About a month ago I was at a party and a friend of a friend mentioned Bram Stoker's classic vampire novel, Dracula, and mentioned it was much easier to read than Frankenstein. Having struggled through Frankenstein back when I was in high school, I decided to give Dracula a go and include it in my ongoing "Raiding the Stacks" feature. I will admit that it was overall still fairly difficult for me to read but I do not regret making the effort.
If you don't know the plot of Dracula then you've been missing for the past hundred years and I'd like to welcome you to the internet. Seriously, everyone knows at least the barest outlines of the plot by now: Count Dracula is a vampire, he leaves his home in Transylvania to go to England, sucks the blood of pretty women, and gets hunted down by Professor Van Helsing and his band of compatriots. It's a story that's been told, retold, deconstructed, reconstructed, and parodied countless times since its release in 1897. What Dracula has going for it is that it is the vampire novel and defined many tropes which are still with us today in vampire-related fiction.
The story of Dracula is told in what I have learned is the epistolary format, where the story is told as a collection of letters, diaries, and telegrams generated by the characters within the story as they record the events of the plot. For roughly the first half of the book we get to watch the characters trying to make sense of a series of very strange events, and it's sort of like a mystery watching various pieces of information come together. However, considering how well-known the basic plot is it's not much of a mystery, but I at least was still guessing at some parts because I didn't know everything. The book's a little slow to pick up because the different characters are piecing together their information and figuring out what exactly they're fighting, but once you get into the second half it's pretty non-stop and the action doesn't end until the very last page. I felt like the book could have used a little more closure at the end but at least it didn't suffer ending fatigue.
The one thing that sticks out in my mind about this story is that Dracula's powers and weaknesses don't seem to be very well-defined, or in some cases include facts that haven't been included in later vampire stories. For example, if a vampire's in his casket apparently a branch of wild rose across it will prevent him from leaving. Also, the heart of a vampire does not have to be destroyed by a wooden stake (although Van Helsing seems to prefer them) and in a pinch a good bowie knife will do. In addition Dracula walks around in the sunlight a couple of times during the story, but at other times is confined to his coffin during the day and there's no real explanation as to why this is the case. But the most well-defined powers and weaknesses remain with us: a vampire's ability to turn into a bat or dust as well as their ability to command wolves and other creatures; their weakness to garlic, a crucifix, and other holy items; and the need for vampires to regularly rest in the soil where they were buried. Many of these tropes remain part of vampire lore today, although I don't think the vampires that the I Smell Sheep flock read about are exactly the same.
I will say that the one thing I really liked about this story was that the vampires are monsters that have to be defeated by man. Yes, the vampire has powers beyond our comprehension and can even hypnotize humans into doing his bidding, but the vampire can only think about himself and his own goals.We humans are not only able to work together and work for a good greater than ourselves, but we are capable of working together to accomplish those goals. It is only through the combined efforts and unique skills of the members of Professor Van Helsing's team that they're able to track down and not only defeat Dracula, but raze his lair as well. Vampires may think they are better than us and hold us in contempt, but they are little more than animals that only deserve to be hunted down to extinction.
If you're curious about the origins of vampire fiction Dracula is the book to go to, and if you want to write your own vampire novel it can definitely give you some ideas. You definitely shouldn't be rooting for the vampires, though, you should be rooting for the kickass vampire hunters like Professor Abraham Van Helsing or Texan Quincey Morris. If nothing else, this book reminds us that through hard work and cooperation we humans can band together and defeat the monsters.
Over the hills, and o'er the main To Flanders, Portugal and Spain The king commands and we'll obey And go over the hills and far away.
While we have not yet reached Portugal, this 17th century English folk tune, with seemingly innumerable versions of lyrics is a pretty good description of what we are working towards accomplishing at this part. Also it's been stuck in Kalpar's head lately, so I figured I'd do what I could to help him out in that department.
An Unexpected Apprentice was a book I had lying around for some time and had been kind of hesitant about reading. It looked a lot like a generic fantasy story and so I was less than enthused with the possibility of another one. However in this fortunate instance I was very wrong and for that I am extremely grateful. Of course, Nye's book still relies upon many over-used fantasy tropes we've since the days of Tolkien but the book somehow manages to feel fresh nonetheless.
An Unexpected Apprentice actually contains two plots-lines, but both center around our main character, Tildi Summerbee. Tildi is one of the smallfolk, humanoids that live in the sheltered Quarters and have very little contact with the outside world. Smallfolk society is extremely patriarchal and women such as Tildi aren't even allowed to talk to the human traders that visit the Quarters, nevermind leave their homeland. Normally this wouldn't be a problem for Tildi, but when all of her brothers are killed in a Thraik attack the Summerbee family farm is left without a male heir. Faced with the option of being married against her will by the village council so the land doesn't go too long without a man's hand, Tildi flees in the night to take up an apprenticeship with the wizard Olen. As stereotypical as Tildi kind of was, being the absurdly sheltered character who doesn't know anything about the outside world and has to be told everything, it still managed to work really well in my opinion. I could really believe that Tildi came from a strongly patriarchal society that actively discouraged women knowing anything out of "appropriate" fields of knowledge and it still served as an excellent introduction to Nye's world.
The other main plot is mentioned a little in the first part of the book, but doesn't really become important until the second half. It's a pretty standard plot: someone has stolen an ancient magical artifact that can destroy the world as the characters know it and so a party must be formed to rescue the artifact. Slight variation on Tolkien's story but essentially the same. And normally I would have rated this as just an average book as a result, but there were two things that made me really elevate this to a good book. First, six of the seven characters who make up the party trying to recover the artifact are female, and secondly Nye manages to give a sense of depth to her world without going through it with a fine-toothed comb.
To be perfectly honest I'm not sure if I should include the first point at all in declaring this a good book. It really should not be so surprising, even in 2007 when the book was written or now when I'm reading it, that a majority of characters are female. It really helps underscore a systemic problem with our fiction and its lack of female main characters, especially in a non-romantic role. I just found it a refreshing change of pace that we had six named characters, main characters at that, who simply were the best people suited for the job and were called upon to complete the quest. I can only hope that later works of fiction will be able to include female characters to such an extent.
As for the second point, as I mentioned, Nye really makes her world feel rich and complex without going through it in minute detail. Just as an example it's mentioned that in this world mermaids and tritons exist. We never meet either of those races, and in fact spend very little time near an ocean at all, but based upon the cultures that we are shown in the novel we can assume that they're equally well-developed and complex. In a way it's almost a less-is-more sort of thing because Nye gives us brief little glimpses into how her societies work rather than launching into a sociological tract on every aspect of their culture. The little snippets hint at a much deeper culture than we could hope to comprehend in a few hundred pages.
I did have a couple of issues, the first was a kind of anachronism issue because I caught references to cannons and treadle-powered sewing machines so I kind of wondered when exactly this story was supposed to be taking place. Really, that concern wasn't too important, though, because it was like one or two sentences which were vague references at best and I really should be focusing on the story rather than the technological development of the society. The other issue I had with the book was that it ended on a cliffhanger and I found myself saying, "But...the quest isn't over! You resolved some of the problems but now there's a whole host of other problems that has to be solved and there's only a page left! Aw man, cliffhanger!" Really that's just a personal gripe but I think I would have appreciated more warning that it was going to end like that.
If you're looking for a good fantasy story I'd definitely recommend An Unexpected Apprentice. It doesn't really explore new ground when it comes to fantasy tropes and plots, but the writing is well done and the female cast provides a refreshing change of pace from the standard fantasy quest. I definitely will be looking into the sequel, A Forthcoming Wizard which is already out, but sadly my book budget has dried up until September. And don't worry, dear readers, I've got plenty of stuff already to keep you entertained until then.
Finding ourselves with enemies on all sides (granted some of them self-made) and an enemy in St. Peter's chair (okay, that one was very much self-made) we stand on desperate ground and therefore, as Sun Tzu said, we must fight.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,
Omitted, and the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
- Brutus from Julius Caesar Act IV, scene iii, 218-224
England has certainly been riding the high tides to glory of late, but how long will those tides favour us? Stay tuned to find out!
I'm going to start this by saying that Name of Alt is a terrible book. Now I know what you're thinking, "But Kalpar!" you're probably exclaiming, "That is indeed a serious statement to make about a book. And you can't expect us to just take your word for it, you're not Levar Burton! Where are your facts?" Thank you, kind and gentle readers for continuing to hold me to the high standards we have here at the Arsenal. Well...some standards. You know what I mean. To summarize the plot of Name of Alt : an alien called Alt (and his "pet", Khan) has crash-landed on Earth and has decided to make first contact with the humans. This decision is partially spurred by his need for a handful of liquids and metals to repair his ship, but also partly by his desire to perform a good deed for humanity. To me it seemed like an interesting enough premise.
The major problem with this book was its structure; pretty much all of this book is a narration by Alt which constantly shifts between topics and its segues are about as fluid as a brick wall. Alt is continually introducing us to and pontificating upon a topic, suddenly shifting to another topic tangentially related to the original topic, and then when he's finished pontificating on the tangent he'll suddenly shift back to his original topic. I want to say this was in imitation of Douglas Adams's style with the Hitchhiker's Guide series but Name of Alt simply doesn't come even close to mastering the segues and effortlessly shifting between tangents. Another recurring issue I had was that Alt would continually introduce new topics and say, "I'll tell you more about that soon." Sometimes "soon" is two paragraphs later, sometimes it's two chapters. Either way it just further hindered the already rocky transitions and made the narrative of this book harder to follow. On top of that there were a handful of topics that are briefly touched upon by the narrator and I was left with the impression that we would return to these topics and expand on their significance, but we never return to those topics. For example, Alt mentions that his crashing on this planet was no accident and his navigational computer was in all probability disabled by other malicious aliens. Do we ever come back to ask who those malicious aliens might be or why they'd want Alt stranded on our little rock? Nope! All of these factors made the book feel extremely poorly planned and lacking structure.
There's also a few plot holes that really bugged me in this book. The first was that Alt is "stuck" here on Earth and, as I mentioned, needs some materials to repair his computer. However, Alt reveals that another race of aliens, known as the Usoas, are living at the bottom of Earth's oceans and are known to Alt's people and a number of other alien races. So....why doesn't Alt ask the Usoas for the materials? I'm pretty sure they could help him. Oh...he wants to make first contact with the humans? But...time is of the essence for him to get home? Speaking of the Usoas, apparently they've been fighting an on-again, off-again war with these aliens known as the Intruders who want to eat the humans and steal all the water. The water bit's kind of necessary for the Usoas, and I guess they took a liking to us so they've been defending us. Alt says that the Usoas have been fighting this war mostly on their own. Except there are also the Greys, if you don't recognize the name I'll show you a picture and you'll probably recognize them.
Yeah, those guys. Anyway, apparently they hang out around Earth a lot and in addition consider themselves the moral guardians of the universe and, according to Alt, always rush to help defend fellow aliens being attacked by malevolent forces. So...why didn't the Greys help the Usoas? I assume they'd be in the neighborhood and it's pretty clear the Intruders were kind of the bad guys, what with stealing the water from Earth. So...why weren't the Greys involved? A final major plot hole I remember is Alt mentions that his species, the Douze, have this cloning technology that lets you basically beam copies of people places Star Trek style. Alt says that they've shared some of this technology with the Greys but the Douze haven't shared all of it because there's more than a 5% chance the Greys will use it against them in a military capacity. The same Greys who he had previously stated were the self-appointed moral guardians of the universe and never attacked another alien species unless that species was going around getting into people's business with guns and so on. So how, in the how many thousands of years the Douze and Greys have known each other, have the Greys given any indication that they're going to randomly attack the Douze? Well if the Greys ever did we're certainly never told about it.
Another running problem I had with this book was its apparent inability to grasp facts. For example, Alt and his friend Khan state that evolution is a myth and creatures only change because of their environment and their ability to adapt to it. Which....is actually part of the forces of evolution. Listen, I'm nowhere close to being an expert on evolution but I asked a friend who is and she said that at least part of evolution comes down to how creatures are able to survive in their environment. It's a little more complicated than that, what with random versus non random breeding and a couple other things but a creature's ability to survive in its environment is a big part of it. So what the author is basically doing is explaining aspects of evolution and then claiming that it's not evolution it's...something else. I can call a pepperoni pizza whatever I want but if we're both talking about a flat piece of bread covered in tomato sauce, cheese, and pepperoni slices then we're talking about the same thing, regardless of whatever label I choose to ascribe to it.
And the issues did not end there. I figure if you're reading this there's a good chance you've heard of that Jesus Christ fellow. (If you haven't well...he was an itinerant preacher about 2000 years ago. We think.) Anyway, according to Alt Jesus was actually the result of the Greys deciding to mix their DNA with human DNA just to see what happened. And apparently, when you mix Grey DNA with ours you get magical healing powers. Which you know, that's not a really big deal for me because I'm not offended by the idea that many of our gods were actually aliens. I might think it a little silly, but I'm not offended. What really frustrates me about Alt's whole delving into this topic is his claim that Jesus's overall goal was to help stimulate human learning and the development of technology which is "proven" by how far we've come technologically from 1 to 2000 CE opposed to 2000 to 1 BCE. Because, you know, it's not like any organization affiliated with Jesus Christ has ever activelyrepressed scientific learning in the past or continues to do so now. That'd just be ridiculous, right?
If I haven't convinced my dear reader by now that this book is terribly flawed, let me finish with one final paragraph. Throughout this entire book I got this feeling from Alt that he's a, for lack of a better term, elitist douchebag asshole. Alt is constantly pontificating on various subjects and acting like he's a subject on astrophysics, biology, history, human psychology, and practically every other subject under the sun, but he's so clearly not. Instead of coming off as a wise traveler who's sharing a little wisdom and perspective for humanity Alt comes off as a college freshmen who took one semester of philosophy and that somehow has given him a unique insight into everything like he's the next goddamned Socrates. And I'd accept that, I'd be willing to accept that just because he can fly across galaxies Alt thinks he knows better about everything, but I got really offended by one thing he said. Alt claimed that two-thirds of all law enforcement officials are in some way corrupt and we'd be better off without both law enforcement and laws altogether. Quite frankly that's offensive and bullshit. I don't know many police officers personally, and I'm aware that police in some countries are no better than another gang, but here in the United States most police officers are probably nice people. Are there corrupt jackasses who get on the force? Yeah, but you get that everywhere. As far as I'm concerned police officers are normal people just like the rest of us, certainly with their own foibles, but not objectively bad people. Claiming that fully two out of three are corrupt is highly misinformed and offensive to the dignity of a very dangerous and largely thankless job. Furthermore, to claim that humans should do away with laws altogether is, again, misinformed. Maybe Alt's society has advanced to a point where they don't need laws to keep the social fabric from falling apart, but humans are definitely not at that level. Maybe it's my own Lawful alignment coming out, but pretty much all of current political theory at least acknowledges the need for a clear code of laws for the common well-being of the people. (Anarchism of course being the exception.) To claim that something so fundamentally necessary for the continued operation of our society is pointless implies to me that the speaker clearly has no idea how human society works at all.
Overall, this is a bad book, I did not care for it and hopefully I provided sufficient explanation why in the paragraphs above.
As John Oliver said, "People yearn for the days of the British Empire; longing to be treated that badly that politely." Therefore we have endeavored with all our strength to (p)re-establish that. We seek to unify modern day Italy and France under English rule, and seek a religious conversion through waves of priests and bishops. Truly we are the great liberators of the Medieval era, bringing culture and sophistication to the barbarians in southern Europe!
Our foray into the Italian peninsula resumes as we have to contend with the Venetians and the Papacy in pretty much equal measure. I largely came off this Let's Play session feeling like this about Italy. Hope it's some fun viewing!
A long time ago on a blog not too far away I reviewed the webcomic Girl Genius produced by Phil and Kaja Foglio and asked that all two of my readers go and check out this awesome webcomic. (And you still should, because the Foglios and Cheyenne Wright, their colorist, are still producing fantastic work.) However the Foglios have decided to expand their creations through the Agatha H series of novels. The first novel, Agatha H and the Airship City, tells the story of the first three issues of the Girl Genius comic in book form and the second novel, Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess, covers the next three issues. And due to the complex story of Girl Genius you definitely have to start at the beginning if you're going to understand the plot.
An excellent question that even I have asked is, why should we even read the novelizations of the comic? The comic should be able to stand on its own as a work and not rely on a number of supplemental materials to make sense.Fortunately, the comic does stand on its own and there are plenty of fans who have only read the comics on the Foglio website. In my opinion what the novelizations provide is depth to the Girl Genius universe which is entertaining, but usually bears little to no relevance to the plot. Facts like Dimo knits decorative socks as a hobby or that the Ice Tsars recently visited Paris. Interesting tidbits for fans of the series, but pretty much unimportant when we're talking about Agatha's story. And really that's the major appeal of the novels for me, little factoids that make the series feel deeper and more fleshed-out, but don't really add to the plot. And new readers can definitely learn the plot of Girl Genius through the Agatha H novels, but I personally recommend reading the comics first just to get your bearings. Also, if you're constantly broke like me, buying a couple of novels is a lot cheaper than ordering the growing number of graphic novels so it's a nice way to support the Foglios on a budget.
I do have a major complaint with this book which was the presence of typos in (mostly) its latter half. For the most part is seemed to be an inability to decide if Balan's Gap should be spelled Balan or Balen, as well as a confusion of who's and whose. (Although there were a handful of other typos as well.) And I understand that this sort of thing sometimes happens in first editions but it still made me a little disappointed. So please, if Phil and Kaja ever read this, please go through it again before the next print run.
Overall, I really liked this addition to the wonderful world of Girl Genius, even if that was probably a foregone conclusion considering I'm a bit of a fanboy. The Foglios have crafted a wonderfully complex plot and they know exactly where it's going, so I don't expect it to loose steam or direction anytime soon. Their world populated by mad scientists and monsters is imaginative, and a cast of characters with complex motivations makes it all the more interesting. Perhaps most importantly, Agatha is a prime example of what I consider to be a good heroine. She doesn't need the men in her life to solve her problems for her because she's smart and strong enough to tackle them on her own. But perhaps more importantly, although Agatha has romantic feelings for Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, she doesn't follow him around all doe-eyed and rely on him to fix everything because she has her own motivations and goals as a character which come into conflict with Gil's own goals and motivations. It's a refreshing change of pace from all the so-called "spunky" heroines who seem to cling to whatever muscle-bound alpha-male they can find.
The other major thing I loved about this book was the addition of footnotes which give overly-long and hilarious explanations on minor points of the Girl Genius universe. It's definitely an homage to some of Sir Pratchett's books (the Foglios are major fans of PTerry, much like myself) and something that I really loved. It can be hard to do that sort of humor well, but the Foglios manage to do it and for that I was extremely thankful. I also really liked that the Foglios can not only make us laugh, but also make us care about their characters and cry with them. Clockwork Princess contains two of the most heart-rending scenes in the Girl Genius narrative and show that even ruthless fighters like Maxim and devious snakes like Tarvek can feel loss like the rest of us. Pile on layers of intrigue and Agatha's ongoing quest to survive and become recognized as the Heterodyne heir and you have a truly fantastic story.
Basically, if you're already a fan of the series and want to know more little details about the universe, the Agatha H series is a great way to accomplish that. But if you've already read the comics and don't really have an urge to learn those sorts of little details then you can safely pass the books by. For people new to the series starting with Agatha H and the Airship City and then Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess is a great way to catch up, especially if you don't have the time to go through the extensive comic archives, but I still say you're probably better off reading the comics first. Definitely a must-read for anyone interested in romance, adventure, and mad science.