Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher

As I'm sure you all remember, exactly a year ago yesterday, in a tremendous, final ''Fuck you!'' to all of us, the dumpster fire of 2016 took Carrie Fisher from us. It was a final gut-punch to many people, especially the Star Wars fans big and small across the world. The Princess Diarist as a result was the last book Fisher ever published, (at least, none have been published posthumously yet), and I felt that making this book the last review of 2017 would be a fitting tribute to a woman who inspired millions of people.

While filming Star Wars in 1976 for about three months in London, the then barely nineteen year old Carrie Fisher kept a series of diaries recording her emotions and experiences both on and off the set, as well as her affair with costar Harrison Ford. Forty years later Carrie discovered these diaries in a box of old belongings and went through them and decided to publish excerpts, as well as extensive commentary from Fisher looking at the affair forty years later with the benefits of perspective. However, the book does not talk mostly about her experiences filming Star Wars, her first major role and what would become the biggest role ever in her career. Fisher provides some background material such as her own childhood and how she managed to land the part, but the book focuses mostly on her affair with Harrison Ford, and later her emotional relationships with her fans. At times explicit but also intimate, The Princess Diarist provides a look into the mind of a young girl who took a step into a larger world.

Some people have described this book as cringe-worthy regarding the amount of detail that Fisher went into. And while there were parts that I cringed at, it was more out of sympathy for a young Carrie Fisher about to die from embarrassment than from any sordid details. Frankly as far as I'm concerned, the fact that Fisher and Ford had an affair is hardly surprising. Certainly not the most ethical decision considering Ford was married with two children at the time, but I'm hardly one to throw stones when it comes to monogamy and the matter's been over and done with for forty years. It was a young girl who had no idea what she was looking for and an older man who probably should have known better, but to castigate them for a lapse in judgment is hardly worth the effort.

I think what's more important out of this book, than any shocking (or perhaps not so shocking) revelations about who was involved with whom, is the window into the mind of nineteen year old Carrie Fisher. We see a girl trying to be a woman who is troubled, who has had a life filled with emotional turmoil. A girl who wanted to avoid show business because she saw what it had done to her parents, but who had also dropped out of high school and was faced with the possibility that she was unsuited for any work but show business. Although Fisher does not talk about her struggle with bipolar explicitly in this book but you can see elements of that in her recollections and in the excerpts from her diaries. And the issues with drug abuse can be seen starting to creep into her life, but again are not really focused upon.

I think what I like most about this book was how vulnerable Fisher was willing to be with the world. She could have very easily burned the diaries, or hidden them away where they wouldn't be found, or just put them back in the box and forgotten about them again. She certainly didn't have to write a book about it. And while people might say it was cynically a cash grab with another tell-all memoir (the fact that she describes her convention appearances as lapdances certainly doesn't help), I prefer to take a kinder view. Fisher was willing to share with us an emotional time in her life when she was vulnerable and, really like the rest of us, had no idea what the heck she wanted to do with her life. And personally I think that's encouraging. Just knowing there are other people, people like Carrie who were catapulted to stardom by the age of twenty, who still were making it up as they went along, just like the rest of us. Maybe that's a tad too much of a ''they're just like normal people'' argument, but I still find it encouraging.

This book is complex and raunchy, going both high and low and everywhere in between. Maybe Fisher overshared, but I don't feel that she did. It was her story and I'd rather hear it coming from her than from anybody else. And if a sixty-year old woman wants to share the details of her life forty years ago, that's her prerogative. Ultimately I think this is a book you have to read for yourself, but if you felt some connection to our princess I think this book has something for you.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury

Today I'm looking at a full-length novel by Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes. After listening to The Martian Chronicles and remembering how good Fahrenheit 451 was, I decided finding something else by Bradbury was worth listening to. This book follows the adventures of two boys, James Nightshade and William Halloway, neighbors who were born a mere two minutes apart. Will was born a minute to midnight on October 30th and Jim was born a minute after midnight on October 31st, and the boys have been an inseparable team since then. Naturally when a carnival arrives well out of the normal season a mere week before Halloween in their Illinois town, Jim and Will decide to investigate. However, something far more sinister than poorly maintained rides and rigged games is going on at this carnival and Jim and Will have to rely on each other and Will's dad, Charles Halloway, to survive.

There is a lot going on in this book and while personally I really, really liked this book I'm willing to admit it feels a bit rough around the edges. I think the biggest redeeming quality is Bradbury's writing which I think is particularly excellent in this book and manages to keep the story interesting despite him trying to shoehorn multiple things into the book and not really getting to develop all of them. It feels kind of like a Phillip K. Dick novel where he had a ton of ideas and wanted to include them all in the book, but didn't really have the time to develop any of them to their full potential. Of course, this being Bradbury the book feels a lot more put-together than some of Dick's amphetamine-fueled writings, but there are still issues.

Probably the biggest plotline in the book is the topic of aging, which comes across in both subtle and incredibly direct ways through the book. Will and Jim are almost fourteen, leaving childhood but still not quite on the brink of manhood in that frustrating stage of adolescence. We definitely get a sense of that with the ''theater'' that Jim and Will visit, the bedroom window of a house in town where it's all but explicitly stated the boys can view people having sex. Jim finds the theater appealing while it makes Will uncomfortable, which further matches the boys' personalities. Jim is eager to grow older and fully jump into manhood, while Will isn't sure he's ready for that yet. However both boys are aware the best parts of their futures are ahead of them.

This is in direct contrast to Charles Halloway, who's already fifty-four years old. Charles didn't marry until thirty-nine so he feels incredibly old compared to his wife and especially to his son. Charles is still active and healthy, he's not a dottering old man, but the age gap between him and his son feels all the more extreme. An additional side effect of this is Charles has never felt particularly close to his son, because he feels so distantly removed from when he was a boy himself. When the boys find out a carousel at the carnival is capable of altering a person's age the possibilities are tempting not only for them, but for Charles and other people in town as well.

The other main plotline is the sinister elements of the carnival itself, how it feeds on people and twists their hopes and aspirations into empty promises and choices they regret. I feel like this plotline wasn't as well developed and part of that simply was because we don't really see the motivations of the carnival proprietors. I felt a distinct contrast with Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, which contains another evil carnival. In this case we know Cabal's goal is to get a hundred souls by the end of a year in exchange for his own, so we know why the carnival is evil. But in Something Wicked This Way Comes, it's more there's something not quite right about this carnival therefore it is evil. I think Bradbury was trying to develop a deep and complex moral philosophical argument in this book but the opportunity wasn't utilized to its full potential. There is an explanation for the motivations of the carnival shysters but it feels rather vague and nebulous. I honestly feel like Bradbury could have done either the aging plotline or the good vs. evil plotline, but attempting to do both results in both of them being kind of muddied.

And yet, in spite of all this I thought of this book as really good. I don't know if I can quantify it to specific things. Part of it is Bradbury's writing, which manages to create tension throughout the novel and made me interested in what was going to happen next. Part of it is the connection between Will and Charles, a father and son finally getting to bond in spite of the years separating them, which I felt was rather well done. As much of a mess as this book was, I found myself not minding it so much as other books and I'm finding it incredibly difficult to put it into words.

Simply put, I liked this book. It's sinister, it's creepy, it's funny, it's heartwarming, at the end it runs a whole gamut of human emotions. It's a mess, but in some ways it's a good mess. Maybe it just hit me the right way at the right time and I'll always have a fondness for this book as a result. But I definitely think it's worth taking the time to check out on your own.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Scar, by China Mieville

Today I'm looking at another book by China Mieville, The Scar, which is set in the same universe as Perdido Street Station but focuses on events outside the city of New Crobuzon. Specifically the book follows linguist Bellis Coldwine, a former lover of Grimnebulin from the last book who is now wanted by New Crobuzon's Militia for questioning. Bellis decides it would be an extremely wise decision for her to flee to a distant colony halfway around the globe for a few years until the Militia's interest wears off. However the ship she's travelling on, containing a significant number of criminal transportees, gets attacked by pirates and brought back to the floating pirate city of Armada as press-ganged who are never allowed to leave. It looks like Bellis will spend the rest of her life in exile on Armada, but very soon she discovers that the leaders known only as the Lovers have extensive plans for Armada, which she can only begin to guess at.

As I mentioned in my review of Perdido Street Station, there was a lot of Mieville's writing style that just didn't work for me in that book, and unfortunately this seems to remain true. I suspect this is partly because of the narrator, Gildart Jackson; I found his reading of the book to have a downright soporific effect on me making the book that much more difficult to get through. However, Mieville's incredibly Dickens-like writing probably doesn't help much on that score either. I felt like the plot meandered through the book, mostly because our perspective characters had no idea what was truly going on, and at one point we have two connected plots running at once. The result for me was this book felt really bloated and it could have used some editing to make the pace a little more enjoyable.

Obviously there are people who think otherwise, and to Mieville's credit he works on creating an extremely complex world. The problem is I don't know if his bouts of exposition always help develop the plot of the book. I definitely got the feeling that we had long, almost tedious explanations of things that were mostly to show off how neat his world was without advancing the story at all. So personally I think that's a bit of a flaw in his writing, but there are people who greatly enjoy this sort of thing so they probably liked it a lot better than me.

Honestly that's really my big criticism of the book, it's long, it meanders, and as a result it feels boring to me. I think I truly enjoy something with a more direct pace and manages to get to the plot. The world truly is interesting and has a lot of potential, but Mieville's style just fails to grab my interest. If you like the slower, pokier type of book then you might enjoy this, but it certainly takes its time getting to where it's going.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Edward III: The Perfect King, by Ian Mortimer

Today I'm looking at a biography of Edward III, a king who definitely influenced English society for many years after his death and to some extent today, but is usually overlooked in popular histories of the English monarchy. Just looking on Goodreads it looks like Mortimer has done a lot of writing about this time period and he has very good credentials. I bring this up because Mortimer makes a very, very bold claim in this book which contradicts most of conventional history for the past six hundred years. On the one hand, I don't want to be reactionary and dismiss Mortimer's arguments simply because they don't fit established dogma. But on the other hand, I feel like Mortimer's argument isn't completely proof against criticism. Unfortunately I simply don't know enough about Edward III to determine whether these facts are correct.

For the sake of simplicity I shall refer to the author as Mortimer through this review while Roger Mortimer will be referred to as Roger.

The main issue with this book is Mortimer's assertion that Edward II did not die in 1327, which has been generally accepted as true for the past six hundred years. Mortimer asserts that Edward II actually lived in exile for at least another decade, finally dying possibly sometime in the early 1340's. Mortimer draws extensively on the Fieschi Letter, a document from about 1337 written by a papal notary to Edward III explaining the whereabouts of Edward II for the past decade and where he was currently. The letter claims that Edward II escaped his captors, managed to make his way to Ireland, and then eventually France where he traveled as a pilgrim, visited the pope in Avignon, and eventually headed to Italy where he lived as a recluse. Mortimer argues that instead of escaping Edward II's jailers released Edward and, realizing he could never gain the political capital necessary to take back the throne, spent the rest of his life in exile.

I did some digging on my own and I did find that the Fieschi Letter is considered to be genuine, that is it is from the fourteenth century and probably written by Fieschi. The debate largely centers around whether the facts argued in the letter are true. Personally I find a couple of things with this argument that don't make a lot of sense. First is Mortimer's assertion that Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella let Edward II flee England. While I could understand Isabella not wanting to off her husband, I'm not sure why Roger would be willing to let Edward disappear. Through his actions it definitely looks like Roger was set to supplant Edward III as king given the right opportunity and establish his own dynasty. Having previous monarchs around alive is usually problematic for a usurper because rebellions can rally around the deposed monarch and the cause to reestablish them on the throne. Edward II, as unpopular as he was, would simply be too dangerous to Roger alive and his political position would be much more secure with Edward II safely (and very publicly) dead.

Another problem is Mortimer's assertion that Roger used the knowledge that Edward II was still alive after 1327 to blackmail Edward III. Mortimer supports this with the Earl of Kent's rebellion in 1330 on rumors that his half-brother Edward II was still alive, followed by Kent's capture and execution at the behest of Roger. Mortimer argues that Roger used the fact Edward II was still alive as a threat to Edward III with the son potentially being replaced by the father. Personally, I don't think this makes terribly much sense. I think it would be all too easy for Edward III to reveal that Roger had lied to him, the king, and put Roger in an untenable position. Roger had already gone through the effort of having Edward II effectively deposed by Parliament and put into prison so the underage Edward III could take over with Roger as regent. If Roger wanted to exert control on the young Edward III, I think he could have just as easily used the threat of deposition and death on Edward III. Roger's done it to one king already, why should he have scruples about doing it to another?

I'm just not sure if Mortimer makes enough of an argument for Edward II living past 1327 for it to be fully convincing. It's certainly within the realm of possibility, but Mortimer just doesn't seem to have enough evidence. Plus, the fact that he gets incredibly defensive about his hypothesis in his writing and makes some disparaging remarks about the historical ''establishment'' doesn't help his case at all.

Understandably, this major departure from what we know about Edward III, as well as lack of evidence, does make me doubt the veracity of the rest of his book. What I know about Edward III mostly comes from David Starkey and his student Dan Jones. Quite a bit of what Mortimer described matches up with what Starkey and Jones covered, so I want to tentatively say that otherwise this is a pretty good biography but I simply don't know enough about Edward III to say definitively one way or the other. Plus, the incomplete and inaccurate nature of documentation from the time means there are going to be confusions and inaccuracies

I think if you're looking for an in-depth biography on Edward III, this is definitely worth your time to read, although you might need some context. I know I had to look up what exactly the wool subsidy was as it related to taxation. The biggest issue really is the Edward II hypothesis and I've already gone into that into detail.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Diamond Conspiracy, by Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris

Today I'm looking at the fourth book in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, The Diamond Conspiracy. I think the biggest issue I had was I let there be a considerable gap between the time I listened to the last book, Dawn's Early Light, and this one because I had forgotten a few details and found myself struggling to catch up with plot points. I'm mentioning this now because it's not really a critique of the book more than a failing on my part. However, this series in general has left me feeling ambivalent at times or just not really sure what to think about the series.

The Diamond Conspiracy begins with Wellington Books and Eliza Braun heading back home to England after foiling an evil plan of Thomas Edison in America. On the way back, though, Books and Braun discover that the Ministry has been disavowed by Queen Victoria and her government and a rival organization, the Department of Imperial Inconveniences, has been sent to eliminate all Ministry agents. Worst of all it appears the Maestro, the alter-ego of the Duke of Sussex, is entering the endgame of his master plan which will come to fruition at Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Books, Braun, and the other survivors of the Ministry will have to team up, on the run and with limited resources, to rescue the queen and the Empire.

Overall I though the plot had some promising points. The agents being disavowed and fighting their own government is an interesting plotline. If nothing else it gets our agents out of London and relying on their own resources rather than the Ministry's. I do felt like this book was maybe, maybe just a little too long. I think Ballentine and Morris did enough groundwork that you could fully guess where the last quarter or so of the book was going to go, and their detours and explorations just dragged out the conclusion further than necessary. I kept finding myself thinking, ''Dang, is there still more of this book?'' So I think there was a little bloat, yes, but it doesn't really get noticeable until the end.

I think the biggest issue I had was the introduction of preexisting characters, both historical and fictional, into the story at this point in the series. Having Queen Victoria be in the series makes perfect sense. She is the queen, and the Ministry is a government agency that reports to her, so she's going to show up. And I didn't mind Thomas Edison showing up as a villain in the last book. He definitely seems like the sort of person who would collaborate with a shadowy organization like the House of Usher to build superweapons. Also Edison's a jerk. So it makes sense.

No, the issue I have is the introduction of other people who I didn't think made the plot better. For example, H.H. Holmes, the notorious serial killer, gets a cameo as an operative of the House of Usher. Basically he shows up, is creepy, and then leaves. Maybe he'll show up in later books and have more of a role, but it just felt gratuitous to me. The authors also introduce H.G. Wells which makes the universe feel a lot smaller than it was and it doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense to me why he'd keep going by a different alias every decade. And then there's the introduction of John Carter (of Mars) who really exists just to supply a War of the Worlds style Martian Walker for the final epic showdown between the Ministry and the Maestro and his forces. And while a battle between a Martian tripod and steampunk battle mechs would in theory be really awesome, by the time the book got to the battle I was so bored I just wanted it to be over, which was a real shame.

So I'm left not sure what to think about this book. On the one hand, there are interesting concepts and cool secret agent adventures. On the other hand, the book does feel like it could be trimmed down and I'm not sure how much I like the references to other works by the inclusion of other characters. (And it's definitely possible there are other references in the other books that I just missed.) The result is I feel like this book is okay, but definitely not among the best things I've ever read.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Catalyst, by James Luceno

Today I'm looking at a book called Catalyst set within the new Star Wars universe after the reboot/realignment/whathaveyou after the Disney purchase of the franchise. Catalyst takes place over several years, starting during the Clone Wars and ending sometime before Rogue One begins. The book is mostly about Jyn Erso's parents, Lyra and Galen, as well as Orson Krennic. (The guy with the white uniform in Rogue One if you weren't sure.) As you might also guess from the cover, the book has a lot to do with the Death Star project and Galen Erso's initially unknowing cooperation in the development of the Death Star's planet-killing superlaser.

The book begins with the Ersos being on a remote planet of the galaxy involved in research of kyber crystals, the crystals used in lightsabers, and their incredible energy potential. Unfortunately for them, the Clone Wars results in a shift of planetary government and Galen finds himself imprisoned on suspicion of being a Republic spy. Fortunately Krennic, an old school friend of Galen's and involved in the highly secret Republic superweapon project, puts together a rescue team. However this proves to be a mixed blessing because Krennic's real motivations for helping the Ersos is to get Galen, even somewhat indirectly, to start working on crystal technology that can be applied to the superweapon.

My overall opinion of the book is it was okay, but not really worth the effort of reading or listening to. It has that major problem of prequels in that we know the main characters are going to survive to the point where they started in Rogue One so there's not a lot of tension for bad things happening. Despite all the setbacks Krennic suffers, we know he's going to survive to be an antagonist in Rogue One with CGI Tarkin. Despite the horrible discoveries into Imperial plans the Ersos make, we know they're going to make it to their farm. As I've said before, a good prequel manages to make you doubt how it's going to end, even though you already know the ending, and I think that was the biggest strength of Rogue One. Even knowing that the Death Star plans were going to get to Leia by the end of the movie, I still wasn't certain that Jyn and Cassian would get the message through in time. Catalyst just lacks that same tension which makes it a bad prequel.

Another big issue I had was this book started raising some serious questions about the Death Star. I know that it's kind of silly for me to say the Death Star is unrealistic. I mean, it's a giant moon-sized space station capable of destroying a planet, as well as travelling through hyperspace. It's inherently a ridiculous notion. The problem I have is how under wraps the entire project manages to be successfully kept secret for two decades. Sometime during the Clone Wars the Republic actually begins construction of the Death Star, called the Ultimate Weapon. In the book it's implied that a whole government committee is involved in overseeing the project and getting regular status updates on it as well. And there are two things government committees spawn, regardless of the universe they're in: paperwork and more committees. I don't think Luceno exactly states how many people are involved in these committees but I got the impression it was fairly large, which would make it nearly impossible to keep everyone from talking about it.

And then there are the sheer number of resources involved as well. The Empire is literally stripping planets bare to come up with the resources to build the Death Star, along with their Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, AT-ATs, and who knows what else. In the book it's stated that all the Death Star resources get hidden in the huge ledgers of materials the Empire is using, but considering the Death Star's being built at Geonosis and there are no major shipyards or other factories there, you'd think people would start wondering. I could see the Death Star being built and kept secret over a period of three or five years. That makes sense to me. But two decades stretches my suspension of disbelief, even for Star Wars.

We also sort of get the religious elements of kyber crystals, and yet not really. We do see Lyra being a Force...devotee I guess? Like she believes in the Force as a religion but I got the impression she wasn't actually Force-sensitive. Space magic is weird. And it's mentioned that other people worship the kyber crystals as well sort of like what we saw on Jedha in Rogue One. But aside from sort of a vague explanation that the crystals are magic, we don't really know why people hold them to be sacred. I kind of wish there had been more of an explanation for this because it still seems really odd to me.

We also get an environmental message in the book through Galen Erso's quest to find ''sustainable energy'' from kyber crystals, and seeing how the Empire is strip-mining Legacy Worlds to build its Death Star, basically the equivalent of strip-mining a national park. The sustainable energy bit doesn't make a lot of sense to me because it's already established that the Star Wars universe has fusion power, currently something of a holy grail in the sustainable energy. So if you have fusion reactors, why the heck do you need more sustainable energy? Are you running out of hydrogen? It just raises too many questions. Second, the Empire strip-mining nature reserves is played for shock value when honestly that's one of the less evil things they've done. Don't get me wrong, it's bad, but corporations would do the same thing if there was money in it. Considering the Empire enslaves people and destroyed Alderaan, I think we've firmly established that the Empire are the bad guys. Seriously, remember Alderaan? And how they blew it up? And were going to blow up any other planets that resisted them? They're evil! Of course they strip-mine planets! They probably kick puppies too.

The result is a book that it honestly doesn't feel worth the effort of reading. If I really, really want to know how the Death Star was constructed, I could probably just look it up on Wookiepedia, and get several different versions of the story. The Ersos and Krennic don't feel very well developed as characters so I found it difficult to care about what happens to them before Rogue One. Add some issues like the heavy-handed but out of place environmentalism and it just makes the book feel worse. I think I can honestly say you're not missing a whole heck of a lot by skipping this book.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

Today I finally come to the (as of writing) end of the Dresden Files series with the novel Skin Game. I actually liked this book quite a bit and I think part of it was it went a little outside the rut that I'd felt the series had fallen into. There's some big world-ending emergency and Harry has to go save the world, which we've been seeing a lot in the series lately. In this book the stakes are much lower, so it feels like a breather and we're back to Harry having awesome magic adventures.

Dear and gentle readers, as I have said before with this long-running series, it is basically impossible to speak coherently about this book without going into some spoilers. If you wish to avoid such things please turn back now. 

The problem for this book is the parasite in Harry's head that's been growing and causing the migraines he's been suffering. Unfortunately for Harry it's getting very close to the point the parasite will burst straight out of his head and kill him. Mab is willing to help Harry with his problem, but as always with fairies there is a price. And since Harry's the Winter Knight, he's not in much of a position to say no either. It turns out that Mab owes a debt to Nicodemus, leader of the fiendish Denarians, and she intends to repay that debt by loaning Harry and his services to Nicodemus. Harry, understandably, is not exactly thrilled with this idea but Mab being Mab she's put him in a position where he can't exactly refuse.

The job that Harry is obligated to assist Nicodemus with is a robbery of a treasure vault belonging to Hades, lord of the Underworld. Yes, that Hades, the Greek god. Obviously the treasure vault of one of the most covetous and powerful figures out of mythology is going to be absurdly difficult, if not impossible, for anybody to break into. Hence Nicodemus has assembled a team of top criminals from the magical underworld including a fire mage, a shapeshifter, a spirit binder, and one of the best ordinary human safecrackers to pull of the heist of the millennium. Now, ordinarily I don't go around watching, reading, or listening to heist stories, but they can be fun from time to time. And since this is a magical heist story, where the characters have to break into a vault protected by more than just mundane defenses, it makes the story all the more interesting to me.

There are a few other interesting developments in the book which I thought really showed how the series had grown. Waldo Butters, originally the timid polka-obsessed medical examiner, has become something of a magical vigilante, making use of low-magic devices and the help of Bob the Skull to help make the mean streets of Chicago a little safer. (And without spoiling it, Butters gets a truly epic moment towards the end of the book. Seriously. It's awesome.) Harry also finds out that the ''parasite'' in his head is actually a spirit of intellect that he and Lash, the shadow of the fallen angel Lasciel, created and has been growing in his head. The migraines have been because she's getting too big for Harry's head (not a surprise) and needs more room to grow. Granted, she's only very, very barely in the book, but I'm actually looking forward to seeing her in future books. Although I sometimes wonder how smart a spirit of intellect that comes from Harry's head really can be.

Overall I liked this book and I think it was because it was a change of pace with some awesome tidbits. Because the stakes are lower, only robbing the vault of the lord of the underworld opposed to saving the entire world, it feels like a little breathing space and we can have some more fun with the adventure. However, the overarching plot does get advanced at least slightly and we get to see Harry continue to develop, as well as quite a few other characters. Hopefully I'll get to see where the series goes from here.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Hunter, by Mercedes Lackey

Today I'm looking at the first book in a new series by Mercedes Lackey, Hunter. I have talked about Lackey a few times on the blog before, specifically her book Gwenhwyfar, which I consider to be hands-down the best Arthurian retelling I've ever read. Lackey also wrote several stories for the Bolo series and I thought they were pretty good as well, so I was eager to try something else from this author from my public library's audio book collection.

Hunter is set in the distant future, some two hundred and fifty years after an event known as the Diseray when the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld were broken and all the monsters of folklore managed to come back and invade our world. Things were falling apart all over but fortunately humans had a few things going for them. First, the military was able to scavenge equipment and utilize modern weaponry to take on some of the worst monsters, as well as develop barriers that Otherworld monsters couldn't cross. Second, magic also entered the world and about one to two percent of the population developed magical talents which they could use to fight the monsters. Most important of all, a portion of those with magical abilities became Hunters, forming a psychic bond with Otherworld creatures known as Hounds. With a pack of Hounds to aid them, Hunters are the greatest weapon humans have in their fight for survival.

The book focuses on Joyeaux Charmand, a Hunter who grows up in mountain villages near a monastery in the Rocky Mountains. Life seems to be going okay until her uncle, head of the police, tells her she needs to report to the capital city of Apex, to join the teams of Hunters located there. When Joy arrives she discovers the Hunters are actually a form of entertainment for the civilian population of Apex, with each Hunter getting their own video streaming channel, and the most popular Hunters with the most fans get the best benefits. Joy also very quickly gets told everything is not as it appears in Apex and she may be used as a hostage against her uncle in a mysterious shadow political struggle.

As much as I hate to make the comparison, this book reminded me a lot of The Hunger Games, and not necessarily in a good way. I think partly this was because Joy and the other Hunters were a form of entertainment for the civilian population. They may be competing with each other indirectly, but they're still involved in fighting for people's entertainment and to distract the civilian population from how things have actually been getting worse in Apex and there are more monsters than ever. Plus there's the whole dystopian nature of Apex, with people apparently being jailed for sedition and a large gap between the haves and have-nots. There are elements where it definitely feels like this book is trying to cash in on the dystopian theme that's been running around fiction, especially young adult fiction, for quite some time now.

The biggest problem is I don't feel like it's done terribly well. Lackey doesn't do a great job in this book of showing us how everything is a dystopia. We're told about people being jailed for sedition, treason, homelessness, and other crimes, but we never really see police rounding people up or the inside of one of the prisons or anything like that. The Hunters patrol the slums for monsters, but they don't seem to interact with the poor segments of the population all that much, spending all their free time in the pleasant, gilded center of Apex. That at least is where Hunger Games shone, in my opinion, was by showing the dystopian nature of the government and its pervasiveness. Here it just doesn't feel quite the same.

Joy also kind of suffers from designated protagonist syndrome in this book. She has seven Hounds, meaning she has more hounds than almost everyone else, as well as being super-strong magically speaking. Before she even gets to Apex she faces down a magician of the Folk (basically fairies) and manages to get him to leave an entire train alone. I didn't track exactly how long the events of the book took, but it definitely felt like the entire book took less than a month in story time and that feels like far, far too short a time for everything that goes on. I will grant you that Joy is an experienced Hunter with several years of fighting monsters under her belt, but even with that taken into consideration it feels far, far too generous. And as a result the book just feels rushed, in my opinion.

So I'd say this book is okay, but I wouldn't say it's great. There are some good ideas in here and Lackey is a very good writer, but it feels like it's borrowing far too much from the current trend of dystopian sci-fi/fantasy novels. Obviously those books are popular because people are really digging that sort of thing right now, but after a while I do feel like it becomes more of the same thing. If this seems interesting to you, I'd say check it out, but don't expect too many great or new things to come from this book.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper

Today I'm looking at a series of books I read a long, long time ago when I was a kid. I actually realized they were available as audio books from the library. The series is loosely connected to Arthurian myth, being set in Cornwall and Wales, and relating to the struggle between forces known as the Light and the Dark over magical artifacts such as a grail, a harp, and a magic sword. If you're interested in reading or listening to the books they are, in order:

  1. Over Sea, Under Stone
  2. The Dark is Rising
  3. Greenwitch
  4. The Grey King
  5. Silver on the Tree
I say the series is loosely connected to Arthurian myth because it's set mostly in the ''present time'' of the late 1960's and early 1970's, when it was written. The imagery, ideas, and even names from Arthurian myth and other British folklore get used extensively, and Merlin is even a main character in the series. But for the most part the Arthurian mythos is used to let you know how important the different artifacts are, assuming you'll be familiar with the names. And I think that was the biggest problem I had when I was a kid reading them the first time. I knew a little bit about Arthur, and I liked the stories I could get my hands on, but these were the highly filtered, sanitized for kids versions so I didn't understand the references to various objects or other legends. And so I think if you're unfamiliar with a good chunk of the Arthurian mythos, you're going to be a little confused by some of the objects and names. 

The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, is definitely different from the other books in the series and has far less magic than the other four. It's been described more like a mystery adventure than a fantasy novel, so it's an example of early installment weirdness. The rest of the books go much deeper into the struggle between the Old Ones of the Light and the Lords of Darkness who are trying to influence the world. How their magic is done is only vaguely explained at best, with Will Stanton the last of the Old Ones reading a book that teaches him everything he needs to know about magic. There are some references to the Old Magic, the High Magic, and the Wild Magic and different ways that magic can be done, but for the most part it's fairly unexplained.

The Old Ones, and the Lords of Darkness, seem mostly able to influence time through magic. They're capable of going outside of time or, when conditions are right, stepping from one time to another. This causes some of the weirdness of the books because a lot of the really magical stuff happens outside of regular time in a Britain that is and yet isn't. The struggle between the Light and the Dark is also an attempt to either fulfill or thwart a prophecy that the Light will finally triumph, and the conflict takes place through time and yet out of time as well. 

Basically the Dark is blamed for a lot of bad things happening to Britain, such as the invasions by the Angles, Saxons, Danes, Jutes, and Normans, as well as other times when the Dark has been able to exert influence. However the rules are that neither Light nor Dark is able to completely destroy the other so the Light is always to create a bastion of hope to ensure that humanity will continue and the Dark will not prevail. Until of course the final conflict which takes place in the 1970's when all the artifacts are found, rather quickly as a matter of fact, and the Light is able to use the artifacts to banish the Dark forever from the world. Granted, this does not banish the darkness in men's hearts, but it provides hope for the world to endure. 

Overall I have mixed feelings about the series. On the one hand it shows enormous creativity on Cooper's part, such as utilizing magic to time travel which I don't see very often, and the series has a pretty good message that despite the bad influences such as greed, cruelty, and arrogance if we fight to keep hope alive we can always drive back the darkness. On the other hand Cooper doesn't explain a lot of stuff in the book and it left me, even as an adult, sort of confused more than anything. If you don't know the Arthurian references you're definitely going to be lost, and even then there's a lot that simply isn't explained. It implies deep ideas for world-building but we just don't get to see how complex the story could have been. It certainly doesn't get bogged down in exposition so it keeps a fairly brisk pace, but I feel like that might ultimately be to the book's detriment. 

Despite all of this, the books are certainly interesting and I would say worth your time to check out. It definitely feels different from any other fantasy books out there which makes it stand out when so many things can sort of blend in with the rest of the competition. 

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville

Today I'm looking at Perdido Street Station, the first in a series of steampunk-ish novels by China Mieville. I'm kind of mixed on this book for a couple of reasons. When I read the blurb for whatever reason it reminded me a little of Fallen London, another really gritty steampunk city, albeit seen in video games rather than novels, and from time to time I kept imagining the city of New Crobuzon underground, although that's clearly not the case. There are good parts to this book, but there were also parts that I found frustrating as well.

Perdido Street Station is set in the universe of New Crobuzon, a massive city located, at least partially, under the bones of a massive creature, although this book doesn't go into great detail about the creature or what people know about it so maybe that will be covered in a later book. New Crobuzon is a police state dominated by the Militia, an organization with informers and agents throughout the city and who often strike out of nowhere to haul lawbreakers to be Re-Made in the Punishment Factories. Usually the judges prescribe some cruelly ironic punishment such as a thief that refuses to speak has their mouth sewn shut. Which definitely adds to the grim and creepy nature of the setting.

The biggest issue I had with this book was it felt like it took the longest darn time getting to the actual plot, mostly because there were several plot threads that only gradually get woven together. In the beginning of the book we get introduced to Lin, a member of a species that look like humans except they have giant scarab beetles for heads and can produce sculpture through a cement-like spit they exude. Lin is one such artist and gets hired by a local crime boss to create a sculpture of himself. Meanwhile her lover, normal human Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, has been hired by a bird person named Yagharek to fashion a new set of wings, since Yagharek's own wings were cut off by his tribe. And then there's their friend Derkhan Blueday, a writer for a radical and highly illegal newspaper. Plus the cleaning construct in Isaac's lab is acting strangely and the government of New Crobuzon is increasingly worried about some compromising information.

So that was my biggest problem was there were all these different threads and they eventually came together to make a single plotline and made sense in the grander scheme of things but they felt very disparate and it took quite a bit of time before we started seeing how all the different plotlines were joining up. If this book was condensed a bit more I'm certain it would be a much shorter novel and it would probably have a much better pace as well.

The thing I noticed, especially when I kept being amazed that this book was still going is that Mieville gets very Dickensian with his writing. Which is to say, extremely to the point of excessively detailed because Dickens was paid by the word so he would make the sentence as long as he could and go off on tangents and parentheticals just to get more money, Dickensian. On the one hand, this is good because Mieville manages to make his universe feel deep and complex through world-building and making it feel like New Crobuzon is a city with an actual history rather than something he just made up. On the downside, it bloats the book out considerably and there are some passages that are utterly egregious and add nothing to the story.

For example, there is an adventurer who is hired by the main characters to help them solve a problem during the book. After a while the adventurer decides she's had enough and she's cutting and running. Sorry, but she's a professional, she's not in it to get killed. All well and good. What follows is a passage describing the adventurer's departure from the city, reflections on the events, a brief discussion of her species's preferred method of architecture, (They're sort of frog people? Definitely amphibian.) and then her decision on what she's going to do now in the future. And honestly, I couldn't have cared less about what this character was going to do. She was barely, just barely in the novel and mostly some extra muscle the main characters had hired on with little to no characterization. I would have been perfectly happy with her waving goodbye and leaving, which is what she did initially, rather than going into an entire tangent about the character. Maybe Mieville means for this character to be important in later books, which is why he focused on her, but it seems entirely unnecessary in this book.

And even with the world-building I feel like the author resorted to a deus ex machina towards the end of the novel. The actual thing is mentioned before in the book, but only very briefly and dismissed as a myth so it still comes as a bit of a surprise when it shows up.

So that's really the biggest problem I have with this book, it feels super bloated with extra information. That feels cool for a bit, but after a while the exposition gets really boring and starts distracting from a plotline that is, in theory, time-critical. I think if Mieville was trying to add a sense of urgency to the plot, adding a bunch of exposition and making the book take a languid pace was not the best way to go about this. There's definitely a lot of good world-building but I think there's a lot that could have been left out and the book wouldn't have suffered. If you do read this be prepared for a lot of exposition.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sharpe's Escape, by Bernard Cornwell

Today I'm looking at another book in the Sharpe series, Sharpe's Escape. This book picks up shortly after Sharpe's Gold with the British and Portuguese making a fighting retreat against the invading French armies on the road to Lisbon. The Lines of Torres Vedras have been finished and now Wellington is just trying to get every scrap of food out of French reach and get his army safely behind the lines. Sharpe meanwhile has rejoined the South Essex as the captain of its light company, a position which has been made more difficult by the addition of Lieutenant Slingsby, an in-law of Colonel Lawford whose career is in need of a boost. Sharpe also runs afoul of a Portuguese crime boss called Ferragus when he prevents Ferragus from selling food to the French. Eventually Sharpe, Sergeant Harper, and Captain Vincente from a previous adventure, get separated from the South Essex and have to make their way through French-occupied territory to the British lines.

I'm not sure what to say about this book because I kind of find myself thinking the same things about it compared to the other books. This book was definitely less egregious in having Sharpe be responsible for everything important that ever happened in the Napoleonic Wars ever. Sharpe spends most of this book just trying to survive instead of saving the entire British army. So in some ways I appreciate that Sharpe is kind of being a regular guy in this book.

Like quite a few other books, Sharpe's kind of on a secret mission again, although in this case it's because he's trapped behind enemy lines rather than because he has to do something to save Britain. But it's different enough that it managed to keep me interested and keep me reading.

Otherwise, I'll be frankly honest, this book is the same as the rest, but the location's changed a little. There's a new woman for Sharpe to fall in love with and who we may or may not see by the time we get to the next book. If you liked Sharpe so far you'll probably enjoy this book. And if you're not into this series, it's not going to have anything to entice you.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

Today I'm looking at Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Obviously Gaiman is one of my favorite authors so to find out that he had produced his own version of Norse mythology and there was an audiobook actually read by Neil Gaiman I was incredibly eager to get this book. As were a ton of other people because I had to wait for a few months just to finally get it from the library. This book is basically Gaiman's collection of Norse myths, from creation to Ragnarok, written and read in his own style. This is obviously not a complete collection of Norse myths, but it definitely includes the major stories such as how the gods got their marvelous gifts, the construction of Asgard, the chaining of Fenrir, and the death of Baldr.

As much as I hate to say it, this book was actually kind of a disappointment because Gaiman doesn't improve or expand much on the existing body of Norse lore. Yes, everything is written in his own style with its quirks, but at the end of the day this is just another translation of the scraps of Norse mythology that have survived. Unlike The Gospel of Loki, which tells Norse myths from Loki's perspective and actually creates an alternate interpretation of the lore, Gaiman's work doesn't stray too far from what we've seen in previous translations.

I think if you haven't read any Norse mythology before, this would be a good book to read because Gaiman covers all the major stories. And if you're looking for a good copy of Norse myths to just have around the house and read from time to time, this would be a good choice as well. Gaiman, of course, is a fantastic writer and manages to get some passages into his own tone, but at the end of the day I just can't say this really brings anything new to the table in terms of Norse mythology.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

Today I'm looking at another book by the author of The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood. Today though I'm reviewing The Heart Goes Last, a book written a couple of years ago and definitely takes a lot of inspiration from the financial crisis which began in 2007. Overall this book is interesting and it has some tantalizing plot threads, but I feel like Atwood ends up trying to do too much and cover too many topics so the result feels far more scattered. In many ways I'm almost reminded of a Phillip K. Dick novel like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Dick had this habit of coming up with a ton of ideas for his books, any one of which could have been the basis of an entire novel. The problem was Dick was so hopped up on methamphetamines the entire time that he wandered off to a thousand different interesting ideas. Atwood's book definitely doesn't have the same frantic pace that Dick's work does, but it feels like a similar effect in regards to the lack of focus.

The book follows a married couple, Stan and Charmaine, two young professionals who were hit by a cataclysmic financial crash sometime in the near future. Most of New England and the Rust Belt are gutted wastelands, any companies that remained have packed up and headed west. The super rich live tax-free on floating communities offshore, while 40% of the U.S. population is unemployed and law enforcement is something that happens only in the richest enclaves.

Stan and Charmaine have been living in their car for months now, desperately short on cash and wondering if they'll survive to tomorrow. Then they hear about the opportunity provided by Consilience, a social experiment town that provides full housing, full employment, and a safe community. The catch is that every other month half the population spends their time locked up in the prison, the central ''industry'' of Consilience while the other half act as the civilians. Most people, Stan and Charmaine included, are too desperate too be overly worried by Consilience's weird rules and are just happy to have food in their bellies and a safe place to sleep. Unsurprisingly, of course, things are not as they appear and Stan and Charmaine find themselves embroiled in a much more sinister conspiracy.

As I said, the biggest problem I have is this book has a lot of things going on, but there are so many threads that I don't think Atwood really gets a chance to develop any of them particularly well. I'm also left scratching my head at some of the plotlines or decisions for how the stories get resolved, which makes this book less than perfect for me. Atwood is still an excellent writer and she does at least touch on a lot of themes in this book, but it feels very lacking in focus and I think that's to the book's detriment.

The foremost example, without getting into spoilers, is the whole prison setup to Consilience. The residents of Consilience are working whether they're inside prison or outside prison, and either way their jobs and houses are assigned to them. It's basically a giant, centrally-planned economy with most of the profits (allegedly) getting scooped off to the investors in the project. Like, for example, they say part of the full employment plan is to have people be guards for the prison, providing jobs, while also exploiting cheap prison labor. But if everyone's working for the same company, having some of them be guards is really just make-work that serves no real purpose. You'd think it'd be more profitable to have everyone working all the time.

The only reason I could think of having the prison population is what Ed, the guy in charge of the whole Consilience project, says at the beginning. He veers into mustache-twirling villain territory by saying that the American economy is failing because we simply aren't willing to make use of slave labor, starving people to death while wringing every possible bit of work from them. So in theory the reason to have a prison population is to make use of slave labor. But the entire population of Consilience are basically prisoners anyway because they're not allowed outside the walled enclave of the town, whether they're in a prison month or no. Everything is either imported or made by the company, everyone works for the company, and is paid by the company. They're literally stuck in a company town, it just raises more questions than answers.

And this isn't the only plot thread that doesn't really get explored to its fullest potential. Charmaine has a tragic childhood fraught with physical and emotional abuse, but that's seen in glimpses and used an explanation for why she has such a Pollyanna exterior. Not to mention the double life Charmaine is living when she starts having an affair with Max, one of the residents of the house when Stan and Charmaine are spending their months in prison. Or a couple other plotlines I won't go into detail about because that goes into spoiler territory. But I think if Atwood had chosen to focus on just one or maybe two things this could have been a really good book, but because she doesn't keep the book focused we end up with potentialities instead of actualities.

And then there is the ending which I find kind of objectionable for a number of reasons, but again that gets into spoiler territory. Suffice to say everything seems wrapped up a little too neatly for this book. Overall I think this book could have been really great, but because Atwood starts exploring these different avenues the result is sadly less than spectacular.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie

Today I'm looking at a biography of Catherine the Great, by far the most powerful and influential female ruler of the eighteenth century. Catherine was born a minor German princess with only the opportunities presented by marriage to improve her lot and satisfy her own ambitions. Married to the heir of the Russian Empire, Catherine embraced her adopted country including its language and religion, earning the respect and admiration of the Russian people. Just three months into her husband Peter's reign, members of the Russian nobility and army gathered around Catherine and supported her coup, establishing her as tsarina of Russia in her own right, and she ruled for over thirty years.

Like all historical figures, Catherine is complicated and not wholly good or bad as a person. In her younger years Catherine embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment and the theory of enlightened despotism, and Catherine actually sought to reform Russia's legal system as well as entertained ideas about the gradual abolition of serfdom. However as Catherine got older, dealt with the frustrations of running Russia, and witnessed the bloody beginnings of the French Revolution, Catherine became increasingly conservative and an even strong proponent of absolute monarchies. The result is a woman as complex as any other person in history.

Overall I think this biography was very good. Catherine was engaged in correspondence with many people at the time so we have a large number of primary sources to draw upon for research and Massie makes use of that. Not only Catherine's own correspondence, but writings from figures such as Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Diderot, and foreign ambassadors to Russia. We get an intimate look at Catherine and her life not only as a monarch but also as a person.

This book does spend considerable time talking about people and subjects other than Catherine, if only to provide necessary context. I remember there were rather lengthy bits talking about the life of her husband, Peter, and the French Revolution just to name a couple topics. Although this does take us away from the narrative of Catherine and her life story, I feel like Massie does make them tie to the life of Catherine so they feel relevant rather than additional information to pad out the book.

Overall I thought this biography was fairly well done. It criticizes Catherine, perhaps a little unfairly when it comes to her lovers, but it doesn't become too hagiographic in its praise either. What we see is a woman, trying to do the best for her country in the eighteenth century. She isn't always successful, but she tries pretty hard and definitely seems worthy of the moniker ''the Great''. If you're looking to learn more about Russian history or Catherine in specific (especially after watching the Extra History videos about Catherine) this is definitely a good book to read.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Today I'm looking at another retelling of the Arthurian mythos, The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I was interested in this book because it's billed as the story of King Arthur as told from the perspective of the women in his life, such as his mother Igraine, his sister Morgaine, and his wife Gwenhwyfar. Since the women in Arthurian myth are often relegated to side roles or, in the case of Morgan le Fay, antagonistic roles I was hopeful that this would be a new and interesting take on a thousand year old storytelling tradition.

Unfortunately I'm left with the feeling that this book simply isn't worth the time and effort that I put into reading it. There are a few good parts which I want to talk about first before I get to the big issues, but I was left feeling extremely disappointed. Perhaps it's unfair for me to judge a book published over thirty years ago by today's standards, but for a radical new perspective on the Arthurian mythos, this feels like it doesn't break new ground.

The thing that I liked most about this book was how it explained some things that never really made sense to me in the Arthur legend. For example why Morgaine, Arthur's sister, would help him and then later decide to hurt him by stealing Excalibur's magic scabbard and plot his downfall. In a lot of the older stories Morgaine isn't developed much beyond her being an evil sorceress so the fact that Zimmer Bradley puts in the effort to make it sense within the narrative I greatly appreciated.

I also liked how Zimmer Bradley explained why the Grail Quest was such a curse on Arthur and Camelot. In some versions of the mythos, the Grail Quest scatters Arthur's knights to the corners of the earth, and many die or disappear, so that when Mordred attacks Camelot Arthur doesn't have his full strength. And it seemed curious to me that God should send Arthur and his knights on a quest to find the most holy of relics only to have it end up destroying Camelot. The way that Zimmer Bradley frames the Grail Quest and what's truly going on makes the story make a lot more sense. Obviously these are stories that have been told, retold, edited, and remixed for hundreds of years so a lot of stuff isn't going to make sense, but I appreciate how Zimmer Bradley managed to turn it into a cohesive narrative.

The biggest issue I had with this book though was what the women spent about 80-90% of their time talking about, namely their relationships with men and having babies. For me this was incredibly boring and it just utterly failed the Bedchel Test over and over. Which is a little weird to use the Bedchel Test when it dates from the early 2000s, but I feel like if your main characters are going to be the women, it's a valid test to use. But I'm still torn over this for a number of reasons. On the one hand, at the time period they're depicting the roles of high-born women were largely circumscribed and dominated by men and their ability to bear children, so it is an accurate portrayal in that regard and if the goal was to show how frustratingly boring and limited these women's lives were, then Zimmer Bradley does a good job.

On the other hand, for a nearly nine-hundred page book it makes for really, really tedious reading and if this is supposed to show how powerful women can be then it still shows that they're dominated by their relationships by men and their ability to bear children. And I do think Zimmer Bradley was trying to go with the women being powerful message because Morgaine and several other characters are priestesses of Avalon, representatives of the Goddess in the mortal world with their own mighty, magical powers. So we have all these powerful women who are trying to influence the future of Britain and yet they are almost still by their relationships to men rather than their own abilities.

The other 20-10% of the time, the women were arguing about religion, which is the second biggest theme in this book after men and babies. Morgaine is a partisan of the old ways and the traditional druidic religion of Britain, passed down from Atlantis, in which all gods are one God and all goddesses are on Goddess. Gwenhwyfar, however, is a devout Christian, the proponents of only one God and who wish to stamp out all other forms of religion. At least, that's what we're told by Zimmer-Bradley. For most of the book we're told about the Christians' intolerance for other religions and the pagans' willingness to tolerate the Christians, although based on the things we actually see in the book the pagans look like the intolerant ones. It's really a case where Zimmer Bradley needed to show rather than tell to us. And as someone who has no dog in this fight beyond a general attitude of letting people worship however they please as long as they leave me alone, I couldn't get terribly invested in the conflict.

Another thing that kind of annoyed me was that Zimmer Bradley threw in various things that could have led to plots more interesting than what we got. For example, it's heavily implied if not outright stated that Arthur and Lancelet are sexually interested in each other and Lancelet is, if not gay, then at least very, very bisexual. And this would have been really groundbreaking in 1982, never mind today when it would still be new. But this gets barely any attention at all. Or the ambitions of Moraguse, Arthur's aunt, wife of King Lot, and foster-mother to Mordred. We get told that Moraguse is an extremely ambitious woman with great sexual appetites and is extremely interested in becoming High Queen of all Britain someday. We actually get to see Moraguse be the ruthless operative willing to utilize dark magic to achieve her goals, but only a couple times in the entire book. Most of the time Moraguse is barely in the book to the point she's a side character rather than a main character. I feel like this could have been a much better story than what we ended up getting but for whatever reason Zimmer Bradley left it as an undeveloped thread.

I think my negative opinion of this book is just because of how dreadfully long it is which made it feel like that much more of a chore to read. I personally felt that the payoff was not worth all the time and effort invested in this book, and I finally finished it with relief more than anything else. If you're looking for a really good Arthur re-telling from a female perspective, my favorite of all time is still Gwenhwyfar, by Mercedes Lackey. As much as Zimmer Bradley tried, I just can't make myself love this adaptation.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroads, by Dee Brown

As has been established time and again on this blog, I like trains, so it'll come as absolutely no surprise to anybody that I'm talking about them yet again. And don't worry! They'll come back! I've got at least two more books to read just about trains!

This book deals specifically with the history of the transcontinental railroads built during the later half of the nineteenth century. I actually read another book about this very topic called Railroaded which goes far more in depth about the railroads than Brown does in this book. This is definitely far more of a general overview of the transcontinental railroads as a historical subject so it's good if you're unfamiliar with material and doesn't get too bogged down in technical details. If you're looking for something a little more substantial or in-depth then Railroaded is definitely superior in that regard.

The transcontinental railroads of the United States are an interesting topic because there was no real financial reason for them to exist. Railroads in the eastern parts of the United States were often built to connect existing settlements and ease transportation issues that had been partly but not completely solved by a combination of river and canal transportation. The Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest railroad in the United States and so solid it did not collapse into bankruptcy during the Great Depression, is the ultimate example of the eastern railroad. The western railroads, however, were going into vast territories inhabited only by the numerous Indian nations who had no interest or more frequently were opposed to the introduction of railroads into their lands. Perhaps a line of communication between east and west would be strategically necessary, but there was little economic incentive for a railroad of continent-spanning size.

As a result, the railroads crossing the western United States were largely subsidized through the federal government in a variety of ways. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific got cash for every mile of usable track laid, as well as extensive land grants, and their bonds backed by the federal government. Other railroads such as the Santa Fe eschewed cash payments in exchange for significantly greater land grants, providing the railroads with extensive opportunities for profit entirely divorced from actually running a profitable railroad. The bountiful opportunities for corruption, graft, and financial manipulation brought dozens of robber barons to exploit and gut the transcontinental railroads, leaving the United States with five barely-functioning railroad networks crossing the west.

Brown does a pretty good job covering the major points of the story of the transcontinental railroads, which weren't exactly the heroic nation-building exercises they sometimes get portrayed as in popular history. That being said, I do have a couple of issues with Brown's book at least one of which is because of when it was written. This book actually dates from the 1970's, which were a dark, dark decade for railroads in the United States. Penn Central, the poorly-planned merger between the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads, had gone bankrupt and the issues of numerous other railroads led to the government takeover of all passenger operations with Amtrak and reforms to railroad regulation. An industry that even fifty years prior was central to America had become an obsolete relic. Many historians of railroads at this time had bitter and angry things to say about the railroad companies, and Brown is no exception.

While this is fair for the time period, and Amtrak service hasn't improved greatly either, at least where I live, it definitely dates the book. And considering how many emotions are tied up to the collapse of the railroads in the 1970s, it's hard for me to really make an objective assessment of the period because of the number of emotions involved. It's truly a curious phenomenon and I wonder if there will be history on it at a later point.

The other thing that bothered me was the disparity in Brown's coverage of Indian experiences and black and Chinese experiences with the railroads. Brown goes into great detail about the experiences of the Indians, as their titles to land supposedly guaranteed by treaty are rapidly extinguished to make way for railroads and the associated land grants. And of course there is much to be said about how the railroad, by splitting the buffalo herds and making them even easier for white hunters to exterminate, hastened the demise of the traditional way of life for many plains Indians. And Brown has every right to be furious as she is about the treatment of Indians.

But by comparison her coverage of the Chinese and black experiences with the railroads go far less in-depth. What I most remembered was her briefly mentioning the usage of black convict labor and Pullman Porters. Now, there is a whole in-depth exploration of the peonage system created in the United States after the Civil War that made it incredibly easy for black men to be convicted for trivial offenses and then leased as convict labor to farms, mines, and railroads as basically slaves. If you're ever interested in learning more about peonage, I highly recommend the PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name. Suffice to say that in the south, including Texas, black convict labor was often employed to build railroads. And even where free black men were employed, they faced lower wages, discrimination, and violence from white railroad workers. And of course Chinese railroad workers faced the same issues as their black counterparts. These are huge issues that just sort of get glossed over in this book and feels like a missed opportunity.

Brown also mentions Pullman Porters, one of the best jobs available to black men in the United States, but fairly low-paying compared to other railroad workers and working as a servant for the benefit of the passengers. Pullman Porters, and by extension many railroad porters, have been referred to as ''George'' regardless of their actual name. Brown mentions this as in honor of their employer, George Pullman, owner of the Pullman company. The problem is that this was hardly an honor for the porters. It has been conjectured, although I have not found any strong evidence for this so far, that the Pullman Porters were called George because that was the name of their employer or ''master''. Even the simple fact that white passengers couldn't be bothered to learn the names of their porters reflects the second class status Pullman Porters were relegated to as black men. I think it is grossly misinformed to call this behavior an honor.

Issues aside, this is pretty good for a general history. As I said, it doesn't go terribly in-depth but covers the major highlights of the history of transcontinental railroads in the late nineteenth century in the United States. If you're looking for basic information this is a good start, but there are other sources that go far more in-depth.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 2, 2017

We Few, by David Weber and John Ringo

Today I'm wrapping up the Empire of Man series with the final novel, We Few. The result for this book, and I guess for this series overall, is actually a bit of a disappointment. The biggest thing I'm left feeling is that Ringo and Weber had much bigger plans for this series beyond just the four fairly long books, but for whatever reason they kept the series at just four novels and didn't bother to expand it from there. Maybe they had other projects to work on. Maybe Baen decided it wasn't interested in continuing the series, I don't know. But I'm left feeling like the story Weber and Ringo wanted to tell wasn't completed and we got only a fraction of what we could have.

Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead

Towards the end of the last book, March to the Stars, we discovered that Prince Roger's mother, Empress Alexandra, had been captured by a coup orchestrated in part by Roger's father, the Earl of New Madrid, and the naval minister Prinz Jackson . Roger and the survivors of Bravo Company, Bronze Battalion, have been declared traitors and are officially wanted people throughout Imperial space. Unofficially rumors of the drugs, torture, and rape that New Madrid and Jackson have been using to control Empress Alexandra has been leaking out of the palace and some people are beginning to think maybe Roger wasn't behind the coup after all. When Roger and the survivors of Bravo Company manage to get back to civilized territory they find plenty of allies ready to help them in a daring plan to rescue the Empress and save the Empire.

Plot-wise I actually liked the idea Weber and Ringo managed to come up with for this book. The best plan Roger's staff is able to come up with is that they start up a Mardukan-themed restaurant in Imperial City as an advanced base of operations and a front for the importation of money and equipment for their raid on the Imperial Palace. Most of the battles the heroes have gone through before have been straight-up fights, massive set piece battles with hundreds or thousands of casualties. Seeing Roger and company work on doing a covert operation with a bunch of green, three-meter tall, four armed aliens is different enough to be really interesting. So for that I give it plenty of credit.

On the down side, there is some stuff that is either terribly dull, or stuff that's left out entirely. Some major space naval battles are part of this book, which I'm all for, but Weber goes into the numbering the missiles the ships launch in a salvo, describing how many get defeated by counter-missiles, how many get stopped by point-defense, and then how many manage to get through and strike hits. This is something I've been noticing a lot recently in the Honor Harrington books and it honestly feels like so much padding. I really didn't want to know the exact number of missiles utilized. You say it's fifty thousand? Great. That sounds like a lot. And then we have descriptions of vectors and time lag from transmissions and so on which is very pretty and I'm sure all manner of accurate, but it really takes away from the story.

Another thing that bugs me is the loose ends left at the end of this book, specifically Prinz Jackson and the Saints. From the first book we've had the Saints described as antagonists, but at a larger scale than what Bravo Company was going through. For the last three books the main enemy Bravo company was fighting was the environment of Marduk itself and the natives. The Saints actually appear in the first and third book to be enemies but aside from some mentions about how they're evil enviro-hippies and enemies of the Empire, that's about it. It's almost outright stated that a conflict between the Saints and the Empire is extremely probable in the near future and presumably some of the events of these books would move the two factions closer to war. But instead, Bravo Company and the Empire are dealing with the issue of a civil war at home. By the end of the book the issues with the Saints still have not been resolved or for that matter even addressed so it almost becomes a question of why were the Saints included at all in the series?

The other thread at the end was the escape of Prinz Jackson, the mastermind of the coup against Empress Alexandra. With Jackson safely out of the Sol system and calling as many admirals loyal to him as he can, the Empire is definitely in a state of civil war. With the Saints eager to snap up territory while the Empire is occupied, it's clear that this civil war needs to be resolved quickly and decisively if the Empire is going to survive at all. And we see the start of it when Roger leads the assault on the Imperial Palace to rescue his mother as well as the division within Home Fleet's forces between those loyal to Alexandra and those loyal to Jackson. But otherwise the war is left incomplete. The start of the book has a brief historical passage on Roger who becomes known as Roger the Terrible so presumably he manages to quash Jackson's rebellion, but we're left with so much to be done and so much unexplored.

There are a few minor things as well, but that's kind of niggling over details compared to the big stuff. These books have left me feeling like Weber and Ringo had plans for a huge, complicated world as deep and interesting as that of the Honor Harrington series. Instead we only catch glimpses of this world in a time period spanning not much more than a year. Maybe this was their intention, but it makes me feel like Roger's story is incomplete more than anything else. And so this series is, ultimately, kind of a disappointment.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Cold Days, by Jim Butcher

In another case of excellent timing, this Halloween I'm reviewing Cold Days, the fourteenth book in the Dresden Files series. This is particularly appropriate because the events of the book occur on Halloween, something that happens a couple of times in the Dresden-verse because of all the mystical connections which make Halloween a Very Special Day when magic is involved. Once again the fate of the world is in the balance and our old pal Harry Dresden has to step in to save the day once again.

Obligatory Warning: Dear and gentle readers. As you probably know by this point, it's basically impossible to review this book intelligently without revealing spoilers. If you wish to avoid such things please avoid the rest of the review now. If you've already read the book or don't care, please continue. Thank you for your patience.

So, Dresden's back from the dead. Perhaps not well but definitely alive and in service to Mab as the Winter Knight. Dresden starts off going through rehabilitation therapy from hell as Mab tries to kill him dozens of different ways. As a result Harry ends up all the more paranoid and stronger than ever. Finally Harry is introduced to the Winter Court and Mab gives Harry his first official mission as the Winter Knight: kill Maeve, the Winter Lady.

Needless to say this is a pretty tall order for Harry. Not only is Maeve an order of magnitude far more powerful than him, but as an immortal it's not even certain Harry can kill her. To make it even more complicated, Harry doesn't know why Mab wants Harry to kill Maeve, which he finds just as unsettling. As always with fairies, despite them being creatures unable to lie nothing is ever straightforward. Oh, and then there's the issue of the island of Demonreach possibly exploding in the very near future unless Harry does something about it. So as usual there's absolutely no pressure or time limit whatsoever.

Honestly, this book is a lot like the others in the general outline. There's a problem. Harry has a limited amount of time to solve the problem. Ass gets kicked, magic gets done, and problem is eventually solved. I think what I liked most about this book was seeing how far Harry's advanced power-wise just by becoming the Winter Knight. He has the resources of the Winter Court at his disposal, and Toot-toot and the Za Lord's Guard have become formidable allies for Harry. Plus, Harry's allies like Molly, Murphy, and Thomas have gone up in power level as well. These guys definitely feel like they're the A-team when it comes to taking care of magical business threatening Chicago.

And I think that's what's most powerful about this series is we've seen Harry grow. At least, power-wise anyways. He's still pretty stubbornly stupid, refusing to bring his allies in until he realizes they'd get involved anyway so he should have asked for their help in the first place. But it definitely feels like we're operating on an entirely more powerful level than we were before.

Another thing I like is that we're finally getting to see the people who were behind all the bad things going on. We finally learn a lot more about the Outsiders who...really just hate reality. That seems to be their main motivation. And they've taken the brute force approach of attacking reality from the outside, but the forces of Winter are keeping them at bay. So the Outsiders have had to use other, subtler methods to try and worm their way into reality, which is what most of the world-ending events Harry has been preventing have been. Well, at least a significant percentage of them.

Honestly, this book, like so many of the others, is more of the same but at a much higher power level. If you're a fan of Dresden, I don't think you'll have anything to complain about in this book, and if you're not a fan you probably haven't made it this far in the series anyway.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander

Today I'm looking at The Chronicles of Prydain a collection of five books which I've decided to look at together as one series rather than as individual books because they're all fairly short novels and I felt it was more efficient to group them together. Although there is a lot that can be said about each individual book and as Alexander himself says, you don't have to read all the books to enjoy Prydain, although the experience is significantly enhanced in doing so. For those of you who are interested, the books within the series are: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King. And yes, this is the series that Disney's oft-forgotten animated film The Black Cauldron is based on. I actually read The Black Cauldron ages ago when I was a kid, but I'd forgotten quite a bit about it and I hadn't read the other four books in the series so when I saw I could get them as audiobooks from my library, I figured there was no time like the present.

The stories within these books are loosely based off of old Welsh legends, to the point that some characters such as Taliesin and Gwydion, who I've bumped into in various reinterpretations of Arthurian myth, make reappearances in different guises. But the story doesn't focus on major people like Prince Gwydion. (That's Gwydion on the cover, by the way. Big important dude. Magical sword, so on and so forth.) The stories are about Taran, a boy who starts out the series as an assistant pigkeeper to the oracular pig Hen Wen. Taran is not terribly thrilled with his lot and desires to become a great hero like Prince Gwydion. When Hen Wen runs off and Taran goes to search for her, he soon gets caught up in larger events involving the Death Lord Arawn and Taran may get his wish after all.

Over the course of the books Taran has adventures with his companions such as the half-man-half-beast Gurgi, the bard Fflewddur Fflam, and the princess Eilonwy and helps Prince Gwydion and the Sons of Don save Prydain from the designs of Arawn. With each new adventure we get to see Taran grow and develop as an individual, starting out as an impetuous boy but gradually becoming a mature and responsible man. It is really astounding to see the boy who begins the series by desperately trying to forge swords in the smithy in the beginning of the series and see how much he's changed by the very end. So I give Alexander total props for really developing Taran as a character in this series and having him go through an arc.

Another thing that I like about this series is I feel that it's aged rather well. This series was written in the 1960's and a series that old can look dated, especially with its characters, but I feel like Prydain has managed and that's in large part because of Eilonwy. Now, to be fair Eilonwy is kind of a stereotypical ''princess who isn't interested in being proper''. She doesn't see the point of curtseying and embroidery and is much more at home in a scullery or camping out in the woods and I've read that this is kind of old hat for nowadays but the result is Eilonwy ends up being an actual character. Unlike say, Arwen, she goes out on adventures with the boys and helps in her own way with her unique skills. And the characters don't really comment on this, they take it as perfectly normal that Eilonwy would follow Taran, Gurgi, and Fflewddur Fflam around on adventures. So I rather appreciate that.

And maybe, on some level, these books get a little too serious. Alexander has a habit of talking about Big Ideas like what it truly means to be a hero, what our purpose in life is, and so on. But I think that can be a good thing for families because it exposes children to new ideas and encourages them to think bigger. I'm a firm proponent of giving children challenging books because that's the only way they're going to get better at reading, and I think these books might be a good example. Plus parents can talk to their kids about the ideas in the books and bond that way. I love it when families can bond over books.

Overall I think this series is pretty good. Out of the five I think I would say Castle of Llyr, the middle book, is by far the weakest. I feel like it didn't really add anything to the series that wasn't already done in the other books, but otherwise it was okay. If you're looking for a fun fantasy adventure, or maybe something to share with your kids, this series is definitely worth reading. Or maybe re-reading.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

March to the Stars, by David Weber and John Ringo

Today I'm looking at March to the Stars, the third book in the Empire of Man series by David Weber and John Ringo where Prince Roger and the survivors of Bravo Company manage to finally reach the spaceport with their band of Mardukan allies and start working on getting off of Marduk and back to Terra. I had expected this book to be a bit of a finale but it introduces some new plot threads and leaves a lot of things hanging which I presume will be wrapped up in We Few, the final book of the series. My opinion of this book is mixed for a number of reasons which I'll go into more detail.

In the broadest strokes, this book is really more of what we've seen before, just the details have changed. Roger and company arrive at a location on Marduk, there is some sort of obstacle in their way, usually a conflict among groups of Mardukans, and to continue on their way Roger and the marines have to fight their way through, leaving plenty of casualties behind them. Only in this case, they cross an ocean on ships, run into a sentient-sacrificing and cannibalism state religion, ally with some barbarians to fight the crazy religious nuts, opposed to last time when they joined up with the religious nuts to fight the barbarians, and finally, finally get to the space port.

I'll start with what I liked about the book, which is the pulp sci-fi action. As I've openly admitted plenty of times here on the blog, I am perfectly happy with the most ridiculous,  pulpy, sci-fi action you can conjure up for me. Spaceships, robot tanks, plasma weapons, I love the heck out of that stuff. And Weber and Ringo can write pulp sci-fi action. That's something they know how to do. So the result is good. And if you like the pulp stuff like I do, Weber and Ringo are good guys to go get your supply from and I highly recommend it. So that's the good part.

The bad part about the book is not one specific thing, it's a lot of little things that add up to some concerns on my part. The biggest was how everyone apparently couldn't figure out that the fire priests were sacrificing people and then eating them. (Granted, I didn't put together the eating people part, but I got the sacrificing people.) This is something that Weber and Ringo telegraphed pretty heavily with a lot of evidence. For example:

  1. The fire priests hold their ceremonies in secret, so the marines aren't told what's going on. Pretty suspicious from the get-go.
  2. Everyone in the city refuses to talk about the religion and getting any information beyond there being a fire god is basically impossible.
  3. During the religious ceremonies, everyone notices the smell of cooking meat, which means some sort of meat is being put on the fire, however, everyone also notices a lack of any livestock animals in the city at any point. The meat must be coming from somewhere but there are no animals to provide it.
  4. One of the only things the marines can learn about the religion is that there are servants of the fire god who are called to the temple for religious ceremonies, but the marines don't see a lot of the servants around the city.
  5. Most people emphatically do not want to be servants of the fire god.
  6. The city of the fire priests heavily engages in slavery, with a nearly constant demand for slaves despite no apparent labor shortage in the city.
I found myself screaming at the characters, ''THEY'RE SACRIFICING PEOPLE! HOW ARE YOU NOT PUTTING THIS TOGETHER?'' I literally went and asked several other people about this and all of them managed to connect the dots like I did. But for the characters in the book have to reboot their translation software to realize that servants of the fire god are actually sacrifices. Like, did they not think it might have been a euphemism? And the team actually has a historian/anthropologist/sociologist with them so she out of anybody should have been able to figure out what the heck was going on.

But that wasn't the only example. At one point in the book Roger makes a statement along the lines that when they get back home he intends to ask his mother to make him Duke of Marduk so he can rule the planet and help shepherd the Mardukans to civilization. It's a one-off line and Weber and Ringo spend basically no time talking about it after that, but it's very concerning to me personally because it feels incredibly tone deaf. We have Roger, a white man with blond hair and green eyes so he's super Aryan, making plans to bring the benefits of civilization to a backwards planet. The problem I have with this is it basically sounds like an argument for colonialism and imperialism.

Without going into a super lengthy explanation, during the height of colonialism in the nineteenth century European nations said it was their duty to bring the benefits of civilization to the ''backwards'', ''primitive'', and ''savage'' peoples, lifting them up to where they could govern themselves. In actuality, the European nations and states like Japan and the United States were just interested in extracting resources from their colonies and any infrastructure they established in their colonies were for the benefit of white colonials and/or the extraction of resources from the colonies. It is widely argued that colonialism and imperialism were not benevolent attempts to spread civilization but calculated moves to expand markets, resources, and power. So to have a white man in a sci-fi book say he plans to ''civilize'' the ''savages'' of Marduk smacks very heavily of colonialism. I don't think Weber and Ringo meant for this to be as tone deaf as I ended up taking it, but it's rather distressing to say the least.

There are a lot of other little issues like this but I'll end with retaking the spaceport towards the end of the book. It's revealed that the imperial colonial governor is not only corrupt but also incompetent and has left secret passages through the defenses around the spaceport so his messengers and smugglers can get in and out. Furthermore an imperial agent has infiltrated his staff and basically knows everything that's going on in the spaceport and is able to give information to the marines, as well as much-needed supplies. As a result, the spaceport, which has been this final goal the team has been working towards and has promised to be this super hard nut to crack at the end of the journey, ends up being a cakewalk. The marines walk through the holes in the defenses, take out the incredibly incompetent guards, capture the governor, and retake the port. It just feels like a massive anticlimax compared to how much Roger and Bravo Company have had to fight through just to get to this final challenge. I feel like Weber and Ringo built it up to be this huge challenge and it ends up being nothing. Of course, we then get with the whammy of a coup attempt back on Terra and now it becomes critically vital for Roger and company to get back to earth and rescue his mother.

Overall this book is okay. There isn't one major thing that is wrong with the book, but there are a lot of little things that add up and significantly detract from the book. In addition there are the classic Weber exposition dumps which can get a little tedious after a while, but I've grown to be used to those at least. If you like pulp sci-fi action, I'm sure you'll enjoy this, but I don't know if this is really the best pulp sci-fi I've read because of all the little issues.

- Kalpar