Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood.

Today I'm looking at another book which was recommended to me by a friend, The Handmaid's Tale  by Margaret Atwood. This is mostly a feminist social commentary with only very, very light sci-fi elements so it's just the slightest bit outside my usual bailiwick. However I think this is a very important book because the issues it addresses have not gone away. In some cases you might be able to say they've even become more important with the emergence of various Men's Rights Activists and Red-pillers. It is hardly a subtle book, but that makes it no less valid.

The plot of The Handmaid's Tale takes place in New England at some undetermined future point. Christian extremists assassinated most of the American government and suspended the Constitution, establishing a strict, orthodox, militant, religious, and patriarchal society called the Republic of Gilead. The Republic's forces are involved in wars with dissident groups such as Baptists and Methodists across the country and it's implied a majority of the male population are involved in fighting these wars. Women, however, have been relegated to only a handful of roles.

Wives occupy the highest ranks of the hierarchy, dress entirely in blue, and enjoy relative luxury. Next are the Aunts, older unmarried women who are the only women allowed to read and write and serve as disciplinarians for the female population. Then there are the Marthas who dress entirely in green and do all the cooking, cleaning, and other ''traditional'' domestic tasks. There are also Econowives who dress in a mixture of green, blue, and red because their husbands are not high enough status to be granted a Wife and a Martha so all of the work falls upon them. At the bottom of this hierarchy are the Handmaids, who are dressed entirely in red and exist only as breeding stock.

It's implied that the results of chemical and atomic war have greatly reduced the population capable of producing viable offspring and Gilead faces a shortage of births. Part of their solution is the system of Handmaids, who are moved from house to house so they can produce as many babies as possible. The Handmaids are given almost no important tasks and their entire value is wrapped up in their ability to bear children. They are not even given proper names but merely referred to by the name of their owner. The main character, whose real name we never learn, serves a man named Fred so she is called Offred, while other Handmaids are called Ofglen, Ofcharles, and so on. If a Handmaid proves unable to bear children they're sent to the Colonies with other societal rejects.

The book does a very good job of showing the tedium, desperation, and deeply dehumanizing experience of women under this system. All women are required to wear clothing which conceals everything but their heads and sometimes their hands. And in the case of the Handmaids, they are required to wear headgear outside the house which covers their head and makes their face difficult to see, to remove all temptation the sight of women provides men. This is described by the Republic of Gilead as a good thing for women because it makes them free from the problems women experienced prior to the Republic, such as unwanted sexual advances, cat-calling, and even rape, but we see very much how the misbehavior of men is used as a mean to punish and control women in the name of ''protecting'' them.

One of the biggest themes is the enforced tedium of the lives of the women because they are relegated to the domestic sphere The Handmaids are severely restricted in what they're allowed to do because their ability to bear children is seen as a vital and necessary resource. The Marthas, of course, have to perform all the necessary domestic labor and receive little to no thanks for it and certainly no break from the endless labor. Even the life of the Wives is shown as little better than a gilded cage. They may enjoy endless creature comforts and lives of relative ease, but there is the frustration of not being able to do anything. The women are just passing time until they die, imprisoned in their own houses.

This book is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but I think sometimes that lack of subtlety is needed in a book. Although The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1986, it unfortunately remains very relevant today. The support of various people for ''traditional gender roles'' (which incidentally weren't a thing until the nineteenth century for most people) and assertions that women need to be protected and cherished in the home, remaining unsullied by the dangerous world dominated by men. Not to mention the constant criticism of what women are wearing, whether it's too conservative or too licentious, and the inevitable rounds of victim-blaming that happen after a high-profile rape case. On some level, I wish American society had gotten to a point where we could look at The Handmaid's Tale and see it as a quaint criticism of social issues as they existed in a previous era. Unfortunately, much like criticism of racism, it remains very valid today and shows America has a long way to go.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

First Rider's Call, by Kristen Britain

As you might remember, I reviewed a book some time ago called Green Rider, the first in a series by Kristen Britain. I remember thinking the main character, Karigan, seemed to stumble from one crisis to the next while usually requiring help from other people, but overall I thought it wasn't that bad. At the encouragement of the friend who suggested I read this series in the first place, I decided to read the second book, First Rider's Call, which is set about two years after the events of the first book.

When we left Karigan at the end of Green Rider, she had refused the Call to Adventure and had gone back to live with her father and work with their merchant clan's business. At the time I had expressed some frustration because of our heroine's decision to turn down a very literal call. Fortunately I was not the only one and the book begins with the very irate ghost of the First Rider finally rousing Karigan to answer the call and join the Green Riders, which I found very hilarious. The rest of the book involves Karigan mostly resigned to her role as a Green Rider. There is some grumbling on her part, but it seems like she's accepted this is the path that's been chosen for her.

There were a couple of things I really liked about this book and I think I found it somewhat better than the first one. The biggest thing is a time travel plot which you don't see a lot in fantasy. Sci-fi it's very common but I think I'd be hard pressed to name more than a couple of examples of time travel in a fantasy series. The result is we learn more about the history of the world Britain has created and the history of the Green Riders as well. Sprinkled through these books are journal entries from an imperial official which, while initially confusing, you begin to see how they're connected to the rest of the narrative and become that much more interesting. Plus I'm always a sucker for a good time-travel plot so this book definitely had that going in its favor.

I also feel like Karigan didn't stumble as much from crisis to crisis in this book. There are points where she's helpless and needs to be rescued by others, but I was left with the feeling Karigan had far more agency in this book than she did in the previous one. I'm not so crazy about her being the Chosen One Super Special Snowflake, at least that's kind of the vibe that I got from the book, but I'm not a big fan of Chosen Ones in the first place so that's hardly a surprise. I feel like we get to see Karigan develop as a character and there is promise she'll develop into a fine leader in later books.

One thing I did notice was Britain seemed to be pushing the relationship between Karigan and King Zachary really hard, especially when we find out the First Rider and the first high king were romantically involved which creates further parallels between the two characters. You know, beyond both of them sharing the same magical brooch. On some level I'm okay with it because while I'm not a huge fan of romance plots, they don't bother me overmuch. The problem is when, especially towards the end of the book, this gets played for all sorts of drama between Karigan and Zachary which promises to continue well into later books. I'm not a huge fan of the endless drama sort of romance plots so I'm certainly not looking forward to that.

Overall though, I enjoyed this book. It had been a while since I'd read the first one so some of the details had gotten a little fuzzy, but I thought it was pretty good. Definitely better than some of the other fantasy novels I've slogged through.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bible Stories for Secular Humanists, by S.P. Somtow

Today I'm looking at another book by the Thai author, S.P. Somtow. Some of you may remember when I looked at his Chronicles of the High Inquest series some time ago and my conclusion was, ''These are kind of weird.'' Interestingly enough, I can't remember how exactly Bible Stories for Secular Humanists  got on my list of things to read because it was definitely before I knew who Somtow was. (This is a continual problem for me where interesting books get put on a to-read list and then I come back to them years later.) I'm willing to quibble a little over the title because some of these aren't retellings of  bible stories with Somtow's distinctive twist, but horror stories with religious themes. But I feel like it's an interesting selection of Somtow's writing and I feel like I'm getting a better read on his personality. I don't know if I can say I enjoyed this book, but that's more because horror isn't really my cup of tea.

As Somtow states in the introduction to this book, these short stories are ultimately about sex and death, which he sees as the two main driving forces behind humanity. Also lots of zombies. Somtow also admits he really likes zombies and he uses a lot of opportunities to put them in stories, whether in Roman times or a sci-fi future. But I feel like Somtow manages an interesting range with his stories. Some are just kind of silly, like his story about a hard-boiled detective in Roman times dealing with zombies. But some are deeply emotional and show Somtow's thoughts on humanity's place in the universe, even with all the zombies shuffling about. The Inquest definitely had its own flavor and I'm still having trouble digesting all of it, but these stories helped show me Somtow has a good range as a writer.

I don't normally mention formatting or typos because it's usually not an issue with the books or so rare it barely merits commenting upon. I will say with the kindle edition of this book there were a couple of stories where, for no reason I could discern anyway, the text was ridiculously large. I even messed with the text settings on my kindle and compared it to other chapters and it seems to be something specifically within the file itself rather than anything I did. In the end it wasn't a big issue, but it meant I had just a couple of sentences per page because of the font. I also recall at least one story having several typos which actually made it difficult for me to figure out what the sentence meant. This wasn't just a they're/their/there problem, it was a completely different word that makes no sense within the context of the sentence and is clearly an error. Of course, Somtow does enjoy using archaic words or archaic definitions of words so I had to use my dictionary a couple of times, but even then there were some typos where I just couldn't parse the sentence.

So I think I can say from a writing perspective that this book is very good and Somtow has some interesting stories. However, almost all of them involve vampires, zombies, or some other horror aspect and Somtow definitely enjoys the horror genre. Unfortunately it's not my favorite thing in the world so I think some of the appeal of the book is lost on me. But it's definitely different and interesting and if you like horror it may be worth your time to check out.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Merlin, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Today I'm looking at the second book in the Pendragon Cycle from Stephen R. Lawhead, Merlin. This book covers the life of Merlin, whose birth concluded the first book, Taliesin. This book is told entirely from the perspective of Merlin and goes up until the death of Uther Pendragon and Merlin's placing the sword in the stone until it will be removed by Arthur. And no, that's not a spoiler because if you know Arthurian legend you know how the story works.

The worst thing I have to say about this book is I feel like it's just boring more than anything else. Merlin spends a lot of his time outside of what's going on in Britain. For example, when he's a kid he gets kidnapped by a tribe of hill-folk and spends something like three years living north of the Wall and basically cut off from all the other events occurring in Britain. On the plus side, this is how Merlin learns to do certain forms of magic, but on the other hand he's away for important things happening in Britain. This is explicitly the time when the Roman legions, the final pretenses of Roman control over Britain, are abandoning Britain and leaving it fully exposed to attacks from Saxons, Picts, and Irish raiders. In Taliesin and to an extent in Merlin as well, the characters are increasingly concerned by the growth of fear and desperation among the population as Roman protection disappears and the threat of barbarian invasion becomes ubiquitous. But Merlin's gone for significant chunks of that time.

His capture by the hill-folk isn't the only time Merlin is effectively M.I.A. during this book. After returning from his capture north of the wall, Merlin finds another group of survivors from Atlantis and falls in love with their princess. Once Merlin is recognized as a king in his own right, he arranges to marry his love and they are soon expecting their first child. Unfortunately for Merlin, both his wife and child, as well as most of the second band of survivors of Atlantis, are killed by a band of Saxon raiders. Merlin slays a great number of them in a battle-fury, and then wanders off to be insane with grief for a number of years. How many is not stated and I begin to get the feeling that the Atlantean Fair Folk have much longer lives than humans because Merlin is described as hardly aging a day while other people have grown old and died in the same time. So bad things continue to happen in Britain but once again Merlin is not present to witness them. When Merlin comes out of his madness Vortigern is High King of Britain and has made a mess of things by making deals with the Saxons to protect his own throne and will be overthrown by the Britains in favor of Aurelianus and his brother, Uther.

This is at the point where we're on familiar Arthurian legend ground and Lawhead starts hewing closer to the source materials that have been passed down over the years. He still takes his own spin on things and provides his own version of events, such as the romance between Uther and Igraine who Merlin describes as Gorlois's daughter rather than his wife. And I did find myself being slightly more interested as events got into territory which I was more familiar. But I was left with the feeling that most of this book, much like all of the previous book, was basically set up for a story that's coming later, rather than being a terribly interesting story in itself. It does seem a little weird to me that the next book, Arthur, was imagined originally as the ending to the series rather a midway point.

So on the one hand, because I can get these books for free and because I'm curious to see Lawhead's take on the more well-known bits of Arthurian mythos. On the other, I'm concerned that they're going to be a lot of effort without a lot of pay-off in the end. So we'll see what happens.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Gatefather, by Orson Scott Card

Today we finish up the Mither Mages series with the final book Gatefather. The weird thing for me is I feel like I'm experiencing dejavu because this series feels a lot like the Ender series. The Lost Gate and Speaker For the Dead both start off really good with lost of promise and interesting subjects to explore. In the second books, Xenocide and The Gate Thief you start seeing some problems, and then by Children of the Mind and Gatefather it's turned into a giant mess of theology and spiritualism and the promise of the original books has been lost or shunted aside. The result is I'm left wondering what might have been rather than the story we got.

Gate Thief ends with Danny being possessed by Set, but putting his gates out of Set's control so Set can't travel to Westil. He has control of Danny's body, but no access to any of Danny's magical powers. How do we resolve this terrible problem of Danny being possessed by Satan? Space Jesus.

No. Seriously. Space Jesus.

Basically Pat, who I haven't mentioned because I hadn't thought she was important until she and Danny find out they're true loves, comes up with a plan to force Danny to kill her so that her soul or ka can go back to heaven. Or the name of the planet where all kas go when they die. Because her ka is leaving, it means that Danny's ka can follow her ka to the underworld and then somehow come back, bringing Pat with him, and defeat Set. There was a stronger rationale in the book for this but looking back it sounds like a downright stupid and crazy plan. Anyway, plan works exactly as advertised and Pat and Danny go and meet capital-G God.

Okay, so Card doesn't actually use the g-word in relation to the ka which Danny and Pat speak with when they arrive at heaven. They actually end up calling him/her/it/they Thoth. But within the book when they ask him what his name is, he merely responds with, ''I Am This One'' which sounds suspiciously like the ''I Am Who Am'' name of Old Testament God. Plus This One is responsible for making sure the universe runs and only asks people to serve it out of love rather than coercion which sound pretty darn god-like to me. Especially with the more feel-good ''God is Love'' Christian sects hanging around.

Anyway, Pat and Danny talk to God and then come back from the dead with more superpowers than they had previously. So yes, they become Space Jesuses...Space Jesi....Multiple Space Jesus. Again, Card is very specific about avoiding as much Christian name-dropping as possible when he describes all of this. He makes references to mythological versions of people going to the underworld and coming back such as Persephone or Osiris, but the similarities with Jesus are so similar I just can't ignore them. Plus when he starts describing ka and ba it sounds an awful lot like the discussions on philotes that happened in Xenocide and Children of the Mind. Which further strengthens the feeling of deja vu.

All of this is in the first third of the novel, by the way, and in the afterword Card himself says that was meant to be the ending of the book. However, the book plods along afterwards and there are so many problems I'm going to try to break this down to be as specific as possible. Mostly because there are so many squandered opportunities for an interesting story rather than long philosophical discussions about theology. Granted, I know some people who love long, philosophical discussions about theology but since it's highly improbably we'll find a definite answer any time soon the entire exercise seems mostly pointless to me.

I want to start with the waffling Card seems to do, both with the matter of free will and how magic works in his own universe. As I've established, Danny gets possessed by Set and has to fight for control of his own body, a fight he mostly loses until he becomes Space Jesus. But when Danny and Pat go to heaven, This One tells Danny that Set only controls Danny's body because Danny lets him. Whenever Danny tries to take control of his body it's not Set that's stopping him, it's Danny acting on Set's own suggestion stopping himself. Which I think is supposed to be empowering because it means our free will is ultimately in control of our actions, but I feel like it almost goes too far in the other direction. In The Gate Thief I complained about how there was a lot of, ''The Devil made me do it'' rationale for bad things that happened in the universe. Set and his Baal mages made people do bad things, rather than humans themselves being to blame. And while I agree that basically every system of morality rests on some sort of assumption of free will, that people are responsible for the consequences of their actions, I feel like Card backpedaled so much in the other direction that it undermines his whole previous story. The Baal mages, instead of being demons who can possess people, become incredibly underpowered. They float around people and suggest bad things they could do, make it easier for humans to act on their bad impulses. The impulses come completely from the humans, but the Baal mages make it easier for humans to overcome their inhibitions to acting on them.

It just seems like a huge disconnect from what we were told about the Baal mages previously that it feels like a drastic rewriting of how his universe works. Which extends to how magic works as well. In the first book and to a lesser extent in later books, it's stated that mage powers come from loving and serving the source of your power. Stone mages love and serve the rock. Plant mages love and serve plants. Wind mages love and serve the wind. So on and so forth. But I feel like Card got halfway through writing this series and had a different idea on how he wanted his magic system to work and just changed it in mid-stream. The reason mages are able to manipulate the world around them is because of their ba, or outself, which was originally a part of them. But then Card makes it that a mage's ba is made up of not-quite-human souls that decided to be an entourage or posse for a ka out of a desire to follow and serve that ka. And Danny, of course, has the biggest posse of them all because he's just so gosh darn wonderful. *cough Space Jesus cough* Any mention made of loving and serving the source of your power becomes supplanted by how big your entourage is. So really it feels like Card started writing the series one way, then changed his mind and started writing it another way and the result is confusing for me more than anything else.

Next, we have Danny and Pat. This really weirds me out because in the book they're both seventeen and decide that they want to get married, have babies, and spend the rest of their lives together. Now, I am certainly no expert on human relationships but I know that a lot of people who date in high school do not end up getting married. Not all of them mind you, but a significant enough majority that you can conclude most high school relationships aren't going to last. And then they get married at eighteen a month after they graduate high school. And this just feels...weird to me. The book is supposed to be set in the modern day so it's not like their life expectancy is forty or fifty so they should get married and crank out some kids while they have the chance. They can expect to enjoy the long, full lives of twenty-first century Americans. Eighteen just seems really, really young to me for people to get married and then ''live happily ever after''. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life when I was eighteen. (Well, more accurately I thought I knew what I wanted to do with my life but then got evidence to the contrary a few years later.) I don't expect Danny or Pat to be any more knowledgeable or wise than I was at that age. Maybe it's meant for the teenage readers of these books, but it still feels really weird to me.

Finally, the book just seems to lose its focus once it gets past the Set problem. Well, once Danny has the Set problem contained at any rate. In the afterwords to all these books Card has said that he had a long, complex, detailed history of Westil that he wanted to show to his readers because it's been kicking around in his brain for thirty years. And he also had a plan to show a conflict where modern technology is mixed with magic. And we see some elements of that, with mage-modified tanks, jets, and helicopters and the North family offering to help the United States and their allies against countries like China. And for me this was a really interesting potential story line. I love me some good world-building, seeing rich and complicated worlds that feel just as real as our own, so I would have loved to dive into the intricacies of Westilian history or see the possibilities of modern warfare with magic. But Card decided those storylines were boring and decided to focus on theology and life and death instead. And teenagers talking about what they'll do after they graduate.

Now, in all fairness, there are probably some people who find those sorts of topics in books endlessly fascinating. Again, I have known some theologians in my time although I personally find theology about as productive as arguing whether unicorns come with pink or purple polka dots. But that sort of stuff isn't for me and I found myself desperately bored by all the philosophizing and arguing. And there are a few chapters, perhaps leftover from earlier drafts or outlines, where Card shows the magic-enhanced technology or super-powered mages planning to invade Westil with the benefits of modern technology, and those seem really interesting to me. But ultimately those plotlines get abandoned in favor of the aforementioned philosophizing. Maybe I should have known better, this being a Card book after all, to expect less action and more theology but I'm left with a profound sense of disappointment. Because while Card may have found it so terribly interesting, I just did not and really wish that these abandoned plotlines, which get sort of perfunctorily wrapped up with a wave of the hand, had been the focus of the book instead.

And, as I mentioned in my review Tuesday, Westil doesn't get a whole lot of development either. Card tells us he did this complex work of world-building but there's very little evidence of it within the actual book itself. Most of the book is focused on Iceway and Gray, which could be two global superpowers like France and Britain or the United States and the Soviet Union, but could be merely regional or local powers like Sweden and Denmark or Argentina and Chile. Westil ends up feeling small and unimportant compared to all the things going on at Earth in comparison.

Ultimately, I think this book was a disappointment more than anything else. I really wanted to see how the world would have to adapt to the return of magic in all its terror and glory, and instead I got teenagers debating theology. If people like that sort of thing, I'm sure they'll enjoy this book, but I'm left with the feeling of so much squandered potential and big promises of deep worlds that are left unfulfilled. Everything gets conveniently wrapped up by the end and the status quo remains largely unchanged on both worlds.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Gate Thief, by Orson Scott Card

This week I'm going to look at the second and third books of the Mither Mages series by Orson Scott Card. If you've been around for a while you may remember years and years ago I reviewed the first book in this series, The Lost Gate. Fortunately my library has all three books available as audiobooks so after listening to The Lost Gate, I was able to continue with The Gate Thief and Thursday's book, Gatefather. Although the first book was interesting and had some promising avenues to explore, unfortunately the books take a turn towards the heavily theological and I don't know if that's as good as what could have been done.

The Gate Thief picks up pretty much immediately after The Lost Gate ended. Danny is still a teenager, still not sure what he's going to do with his powers, and trying to find a path for magic that doesn't involve mages ruling over humans like the gods of old. However, he has successfully defeated the Gate Thief and is now capable of creating as many Great Gates connecting Earth and Westil as he wants, although whether he should as it would greatly increase the power of the hundreds of mages on Earth who travel through the Great Gate is another matter entirely.

In addition, Danny becomes aware of the enemy variously called Baal, Set, and the Great Dragon and is probably Satan. Maybe. Almost definitely. At least Satan with the serial numbers filed off. This, for lack of a better term, entity, has been possessing people for years and causing all sorts of bad things to happen. The Gate Thief originally sealed all the gates between Earth and Westil to prevent Set from gaining the charged-up powers of a mage host that he could carry through a gate and then dominating both worlds. Now that Danny is not only able to create Great Gates, but is probably the most powerful Gatefather who ever existed, he is at high risk himself to be attacked by Set. Coupled with the Families of Mages lobbying for access to the Great Gates and the threat of war breaking out regardless whether they get access or not, Danny has got quite a lot on his plate.

As I have said before of Card, the one thing he does very well is write teenagers. Danny and his high school friends all come across as believable teenagers. They're lewd, arrogant, sometimes downright stupid, and definitely hormone-addled but they come across as believable teenagers. That's definitely something Card does really well. I don't know what I think about most of the females in the group falling for Danny. But I have to remember he's smart, attractive, funny, and imbued with god-like power. So there's a lot for women to like from him.

On the downside I feel like these books are starting to get some serious contradictions. Throughout this book (and into the next one, but more on that Thursday) people keep saying what a good person Danny is. He's kind, he cares about others, he isn't interested in having power over other people. Except that he's used his power to do horrible, awful things. Such as the brief burglary career he engaged in the last book to gain money. Or the fence that he manipulated someone else into killing. Danny may not have pulled the trigger, but he definitely gave the idea to the man who did which makes him just as culpable. And Danny casually uses his ability to torture assassins to get information out of them. I mean, yes, they did try to kill him, but that doesn't mean you should torture them for information. So I'm having a lot of trouble swallowing the whole, ''Danny's just a really good guy.'' line that Card is trying to feed us in the book. I just don't believe it.

There's also a section where the characters discuss Baal/Set/The Great Dragon and how he and his allies may have been behind events such as the Holocaust and other genocides throughout history. Personally I find this a little hard to swallow because it blames human bad behavior on some other being rather than something humans did themselves. Again, very much a ''The Devil made me do it.'' sort of argument. And it frustrates me because it shifts the blame for humanity's own failings and shortcomings on some metaphysical other. And at the risk of being cliched I'm just going to quote Rorschach here to emphasize my own philosophy. ''This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It's us. Only us.'' We do not need to explain humanity's own inhumanity on some evil bogeyman hiding in the dark places. Humanity alone is responsible.

I'm also having some trouble thinking Westil is as important as everyone keeps saying it is in the books. There are events going on in Westil, that's for sure, but they feel incredibly localized. Most people aren't even aware that the gates are coming back and life seems to be continuing unchanged. The plot on Westil mostly involves the politics of two kingdoms which are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things and the rest of the world is a mostly undeveloped mass of ''other'' places. In one of the afterwords Card said that he had spent considerable time and effort on developing the lore and history of Westil and wanted to make that matter in his series. But for the most part Westil doesn't seem to matter all that much. There's the danger of Set gaining access to a Great Gate and increasing his power considerably, but that's about it. It feels like a sideshow rather than a fully-developed plot on its own.

Overall this book is okay but I'm left with some concerns as the book goes on. Having already gotten into Gatefather as I'm writing this review, I can say the books take a definite turn and are leaving me a little frustrated. But more about that Thursday.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Sharpe's Eagle, by Bernard Cornwell

Today I'm looking at what is the eighth book chronologically in the Sharpe series but was actually the first book published, Shape's Eagle, which focuses on events leading up to and concluding in the Battle of Talavera. In this book Sharpe and his platoon of thirty-odd riflemen are sent with Captain Hogan of the engineers to blow up a bridge along the British planned line of advance. As part of alliance politics a Spanish regiment and the fictional South Essex Regiment are sent along as an escort. What is supposed to be a nice, boring assignment turns into a disaster when the South Essex, led by an armchair colonel, gets badly beaten and loses one of their regimental colors to the French. The only way Sharpe can hope to regain the regiment's honor, and incidentally rescue his career, is to capture those most cherished of tokens: a French eagle, presented to the unit by Napoleon himself.

Honestly I haven't got a lot to say about this book because after eight books they're starting to feel all the same. This series has a formula and it works. Sharpe is usually put in a very difficult situation, and with pluck, determination, a huge dose of luck, and his willingness to kill anyone who gets in his way Sharpe manages to carry the day and things work out. Maybe not a lot better than last time, but at least no worse. And of course there's a girl that Sharpe falls for, instantly and hard, but alas his relationship is doomed because of his penchant to pine after women from the noble classes who he simply can't afford to support. Which makes her woman number six or seven Sharpe's fallen for by this point in the series.

Since this was the first book published I can see patterns which Cornwell basically kept with as he wrote this series across some twenty-odd stories and since this is the eighth one I'm reading it feels like very well-worn and familiar ground. So if you're looking for something new and engaging and different, I hate to say it but this book hardly provides that. There's nothing in this book that hasn't been done in the seven I've read previously and I fully expect the next dozen or so books to have pretty much the same plots. Cornwell does meticulous research and includes lots of detail about life in Napoleonic armies, but in terms of variation of plot there's a lot to be desired.

I honestly think I read these books as popcorn entertainment. There's not a lot of substance to them plot-wise, and Sharpe is kind of scary as a character, but I enjoy reading these books. So if you enjoy these sorts of adventures then you'll like this one as well, but if you're not interested in Sharpe you're not really missing anything.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Johannes Cabal: The Detective, by Jonathan L. Howard

Today I'm looking at the second of the Johannes Cabal books, this one titled The Detective. In the plot of this story Johannes sneaks into an Eastern European Ruritania-esque country to steal the Pincipia Necromantica. I have to say Ruritania-esque because Ruritania itself gets a shout-out among a bunch of other little states that have long histories of fighting each other. After a short run-in with the law and an unfortunate incident involving a deceased emperor, Cabal finds it would be conducive to his continued health to leave the country with all alacrity. Stealing the identity of a civil servant, Cabal manages to get onto the maiden voyage of the airship Princess Hortense and looks forward to a nice, quiet, and rapid escape.

Unfortunately for Cabal there are two problems which instantly derail his plans. First he runs into Leonie Barrow, who he previously met when he was in possession of a soul-stealing carnival and knows full well who he is and more importantly, what he is. If Leonie wishes, she could decry Cabal to every authority figure and have him dragged away in chains. The second problem is a mysterious murder in which a passenger suspiciously jumps through the window of his stateroom. At least, that's what we're led to believe but there's something about the situation that doesn't make sense. And if there's one thing Cabal can't leave alone it's a puzzle. And when someone tries to kill Cabal after he starts investigating it becomes a personal mission.

As I sort of said in my review of the last book, I'm kind of mixed on my opinion on this book. And I think it comes down to the story versus the main character himself. The writing is actually pretty good. There are some parts where it gets a little slow but there are so many parts of this book that are filled with bitterly dry wit and I love it. A good example is a joke made about the English who treat the entire world as if it belongs to them and everyone else is just living their at their convenience. There are plenty of really good jokes like that and I found myself laughing a couple of times as I listened to this book, so for that at least the book is well worth the effort.

The problem I have seems to be Johannes himself because I'm not really sure what to think about him. I mostly know what his motivations are and why he's become a necromancer but he's still kind of a jerk. He has no problem killing people who get in his way or annoy him too much and since he's basically looking at a death sentence for being a necromancer anyway obeying lesser laws has largely become a matter of choice for him. I will say there has been some development of Johannes as a character now that he has his soul back. He's even having pangs of conscience during the book, which is a definite improvement on his character. But he's still...not exactly the most pleasant person. If he isn't an anti-hero he's definitely an anti-villain and that can be a hard character to like.

There's also the ''when the heck are we'' problem which I also had in the last book although in this case with aetheric-energy powered airships it definitely feels more like a steampunk novel. I'm beginning to think when this book happens is far less important to story anyway.

Overall, my opinion's ultimately mixed. On the one hand I really enjoy Howard's writing and he has some real talent for making witty observations. On the other hand, Cabal's not the most pleasant character to follow and it's really hard to like him. But it's definitely interesting and memorable, so I think that's really good for a book.

- Kalpar