Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Tudors, by Peter Ackroyd

Today I'm looking at a history about by far the most infamous monarchs of England, the Tudors. The sheer amount of sex and violence surrounding this family has made them irresistible to not only academic historians, but popular historians of all stripes. Whether it be the more fanciful tv series The Tudors, William Shakespeare's equally fanciful plays, or any number of other historical dramas, the lives of the Tudors have been the subject of endless examination.

Peter Ackroyd's work is competent, if a little problematic at various points. It certainly meshes with all the other information I've read about this dynasty, especially books that I read for a class that focused just on the Tudors. Since this was an audio book I couldn't look at the sources but based on the quotations he utilizes, which is sources available to many other historians, I think Ackroyd gets his facts right so I have no quibbles on that. If you're looking for information about this dynasty this is definitely worth your time and effort as a general primer. My biggest issue seems to be Ackroyd's decisions of interpretation.

My first concern was the decision to start this history with Henry VIII instead of his father, Henry VII. Henry VII gets overlooked a lot, and compared to the scandal and outrage surrounding his son it's easy to see why. Henry VII merely defeated Richard III to become king, married Elizabeth of York, and was a tight-fisted administrator and hoarder of money, leaving his son a bursting treasury when Henry VIII succeeded his father. Henry VII can definitely be a boring individual. But at the same time I feel if you choose to ignore him you're missing an important and vital part of the Tudor story. Otherwise Ackroyd goes fairly well in depth.

The biggest issue I have is Ackroyd's argument that Protestantism was responsible for turning Britain into the imperial power it became. Ackroyd claims that because Britain threw off the superstition of Catholicism, it was able to make progress while other nations like France and Spain were held back. Personally I find this to be entirely inadequate for a number of reasons. First, France and Spain remained powerful colonial and industrial rivals with Britain into the eighteenth century and France remained a powerful rival into the nineteenth century. Furthermore there were Protestant nations which challenged Britain at various points but didn't become or remain global powers. The Netherlands, for example, was a powerful colonial force and challenged Great Britain at various points, but declined in power into the eighteenth century. Sweden and Denmark were also strong Protestant states, but neither of them reached the colonial and economic power of Great Britain by any means. To claim that religion alone was responsible for Britain's greatness is definitely insufficient.

Aside from these issues, I thought this book did a pretty good job talking about England's most salacious dynasty. If you're looking for just general information this is definitely a good choice.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Trigger Warning, by Neil Gaiman

Okay, this is going to be a really short review because there isn't a lot I can say about this book other than I loved the heck out of it and everyone who hasn't read it should go read it right now. Seriously. Everyone. Go read it.

Still here?

Okay. So Trigger Warning is a collection of short stories written by Neil Gaiman and the audio book that I listened to was read by Neil Gaiman as well, which gave the book a very personal touch. Some of the stories are short, only a couple of minutes long, while others are complex stories over an hour long or more. The result is I never found myself getting bored with any one story, which can sometimes happen with a short story anthology, and I found all the stories memorable in their own way.

As you might guess from the title, a lot of these stories are really creepy in their own way and people might find them disturbing or distressing. But I found that they were a good sort of creepy or disturbing, sort of like the better written episodes of Twilight Zone or Black Mirror, it's a story that sticks with you and makes you think. Seriously, they were just really, really good stories. I'm at the point I'm considering buying a physical copy of this book just so I have it to read again or peruse it at my leisure. It's that darn good.

And that's really all I have to say about this book. With a lot of short story anthologies I find I don't have a lot I can say and with books I absolutely love I haven't got a lot either. This book is just delightfully creepy, strange, and disturbing and I highly recommend it.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 24, 2017

All the Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister

Today I'm looking at a book that happened to catch my eye at the library, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. I wasn't sure what it was about but I thought it would be something interesting to look at. In this book Traister chronicles the growth of single women as a demographic in the United States, especially within the past three decades. In many cases this is because women are choosing to forgo marriage for a variety of reasons, although not necessarily keeping them from having children. And on the surface it looks like the situation is improving for single women in the United States, but as Traister digs deeper it reveals there are a lot of issues and women are the targets of backlashes by conservative establishments.

The sources for this book are rather eclectic. Partly it's an autobiography of the author, talking about her own experiences, as well as the experiences of her close friends and family. Partly it's made from interviews with other contemporary women from various walks of life, and partly it draws upon a variety of historical sources, touching on the life of women from the colonial era to the present. Because the selection is so wide, I don't feel like there's just one narrative that Traister presents. And truly, the story of women in America is not a single narrative, but many narratives based on race and class. What was true for white upper and middle class women was not true for working class whites or the disproportionately poor non-white populations in the United States. And in an era of increasing income disparity, the experiences of upper class highly educated white women is very different from the experiences of working class women with only a high school, or sometimes even less, education.

Because of the diffuse sources of the book, which are highly anecdotal, I'm not sure if this book is really good as a source of information for the single woman's experience. There are statistics and mapping of general trends, including an increase in the average marriage age while the average age of first birth has now gone below the marriage age. Which means more women are having babies without getting married first. There are a variety of reasons for this, whether women who don't want their marriage to end in divorce or women who just don't see the economic benefit to getting married. In addition, women are having on average less children, leading to a declining birth rate in the United States, at least compared the the post-war Baby Boom which Traister argues is an aberration and should not be utilized as a baseline for accurate statistics in the United States.

All of this has led to some conservatives going into a full-blown panic and accusing the decline of America on unwed mothers. Again and again, conservatives argue that people need to get married before they have children, a woman's place is as a wife and mother in the home, and she should produce lots of babies. Conservatives also argue strongly against the use of contraceptives or abortion, seeking to restrict women's reproductive rights. But as Traister counters, there are considerable problems with this viewpoint. First it removes women's autonomy and places them in an economically dependent state on men. Second, it's unrealistic, especially with income stagnation for many American workers. And for many women who fear abusive or destructive relationships, marriage and the potential for painful divorce does not make an appealing future. These women are not the ''welfare queens'' of Reagan-era rhetoric, but working women who are choosing to remain single for a variety of reasons.

Overall I think this book is informative but I don't know if it does a great job of showing the larger picture. There are a lot of interesting stories about people in this book and how culture tries to force women into the box of heterosexual marriage, but because some of the evidence is so anecdotal I don't know how well it works on the macro scale. But it definitely does a good job of showing the complexity and diversity of life for American women in the current era.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Dawn's Early Light, by Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris

Today I'm looking at the third in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurences series, Dawn's Early Light. I know that in my review of the last book, The Janus Affair, I said that the plot kind of felt like a jumbled mess more than anything else to me. However, since I can get some of these books for free from the library, I figured I could just truck on with the third book and see if it got any better. I'm happy to say that yes, the third book actually does get much more coherent and I feel that the plot flowed a lot better in this book than it had in previous ones. We also get some explanations about the villains behind the various plots the Ministry has foiled, although there's more that remains to be revealed in later books. Also, Wellington and Eliza are now a couple, although I suspect something will inevitably come up in the next book to strain their relationship.

Wellington Books and Eliza Braun are sent by the Ministry's director on a mission to America, to help the Office of the Supernatural and Metaphysical investigate a series of mysterious disappearances off the coast of North Carolina. This region has the reputation of being the Graveyard of the Atlantic (Which is true in real life), but the disappearances of air and water vessels, especially around lighthouses, has gone well beyond the normal average. Teaming up with the Americans ''Wild Bill'' Wheatley and Felicity Lovelace, Books and Braun discover that the mysterious House of Usher, as well as Thomas Edison, have formed an unlikely alliance and appear to be behind the disappearances.

I think what I appreciated the most was that I finally got an explanation of what the House of Usher was. They were briefly involved in the first book where they had kidnapped Wellington, requiring his rescue by Eliza, but had disappeared from focus. I had jokingly asked if they were just really big Edgar Allen Poe fans and apparently yes, yes they are since their emblem is a raven and their overall goal seems to be...anarchy? The characters expressed some doubt about why the House of Usher is interested in sowing as much chaos and disorder as they are, whether they intend to establish a new order afterwards or just let everything burn down, but they definitely seem to be Poe fans.

We also find out more about the Maestro and while his goals still seem fairly opaque, at least to me, beyond some sort of power grab within the British Empire, we have significantly more information than we had before. And it's clear that the Maestro does not share goals with the House of Usher but is willing to use them to further his own agenda.

The other main plot is the romance between Wellington and Eliza, which is stymied by their inability to talk to each other and the attempts of Felicity Lovelace to woo Wellington, much to Eliza's frustration. I feel like this is a pretty classic case of: relationship drama exists because they're unable or unwilling to talk to each other like adults about it until circumstances force them to. And honestly, that's just not a plot I enjoy. I know there are plenty of people out there who enjoy those sorts of stories because obviously they're wildly successful, but it's just not my thing. I've come to like both Wellington and Eliza as characters, but I did wish they'd just talk instead of dragging it out. Now that that particular drama has been resolved, I do suspect that something may happen in the next book to derail their budding romance.

Overall, I'd say this book was an improvement, if a little dry at times. We're getting a better idea of what the bad guys are trying to accomplish, but there's still room to explore and uncover. It is a little heavy on the relationship drama side, but some people like that so who am I to judge?

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Today I'm looking at a history of the Barbary Wars, the conflict between the early United States and the Barbary States of Northern Africa in the early nineteenth century. This was a fairly small conflict, all things considered, and despite initial setbacks it ended with a United States victory which proved that even the fairly weak United States of the era could project its power across the globe.

In the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, a handful of states such as Morocco and Tripoli engaged in large-scale piracy around the Straits of Gibraltar, an important shipping lane. These pirates would attack European vessels and take the crews and ships hostage, ransoming them back to the European powers. Most of the European powers at the time entered into arrangements with the Barbary States where sums of money would be paid to the Barbary States in exchange for freedom from harassment for their merchant shipping. Most European powers found the payments easier and less onerous than dispatching a military expedition, so they were content to simply buy peace.

When the United States became independent of Great Britain, however, its sailors and merchant marine lost the protections of the Union Jack. American ships and sailors were soon seized in increasing numbers by the Barbary States and had to be ransomed at exorbitant prices. When the United States, still effectively broke after the war debts of the American Revolution, tried to negotiate with the Barbary States, they found themselves mostly unable to meet the demands for payment. After years of negotiation and frustration, the United States finally gave up and dispatched its fledgling navy to the Mediterranean to provide a more forceful resolution to the conflict. After some initial setbacks, the United States managed to get enough of its military power in the Atlantic at once to force the Barbary States to favorable terms.

My biggest concern with this book was some of the tone that the book took. At the beginning and the end of the book, Kilmeade and Yaeger make a very, very half-hearted attempt to connect the war between the United States and the muslim Barbary pirates with the ongoing conflict between the United States and extremist muslim groups, mostly in the Middle East. I say this is half-hearted because they basically say, ''There are some parallels'' and then fail to provide any evidence or even a fleshed out argument on how these two events, separated by two centuries, are similar. Personally I find very little similarity between the two conflicts. The Barbary States were utilizing their geographic position for economic gain through criminal activities, much like how piracy has been common in recent times in areas such as Somalia and Indonesia. Geography simply provides an opportunity for pirates. The ongoing conflict between extremist muslims and the United States is a far more global and asymmetric conflict with a strong ideological component. I don't think it's fair to claim that both these conflicts were the same just because it features the United States fighting muslim populations. By that logic, the U.S. occupation of the Philippines would be the exact same conflict as well. I was worried that this would be the main theme of the book but as far as I can tell it remains mostly to the facts and doesn't devolve too much into an ideological tract.

Another thing that concerns me is that the audio book version I listened to was read by Brian Kilmeade himself, one of the authors. Kilmeade gets very excited during some of his writing and downright indignant at some of the things that were done by Barbary pirates to American citizens, such as the horrible conditions of slavery Americans endured. Now, I'm not saying that this is bad, but I don't think it's terribly fair for Kilmeade to get so dreadfully indignant about the situation. The Barbary pirates were fairly small-time operators , especially compared to the millions of people who were exploited by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the American Internal Slave Trade. The authors make a big point of Jefferson's authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the principle of America being a land of freedom, but this blatantly ignores the hypocrisy inherent in the American system. Slavery was one of the engines of America's early economic growth and Jefferson benefitted from it personally as a Virginia labor camp owner. To pit the conflict as a struggle between the despotic and evil Barbary States and the heroic and democratic United States is a gross oversimplification and blithely ignores the inherent inequality of past and even current America.

Overall I'd say this book is okay. I don't know terribly much about the Barbary Wars so I can't say how well this is researched but for the most part it seems to stick to the facts rather than engaging in ideological rants. Even when it does, Kilmeade and Yaeger don't go beyond a cursory attempt. Despite my concerns, I think this is a good source for basic information about this event in American history.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Hunchback Assignments, by Arthur Slade

Today I'm looking at another steampunk novel I just sort of picked up on a whim from the library, The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade. The premise of this book is, ''What if Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a secret agent for steampunk Victorian Britain? Also what if he was a shape-shifter?'' And that's...pretty much it. Otherwise it rolls along in the same ruts as a handful of other secret agent steampunk stories I've read.

I'm not saying that the book is bad. It's far more coherent than some of the other books within this sub-genre I've read, but aside from having a shape-shifting Quasimodo as the main character it doesn't deviate much from its type. It may just be a coincidence, or the fact that the premise ''steampunk secret agents'' is right up my alley so I end up reading or listening to a lot of these stories. But I'm beginning to notice that aside from a few details, there doesn't seem to be terribly much deviation. The protagonists are almost inevitably agents for some organization, perhaps only loosely affiliated with Queen Victoria, charged with protecting the British Empire. Our protagonists then run into a variety of enemies who are dead set on toppling the British Empire for a variety of reasons, whether it be legitimate critiques of Britain's imperialism, or just petty hatred for all things British.

This story is basically the same thing, although we get to see Modo's training by the mysterious Mr. Socrates. And I have to admit, I end up not liking Mr. Socrates because he very unambiguously sees Modo as an investment of time and resources rather than as a person. I was left with the distinct impression that if Modo ceased to be useful to Mr. Socrates, he would abandon Modo without a second's hesitation. So I'm not sure if Modo's really working for the good guys or not which does put a damper on the entire book.

I will also say I'm getting kind of tired of people being shocked by women wearing trousers in steampunk stories. It seems to be another almost obligatory addition to these stories along with plots to topple the British Empire and spunky female characters. Who inevitably wear trousers and shock men because of their ''improper'' behavior. Like, seriously guys. It's steampunk. It's going to be fiction with twenty-first century gender norms. Women wearing pants isn't all that surprising. In fact, women wore pants for athletic activities in the real-life late nineteenth century. Okay, technically they're bloomers, but they're effectively pants. And in 2017 women wear pants all the time. Having your female character wear pants in a steampunk novel isn't shocking or titillating or exciting.

Otherwise, the book's competent. Having a shape-shifting secret agent Quasimodo as the main character is different, but I can't say it varies that much from a lot of other steampunk secret agent books I've read.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Space Captain Smith, by Toby Frost

Today I'm looking at a book and I'm honestly not sure what my thoughts on it are. Because on the one hand there are some parts that are rather clever, but I feel like it doesn't get quite to the level where I'd find it memorably witty. Like say, Johannes Cabal for example. It's not that there's anything about the book that's obviously bad, but I can't say there was anything that made this stand out to me, as a parody either. And this book is a parody of the more old-fashioned pulp adventures in which ruggedly handsome men give Johnny Foreigner the old one-two, eh wot? Which is normally something I enjoy quite a bit but I think with this book it just didn't quite get to where it needed to be for me.

The book is set in the 25th century when humanity has spread into the galaxy and become one of the more populous races. Human space is divided into a number of competing multi-stellar states, including the Second British Empire. Our main character, Space Captain Isambard Smith, is a fine example of British gentlemanliness with his waxed handlebar mustache, collection of tweed coats, and love for democracy, cricket, and rambling walks in the countryside. In this book, Smith is sent on a mission to confound the machinations of the Ghast Empire, an insectoid alien race that hates all things about humanity, but democracy and the British in particular. In a battered light freighter and a crew consisting entirely of Suruk, a proud warrior race alien and Pollyanna Carveth, a fugitive android, the odds are definitely against Captain Smith.

As I said, this book is very obviously a parody and of a genre which I normally enjoy. The bad guys are transparently cardboard cutouts of bad stage villains to the point it's actually kind of funny but I'm not sure if I like Smith so much either. The thing about Smith is that he reminds me in many ways of the character Arnold Rimmer from the tv series Red Dwarf,  both the petty, regular Arnold Rimmer and the much more likeable, heroic Ace Rimmer. To his credit, Isambard Smith at least has the niceness and derring-do of Ace Rimmer making him more than all talk. But he also comes with the banality, stupidity, and unwarranted sense of smug superiority that regular Rimmer comes with as well. I vividly remember a passage where Smith looks at a mural of humans and aliens existing in harmony and Smith thinking it would be better showing aliens working on a railroad with some British dreadnought spaceships watching over them.

That's really what gets me the most about Smith, his almost typically English sense that he has the correct way of doing things, and the rest of the universe needs to be told how to do things the proper way. Such as how the British Empire is undertaking the noble work of bringing democracy to poor, unenlightened, alien races. Now, considering the human bad guys think aliens should exist solely as a servant underclass and shouldn't be given rights at all, this makes Smith look like a good guy by comparison. But he's still a smug, insufferable imperialist who assumes his way is the only way of doing things. Which honestly put me off of him as a character. I know that's played for laughs but it just rubs me the wrong way.

I did also feel like the book kind of had a little too much going on at once, considering this is a parody rather than a serious, in-depth novel, but I think it all manages to work out in the end. And Frost manages to work some pretty wry jokes into the book. Albeit, a lot of it is, ''Smith is an Englishman and he has to deal with people who don't act English! How wacky!'' But at least it's not completely random.

So, I wouldn't say Space Captain Smith is a bad book. There's plenty of clever jokes and it's not terrible writing, but I can't say it had me laughing quite as hard as some of the other books I've read or listened to. For me, at least, it feels very much like an example of almost but not quite good enough. Maybe other people would like this book better and find it funnier than I did, but I felt like there was just a special something that was missing from this book to make it truly come alive for me.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Inquisitor's Tale, by Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly

Today I'm looking at a book which was foisted upon me by one of my friends, The Inquisitor's Tale ,Or, The Three Magic Children and Their Holy Dog. This book is set in France in 1242 and was described to me as a modern-day reimagining of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and also done for children. And I have to admit, at least in the beginning the parallels with The Canterbury Tales is very pronounced, although I feel like it sort of tapers off as the book goes on.The main message of the book is also fairly heavy-handed but it's a good message so I can't fault Gidwitz too much.

The book begins with travellers in an inn, discussing the three magical children and their holy dog who have been declared outlaws by King Louis IX of France. But nobody precisely knows what the children have done to raise the ire of the king or who they are. However, the travellers in the inn start sharing stories, revealing that all of them know a little bit about the tale and together they're able to create a more coherent picture.

Gradually we are introduced to our four protagonists. First we have Gwenforte the greyhound, who died protecting baby Jeanne from an adder and was venerated as a saint by peasants in a village until Gwenforte was resurrected. And then there's Jeanne, the French peasant girl Gwenforte saved who can see the future. Next we meet William, an enormous oblate in a monastery whose father was a knight in the reconquista and whose mother was a Moor. William possesses enormous strength, capable of shattering a stone bench with his bare hands. Finally there's Jacob, a Jewish boy whose home village is burned down by some foolish Christian boys on a dare and who possesses the ability to miraculously heal any wound with different plants. The children eventually meet up and become boon companions.

Another way that this book is a lot like Canterbury Tales is there's a lot of low-brow humor, especially in the first third or so of the book. There's a point where peasants send a bunch of knights swimming through a dung heap looking for a child that isn't there, there's a farting dragon, and there's a pun on the multiple uses of the word ass. Considering that in The Miller's Tale, which is one of the ones I was forced to read in high school, two young students plan to bed another man's wife, one of them succeeds in doing so, the woman gets another one of the students to kiss her butt, and then the first student farts in the other student's face, the things I just described would totally not go amiss in one of the more comedic of Chaucer's tales. I do feel in hindsight that the humor doesn't fit as well because of the tonal shift around a third of the way through the book, but that's just me.

The main theme of the book is about tolerance in general and religious tolerance in specific. Now this is a theme which I'm all in favor of. I'm on board with loving your neighbor as yourself, even if it's really darn hard sometimes. But I feel like this book does it in kind of a heavy-handed way that it becomes too much. Obviously there are people who aren't into the whole tolerance thing in the first place, but I'm not sure they'd pick up this book in the first place and even if they did if it would change their minds at all. Maybe there are a few people who would benefit, but it feels a lot like Gidwitz is stating something his audience already agrees on with him.

Overall though, I thought this book was pretty good, in spite of the heavy-handedness and sharp tonal shift. The illuminations by Hatem Aly done within the book are wonderful to look at and occasionally capture the feeling of a true medieval manuscript. Gidwitz has also done significant research to ensure his book doesn't stray too far from the truth of medieval life in thirteenth century France. For anybody who enjoys all things medieval, I think this is worth a look.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld

Today I'm looking at the novel Leviathan, the first in a trilogy by Scott Westerfeld that straddles the border between the related genres of steampunk and dieselpunk, which makes sense since it is set during an alternate history First World War. In Westerfeld's universe, technology has taken two alternate routes from our historical ''baseline''. Britain, France, and Russia have become ''Darwinist'' powers, utilizing genetic and biological engineering to create animals to take the place of machines. From draft animals dozens of times stronger than a horse to messenger lizards capable of relaying vocal messages perfectly to huge airships that are part whale, part jellyfish, and part hydrogen-exuding bacteria, the Darwinists have countless varieties of animals available to replace machinery.

Germany and Austria-Hungary, as well as the Ottoman Empire, have gone a more traditional route with various steam and internal-combustion powered vehicles and machines to match the Darwinist forces. The biggest change from regular technology though is the immense walkers that that the ''Clankers'' have constructed. These range in size from small, unarmed personal walkers, to massive land dreadnoughts capable of leveling entire cities. With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Great Powers are drawn into a conflict that promises to engulf all of Europe.

The book folows two main characters, Deryn Sharp and Prince Aleksander of Austria. Deryn is a Scottish girl who wishes to join the British Air Service and disguises herself as a boy to enroll as a midshipman. And I have to be honest, even though this book came out back in 2009, Deryn feels incredibly cliched as a character to me. Based on the amount of steampunk that I've read there's apparently some law that you have to include a spunky female scientist/engineer/airship pilot/etc. within your steampunk story and she shocks everybody with how spunky and unlike a proper lady she is. What with the doing science. Or piloting airships. Or blowing things up. I do like Eliza blowing things up. ANYWAY, Deryn disguising herself as a boy is really the only thing that distinguishes her from half a dozen other characters I could name who fit the same mold. So while I like spunky female characters, the apparent requirement that every steampunk story have them is starting to feel hackneyed.

Prince Aleksander by comparison is slightly more interesting as a character. Like Archduke Franz Ferdinand's actual, historical children, Aleksander is barred from inheriting the throne of Austria Hungary. In this reality, however, Franz Ferdinand managed to get a papal bull issued legitimizing Aleksander and placing him in line for the succession. When Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie are assassinated (in this case by German agents to provide a causus belli for Austria to invade Serbia) Aleksander poses a threat to the rest of the Hapsburgs. Soon Aleksander, with the help of two of his teachers and a walker, is on the run from the forces of not only Germany, but Austria as well.

Deryn aside, I had some other issues with this book which made me feel like it couldn't have been as good as it could have been. First and foremost, I feel like this book is just setting the stage for the later books and conflicts rather than being just a story in its own right. If this was a long-running series such as Honor Harrington or The Dresden Files, I wouldn't have as much of an issue because it means we're getting an introduction before getting into a complex storyline. In this case, the series is only three books long so I feel like the first book should have established the arc of the story and laid some sort of expectation for what's at stake. When I finished this book I was left rather unsure what exactly was at stake beyond Alek's life and inheritance, and Deryn secretly being a girl. There's something going on with the mission to the Ottoman Empire, but we've been given only the broadest outlines.

Overall I feel like this book just doesn't live up to its potential. There are important questions that remain unanswered and I'm not sure where the series plans to go or even have an inkling of what might happen. Deryn as a character isn't terribly original, and since she's half the focus it weakens half the story. Maybe the other two books are better, but this first one feels inadequate.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Small Favor, by Jim Butcher

Today I'm looking at the tenth book of The Dresden FilesSmall Favor. I did find myself enjoying this book and I appreciate seeing how Harry's grown as a character because he actually asks for help from people and goes into situations with an actual plan which makes his chances for success all that much greater. Opposed to the earlier books where he just went off half-cocked most of the time. And as much as Harry hates putting his friends in danger, he's finally come around to accepting that he needs their help and he can't do everything alone. So that's definitely some positive character development that I appreciate from the series.

I also remember mentioning in earlier books about how I was kind of confused with all these new characters that keep showing up in different books with backstories already related to Harry in some cases. But at this point in the story I'm beginning to appreciate the work Butcher did in slowly introducing us to a cast of various characters over several books because now Harry has a variety of friends and allies he can call on for aid. It makes the unvierse seem that more rich and complex. Unfortunately, this is where the spoiler-free part of the review ends.

Dear and gentle readers, as has been said before with this series, it has gotten to the point where it's impossible for me to talk about the book at this point in the series without revealing some spoilers. If you wish to avoid these, I would suggest skipping the rest of this review.

On what starts off as a perfectly normal winter day in Chicago, involved in a snowball fight with the Carpenter family, Harry suddenly gets attacked by gruffs, goat-shaped fairies known for slaying trolls and being some of Summer's toughest hit men. Harry can't think of anything he's done to piss off Queen Titania of Summer, at least recently, but since the snow has come earlier than usual it comes as not much of a surprise when he finds out Titania and Mab are up to their fairy power games again. Mab also informs Harry that John Marcone, recently declared a Freeholding Baron under the Unseelie Accords, has been kidnapped by another signatory of the Accords in clear violation of both the letter and intent of the laws. If Harry manages to rescue Marcone, Mab will consider one of his two remaining favors he owes her to be repaid. And since Mab is, after all, a fairy queen, Dresden's not exactly in a position to refuse.

What unfolds is a plot with the Denarians, the fallen angels bound to the thirty pieces of silver given to Judas Iscariot, who have kidnapped Marcone and seem to be involved in a much longer game of their own. Although Harry also discovers that the Denarians themselves are hardly a unified force and separate factions are pursuing their own agendas. Plus Harry learns just a little bit more about the mysterious Black Council, although who they are and what their overall plans are remains highly vague and mysterious and only future books will hopefully reveal what the heck's going on.

As I said before Harry calls on a lot of help, including his fellow Wardens, Murphy, the surviving Knights of the Cross, and Thomas. And instead of storming the enemy's fortress with the haziest of ideas at best, Harry sits down and makes a detailed plan that manages to work more or less as he intended. Of course, we're not told what the plan is ahead of time, that would ruin the suspense and leave us with nothing to read about. But it's good to see Harry using his mighty wizard brain for once instead of relying on brute force.

Overall I thought this was pretty good because I could see how Harry had developed as a character and how the series is progressing. I think we might be turning our wheels a little bit with the overall plotline because the Black Council is still pretty much a mystery, but at least the stakes feel pretty important in this book rather than a sideshow.

- Kalpar