Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Tycoons, by Charles R. Morris

Today I'm looking at an economic history that focuses on four of the most famous American robber barons of the Gilded Age. This book is partly a biography of the tycoons, but also talks about the larger factors that helped turned the United States into the dominant global economic power that would dominate the twentieth century. This book is definitely interesting, although some of Morris's conclusions run counter to conventional thinking about the Gilded Age. Morris does utilize extensive data so I think it's a matter that merits more investigation and research and we may be able to come to new conclusions from existing data.

Of the many business executives of the nineteenth century, Morris focuses on four that stand head and shoulders above the rest, both in influence and wealth. Jay Gould, a stock jobber and railroad magnate; John Rockefeller, who ruthlessly crushed competition and consolidated former rivals into his sprawling Standard Oil; Andrew Carnegie, who dominated the steel industry and drove prices down through any method possible; and J.P. Morgan, the financier who personally forestalled two financial panics. Morris provides brief biographies of all four the tycoons as well as their influence on American industry. Morris actually spends time arguing that Rockefeller, Gould, and Morgan do not deserve as much opprobrium that they receive in traditional histories. He particularly focuses on Jay Gould who is largely remembered for his gutting of the troubled Erie railroad and absconding with some seven million dollars. Morris argues that Erie was the exception and Gould spent most of his career genuinely trying to consolidate railroads into profitable enterprises. He makes further arguments on Rockefeller and Morgan to much the same effect, going so far as to argue that Morgan was interested in defeating ruinous competition.

The only tycoon that Morris really attacks is Andrew Carnegie to demolish the reputation Carnegie had in the nineteenth century as a ''good tycoon'', although in the modern era I wouldn't think many people think of Andrew Carnegie as a good tycoon. Morris points to the repeated conflicts Carnegie had with labor and his constant attempts to reduce worker's wages despite growing profits while Rockefeller had fairly few issues with his own workers. Regardless, I think the exploitation of workers and consolidation of capital don't make the tycoons completely blameless.

In addition to talking about the titular tycoons, Morris talks about the larger developments of the United States that enabled it to become the economic powerhouse of the twentieth century. One of the most important is the development of the rail infrastructure which enabled mail-order industries like Sears and Roebuck to grow, something which wasn't anticipated by Morgan and Gould who originally helped build the railroads. Morris also argues that the economic conditions for the middle class actually improved during the Gilded Age, despite widespread deflation.

When the United States effectively went on the gold standard, the dollar went through a gradual deflation which resulted in falling prices as well as wages, which gave many people the impression that times were getting harder all around. Morris argues from his data, however, that despite the falling wages caused by deflation purchasing power did not decrease equally and as a result standards of living in the United States actually went up. Obviously this is a difficult issue that requires a lot of data to make a conclusion but I see no reason to at least not accept Morris's argument as possibly valid and meriting further research.

Overall I thought this book was rather interesting, although I have a personal interest in financial history and the nineteenth century. Some of Morris's arguments do run counter to existing understandings of history, but I think there's enough data that extensive research could see how accurate Morris's arguments really are. If these are topics that pique your interest then I think it's definitely worth your time.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

His Majesty's Dragon & Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm looking at the first two books of the Temeraire Series by Naomi Novik. I was loaned the first book, His Majesty's Dragon, by a friend some time ago but I didn't write a review because I realized there were nine books in the series and since I've got a to-read pile about a mile high at this point I decided to let it go. ...and then I realized that the library had at least some of the books in the series available as audiobooks that I could listen to at work so then I started Throne of Jade. Which means this will be a combined review of the first two books and then I'll start taking the books one at a time as I get to them.

These books are a combination of fantasy and historical fiction sort of like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, although I think I make the comparison because this book is also set during the Napoleonic Wars. These books were basically described to me as ''Napoleonic Wars but with DRAGONS!'' And Novik really does take that concept and run with it, going so far as to create biological treatises on dragons as supplemental material for her universe which makes it all the more believable.

Our book begins with Captain Will Laurence, commander of the HMS Relaint, intercepts a French ship in the Atlantic. After a battle and boarding action Laurence and his crew discover the French had been carrying a dragon egg of an unknown species back to France and it's about to hatch. Laurence and his crew prepare the best they can but everyone's surprised when the dragon chooses Laurence for his companion. Laurence then receives an unexpected career shift from the Royal Navy to the Aerial Corps and the rest of the book is Laurence and Temeraire learning about their new life.

Obviously having dragons as an air force in the last great era of linear tactics can have dramatic shifts in how the Napoleonic Wars turned out, but I think Novik manages to put in enough explanation for why the Napoleonic Wars are still going. First the number of dragons, at least in Western Europe, is fairly small and they don't breed quickly so there's an incredibly finite supply of dragons. Secondly, within that number of dragons there are an even smaller number that have projectile weapons like fire or acid so the dragons don't make as large an air force as they might like. In fact, because a lot of the combat dragons are so freaking big the standard European practice is to have riflemen and bombadiers ride the dragon. The result is the dragons tend to fight each other and act as raiders rather than a strict air force.

The climax of the first book involves Temeraire and Laurence successfully foiling an aerial invasion of Britain by Napoleon, as well as discovering that Temeraire is in fact a Celestial Dragon, one of the rarest and exalted of the Chinese dragon breeds. The second book begins when a Chinese embassy arrives in Britain and is rather keen on getting Temeraire back. What follows is an expedition across the globe on the British dragon carrier H.M.S. Allegiance to reach China. China provides an extreme contrast because while dragons are rare in Europe, they are far more common in China to the point where dragons share cities with humans and even participate in civil examinations. This puts strain on Laurence's and Temeraire's relationship because dragons have so many more freedoms in China than in Europe. However Temeraire is ultimately attached to Laurence and to his adopted homeland of Britain and the war in Europe.

As I said, the concept is interesting although I do wonder about how my countrymen, the Prussians, adapt to the dragon situation and I'm hoping we'll see more of that in later books. If you like dragons and like the Napoleonic Wars, I think this is definitely a worthwhile choice.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Dragon Reborn, by Robert Jordan

Okay. I can't. I can't keep going on with this series. I know I'm only on the third book but seriously, I can't keep spending time on this series if it's going to be more of the same stuff. And it's not even the fact that this is stuffed full of your standard fantasy tropes, there is just something seriously wrong with this series.

Okay, so, I'm going to briefly address the plot problems, which is definitely an undermining element to this series. As I've mentioned in my reviews of the last two books there has been this really unfortunate habit where everything gets resolved really quickly in the last few chapters of the book and it feels a lot like an anticlimax more than anything else. And once again that happens in this book. Our characters wander around, pursuing different goals but converging upon the city of Tear where a legendary artifact for the Dragon Reborn which will fulfill a prophecy and verify that Rand al'Thor is in fact the Dragon Reborn. And all the problems within the book are just...resolved...at the end. It feels like a huge anticlimax, especially when the last book ended with a brief exposition that armies have risen to support the Dragon. But when we start this book we find Rand's been hiding somewhere in the mountains all winter while the armies that rose to support the Dragon are slowly being picked off. It just doesn't make any sense to me why Rand wouldn't be gathering support to achieve political goals.

But plot issues aside, there's something which really annoys me about these books and it's how men and women are stereotyped throughout the entire book. The weird thing is this book was published in 1991 so you'd think that it would have moved beyond gender stereotypes of the 1950's, but apparently that's too much to expect. Basically in this book and in the books before it all the women are depicted as shrewish harridans hell-bent on controlling men and making things go their way. The men meanwhile are all depicted as ignorant lummoxes whose only solution to any problem is to hit it with a big stick enough times until it stops being a problem. This is in every darn book so far and considering the books don't seem to vary at all I expect it to be in the next twelve books as well.

And honestly, I'm completely sick of it. These are gender stereotypes which are material for a fifties sitcom, not for a fantasy series written forty years later. It was dated when this book came out, and it's even more dated now. And if the series is going to keep relying on these awful stereotypes I see no reason to keep bothering with the rest of the books. It's like Jordan is constantly saying, ''Women, amirite? Men, amirite?''

So this is it. I gave this series a try with three of the fifteen books and I'm calling it here. The plot hasn't been terribly great so far, but it's this reliance on old gender stereotypes that really kills the series for me.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Prophecy Con, by Patrick Weekes

Today I'm finally getting around to the second book in the Rogues of the Republic series, The Prophecy Con. (Feel free to check out my review of the first book, The Palace Job here.) Weekes continues to build on his fantasy universe and while having all the traditional fantasy elements including elves, dwarves, and at least one unicorn Weekes manages to make it more than just another fantasy adventure. The last book was definitely more of a heist story and while Loch, Kail, and the team are relying on their special talents there's less heist elements and a lot more grand intrigue in this one. But I still really enjoyed this book.

The Empire and Republic are once again on the brink of war, a prospect that only the most die-hard members of the respective governments remotely relish. Loch and Kail have been sent as advisers with a group of Republic diplomats to hopefully avert another war. Unfortunately for them, the entire meeting is a setup and Loch finds herself being pursued by the Crown Princess Veiled Lightning who's determined to bring Loch to trial for her alleged crimes against the Empire. Fortunately Loch and company are always prepared for a betrayal and manage to make it back to the Republic more or less in one piece. Now their only hope of averting war with the Empire is to recover a certain elven manuscript which Loch has more than a passing familiarity.

Personally I think I ended up enjoying this book more than the previous one, at least if my Goodreads activity is any measure to go by. In the first book Weekes had to spend time establishing the characters and universe, an unfortunate necessity when you're writing a fantasy novel of any sort. Now that the universe has already been established, I feel like we got to see the characters develop beyond when we first met them. Particularly we see Ululenia the unicorn and Desiadora the priestess have their own arcs within the book, as well as Hessler and Tern's relationship that is really, really going well for them. And for whatever reason it makes me happy to see that characters are growing as people or just happy with where their lives are and how they're doing. So I give Weekes kudos for not only expanding and clarifying his universe, but making his characters grow as well.

And then there are some truly enjoyable moments in the book which made me smile while I was reading. Whether it was Desiadora dealing with a young man who doesn't understand why girls ''just don't want to go out with nice guys like me'' or Tern yelling at the clever security features incorporated in a document she's trying to forge, there were a lot of things in this book that made me not only enjoy the book but like the characters as well. And maybe that's the greatest strength of the book, I could totally see myself hanging out with some of the characters shooting the breeze about whatever. As much as I like other characters like Arya Stark or Honor Harrington, I don't know if I could see myself being friends with them. But I feel like I could get along with the team in these books.

I will say that I didn't see the twists coming, again, but I think that's mostly because I'm not the most subtle of people and I can't plot my way out of a paper bag. So that at least gives re-read value to look for whatever clues or hints were in the book for the reveal at the end. However, I am a little concerned by one of Weekes's choices with the backstory of his universe. Loch and Kail are both Urujar, which is this universe's term for black people, which is all well and fine. In the last book it was kind of mentioned but not really explored that there was systemic racism against Urujars within Republic society in a mirror of United States society. The problem is that I don't think this is developed much beyond background fluff.

What concerns me even more is this seems to get even worse in Prophecy Con when it's revealed that the Urujar were literally slaves. Like, at some point in the past the Urujar were systematically enslaved because of the color of their skin, exactly like the African slave trade. Obviously there are ways to talk about racism and slavery within a fantasy novel, usually as a foil of the shortcomings of our own society, but it's very easy for this to be done poorly and if it's going to be done, I think it needs to be done well. When Weekes includes it, we don't get much beyond a dwarf shaking his head and thinking, ''What a shame, what those poor people have gone through.'' Which isn't bad, but it feels inadequate for a really heavy subject material. I'm just not sure Weekes is giving the subject matter the attention and weight it deserves and is using it more as set dressing. I don't know, and there are no easy answers. All this being said, I do appreciate that we have Loch, a woman of color who's also just a fantastic character.

Overall though, I thought this book was really enjoyable. I'd definitely recommend it for people who are looking for a less traditional fantasy novel, although you should definitely start with The Palace Job first.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

Today I'm looking at the first book in a trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself. I went to the library to hunt down something by Abercrombie specifically because I had encountered a story of his in a short story anthology and I thought he was an author worth investigating. After poking around I settled on this one because it's the first book in the trilogy and it looks like his other stories are set within the same universe. The result is a book that does a lot of establishment work for the universe while leaving some things still unsettled. In retrospect I'm not sure if we really got any indications as to what the main plot is, but the characters are interesting enough that I find I don't mind as much.

The book focuses on a number of characters who gradually get brought together by the first of the Magi, Bayaz. Logen Ninefingers is a barbarian from the northlands who's made a few too many enemies and is almost running out of luck. Jezal dan Luthar is a Union nobleman and cavalry captain who has higher ambitions for his career, but doing so means he'll have to succeed in the annual fencing competition and his skills right now are less than adequate. And there's Inquisitor Glokta, a man who survived the hands of imperial torturers for two years but just barely and has become understandably cynical and bitter. There are also some additional characters but I have no idea how to spell their names aside from Dogman. By the end of the book Bayaz has brought several characters together and is planning an expedition to the edge of the world, but why remains vague.

One of the things Abercrombie does is make his universe seem really complex by including references to a large number of people and events, not all of which are explained in the first book. On the one hand this was a little frustrating for me because I felt like maybe there were books I should have read first, especially since the characters come fully-formed with backstories that I didn't know. On the other hand, this is something that makes Abercrombie's universe deep and realistic which is always a good thing. As always, it comes to me having a much higher tolerance and desire for exposition than other people, but I think Abercrombie still manages to do a good job.

What made me think Abercrombie did a really good job writing this book was when I got to the end of this book and I realized that I still wasn't exactly sure about what the main plot was. I know that Bayaz's teacher was betrayed by his brother who went by the title the Maker. Bayaz and the rest of the Magi defeated the MAker, but the Maker had followers who survived. Apparently the Maker's followers are cannibals who get some sort of magical power from eating people. All I know is that they have some sort of plan, the Union's about to get sucked into a two-front war, and Bayaz is off to save the world. But beyond these generalities I'm a little vague on the specifics. And yet I find myself interested in finding what happens next.

I think the biggest strength is that Abercrombie manages to make the characters compelling. Glokta is bitter, cynical, and like most inquisitors willing to use whatever means necessary to get the truth he wants, but there are complex elements to his personality which makes him more than just another zealot. Luthar has elements of a spoiled dandy but he's also ambitious and willing to work to achieve those ambitions so it makes a more balanced character. So I think if anything, it's the characters which make the book more interesting.

Overall, despite the issues which I had with the book I'd find myself recommending it to people who like extensive worldbuilding and good plotlines. I think Abercrombie's writing more than makes up for any defects and makes the book really enjoyable.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

Today I'm looking at a fantasy set in medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale, which will be part of an upcoming trilogy. I found myself really enjoying this book although I suspect a large part is because I don't really know anything about Russian folklore and mythology so a lot of this material was new to me. I will say the plotlines aren't anything that hasn't been done before in different stories but I think it's done well enough that it's well worth the effort.

The story mostly centers around Vasilisa, the daughter of Boyar Pyotr in the woods far north of Moscow. More importantly, Vasilisa has a touch of the old blood from her mother's side and she's capable of seeing the numerous spirits that inhabit her family's house and the surrounding woods. Vasilisa speaks with the domovoi who lives in the great oven and helps clean the kitchen, becomes friends with the rusalka, the water spirit in the local pond, and plays with the horse spirits. But when her father brings a new wife home from Moscow, Vasilisa's life becomes far more complicated. Her step-mother can see the household spirits as well, but she is devoutly Christian and believes that all the household protectors are devils and demons. Vasilisa's fight to keep the houshold guardians safe becomes all the more important as a malevolent and ancient power in the forest begins to stir once again.

As I said, I don't know really anything about Russian folklore and since it's a huge element of the story I got to learn at least bits and pieces as I followed along. If there's one thing I enjoy, it's folklore so getting to see Vasilisa interact with household guardians and woodsprites was a huge win for me. I will say that the book probably doesn't trod new ground. There's the element of old beliefs conflicting with new ones which has been done in various forms in various books from American Gods to The Mists of Avalon. On top of that, Vasilisa has elements of standard spunky princess (she is a nobleman's daughter after all), who doesn't wish to be trapped by marriage, either to a mortal man or as a bride of Christ in a nunnery. What I find is most important in these cases is if the writing is good enough to carry a story despite it potentially being one you've read a dozen times before. I think I can safely say in this case Arden does an excellent job and manages to create a truly interesting book out of preexisting elements. Creation isn't always in making new things, but in taking existing things and putting them together in new ways.

I will say that the ending for this book in particular felt a little rushed and left with an almost definitive ending, which is curious because this is apparently part of a planned trilogy. I can understand having a plot resolved in the first act of a three act saga, but I think the pacing towards the end specifically could have used a little more work. I am also curious about what happened to Sasha, Vasilisa's older brother who left home and apparently becomes a warrior monk adviser of the Grand Prince of Moscow. (Dmitry Donskoy I think? He's described as the grandson of Ivan I and that's what I've been able to find on Wikipedia but I don't know a lot about Grand Dukes of Moscow either.) So possibly Sasha will be included in future books, but I guess it's equally as possible that he won't, it remains to be seen. Ultimately I'm very curious about where Arden intends to take this story from here.

Overall, I thought this book was very interesting and I highly recommend it. If you're a fan of folklore, mythology, or fairy tales this book has enough elements of it to keep you interested and the characters are interesting as well. Arden's writing does an excellent job at recombining old things in new ways and it's well worth the time.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Rebel Rising, by Beth Revis

Today I'm looking at a Star Wars book that talks about the life of Jyn Erso, protagonist of the film Rogue One which I just loved the ever loving daylight out of. Rebel Rising reveals Jyn's backstory in the missing years of the movie between when she's found by Saw Gerrera and when we meet her again on Wobani. This does fill in a bunch of details about Jyn's life and shows her being first a member of Garrera's resistance cell and later an independent forger. However, I think there are some issues with this book that show how the Star Wars franchise has changed in recent years.

Ultimately the biggest problem with this book is that it delves into the history of a character which we probably imagined in our heads in a way we liked better. But this is usually a problem when we get an origin story for a character we met more or less fully-formed. I'm reminded of The Shepherd's Tale from the Firefly 'verse. It could have been the greatest story ever written (although I have my own issues with it), but there are going to be a large number of people who are disappointed because they wrote their own story in their head that they'll always prefer. And I think we have this issue in Rebel Rising as well because this book will always make Jyn's backstory more limited than we could have imagined it to be. No matter how well Revis could have written Jyn's backstory it's going to be up against the reader's own imagination.

There's a trend I've started noticing in recent years that starts comparing the Rebels to terrorist groups and I'm honestly not sure what to think about this. First of all, this is definitely a reflection of our collective experience in the twenty-first century in which terrorism is a regular concern, as well as our awareness that the line between freedom fighters and terrorists can depend on where you stand. And don't get me wrong, Garrera's resistance cell does engage in at least one act of terror within the book where Garrera's group assassinate a newly installed Imperial governor. Instead of just targeting the governor, Garrera and his allies bring about twenty something flechette launchers and fire them directly into a crowd. So not only do they take out the Imperial governor and his bodyguard of stormtroopers, but they kill the local head of state for the planet, dignitaries, local nobility, and who knows how many bystanders. Garrera states the purpose is to strike fear into the Empire and people who support it, but I feel like it would significantly undermine his own cause by randomly killing civilians who are very clearly not thrilled about having an Imperial presence on their planet.

Another reason this concerns me is because I have seen recently on the internet some people who dismiss the Rebellion as nothing more than a murderous band of terrorists and come to the conclusion that the Empire Did Nothing Wrong. Which...okay, this is kind of a big issue for a couple reasons. First, it's a little simplistic to say that because one side is bad, the other side automatically must be good, ignoring the possibility that both sides are bad or both are good or more likely everyone's a mix of the two and there are no easy answers. Unfortunately by introducing darker, morally ambiguous aspects to the Rebellion people seem to be taking the Empire's side and it bothers me for a number of reasons. First, the Empire practices slavery and if you don't see the problem with that we need to have a long talk I don't want to get into here.

Second, the Empire practices rule through military force and terror, which ultimately becomes absurdly inefficient. This is something that I noticed in this book in particular. Jyn spends a lot of her time kicking around distant backwaters on the Outer Rim which have limited strategic or economic value but the Empire is absolutely determined to set up a garrison everywhere it can and is quite frankly ridiculously inefficient. Police states are prohibitively expensive and you spend so many resources on making sure stormtroopers are on every street corner and TIE fighters are patrolling every sky that you lose more resources than you could possibly gain through total galactic control. Yet I've recently seen people embracing this as an idea worthy of emulation and I find it...distressing on a lot of levels.

There have been other books about figures like Janek Sunber who are on the Imperial side but aren't necessarily bad people. At least, they're not the cackling villains that some Imperials tend to be, instead portraying people loyal to the Empire as complex individuals with their own motivations. This book simply doesn't do that. All the Imperials we meet fall into the cruel, ruthless, or potentially cackling villain categories which we've seen before. So it severely undermines Revis's attempt to cast the conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion in shades of grey instead turning it into a case of grey and black.

I think I can appreciate the attempt to make the Star Wars universe more complex and morally ambiguous, but this book just falls short of the mark. Jyn ends up hating both sides because she sees them as destructive forces, which leaves us in a dark and hopeless galaxy which I feel just goes against the essence of Star Wars. While Garrera and other rebels are depicted as less than heroic, the Empire is as bad or worse and I don't know if I like that feeling. I'll give Revis credit for trying, but I don't think I quite like the result.

- Kalpar