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