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

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Where the Hell is Tesla? by Rob Dircks

Today, I'm looking at a book that was originally written as a series of mini e-books before it was released as a complete book. The plot of the book is told through the perspective of the main character Chip, who tells the story through a series of emails to his girlfriend Julie. The result is interesting, but it also feels a little underdeveloped and at times downright stereotyped so I can call it okay at best.

Chip gets a job as a security guard at an FBI warehouse which seems to consist mostly of sitting around on his butt all day. Bored out of his mind, Chip starts poking around and discovers a lost journal of Nikola Tesla. The journal reveals that Tesla succeeded in creating a means of interdimensional transportation in 1943 and disappeared. More importantly, the journal reveals Tesla's interdimensional portal is still in his old New York hotel room. Chip convinces his friend Pete to investigate Tesla's hotel room and they succeed in opening the portal. The next thing they know, Pete and Chip are trying to find their way home through a hallway of identical doors. To get home they need to find Tesla, break him out of a dimensional prison, and hopefully stop a madman from destroying the multiverse.

This book feels okay at best, but I think the format of telling the story through email leaves something to be desired. Obviously there are plenty of ways to tell stories through journals. Heck, the Dear America series is based around that very concept and some of them are very good. (Some of them are very bad, but that's an entirely different post.) But I feel that because the story is broken up into little, itty-bitty chunks so it doesn't feel as cohesive. We kind of jump from one event to the next, we never have any time to sit and develop ideas, and the result is the story feels kind of rushed.

Honestly, I feel like Dircks took a lot of elements of good storytelling and tossed them together to try and make a good story. The effort is there, and he tries really hard to include a lot of stuff. There's the relationship between Chip and Julie, which becomes a major part of the emails when he realizes he's been a jerk to her this entire time and he really does love her and he should apologize. It's kind of cute the first time, but he keeps reiterating the point and it starts feeling like he's whipping the bloated, week-old corpse of a horse. There's also a moral message included in the book but it feels kind of tacked on rather than central to the book. It's not a bad message, but I felt like Dircks could have woven it into the story better.

The result is a book that's just...missing something. Maybe it's because it's his first book. First books, heck, even my first book, are rough around the edges. The writer is still learning and polishing their own style. So I can't fault Dircks too much if this book is rough but it definitely feels unfinished or incomplete to me. So at most I can say it's okay. If the premise seems interesting enough it's probably worth the small purchase price, but I feel like there was potential that could have been more.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Odd Adventures with Your Other Father, by Norman Prentiss

Today I'm looking at a book I picked up on sale on Amazon, Odd Adventures with Your Other Father. This book contains two stories that complement each other. The first starts out as a framing story but eventually evolves into its own story. The second is a collection of stories, the titular odd adventures, which provides character background and provides the eerie, otherworldly feel to the book. Overall I though this was a pretty good book, and I'm not a huge fan of horror in the first place. It's not strictly a horror novel but it definitely feels like it shares certain elements with that genre, in addition to being a little science-fictiony.

This book is about a girl named Celia who gradually learns of the adventures her two fathers had in the 1980's after graduating from college. These stories are told to her by her Dad Shawn, to help her get to know her Dad Jack after he died of cancer when she was only four years old.

Jack and Shawn met in college and fell in love and after Jack won an award they took a year-long road trip across the United States, investigating little out of the way places an mysterious spots. Along the way, Jack and Shawn ran into a number of things that any sane person would dismiss as impossible. Vampires, werewolves, demons, succubi, all manner of horror story monsters. Most mysterious of all of these is Jack's ability to project a glamour.

Jack is capable of creating incredibly detailed images utilizing the power of his imagination and projecting them onto real-life objects. Unfortunately, Jack's ability comes with two significant drawbacks. First, the only person capable of seeing Jack's glamours is Shawn. Why this should be they're not sure, but they suspect it's something to do with the deep bond of love they share. Secondly, Jack's only capable of making things look worse. Jack can only make things look scarier, creepier, or more terrifying than they are in reality. Fortunately Jack and Shawn manage to find ways to utilize this ability despite its drawbacks and it actually saves their lives more than a few times.

The other story is Celia discovering more about her fathers and their past, doing research on her own and making plans to find out bits that Shawn chose to redact or omit. Eventually it becomes Celia's own story of discovery and growth, as well as healing wounds left by Jack's death.

As I said, I thought this book was pretty good. It's creepy, but I feel like it manages to not be too creepy. Some of Jack's earliest experiments with his glamour utilize a healthy dose of blood, guts, and gore but thankfully that doesn't come up too much in the rest of the stories. Granted, I say that because I'm not a huge fan of gore myself, usually I find it quite distasteful, but I think Prentiss did a really good job with his writing.

I also feel like Prentiss did a really good job of portraying the love between Shawn and Jack and that special tie that they shared. It especially comes across when we find out about the different misadventures they had and some of what Shawn had to go through for Jack's sake, and vice versa. Celia has a little bit of awkwardness in explaining her family, but as someone who lost a parent in childhood myself I can understand it being awkward and it feels genuine, compounded with the still ''unusual'' status of same-sex couples in the United States. Perhaps this portrayal will become dated with age, but I think it fits very well with the current era.

If you like horror, I think this is definitely worth your time to check out. And even if you're not a horror fan like me, I think there's still a lot about this book to enjoy and a lot to learn. Because if nothing else, there's a lot of love in this book, and that's definitely something the world could use more of.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Palace Job, by Patrick Weekes

Today I'm looking at The Palace Job, the first in a series called Rogues of the Republic by Patrick Weekes. As you might imagine from the title, this book is basically a fantasy version of the classic heist plot. As a heist it follows certain elements which you'll probably find familiar. (I actually don't watch many heist movies so I'm just kind of assuming that to be correct.) But, of course, it is a fantasy universe so they have to invade a flying city and get past magical wards instead of breaking into electronic security systems. Still, I think this book was pretty good.

The story follows Loch, a former scout captain for the Republic who was betrayed by her superior officer and sent to prison. What makes it worse is that superior is now Archvoyant of the Republic and he stole her family's lands, titles, and a rare elvish manuscript worth a fortune. And Loch intends to get even and get her family's treasure back. To do this she needs to break into the Archvoyant's palace, the most secure building in all of the Republic, and get into his personal vault. To do this, Loch recruits a misfit band of thieves, including a death priestess, an expelled wizard, and a shape-shifting unicorn. The odds are heavily stacked against them but Loch is determined to have her revenge.

One of the things I like about this book is the universe feels fairly well-developed. There are references to things that make the universe feel deeper and more complex than the standard fantasy universe. But Weekes doesn't go into giant pages-long bouts of exposition to explain his universe. You're kind of given bits and pieces as you move along and you have to try and put them together yourself. I never felt like I was hit with a massive exposition dump at once. Which can be a real challenge for fantasy authors when they're trying to create an entirely new universe.

I will say that since this is a heist there is an element of wheels-within-wheels to the plot so you're constantly guessing what the characters are really up to. Honestly I was kind of taken surprise by a lot of the stuff but I'm willing to admit there were a couple of reasons for this. First, I read this book over the course of three weeks so I was constantly picking it up and putting it back down for various reasons. Second, I am not the most subtle of people so cunning and complicated plans do not come naturally to me. However, I think it does add some re-reading value to the book because then I can go back and try to pick apart the plot.

I think Reese's greatest success is making his characters memorable and make me actually interested in what happens to them, such as Pryvic the Justicar, Tern the safecracker, Hessler the almost-wizard, and Desiadora the death priestess. Reese definitely has the makings of a good fantasy universe and hopefully he can build upon and expand his universe in later books.

I wouldn't say this book is perfect. There are still some things I don't really understand, such as the difference between the Learned and Skilled parties. Aside from one statement where one is described as tax-and-spend while the other is described as laissez faire, there doesn't seem to be terribly much difference between the two parties. But with that being said, I think this book was pretty good and definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Ghost Story, by Jim Butcher

Dear and gentle readers, as I've mentioned countless times in the previous books the Dresden Files series has gotten to the point it's basically impossible to talk about the books in a meaningful way without spoilers. This is especially true after the events of Changes. As a result, I will be including spoilers in this review. If you wish to avoid these, then please proceed elsewhere for the time being. Anyway, on to the review.

When we last left Harry he had been shot in the gut and had landed in Lake Michigan, a situation not conducive to his continued existence among the living. When we join Harry again he finds himself in a place called Between, cunningly named because it's between the mortal world and What Comes Next. Dresden meets the ghost of Captain Jack Murphy, Karrin Murphy's dad, who is in charge of a supernatural police agency affiliated with Heaven. Captain Murphy informs Harry that there's been an irregularity in his death so he can't go straight on and offers Harry a choice: either he can stay in Between and help the force, or he can go back to the mortal realm as a ghost and figure out who killed him. If Harry goes back to the mortal world it will definitely be an extremely dangerous operation. If he fails, Harry will be trapped forever, or possibly even cease to exist. But if Harry doesn't try, his friends will be in great danger without him. So it hardly seems like a choice to Harry.

Harry arrives to find that six months have gone by and in those six months things have started to come apart. Between the destruction of the Red Court and the disappearance of Harry, two very big fish in very big ponds, the balance of power in the supernatural world has shifted dramatically. Attacks on small-time practitioners and even ordinary humans has increased dramatically. Harry's friends and allies in Chicago have been working desperately to keep things under control, but it's been very much a losing battle for them. If they ever needed Harry's help, now is an excellent time. Unfortunately for Harry, there are only a handful of people who can interact with him at all. It's only through the help of Mortimer the Ectomancer that Harry's even able to make initial contact with his team. Plus, as a ghost Harry won't be able to go wandering around in daylight and it'll be the end of him if he's caught out in the dawn. If Harry's going to find out who killed him it's going to be a difficult operation.

I feel like this book is a definite continuation of the theme in Changes of breaking the setup of the old series and establishing a new setup, especially with Harry being mostly dead for this book. On the one hand, I can appreciate Butcher wanting to make a dramatic change in the series to ratchet the stakes up to even higher levels. Which can be pretty hard to do when the fate of the world has been in the balance numerous times already. But on the other hand I feel like Butcher effectively wiped the board clean and reset it between Changes and Ghost Story and I can't say that I like it. One of the things I came to appreciate about this series was the introduction of elements over time. We met Murphy, we met Toot-toot, we met Billy and the Alphas, Michael and the Knights of the Cross, Thomas, and a whole host of other characters over a series of books. At first it was a little annoying but I realized it was necessary background material to establish a regular cast that could cycle in and out of Harry's adventures. It made the universe feel deeper and more developed.

Additionally, as the books went on, Harry's relationships with his friends, allies, and enemies grew and developed. Harry took losses, but also made definite gains. It felt like progress was being made in Harry's life and he had built and expanded upon. I was getting to the point of feeling that Harry had a base of operations to work from. And then Butcher comes down, knocks the table over, and sets up entirely different pieces. It does result in an important character moment for Harry but otherwise I personally don't like that approach.

Otherwise the book is fine. I was kind of suspecting part of the end because I knew there were at least two more books after this so it seemed very unlikely to me that Harry would stay dead. With Harry being part of the Winter Court now, I think we're going to be moving to a much larger arena with much greater forces in play than we've seen before. (If that was even possible. But hey, magic!) Hopefully the next two books get Harry more involved against the Black Council or whoever the big bads who have been pulling the strings turn out to be. I'm willing to concede this book being mostly a transition if it pays off later.

- Kalpar