Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper

Today I'm looking at a series of books I read a long, long time ago when I was a kid. I actually realized they were available as audio books from the library. The series is loosely connected to Arthurian myth, being set in Cornwall and Wales, and relating to the struggle between forces known as the Light and the Dark over magical artifacts such as a grail, a harp, and a magic sword. If you're interested in reading or listening to the books they are, in order:

  1. Over Sea, Under Stone
  2. The Dark is Rising
  3. Greenwitch
  4. The Grey King
  5. Silver on the Tree
I say the series is loosely connected to Arthurian myth because it's set mostly in the ''present time'' of the late 1960's and early 1970's, when it was written. The imagery, ideas, and even names from Arthurian myth and other British folklore get used extensively, and Merlin is even a main character in the series. But for the most part the Arthurian mythos is used to let you know how important the different artifacts are, assuming you'll be familiar with the names. And I think that was the biggest problem I had when I was a kid reading them the first time. I knew a little bit about Arthur, and I liked the stories I could get my hands on, but these were the highly filtered, sanitized for kids versions so I didn't understand the references to various objects or other legends. And so I think if you're unfamiliar with a good chunk of the Arthurian mythos, you're going to be a little confused by some of the objects and names. 

The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, is definitely different from the other books in the series and has far less magic than the other four. It's been described more like a mystery adventure than a fantasy novel, so it's an example of early installment weirdness. The rest of the books go much deeper into the struggle between the Old Ones of the Light and the Lords of Darkness who are trying to influence the world. How their magic is done is only vaguely explained at best, with Will Stanton the last of the Old Ones reading a book that teaches him everything he needs to know about magic. There are some references to the Old Magic, the High Magic, and the Wild Magic and different ways that magic can be done, but for the most part it's fairly unexplained.

The Old Ones, and the Lords of Darkness, seem mostly able to influence time through magic. They're capable of going outside of time or, when conditions are right, stepping from one time to another. This causes some of the weirdness of the books because a lot of the really magical stuff happens outside of regular time in a Britain that is and yet isn't. The struggle between the Light and the Dark is also an attempt to either fulfill or thwart a prophecy that the Light will finally triumph, and the conflict takes place through time and yet out of time as well. 

Basically the Dark is blamed for a lot of bad things happening to Britain, such as the invasions by the Angles, Saxons, Danes, Jutes, and Normans, as well as other times when the Dark has been able to exert influence. However the rules are that neither Light nor Dark is able to completely destroy the other so the Light is always to create a bastion of hope to ensure that humanity will continue and the Dark will not prevail. Until of course the final conflict which takes place in the 1970's when all the artifacts are found, rather quickly as a matter of fact, and the Light is able to use the artifacts to banish the Dark forever from the world. Granted, this does not banish the darkness in men's hearts, but it provides hope for the world to endure. 

Overall I have mixed feelings about the series. On the one hand it shows enormous creativity on Cooper's part, such as utilizing magic to time travel which I don't see very often, and the series has a pretty good message that despite the bad influences such as greed, cruelty, and arrogance if we fight to keep hope alive we can always drive back the darkness. On the other hand Cooper doesn't explain a lot of stuff in the book and it left me, even as an adult, sort of confused more than anything. If you don't know the Arthurian references you're definitely going to be lost, and even then there's a lot that simply isn't explained. It implies deep ideas for world-building but we just don't get to see how complex the story could have been. It certainly doesn't get bogged down in exposition so it keeps a fairly brisk pace, but I feel like that might ultimately be to the book's detriment. 

Despite all of this, the books are certainly interesting and I would say worth your time to check out. It definitely feels different from any other fantasy books out there which makes it stand out when so many things can sort of blend in with the rest of the competition. 

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville

Today I'm looking at Perdido Street Station, the first in a series of steampunk-ish novels by China Mieville. I'm kind of mixed on this book for a couple of reasons. When I read the blurb for whatever reason it reminded me a little of Fallen London, another really gritty steampunk city, albeit seen in video games rather than novels, and from time to time I kept imagining the city of New Crobuzon underground, although that's clearly not the case. There are good parts to this book, but there were also parts that I found frustrating as well.

Perdido Street Station is set in the universe of New Crobuzon, a massive city located, at least partially, under the bones of a massive creature, although this book doesn't go into great detail about the creature or what people know about it so maybe that will be covered in a later book. New Crobuzon is a police state dominated by the Militia, an organization with informers and agents throughout the city and who often strike out of nowhere to haul lawbreakers to be Re-Made in the Punishment Factories. Usually the judges prescribe some cruelly ironic punishment such as a thief that refuses to speak has their mouth sewn shut. Which definitely adds to the grim and creepy nature of the setting.

The biggest issue I had with this book was it felt like it took the longest darn time getting to the actual plot, mostly because there were several plot threads that only gradually get woven together. In the beginning of the book we get introduced to Lin, a member of a species that look like humans except they have giant scarab beetles for heads and can produce sculpture through a cement-like spit they exude. Lin is one such artist and gets hired by a local crime boss to create a sculpture of himself. Meanwhile her lover, normal human Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, has been hired by a bird person named Yagharek to fashion a new set of wings, since Yagharek's own wings were cut off by his tribe. And then there's their friend Derkhan Blueday, a writer for a radical and highly illegal newspaper. Plus the cleaning construct in Isaac's lab is acting strangely and the government of New Crobuzon is increasingly worried about some compromising information.

So that was my biggest problem was there were all these different threads and they eventually came together to make a single plotline and made sense in the grander scheme of things but they felt very disparate and it took quite a bit of time before we started seeing how all the different plotlines were joining up. If this book was condensed a bit more I'm certain it would be a much shorter novel and it would probably have a much better pace as well.

The thing I noticed, especially when I kept being amazed that this book was still going is that Mieville gets very Dickensian with his writing. Which is to say, extremely to the point of excessively detailed because Dickens was paid by the word so he would make the sentence as long as he could and go off on tangents and parentheticals just to get more money, Dickensian. On the one hand, this is good because Mieville manages to make his universe feel deep and complex through world-building and making it feel like New Crobuzon is a city with an actual history rather than something he just made up. On the downside, it bloats the book out considerably and there are some passages that are utterly egregious and add nothing to the story.

For example, there is an adventurer who is hired by the main characters to help them solve a problem during the book. After a while the adventurer decides she's had enough and she's cutting and running. Sorry, but she's a professional, she's not in it to get killed. All well and good. What follows is a passage describing the adventurer's departure from the city, reflections on the events, a brief discussion of her species's preferred method of architecture, (They're sort of frog people? Definitely amphibian.) and then her decision on what she's going to do now in the future. And honestly, I couldn't have cared less about what this character was going to do. She was barely, just barely in the novel and mostly some extra muscle the main characters had hired on with little to no characterization. I would have been perfectly happy with her waving goodbye and leaving, which is what she did initially, rather than going into an entire tangent about the character. Maybe Mieville means for this character to be important in later books, which is why he focused on her, but it seems entirely unnecessary in this book.

And even with the world-building I feel like the author resorted to a deus ex machina towards the end of the novel. The actual thing is mentioned before in the book, but only very briefly and dismissed as a myth so it still comes as a bit of a surprise when it shows up.

So that's really the biggest problem I have with this book, it feels super bloated with extra information. That feels cool for a bit, but after a while the exposition gets really boring and starts distracting from a plotline that is, in theory, time-critical. I think if Mieville was trying to add a sense of urgency to the plot, adding a bunch of exposition and making the book take a languid pace was not the best way to go about this. There's definitely a lot of good world-building but I think there's a lot that could have been left out and the book wouldn't have suffered. If you do read this be prepared for a lot of exposition.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sharpe's Escape, by Bernard Cornwell

Today I'm looking at another book in the Sharpe series, Sharpe's Escape. This book picks up shortly after Sharpe's Gold with the British and Portuguese making a fighting retreat against the invading French armies on the road to Lisbon. The Lines of Torres Vedras have been finished and now Wellington is just trying to get every scrap of food out of French reach and get his army safely behind the lines. Sharpe meanwhile has rejoined the South Essex as the captain of its light company, a position which has been made more difficult by the addition of Lieutenant Slingsby, an in-law of Colonel Lawford whose career is in need of a boost. Sharpe also runs afoul of a Portuguese crime boss called Ferragus when he prevents Ferragus from selling food to the French. Eventually Sharpe, Sergeant Harper, and Captain Vincente from a previous adventure, get separated from the South Essex and have to make their way through French-occupied territory to the British lines.

I'm not sure what to say about this book because I kind of find myself thinking the same things about it compared to the other books. This book was definitely less egregious in having Sharpe be responsible for everything important that ever happened in the Napoleonic Wars ever. Sharpe spends most of this book just trying to survive instead of saving the entire British army. So in some ways I appreciate that Sharpe is kind of being a regular guy in this book.

Like quite a few other books, Sharpe's kind of on a secret mission again, although in this case it's because he's trapped behind enemy lines rather than because he has to do something to save Britain. But it's different enough that it managed to keep me interested and keep me reading.

Otherwise, I'll be frankly honest, this book is the same as the rest, but the location's changed a little. There's a new woman for Sharpe to fall in love with and who we may or may not see by the time we get to the next book. If you liked Sharpe so far you'll probably enjoy this book. And if you're not into this series, it's not going to have anything to entice you.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

Today I'm looking at Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Obviously Gaiman is one of my favorite authors so to find out that he had produced his own version of Norse mythology and there was an audiobook actually read by Neil Gaiman I was incredibly eager to get this book. As were a ton of other people because I had to wait for a few months just to finally get it from the library. This book is basically Gaiman's collection of Norse myths, from creation to Ragnarok, written and read in his own style. This is obviously not a complete collection of Norse myths, but it definitely includes the major stories such as how the gods got their marvelous gifts, the construction of Asgard, the chaining of Fenrir, and the death of Baldr.

As much as I hate to say it, this book was actually kind of a disappointment because Gaiman doesn't improve or expand much on the existing body of Norse lore. Yes, everything is written in his own style with its quirks, but at the end of the day this is just another translation of the scraps of Norse mythology that have survived. Unlike The Gospel of Loki, which tells Norse myths from Loki's perspective and actually creates an alternate interpretation of the lore, Gaiman's work doesn't stray too far from what we've seen in previous translations.

I think if you haven't read any Norse mythology before, this would be a good book to read because Gaiman covers all the major stories. And if you're looking for a good copy of Norse myths to just have around the house and read from time to time, this would be a good choice as well. Gaiman, of course, is a fantastic writer and manages to get some passages into his own tone, but at the end of the day I just can't say this really brings anything new to the table in terms of Norse mythology.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

Today I'm looking at another book by the author of The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood. Today though I'm reviewing The Heart Goes Last, a book written a couple of years ago and definitely takes a lot of inspiration from the financial crisis which began in 2007. Overall this book is interesting and it has some tantalizing plot threads, but I feel like Atwood ends up trying to do too much and cover too many topics so the result feels far more scattered. In many ways I'm almost reminded of a Phillip K. Dick novel like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Dick had this habit of coming up with a ton of ideas for his books, any one of which could have been the basis of an entire novel. The problem was Dick was so hopped up on methamphetamines the entire time that he wandered off to a thousand different interesting ideas. Atwood's book definitely doesn't have the same frantic pace that Dick's work does, but it feels like a similar effect in regards to the lack of focus.

The book follows a married couple, Stan and Charmaine, two young professionals who were hit by a cataclysmic financial crash sometime in the near future. Most of New England and the Rust Belt are gutted wastelands, any companies that remained have packed up and headed west. The super rich live tax-free on floating communities offshore, while 40% of the U.S. population is unemployed and law enforcement is something that happens only in the richest enclaves.

Stan and Charmaine have been living in their car for months now, desperately short on cash and wondering if they'll survive to tomorrow. Then they hear about the opportunity provided by Consilience, a social experiment town that provides full housing, full employment, and a safe community. The catch is that every other month half the population spends their time locked up in the prison, the central ''industry'' of Consilience while the other half act as the civilians. Most people, Stan and Charmaine included, are too desperate too be overly worried by Consilience's weird rules and are just happy to have food in their bellies and a safe place to sleep. Unsurprisingly, of course, things are not as they appear and Stan and Charmaine find themselves embroiled in a much more sinister conspiracy.

As I said, the biggest problem I have is this book has a lot of things going on, but there are so many threads that I don't think Atwood really gets a chance to develop any of them particularly well. I'm also left scratching my head at some of the plotlines or decisions for how the stories get resolved, which makes this book less than perfect for me. Atwood is still an excellent writer and she does at least touch on a lot of themes in this book, but it feels very lacking in focus and I think that's to the book's detriment.

The foremost example, without getting into spoilers, is the whole prison setup to Consilience. The residents of Consilience are working whether they're inside prison or outside prison, and either way their jobs and houses are assigned to them. It's basically a giant, centrally-planned economy with most of the profits (allegedly) getting scooped off to the investors in the project. Like, for example, they say part of the full employment plan is to have people be guards for the prison, providing jobs, while also exploiting cheap prison labor. But if everyone's working for the same company, having some of them be guards is really just make-work that serves no real purpose. You'd think it'd be more profitable to have everyone working all the time.

The only reason I could think of having the prison population is what Ed, the guy in charge of the whole Consilience project, says at the beginning. He veers into mustache-twirling villain territory by saying that the American economy is failing because we simply aren't willing to make use of slave labor, starving people to death while wringing every possible bit of work from them. So in theory the reason to have a prison population is to make use of slave labor. But the entire population of Consilience are basically prisoners anyway because they're not allowed outside the walled enclave of the town, whether they're in a prison month or no. Everything is either imported or made by the company, everyone works for the company, and is paid by the company. They're literally stuck in a company town, it just raises more questions than answers.

And this isn't the only plot thread that doesn't really get explored to its fullest potential. Charmaine has a tragic childhood fraught with physical and emotional abuse, but that's seen in glimpses and used an explanation for why she has such a Pollyanna exterior. Not to mention the double life Charmaine is living when she starts having an affair with Max, one of the residents of the house when Stan and Charmaine are spending their months in prison. Or a couple other plotlines I won't go into detail about because that goes into spoiler territory. But I think if Atwood had chosen to focus on just one or maybe two things this could have been a really good book, but because she doesn't keep the book focused we end up with potentialities instead of actualities.

And then there is the ending which I find kind of objectionable for a number of reasons, but again that gets into spoiler territory. Suffice to say everything seems wrapped up a little too neatly for this book. Overall I think this book could have been really great, but because Atwood starts exploring these different avenues the result is sadly less than spectacular.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie

Today I'm looking at a biography of Catherine the Great, by far the most powerful and influential female ruler of the eighteenth century. Catherine was born a minor German princess with only the opportunities presented by marriage to improve her lot and satisfy her own ambitions. Married to the heir of the Russian Empire, Catherine embraced her adopted country including its language and religion, earning the respect and admiration of the Russian people. Just three months into her husband Peter's reign, members of the Russian nobility and army gathered around Catherine and supported her coup, establishing her as tsarina of Russia in her own right, and she ruled for over thirty years.

Like all historical figures, Catherine is complicated and not wholly good or bad as a person. In her younger years Catherine embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment and the theory of enlightened despotism, and Catherine actually sought to reform Russia's legal system as well as entertained ideas about the gradual abolition of serfdom. However as Catherine got older, dealt with the frustrations of running Russia, and witnessed the bloody beginnings of the French Revolution, Catherine became increasingly conservative and an even strong proponent of absolute monarchies. The result is a woman as complex as any other person in history.

Overall I think this biography was very good. Catherine was engaged in correspondence with many people at the time so we have a large number of primary sources to draw upon for research and Massie makes use of that. Not only Catherine's own correspondence, but writings from figures such as Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Diderot, and foreign ambassadors to Russia. We get an intimate look at Catherine and her life not only as a monarch but also as a person.

This book does spend considerable time talking about people and subjects other than Catherine, if only to provide necessary context. I remember there were rather lengthy bits talking about the life of her husband, Peter, and the French Revolution just to name a couple topics. Although this does take us away from the narrative of Catherine and her life story, I feel like Massie does make them tie to the life of Catherine so they feel relevant rather than additional information to pad out the book.

Overall I thought this biography was fairly well done. It criticizes Catherine, perhaps a little unfairly when it comes to her lovers, but it doesn't become too hagiographic in its praise either. What we see is a woman, trying to do the best for her country in the eighteenth century. She isn't always successful, but she tries pretty hard and definitely seems worthy of the moniker ''the Great''. If you're looking to learn more about Russian history or Catherine in specific (especially after watching the Extra History videos about Catherine) this is definitely a good book to read.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Today I'm looking at another retelling of the Arthurian mythos, The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I was interested in this book because it's billed as the story of King Arthur as told from the perspective of the women in his life, such as his mother Igraine, his sister Morgaine, and his wife Gwenhwyfar. Since the women in Arthurian myth are often relegated to side roles or, in the case of Morgan le Fay, antagonistic roles I was hopeful that this would be a new and interesting take on a thousand year old storytelling tradition.

Unfortunately I'm left with the feeling that this book simply isn't worth the time and effort that I put into reading it. There are a few good parts which I want to talk about first before I get to the big issues, but I was left feeling extremely disappointed. Perhaps it's unfair for me to judge a book published over thirty years ago by today's standards, but for a radical new perspective on the Arthurian mythos, this feels like it doesn't break new ground.

The thing that I liked most about this book was how it explained some things that never really made sense to me in the Arthur legend. For example why Morgaine, Arthur's sister, would help him and then later decide to hurt him by stealing Excalibur's magic scabbard and plot his downfall. In a lot of the older stories Morgaine isn't developed much beyond her being an evil sorceress so the fact that Zimmer Bradley puts in the effort to make it sense within the narrative I greatly appreciated.

I also liked how Zimmer Bradley explained why the Grail Quest was such a curse on Arthur and Camelot. In some versions of the mythos, the Grail Quest scatters Arthur's knights to the corners of the earth, and many die or disappear, so that when Mordred attacks Camelot Arthur doesn't have his full strength. And it seemed curious to me that God should send Arthur and his knights on a quest to find the most holy of relics only to have it end up destroying Camelot. The way that Zimmer Bradley frames the Grail Quest and what's truly going on makes the story make a lot more sense. Obviously these are stories that have been told, retold, edited, and remixed for hundreds of years so a lot of stuff isn't going to make sense, but I appreciate how Zimmer Bradley managed to turn it into a cohesive narrative.

The biggest issue I had with this book though was what the women spent about 80-90% of their time talking about, namely their relationships with men and having babies. For me this was incredibly boring and it just utterly failed the Bedchel Test over and over. Which is a little weird to use the Bedchel Test when it dates from the early 2000s, but I feel like if your main characters are going to be the women, it's a valid test to use. But I'm still torn over this for a number of reasons. On the one hand, at the time period they're depicting the roles of high-born women were largely circumscribed and dominated by men and their ability to bear children, so it is an accurate portrayal in that regard and if the goal was to show how frustratingly boring and limited these women's lives were, then Zimmer Bradley does a good job.

On the other hand, for a nearly nine-hundred page book it makes for really, really tedious reading and if this is supposed to show how powerful women can be then it still shows that they're dominated by their relationships by men and their ability to bear children. And I do think Zimmer Bradley was trying to go with the women being powerful message because Morgaine and several other characters are priestesses of Avalon, representatives of the Goddess in the mortal world with their own mighty, magical powers. So we have all these powerful women who are trying to influence the future of Britain and yet they are almost still by their relationships to men rather than their own abilities.

The other 20-10% of the time, the women were arguing about religion, which is the second biggest theme in this book after men and babies. Morgaine is a partisan of the old ways and the traditional druidic religion of Britain, passed down from Atlantis, in which all gods are one God and all goddesses are on Goddess. Gwenhwyfar, however, is a devout Christian, the proponents of only one God and who wish to stamp out all other forms of religion. At least, that's what we're told by Zimmer-Bradley. For most of the book we're told about the Christians' intolerance for other religions and the pagans' willingness to tolerate the Christians, although based on the things we actually see in the book the pagans look like the intolerant ones. It's really a case where Zimmer Bradley needed to show rather than tell to us. And as someone who has no dog in this fight beyond a general attitude of letting people worship however they please as long as they leave me alone, I couldn't get terribly invested in the conflict.

Another thing that kind of annoyed me was that Zimmer Bradley threw in various things that could have led to plots more interesting than what we got. For example, it's heavily implied if not outright stated that Arthur and Lancelet are sexually interested in each other and Lancelet is, if not gay, then at least very, very bisexual. And this would have been really groundbreaking in 1982, never mind today when it would still be new. But this gets barely any attention at all. Or the ambitions of Moraguse, Arthur's aunt, wife of King Lot, and foster-mother to Mordred. We get told that Moraguse is an extremely ambitious woman with great sexual appetites and is extremely interested in becoming High Queen of all Britain someday. We actually get to see Moraguse be the ruthless operative willing to utilize dark magic to achieve her goals, but only a couple times in the entire book. Most of the time Moraguse is barely in the book to the point she's a side character rather than a main character. I feel like this could have been a much better story than what we ended up getting but for whatever reason Zimmer Bradley left it as an undeveloped thread.

I think my negative opinion of this book is just because of how dreadfully long it is which made it feel like that much more of a chore to read. I personally felt that the payoff was not worth all the time and effort invested in this book, and I finally finished it with relief more than anything else. If you're looking for a really good Arthur re-telling from a female perspective, my favorite of all time is still Gwenhwyfar, by Mercedes Lackey. As much as Zimmer Bradley tried, I just can't make myself love this adaptation.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroads, by Dee Brown

As has been established time and again on this blog, I like trains, so it'll come as absolutely no surprise to anybody that I'm talking about them yet again. And don't worry! They'll come back! I've got at least two more books to read just about trains!

This book deals specifically with the history of the transcontinental railroads built during the later half of the nineteenth century. I actually read another book about this very topic called Railroaded which goes far more in depth about the railroads than Brown does in this book. This is definitely far more of a general overview of the transcontinental railroads as a historical subject so it's good if you're unfamiliar with material and doesn't get too bogged down in technical details. If you're looking for something a little more substantial or in-depth then Railroaded is definitely superior in that regard.

The transcontinental railroads of the United States are an interesting topic because there was no real financial reason for them to exist. Railroads in the eastern parts of the United States were often built to connect existing settlements and ease transportation issues that had been partly but not completely solved by a combination of river and canal transportation. The Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest railroad in the United States and so solid it did not collapse into bankruptcy during the Great Depression, is the ultimate example of the eastern railroad. The western railroads, however, were going into vast territories inhabited only by the numerous Indian nations who had no interest or more frequently were opposed to the introduction of railroads into their lands. Perhaps a line of communication between east and west would be strategically necessary, but there was little economic incentive for a railroad of continent-spanning size.

As a result, the railroads crossing the western United States were largely subsidized through the federal government in a variety of ways. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific got cash for every mile of usable track laid, as well as extensive land grants, and their bonds backed by the federal government. Other railroads such as the Santa Fe eschewed cash payments in exchange for significantly greater land grants, providing the railroads with extensive opportunities for profit entirely divorced from actually running a profitable railroad. The bountiful opportunities for corruption, graft, and financial manipulation brought dozens of robber barons to exploit and gut the transcontinental railroads, leaving the United States with five barely-functioning railroad networks crossing the west.

Brown does a pretty good job covering the major points of the story of the transcontinental railroads, which weren't exactly the heroic nation-building exercises they sometimes get portrayed as in popular history. That being said, I do have a couple of issues with Brown's book at least one of which is because of when it was written. This book actually dates from the 1970's, which were a dark, dark decade for railroads in the United States. Penn Central, the poorly-planned merger between the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads, had gone bankrupt and the issues of numerous other railroads led to the government takeover of all passenger operations with Amtrak and reforms to railroad regulation. An industry that even fifty years prior was central to America had become an obsolete relic. Many historians of railroads at this time had bitter and angry things to say about the railroad companies, and Brown is no exception.

While this is fair for the time period, and Amtrak service hasn't improved greatly either, at least where I live, it definitely dates the book. And considering how many emotions are tied up to the collapse of the railroads in the 1970s, it's hard for me to really make an objective assessment of the period because of the number of emotions involved. It's truly a curious phenomenon and I wonder if there will be history on it at a later point.

The other thing that bothered me was the disparity in Brown's coverage of Indian experiences and black and Chinese experiences with the railroads. Brown goes into great detail about the experiences of the Indians, as their titles to land supposedly guaranteed by treaty are rapidly extinguished to make way for railroads and the associated land grants. And of course there is much to be said about how the railroad, by splitting the buffalo herds and making them even easier for white hunters to exterminate, hastened the demise of the traditional way of life for many plains Indians. And Brown has every right to be furious as she is about the treatment of Indians.

But by comparison her coverage of the Chinese and black experiences with the railroads go far less in-depth. What I most remembered was her briefly mentioning the usage of black convict labor and Pullman Porters. Now, there is a whole in-depth exploration of the peonage system created in the United States after the Civil War that made it incredibly easy for black men to be convicted for trivial offenses and then leased as convict labor to farms, mines, and railroads as basically slaves. If you're ever interested in learning more about peonage, I highly recommend the PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name. Suffice to say that in the south, including Texas, black convict labor was often employed to build railroads. And even where free black men were employed, they faced lower wages, discrimination, and violence from white railroad workers. And of course Chinese railroad workers faced the same issues as their black counterparts. These are huge issues that just sort of get glossed over in this book and feels like a missed opportunity.

Brown also mentions Pullman Porters, one of the best jobs available to black men in the United States, but fairly low-paying compared to other railroad workers and working as a servant for the benefit of the passengers. Pullman Porters, and by extension many railroad porters, have been referred to as ''George'' regardless of their actual name. Brown mentions this as in honor of their employer, George Pullman, owner of the Pullman company. The problem is that this was hardly an honor for the porters. It has been conjectured, although I have not found any strong evidence for this so far, that the Pullman Porters were called George because that was the name of their employer or ''master''. Even the simple fact that white passengers couldn't be bothered to learn the names of their porters reflects the second class status Pullman Porters were relegated to as black men. I think it is grossly misinformed to call this behavior an honor.

Issues aside, this is pretty good for a general history. As I said, it doesn't go terribly in-depth but covers the major highlights of the history of transcontinental railroads in the late nineteenth century in the United States. If you're looking for basic information this is a good start, but there are other sources that go far more in-depth.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 2, 2017

We Few, by David Weber and John Ringo

Today I'm wrapping up the Empire of Man series with the final novel, We Few. The result for this book, and I guess for this series overall, is actually a bit of a disappointment. The biggest thing I'm left feeling is that Ringo and Weber had much bigger plans for this series beyond just the four fairly long books, but for whatever reason they kept the series at just four novels and didn't bother to expand it from there. Maybe they had other projects to work on. Maybe Baen decided it wasn't interested in continuing the series, I don't know. But I'm left feeling like the story Weber and Ringo wanted to tell wasn't completed and we got only a fraction of what we could have.

Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead

Towards the end of the last book, March to the Stars, we discovered that Prince Roger's mother, Empress Alexandra, had been captured by a coup orchestrated in part by Roger's father, the Earl of New Madrid, and the naval minister Prinz Jackson . Roger and the survivors of Bravo Company, Bronze Battalion, have been declared traitors and are officially wanted people throughout Imperial space. Unofficially rumors of the drugs, torture, and rape that New Madrid and Jackson have been using to control Empress Alexandra has been leaking out of the palace and some people are beginning to think maybe Roger wasn't behind the coup after all. When Roger and the survivors of Bravo Company manage to get back to civilized territory they find plenty of allies ready to help them in a daring plan to rescue the Empress and save the Empire.

Plot-wise I actually liked the idea Weber and Ringo managed to come up with for this book. The best plan Roger's staff is able to come up with is that they start up a Mardukan-themed restaurant in Imperial City as an advanced base of operations and a front for the importation of money and equipment for their raid on the Imperial Palace. Most of the battles the heroes have gone through before have been straight-up fights, massive set piece battles with hundreds or thousands of casualties. Seeing Roger and company work on doing a covert operation with a bunch of green, three-meter tall, four armed aliens is different enough to be really interesting. So for that I give it plenty of credit.

On the down side, there is some stuff that is either terribly dull, or stuff that's left out entirely. Some major space naval battles are part of this book, which I'm all for, but Weber goes into the numbering the missiles the ships launch in a salvo, describing how many get defeated by counter-missiles, how many get stopped by point-defense, and then how many manage to get through and strike hits. This is something I've been noticing a lot recently in the Honor Harrington books and it honestly feels like so much padding. I really didn't want to know the exact number of missiles utilized. You say it's fifty thousand? Great. That sounds like a lot. And then we have descriptions of vectors and time lag from transmissions and so on which is very pretty and I'm sure all manner of accurate, but it really takes away from the story.

Another thing that bugs me is the loose ends left at the end of this book, specifically Prinz Jackson and the Saints. From the first book we've had the Saints described as antagonists, but at a larger scale than what Bravo Company was going through. For the last three books the main enemy Bravo company was fighting was the environment of Marduk itself and the natives. The Saints actually appear in the first and third book to be enemies but aside from some mentions about how they're evil enviro-hippies and enemies of the Empire, that's about it. It's almost outright stated that a conflict between the Saints and the Empire is extremely probable in the near future and presumably some of the events of these books would move the two factions closer to war. But instead, Bravo Company and the Empire are dealing with the issue of a civil war at home. By the end of the book the issues with the Saints still have not been resolved or for that matter even addressed so it almost becomes a question of why were the Saints included at all in the series?

The other thread at the end was the escape of Prinz Jackson, the mastermind of the coup against Empress Alexandra. With Jackson safely out of the Sol system and calling as many admirals loyal to him as he can, the Empire is definitely in a state of civil war. With the Saints eager to snap up territory while the Empire is occupied, it's clear that this civil war needs to be resolved quickly and decisively if the Empire is going to survive at all. And we see the start of it when Roger leads the assault on the Imperial Palace to rescue his mother as well as the division within Home Fleet's forces between those loyal to Alexandra and those loyal to Jackson. But otherwise the war is left incomplete. The start of the book has a brief historical passage on Roger who becomes known as Roger the Terrible so presumably he manages to quash Jackson's rebellion, but we're left with so much to be done and so much unexplored.

There are a few minor things as well, but that's kind of niggling over details compared to the big stuff. These books have left me feeling like Weber and Ringo had plans for a huge, complicated world as deep and interesting as that of the Honor Harrington series. Instead we only catch glimpses of this world in a time period spanning not much more than a year. Maybe this was their intention, but it makes me feel like Roger's story is incomplete more than anything else. And so this series is, ultimately, kind of a disappointment.

- Kalpar