Thursday, March 30, 2017

War of Honor, by David Weber

Today I'm looking at War of Honor, the tenth book in the Honor Harrington series and some problems which I've noticed before are starting to become really glaring as the series goes on. On the one hand, I still like a lot of the characters and the universe of the books so I'm still reading them. (Plus I already bought a lot of the rest of the books in this particular series.) So I'm left wondering what to think about this series as the books get longer and longer, the plots get more and more complex, and the issues which were minor before become much larger as the series goes on. It's certainly not easy to watch a series I enjoy seem to flounder like this.

Usual disclaimer to fair and gentle readers. Some amount of spoiling will happen below because with nine books already gone it's almost impossible to talk about anything that's happened. If you wish to avoid spoilers please avert your eyes now. 

War of Honor picks up about four years after Ashes of Victory left off. The Star Kingdom of Manticore and the reborn Republic of Haven have been at an uneasy truce while negotiations over a permanent peace agreement have dragged on interminably. As part of the truce, the Star Kingdom's government, now in the hands of a coalition of the Conservative, Liberal, and Progressive parties after the death of Centrist Lord Cromarty at the end of the last book, has drastically reduced funding for the Royal Navy and cut back on not only active ships but also construction of ships, much to the frustration and dismay of many Centrists, Honor Harrington and Alexander Hamish included. Relieved of their naval commands, both Honor and Hamish have been deeply involved in the Star Kingdom's politics and have forged a close working relationship with Queen Elizabeth III.

As things almost always do in these books, a bad situation get worse, the midden hits the windmill, and it's up to Honor to save the day in some manner. And I wouldn't have it any other way. I think part of the problem, though, is that Honor is so far up the chain of command she's no longer in charge of a ship or a group of ships. She's a full-blown admiral and in command of fleets of ships. So when she's out in the field now, there are whole areas of space that become her responsibility and dozens of subordinates. And we do get to see those subordinates do things, such as the misadventures of the ship Jessica Epps in Silesia and the growing tensions with the Andermani Empire. But it does mean we get to see less of Honor out in the field, taking charge of things, when the series has her name on it. Which isn't to say hearing about people like Eloise Pritchart isn't interesting, she's a good character as well, but the series has definitely grown beyond Honor at this point.

As I mentioned earlier, there are some issues which have grown to be rather significant as the series has gone on. A big example is my perennial problem with Weber's writing: show, don't tell. There's an event mentioned in this book, the Manpower Incident, which has something to do with the genetic slave trade and connections with members of the Manticoran ruling parties which caused a huge scandal in the Kingdom. But we don't actually get to see this event within the book. I did some digging and I found out it's actually covered in a short story anthology set within the same universe which I have not read. And I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it kind of makes sense, considering how insanely big Weber's made his net of plot threads, to have different books to handle different parts of the universe. On the other hand, it gets really confusing when the characters are mentioning events I have had absolutely no inkling about or characters I haven't met before suddenly come into the narrative. At least, I'm pretty sure I haven't met them before. There are so many darn characters in this series it's hard for me to keep track sometimes.

So I'm not sure how much stuff that should have been shown in this book wasn't just shown in another book and now I'm wondering how many other books I'm going to have to hunt down and read. But I still have a sneaking suspicion that things that should have been shown were just told to us instead. And as Weber starts cramming in all these other plotlines like a new wormhole junction and the genetic slave trade, I'm worried that the main plotline is going to get muddled as a result.

Another issue I have is how apparently every politician who isn't some flavor of space-libertarian is evil and just waiting for an opportunity to abuse their power. I'm probably not representing this correctly but that's how it's coming across to me. To provide a short summary you have five major parties. The Crown Loyalists, whose platform seems to be pro-monarch, no matter what. Then there's the Centrists, Conservatives, Liberals, and Progressives. The Conservatives are almost entirely hard-right aristocrats who want to bring back the semi-feudal nature of the Star Kingdom and the old rights of the aristocracy. The Liberals and Progressives are both left of center politically speaking, although the Progressives are closer to center. They both favor varying degrees of economic and social reform to adjust imbalances in wealth equality in the Star Kingdom, their biggest difference seems to be their approach to Haven. The Liberals want to ignore the problem until it goes away, the Progressives want to make some sort of deal with Haven. And finally there are the Centrists who favor limited government, the flat income tax required by the Manticore constitution, and strong funding for the Royal Navy. In many ways they come across as libertarian except for their strong pro-military stance, although this is from my experience of libertarians being anti-military as well as anti-government, I could be wrong.

Where this gets frustrating is that almost everyone who isn't part of the Centrists or Crown Loyalists comes across as some card-carrying, moustache-twirling villain who's in government just to get as many kickbacks as possible before absconding with millions of dollars. Or in one case hopelessly naive and willing to compromise their principles if it'll keep them in power and get them what they want in the short-term. We really only see one member of the Liberal Party, Catherine Montaigne, who has any real moral backbone and she explicitly doesn't believe in the economic equality ''claptrap'' that the party platform includes. And several of the social programs which the Liberal and Progressive parties fund to help improve life in the Star Kingdom are explicitly overfunded so members of the government can skim amounts off the top for their own personal gain in a blatant example of embezzlement and malfeasance.

The result is an image that feels far too...simplistic to me. There can be and currently are long and ongoing debates over what exactly the role of the government should play in the economy. Personally I'm a social democrat so I tend to agree with the more interventionist approach to the government and the economy. Which isn't to say I don't recognize where intervention and regulation can go to far and there needs to be a certain degree of freedom. And there can be some strong arguments made for a more hands-off approach. But I wouldn't say people on either side of the argument are inherently bad. I think it's very unlikely that most people who support government programs to help improve the welfare of its citizens see it as opportunities to skim a bunch of money off the top for themselves. And I wouldn't accuse people who oppose social welfare spending as being heartless bastards who just hate the poor and see them as worthless parasites. I know some people who genuinely think like that, but I'm willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to other people.

In this book, however, it feels very black and white. It's implied that not all the members of parliament that aren't Centrists or Crown Loyalists are bad people, but we don't really get to see that. One of the things I've really liked about this book is that Manticore and Haven weren't all good or all bad. There were bad people on Manticore's side and good people on Haven's side and we could like and respect both sides even if the conflict was misguided. But with how Manticore's internal politics are portrayed in this book, it feels like all nuance has gone out the airlock and we've either got heroic statesmen or craven politicians. I just wish for more of a nuance.

Overall this book is okay, and I like seeing characters I like and I still enjoy the universe, but I worry that it's getting to be too big a project and also that the problems like show don't tell are starting to become rather large issues in the series. Not only did we have the ongoing conflict between Manticore and Haven, but we had the genetic slave trade, the expansion of the wormhole junction, Manticore's internal politics, Silesia, and growing conflict with the Andermani Empire. The result was it feels like Weber's trying to take on too much in one book. It certainly makes the universe feel deep and complex, but it makes the book that much more difficult to follow as well. Because I'm invested in the series I'll probably keep trooping through with it, but I definitely understand why some people would want to give up at this point.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Taliesin, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Today I'm looking at the first of the five books of The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen R. Lawhead. The reason I'm looking at this series is twofold. First, it's a different take on Arthurian legend and as I may have established previously on this blog, I am a huge sucker for Arthurian legend. Secondly, I can get all of them for free from the library to listen to, so that's a pretty good deal in my opinion. This series is, as far as I can tell, an attempt to make the Arthurian mythos vaguely match up with history. I say vaguely because once you've thrown Atlantis and magic into the mix it's hardly become historical fantasy anymore.

The book mostly follows the lives of Taliesin, a prince of a Celtic tribe in Britain during the waning days of the Roman Empire, and Charis, the princess of one of the nine kingdoms of Atlantis. The book alternates between Taliesin and Charis until Charis and her people are forced to flee Atlantis and arrive in Britain where they meet Taliesin's people. Charis and Taliesin eventually fall in love and have a son whom they name Merlin. So really this book is a really long story about Merlin's parents.

I'm not sure how I feel about this book because it feels like a very lengthy exercise in setting the conflict for later books up rather than accomplishing much itself. There are a few important things that happen, it is true, and we're pretty explicitly beat over the head with the idea that dark days are coming. The fall of Atlantis is blamed on a rise in some mysterious dark force, although what it is I'm not entirely sure. Possibly Satan? And then there's the general fall of Rome from Britain and the arrival of Irish, Picts, Scots, and Saxons in Britain causing all sorts of trouble. So yeah, things are pretty bad, but I was left with the feeling the book took so long to talk about how bad things were and setting things up for later books, that this felt like an extended prologue.

I'm also not sure on the decision to talk about Merlin's parents and grandparents. There are some interesting approaches, such as having the stories of Fair Folk be about people from Atlantis who just act very differently from the native residents of Britain, or having Charis's title of Lady of the Lake be an affectionate name Taliesin gave her. And while Taliesin is a name established in Welsh folklore (at least what a minimal amount of digging managed to turn up for me anyway), I am left wondering how many casual readers of Arthurian myth would pick up on the connection. And, as I said, I was left with the feeling that not a lot happens in this book so much as it's setting stuff up for the next books. It's okay to do twists on Arthurian legend. Heck, Gwenhwyfar was one enormous twist on the mythos and I loved it. But at least in Gwenhwyfar there were characters we recognized from the story so we could compare them to how they differed. In this one, we really only get the Fisher King, the Lady of the Lake, and Merlin as a baby. I just wish there had been more familiar characters for us to see. Maybe in the next book we'll see more, like Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father. But that remains to be seen.

In an interesting side note, I've also discovered what it takes for me to suspend my disbelief. Magic? Fine. Atlantis? No problem. Potatoes, an American root crop, in Roman Britain? Hold on there, something's not right! It was really a throwaway line that the author probably didn't give a second thought, but me being the pedantic historian I am I latched onto it. I'm also not sure about claiming Mithras and Isis were the same god but in male and female forms. Although we have very little information about Mithras to begin with so it's hard to say for certain. I did feel like the theology of this book's universe got really fuzzy. Like I didn't understand why British druids would care about the birth of Jesus who they admit as the son of the good god but don't worship as a god? Until Taliesin meets god and becomes a prophet of Christianity? Seriously, Christianity comes in really suddenly and Taliesin's basically, ''Aw man, Christianity is the best thing ever! Their god is awesome!'' Which...okay, cool, I guess. It just feels odd to me because I know some of the Christianity stuff like the Grail Quest got grafted onto the Arthurian mythos much later.

So far I feel like of the more ''historical'' takes on Arthurian legend, Gwenhwyfar leaves this one far behind in the dust. Maybe it will improve with later books, but that remains to be seen.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne M. Harris

Today I'm looking at The Gospel of Loki, a story narrated by the ultimate trickster himself providing his own version of how things really went down before Ragnarok, rather than the official version of events we've gotten from Odin. It's an interesting approach but other than towards the very beginning and very end of the story I'm not sure exactly how much The Gospel of Loki strays from the original source material. And of course, thanks to Tom Hiddleston's portrayal in the Marvel cinematic universe Loki has enjoyed a tremendous surge in popularity in recent years. But, being not a very big fan of tricksters myself, I'm not sure where I fall opinion-wise on this book.

I think the biggest problem I had was it's been a long time since I did any reading of Norse mythology. I remember some of the important bits, like when Loki's lips were stitched shut, or the adventures Thor and Loki had together, or the death of Baldur, but I was fuzzy on the exact details. And even the source material conflicts. There are the both the Prose and Poetic Eddas which vary slightly in their tellings of Norse mythology, as well as the numerous oral traditions which inevitably cause some variation in a story over the years. But aside from telling the story from Loki's perspective, I was left with the feeling that this book didn't vary a lot from the stories that have been passed down over the generations.

The biggest changes I could identify, as I said, are towards the beginning and the end of the book. Loki provides a slightly different account of the Aesir-Vanir war and questions the official version of events for the creation of the nine worlds. After all, Odin was the only one who was there, so it's hard to gainsay his version of events. Loki also makes ominous references to Odin's brothers who helped kill the frost giant Ymir, but are never heard from again. Furthermore Loki in this book is depicted as springing fully-formed from the primordial chaos rather than being born, which at least the source materials suggest because he has parents. There's also the ending but that would legitimately spoil the entire book so I'd rather not mention it here.

I guess the biggest change is Loki's rationalizations for doing what he does. In the source material there isn't a lot of explanation, Loki just causes problems and annoys everyone until they finally get fed up with his shenanigans and chain him under the earth with poison from the world-serpent dripping into his eyes. In this book there are a lot of rationalizations that Loki provides. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons why he does things, such as he got himself into trouble and needs to cunningly get himself back out of trouble. But a lot of the time it feels like he does things just for petty spite. Or, as he repeatedly says throughout the book, ''It's just in my nature. So shoot me.'' Which comes across as a worthless explanation in my opinion, about as legitimate as, ''The devil made me do it.''  If Harris is trying to make Loki a more sympathetic character in her re-telling of Norse mythology, I'm not sure if she's really accomplished that. Loki comes across as just as petty, just as ill-tempered, and just as much of a jerk as he did in the source, but now he adds the insult of saying he tries to be good, but it's the chaos inside him that makes him act bad. It just doesn't improve on his character in my opinion.

Overall this book is pretty okay, and I think part of that is because it sticks so close to the various source materials. The fragments of Norse mythology we've gotten passed down to us are pretty awesome so they make for some really good stories. But I'm not sure how much this work improves on or reinterprets the original source material as a result. But I guess if you're a fan of everything Loki it's worth a look.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Today I'm looking at another book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, some of you might remember my review of one of her other books, The Bully Pulpit. Team of Rivals deals with the life of not only Abraham Lincoln, but also the lives of the initial members of his cabinet such as Secretary of State William Seward, Attorney General Edward Bates, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Several of these men were actually competitors for the Republican nomination for president in 1860, but simply did not have enough support to clinch the nomination on the first ballot. As Goodwin illustrates in her book, Lincoln had the political expertise to build a coalition that saw him as the best second choice and allowed him to secure the nomination on the third ballot. Lincoln went on to include many of these men within his Cabinet, ensuring that he would be exposed to a broad range of political opinions representing the spectrum of the Republican party. From the conservative leaning Bates and Montgomery Blair, to the radical Chase, Lincoln was able to synthesize a middle-ground policy that was palatable to the majority of the Republican party and kept the fractious coalition together through the struggle of the Civil War.

As Goodwin explains in considerable detail, Lincoln was at a relative disadvantage compared to his competitors for the nomination of president in 1860. Lincoln alone did not have the benefit of a university education or a privileged background. Although definitely doing very well for himself in 1860 with a comfortable income, Lincoln had struggled up from a dirt-poor background and was largely self-taught. Lincoln's greatest strength, however, was his ability to connect with people and form loyal and lasting friendships, despite setbacks. Goodwin makes an excellent contrast between Lincoln and Chase. During his ascent through political offices, Chase, made numerous deals and often abandoned his allies when that relationship was no longer convenient for him, earning him the enmity of relationships he could have leveraged to his benefit later on. Lincoln, by contrast, was incredibly magnanimous in defeat and remained loyal to his political allies, even when it meant surrendering opportunities for advancement such as one of Illinois's Senate seats. Because Lincoln sought to maintain his relationships with his friends and allies, he had the long-term advantage of a broad base of support when he finally ran for president.

Because of Lincoln's relative lack of higher education, many people assumed other members of the Cabinet, Seward especially, would be the guiding force behind government policy. To the contrary reams upon reams of documents, both official and unofficial, clearly show that Lincoln was always in control of his Cabinet. While there were fractious disputes, especially in the rivalry between Chase and Blair, Lincoln ultimately was in control of the Cabinet. While willing and able to listen to advice and dissent from his advisors, Lincoln always made his own decision based on what he thought best for the country.

What emerges is the image of Lincoln as the consummate statesman. And perhaps this book is a little on the hagiographic side; it is after all difficult to look upon the Great Emancipator without some degree of awe. But Goodwin makes a compelling argument that Lincoln's personality, including his sense of humor, his oratorical abilities, his literary talent, and his ability to make friends with anyone and never hold grudges, make him appear a solid individual. There are countless examples where Lincoln behaved in a manner we would seldom expect someone in a position of authority to do. Whether it was take responsibility for a bad decision rather than dumping the blame on a subordinate, or never holding angry or unkind words against a person, Lincoln always maintained an attitude of kindness, generosity, and magnanimity. He really comes across in this book as probably the kindest and best person we ever had as president.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in nineteenth century American history and learning more not only about Abraham Lincoln, but also the men in his cabinet who helped steer America through one of its greatest crises. My opinion of Salmon P. Chase, who helped shape how much of our modern banking system works, has definitely gone down because of his bad attitude and willingness to abandon friends. And my frustration with George McClellan, who occasionally fancied himself a good candidate for dictator of the United States and had a very low opinion of Lincoln, has gone up as well. It does get kind of dense going into the lives of several people, but I think it's well worth the effort.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Mrs. Bradshaw's Handbook, by Sir Terry Pratchett

Today I'm looking at a slim little volume that I picked up when I was on vacation back in August, Mrs. Bradshaw's Handbook, which is a complimentary book to the Discworld series. As people who read Raising Steam may remember, Mrs. Bradshaw was a character who Moist von Lipwig met very briefly and recommended to Harry King to write about the railway as a form of advertising. Mrs. Bradshaw's Handbook is that book, albeit written by Sir Terry Pratchett and aided with The Discworld Emporium as a sort of artifact from the Disc. Sort of like how you can buy copies of the Imperial Infantryman's Uplifting Primer if you're a 40k fan. (Also, holy cow, $150? I definitely didn't pay that much for my copy!) Anyway it's a neat little book if a little...repetitive.

I can't really talk about the plot of this book because there is no plot. It's actually written as a guidebook for a traveller on the Ankh-Morpork & Sto Plains Hygienic Railway and divided into six chapters. The first chapter deals with ticketing, boarding trains, and details about the main terminal in Ankh-Morpork. The remaining five chapters deal with various portions of the AM&SPHR's line and the various stops, as well as the different attractions and amenities one can expect to find at various locations. Each chapter also includes a more detailed description of the hotels at various stops along the line.

Physically it's a very nice book. So far it's only been printed in hardcover and includes the appearance of a distressed book on the cover, which is a neat little feature I like. There are also lots of neat illustrations and bits of ephemera from the Disc that are included in the book. Now you're probably wondering, ''Kalpar, why are you talking about what the book looks like? You never talk about that.'' And you'd be right to ask that but...there's not a lot more to the book beyond that. It looks nice and it's a neat thing to have but it feels very lacking in substance. There are some good jokes but otherwise it's just a list of small towns that don't have a lot about them other than the unique way the locals use cabbages.

And that's where the book gets really repetitive in my opinion, especially when it comes to cabbages. Like, it's a little funny at the beginning when they start mentioning cabbages. It's like, ''Haha, man, those people really like their cabbages!'' And then it turns into a joke that's beaten to death and it becomes a relief when we finally get to parts of the Disc that don't grow cabbages. This town makes boots out of cabbages. This town makes paper out of cabbages. This town has a cabbage theme park. This town doesn't exist anymore because somebody made explosive sauerkraut. I just got tired of hearing about cabbages over and over.

So who would I recommend this book for? Probably avid Discworld fans like me who want to collect anything and everything connected to Discworld. If you're already deeply in love with the Disc this will be a nice addition to your collection of all things Pratchett. If you're just a casual fan or a newcomer, this book isn't really worth your time because you'll just be confused more than anything else.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Star Wars: Bloodline, by Claudia Gray

Today I'm looking at another Star Wars novel, in this case the recent book Bloodline. This is another one of the new books which is part of the new canon tied with The Force Awakens, opposed to all the old books that I read when I was a teenager and now are no longer canon and...okay so the lore's kind of become a mess but you have to expect that with a popular property that's nearly forty years old at this point.

The plot of Bloodline follows Senator Leia Organa some twenty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and I refuse to refer to her as princess despite almost everyone doing so in the novel because: 1. The planet she was a princess of doesn't exist anymore and 2. She's going into middle age at this point, doesn't she deserve to be called Queen or Viceroy or something? I'm pretty sure Alderaan wasn't a principality. But I digress. The senate of the New Republic has split into two major factions, the Populists like Senator Organa who favor local control and are more concerned with keeping the central government from repeating the tyrannies of the Empire, and the Centrists who wish to establish a stronger central government with more authority in military and economic affairs. The dispute between the two factions has led to endless debates over points of protocol within the Senate and brought the organs of government to a grinding halt.

As a result, things are starting to break down throughout the galaxy. There is increased discontent among member worlds of the New Republic and issues such as piracy and organized crime are beginning to take their toll on local economies. Action is desperately needed and both the Centrists and Populists are intensely frustrated with the deadlock but are unwilling to compromise to create progress. When a request from an emissary of Ryloth begs the Senate to investigate growing criminal enterprises around their planet, Senator Organa and the young Centrist Senator Ransolm Casterfo volunteer to go on a senatorial investigation and soon uncover that there's far more to this spice-trading cartel than there initially appears.

Plot-wise the book helps explain the origins of the Resistance and the New Order who are the major players in The Force Awakens, as well as the split between the Resistance and the New Republic. While this answers some questions I had when I watched the movie, it does give me pause. I am largely of the opinion that a story told in a movie format should be self-contained within the movie. Now with the saga nature of the Star Wars franchise I can understand people having to watch earlier movies in the franchise to have it make sense, but at least those are within the same medium. I'm not sure how I feel about people having to read comics or books or play video games or watch tv series to find out important bits of information in movies. Especially when the book comes out some five months after the movie does.

This is a trend that's sort of been happening with the Marvel cinematic universe as well, where the movies are all getting more and more densely connected and also tied to things like the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv series. On the one hand it's an interesting experiment in multi-media platforms to tell a much larger story in a way that I'm not sure has really been attempted before now. On the other hand, it then becomes a challenge to go read/watch/consume everything within that franchise to understand everything that's going on. Which is one of the problems I've had when I've tried to read superhero comics in the past because the crossovers mean you have to go and read a dozen different titles to understand everything going on in a plot, which I'm just not used to. So I can see how it might be fun for people with all these different stories, but I can also see how outsiders might get even more put off because of the complexity of the lore and refuse to jump in.

There are a couple of things I also just really don't understand about this book either. First is the almost ingrained antipathy sci-fi writers seem to have for governments in general and legislatures in specific. I think I really only notice it because I'm reading one of the Honor Harrington novels at the time I listened to this book (more on that later this month) and both had corrupt or incompetent politicians who just make things work. There are some decent people, but the Senate as a whole is depicted as a petty, incompetent, and constantly squabbling group that would argue over the proper seating arrangements for lunch before getting to the menu. On the one hand, it feels very much like an Articles of Confederacy situation where the New Republic is too afraid of centralizing authority because of past experiences with a centralized authority, but at the same time it feels like this has gone on for too long for nobody to do anything about it. I can understand people's frustration with government, but it still does stuff on a pretty regular basis.

The other thing that just seems really weird to me is Ransolm, who is an avid collector of Imperial war antiques, such as helmets, flags, pieces of propaganda, and so on. Senator Organa is, of course, very upset by his decision to display his collection in his office and that makes some sense. Ransolm strenuously denies that he wants the brutal tyranny of the Empire and its corruption to come back, but he says he does admire their strength and efficiency and the valor of the ordinary men and women who were fighting for a cause they believed in. Leia counters with the argument that whatever good the Empire may have done, such as coming down on pirates and smugglers, was far outweighed by the bad, including the destruction of Alderaan. And as my girlfriend said it's kind of weird that he collects this stuff. It's almost like if somebody had a collection of Nazi relics and while they deplored Hitler and the Holocaust, they admired the efficiency and strength of the Third Reich. By the narrowest definition they're not doing anything wrong, but you certainly would be looking askance at someone who talked like that. I know I would be.

Ransolm's hobby makes even less sense when his backstory is revealed and it turns out that not only did his parents work themselves to death in an Imperial labor camp on his homeworld, but he watched Darth Vader kill his own father in front of him when he was no older than six. Understandably Ransolm has some very, very good and very personal reasons to hate Palpatine and Vader. But his desire to collect Imperial artifacts makes even less sense with this backstory. You would think he'd want nothing to do with the Empire. I just can't seem to wrap my head around it.

Overall this book is okay and it's definitely better than some of the other stuff from the Expanded Universe I've let myself read over the years. I think most of the problems I have usually boil down to I learned an entirely different chronology and backstory and so I don't know how I feel about this entirely new and different canon which replaces the old canon. And if you want to know more about how the galaxy got into the mess it did right before Force Awakens, then Bloodline has answers for you.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, by David Jaher

Today I'm looking at a book that deals with the second wave of Spiritualism in the United States starting around the time of World War I and going into the 1920's. The first wave, which Jaher briefly mentions, began in 1848 and expanded through the Civil War era before falling into relative disbelief. Much has been made of the growth of Spiritualism during times of war, especially around the American Civil War and World War I, as well as during times of high death tolls such as the many illnesses of the mind nineteenth century and the Spanish Flu epidemic following World War I. The desire for many people to make contact with lost loved ones and be assured that they were all right is an understandable need during these times when so many people were ripped away from their families. In addition advances in communication technology such as the telegraph, telephone, and wireless radio, made the public believe that communication with spirits beyond this plane of existence might also be possible. 

Jaher's book focuses not so much on the growth of spiritualism as a movement so much as Harry Houdini's long-running feud with spiritualist mediums and his efforts to expose them as frauds. Specifically the book focuses on Harry Houdini and Mina Crandon, a Boston socialite who was for a period of time considered to be the best example of the legitimate thing. As Jaher argues, Crandon's social status, as well as the fact she did not perform seances for money, may have contributed to the long period of belief people had in her abilities, however Houdini did not believe her from the start and eventually other individuals declared her a fraud as well, although Crandon never admitted so during her life. 

There are a couple of reasons for this enmity. First in earlier points of his career Houdini actually performed as a medium in various travelling shows so he was well aware of the various tricks utilized by mediums to gain the confidence of their audience. Second, Houdini was part of a commission made by the magazine Popular Science to investigate into whether any claims made by mediums of supernatural or supernormal abilities had any merit, with a considerable cash prize for any confirmed psychics. Including several scientists, Houdini and the committee revealed several frauds, including Mrs. Crandon, before Popular Science abandoned the search for a genuine psychic. When many other people seemed to be taken in by Mrs. Crandon's performances, Houdini remained unconvinced and one of the most outspoken critics of mediums and spiritualism, gaining the ire of the spiritualist community. 

I do find the phenomenon of spiritualism to be understandable, if incredibly suspicious from the beginning. After all, people who were separated from family members early in their life or in the prime of their life would have a strong desire to connect with their loved ones and know that they were okay after death. However from the beginning the amazing feats of mediums happened in very suspicious circumstances. For example, seances were only undertaken in darkness or extremely dim light because the spirits and ectoplasm did not like bright light. So mysterious levitations could be barely seen or couldn't be seen at all, making the opportunity for all sorts of trickery possible. In addition, mediums often put themselves in spirit cabinets, an area where they were secluded and often obscured from sight and from which they'd work miracles. Even to some contemporaries all this behavior seemed highly suspicious and unsurprisingly when placed in controlled conditions the mediums were unable to produce many of their miraculous effects. Of course this seldom discouraged the strongest believers in spiritualism or the mediums, merely stating that the hostile mood of the circle or some other thing was responsible for the failure of the spirits. 

Overall this book is an interesting look at a subculture of American life during the 1920's. However, it is fairly specific in its focus and may not be terribly interesting to people who don't wish to study spiritualism. If you're curious about the movement and the various ways in which mediums engaged in trickery during this time period it's well worth looking at, but otherwise I think you can safely pass this by. 

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

Today I'm looking at the first in a series of books which since I can get them from the library and they cost me nothing I may explore further. As you may have guessed from the title, this book is about Johannes Cabal, a necromancer by profession. In order to gain his knowledge of necromancy, Cabal sold his soul to Satan, and actually agreed to give it up in advance rather than waiting until he died, assuming that it was of little value to him. Much to Cabal's frustration he has discovered not having a soul has begun to interfere with his research into the nature of death and he has been forced to call upon Satan once again to see if he can get his soul back.

Satan, of course, is not in the business of handing souls back to anyone who asks but consents to engaging in a wager with Cabal. Cabal will be given one year to collect exactly one hundred souls in exchange for his. Satan will even provide him with resources to assist in this quest. But if Cabal fails, then Satan shall kill him immediately, putting an end to Cabal's efforts to conquer death. Although Cabal finds the very prospect of a wager distasteful it is the only way he can get his soul back and he agrees.

The basic bones of the story has been done before. Heck, it was part of the plot of Dead Man's Chest so it's hardly anything new. However the execution is fairly original and the concept of a travelling carnival out to steal souls is interesting as well. As most of the carnivals I've attended in the past were for church benefits there's a certain disconnect I enjoy on a personal level. And Howard does a really good job of making Cabal feel like a fleshed out character. You may disagree with what he's doing and his methods, but over the book you at least gain an ability to understand him and begin to see him as more than the brusque necromancer.

Howard also has a dry, witty tone reminiscent of Pratchett or Gaiman but being distinct enough that the book's definitely his own creation rather than an imitation of somebody else's work. And that's really hard to pull off so kudos to him for it. But where Howard excels at the plot, I feel like he fails rather critically in world-building. I found myself asking questions about the universe such as when are they? Cabal wears a frock coat, top hat, and cravat, a fairly Victorian outfit, but the story at least takes place after World War I and I have reason to believe it takes place after the Beeching Cuts of the 1960's. (Listen, I know things about railroads.) I'm also a little confused where they're supposed to be because Cabal is described as having a German accent, but it seems the book is implied to take place in Britain but I'm not sure if that was explicitly stated.

I was also curious as to what the status of magic within the universe was. I got the impression that magic wasn't a common, everyday occurrence and maybe most people had no contact with it at all. However, towards the end of the book a lot of people seemed to know what necromancers, knew they existed, and had very strong opinions on them. So it's almost like magic is uncommon enough to be rare, but common enough that its existence is taken seriously as a fact of life. I just kind of wish there had been more clarification about that in the world-building.

I will say, without spoiling the book, that the plot takes a really dark turn towards the climax. Like, I know this is a story about one man trying to get a hundred souls to replace his in hell, but it was still kind of humorous. Dark humor or gallows humor, certainly, but humorous. But it then takes a really serious turn away from humor that left me pretty shaken and the book almost loses the humor in the last third or so of the novel. But I ended up liking the resolution and was pretty satisfied with how the book ended so Howard did a pretty good job.

Overall Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer is pretty interesting. I will say it's similar to stuff by Pratchett or Gaiman, but Howard manages to put his own spin on it to make it unique enough to be entertaining. My biggest issue is the world-building which I felt could have been expanded a little further but otherwise it's fairly enjoyable.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The King's Bed: Sex and Power in the Court of Charles II, by Don Jordan & Michael Walsh

Today I'm looking at a biography of Charles II of Britain, who did quite a lot to earn the sobriquet of The Merry Monarch. I mean, this man was an absolute party animal to the point Horrible Histories did a rap song about how much he partied. Oh, and while I'm at it, this is also the monarch who rewarded the man who attempted to steal the crown jewels. Yes. Seriously. This was a person who was monarch of Britain. For twenty-five years. So there's a certain morbid fascination with Charles II's reign and the sheer excesses he indulged in and, as Jordan and Walsh illustrate, Charles II became little more than a puppet of Louis XIV of France towards the end of his reign, his lavish lifestyle propped up by extensive subsidies from the French treasury. Interestingly enough, Charles II's most lasting legacy is the numerous bastard children he sired on his many, many mistresses, a significant number of whom he lavished titles and estates. As a result a significant number of the upper crust in Britain today can trace their ancestry back to him.

This book's focus is mostly on the numerous affairs and libertine lifestyle of Charles II and his relationship with his numerous mistresses throughout his life, although it covers his life from beginning to end, with some slight context before and afterwards. Charles grew up into the events of the English Civil War and was forced as he entered adolescence to flee to France with his mother, while his father was executed by Oliver Cromwell and other Roundheads. For years Charles lived in exile, dependent on the charity of the French court and other nobles for his support and, rather than studying statecraft or other subjects, Charles threw himself into hedonistic excess. The result, when Cromwell finally died and Charles was restored to the throne as Charles II, was that he was largely uninterested in the actual management of the kingdom so long as his lavish lifestyle could be supported.

If there are any great achievements of Charles II's reign, I honestly can't say I know what they are. Jordan and Walsh briefly mention the establishment of the Royal Society and the Greenwich Observatory under Charles's reign, but in their text they choose to focus on his sex life and spendthrift habits, as well as somewhat disastrous foreign policy. Perhaps there were some things of positive significance which Charles managed to accomplish while he was king, but the book makes only passing mention to them. The result is a very long and somewhat repetitive story of Charles falling in love with various mistresses, the bestowing of extraordinary gifts unto his paramours which cuts deeply into his cash reserves, and then the public outcry at the behavior which had left the crown destitute. Honestly I got the impression that for the entire time he was king, Charles never really stopped being the feckless playboy, at least as Jordan and Walsh depict it.

In many ways, the disastrous foreign policy during the reign of Charles II was a result of his extravagant lifestyle. In addition to bestowing expensive gifts outright, Charles also often picked up the gambling debts of his favorite mistresses and would bestow upon favorites incomes from certain taxes. Thus revenue that should have been going to the Exchequer were being given directly to countless courtiers and mistresses, further decreasing the king's income. Not to mention that in one example Jordan and Walsh provide, when Parliament demanded to know what had happened to some five million pounds they had granted the king, only half of that sum could be accounted for. Because of these spendthrift habits, Charles decided to mothball some of the strongest and most expensive ships in the Royal Navy, which certainly contributed to the disaster of the Second Anglo-Dutch War and the burning or capture of many of those mothballed ships in harbor by a Dutch raiding force.

Ultimately Charles's need for more money would push him closer and closer to Louis XIV and into the arms of Louise Renee de Panancoet de Kerouaille, a woman sent to England expressly to lure Charles to her bed. Through extensive financial support and control of Charles II, France was able to assure British neutrality as they extended their influence into regions such as Alsace and Flanders, much to the frustration of the more anti-French factions in British politics at the time. As Jordan and Walsh conclude Charles II ended up as little more than a figurehead while Louis XIV decided what British policy truly would be.

Overall this book is interesting, if it gets somewhat repetitive. Charles doesn't seem to change terribly much as a person through his reign as king, and even from his life before his accession to the throne. Depending on your views of sexual morality and financial responsibility Charles can seem a lovable scoundrel or an embarrassment to the monarchy and best forgotten. I'm left with the impression that Charles's reign was filled with flash and glamor, but utterly lacking in substance.

- Kalpar