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!