Thursday, December 25, 2014

Krampus the Yule Lord, by Brom

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, because hoo boy does Krampus have a temper. This week in the spirit of Christmas I’m reviewing another book by Brom, Krampus, the Yule Lord. For those of you unfamiliar with the demon Krampus, (Which I suspect will be only a handful) Krampus is one of many spooky traditions found in European countries around the Winter Solstice because goddamn it is cold and dark out, we need to do something to distract ourselves from that. Krampus in particular is found in and around the Alps, specifically northern Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and some areas of southern Germany. Although the exact nature of Krampus varies from region to region, he always appears as a horned monster who brandishes switches to thrash naughty children, and on occasion eats the very worst of them. Having dealt with a few bratty children during Christmas time myself, I understand the appeal of creatures such as Krampus.

Krampus the Yule Lord, however, is a creative re-telling of the Krampus legend, mixing in various Christmas traditions from across Northern Europe, including some Norse mythology, and the characteristic slightly creepy touch of Brom. Our main protagonist is Jesse Walker, a struggling country musician living in Boone County, West Virginia. Things have been pretty rough for Jesse, but when Santa’s sack lands in the bedroom of his trailer, things start to become even more complicated. Before he knows it, Jesse gets tied up in a war between Santa Claus and Krampus, a centuries-old war over the very nature of Christmas itself. Initially I didn’t much care for Jesse because he wasn’t a character I could really get behind, but that actually left room for a good character development arc and Jesse improved considerably towards the end. Hooray character development!

The biggest weakness of this book is that I never really found myself rooting for Krampus until towards the very end of the book. Krampus informs us of Santa’s treachery and how the kind, gentle, and gift-giving aspects of Santa’s nature are all an act for a much more nefarious purpose. Although we’re told this by Krampus, most of what we see of Santa is a very earnest, generous, and sometimes very troubled soul who’s trying to make the world a better place. Granted, Santa wields a sword like a badass as well, but considering I’m a huge fan of Santa as depicted in Rise of the Guardians, I’m definitely okay with Santa knocking a few heads together if he needs to. By contrast, through much of the book Krampus works through fear and intimidation, in some ways a walking manifestation of the things that go bump in the night around this time of year. It just brings Krampus’s allegations of Santa’s hidden wickedness into question and I found myself rooting more for the man in red.

The reason I bring this up is the book is titled Krampus after all, and reading the book jacket blurb I was left with the impression we were supposed to be rooting for Krampus. There is some development towards the end and I ended up feeling a little more sympathetic towards Krampus, but not by a lot. It just makes me wonder if we were supposed to like Krampus at all until he stops being such an enormous jerk. Wanting to punish the wicked is one thing, but holding a grudge against Santa is something else entirely. So if you’re going to read this book, just be aware that you may not find yourself agreeing with Krampus much during the book.

Another shame was that there were several characters who weren’t terribly well developed in the course of the novel. We did get to see some really good development with Jesse and Krampus, but other characters like Perchta and Krampus’s Shawnee buddies are little more than background pieces who got their own illustrations in the book. There were possibly a dozen different, incredibly interesting stories about all the different side characters that could have been told, even just a little bit, which would have better satisfied my curiosity. It is, however, probably to the book’s benefit that they remained background characters because I’ve seen far too many books wander off into multiple directions and suffer because they tried to tell six stories instead of telling one well. 

I definitely will also say that this is a book for adults. I mentioned in my review of The Plucker that although Brom does a lot of illustrated work, this should not be confused with kid friendly work at all. The typical spooky, creepy feel that Brom brings to his work aside, the language alone is enough to merit parents looking first before letting the kids read. (Of course, I grew up in a house where I wasn’t allowed to swear at all until I was eighteen.) However, I leave that judgment in the hands of parents and recommend they read the book first themselves.

My final nitpick comes, of course, with Brom’s afterword detailing a little bit about the history of Santa and different Christmas traditions across the globe. Brom mentions a very common myth that Coca-cola helped spread the image of Santa Claus in red and white in the 1930’s, a popular myth because of Coca-cola’s own red and white color scheme and because it takes a playful jab at the commercialization of Christmas that’s been going on for nearly a century at this point. I would like to point out that our modern image of Santa can be traced back to famed cartoonist Thomas Nast, who originally portrayed Santa Claus in a red and white suit in 1881, well before Coca-cola began using Santa for their advertising campaigns. This lesson in pedantic historical trivia brought to you by The Kalpar.

Issues aside, I rather enjoyed this book and I think it’s a great addition to the collection of holiday tales. Creepy, scary, and yet exciting, Brom delivered another excellent tale with his own idiosyncratic twist.

- Kalpar 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

This week I've read another book from Ursula K. LeGuin, in this case on of her science-fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness. As much as I enjoyed some of LeGuin's other works, like the Earthsea series, I was left rather frustrated with this book because it either has fallen far short of the mark or simply has not aged well in the past forty years. Perhaps both. In either case the book seems almost a relic of a bygone era and what was once ground-breaking seems almost trivial in hindsight.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set on the planet Gethen, also referred to by outsiders as Winter because it is currently going through an ice age and a day over sixty degrees Fahrenheit is considered broiling. The story centers around an off-world visitor, Genly Ai, a representative of the Ekumen, an interstellar confederation of human-inhabited worlds united by FTL ansible communications. Ai has been sent to Gethen to invite the countries of that world to join in the shared knowledge and cooperation of the Ekumen. Understandably, the Gethans are fairly suspicious of Ai and the Ekumen's intentions, fearing his arrival merely a front for a far more nefarious scheme. Ai's efforts center around trying to get the people of Gethen to trust and accept him, and gradually enter an alliance with the Ekumen.

What is more remarkable, though, is that the human beings that inhabit Gethen are all one sex. For most of the month Gethans are in what they refer to as somer, where they simply possess no sex, have no sexual urges or desires, and live their life comfortably neuter. Once a month, however, each Gethan will undergo kemmer, and begin to develop sexual characteristics and hormones. During kemmer a Gethen can become what we would define as either male or female, sometimes adapting to compliment a partner who is already in kemmer. Biologically a Gethan can become either sex and can both sire and bear children in their lifetime. As a result, the Gethans are a largely mono-gendered society as well; child-rearing is a largely shared task, and as anyone can become male or female next kemmer, there are no widespread assumptions or stereotypes attached to sex.

It's an interesting thought experiment and could definitely be used to challenge assumptions regarding gender, but the implementation just feels fairly hollow forty years later. Ai definitely expresses frustration at being unable to classify Gethans into familiar male or female categories and finds them rather alien, just as they find him, but he also finds aspects of their cultures, such as a preference for speaking indirectly and obsession with personal honor, to be strange and confusing as well. I guess I didn't find it very odd that an alien culture would seem weird to an observer and that the Gethans reacted with suspicion when an interstellar visitor arrives claiming to want only their friendship.

But more importantly, I felt that the main thrust of LeGuin's thought experiment was to explore stereotypes and assumptions about sex and gender by simply removing them and providing a contrast. The result I am unhappy to say is not terribly convincing, and perhaps a little refinement of terminology (which may have occurred in the past forty years) will help clarify my frustration. Specifically sex and gender do not mean the same things, although people often assume that they do. Sex is biological and the overwhelming majority of people fall into either one category or another: male or female. Sex is defined by what set of organs you have in your pants and the predominate hormones in your bloodstream. Gender, however, is a social construct which is far more complicated. In mainstream Western society we tend to assume there are two genders which also go with the two sexes, male and female. In this dichotomy men like to talk about sports and beer and fix things with their tools and trucks and what not, while women by contrast like to talk about their feelings and like to bake and knit and what have you. We see this dichotomy every day from its use in sitcom humor, to advertising, to the rows of pink toys designed specifically for girls. However, a bi-gendered society which assumes that someone will fall neatly into the corresponding category because of their reproductive organs is restrictive for everyone and leads to sexism and all the horrible awfulness that comes part and parcel with that.

Furthermore, people do not always associate with the gender that is attached to their sex. Some people are transgender and identify as the gender opposite of their biological sex, while other people's preferred gender may vary from day to day, depending on their mood. In fact, some cultures even have three or more genders, creating a host of opportunities for people to develop their identity. The point of this little tirade is that throughout Left Hand of Darkness, Ai attributes peculiarities of Gethan culture, such as the absence of war, to their lack of distinct sexes and genders. Because Gethans are both man and woman, their naturally violent tendencies are mellowed by the kind, nurturing aspects. Although this might have held up in 1969 when the book was first published, it's definitely an outdated idea today in 2014. Continued developmental research has shown, just for sake of example, that boys and girls have just as much capacity for violence. The only difference is that in culturally defined gender roles violence is more tolerated, and even encouraged, among boys while it comes with strict repercussions for girls. While in American culture gender is still very strongly attached to sex, and we are still engaged in a struggle to break down gender stereotypes, what sex you are with does not determine your gender. A culture like the Gethans, which lacks defined sexes may lack defined genders and gender roles, but this doesn't mean they'll be any different from the other mess of humanity.

Other than the blurring between sex and gender, which may have not been as well-defined in 1969 as it is today, this book is okay at best. There's an opportunity to explore new ideas and break down assumptions about sex and gender, but it certainly doesn't get developed to its full potential. There's some exploration of religion, LeGuin's fascination with duality (a consistent theme in her works), and other odds and ends, but the brevity of the work means it lacks depth. I think this could be safely passed by for other works, as highly acclaimed as it is.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, by Andrew Gordon

As some of my readers may be aware, my training as a historian has definitely been fairly Eurocentric, a definite focus of history over the past four hundred years or so. After all, the field of history in the United States has been dominated by white men who are often most interested in...white men. As a result I can sing a song listing in order all the monarchs of England from 1066, but I can't name off the top of my head more than perhaps three important Japanese people in all of Japan's fifteen hundred year history. Aware of this particular gap in my knowledge I found this book at my used-book store that was a general overview of Japanese history from the creation of the last shogunate in Tokugawa times to the year 2000. This proved to be a very good resource for giving me a basic grounding in information about Japan and hopefully will help further readings into Japanese history in the future.

This book operates in a very big-picture and broad-strokes perspective, which I find very helpful for two reasons. First of all, knowing only a few hazy generalities about Japanese history a very broad and general history providing more specific details about this country was an excellent way to being reading and learning about history. Very often history texts tend to have a very narrow focus and may not talk fully about various other events that tie into the focus of the text. A broad view is very good for an introduction to new material and can help facilitate research into other areas. Secondly, I myself tend to be a very big-picture sort of historian, liking to look at large events and ideologies shaped over decades, rather than focusing on the day-to-day drama that often becomes very popular in biographies. So overall I found this book rather useful for my purposes in learning more about Japan.

On the flip side, because this book is a very general history of Japan it does not spend terribly much time talking about any one subject. The book is rather ambitious in its scope, going from the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States Period, of the 1500's and the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603 to the year 2000 in only a little over three hundred pages. Obviously libraries have been filled with texts delving into the complexities of these five hundred years of history, but to cover it all in one smaller text results in quite a lot of detail being left out. This definitely should be expected in such a general work and while unfortunate, is a necessity of the very big-picture approach of this sort of text.

I will say that there was one point where Gordon started interjecting into the text with the personal pronoun "I", offering personal opinions on historical events. I was of course a little frustrated because in doing historical research and writing you should never make personal statements or assertions like that. If nothing else it violates the ideal of detached historical research. The goal of a historian is to research primary and secondary sources, and then construct and defend an interpretation of events based around those sources. Historians ideally refrain from passing judgement, as tempting as it is, but this is very complicated issue which remains a subject of debate even today. I personally suspect it was just a slip-up on the part of Gordon or his editors in some part of the process from transferring notes to manuscript because it was only that one forgivable instance and the text remains historically sound throughout.

If you know little to nothing about Japan and seek to learn more about a nation that has so greatly influenced the twentieth century then A Modern History of Japan is a good place to start reading. I recommend it as general material to become more familiar with the course of Japanese history and offer inspiration for other topics which you may seek to learn more about.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Bolo Brigade, by William H. Keith Jr.

This week I've returned to my perennial favorite series, the Bolos, with a full-length novel Bolo Brigade. When I initially began this series I sought to read it in chronological order. However, in the helpful guide of books located on Wikipedia I only recently noticed that the full-length Bolo novels were published concurrently with many of the Bolo short story anthologies, which I've already reviewed. However, I'm very happy to be going into the full-length novels and look forward to the opportunities provided by additional space.

This particular book deals with an area of space out on the galactic rim that is independent of the Concordiat of Man, but still strongly affiliated and protected by ancient Bolos against the remote possibility of a threat. Of course, we know that since the focus of the book is on this particular galactic backwater, the Bolos are going to have to save the day. In this case a race known as the Malach, very similar to raptor-like dinosaurs in many respects, have invaded the human worlds. The humans are no match for the hunter-warriors of the Malach, and some of the Bolos are simply insufficient as well. But hope lies in Freddy and Ferdy, two ancient (and perhaps most importantly self-aware) Mark XXIV Bolos, defenders of the sector's capital.

If you asked me my opinion on this particular book, I'd say it's okay. I wouldn't say it's going to win any awards, but it's a worthwhile contribution to the Bolo canon. As I've said before with other books, you usually go into Bolo books expecting some crazy awesome tank goodness and the book seldom fail to deliver on that promise. It's probably not going to change the world, but sometimes it's fun to kick back and read some pulp adventures. And honestly it has a giant tank on the cover, what did you expect? I will say that the Bolo books in the past have been able to raise the question of what makes someone, or something, human, and while this book sort of touches on that, it doesn't go into terribly great detail, focusing instead on the pulp action.

I will say that the book sort of makes an attempt to contrast the Malach and their societal values with human values, which are definitely alien to say the least. I do wonder if it was entirely fair for humans to judge Malach by human values, simply because the Malach are so alien. But at the same time, when people are determined to kill all of you and take all your land and resources, you kind of want to focus on killing them right back and morality can be damned. The book also does work in people who want to make peace with the Malach, assuming that they can be reasoned with as you would with other humans and a peaceful resolution to the current conflict can be achieved. I will admit that this peace faction comes across as little more than straw men because we know that the Malach terms, if the Malach bothered to offer them, would be completely unacceptable to any humans. So it sort of turns out the military people are right, but it doesn't feel terribly heavy-handed in this instance. I will also say it was kind of funny to find another species that is expanding from a solitary world and simply cannot believe that humanity is in control of more than a handful of planets. Although the Concordiat's resources aren't brought to bear in this novel, it definitely leaves the Malach in for a very rude awakening when a true Bolo Brigade arrives in the sector.

Simply put if you like Bolos, you'll like this book, and if you're new to Bolos then this book is also a good choice. (Although you might not catch all the references.) Definitely worth the read if you want some sci-fi action.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Field of Dishonor, by David Weber

Kalpar's Warning: Attention dear and gentle readers, as I have progressed with the Honor Harrington series I have worked very hard in my reviews to keep them largely spoiler-free so that the books may remain enjoyable for you. However, as the plot has continued to build I am finding it more and more difficult to properly talk about the book without having to go into some spoiler territory. I will try to keep it to a minimum but please keep that in mind before reading this review. 

Having become a very strong fan of David Weber's Honor Harrington series, I finally got around to reading the fourth book, Field of Dishonor and was rather satisfied with it, although I'm a little concerned about Honor's development as a character As this is the only book in the series that doesn't feature space combat, its focus is definitely more on Honor as a person and her own development, rather than the larger political and military struggles that are going on between Manticore and Haven. Although some people might be upset by the lack of space battles, I actually welcome it as a change of pace in the series.

The book is very strongly dominated by Pavel Young's vendetta against Honor Harrington and his quest for revenge. After his disgraceful behavior at the Battle of Hancock, Young is finally cashiered from the naval service in disgrace and to top it off his father, tenth Earl of North Hollow, dies in shock. With his newfound power as the eleventh Earl of North Hollow, Pavel Young seeks to get revenge against not just Honor but eventually the entire naval establishment. I will say that the first fourth or so of the book is dominated by a lot of conversations between characters over essentially the same thing: Young's upcoming court martial and the political fallout from any decision made by the navy. The parliamentary government of Manticore needs a majority to officially declare war against Haven and continue offensive operations, but spiteful factions of the House of Lords threaten to break with the majority government and block legislation dependent on the outcome of Young's trial. It creates a lot of build-up before the trial and when the political fallout fails to appear (at least for that reason) it's sort of like everyone worried for nothing.

The other thing that kind of bothered me was certain really important things happened "off-camera" which I feel really should have been on-screen. Paul's duel with Denver Summervale, for example, as well as some of the political shenanigans that went on in the House of Lords. These events feel really important to the story and influence its development, but we're only told about them second-hand from characters rather than experiencing them ourselves. I'm wondering if Weber was trying to condense the amount of stuff going on in this particular novel by leaving this stuff out, but it feels like a case where you want to shout, "Show! Don't tell!"

As I said, I'm a little worried about Honor's development as a character in this particular novel. Of course, Honor does go through a lot of emotional turmoil in this book, but at the end of the book there's a lovely little speech about how everything Honor did was totally justified and while people may judge her now for her behavior, in the end she'll be proven right. It smacks a little of her being "special" and therefore right because of her specialness. (Which is something that irritated the hell out of me in the Harry Potter books.) I will say that Honor at least accepts the consequences of her actions and I think we all know she's going to be back in command of a starship soon enough. I think the most important development for Honor in this book was the realization that there were people who care about her and want the very best for her. Honor has been a very solitary sort of person in previous books. Yes, she has friends, but she basically relies on her bond with Nimitz to fulfill her emotional needs and sees herself as essentially alone. When Honor sees her friends going to great lengths to help her during her personal crisis and worrying about what will happen to her, she realizes there are plenty of people who care about her and who she can rely upon in trouble. Which I think is really important and will go a long way towards developing Honor beyond the stoic, lonely space captain she's been.

Really, with all that character development for Honor I'm really glad Weber's managed to make Honor interesting again as a character. As I said in my review of The Short Victorious War Honor and her career doesn't seem terribly interesting compared to the larger political and military events which Honor is only a very small part of. By focusing on Honor and letting the large plot take a rest, we get to know Honor a lot better and I think it definitely helped to make her more interesting. I'm certainly interested to see how she develops in her role as Steadholder in Grayson, which promises to be the focus of the next novel.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

This is a book that came out I think a little over a year ago and I had heard overall very positive things about it. Being, of course, a Roosevelt fanboy I was rather interested in more information about Roosevelt and his presidency, and the promise of comparing Taft with his predecessor, especially in their handling of press relations, was very promising. Personally, I think I had very different expectations of this book than what other people had because I was a little disappointed with Goodwin's approach. This book is very heavily biographical, rather than a large-picture view of history (which I am unabashedly in favor of), and there's a lot of focus in comparing and contrasting Taft and Roosevelt's personalities and lives, which definitely shaped public perception of both those gentlemen as president. Roosevelt seems to dominate the work, but this is not terribly surprising considering Roosevelt had an incessant need to be center stage in almost everything that he did. It does make me wish for more information about Taft, though, because he's simply no match personality-wise with Roosevelt. Despite my disappointments I did find this book informative and hope to expand my personal readings about both Taft and Roosevelt in the future.

The book begins by focusing on Taft and Roosevelt biographically, comparing and contrasting their childhoods, education, family lives, and personal ambitions, all which served to shape Roosevelt into the quintessential politician and Taft into the epitome of judicial wisdom. Both Edith Carow and Nellie Herron receive their own chapters to show how these women complimented their husbands and had their own differences in personality as well. Along the way, the book brings in the biography of S.S. McClure, eventual founder of McClure's magazine, a prominent progressive publication in the early years of the twentieth century, as well as briefly talking about the lives of staff members such as Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and William White. In a way, McClure's gets its own biography in the story as well when Goodwin chronicles its inception, zenith, and eventual decline. The result is the personal life stories of several unique individuals that get weaved together and influence each other for a number of very critical years, resulting in landmark legislation like the Pure Food and Drug Act.

I think my biggest disappointment was the fact that McClure's (and then the work of the most prominent staff members of McClure's) was the central focus of Goodwin's analysis of the early twentieth century press. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a tremendous growth in print culture, expanding access to literature and information to a level simply unheard of before. McClure's was one of many, many publications, and definitely not the only muck-raking publication on the market either. Although incredibly prominent, McClure's represents only one part of the entire market of print media. Obviously a complete analysis of the entire printing industry in the early 1900's would be extremely difficult to say the least, but I had hoped for a more in-depth comparison.

What I really appreciated was more information on Roosevelt and his more progressive policies. In Theodore Rex, TR's conservation and water management policies are talked about, but very little to no attention was given to landmark regulations passed under Roosevelt's administration. The Bully Pulpit does do an excellent job in showing how publications like McClure's were influential in shaping public opinion on subjects such as trusts, patent medicines, and railroad regulation, creating political pressure for the largely business-friendly Republican congress to pass such regulatory legislation. In addition, this book shows how Roosevelt is able to capitalize on this public opinion to force through his legislation, although I felt like it didn't do as great a job showing Taft's inability (or unwillingness) to utilize the press for political purposes. From my readings in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, Roosevelt definitely has a strong rapport with the members of the press, realizing its political potential, and you see that in The Bully Pulpit as well. Taft, as Goodwin illuminates, seems to be used to delivering judicial opinions rather than making press conferences and does not have Roosevelt's charisma when it comes to media relations. However, in this book it doesn't feel sufficiently expanded upon, especially because that's the central theme of the book.

I think much of my disappointment stems from this book is more a collection of intertwining biographies rather than a unified historical narrative. It definitely sheds some much-appreciated light on print culture in the early twentieth century as well as the Taft and Roosevelt administrations, but there's much that's left to be desired as well. I'd definitely recommend it as a supplemental book, but I feel it requires a lot of extra knowledge to fill in gaps that are otherwise left from this text.

- Kalpar  

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Force Cantrithor, by Michael McCloskey

This week I'm reviewing an e-book that I picked up quite a while back because of an extensive advertising campaign when it was first released. Seriously, the ads were everywhere I looked on the internet (Hooray google targeted ads!) and when I finally read the summary it definitely looked interesting. So I thought what the heck and added it to my to-be-read list where it sat until I finally downloaded it. I just want to explain why I picked this book up before I go into my review, because it's not great. Don't get me wrong, it's nowhere as bad as certain other books I've read, but it's just not terribly interesting.

This book's summary and cover are what really drew me in. As my readers are no doubt aware, I'm a huge sucker for pulp science-fiction. The overall plot is that humanity is engaged in what is now a decade-long war with the Vothriles, an insectoid predator species. Humanity's greatest defense in this war are emmers like Emil, people capable of manipulating electromagnetic fields and who can cloak Terran warships against Vothrile sensors, break through Vothrile cloaking fields, and in some cases destroy enemy ships with a surge of power. However, a mysterious and highly powerful enemy, known only as Force Cantrithor, has forced these bitter enemies to work together for their own survival. Although the idea of two rivals teaming up against a new threat is as old as the hills, there's at least enough potential with new areas for the story to take its own direction.

My biggest issue with this book was that the plot seemed kind of disjointed throughout the book. Now, as the main character Emil is suffering from hallucinations and has trouble telling what's real or not, this could have been used as a legitimate way to tell the story. However, I feel like this simply doesn't work because Emil is “present” for the entire plot and we never really have reason to believe anything he sees, outside of the dream sequences that are definitely dream sequences, isn't real. As an emmer, Emil has the ability to see everything happening inside the ship he's stationed on, as well as detect a large number of things happening in surrounding space as well. Furthermore, everyone has a chip installed that allows them to access digital information with just their bodies and most meetings occur in cyberspace. Because this is another form of electromagnetic field, it means Emil can eavesdrop on even the most secret of conferences held by the admirals. Heck, Emil can even read people's minds in some cases simply by the electronic fields their nervous systems give off. So I wasn't left feeling like Emil was suffering from information overload or was otherwise losing a grip on reality because of his abilities, it just felt like there were these weird lurches in the plot as it stumbled forwards.

Another issue I had with this book was I really wasn't invested in any of the characters, which left me a little surprised that I managed to get through the entire book. Emil, specifically, doesn't have terribly much in terms of personality going on. He doesn't really have any desires or aspirations beyond just wanting the war to end so everyone will be safe and he won't be under constant strain anymore. I feel like this was intentional on the part of the author to further try and highlight how different Emil was from all the other members of the crew, but it doesn't really work because the rest of the crew are pretty flat as well. Samuelsson, the captain, feels guilty about the lives in the fleet he has to sacrifice for victory, but that's about it. Cain, the executive officer, hates the Vothriles, but that's about it. Lokan, the ship's psychologist, is kind of suspicious, but that's about it. There are only a handful of other characters that are given names and the barest hint of a personality, the rest are really just extras in the story. If the other characters had been better developed then the differences between them and Emil may have been much more pronounced and noticeable, but because they're little more than line drawings Emil's flatness as a character fails to impress itself on the reader.

I think the reason I was able to get through this book was that it was relatively short and not terribly difficult to read. If I had gotten frustrated or angry over it, I may have given up on the project entirely. But quite frankly I think the cardinal sin of this book is that it's boring more than anything else. There was a lot of potential and ideas there, but they just don't get developed. Can the humans trust an enemy that now wants to cooperate? How do we know what's real if virtual reality is a constant part of our world? Is the sacrifice of a few lives worth victory in a war that will save potentially millions? For whatever reason none of these are capitalized upon and the result is a very sleepy read that leaves an impression of “meh”. Perhaps other works from this author will be improved, but you're not missing anything if you pass it by.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

This week I've thought it'd be fitting to return to the realm of Urban Fantasy by looking into the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Some of my readers may recall that I tried reading a very similar series set in my native Cincinnati, however the author's attitude on vampires was not to my liking which lead me to dropping it. I will say that Storm Front had issues of its own, but I'm willing to try at least one more book in this series before I decide whether or not to go forward with the rest of the series.

The Dresden Files, from what little I've learned about them, is a series of books that focuses on Harry Dresden, a professional wizard and paranormal investigator working in Chicago. I will say that this book seems to have a lot of similarities with other Urban Fantasy I've read, (albeit, I haven't read terribly much of that) but they seem to draw heavily upon pulp noir fiction for inspiration. Which I find a little curious because when I think about it, fantasy and pulp detective mystery don't seem to be two things that go together naturally, but the results always seem to be rather entertaining. And it's definitely an excellent change of pace from the swords and sorcery high fantasy that seems to dominate the fantasy section at the book store.

Harry Dresden is your typical pulp detective: short on cash, constantly behind on his rent, a bitter man who sometimes gets called in to help with a case the police can't quite puzzle out. The main difference, of course, is that Dresden is a full-blown wizard with a staff, magic charms, leather books, the full works. In this book the Chicago police call Harry in to investigate a gruesome murder that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Dresden and his contact on the force, Detective Murphy, suspect that magic was involved, but of course her skeptical partner thinks Dresden's little more than a charlatan. To top this off, Dresden gets asked by an extremely worried woman to find her husband, who's been dabbling in magic. Soon enough it turns out that there's much more going on here than meets the eye, and some people think Dresden may be to blame.

I will say that compared to the Hollows series (which is really, really similar) Butcher sort of explains some things about how his universe works, but there is quite a lot that is left unexplained as well. I got the impression that magic is still largely hidden in this universe, opposed to being out in the open like it is in the Hollows, but I get the feeling Dresden's going to have to explain more about magic to muggles like Murphy and the reader as his activities become far less clandestine. Especially central ideas like the Laws of Magic or the Nevernever. I've of course got a vague idea as I'm more than passingly familiar with fantasy, but I'd appreciate a much more detailed explanation. Furthermore there are a lot of oblique references to Dresden's past, including actions which resulted in a death mark on his head, but we're really only given the general details. I really hope that later books will do a better job at expanding and better explaining Butcher's universe. But that remains to be seen. The Hollows was at least better at explaining how the universe worked and how it was different from our own.

The thing which I liked the most about this book was I think the much more intelligent take on vampires in this series. Of course this may be my inner paladin coming out against creatures of the night, but I'm always annoyed by literature that treats vampires as misunderstood bad boys rather than dangerous blood-sucking monsters. (The exception for me is Discworld, where vampires can transfer their addiction to blood to other things like photography or coffee.)  Butcher at least shows that there's something fundamentally wrong and perhaps evil with vampires, which I greatly appreciated.

I will say that the book shows potential, despite being rough around the edges. I will say that Dresden seems to get a few lucky breaks, rather than figuring everything out himself. And that was one thing that really frustrated me with the Hollows because Rachel was really not good at her job and tended to fly off the handle and had to rely on other people to solve her biggest problems for her. Dresden does, by contrast, go into situations rather prepared and with something approaching a plan. When the going gets tough, Dresden seems to get by through a combination of quick thinking and good luck. Hopefully he'll get better as the books proceed.

I would say this book in particular isn't anything to write home about. It's okay, but it's nothing spectacular. Granted, there are plenty of series that start off pretty rough and get better, including my all-time favorite of Discworld. I do plan on reading more of this series and seeing where it goes from here.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 23, 2014

To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo, by Peter Snow

This week I've returned to the Napoleonic wars and the campaigns of Wellington, although without my friend Richard Sharpe. In this case I've decided to read a historical text by Peter Snow that follows Wellington's development as a commander from the start of the Peninsular campaign to Waterloo, as well as talking about army life. When I picked up this book I was less interested in Wellington than I was in information about life in his army. For whatever reason my historical tastes tend to run less towards biographies and more towards the larger picture. Plus, additional information on day-to-day life is always helpful for historical interpretation at museums and historic sites. Overall this book is an okay introduction, but just that, an introduction.

This book is very much a condensed biography of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, beginning with his military training and eventual appointment to India with the assistance of his older brother as his patron. The book begins properly with Wellington landing in Portugal in 1807 to assist the Portuguese and Spanish resistance against French rule, as well as bleed men and resources from Napoleon's campaigns in Central Europe. The book is very unstinting in its praise of Wellington, being very quick to dismiss Wellington's personal flaws such as his arrogance, aloofness, and disdain for the lower classes. Snow emphasizes that in several key battles Wellington refused to tell his plans to any subordinates ahead of time, leaving no structure in place should he be wounded or killed. It is perhaps the fact that Wellington lived a charmed life and avoided injury when so many of his staff officers and aides were killed or wounded that saved Wellington's army from a disastrous defeat due to a loss of leadership. Even Wellington's notorious and unabashed womanizing is winked at, and while this has nothing to do with his qualities as a general it certainly doesn't put him, in my eyes, in a flattering light.

To his credit, Snow relies extensively on primary sources for his works, drawing upon the diaries, letters, and dispatches of people involved in Wellington's campaigns. As Snow himself admits, some are written decades after the fact when memories are more fuzzy, but many are first-hand accounts written as their authors trudged through Flanders, Portugal, and Spain. It's always nice to see primary sources utilized to such a degree, and Snow even calls Wellington out in the few instances where he tries to pin his failures on others. What I found most interesting was the accounts of army life during the time period, talking about the daily drudgery and discipline which so often breaks down in an orgy of violence and plunder upon the successful completion of a siege. Wellington's apparent indifference to his troops depravities is rather striking considering his reputation of enforcing respect of private property, if nothing else than to prevent the civilian population from hating the English as well!

In that same vein, a lot of emphasis is laid upon Wellington's attention to supply, being determined to keep his army well-fed and well-supplied so that they would not be required to requisition or outright steal food and other items from the civilian population. However there are quite a few accounts of severe starvation suffered by Wellington's troops, including accounts of hunting acorns so they could be ground into an edible paste. A well-supplied army should not need to resort to such measures, which begs the question what has driven them to such a need? Snow briefly mentions Wellington may not have been aware that such things were happening, but if it was as wide-spread as the accounts claim it to be it seems his army faced severe food shortages during some winters. I'm sure there is a good rational explanation for this discrepancy, perhaps several good reasons, but there just seems to be a lack of research there in particular within this work.

The impression I'm left with is this book is rather light reading, especially compared to other historical works. Considering entire books have been written about Waterloo, (I even read one!) Snow's book comes across as a highlight of important events over eight years rather than an in-depth discussion. For people unfamiliar with the Napoleonic Wars it's a good introduction, but it definitely lacks a lot of substance that I've gotten used to in my historical readings. (Sorry! Trained historian!) If you want to learn about the Peninsula Wars this is a good start, but you shouldn't end here.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Hell Hath No Fury, by David Weber and Linda Evans

I'm going to say this straight up, I should not have started with this novel. When I picked this book up at the used book store, I was under the impression it was sort of a stand alone work, rather than part of a series. I did notice on the back cover a “Praise for the Prequel” section, but I assumed that this book had come first so I could safely start there. This sadly is not the case, and I should have stuck with the familiar maxim, “Covers always lie.” As a result I have kind of a disjointed view of this book because I started right in the middle of a larger series. In the spirit of fairness I will not complain about being utterly confused or having to slog through the attached glossary to figure out what the characters were talking about at certain points in this book. That's entirely my own fault for jumping in the middle, but take it from me, you should start with Hell's Gate before continuing to Hell Hath No Fury.

I initially picked up this book because of the authors. Linda Evans and David Weber have become favorites of mine, especially after their work with one of my all-time favorites, the Bolo series. Although I haven't yet read much outside of the Dinochrome Brigade with Evans I plan to read more of her work thanks to Baen's library of e-books, and of course Weber's Honor Harrington series has become another favorite series of mine. So I was rather excited to read another team-up work from these two excellent science-fiction authors. Especially because of the pretty awesome premise. Essentially there is a series of parallel earths, all identical, but only a handful are inhabited. One, known as Arcana, is home to magic-wielding wizards, kings, unicorns, and dragons. Another known as Sharona is home to people with telepathic powers and a technological level similar to our own in the early 1900's. The Sharonans are described by some people as steampunk, but I'm not so sure about that particular nomenclature as none of their technology seems to have the wonder and sheer improbability of what I define as steampunk, but I may just be splitting hairs. Point is dragons and wizards are getting pitted against steam trains and machine guns, what's not to love?

More specifically over the years both Arcana and Sharona have explored what they call chains of universes, linked by portals, and have colonized quite a few. Eventually both sides have discovered what's referred to as Hell's Gate, a universe containing a junction of portals, permitting access all across the multiverse, and through a miscommunication have come to blows over Hell's Gate. The Sharonans at the start are currently in command of the portal nexus, but the Arcanans have agreed to diplomatic talks to try and prevent further bloodshed. Unfortunately there are many, many plots in motion which mean warfare is going to be inevitable, but that's what we signed up for, isn't it?

I will say that I personally saw a bit of difference between the two sides, although this has been described as a gray-on-gray morality setting. I will admit that there are bad guys who are Sharonans and good guys who are Arcanans, but it seems to be that the majority of Arcanans aren't very good people, while the majority of Sharonans are rather noble. Maybe it's better articulated in the first book, I simply don't know. As for their powers, I personally didn't see much of a difference to be honest. The Arcanans have Gifts while the Sharonans have Talents, the difference being that Talents are more common but less powerful than Gifts. Granted Talents seem to be entirely mental abilities while Gifts let you work standard fantasy magic, but they both seem to just...exist. Although when David starts going into a stream of technobabble I tend to just tell myself, “It works because magic.” and don't let myself get bogged down in the details.

The biggest frustration with this book is, as it's part of the middle, it ends on a cliffhanger. As a matter of fact, it even ends in mid-conversation, which resulted for me in a, “That's it?” I did do a little research and found out that unfortunately Linda Evans has suffered a number of health problems recently which has prevented her from writing and has delayed work on this series. David Weber is currently working to get another author involved, but it seems it will be some time before the planned other two books of this series are completed. Hopefully things can get back on track soon and I wish Linda Evans all the best.

If you're as interested in fantasy vs. technology stories as I am, this one is a pretty good choice, but I'd recommend starting with Hell's Gate like I should have done. As is typical for Weber, there are plenty of characters and plot threads, some of which aren't resolved in this book and one of which disappears off the face of the earth. Hopefully they'll get tied up in the later books, but it looks like we're going to have to wait for a while. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick

For whatever reason I've decided to take another stab at Philip K. Dick and his highly influential science-fiction literature. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is another one of Dick's full-length novels, fairly short in length, but because of his writing style you don't feel like a single page was wasted and this book probably could have been developed much further into a longer work. It's very interesting and there are a couple of very insightful passages into human nature within this book, specifically dealing with love and grief, but everything gets tossed into a large jumble with a ton of drugs going on as well. Hoo boy did Philip K. Dick like his drugs.

As I said in my reviews of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Minority Report, it seems that Dick is much better at writing short stories rather than full-length novels. When he's working on a short story there's an arbitrary stopping point that forces Dick to be extremely tight in his focus and stay on whatever his main topic is about. In full-length novels, by contrast, Dick has much more space to work with and so sometimes dozens of ideas just sort of pop up, announce themselves, then scurry into the background with you saying, “Wait! You were interesting! I want to see you developed!”

The main plot in Flow My Tears is that television personality and famous singer Jason Taverner wakes up one day to discover he is in a world where no one knows he exists. No one he talks to has seen his weekly TV variety show, or heard one of his albums. To further complicate things there's no record that Jason Taverner exists at all: no birth certificate, no driver's license, no documented proof anywhere that he exists. In a world firmly under the heel of a police state where no identification means instant incarceration in a forced labor camp, Jason Taverner is in a very, very bad position.

Alone, this plot is pretty fantastic and could easily make its own novel, or in the case of Dick he could make a really fantastic short story out of this premise. Unfortunately, as I said, because this is a full-length novel, Dick's able to wander off and introduce a bunch of ideas that never really go anywhere. For example, Taverner is a six, one of a handful of people the result of genetic experimentation that produced human beings superior in almost every respect. Despite this being an aspect of Taverner's character which is mentioned repeatedly, it plays a very small role on the story overall.

Another really interesting idea is that to help solve the race problem a ton of legislation has been passed, more or less protecting blacks as a sort of endangered species. However, legislation has also been passed which requires blacks to be sterilized after the birth of their first child, dooming them to eventual extinction. Writing as he was in the seventies, a period of great racial tension, this idea could have been a very interesting reflection on the racial ideology of the day. However, it's just sort of mentioned and then the story moves on.

A final idea that Dick talks about, and believe me there are plenty, is the fact that in this particular world, many of the university campuses in at least the United States have been walled off from the rest of the world, surrounded by the police and the national guard who are heavily armed and informed to shoot anyone who tries to escape. We're never told why the campuses have been placed into a state of siege, what horrible political protest (for that's what I'm assuming happened) allowed the situation to balloon to such proportions. In the novel's epilogue we're told that the universities eventually surrender and the students disappear into the forced labor camps, but we never encounter any students or go to any university campus so it's an interesting idea that ultimately goes nowhere.

I definitely think that in the future I'm probably going to stick more to Dick's short stories rather than his novels. It seems to me that his short stories work out much better because they're not able to just go all over the place. I probably will explore some of his novels again, but they're definitely very different fare from most reading.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Bolos Book Six: Cold Steel, created by Keith Laumer

Once again the mighty Bolos shall grace the pages of Kalpar's Arsenal in the last of the numbered installments in the series, Cold Steel. (There are several other books about the Bolos which I fully intend to read but for whatever reason Baen Books decided to drop the numbering convention.) This is what seems to be another in-between book in the series and its overall development. As I mentioned in the last book, the short stories all focused on one particular war that was fairly limited in scope, as well as the Bolos efforts in defending humanity from this new threat. Cold Steel once again focuses on just one planet, in this case Thule, and has only two stories. The second one, “Though Hell Should Bar the Way”, by Linda Evans, is long enough to be its own novel and leaves me rather optimistic about the later books.

Cold Steel, as I mentioned, focuses on the world of Thule, a planet with an extremely harsh winter, intense volcanic activity, and innumerable asteroids and meteors making interstellar travel a massive headache to say the least. It would have been entirely ignored by humanity except for an incredibly rich supply of saganium, a material component of the new duralloy which makes up Bolo warhulls. This has made Thule a priority mining operation of immense strategic significance and human colonies are quickly established. However, the preliminary survey did not reveal the existence of a native intelligent species, the Tersae, who become rather violent when humans show up on their planet.

Overall the writing is enjoyable pulp Bolo action. If you've enjoyed the series so far you'll enjoy this, no doubt about it. However, among all the awesome pulp action which the Bolo series is fueled by, there are some really uncomfortable questions that get raised. First off, there is of course the imperialism parallel where a more technologically advanced culture arrives at a “barren” location to obtain natural resources, only to find themselves in conflict with locals who are rather unhappy with all these strange people on their land. This is side-stepped when it turns out the Tersae were created by and are receiving orders from “Ones Above”, so the conflict is a proxy war between two powers and the Tersae are just tools. Which actually makes it much worse come to think of it.

Another important question that gets raised is are the humans really any better? The Tersae are a genetic experiment that are thrown into a war by their creators, expected to die on their behalf. Are the humans really all that better with their Bolos? An intelligent, self-aware, self-directing species that exists merely to fight and die or become obsolete and replaced? I feel like Evans was aware she kind of painted herself into a corner with that question and gets out with an argument that kind of boils down to:“Humans good, aliens bad.” I feel we could really only ask the Bolos their opinion, but that may not be legitimate either since Bolos are fundamentally hardwired to protect their human creators. It just results in an uncomfortable question with no real answer. And it's fine if there was no real answer, plenty of science fiction has gone that way, Twilight Zone included, but we're given a quick and easy answer so we can feel better and get back to the pulp action.

At the end of the day, the Bolo series has largely had, “Whee! Giant robot tanks!” as its premise. And as pulp-action, giant robot tank space battles fluff it works. And when the books start to introduce more complicated ideas into the giant robot tank space battles it works as well. And I think that's a credit to the writers, but in this particular instance it just didn't work out. The questions they raised don't have easy answers and it feels disingenuous to both the series and the reader to just say, “Humans aren't monsters” and go about business as usual. At least, that's how I feel about it.

I choose to see this as a developmental period in the Bolo series, moving from the shorter stories toward longer narratives that also try to incorporate more complex ideas beyond pulp action awesome. Don't get me wrong, I love my pulp, but when it can be sophisticated as well? Wins all around. Hopefully the other books, in the hands of such capable authors as David Weber, will build upon the Bolo's noble legacy.


P.S. I've been trying to find more books by Linda Evans as well. I really like her work with the Bolos and I want to read more, but I haven't had much luck finding any. If anybody knows any good books by her please post them in the comments! Thank you!