit that the struggles between the Hyde Park and Oyster Bay branches of the Roosevelt families during Franklin's election runs certainly reached the level of warfare, but that at least makes sense considering the partisan and occasional ideological divisions between the two branches. Within the respective branches of the Roosevelt families, I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it outright war. Let me try to explain.

Mann talks a lot about the non-conformists of the Roosevelt families, people who refused to follow the paths and expectations set by their relatives, usually Groton, Harvard, and then some sort of career in business or politics and a drive to succeed. Specifically Mann points to Elliot Roosevelt, Kermit Roosevelt (one of Theodore's sons), and James ''Tadd'' Roosevelt Jr (Franklin's nephew and son of his much older half-brother Rosey). Elliott and Kermit both struggled with alcoholism and were engaged in extramarital affairs. (Although they were far from the only Roosevelts to do so.) Elliott was eventually forced to separate from his family under pressure of his brother Theodore who threatened multiple times to have him incarcerated in an insane asylum. Elliott died at the age of thirty-four after a suicide attempt. Kermit, Theodore's second son, did not receive the same pressure to succeed as his older brother Ted, their father's namesake and crown prince to the dynasty. Kermit always seemed unsure of what he wanted to do in life and also fell prey to alcohol and publicly flaunted his mistress, leading to additional shunning by his own family. Much like his uncle, Kermit eventually committed suicide while serving in Alaska during World War II. Really the only non-conforming Roosevelt who did fairly well was Tadd who, thanks to being an heir to a slice of the Astor fortune through his mother's side, was financially independent enough to ignore his family after he married a common factory girl. Tadd's marriage eventually soured and he spent the rest of his days living in Florida.

The thing you have to understand is that mental illness was highly stigmatized in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact to this day organizations such as NAMI are still fighting to end social stigma associated with mental illness. For a socially prominent family such as the Roosevelts, it's hardly surprising that they would shun or attempt to hide members of their families who showed signs of mental illness and failed to meet the high expectations of the family. I wouldn't call it a war within the family so much as a family of high-achievers reacting like many people in the same time and place would react to family members that failed to meet expectations.

Overall in spite of a good portion of this book being review for me, I still thought it was interesting and worth checking out. This definitely goes into the lives of the less prominent figures such as Elliott, Kermit, Theodore Jr., and Alice whose lives are overshadowed by the giants of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor. If anything, it shows that the Roosevelt family was much like any other, dirty secrets and all.

- Kalpar

Sunday, May 6, 2018

All Good Things

Hello, dear and gentle readers. I wanted to take a moment to let you know about some decisions I've made regarding the blog and what's going to happen in the future. A little over six years ago I decided to start blogging at least once a week, mostly with reviews of books that I've read, but occasionally including tv shows, board games, and other media that I've consumed. Amazingly, I've managed to not only keep up the blog in all that time but starting two years ago I managed to do two posts a week. At the risk of sounding a little boastful, that's hundreds of books that I've read over the course of nearly seven years.

However, I've decided that it's time for me to move onward from this project. The blog has been a good learning experience and has definitely helped me grow, but I think I'm at the point where I'm ready to move on. I've decided at the end of 2018 I will stop posting book reviews on the blog. I may do the occasional update from time to time, but for the most part the blog's going to be shut down. The blog will continue to update every Tuesday and Thursday through the end of December. Hopefully this decision will give me more time to work on other projects. I thank everyone who's been with me this far and hope you've found this blog as interesting to read as I have to write it.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert O'Connell

Today I'm looking at a biography of William Tecumseh Sherman, who with Ulysses S. Grant made the winning team the United States needed to put down the slaveholders' rebellion. As O'Connell points out, Sherman has been the subject of varying biographies in the years since his death. While some people depict him as a stalwart defender of the United States, proponents of the Lost Cause mythology tend to depict Sherman as a bloodthirsty monster. This is to provide a contrast to the warlord Robert E. Lee, who in the Lost Cause mythology is almost deified. Lee was good and honorable while Sherman pillaged and burned through Georgia. O'Connell counters that this was not the case but I feel like he goes too far in the other direction and almost becomes a hagiography of Sherman instead.

The issue I have with this book is I feel like O'Connell doesn't deliver on the promises which he made in the introduction. O'Connell states he'll talk about Sherman not only as a general, but as an individual in a separate section. O'Connell does do this, but it feels largely inadequate for the promises he made in the opening.

The majority of this book focuses on Sherman's career during the Civil War as well as the development of the Army of the West into a cohesive fighting force. O'Connell goes so far as to say that the Army of the West was the true predecessor of the modern American ground force, capable of undertaking any task, conquering any terrain, and adapting to any situation. O'Connell argues that this created the institutional DNA of later American forces. Personally I don't know how well this argument holds up, but I'm also no expert on military affairs so it's entirely possible that O'Connell is right.

Unfortunately I think O'Connell focuses on the Civil War to the detriment of talking about other parts of Sherman's life, specifically the time when he was General of the Army after Grant's retirement and when he was in charge of Indian policy in the West. Sherman was an avowed American expansionist and vigorously promoted the building of transcontinental railroads, the extermination of buffalo, and the forcing of Indian tribes onto reservations. Sherman may have grown in his opinions on African-Americans due to his experience with escaped slaves, but his opinions on American Indians remained decidedly intolerant. I think Sherman's policy on Indians, more than anything, is the biggest black mark on his record. Personally I think O'Connell skips over Sherman's post-war career in an attempt to burnish Sherman's reputation to the point of becoming hagiographic.

Obviously nobody is perfect, and human beings in positions of power have more opportunities to make bad decisions. Personally I don't blame Sherman for burning Atlanta and other major cities in the South during the war, especially if it was as limited as O'Connell argues it was, then it makes absolute strategic sense from a military perspective. However the systemic genocide of native peoples by the American government to promote white expansion into the American West has no such argument. I feel like O'Connell purposely ignores this problem because it will be too much of a black mark on Sherman.

Overall I think this book has some problems. First are the organizational issues, where despite his attempts to do otherwise O'Connell focuses heavily on Sherman's Civil War career and only briefly talks about the rest of his life. In so doing, O'Connell takes an almost hagiographic approach to Sherman, almost making him the patron saint of the American military. I feel like this is far too simplistic, especially for a twenty-first century audience, and O'Connell probably could have taken a more complicated view.

- Kalpar