Monday, December 31, 2012

Kalpar Vlog: Iron Sky Review

Well, dear readers, we have once again come to the conclusion of a calendar year. So if you find yourself with a half hour and nothing better to do, watch Kalpar be sad about things! It's entertainment, apparently.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

Recently I decided to go back to the excellent Discworld series and read the young-adult novels that tie into that universe, which are also written by Terry Pratchett. I initially had no real interest in these books, assuming that as young adult fiction it would be somehow less developed than what I had come to expect from Discworld. Fortunately for me, a friend advised me that the only real difference between the young adult novels and the regular Discworld novels is that the protagonists are younger than the usual Discworld protagonists. Otherwise they are just as enjoyable as the adult Discworld books and I myself did not notice a significant change in reading level. I would definitely recommend this book for teenagers, adults, and those younger kids with a very high reading level.

The Wee Free Men is the first book in which we meet nine-year old Tiffany Aching, a resident of a region known as Chalk on the Disc. Tiffany, unlike most children, pays careful attention to the world around her and is constantly asking questions. She's the kind of child who wonders why the witch in the fairy tale is automatically evil, no questions asked, and why Jack gets away with killing a giant and stealing the giant's gold when he's clearly not bright enough to realize a cow is worth more than a handful of beans. (Tiffany's also the sort of child who reads the entire dictionary from cover to cover because no one told her otherwise.) So when creatures out of her storybooks start cropping up in Chalk and Tiffany's little brother, Wentworth, goes missing, she decides someone has to do something about this and that someone is her. Fortunately she's got some fearsome help as well, the Nac Mac Feegle.

Overall I really enjoyed this book and felt it touched on some really deep issues, specifically an emphasis on paying attention to details and thinking critically. Tiffany's main strength in the novel is she's able to keep calm during a crisis and think through a situation logically rather than jumping to conclusions which can be extremely dangerous. Plus, she's got an entire clan of pictsie warriors backing her, which helps more than you'd think. I also really enjoyed the message of speaking up for those who don't have a voice of their own and I think that's a really good call to action for people of all ages. I can really see a family reading this book together and discussing the issues covered in this story.

Overall this is another great example of the quality writing I have come to expect from Terry Pratchett, and has a strong, well-written female protagonist who I think a lot of awkward children who don't fit in can really relate to. I will definitely be reading the rest of the Tiffany Aching stories in the future and would highly recommend these for fans of excellent fantasy stories.

- Kalpar.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Kalpar Lecture: The Bolo Series

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a Bolo was stirring, not even the Maus.

Well, here's a special early Christmas present to all my readers, I hope you enjoy the video as much as I had fun making it.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Raiding the Stacks: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Our Raiding the Stacks feature comes a little early this month in preparation for Christmas. This month we're taking on the out-of-copyright classic, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Now, I'm sure all my dear readers know this plot forwards and backwards, so I won't go through the plot of this story. In fact, A Christmas Carol is by far and away my favorite Christmas story. But instead of talking about the plot, I want to talk about the importance of A Christmas Carol to the development of Christmas as a holiday that we know and love today. Despite having been written over a hundred and fifty years ago, A Christmas Carol remains a central part of many people's Christmas traditions and its message of charity and goodwill towards our fellow man is still a timely message.

By the early nineteenth century, Christmas had become a relatively unimportant holiday that was rarely celebrated. In previous centuries Christmas had a strong religious focus and was celebrated largely in a community setting with events such as the wassail, but in an increasingly urban population the old celebrations had significantly reduced significance. What is important about A Christmas Carol is that it invented, almost from whole cloth, many of the traditions that we perpetuate today. Family gatherings, songs and games, turkey dinners, and charity towards the less fortunate are all aspects that Dickens wove into A Christmas Carol and remain essential parts of our current celebrations. In addition, the message of charity towards the less fortunate and the need for social change remains important today, perhaps even more so because of the ongoing global economic recession.

In regards to the actual text itself, it's a rather short story. I know, I was surprised too! Something short from Dickens! The weird thing is it feels far too short for a well-developed story. All of the essential elements of the story are there, of course: Scrooge, the ghosts, Bob Crachit and Tiny Tim. The problem is that the story feels almost fragmented to me, with many important pieces of dialog glossed over in a paragraph. While I understand that this is a short story, which enabled Disney to make a very short special with their classic characters, I felt like it could have been just the slightest bit longer to provide more depth to the characters and situations. Of course plenty of people have obviously enjoyed this story for a century and a half, otherwise we wouldn't have it today, I just wish it took longer than about two hours for me to read the story. I honestly think that you'd be better off going with one of the many film adaptations as part of your holiday traditions

 If you really want to enjoy this Christmas classic this year, I definitely recommend either A Muppet Christmas Carol, or Scrooged with Bill Murray. The Muppet version has plenty of awesome songs that you'll remember throughout the Christmas season, and Scrooged is a hilarious 1980's update of the classic tale. Obviously there are dozens of adaptations and versions you can watch with your family and friends this Christmas and I encourage you to find one that you love. I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas this year and I leave you with this song from A Muppet Christmas Carol.

- Kalpar

Friday, December 14, 2012

One Year Anniversary!

That's right, it's now been a year since the blog's been operational! More or less! And somehow I've managed to post something every Thursday for a year! That's...a lot longer than I thought this would last. Well, anyway, barring nervous breakdown or robot invasion we shall continue forward with the reviews and videos into the next year! (And hopefully I can recruit some more people for the blog too. You know who you are.) Anyway, enjoy the celebratory video!

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Redshirts, by John Scalzi

So a couple of months ago I heard about the then-new novel, Redshirts, which was a ruthless satire of Star Trek and other poorly written science fiction shows with massive death tolls. Being the complete sci-fi nerd that I am, I was eager to crack the pages of Redshirts and discover Scalzi's own insights into the lower grade of science fiction.

For those of my readers who are unfamiliar with the concept of a redshirt, (which is probably none) let me provide a brief explanation. In Star Trek: the Original Series it was very common for Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and some poor sap in a red shirt to beam down to the planet the Enterprise was orbiting that episode. Inevitably, Ensign Skippy in the red shirt would get eaten by a monster before the commercial break to raise the stakes for the main characters (who, of course, were never in any real danger thanks to plot armor). By the end of Star Trek's three-year run a total 13.7% of the Enterprise's crew had died, the vast majority being the eponymous redshirts. Since then redshirt has become a term for any expendable character who gets killed mostly for cheap shock value. Actual red shirts are, of course, optional.

Redshirts focuses on the events surrounding the Universal Union's flagship, the Intrepid, where strange things happen. New crew members Andy Dahl, Maia Duvall, Jimmy Hanson, Finn, and Hester notice that not only is everyone terrified of going on away missions, but the senior officers occasionally act just downright strange. Together they compare notes and discover that there might be more to the mysterious occurrences on the Intrepid than what meets the eye, provided that they can live long enough first.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel and its take on a plethora of science-fiction tropes. In addition, it had plenty of leaning-on-the-fourth wall humor, which is a particular brand of humor I enjoy and can be very hard to do well. I will admit that the book got almost too meta for me towards the end, but I still think it was a very well-written book from Scalzi. Furthermore this book has some great advice for aspiring science-fiction writers on how to avoid common pitfalls of the genre. Or at least, how to avoid making the deaths of redshirts completely meaningless.

Another point I want to make is that I was expecting this book to be a little more lighthearted than it was, sort of on the same grade as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but this was a far more serious book than I anticipated. By all means, it's still an excellent book, but if you haven't read this yet the keep in mind that it is by no means a laugh-a-minute satire. I definitely went into Redshirts with the wrong expectations and had to adjust to the more serious tone.

Redshirts is definitely a must-read for any sci-fi geek, however, if you're not a fan of Star Trek in specific or a fan of sci-fi in general, then this book really doesn't have a lot to offer you.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Look Back: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

As my two readers are probably already well-aware, a film version of The Hobbit is coming out later this month. Well, the first of three planned movies, and while I am a little wary of the decision to split The Hobbit  into three separate films, I am still excited over more of the Lord of the Rings universe being brought to the silver screen. I also decided that this was an opportune time to take another look at the fantasy classic.

I actually have many fond memories of The Hobbit, because when I was much younger my mama read The Hobbit to me, along with other books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Alice in Wonderland, and The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Along with inspiring a life-long love of reading, The Hobbit was responsible for my eventual decision to read The Lord of the Rings on my own and a continuing interest in the fantasy genre. Looking back at The Hobbit I find it is still an excellent fantasy book but has an incredible difference in tone from Lord of the Rings.

First, I want to provide a little bit of background information for my readers about the origins of The Hobbit, which is just one part of Tolkien's vast body of work. The Hobbit is actually Tolkien's first published book and was the first tantalizing glimpse into the world that would become Middle Earth. The first edition of The Hobbit was published in 1937 and was received with great critical acclaim. Tolkien was asked almost immediately for a sequel and began working on the text which would become The Silmarilion and The Lord of the Rings, although The Lord of the Rings would not be published until the 1950's, and would literally create the modern fantasy genre. In a way, The Hobbit is an important harbinger of an era that would eventually bring us Dungeons and Dragons and the wonderful world of Discworld.

As I mentioned earlier, when I mentally compared The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings there was a striking difference in tone between the two works. An important thing to remember about The Hobbit is that it was written as a children's book and has a much lower reading level than The Lord of the Rings. So while Lord of the Rings is this vast, sprawling epic that includes numerous countries and battles between large armies, The Hobbit is (mostly) a story of Bilbo and thirteen dwarves going on a treasure hunt and the various challenges they encounter along the way. In addition, the stakes are much, much lower in The Hobbit than they are in The Lord of Rings. If Frodo fails in his quest, then all of Middle Earth is covered in darkness and ruled by Sauron. If Bilbo fails in his quest, then Thorin and Company just don't get their gold back. It simply isn't set on the same scale. Of course, this should not be inferred to mean that The Hobbit isn't as good, because it still is an excellent fantasy novel, but it was a little jarring to go back to a much smaller scope.

If you haven't read The Hobbit by now, I'd definitely suggest you read it before going into the first movie this month. It's a much easier read than The Lord of the Rings and you won't have to wait until 2014 to see how it all ends. If you're a parent with young-ish children this is also a great book to read together and hopefully will spark a love of fantasy in future generations as it has in its seventy-five years of existence. And remember, always be careful around dragons, even if they appear to be asleep.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Raiding the Stacks: Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

This week I've decided to do something a little different than I usually do here at Kalpar's Arsenal. As my long-time readers are no doubt aware by now, I've been making an effort to continue my Raiding the Stacks feature where I read public-domain books on my kindle and review them for the reading pleasure of my two fans. Normally I've been sticking with books that would still count as science fiction or fantasy but this week I've decided to take a look at Victor Hugo's opus, Les Miserables.

As my readers are probably aware, a movie version of the musical Les Miserables is due to come out next month and I am just the slightest bit excited about it. I saw a stage production of the musical a very long time ago and ended up loving it immensely, putting it on the very short list of musicals I like. Since the movie was coming out very soon I decided this was an optimal time to go and read the original novel by Victor Hugo upon which the musical is based. I am forced to admit, that I found reading Les Miserables a considerable challenge, and not just because it's a long book. As the Nostalgia Chick has pointed out before, Les Miserables is one of the longest books ever written, and paper editions come in at around a thousand pages. "But Kalpar!" my reader is probably saying, "How can length possess a challenge to you? You've read other bricks of text like the Song of Ice and Fire series and the Gaunt's Ghosts series. How can a thousand page book pose such a challenge for you?" Well, dear reader, I thank you for your concern but it was not simply its length, but the sheer density of Hugo's tome that gave me one of my most difficult reading challenges to date. 

The way I approach Les Miserables, I divide the book into roughly two parts. The first part consists of the actions of the characters we know and love from the musicals: Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, Fantine, the Thenardiers, Cosette, Marius, and Enjolras and his band of rebels. The parts that actually contain the characters and focus on their development, their interactions, and the continuation of their plots is really interesting and I flew through those parts of the books. If Les Miserables had consisted of purely a focus on the characters, then I would have found this as compelling and interesting to read as other the other, many doorstoppers I have tackled. The problem is that Hugo frequently diverts himself from the compelling characters of his novel and decides to talk at great length about whatever subject he pleases.

Now, in the sake of fairness I will admit that I have read, on the internet, that some people enjoyed Hugo's essays on subjects as varied as the Battle of Waterloo, the Paris sewer system, and the development of French slang. The fact that Les Miserables was a best-seller when it was published in 1862 and remains a popular book suggests that a significant number of people still enjoy Hugo's writing. (Although I suspect the nineteenth century audience enjoyed it because they didn't have TV or Internet to entertain them.) Even considering the opinions of unknown people I've vaguely heard about from somewhere, Hugo's essays are extremely boring and, in my opinion, frequently do not contribute to the development of the plot. Even in the case of Hugo's lecture on the Paris sewers, which prefaces Jean Valjean and Marius's escape into them, it really does not need to be over fifty pages long and go over the history of the sewers of Paris from the 1400's. At best, I found Hugo's essays an entertaining distraction, at worst a complete derailing of the book's momentum. 

The book's real strength, as I have mentioned before, lies in its characters and the parts when Hugo deigns to focus on them. Granted, I found the whole love affair between Marius and Cosette somewhat childish, especially considering during the book they have never spoken to each other and yet remain madly and deeply in love. I guess it's no worse than some of the other romance plots that have come out in the hundred and fifty years since Hugo wrote this book. A theme which I found rather interesting, although it was never really expanded upon, was the tendency of characters to put their complete faith in something other than god and for that faith to be utterly shattered in some way through the course of the book. Marius puts faith in his father and Thenardier, only to discover that Thenardier is really a despicable bottom-feeder and criminal. Even knowing the truth about Thenardier, Marius feels compelled to at least assist Thenardier. On the other hand we have Javert, who puts his complete faith in the law, as well as the infallibility of anyone who is a part of the "establishment" and the inherent wickedness of anyone on the wrong side of the law. This faith is shaken throughout the course of the book when Javert discovers that the mayor Monsieur Madeleine is the escaped convict Jean Valjean, and utterly shattered when Jean Valjean has Javert at his mercy and spares Javert's life. Javert's worldview is so utterly shattered that he finds it impossible to continue to live and throws himself into the Seine. But perhaps the character that resonated the most with me, personally, was Jean Valjean himself towards the very end of the book. As Cosette and Marius enter marital bliss, Jean Valjean convinces himself that he does not deserve to join in their happiness and refuses to forgive himself for sins committed long ago. Even though we the readers know he has atoned for those sins, Jean Valjean refuses to believe he has earned the happy life that he could easily take. It was truly heart-rending to see Jean Valjean put himself through that experience and it managed to touch even my shriveled and cynical heart.

For a reader interested in the characters of Les Miserables and their individual stories, I would recommend sticking to an abridged version of the book or enjoying an adaptation of the stage musical. Both are excellent options that don't loose too much in the adaptation process and allow you to really focus on the characters and let you fall in love with or in some cases really despise them. I'm certain that for many years there will still be a strong academic interest in the unabridged version of Les Miserables (much as there continues to be academic interest in the unabridged version of Moby Dick) but I don't think the average twenty-first century audience will really be interested in most of Hugo's diversions. By all means, feel free to tackle the challenge of completing Les Miserables, but it's really one of the best examples of how dense nineteenth century literature can become.  

If I can convince Carvan, another major fan of Les Miserables, to go to the movie, then we might do a joint review of it in the future. Plus, I wrote it down so he can't back out! Hopefully we'll let you know what we think about it and will be able to provide our own opinions. Come back next week when I wax nostalgic about The Hobbit.

- Kalpar 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Kalpar Lectures: The History of Christmas

Well, the Christmas madness has finally taken hold here in the United States, despite our best efforts to ignore it until the last possible moment. To help everyone get into the Christmas spirit Kalpar gives a lecture about how we got to where we are today and who exactly to blame for it. Be sure to check out my review of Les Miserables on Thursday!

- Kalpar 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

I Am Fairly Out, And You Are Fairly In

Greetings. I hope you are all well stuffed on leftovers still and perhaps got some lovely shopping deals as well. You know where the pilgrims came from right? England. You know who loves England? Carvan? Do you know who can't think of a better transition to open up this next segment of the Let's Play? Forget it. Don't answer. Just watch these videos and eat more food.

Part 8:

Part 9:

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Writers of the Future, Volume XXVIII

I have always had a cordial relationship with science-fiction anthologies in the past. Whether it's something like Zoo 2000 that included various stories from different authors, or The Complete Robot  which included many short stories from one author I always enjoyed the bite-sized tidbits of science fiction goodness. And there were plenty of hours between exams or on long road trips where a handy anthology saved me from utter boredom. Plus, one of the great benefits of an anthology like the one I'm talking about today is you get to experience the writing styles of many different authors in one book and get introduced to some authors who you might to read more stories from in the future.

Writers of the Future, Volume XXVII, contains thirteen stories from 2011 written by first-time fantasy and science fiction authors and judged by a professional panel. I think it's really great that there's a way for aspiring authors to put their work out there and have the opportunity for it to be read by a wide variety of people and maybe get doors opened for them in the publishing world. I also enjoyed the stories contained within this anthology so I am thankful to the panel of judges for picking excellent stories for publication.

If I were to go into specific detail about all thirteen short stories we'd be here all day, so I'll instead keep this brief. There were definitely a few stories that I didn't really care for, but that was more my personal taste rather than the stories being outright bad or offensive. This book is a great way to kill time if you're waiting for an appointment or have a spare half hour, because you can read just one story and then put the book back down. Plus you might end up really liking what the author wrote and look for more stories and books from those authors in the future.

Overall it's a good anthology and I like its mission. If you're looking for thirteen quick stories to tide you over on the bus then you could definitely do worse than this.

- Kalpar

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Erin Go Take Over Ireland

Hello friends! Our conquest of the British Isles continues as we pick on Ireland, and in our spare time we take part in a Danish succession crisis. We fabricate some claims, have some wars, and just generally serve to be a complete menace, all the while increasing our power. Sound like fun? Of course it is, because dear readers, history is fun!

Part 5:

Part 6:

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

As my readers are no doubt well-aware, I am a huge fan of the writings of Terry Pratchett, specifically his much-acclaimed Discworld series. When I heard that he had written a new book called The Long Earth I was very interested. Furthermore this was an introduction to the science-fiction writer Stephen Baxter who has collaborated with giants such as Arthur C. Clarke in the past and he may show up again on the blog. (We'll see when I work through my backlog, which is huge!) Anyway, although The Long Earth starts out with a lot of promise, it ended up being rather disappointing with a lackluster ending.

I actually discussed this book with a friend who actually introduced me to Terry Pratchett and we agreed that the problem with The Long Earth is that it starts with an excellent premise with a lot of potential, but that potential is never really fully developed in the novel. In 2015 the schematics for a device known as a "stepper" appear on the internet, which consists of easy-to-find circuitry and is powered by a potato. The stepper allows people to travel to parallel earths which are very similar to our own earth but are entirely devoid of people. Despite limitations such as the inability to carry iron or steel across worlds, people quickly expand across the alternate earths to set up vacation communities, harvest resources now scarce on the original earth (now called Datum), or even leave Datum entirely to settle. The opportunities for adventure and exploration are literally limitless in the world Pratchett and Baxter have created.

The main plot centers around Joshua Valiente, a member of the roughly fifth of the population who can step between worlds without the aid of a stepper. Joshua is recruited by the powerful Black Company. Joshua will accompany Lobsang, a Tibetan motorcycle repairman reincarnated as an artificial intelligence, on a journey across the Long Earth to see what's out there. Meanwhile problems occur back home on Datum as well as across the Long Earth as humanity adapts to infinite resources and space.

I think the weakest thing about this book is that the majority of its focus becomes uninteresting. Most of the book follows the travels of Joshua and Lobsang as they go further into the Long Earth to discover what's out there. While it's cool to see all the different earths with distinct animal life and geographies, it gets extremely tedious after a while. Eventually I got utterly bored with the adventures of Lobsang and Joshua and I was more interested in the secondary plots happening on Datum. You see, along with a fifth of the human population being able to step between world without a stepper, another fifth of the population are unable to step between worlds even with a stepper. At best they can be physically carried by another person across worlds, but the process makes them violently ill and the majority of them are stranded on Datum. I ended up being more interested in the fate of Datum and the people who were unwilling, or unable, to travel the Long Earth.

The book also mentions the repercussions of the opening of the Long Earth, with significant portions of country's populations just leaving Datum, and causing a major world-wide economic recession. I think it would be really great to explore the consequences of a significant portion of the population just leaving and how humanity would cope. Furthermore, once-valuable metals like gold and platinum become worthless on Datum because almost anyone can step to an alternate world and bring back enough gold to crash the market. Perhaps what I found most interesting was the resentment of the "phobics", the 20% of the population that can't leave Datum, and their embrace of radical ideologies and hatred of steppers. Unfortunately, what I considered to be the most interesting aspects of the world Baxter and Pratchett have created remain largely out of focus for the majority of the novel and the focus is instead on the increasingly tedious Joshua/Lobsang exploration mission.

Overall I was fairly disappointed with this novel, despite the stellar work from one of the contributors in the past. Pratchett and Baxter set up a fascinating premise with literally infinite possibilities, but it ends up being executed in a rather tedious and boring manner. I may read the explicitly planned sequel to this book, but I'm don't have rather high expectations. I'd suggest at best waiting on this book until the sequel comes out and then maybe taking them both together. Otherwise, you can probably leave this one.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Don't Be a Hero, by Chris Strange

Some of my readers may remember that earlier this year I read Chris Strange's debut novel, The Man Who Crossed Worlds, and I ended up really enjoying its pulp-noir urban fantasy feel. Well, recently Chris was kind enough to send me an advanced copy of his next novel, Don't Be a Hero. While it has nothing to do with the Miles Franco series, I still found it highly enjoyable and I would recommend it to adult fans of superheroes everywhere. (Trust me, this book is not for kids.)

If I were to summarize Don't Be a Hero, I would be forced to admit it bears more than a passing resemblance to Watchmen by Alan Moore, just set in New Zealand. Basically, in the mid twentieth century an explosion at Los Alamos resulted in Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and seven other people being exposed to radiation. Instead of dying from this exposure, Dr. Oppenheimer and his associates in typical Silver Age fashion developed superpowers and became a hero team known as the Manhattan Eight, and together they helped the allies defeat the Nazis and win World War II. The presence of the Manhattan Eight, however, did not stop the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan and there were additional atomic bombings in places like Warsaw, Poland and Auckland, New Zealand. Of the survivors of such bombing, a number of people developed superpowers like the Manhattan Eight and became metahumans. Many went on to form their own crime-fighting teams or use their powers for the benefit of humanity.

As bright as the future seemed for the metahumans, it quickly turned out to be too good to be true. Along with the 100% chance of developing cancer as a result of their exposure to radiation, public opinion turned against the metahumans in the early 1960's and forced heroes everywhere to hang up the cape. Now most metahumans live in segregated ghettos as second class citizens and are mistrusted by the majority of the population. However, when a supervillain called Quanta emerges and starts putting a dangerous plan into action, only retiring superheroes Spook and the Carpenter can hope to stop him in time.

As I mentioned, this book has a lot of similar elements to Watchmen, such as a public mistrust of superheroes and legislation curtailing their activities. Don't Be a Hero is different, however, in two very important respects. The first is the fact that the world has to adapt to the existence of people with honest-to-god superpowers. While I really disagreed with the world's decision to tightly regulate metahumans and equip all of them with kill-switches as a safety feature, I at least understand their rationale for going to such extreme measures. The other big difference between Don't Be a Hero and Watchmen is that Watchmen is really analyzing the type of personality it would take to choose to dress up in a costume and go fight crime. Don't Be a Hero, however, really focuses on what it takes to become a superhero, beyond having some really nifty powers. If you enjoyed Watchmen, then you'll definitely enjoy this similar yet unique approach to superheroes.

I also had a few things in specific that I really liked about Don't Be a Hero, the first being one of our main characters, Niobe (aka Spook). To be perfectly honest, I hate that I'm giving credit for the fact that Chris wrote in a well-developed female character who also happened to be a lesbian. It's the twenty-first century, having characters like that really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. That being said, there is an unfortunate trend in fiction today to depict women certain ways in fiction and lesbians are frequently sources of fanservice rather than developed characters. However, in Don't Be a Hero I never felt like the fact that Niobe was a woman, and a homosexual woman at that, was ever a big deal. Her relationship with her girlfriend, Gabby, came across to me as realistic, adult, romantic relationship and I didn't feel like it existed purely as fanservice to the readers. Was there a little fanservice in there? Yeah, but their relationship had depth beyond that. So I ended up really appreciating Chris's writing in that regard.

The other thing I really liked about this book was Chris's inclusion of his native New Zealand as a setting in the novel. It's more of a personal pleasure, but I always appreciate it when an author sneaks in a little bit about their home area into the novel and leaves a distinct geographic fingerprint. Plus it was a refreshing change of pace to see superheroes running around in Auckland, New Zealand, instead of New York City where they seem to always end up for some reason.  I also liked Chris slipping native Maori culture into the narrative as well, something you just probably wouldn't get in New York City. Again, this is my own personal preference, but a refreshing change of pace from superheroes in the Big Apple.

If you're a fan of superheroes and superhero deconstructions, I definitely would recommend checking out Don't Be a Hero. I also recommend this book because I greatly enjoy Chris Strange's work and it's been an honor to know him since his first novel. (Thanks for the advance copy, Chris! And seriously, watch out for them sheep on your island!)

- Kalpar

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Kalpar Lectures: Disney buying Star Wars

While everyone else was busy with the hubbub of the presidential election, Kalpar was busy talking about Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm Limited and its associated properties. (Don't worry, Kalpar submitted his ballot too, but you got to focus on the important stuff!) Thanks for watching and be sure to check out Kalpar and Carvan's debate over V for Vendetta

Monday, November 5, 2012

Why King James I & VI Was a Jackass, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love V for Vendetta

Happy Guy Fawkes Day! Give children pennies and burn some effigies and have a right good old time!

Depicted: Fun

After having celebrated this most auspicious of nights, I thank you for taking the time to sit down with me and have a little chat. Specifically, I would like to rebut the argument made by the esteemed Mr. Kalpar regarding V for Vendetta. While I will not go so far as to say that V for Vendetta is a perfect film, I would put it that Kalpar's charge that the film has philosophical flaws is grossly overstated. I would like to start by echoing Kalpar in saying that objectively, the acting, special effects, the tone and ambiance all work very well together to produce a quality product. However, I do take issue with Kalpar's argument that the film fails on a philosophical level.

Depicted: Wrong

There is some legitimacy to the point that the film shanghais the historical person of Guy Fawkes and turns him into some kind of radical freedom fighter, which V goes on to later parallel and emulate. While Kalpar is largely correct in labeling Fawkes as a religious terrorist, there are some important parallels between the goal Fawkes was trying to achieve and what V tries to achieve in the film.

For those of you who don't know, the lead up into the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes Day begins with Henry VIII's break from the Catholic Church and the subsequent back and forth England had between being a Catholic nation and a Protestant nation with the monarch as head of both Church and State. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, several rather stringent laws were passed by Parliament to enforce the authority of the Church of England and Elizabeth's role as the head of said Church. While the laws were targeted directly at the queen's ministers and vassals, they nevertheless still applied to the everyman as well. Elizabeth's successor would have to deal shrewdly with both Catholics and Protestants to ensure that England could be governed effectively.

Enter King James the I of England and VI of Scotland. James was a masterful politican who did his absolute best to play both sides, Catholic and Protestant, off of each other until he determined who would "win" in the end. James' bid for the English throne was not an easy one to make, and much like modern politicians he was willing to promise a great deal to gain the support of English nobles. Specifically, James promised to repeal the laws restricting Catholicism, and to allow some degree of religious freedom within his realm. As you might expect, once he was strapped into the throne, James' disdain for "popery" is keenly felt and the laws against Catholicism in England would be kept in place or made more stringent.

Depicted: Douche

The leaders of the Gunpowder Plot sought to redress these wrongs through the natural course of blowing up the King and all of Parliament at the opening of a new session scheduled for 5 Novemeber 1605. Their overall plan after having blown up said king was to reinstate England as a Catholic nation with a Catholic monarch at her head.

While perhaps not the best comparison and means of political redress, I do think that Fawkes and V are both striving for the same goal: the overthrow of a government which has up to that point oppressed a given group of its citizens. Again, granted the means are not exactly keen, nor is the plan beyond the attack very well thought out as to what will be accomplished after the explosion, but the philosophy of the ideas is largely congruent; the head of state has chosen to ignore or spurn the rights of a (significant) portion of the citizenry. Is Fawkes the libertarian fighter we see in the film? No. But, I think to say that his actions are not driven by a restriction on human rights would be a fallacy.

Like Fawkes, V's drive for liberty is motivated by personal cause. Whereas for Fawkes it was religious vengeance on a king whom he felt betrayed his promises to Catholics, for V it is on a leadership who betrayed the trust of the people and used them for experimentation and fearful exploitation. To Kalpar's point that V is motivated not by a desire to liberate Britain from Norsefire, but by personal revenge, I would have to agree to some extent. I do think V is trying to free Britain from the rule of a government whose methods and means are horrifically oppressive and atrocious, however, he seems to go about doing so in such a way that allows him to revenge himself on those who personally wronged not only him, but all those who were subjected to the tests of the government run facilities.

The individuals V seeks to bring down, with the possible exception of the coroner, were people who held leadership roles in the party and the government. Prothero specifically springs to mind as one who might be necessary for V to remove. Removing a trusted and respected and authoritative public party voice is something which might allow the citizenry to think a little more for themselves. Perhaps it is a weak argument, but the communications we receive do color our viewpoints and assassinating individuals like Prothero, Creedy, etc. are necessary in ensuring not only that the populace might have a chance at change, but that the old regime does not rear its head once again. I would argue that the philosophical point here is muddied by the aversion to V's methods; we'd like to think the hero of the story could act simply for the common good and interest and not in his own. V, for better or worse tries to have his cake and eat it too. I argue that it is certainly revenge, but a necessary one.

Depicted: Motivation

Finally to Kalpar's point that V is not a character he can get behind, I can fully understand his position, but I simply disagree. V is an anarchist in the sense that he does not want the government that is established. Fawkes was an anarchist in much the same way. Though I think to call them true anarchists that wanted no government at all would be a gross misnomer. It was not that Fawkes or V wanted NO government, but simply that the government that existed was not serving their personal interests or the interest of any who were like them. Further to the point, the types of government Fawkes and V were up against, a divine right monarchy and a despotic "conservative" regime respectively, offered them no other means of redress save violence. In a sense I mean that "You don't vote for kings." The system had failed them in offering them no means of redress or protest to change the system short of literally blowing it up. The system needed to be burnt to the ground because there was no way to change it short of tearing it down and rebuilding it. V does not have a problem with the whole of government and welcomes Finch's investigation into the Norsefire regime, but within the regime itself, there was no way change could have been reasonably affected. However, I do agree with Kalpar that there is going to be a good deal of strife and turmoil as the country attempts to rebuild.

As Kalpar said, much of these reviews was subjective, and on an objective level the film is well done. I suppose it largely comes down to where your personal alignment on the issue stands. To grossly over-embellish my stance vs. Kalpar's, he is Adams and I am Jefferson. Ideally people should not have to fear their governments and governments should not have to fear their people. Both should be able to rely on each other for mutual support, encouragement and growth. When this is not possible, the government needs must be changed for the good of the people.

Depicted: Badasses

As a final note, I have always liked the fact that Guy Fawkes Day typically falls around the American Election Day. I do like that, for me at least, it serves as a reminder that the principles of government necessitate consent of the people and that if redress is needed then we have the forums to do that. Free speech, protest, and the right to vote are all essential to our society and allow for transitions which do not require the detonation of explosives. Thankfully we have grown into a culture with values and traditions not found in Fawkes' or V's England; I think V for Vendetta serves the purpose of illustrating the barbarity that can occur when those values are not respected. So in closing, whatever you do tomorrow yanks, just make sure you get to the polls and exercise the freedoms that you have!

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Sunday, November 4, 2012

It's the Counties that Count

Greetings friends.

Rest assured that I am preparing my rebuttal for tomorrow based on Kalpar's scathing review of V for Vendetta. However, in the meantime, I do have some Let's Plays for you. We look to expand our territories by moving into more or less neutral territories in Wales and Ireland. They're not neutral in the sense that they are unowned, but they are simply owned by people who are not powerful enough to stop us, therefore they belong to us. See? Aren't I a good Englishman?

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Kalpar Lectures: Why Kalpar Dislikes V for Vendetta

Among my friends it has become a tradition to watch the movie V for Vendetta in celebration of Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th. (Well, Carvan celebrate Guy Fawkes Day while I celebrate the Prussian victory at the Battle of Rossbach.) Initially I rather liked V for Vendetta, but upon multiple viewings I noticed a few problems that I personally had with the film. While it hasn't built into an all-consuming hatred for this movie, it has developed into what I would call an extreme disliking for it. And so today I'd like to talk about why I have issues with V for Vendetta and why I think it's not that great of a film. And if you're wondering why I'm posting it early, well this is so our good friend Carvan has some time to prepare his inevitable rebuttal for Guy Fawkes Day. 

Now, before I get into my issues with the movie, I want to make it clear that most of my problems are on a philosophical, and therefore subjective footing. If I were asked to say if V for Vendetta was objectively bad, I would say no. The A-list cast of Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, and Stephen Fry did an excellent job, the movie's very well made, and there are even some parts which I enjoy. (Basically any part of the movie that involves Stephen Fry I like.) Furthermore, I am specifically addressing the movie in my post today, not the original comic book by Alan Moore. I am aware that the movie varies in some aspects from the comic, but as I have not read the comic yet I am unable to pass judgement on that work. All of my complaints are specifically focused on the movie and its more subjective content.

The first issue that I want to talk about, and I will admit this is my weakest argument, is that V for Vendetta uses bad history. My long-time readers should be utterly unsurprised that I simply cannot leave the history alone and must drag it into the argument, but I feel that this is a critical problem with the film. At the beginning of the movie we see Guy Fawkes and the attempted Gunpowder Plot in 1605 where Guy Fawkes and a number of other conspirators attempted to blow up King James I and Parliament. The problem with this, though, is that Guy Fawkes is depicted as a freedom fighter attempting to topple an unjust regime, much like the main character V does later in the film. However, this could not be further from the truth because Guy Fawkes was quite simply a religious terrorist. To provide more context, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were English Catholics who had hoped that James I (originally the Scottish monarch James VI who ascended the throne after Elizabeth I died without an heir) would end Protestant rule in England and bring the Catholic Church back. James I, however, found that he quite liked being in charge of his own religion and decided to stick with this Protestantism idea. (All right, that might be a gross exaggeration since James was raised Protestant, but you get the idea.) The goal of the Gunpowder Plot was to return England to Catholic rule, rather than to topple an unjust regime. Now, I'm sure Carvan will point out that the English had extremely strict laws against Catholics at the time, but considering that the Gunpowder Plot was the third Catholic assassination attempt against James in three years, can you really blame him for not trusting papists?

My point here ultimately is that in the movie Guy Fawkes is depicted as a freedom fighter when in history he was really a religious terrorist interested in reestablishing the control of the highly conservative Catholic Church. The movie simply could not be any further off the mark with its history and we really should not accept this from our films. I am acutely aware that there will be many, many historical inaccuracies in films but as viewers we really should not tolerate such blatant manipulation of facts. When your entire philosophical premise is based upon an outright lie, as it is in V for Vendetta, it calls the legitimacy of your whole argument into question. And, just as Guy Fawkes was no freedom fighter, neither is V, despite what the movie tries to tell us.

Throughout the film V is painted as a freedom fighter intent on toppling the unjust and tyrannical Norsefire government in Britain.  I mean, look at the poster at the top of the page: "Freedom! Forever!" And really, I think we're supposed to side with V in the movie because the Norsefire government is so utterly horrific in its abuses of human rights that they can't be anything but villains. But, as far as I can tell from V's actions in the movie, his primary goal is not liberating Britain from the yoke of Norsefire rule. V instead is motivated primarily by revenge in the film and for much of the movie we watch him specifically hunt down and assassinate people who were in charge of the concentration camp where he was interred. Instead of attacking strategic resources necessary for the Norsefire government to function and maintain its despotic grip, V chooses to spend a year-long campaign attacking individuals who personally harmed him in the past. This is further reinforced by the fact that V's favorite work of fiction is The Count of Monte Cristo, a work in which revenge is a significant overarching theme and remains a motivation for the main character of Edmond Dantes. However, V tragically misses one point of The Count of Monte Cristo, which is that revenge ultimately isn't worth it. Edmond Dantes is only saved at the last minute from becoming utterly consumed in his pursuit of revenge, but in the film V is both figuratively and literally consumed in his pursuit of revenge when his body is engulfed in the explosion which destroys Parliament. Unlike Dantes, V does not learn that the pursuit of revenge is a futile and unfulfilling gesture which makes you just as bad as, if not worse than, the people who harmed you in the first place. Especially considering V tortures the character of Evie in the same manner that the Norsefire government tortures "undesirables" it's hard to say if V is really any better.

My final point is that even as a freedom fighter, V isn't really a character I can get behind. V doesn't provide any sort of ideas or structure of how things should be run after he topples the Norsefire government. Which is more or less the point because V is an anarchist and doesn't believe in any form of government control so once Norsefire is gone he's accomplished his goal. Really, this is where my inherently Lawful sensibilities come to the fore in this argument and it becomes more a matter of personal preference than anything else. On many levels modern society needs a government and even the most hardened libertarian will admit that we need a government to maintain infrastructure and protect personal property. If you got up, ate breakfast, and brushed your teeth today, the government has already affected you by making sure your cereal wasn't 90% rat shit and your toothpaste didn't contain radium. To take a modern society and completely burn down  the established order would be to condemn thousands, if not millions, to death from starvation, disease, and internal strife. Does the Norsefire government need to be reformed? Yes, very much so, but it still contains good people like Inspector Finch. To burn the entire system down is both spiteful and childish. It would have been better for V to motivate the people to actively resist and push for reform from the Norsefire government rather than to violently destroy it.

Overall V for Vendetta just fails so completely with its philosophical arguments, at least as far as I am concerned, that I cannot enjoy it as a movie. Despite the excellent job of the cast, crew, and editors I find myself frustrated by its message and assumption that anarchy is preferably to any government at all. People should not have to fear their governments, but they should be able to rely upon their governments to provide order and structure for them to thrive. I know if I had to fighting off slavers every morning before breakfast, I'd never get any blogging done, and then where would we be? Not reading Kalpar's Arsenal, that's for sure. While fascism, intolerance, and totalitarianism should be resisted wherever they rear their ugly heads, there are better ways of doing it than burning the world around you. V for Vendetta offers no such alternative methods within its content and offers a bleak future for post-Norsefire Britain.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Doomsday Book

Welcome to the first installment of my next LP adventure, this time into Crusader Kings II. If you have not yet read the review/summary I had previously posted, I would suggest that now. Go on. I'll wait.

Right, caught up? In this section we go over some of the rules and basic strategy of how the game works, and step our character and our territories up, before dealing with the double invasion of the Norwegian king Harald Hardrade and the Norman claimant, William (the Conqueror), for the throne of England. Enjoy!

Part 1: (Largely a tutorial video for gameplay mechanics)

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Monday, October 29, 2012

Crusader Kings II: I Still Don't Quite Understand All the Rules...

So, now that my Medieval II game has drawn to a close, I have moved on to a game which was largely the reason my Medieval II updates were so delayed. Crusader Kings II is a game developed by Paradox Interactive and set in the Middle Ages as well and covers the course of history beginning with the Norman invasion of England and leading straight up to the cusp of the Renaissance. Over the course of this game, you control one particular dynasty with landed titles, going from counts, to dukes, to kings, all the way to imperial titles.

Furthermore, you have a council of ministers to do your bidding and the way to victory necessitates using both diplomacy, intrigue and brute military force in order to claim what is rightfully yours. This in my opinion is really a step up from most strategy "take over Europe" style games. Typically any characters in the game outside of your military units are at best ancillaries and at worst wholly a waste of time and resources. In Crusader Kings, non-combatant characters are essential to keeping your vassals happy with you, collecting your revenue, ensuring the Church doesn't excommunicate you, and of course leading your men to victory on the battlefield. The holistic nature of the game's setup is really very appealing, though does create some headaches which I will discuss later on.

One of the most interesting things about this game is there is no set "win" condition. It is a truly open ended game and can be mostly whatever the player wants it to be. You want to get a ridiculously high score? Go for it. You want to rise from a count to an emperor? Do it. You want to simply survive the approximately 400 years of history this game spans? Make it happen. (Seriously, simply surviving is a legitimate goal sometimes with this game.) What is winning and what is losing is totally up to the player and that makes for some interesting gameplay choices.

The lack of a end win condition is, I think, both a boon and a drawback. Again, the major plus is that you have the freedom to do really whatever you want within the games system of rules, and that does give you a lot of freedom and can be very fun. However, the lack of something to build towards, or measure success by is also felt, and until you invest a decent chunk of time into the game, you have no idea how to grade your play of the game. Many games are fun because the player is working towards a specific goal (defeating the bad guy, taking over X amount of something, finding the damn princess, etc.) and once that goal has been achieved there is a sense of accomplishment that Crusader Kings II can lack at times.

Another major part of Crusader Kings II is the rules system within the game. This largely comes down to two major groups which I will call the "inheritance laws" and the "claims laws." The inheritance laws basically state who gets what when someone dies, and can be somewhat unforgiving at times. These laws have strict conditions to change them, and maybe it's just my play style, but I find that you are largely stuck with the system you adopt within the first 50 years or so of the game. The claims laws focus on who can call dibs on a particular piece of dirt. These are a little more simple but the game is rather restrictive with information as to why a claim can/cannot be pressed. There have been times where I have had to dig through title histories and family members past and present before I can figure out why I can't attack something I initially thought I could. Essentially my gripe here is that the learning curve is tremendous, and unfortunately I found the tutorial largely unhelpful in these matters. Is it impossible to learn all the rules? Of course not, but as the title would suggest, I still haven't quite mastered them after several months of fairly regular play.

Overall, despite my complaints, Crusader Kings has largely eaten up my free time. It is certainly immersive and addicting if you allow it to grow to that extent. While some of the setup and complexity leaves some additional information to be wanting, fans of strategy gaming will enjoy the various levels of thought that must go into it. It is not perfect, but certainly enjoyable.

Oh, and it is the game which my next Let's Play series will feature.

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Kalpar Lectures: Kalpar Talks About Firefly

Little special update for you before October ends. Kalpar gushes for eleven minutes about Firefly by Joss Whedon.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Raiding the Stacks: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne

This week I want to talk about Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the classic novel by Jules Verne. I actually have a personal history with this book, first discovering it in the famous 1954 Disney movie adaptation at my local library back in the 1990's. When I was around ten or eleven I decided to read the original text of this novel and I remember it being a pretty good book. However, I'm afraid I had my nostalgia for this novel dampened with my re-reading.

Now, before I get into the book review proper, I want to admit that I may have gotten a bad translation which my good friend Anya suggested might be a problem with the book. If you do choose to go read Twenty Thousand Leagues I would suggest you explore a number of different translations.

My main problem with this book is it feels incredibly outdated in terms of its subject matter. Significant portions of this book consists of our narrator, Pierre Aronnax, detailing the various aquatic lifeforms he discovers during his adventures on the Nautilus. And I think for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this would be downright fascinating for the readers. Captain Nemo, Professor Aronnax, and the crew of the Nautilus go from the warm waters of the Pacific to the ice-choked waters of the South Pole and Aronnax provides incredibly detailed descriptions of the mammals, fishes, mollusks, and cephalopods they encounter. For an audience that has never before encountered the distant locations described in the novel and the strange lifeforms that live there, this has got to be fascinating stuff. However, this attention to detail becomes, in my opinion, a weakness for late twentieth and twenty-first century audiences. Today there are countless documentary films and television shows about the animals that live in the ocean and in Antartica which are widely available to modern audiences. I think that these far more visual mediums are a far better means of learning about the biological subject material covered in Twenty Thousand Leagues.

The other main fascination of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea seems to be with the technology contained within the Nautilus. Again, I think this is a result of time and technology advancing past the novel. The Nautilus is powered entirely by electricity provided by sodium-mercury batteries and is capable of out-performing the conventional steam-powered ships of the era. With electric power still in its infancy, I can understand how a nineteenth century audience could be fascinated by the idea of electric ovens and electric lighting. However, for a twenty-first century audience electric appliances are considered commonplace. Heck, we have submarines powered by nuclear fission now, something that would probably astound Verne's original audience. It's really not Verne's fault that the book has become less fantastic as time progressed, and I am impressed he believed electricity could be harnessed for such every day purposes in the future, but it definitely takes away much of the original wonder in Twenty Thousand Leagues.

There is one comment which I would like to make about this book, and it centers around the character of Captain Nemo. Throughout the novel we learn that Captain Nemo provides funding to various rebel groups fighting against imperialist forces in the nineteenth century. In specific we see Nemo provide a vast sum of money to Cretan rebels fighting against Ottoman occupation and it is heavily implied he provides such support to other rebel groups across the globe. Captain Nemo takes his campaign of vengeance even further and actively attacks the warships of imperialist powers. What is perhaps most important about this conflict is that we are never told where Nemo is from or who the imperialists he fights are. (Granted, in the sort-of sequel The Mysterious Island it is revealed that Captain Nemo was originally an Indian Raj, but we receive no such information in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.) In the climatic battle where Nemo attacks and sinks a warship with the Nautilus it is explicitly stated that the ship is flying no flag. Since both parties have ambiguous origins it remains powerful commentary against European imperialist practices in general and a warning of how far oppressed peoples will go to avenge the injustices suffered at the hands of their oppressors.

Overall, I would say it is best to pass Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by, but not because the book is in any way flawed or badly written. Instead I think that the technology and biological discoveries that were so fascinating to nineteenth century audiences have become incredibly commonplace to twenty-first century audiences. As a criticism of European imperialist and colonial practices, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea simply does not go into sufficient depth and I feel that theme takes a decided back-seat to the biological and technological wonders of Nemo's world. I must sadly consign Verne's work to the category of works informative of past perspectives, but less relevant to modern audiences.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

'Til we Have Built Jerusalem in England's Green and Pleasant Land!

Welp kiddos, here it is. The final installment of my Medieval II Let's Play. I hope it's been fun viewing for you as much as it has been fun playing for me. In this bit we smack the Polish around a bit for their insolence and try to make up for a blunder at Cordoba, all the while sailing for Jerusalem for a... less than climactic battle... Oh well.

Part 91:

Part 92:

Part 93:

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Monday, October 22, 2012

This is the Penultimate Supper!

At the start of this LP, I incorrectly predict that this will be the last session. Oh well. The English force of arms carries on with a battle here and there as our preparations for the final assault on Jerusalem come to a head. Anchors away as we sail across the Mediterranean!

Part 88:

Part 89:

Part 90:

God Save the Queen
- Carvan

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The German Wars: A Concise History, 1859-1945, by Michael A. Palmer

Today we're looking at a new text that deals with what I consider to be a rather interesting paradox of history. A very common historical stereotype is that the Germans, and the Prussians in specific who forged the modern German nation-state, are a very militaristic people. As Voltaire once said, "Prussia is not a state that possesses an army, but an army that has conquered a state." And you would think that with such a strong military tradition it would be rather difficult to defeat such a nation in the theater of war. However, as we now know from history, the vaunted German military lost two World Wars and lead to the creation of the much more peaceful economic powerhouse of Germany we know today. In The German Wars, Michael Palmer seeks to address this apparent paradox and how a much admired and imitated military could be defeated in two massive wars. 

Overall, this is a very good book and does an excellent job of explaining the development of the Prussian and later German armies during the time period Palmer covers. He first explains the origins of the myth of Prussian military supremacy by going into the mid-nineteenth century German Unification Wars which were fairly short conflicts with decisive victories in favor of the Prussians. Furthermore, Palmer explains how the mid-century wars influenced military thinking and the expectations of nations going into World War I. To provide a short answer for my readers and to summarize the main point of this monograph, the German military failed, in both World Wars, to consider the wider strategic and diplomatic repercussions of military actions. The reason Prussia was able to win the mid-nineteenth century wars was because of the actions of both Helmuth von Moltke, head of the General Staff, and Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor. Basically, Moltke developed excellent plans for the deployment of the Prussian military and had a well-trained cadre of officers who were competent on the battlefield. However, this was supplemented by Bismarck's ability to negotiate with other nations and keep a small, localized conflict from expanding into a large, industrial, and globalized conflict like the two World Wars were. Bismarck and Moltke understood that Germany was in a precarious central position and could not successfully fight a prolonged war with multiple major powers, so they used diplomatic tools to avoid such a conflict. Later German political leaders, both before and after the First World War, did not really understand the importance of such diplomatic actions and quickly found themselves isolated in Europe and surrounded by hostile states. However, the German leaders gave no such consideration to such political repercussions and threw themselves headlong into wars that quickly brought the might of expansive colonial empires such as Britian, France, and America, into the wars. Against such overwhelming material and industrial power, the Germans simply did not have a chance. 

Another major point that Palmer makes during his thesis is that the German High Command, in both wars, focused on achieving a single, decisive victory that would destroy the enemy's army and break the enemy nation's will to continue to fight the war. Specifically, German military theorists like Alfred von Schlieffen focused on the historical example of the Battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War when Hannibal encircled and destroyed a larger Roman force. What the German High Command failed to realize, and what Palmer rightly points out, is that the Battle of Cannae did not end the Second Punic War, which dragged on for another fifteen years and ended in Roman victory. The Romans were willing to raise army after army to throw at Hannibal and were undiscouraged by such setbacks and gradually wore down Hannibal's military. The same is true of both World Wars where the Allied powers would raise army after army, drawing on their global resources, and gradually wore down the Germans in a prolonged conflict.

This book is an excellent introduction to understanding the developments of military thinking in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially in response to the First World War. This book is very accessible to non-specialist, but it still has some excellent points that even dedicated historians such as myself will enjoy reading. I only have two major criticisms, the first being I feel this book has a rather thin bibliography and I would have liked to see a wider range of sources from the author, especially since he is the chair of the history department at East Carolina University. I also disliked how Palmer included sidebars in his monograph. While these sidebars occasionally provided more detailed information regarding specific subjects which Palmer was talking about, sometimes it was hard to see how they connected to his overall narrative. Furthermore, these sidebars usually took up several pages in the book and disrupted the overall flow of his arguments by their positioning. In addition some sidebars could have been placed at better positions in their chapters so they were nearby when Palmer referenced their subject material. 

Despite my two major issues, I think that this is a very good and very accessible history text that a wide range of audiences will enjoy. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the World Wars and German military history. 

- Kalpar 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, by Jim Bernheimer

There are plenty of benefits to being a supervillain, even if superheroes are constantly foiling your plans and wrecking your bases. You get to set your own hours, there are plenty of banks and jewelry stores to knock over if you're short on cash, and if your bases does get blown up there's still a pretty good chance you'll get away. Well, that's if you're a major league villain like the Evil Overlord or General Devious. If you're a minor-leaguer like Calvin Stringel, aka Mechani-CAL, life consists of more scraping to get by and the odd run in the slammer rather than devious plotting and world domination. Cal's had more than his fair share of bad breaks in his life and was trying to get out of the supervillain business for good. Fortunately Cal was in his power armor for a weapons deal when the Evil Overlord's mind-control slugs got released. Now the world's salvation lies in the most unlikely, and certainly not the most ethical, hands.

Overall, I liked this book as well, however I had one or two issues that I want to talk about later in my review. However, first I want to talk about what I think was really strong about Confessions of a D-List Supervillain. The first thing which I really liked was the main character of Calvin, even if I disagreed with some of his opinions on women at the start of the book and his far more...flexible morality. Despite his shortcomings when it came to character, I ended up really relating to Calvin because he's a down on his luck schmuck. Granted Calvin's a down on his luck schmuck with a couple of secret bases and a suit of power armor, but still a very relateable character. And if I'm being completely honest, his utter lack of self-confidence struck a very specific chord with me. Throughout the novel I came to like Calvin more and caring about all the misfortune that keeps following him around. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I was satisfied with how things ended up for Calvin.

The other thing that I really appreciated about this novel is that it became a very realistic deconstruction of the superhero genre. As the story continues and Calvin gets involved in the world of superheroes we find that many of these so-called heroes are no better than the villains they fight, the heroes just have better lawyers. I actually found it very believable that superheroes would be involved in dirty backroom deals and more interested in maintaining the image of their organizations than seeing that justice is actually done. It's very evocative of the internal corruption we frequently experience with our own politicians and I thought it was very well-done by the author.

As for what I disliked about this book, it boils down to two major issues. My first problem was that while Bernheimer has developed a wonderful and complex world of superheroes and supervillains, I still felt it was kind of thin around the edges. I found myself wondering where all of these superpowered people got their powers and some of the finer details about how this superhero economy works. I think Bernheimer could have made Confessions of a D-List Supervillain slightly longer and gone a little further in-depth into his world.

My other major issue was a fairly significant plot-twist towards the end of the novel. Much like the other book by Bernheimer I read, Prime Suspects, I felt like there wasn't a lot of lead-up to the twist and I felt kind of blindsided. The hints are there, but they aren't as well-developed and I think taking more time in the novels would have helped in that aspect.

Overall, despite my issues, Confessions of a D-List Supervillain was a very fun read for me and I'd definitely recommend it to all of my readers. It's definitely a must-read for anyone who liked other deconstruction of the superhero genre like Watchmen or The Incredibles. I definitely will keep Bernheimer on my list of authors to check out in the future.

- Kalpar