Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Cold Days, by Jim Butcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

March to the Stars, by David Weber and John Ringo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Where the Hell is Tesla? by Rob Dircks

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

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

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

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

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

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Odd Adventures with Your Other Father, by Norman Prentiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Palace Job, by Patrick Weekes

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Ghost Story, by Jim Butcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Today I'm looking at another of the classic sci-fi novels, Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Although this book also gets put in with the true literature as well because there's a lot less space ships and more thinking about life and what it's all about. This book is definitely different and as a result I'm not 100% sure what to make of it, one way or the other. But personally I think it's a good different and worth checking out, even if I personally can't make heads or tails of it.

This book follows Billy Pilgrim, an American man who as a P.O.W. witnesses the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II. (Much like how Kurt Vonnegut himself witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden as a P.O.W. so it draws heavily on his own experiences during the war.) The plot is set off when Billy Pilgrim gets unstuck in time, and starts drifting randomly from one point of his life to the next, never knowing when or where he'll end up. The result is the book is told form Billy's perspective as he drifts through his memories. First back to the war, then to life after the war, then life before, and so on in that fashion. Billy's life is slowly unfolded for us over time and we put the mysteries of his life together.

Another major event in Billy's life is his kidnapping by the Tralfamadorians, an alien race that sees in four dimensions instead of three, which means they can see all of time at once, and look upon pleasant moments in the future or in the past as easily as we might look at a pleasant picture. Because Billy himself is unstuck in time, the Tralfamadorian understanding of time is extremely helpful for him to understand his predicament. As far as the Tralfamadorians are concerned, everything that will happen is happening now, and will always have happened. All of the universe is an inevitability, we are merely going through the motions. This helps Billy adapt because he knows he can't change the past or the future, he's travelling along a track that was laid well before.

This also means the Tralfamadorians have an interesting perspective on death. They find the act of death itself to be largely unimportant and when one of their species die they simply say ''So it goes.'' In fact, ''So it goes'' becomes a sort of mantra through the book, obsessively stated after any living thing be it plant, animal, bacteria, or human being dies. Because as far as the Tralfamadorians are concerned, at the moment of death it is certainly bad for the person in question, but they are doing quite fine at other periods in their life in the past. That person will always exist in the past and will continue existing in the past, so there's no sense in feeling upset that they're gone because a Tralfamadorian can always re-visit the times when that individual was alive. It's an interesting philosophical concept about time and death but I don't know if it works so well for humans who, of course, cannot see all of time at once.

There are a lot of things going on in this book, and I don't think I can process all of them quite adequately. In fact, I'm not sure I completely understand this book at all. But I thought it was very interesting and it at least made me think and get outside my usual comfort zone. I also thought it was very accessible and plenty of people would find it interesting. In some ways the book is so open-ended that you can take whatever you want from it and perhaps there is no one specific interpretation. Overall, I think this is a book worth checking out for yourself.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

March to the Sea, by David Weber & John Ringo

Today I'm looking at the second book in the Empire of Man series, March to the Sea, which follows Prince Roger and the dwindling survivors of his marine bodyguard as they cross a mountain range and make the long trek towards the ocean, where hopefully they can get passage on ships that will take them to the continent with Marduk's only spaceport and get Roger safely back to Terra. However, since nothing else about this trip has gone smoothly it should be no surprise that this portion of their journey is fraught with difficulty as well.

On the other side of the mountains the Bronze Battalion discovers that a collection of nomadic tribes called the Boman have joined together into a mighty warhost and are systematically destroying every city as part of a campaign of revenge against the despot of Sindi. If they're going to get to the ocean, they're going to have to pass right through the ongoing Boman invasion. And if they want help crossing the ocean, they're going to have to save the cities targeted by the Boman as well.

I think my biggest complaint about this book is it really could have been divided into two separate books, and I'm actually a little surprised that it wasn't. There are two distinct halves to the book which are honestly the same storyline repeated, at least in very broad terms. In both books the marines arrive at a city-state which is under imminent attack by the Boman and they are utterly unprepared to defend themselves. The marines agree to help train an army for the city-states in exchange for help in getting to their final objective of the starport. Racing against time, the marines introduce new military technologies to the Mardukans and manage to create semi-professional armies. They then engage the Boman and through a combination of their newly trained and equipped allies, as well as the marines' insanely advanced technology, they manage to win a crushing victory against the Boman. Perhaps at great cost, but the Boman shall bother the people of the city-states no more.

So I honestly feel that this could have been split into two books instead of being crammed into one because it feels like the book repeats itself. Although that might not have been a good thing because then you'd have two books that would be very similar instead of one book with similar halves. I just kind of wish that Weber and Ringo had managed to come up with a slightly, slightly different storyline for one half of their book instead. I did find it really boring when the marines were complaining about supply bottlenecks, again, which were preventing them from getting the troop mix they really wanted.

I'm tempted to go into the politics of this book but I'm hesitant for a few reasons. First, it's not really a major part of the book. Most of the book is spent talking about the problems training and equipping an army in a short amount of time and then fighting the Boman. When the characters comment on the political structures of Mardukan societies it's usually little more beyond, ''Theocracies don't like change.'' or ''Our constitutional monarchy is great.'' So it's not like it's even a full argument for me to analyze, refute, or support. Plus, I'm trying to not complain about books having politics I don't like because while I may not like the politics, the author has every right to put them in there. I may disagree, but the book can still have redeeming qualities.

And it's the same with the pro-imperialism argument made by Roger. He says that some people think humanity shouldn't interfere with alien planets that haven't developed interstellar flight because it could affect their culture and identity. Roger counters by saying that the Empire of Man has lots of benefits to bring alien races like the Mardukans who are at a lower technology level. He specifically mentions ending malnutrition and bringing adequate dental care just as examples, but the benefits could be even greater. The humans of course also introduce pike warfare, breech-loading rifles and artillery, and new tactics which revolutionize warfare on Marduk.

Honestly, this is a really complicated question and if any of the dozens of episodes of Star Trek with the Prime Directive are any indication, it's not an easy one. Everyone seems perfectly fine with not mucking about with pre-warp technology civilizations in the abstract and it certainly seems like a fine idea, but when it comes down to the specific people have a really hard time letting a species die because of a supervolcano eruption which they can easily prevent with some graviton particle beams or what have you. So obviously there is some good to be had by bringing the benefits of advanced technology to less developed areas. Even on our own planet I think it's safe to say people across the globe benefit from modern dentistry regardless of where they are, just to stick with the dental example.

But I think we need to also recognize that there are also disadvantages which we may still not be able to fully understand. And we can look at our own history when Europeans came in contact with native peoples in the Americas and Australia. The Europeans brought steel, firearms, livestock, new methods of agriculture, printing presses, just to name a few of the technologies. However contact with Europeans also introduced disease and alcohol, economic exploitation of native peoples and their land, war, social and economic marginalization, attempts at cultural destruction, and a situation where life is still pretty bad for a lot of native people into the twenty-first century. And considering the marines are mostly introducing military technologies which promise to dramatically shift the balance of power on Marduk, I'm hesitant to say this is entirely a good thing.

Unfortunately Weber and Ringo never really get into a detailed exploration of these issues. It's really mentioned once and dropped once again. But I feel like this is still important enough that once it's been brought up we really can't ignore it. Maybe the other two books will be able to go into more detail about these questions, but that remains to be seen.

As military sci-fi fiction I think this is pretty good, especially if you put aside some of the moral questions for a minute anyway. It does get really repetitive because it's the same plot recycled twice in the same book, more or less, but there are lots of good moments.

- Kalpar