Thursday, September 20, 2018

League of Dragons, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm finally finishing with the Temeraire series with the ninth book, League of Dragons. As I mentioned in my review of the previous book, Blood of Serpents, I had started having concerns about this series because I knew we were close to the end and it seemed like there wasn't quite enough space to finish the series. I hate to say it but I feel like this kind of happened with this book as well. It seemed like Novik had a lot of really neat ideas that could have been developed further but there just wasn't enough time in the series to talk about those ideas. I'm left wondering if maybe Novik had gotten tired with the series and was just looking to end it with everything (mostly) wrapped up. The result is a book that feels alternately fast paced and meandering and with me wishing for more.

The book begins where we left off, with Laurence and Temeraire in Russsia after Napoleon's disastrous 1812 campaign. But after we spend some time in Russia, Temeraire and Laurence discover that Temeraire and Iskierka's egg is in danger of being stolen by French agents with the aim of binding the dragon within to Napoleon's son and jeopardizing the already tenuous alliance between Britain and China. Temeraire rushes off towards China, only to get halfway across Russia and be told that the French have already stolen the egg and he now has to rush back towards Europe to try and catch them in the Alps.

Temeraire and Iskierka rush towards France to get their egg back, only to be captured by the French. They then have to plot how to escape with Laurence, and Granby, and the egg. After spending a good chunk of time captured and plotting their escape, they then flee back to England and get involved in planning the counter-attack against Napoleon in the 1813 campaign. As the Peninsular campaign pushes towards the Pyrenees, Laurence finally is awarded the rank of Admiral and is sent with a British detachment of dragons to fight with the Coalition forces including Prussians and Russians and eventually the Chinese as well. Towards the end of the book the Coalition manages not only to crush Napoleon's army, but capture Napoleon himself. Napoleon is allowed to abdicate in favor of his son, and goes into exile on St. Helena.

This is kind of what I mean by the book being alternately fast-paced and meandering. When we're spending time with our main characters being kept prisoner or sitting in camp waiting for Napoleon's forces to come into Prussia, we seem to spend a lot of time sitting around talking about the rights that dragons are interested in getting, and dealing with issues like feeding hundreds of dragons. But then really important things happen (sometimes off-screen) really quickly and we spend some time afterwards catching up on events.

One of the most interesting things about this book was the idea of a concord, initially proposed by Napoleon. The concord is a collection of ideas and rights for dragons, putting them on an equal footing with humans. This initially gets quite a large amount of support from feral dragons, which prompts Temeraire and other English dragons to start working on their own concord. This eventually gets introduced as the Dragon Rights Act by Perscitia, who's the first dragon member of Parliament. This actually was a development I thought was interesting and would have been interested in seeing more of, especially after it's passed and Temeraire starts thinking about pursuing a career in politics. That's just something I would have liked to see more of and might have been more interesting than sitting around dealing with supply problems while on campaign in Germany.

Ultimately I'm a little disappointed with the results of the series. There was a lot of potential in this series and there were a lot of interesting ideas, but I'm left wishing for a little bit more in the end. I think this series has some good parts and there are some enjoyable parts, especially the characters. But I feel like there could have been some more development, especially towards the end of the series. They're enjoyable reads, but as I've said before this series is mostly literary candy.

- Kalpar 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Darth Plagueis, by James Luceno

Today I'm looking at another Star Wars book because apparently I'm a glutton for punishment. Of course this book is part of the Legends canon so it doesn't count as canon anymore within the new Disney canon. (Yes, Star Wars is confusing.) I think this was one of the last books written before the Disney takeover, though, so it kind of shows how complicated the canon had gotten. If you've had the misfortune to sit through Revenge of the Sith you probably remember Palpatine's speech about the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wiiiiiiiise. After the movie a lot of fan theories floated around about who exactly Darth Plagueis was with the favorite being that Darth Plagueis was Palpatine's own former teacher. This book confirmed that theory and expanded on both Plagueis and Palpatine. But I feel that this book in an attempt to answer questions just ends up raising more questions.

This book establishes that Darth Plagueis is a Muun. Now if you don't remember what the heck a Muun is, I certainly don't blame you. Basically they were these tall aliens and they were behind the Intergalactic Banking Clan, the major economic power in the galaxy. Darth Plagueis, like so many Muuns, is a major financial broker in his own right. Now on one level this makes a lot of sense because someone with massive financial power would be able to set the conflict of the Clone Wars into motion, both through political manipulation as well as underwriting the manufacture of armaments for each respective faction. In a way this makes a lot of sense. But the trouble with this book is that it just creates a disconnect between Darth Plagueis the manipulator and Darth Plagueis the immortality-obsessed maniac. Of the two, the chasing immortality plotline seems to have been almost forgotten at times, like Luceno was like, ''Oh right, the immortality and the midichlorians. Right. Got to include that.'' Plagueis's ultimate goal is to rule the galaxy for forever, but based on where the book spent its focus it felt like Plagueis's main goal was galactic domination and immortality was just a sweet bonus.

This book also focuses a lot on midichlorians (when Plagueis is actually working on the immortality project) and then all the financial and political debates that were in the prequels. Now I think it's pretty safe to say that there were a lot of people who didn't like the tedious political debates that were in the prequels, so having a whole book with a lot of those debates is probably not going to be appealing to the average Star Wars fan. Not to say that political intrigue and Star Wars couldn't potentially be an interesting story like Song of Ice and Fire, but in this case it's a more of the prequel variety which isn't that great.

The canon problems also start getting confusing. This book includes a reference to the Heir to the Empire with Jorus C'baoth making a cameo and I'm pretty sure that there's an inclusion of a plotline about Darth Maul taking out leaders of the Black Sun criminal organization.And I'm pretty sure I read a comic with that exact same plot back when I was a teenager. (It's called Star Wars: Darth Maul published by Dark Horse, if anyone's interested) And those are the only two references I was able to catch, I'm sure there were more that I missed as well. But this just made me think of the of the fact that Jorus C'baoth was cloned and his clone suffered from clone madness, all of which got forgotten with the new Clone Wars. So now I'm mixing canons that contradict each other in my head.

I feel like this book tries to answer some other questions such as ''What the heck were all those giant bottomless shafts in Naboo that the lightsaber fight was in? And for that matter why is the Trade Federation blockading Naboo? What space supplies could this lush, verdant planet need that would cause them to surrender?'' Well this book actually answers those questions that we had. It turns out that Naboo's entire economy is based around mining plasma and then the Trade Federation has a contract to ship it off world. So the blockade by the Federation is over a disagreement involving shipping rates and it brings Naboo's economy to a standstill because their economy is based on a single export. And those bottomless shafts are just plasma mines.

...except that plasma is an ionized gas either found in either the upper atmosphere or more commonly what stars are made out of. So...you...shouldn't be mining it from a planet's core. I...it just doesn't make sense. I'm sorry, I know I'm making a big deal about this but it bugs me on some level. And this is just the biggest thing that bothers me, there are a lot of other questions that I'm left asking about this book. It just raises more questions.

Overall I think this book is worth skipping. While it explains more of how the Clone Wars were set up, it does it in such a dry manner that I don't think most fans are going to want to read this entire book just for that.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Dear Dana Loesch and the NRA, What the Fuck is Wrong With You?

I am writing an extra thing today that is out of my usual purview of talking about books. As most of my readers are probably aware, I like trains. Really, really like trains. To the point that people joke the I Like Trains Kid is based off of me. I can safely say that the origin of this obsession began with Thomas the Tank Engine, whose stories I first encountered through Shining Time Station on PBS in the early 1990s. Thomas and his friends have long since grown beyond the original stories of the Rev. Wilbert Awdry, but continue to bring joy to millions of children (and children at heart) throughout the world. As you can imagine I have very, very strong positive emotions tied to Thomas and Friends.

So I found out today that Dana Loesch and the NRA got their panties in a bunch over new characters for Thomas and Friends and felt the appropriate response was to create an image of Thomas, James, and Percy wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods. And I'm going to be entirely honest, I have completely lost my shit. I am incandescent with rage. And as an...attempt at catharsis I'm writing this. I don't know if it'll help.

Dear Dana Loesch and the NRA,

What the fuck is wrong with you? What the fuck is wrong with you? Granted, this is a question I ask every time, Ms. Loesch, you get up there after a school shooting and tell us with a straight face that we actually need more guns to make us "safe". That I at least understand because that's the entire NRA's agenda and you're paid to say that. But getting offended over increased diversity in a children's tv show? That has absolutely nothing to do with guns or the Second Amendment, why are you even talking about this? What the fuck is wrong with you?

If you were a cynical person you could say that Mattel's decision to include more characters is an opportunistic move to sell more toys. You could also say that it's an opportunistic decision to expand the popularity of Thomas and Friends among a more global audience by including characters from across the globe, as well as introducing female characters to appeal to the half of the audience that is female in a series that has been historically light on female characters. (I don't think Annie, Clarabell, and Henrietta really count as characters per se as they have less agency than the engines do.) But you know what? It can be a cynical, opportunistic cash grab and a good thing.

Because you know what? Yes, the series has been short on girl characters. The original series only had Mavis and Daisy, both of whom were diesels and had a bit of an attitude until they had an inevitable incident with trucks and an incident with a cow respectively. I'm pretty sure Emily was the first female steam engine introduced to the series and even then she was the only female character for a long, long time. And sure, maybe I find the decision to include engines from different countries with special paint schemes a little questionable because most steam engines were painted black because of all the soot but kids like bright colors so let's make all the engines bright colors. Whatever, it's for kids. 

And I was emotionally invested in Thomas. If I'm being entirely honest, I find the new CGI weird and well into the uncanny valley and I really miss the old model trains even though they were probably expensive and a lot of work. And I hate seeing some of my favorite characters like Donald & Douglas getting shunted aside for new kids on the block, but fine. Whatever. I'm a little sad, but they're not making the show for me, they're making it for the little kids of today. 

But for whatever reason, you weren't satisfied. You had to go and get your panties all up in a bunch about the fact that Thomas and Friends is promoting things like clean water, gender equality, and quality education for everyone and doing it with a cast of diverse characters. What the fuck is wrong with you? Do you just hate clean water? Do you hate children? Do you hate fun? Why are you so angry about this? It's a children's show about trains who perpetually learn that it's better to work together and be kind to each other. How can you object to any of this? What the fuck is wrong with you?

What bugs me the most is this isn't even about guns. Like, far be it from me to tell people to stick within their wheelhouse but this is totally not in your wheelhouse. It's like you specifically hunted down something to be offended about, and it was something that is almost inherently inoffensive. Which is rich irony coming from people who are always complaining about "snowflake liberals" who are constantly being "triggered" by things they find offensive.  At least when we're offended it's because of the overt racism, sexism, and bigotry that seems to constantly spew from your mouths. When you're offended it's because we said clean water was a good idea. What the fuck is wrong with you?

How does a person become so filled with hate that they see something good and kind in this world and immediately say, ''I want to smash that!"? How does everything in the world become a personal attack on you and your beliefs? Are you exhausted from constantly being under siege?  Because I can't see how any person with intelligence, with compassion, with even a shred of empathy would do what you decided to do. I guess ultimately what I'm asking is: What the fuck is wrong with you?

- Kalpar 

Sister Queens, by Julia Fox

If you live in the United States you might vaguely remember Ferdinand and Isabella as the monarchs who hired Christopher Columbus before he ''discovered'' the New World. However Ferdinand and Isabella had a much greater influence on European politics beyond sending an Italian who didn't know what the heck he was doing to murder some natives. Ferdinand and Isabella completed the centuries-long project of the reconquista and united the states of Castile and Aragon into modern Spain. And the marriages of their children would affect dynastic politics for generations to come. This book focuses on two of their children, Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile, often known as Juana the Mad.

Katherine of Aragon was familiar to me because she was the first of Henry VIII of England's six wives. Katherine's depiction varies from source to source, especially depending on the religion of the writer, but she has understandably received considerable coverage in English history and literature. So a lot of the material in this book was a refresher for me. I think Fox did a very good job of portraying Katherine as a whole and complex person rather than a cardboard cut-out.

The biggest thing I learned from this book was about Katherine's older sister, Juana of Castile. Juana was the third of Ferdinand and Isabella's children and was never expected to inherit. However once their brother Juan and older sister Isabella died, Juana was left to inherit the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon after already being married to Philip, Archduke of Burgundy, of the influential Hapsburg family. When Isabella died before Ferdinand in 1504, this meant that potentially whoever could control Juana very likely would control Castile as well. This launched a fight between Ferdinand, Philip, and on Philip's death in 1506, his son Charles who would become Emperor Charles V. Eventually Ferdinand and Charles would both imprison Juana under claims of her insanity and Juana would spend the majority of her life imprisoned.

The story that is mostly used to justify the claims of Juana's insanity was a story relating to her husband's body, which Fox manages to explain really well within the context of dynastic and religious politics of the sixteenth century. Juana sought to have her husband buried in the Alhambra located in Granada, the final conquest of her parents in 1492, and importantly where Isabella herself had been buried. By burying her husband with her mother, the former Queen of Castile, Juana sought to cement her position as queen in her own right. However both her father Ferdinand and later her son Charles were able to turn the royal progress of her husband's body into the actions of a madwoman to legitimize  their own usurpation of her power.

The ultimate irony of course is that despite being held prisoner for most of her life, Juana eventually influenced all of Europe through her children. The Hapsburgs married into the royal families of Europe and the Austrian branch of the family would rule as Holy Roman Emperors and later Emperors of Austria-Hungary until 1918. And Fox argues that since Juana's actions always seemed to be for the good of her dynasty, she would perhaps be satisfied with the final outcome.

Overall I thought this book was a really good reexamination of at least Juana, who I really only knew the one story about her alleged craziness that's been perpetuated for centuries. Katherine it feels very familiar but on a much deeper level than some of the more general Tudor histories that I've read or listened to. I did appreciate Fox going into the details of Katherine's struggles with Henry VII, definitely one of the more avaricious Kings of England. I think this is well worth the time to check out and give you better understanding of the dynastic politics of the sixteenth century.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Today I'm looking at a book which does exactly what it says on the tin, looks at how the Roman Empire fell. In the first century CE the Pax Romana had reached every corner of the Mediterranean and for centuries it seemed Rome could weather any challenge, face down any enemy. However by 476 the Western half of the Empire had been occupied by Goths, Franks, Vandals, and other Germanic tribes and Rome itself was sacked. Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Emperor, was deposed and nobody bothered to replace him. The Eastern Empire continued for another millennium, but the power of Rome in Western Europe and Africa had forever been curtailed.

Even as the Empire itself fell, people were debating what caused the Empire to collapse. In the classical era people tended to attribute it to the displeasure of the gods. Pagan writers said the old gods were displeased by the empire's conversion to Christianity while Christina writers blamed backsliding to pagan rituals losing Jesus's favor. Later writers, including Edward Gibbon, blamed the collapse on the Roman Empire on the invasion of Germanic barbarians. As Goldsworthy explains, the underlying assumption is that the institutions of the Roman Empire were fundamentally sound, but the external pressures were simply too much for the empire to bear. Goldsworthy argues that instead it was internal issues that sapped the strength of the Roman Empire and made it susceptible to invasion by the Germanic tribes.

Goldsworthy illustrates this problem through centuries of evidence, showing that through the third and fourth centuries CE the Roman Empire was plagued by civil wars and usurper emperors, as a result much of the empire's strength was spent fighting itself rather than its enemies. Over time the empire's institutions including its military and civil bureaucracy were reformed in an attempt to keep the emperor safe from usurpation or assassination, dividing authority and reducing the power that any one individual subordinate might hold. Ironically this did nothing to stop the civil wars and for most of those centuries strong, long-reigning emperors such as Diocletian, Constantine, or Theodosius, were the exception rather than the rule.

Ultimately Goldsworthy's argument is that the Roman Empire managed to survive through ontological inertia rather than because it was an efficient and united regime. The Empire was simply too big, too rich, and too powerful for it to fall overnight despite the rot within the structure. The Germanic tribes, and even the feared Huns, were able to raid and bloody the empire, but almost never had the numbers to truly overthrow or replace it for most of its history. The only closest rival in terms of strength and money was Sassanid Persia and due to geography they would not have been able to strike at the cores of the Roman Empire.

Goldsworthy's methodology is well thought out and he makes excellent use of the available sources to make an argument that internal, rather than external, pressures made the Roman Empire collapse. What bothers me, though, is when Goldsworthy makes the comparisons to other nations and the inevitable comparison to the United States. As he explains, the United States has been comparing itself to Rome (albeit the Roman Republic) since 1776, so the comparison to the Roman Empire is equally apt. However, Goldsworthy argues first that the United States, much like Rome, had no serious challengers. When this was written in 2008 that was clearly not the case as our ongoing ''war on terror'' continues to quagmire in the Middle East with no real goal or end in sight. While the nature of asymmetric warfare means it's unlikely a terrorist army could invade Washington, D.C., the challenges that they pose are no less frustrating. And even in 2008 the rise of China and ambitions of Putin were plainly obvious as future security concerns.

Goldsworthy also, albeit not by name, makes a reference to the Roman Empire being ''too big to fail''. Although definitely not being tossed around at the time he finished writing (well before the publication date of 2008) the words ''too big to fail'' have come back to haunt us in a serious way. To members of the left wing, myself included, the notion itself that a financial institution can become so large that its collapse can threaten the world economy suggests that something has become seriously wrong with the system and is in desperate need of reform. And it does raise the question, if Rome was too big to fail and still failed, what does that mean about the banks?

Despite these concerns about Goldsworthy's attempts to compare Rome to the modern era (a difficult proposition even in the best of times), I think this book is well worth taking the time to check out. Goldsworthy makes a compelling argument that in the end, Rome's greatest enemy was itself.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 6, 2018

City, by Clifford D. Simak

Today I'm looking at an anthology of short-stories written by Clifford Simak that tell a story through short vignettes over a period of thousands of years. The stories of City follow mankind as technology allows them to abandon cities, then flee to the stars, then disappear, leaving behind sentient dogs and robots as the inheritors of the Earth, who end up taking their own paths. The stories, like so much of forties and fifties science-fiction, was first written for short story magazines before being collected in an anthology. This anthology uses a framing device of dogs in the distant future analyzing eight stories that have been passed down through the generations. Many dogs think that the stories are little more than myth, an origin story crafted by dogs to explain where they came from. Man is dismissed by most dog thinkers as a primitive tribal deity with no basis in fact and probably never existed.

The concept is an interesting one, much in the same vein as stories like Canticle for Leibowitz where we, the readers have knowledge about things in the distant past that other characters only vaguely know about. The dogs, for example, think that it's impossible to travel to another planet such as Jupiter, while we currently send probes to different planets on a regular basis and to forties and fifties readers travel to Jupiter seemed a real possibility. The result is an interesting conflict between the reader and the characters within the book and for whatever reason this is something that I enjoy in books.

There is a fairly melancholy tone throughout the novels and I'm not sure how I feel about it. The moral of the stories all seems to be that no matter how much we, or dogs or robots, advance, there will always be something to hold us back or something to distract us. There is an interesting contrast between the hope for the future and the obstacles that ultimately stumble us. The result is rather bittersweet and leaves the hope for the future in doubt. Which is a lot like real life in a way because our future is always in doubt.

Overall I thought this book was an interesting and short read. Even as a forties and fifties science-fiction anthology I feel like it hasn't aged as badly as some other sci-fi has. I think it's definitely worth taking a look for its unique nature.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Today I'm taking a look back at one of the classics of old science-fiction, Fahrenheit 451. I first read this book when I was fourteen years old as assigned reading for school. I thought it was pretty good, but I personally liked Ender's Game better between the two. Years later I was actually surprised to find out that I had gotten Bradbury's main thrust that so many people miss. What most people remember about this book is that it's about burning books. The title after all takes its name from the flash point of paper, the temperature at which paper would ignite from surrounding heat alone. (Apparently this isn't strictly true because chemistry, but that's a different debate entirely.) And the main character, Guy Montag, is one of the firemen now responsible for burning the prohibited books, which seem to be every book. While censorship is definitely part of the book, to say that Fahrenheit 451 is only about burning books misses another major argument.

The plot of Fahrenheit 451 follows Guy Montag as he begins to question his work and the society he's living in, especially after his wife Mildred overdoses on sleeping medication and doesn't remember why. Montag realizes that he's never had a conversation with his wife for years and that's partly because she spends almost all her waking hours in the television parlor, surrounded by three television walls, or with earbud radios in. Despite spending all of her time plugged into media Mildred can't even tell Guy what the plot of the stories she's been watching are, much less express an opinion on something beyond the media she consumes. Guy realizes that he is isolated from everyone and his life is devoid of meaning and begins to wonder if maybe he can find that missing meaning in books. So there is this large theme about trying to find meaning in life while society and the government encourages people not to think and just enjoy themselves.

There is a point where the character Captain Beatty makes an exposition dump/argument about how the world got to the point that they're burning books, and I'm on the fence about whether the argument doesn't hold any water or is even more valid today. Beatty states that the censorship of books began with an elimination of things that people found offensive, such as Little Black Sambo. Gradually more and more things were deemed offensive to people's sensibilities and so more and more things were censored, banned, or eliminated. Alongside this was the reduction in time available for people to actually enjoy media, leading to abridged editions, summaries, condensations, and eventually media becoming so superficial and bland as to be utterly meaningless. With society left with media that doesn't challenge them or make them uncomfortable, they can just spend all their time being happy and not stopping to think about something beyond themselves. A society of perpetual distraction.

On the one hand Bradbury, through Beatty and other characters, makes a valid point. Eliminating things that make us uncomfortable can be counter-productive because when we're made uncomfortable it can make us think about things in a new way or challenge preexisting ideas. But at the same time, there are legitimate reasons to be uncomfortable with the example of racial depictions of non-white people. For example, people should not be performing in blackface and you should feel uncomfortable even with historical examples because blackface was the creation and reinforcement of racial stereotypes of African-Americans as inferiors and a perpetuation of the dehumanization of African-Americans. The same goes for countless other racial and ethnic stereotypes which exist to create an image of inferiority and reinforce the idea that blacks, American Indians, Jews, or Anabaptists are somehow less than human and worthy of contempt and violence.

In an era where political correctness is derided as being overly sensitive, it's all too apparent we need it more than ever because of the overt racism espoused by public figures and endorsed by at least a chunk of the population. Especially when the people who deride political correctness and want to bring back the racial stereotypes are exactly the sort of people who would use racial caricatures to justify their mistreatment of other people. But I suppose those would be the sorts of people who wouldn't feel uncomfortable and wouldn't be challenged to think outside their preexisting worldviews. I guess my point is that there are good reasons to be uncomfortable with ideas like Sambo and while we shouldn't ban it, we shouldn't present it without having a conversation about it either.

And inevitably in our current era an examination of Fahrenheit 451 would not be complete without talking about the current state of media. If Bradbury's critique of media as superficial and intellectually unfulfilling was accurate in 1953, someone will inevitably say that it's more valid now. We have so much reality television, as well as programs that are aggregations of clips from other media that commentate on it. Not to mention the countless big-budget superhero, sci-fi, or action movies that get churned out in seemingly endless franchises by Hollywood. Where is the intellectually fulfilling media? people might ask. And with the saturation of media out there it can be hard to find it. But I think it's there. People are still producing documentaries about important topics. People are still writing or creating media that's meaningful beyond its entertainment value.

Besides which, people often forget that things that are considered ''great literature'' today were often derided in their own time. Dickens was dismissed as popular literature pandering to the common denominator. Moby Dick was panned by critics when it was first published (although how fair that was is a matter of debate). ''Great literature'' is always a matter of debate and what may be popular today may not survive to tomorrow, while what may be ignored today may remain relevant twenty or fifty years from now. And even what people think as ''great literature'' will vary from person to person. So to say that we're no longer creating things of value is far too premature.

Overall this book serves as a good jumping-off point for debates and it raises some very good questions with no easy answers. It's definitely worth taking a read and doing a little thinking on your own.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Blood of Tyrants, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm looking at the eighth and penultimate book of the Temeraire series, Blood of Tyrants, and this is actually a point where I was outright disappointed in the series. As I've said time and time again the thing I've noticed about this series is that most of the books are similar to the others and most of the time it involves Laurence and Temeraire being tourists in various locations throughout the world. I think it's interesting to see how different cultures treat dragons in this world where humans and dragons coexist, but there was a lot of the series that felt like literary candy similar to the Sharpe series. So I've been giving the series middling reviews because while I liked them and there was a lot that was pretty good, there wasn't anything spectacular to write home about either.

The biggest issue I had with this book was the decision to start the book with Laurence having amnesia, which seems to serve no purpose but create filler. When we last left our characters, the Potentate, Laurence, Temeraire, and the rest of their dragon wing set sail from Brazil to China for an official visit with the Imperial family, Laurence's adopted family, for a potential alliance between China and Great Britain. Along the way the Potentate runs into a storm and ends up washed on rocks off the coast of Japan. Along the way Laurence is washed overboard and wakes up in Japan with amnesia, having completely forgotten the past eight years of his life, incidentally completely wiping out any memory of Temeraire or his service in the aerial corps.

Personally I disliked the amnesia plot because I felt it didn't really serve any purpose in the story. I think it would have been fine to have Laurence wash up on Japan and get the taste of Japanese dragons versus Chinese dragons (although based on what little we got I don't know how different Japan was) before heading onward to China. Instead we have Japanese officials wondering what exactly to do with Laurence especially because he says he has amnesia and the Japanese don't believe him anyway. Really the only thing that the amnesia does is create drama for later on between Laurence, Temeraire, and the other aviators. First there's the drama of Temeraire feeling guilty that Laurence has missed out on all the things he could have experienced with a naval career instead. And then there's the awkwardness around talking about Laurence's past, specifically when he gave the cure to the dragon plague to the French and as a result was convicted of treason. And it felt so tiresome to tread over this ground over and over again.

This is the point where the amnesia plot starts to feel like so much filler because we're going over the same psychological problems that Laurence and Temeraire have gone over before and we resolved them. Now since I have psychological problems myself I understand that deep-seated issues aren't solved overnight, or even solved once and for all. But with fiction it gets frustrating that the characters keep going over the same issues that were resolved in previous books And it feels like Laurence gets amnesia just so we could go over the same ground again, but regardless of whether he'd had amnesia or not, Temeraire felt responsible for losing Laurence's fortune and the need to make it up to Laurence somehow. So there still would have been an issue whether Laurence had amnesia or not.

I say this feels like filler because this book finally returns to the war with Napoleon by having Laurence and Temeraire lead three hundred Chinese dragons to the Russian front to help the Russians drive back Napoleon. Students of history will of course recognize this is Napoleon's 1812 Russia campaign, widely regarded as the major reason for his empire falling. When we leave our main characters the outcome of the Russian campaign is in doubt, the Russians and Chinese have been driven back, their lines of supply destroyed, and despite all their efforts Napoleon appears to once again have the upper hand. With winter setting in, the situation looks desperately grim for the coalition powers. But for me it didn't feel like a natural stopping point in the narrative and now I'm worried that the end to the Russian campaign in the last book is going to be rushed so Novik can put other things in. Maybe I'll be wrong but we'll have to find out.

Honestly, the amnesia plot is my biggest complaint because it doesn't seem to serve a purpose beyond filler. Especially when we've gotten this deep into the series and are on the cusp of wrapping everything up once and for all. The rest of the book feels a lot like the rest of the series so it's fair to middling, I just think Novik could have used time more profitably.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

A Country of Vast Designs, by Robert W. Merry

Today I'm looking at a biography of the eleventh president of the United States, James K. Polk. For many people, Polk is among many of those nineteenth century presidents that are largely forgotten. Polk may not have been a caretaker president but with the general population he usually gets lumped in with them. As Merry points out, this is somewhat odd because Polk was president during the third-largest expansion of U.S. territory during his administration, surpassed only by the Louisiana Purchase and the Alaska Purchase. Furthermore Polk managed to achieve all four of his major policy objectives within one term: reduction of tariffs, the creation of an independent treasury, negotiation of the Oregon territory, and annexation of Mexican territory. However, the fact that Polk achieved his major objective through an aggressive and blatantly imperialist war against Mexico has significantly tarnished his reputation and left his political legacy in considerable doubt. I will say that Merry is a pretty strong Polk apologist and that leaves me in some doubt.

I will give Polk some credit by managing to achieve his objectives of tariff reduction and the independent treasury. Polk faced stiff opposition from the Whigs as well as members of his own Democratic Party, revealing the deep sectional divisions hiding within the national parties. It was only through using political capital to get his legislative program accomplished. Furthermore he had to spend considerable effort quelling rebellion and insubordination within his own administration, a process that could have been simplified by removal of James Buchanan as Secretary of State. It does reveal that Polk had considerable skill as a negotiator and coordinator which certainly makes him equal with other presidents who faced equal challenges with an opposed Congress.

If Polk has a biggest flaw, it's his refusal to engage in confrontation and deal with subordinates who undermine or actively act against him. The best example of this is the aforementioned James Buchanan. This really comes to the fore with the negotiations over the boundary for Oregon. Polk was elected on a platform of ''54-40 or Fight'', the extreme boundary of the territory. Merry argues, probably correctly, that Polk adopted this extreme measure to force Britain to negotiate over the boundary, especially since previous attempts to negotiate at the 49th parallel had been rejected by the British. Although there was legitimate concern that Polk's stance would provoke war with Great Britain, Buchanan repeatedly undermined Polk's attempts by providing conflicting information to British diplomats. And when Polk managed to finally negotiate a boundary at the 49th parallel Buchanan immediately reversed course and demanded that Polk accept nothing less than 54-40.  Buchanan also opposed the treaty ending the Mexican War, even after it accomplished all the goals Polk proposed. It seemed that Buchanan adopted any contrary position just to cover his own ass for his future presidential prospects.

The biggest issue around Polk is of course the Mexican-American War which was provoked through a variety of diplomatic incidents between Mexico and the United States and started Zachary Taylor and a detachment of dragoons were sent into the disputed boundary between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers in Texas. Taylor was attacked by Mexican troops which prompted Congress to grant Polk's request of a declaration of war. However even as the war began, Polk's Whig opponents criticized him for starting what they saw as an illegal, unconstitutional, and imperialist war and those criticisms have remained. This is the point where Merry gets most apologist for Polk, arguing in essence that while the United States provoked the war, it was in some ways justified because of Mexico's inability to meet legal reparations, their mishandling of the diplomatic overtures, and their decision to adopt a hostile stance with a larger and more powerful neighbor. I feel like this is almost a case of victim-blaming that Merry adopts, ignoring any notions Mexicans may have had of national honor offended by American treatment of their nation as inferior, just as strong as American indignation at Mexican offense of American honor. While it may have been rational for Mexico to negotiate with the United States and perhaps end up losing less territory than they did after the war, it may not have been the rational choice for a proud, nineteenth century Mexican nationalist who would rather fight than surrender unilaterally.

And if there's one topic Merry definitely avoids as it pertains to Polk it's the issue of slavery. Polk owned twenty-five slaves and was selected as a candidate for the Democratic party because of his willingness to tolerate slavery. While Polk did not take an adamant stance in favor of slavery, such as contemporary John C. Calhoun famously did, he was no abolitionist or even apologist such as Henry Clay who at least went through the motions of saying it was bad and should be removed even if Henry Clay's scheme of colonization never really worked. Merry makes absolutely no mention of Polk's slaves or his relationship with them, and Polk does not seem to have been bothered by the institution in his personal writings. At most Polk's desperate opposition of the slavery debate seems to have been an effort to keep the country united as the regional  fault lines between slave and free became more obvious in the 1840s and 1850s. Furthermore, Polk's acquisition of new territory was responsible for the opening of the slavery debate because those territories had not been covered under the Missouri Compromise legislations. While some people, including Polk, supported extending the compromise legislation to the new territories, a growing abolitionist faction made a simple solution to the slavery question impossible and concerns over the status of new territories added further fuel to the flame of sectional strife.

So while I can understand and appreciate the significance of Polk's achievements as a politician and president, I still think that there's quite a lot to critique as well. Regardless of what Merry thinks, I am still of the opinion that the Mexican-American War was a war of imperialist expansion in keeping with the U.S.'s other (undeclared) wars of expansion against Native American Indian tribes. While there are parts of this book that are highly informative, I think it goes to being a little too laudatory for Polk for me to truly appreciate it.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, by Ian W. Toll

Today I'm looking at a history of the United States Navy in its earliest era from its founding during George Washington's administration through the War of 1812. For much of this period the existence of the navy was very much in doubt. The early United States had a strong distaste for standing military forces, and this included naval forces. In addition to the great expense involved in maintaining a naval force, many Americans believed a navy would only lead to further conflicts with European powers. Some Americans much preferred the use of privateers, much like the American militia system, to meet America's security needs than a large standing army.

The need for an American navy became apparent, however, due to conflict with the Barbary States and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in Europe. The conflict with the Barbary states is gone into much greater detail in another book I read, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. While this book spends at least a decent portion talking about the Barbary States since it's an examination of the Navy as a whole it also explores the Quasi-war and the War of 1812 which further emphasized the need for a navy.

From the beginning the leaders of the United States realized that a large navy with ships of the line modeled along European lines would not be sustainable with the resources that the United States possessed. The initial plan in 1794 called for six frigates, four heavy and two light, constructed at six different shipyards through the United States. The main designer Joshua Humphreys, planned the frigates on designs that would make them heavier, stronger, and better-armed than British and French frigates, but also make them fast enough to still evade ships of the line against which the frigate would be hopelessly outmatched. The result, proved eventually in the War of 1812, was that the American frigates could go toe-to-toe (or more accurately yardarm-to-yardarm) with British frigates and in many cases still win.

The amazing thing is that the Navy managed to survive despite almost being dissolved numerous times. It seems to be a consistent policy that when war is looming, the United States went through a flurry of trying to get ships together and ready to fight, but once a treaty has been made and peace declared the United States decides to mothball its frigates and furlough its officers, squandering valuable institutional experience in the interim. Only to have to bring the ships back up to fighting trim when the next round of hostilities opened. In some ways it's amazing that the navy managed to survive until the War of 1812.

If the War of 1812 did anything, it proved that the navy was a necessary element for national defense and that the United States could, and would, stand up against British naval power and win. Compared to the debacles of the various attempted invasions of Canada and the disgrace of Washington D. C. being burned by redcoats, the multiple victories at sea against the best navy in the world dramatically boosted American morale. Naval commanders such as Stephen Decatur and Oliver Hazard Perry became household names and lithographs of the nation's frigates became popular decorations. After the war ended, support and funding for the navy remained strong and the United States navy continued to grow.

Overall I thought this book was interesting, if fairly brief. It's at best a brief overview of the history of the U.S. navy for its first twenty years of its existence. Because I did a report on the Battle of Lake Erie in seventh grade, I did a ton of research on the early navy so I vaguely remembered quite a few of the events described in this book. But if you're looking for a brief history this is definitely a good choice and worth the effort.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The World of Lore: Monstrous Creatures, by Aaron Mahnke

Today I'm looking at a book by Aaron Mahnke who apparently runs both a TV show and podcast around the idea of examining folklore, ghost stories, and urban legends throughout history. This book is a collection of a variety of stories some of which deal with monstrous creatures such as vampires, zombies, and werewolves, but also deals with terrors such as murderous dolls, poltergeists, and ghost ships. The result is a book that gives me mixed feelings to say the least because of how Mahnke seems to veer between belief and skepticism.

When I first checked out this book I thought it would be an investigation of various stories from folklore and giving a variety of explanations for why these stories exist. And I was initially proven correct in this assumption as Mahnke talks about stories surrounding vampires and how bodies can decompose in certain ways to make it appear that the hair and nails have grown, as well as distending the stomach, making an exhumed corpse appear ''alive''. Mahnke also talks about how creatures such as oarfish may have inspired stories of sea serpents and other great sea creatures. And this is something that I greatly enjoy, looking at folklore and finding a variety of explanations for how such stories may have come into existence.

What makes me concerned, though, is that Mahnke then jumps from full skepticism to full believer with certain stories, and I can't seem to find any particular logic to the stories he seems to believe versus the ones he doesn't. For example, Mahnke seems to believe in the Beast of Bray Road, a creature seen in rural Wisconsin about thirty years ago. But based on all the eyewitness reports the animal sounds like an ordinary bear and it turns out that yes, bears can walk on their hind legs. So it was probably a bear that people saw in Wisconsin thirty years ago. Mahnke also apparently believes in the real-life Annabelle the Doll (who, by the way, is a Raggedy Ann doll, which is far less threatening than you'd think). Even a cursory wikipedia examination shows that other demonologists dismiss the owners of the museum that Annabelle is housed in as mostly full of boffo and the story of Annabelle has no corroboration. It's a very odd story to choose as one that you believe as legitimate.

I find it very curious that Mahnke seems to veer so frequently between a total skeptic and a total believer. Even when there's a rational explanation available for some stories, he seems to go for the more fantastic explanation. As a strong skeptic myself I find it rather frustrating and the lack of rhyme or reason to the stories Mahnke seems to believe or disbelieve just further compounds it. If you're interested in stories of the unusual it's probably a good choice but don't expect every story to have an explanation.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Darth Bane: Dynasty of Evil, by Drew Karpyshyn

Today I'm finishing the Darth Bane trilogy with the last book, Dynasty of Evil. As I mentioned in reviews of the previous books I hadn't known quite how to feel about these books. On the one hand, the books don't try to make the Sith out as misunderstood bad guys or the Republic as little better than terrorists. But on the other hand with the ending of the last book I was unsure where the series was going to go from where it ended. The final book is okay but it leaves me ultimately wondering if we needed the story to be told at all.

The book picks up another ten years after the last book, with Bane and Zannah living in secrecy, slowly building their plan to destroy the Jedi and the Republic. The problem for Bane is that so far Zannah hasn't made any attempt to challenge him and take the mantle of leadership. Bane has become worried that Zannah is merely waiting for the ravages of time to do him in, completely violating the principle of the Rule of Two. But if Bane is to successfully replace Zannah with another apprentice he'll need to find a way to cheat death itself.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Serra, the daughter of the healer Caleb who Bane intimidated and then murdered, has married into the royal family of the planet Doan. When her husband, the crown prince, is murdered by a rebel group, Serra ends up on a path of revenge that will take her to face her greatest fears and confront Darth Bane.

The biggest feeling I was left with at the end of this book was did we really need to tell this story? I mean, I kind of like Serra's arc and discovering that revenge truly isn't worth it in the end and making her peace with that, but this is really the first time she's a character in these books. I think I'd have preferred a more in-depth plot with the Jedi across all three books, rather than the haphazard sort of approach we have to the non-Sith characters. It's not that Serra's a bad character, but it feels like they had a couple different ideas for protagonists against the Sith and went with all of the instead of just focusing on a few. I think it would have made the books feel more connected, because as they are they feel like episodes rather than a complete arc.

As for Bane and Zannah, I feel like we didn't need to see the ending of their conflict. We knew one way or another that Zannah would eventually replace Bane and continue the line of the Sith which would end with Palpatine and Vader. I kind of took it for granted that Zannah would be the one to succeed in this conflict and the biggest question was who of the three Force-sensitive characters we have in this book would end up being the next apprentice. I'm just left wondering if this was a story that needed to be told.

I think what would have improved this series would have been more development on the light-side of things, maybe having a few consistent Jedi characters, perhaps motivated slightly by revenge or tempted by the dark side, to serve as a contrast or foil to Bane and Zannah. Instead we end up with multiple characters who get far less spotlight time than Bane and Zannah. It also could have produced a better arc over three books than each book feeling like its own story. These books are okay, but definitely leave room for improvement.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy

Today I'm looking at a science-fiction book by Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time. In the introduction, Piercy explained that the book was written during the second-wave feminist revolution of the late 1960's and 1970's and put it within the genre of feminist utopian literature that sought to critique current society and provide alternatives for the future. In this rerelease some forty years later Piercy argues that her book has become even more relevant because of the decreasing resources available for mental health, the increasing wealth inequality, and the threat of environmental destruction. And on some level, I have to agree.

This book focuses on Connie, a Mexican-American woman in her mid thirties, living on welfare in New York. Connie has been abandoned by her family, her daughter taken away by the state, and been in and out of government institutions for a significant part of her adult life. Recently Connie has been seeing an individual who identifies themselves as Luciente. Luciente claims they come from the year 2137, a society that has returned to a closer-knit and more ecologically sound way of living. Connie and Luciente are able to connect mentally across time and communicate, learning about each other's society.

The main conflict comes from a fight Connie had with Geraldo, her niece's pimp. Geraldo knocks Connie out and gets her recommitted to an insane asylum. The rest of the book focuses on Connie trapped within the ruthless institution determined to crush her into a predetermined form of socially acceptable. This is the part where Piercy's research especially shines, she says she got workers to sneak her into mental institutions and did countless interviews with both workers and patients to get insights into the mental health system. Through her writing Piercy manages to capture the tedium, the helplessness, and the desperation of people trapped in a system that sees them as a problem to be fixed, rather than people to be helped. With the evocative portrait Piercy creates, it really shows the deep-seated problems of the mental health system and if not how it needs to be reformed, at least revealing the desperate need for reform.

I will say that in my experience there seems to have been changes for the better in the past forty years, but my experience is far, far different from Connie's. First, I'm a middle-class white man opposed to a poor latinx woman so people are more likely to listen to my thoughts and concerns than Connie's just because of background. Second, I've spent the equivalent of a long weekend in a mental health institution while Connie spends at least one year and probably longer trapped in an institution. So while the glimpse I saw looks a lot better than what Connie experienced, my own experience was very different from Connie's and it's certainly possible that things haven't improved for many other people.

As for the life in the future that we saw, I feel like that's weaker compared to Piercy's commentary on society in the seventies. There are some interesting ideas but a lot of things are left a little too vague and just raise more questions, specifically the practice of defense. The people in the culture of 2137 volunteer to spend part of their time working on defense, fighting against enemies. It's implied that these enemies are last vestiges of the old corporation-dominated way of doing things and we get to see a little bit of that different society, but I would have liked just a little bit more exposition.

Overall I think the time travel and alternate society that Piercy establishes in her book are the less interesting parts of the book. The best parts, for me, were Connie's struggles against the system and revealing just how a woman of color can be disempowered by a system that sees her as a problem rather than a person. If the future society is underdeveloped and maybe a little confusing Connie's own story more than makes up for it. Definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber

Today I'm looking at what turned out to be a far more philosophical book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. As readers probably noticed, I've been on an economics kick lately and the title alone seemed like an interesting concept so I put this on a list of things to try from the library. This book takes more of an anthropological and sociological look at debt as an aspect of human social groups rather than a historical and economic perspective. While Graeber does a fairly good job of critiquing specific accepted wisdoms of economic thought, his approach to debt as an institution is fragmentary at best and really fails to provide an overarching explanation. Obviously talking about debt from ancient Mesopotamia to the current era is a huge task and to go into detail would be impossible, but I feel like Graber leaves something to be desired in his work.

The main argument of Graeber's text is that humanity has used debt and virtual currency for most of recorded history and the usage of hard money, specifically coinage, is actually an aberration rather than the standard. He begins with the assumption made in many economic textbooks that barter as a system of exchange existed before money, with the problems involved as economies became more complex and the issue of a coincidence of needs became harder to fill. Graeber argues that barter as a system is actually fairly rare and usually only occurs when people used to a cash economy no longer have money to do business. Instead, Graeber argues that trade has mostly used virtual currency even before physical currency existed. The units of currency, such as talents, minas, and shekels, were merely a way for people to keep track of exchanges and overall balances of credits and debits, rather than actual units of coinage that passed from hand to hand. When gold and silver entered the equation at all it was for international trade rather than local transactions.

Graeber then argues that for a period of about 800 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. we see the emergence of a cash-based economy and coinage with coins becoming part of the day-to-day economy. Graeber's explanation for this is the creation of large, professional standing armies which, inevitably, require equipment, food, medicine, and a thousand other things that makes armies function. To streamline the process, governments issued coins to the soldiers as pay, and then collected the coins from their subjects as taxes. This meant that the subjects had to find a way to get the coins from the soldiers to pay their taxes, and the easiest way was to sell the soldiers something the soldiers needed. There is a certain elegance to this explanation so it makes a decent amount of sense, and explains why coinage was able to circulate at a purchasing price well above the market price of the metals. In addition, armies are interested in portable wealth, one of the largest benefits of using coinage instead of credit-based systems. Graeber goes into a lot more detail, obviously, but this is his main argument. Once the program of imperial expansion ended, most of the world reverted to a credit-based system until the fifteenth century.

Graeber also argues that we only returned to a cash-based economy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because of ideas by people such as John Locke and Adam Smith who idealized a cash economy and people entirely free of debt. This also ties with an expansion of European empires across the globe which brought European ideas and institutions, incredibly violently, to the rest of the globe. Because this sees another increase in militarization and violence, Graeber argues that this was merely a repeat of what happened in the Mediterranean, Middle East, India, and China for over a millennium. However the fact that the U.S. dollar, and all currencies, are now backed by credit rather than precious metals, means to Graeber at least that we are entering a new era of currency.

The biggest problem I have with this book is that Graeber gets far too tied down in the philosophical questions behind currency. This is an age-old debate, especially during the nineteenth century, when people questioned what exactly counted as money. There were hard-money advocates who strongly supported that only gold and silver could serve as money because of their intrinsic value. This, however, causes a problem for several reasons. First, gold and silver have no intrinsic value aside from what we give them. In fact, aside from ornamentation, electrical conductors, or tokens of value, they have no real use. This led to credit-based explanations for money, that really money is just a token of value that stands in for other things and it doesn't matter what we use for currency as long as we all agree to accept and use it. The problem is that Graeber seems to accept the credit-based position throughout most of his book, with his argument that credit-based systems of accounting have been used for most of human history. However when he gets to the decision to abandon the gold standard in 1971 he seems to then turn on credit-based systems because they can manufacture money from nothing There is room here to make a sophisticated argument, but Graeber simply leaves insufficient time to build such an argument and left me disappointed with the result.

Overall the result was kind of disappointing. Graeber makes arguments which are so broad it's difficult to refute them because of their own generality. Although there are times where Graeber gets into the history of credit institutions throughout the world, for the most part he seems to get bogged down in the philosophical questions about money which for me were a lot less interesting. The result is a fragmentary book at best and fails to examine perhaps the most important developments in the past two centuries which have created our current economic and financial system.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Crucible of Gold, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm finally getting back to the Temeraire series with Crucible of Gold, which took me a while to get from the library because of a waiting list. As I've said before with this series the books kind of feel the same, sort of like with the Sharpe series. However, that doesn't mean that the series isn't enjoyable to me. It's kind of like literary candy, not necessarily substantive but a fun time to enjoy and this book continues much in that same vein.

When we left off with Temeraire and Laurence they were settling on the edges of Botany Bay colony trying to make a life for themselves. This of course is upset at the start of the book when Arthur Hammond, ambassador plenipotentiary for the British Empire, arrives from China to announce that the war has taken a turn for the worse and Britain needs Laurence and Temeraire to help their Portugese allies in Brazil who have been invaded by the Tswana of Africa, determined to liberate and repatriate all the slaves. Once more on the Allegiance Temeraire, Iskierka, and Kulingile must fight for king and country.

There actually was a point I liked about this book and it was when we got to see the Inca Empire in South America with its own unique dragons and their own system of government. If there's one thing I like it's Novik's different approaches to how cultures treat their dragons and it seems that the number of people compared to dragons is a huge influence on this. In Europe there are a large number of people and relatively few dragons, so dragons are kept separated from people and are at the start of the series basically pets or property. In China, the number of dragons is much greater and so dragons have a roughly equal status with humans. And with the Tswana in Africa, dragons are believed to be the reincarnations of revered ancestors and occupy leadership and advisory roles for their descendants.

The Incan Empire is a far different example. The majority of the Incan population, much like in regular history, has been wiped out by smallpox and other diseases. This has resulted in significant changes to Incan society and now the humans are practically the pets or arguably property of the dragons. Much like historical Andean cultures, the Incans are organized into ayllu, which function as both a local government and as an extended family group. Previously ayllus would compete for the honor of having a dragon as a member, but after so much of the Incan population has been wiped out the dragons took responsibility for taking care of and protecting the allyus. It has gotten to the point where the dragons guard the members of their allyu jealously and if humans are found alone a dragon will capture the human for their own allyu. It's an interesting inversion where the dragons appear to rule and the humans serve, in distinct contrast to the other books.

The thing that bothers me, though, is that I wish Novik had spent more time talking about the culture of the Incan Empire and seeing more of how their society works. I kind of got an impression based on the information but so much of the book is focused on other stuff that it feels kind of shortchanged. Part of the book focuses on their leaving Australia and then their various misadventures in the Pacific Ocean. After experiencing a five-day storm, a fire breaks out on the Allegiance and hits the powder magazine, bursting the ship to splinters. The dragons and survivors get picked up by a French ship and get marooned on a remote island in the Pacific. Because they manage to find a wrecked ship on the island our main characters are able to reach the Incans on their own and that whole part of the plot feels like a massive distraction. It makes me really wish Novik had spent more time on the more interesting parts of the series instead of the stranded on an island drama.

I'm hoping the last two books will go well and hopefully provide a nice conclusion. But as I said, this series feels a lot more like literary candy to me.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Darth Bane: Rule of Two, by Drew Karpyshyn

Today I'm looking at the second book in the three-book Darth Bane series, Rule of Two. As can so often be the case with trilogies, I felt like this book was meandering around rather than setting up the third act in the series. There is conflict and Bane and his apprentice, Zannah, move closer towards their goals, but I don't feel like they were brought to the lowest point in their story arc, like in other stories such as Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers, just for sake of example. Depending on how the last book, Dynasty of Evil, goes I'll have to see where the series goes. This isn't to say there weren't things I enjoyed about this book, but rather I really wished there were some things that were done differently with the book.

Basically this book starts with Bane and Zannah having several problems they need to overcome. Bane gets infested with Dark Side Force-eating parasites called orbalisks. The orbalisks are impossible to remove and cause Bane excruciating pain, but they form armor over his body that is impervious to even lightsabers, so that's kind of neat. Bane is also trying to create his own Sith holocron but keeps failing for reasons he doesn't understand and he suspects there's some secret to forming holocrons still concealed from him. Zannah meanwhile is performing her Sith training and is slowly working to become more powerful than Bane so she can finally kill and replace him, but she has to bide her time until Bane can teach her nothing more.

The thing that bugs me about this book is that for most of it the Jedi assume that the Sith are extinct after the thought bomb exploded on Ruusan. It's really only because one Jedi, Johun Othone, won't give up the idea that there are still Sith out in the galaxy and he manages to find Zannah's cousin who witnessed her and Bane attack him at the epicenter of the thought bomb. Once Othone, Valenthyne Farfalla, and a couple other Jedi find out, they go to hunt down Bane and end up...dead. Like, really anticlimactically dead, and once again, the Jedi think that the Sith order is extinct. So in that respect it feels like we got reset back to where we were at the beginning of the book which makes me wonder why we bothered in the first place. And the deaths of Othone and Farfalla are even more disappointing because I felt they weren't well-developed as characters but with intriguing possibilities for development that are literally cut short.

And the shame is there are some things that I really liked about this book and other stuff set thousands upon thousands of years before the movies when Jedi and Sith battled each other across the galaxy. There seems to be a freedom to include whatever weird cool stuff you could think of and throw it into the stories. I think it's kind of neat that a Sith alchemist came up with a way to use the Dark Side to turn flesh into metal and circuitry and create an army of cyborg zombies. I thought that was a neat idea. And I find it intriguing that the Jedi have a far more militant bend prior to the Ruusan Reformations and seem to allow things like emotional attachments. I say this because Farfalla has this ridiculously pimped out bed showing key scenes from his life including his birth and becoming a Jedi Master which seems like a really important emotional possession that the Jedi Order I'm more familiar with wouldn't permit. There's just a lot of neat stuff in how things look different compared to how they look in the movies.

Maybe if I want more of the cool, different, but still Star Wars stuff I need to go track down the comics and/or books set even further back in the history of the Republic. This book is okay, but I find the stuff that makes it so much like the movies I like less than the stuff that makes it different.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts

Today I'm looking at a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man whose ambitions took him from the shores of Corsica to the deserts of Egypt to the fields of Austerlitz to the ashes of Moscow. It is impossible to understand Europe in the nineteenth century without talking about Napoleon. With such a figure it is difficult to put them within historical context and look at them as a person rather than an idea. To the French Napoleon is often idolized, the glorious general-statesman who made French arms victorious across Europe. To the British Napoleon is a war-mongering monster who burned Europe to feed his ceaseless ambition. Ultimately the truth about Napoleon the man, rather than Napoleon the idea, will be somewhere in the middle.

Roberts pulls on a variety of resources, including the voluminous documents available at this time period and letters by Napoleon that were not previously available. The result is a book that feels very well-researched but I'll admit at the beginning I was a little concerned about this being a little hagiographic. Because there is so much acrimony surrounding Napoleon I can understand Roberts's efforts to dispel the opprobrium surrounding him, but I was worried at times that Roberts went a little too far in the other direction. I will admit that there are things Napoleon did which were net positives, such as the reform of the French civil code which has influenced legal codes in countless countries today. But there are some simple facts, like Napoleon's decision to overthrow the French Directorate and get declared consul, then consul for life, then emperor reflect badly on him. I'm aware this is very much my American-ness coming out with the example of George Washington an exceedingly rare example of a man who could have become king if he wanted (and in fact some people thought about making him king) but instead chose to step down from political power and created a precedent of peaceful transfer of power for two centuries.

 However, Roberts does point out numerous mistakes Napoleon made, especially later in his reign, and takes Napoleon to task for these mistakes. Examples include the invasion of Russia which was a logistical nightmare and the point where the Grand Armee's hubris became a weakness rather than an advantage. On top of that was the continuation of the Peninsular campaign, a drain of troops and resources that Napoleon could ill afford as Russian troops continued to batter his main force. Napoleon also trusted people he definitely shouldn't have, such as Talleyrand. Napoleon had already caught Talleyrand playing both sides against each other for his own advantage. Napoleon did briefly remove Talleyrand from positions of influence, but later found himself relying on Talleyrand which would prove to be Napoleon's undoing. So I think Roberts's opinion of Napoleon for the whole of the book is fairly balanced. And like most people Napoleon is a mix of good and bad so it comes out complicated in the end.

Overall I think this book did a pretty good job of talking about Napoleon. Roberts uses a variety of sources and while he gushes about Napoleon at some points, he is equally hard on Napoleon at later points as well. It's a long book with a lot of information, but well worth the read to gain insight into the most influential figure at the start of the nineteenth century.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Woman Who Would Be King, by Kara Cooney

Today I'm looking at a book about ancient Egypt, specifically a biography of Hatshepsut who ruled as king in Egypt during the 18th Dynasty. The information that we have about Hatshepsut is fragmentary at best due to the loss of records over three thousand years, as well as later destruction of Hatshepsut's monuments. Cooney admits that a good portion of her book is conjecture, however Cooney creates an evocative image of Egyptian society and the life of Hatshepsut within the larger context of the Thutmosid Dynasty.

When Hatshepsut's images and carvings were first discovered by Egyptologists historians (all men, of course) assumed that Hatshepsut was an example of a woman usurping power from a rightful male leader. This was explained because many of her statues and inscriptions were deliberately demolished or defaced, reflecting a backlash during the reign of her successor Thutmose III. Cooney draws upon more recent analysis of Hatshepsut's inscriptions and other existing evidence of her reign to create a more nuanced and ultimately positive understanding of her place in Egyptian history.

Egyptology is a difficult field because the reality of politics and the ideology of politics were almost never separated. Central to Egyptian culture was the idea of the god-king, an aspect of the eternal sun who always had and always would rule over the land of Egypt. Who the king happened to be was largely irrelevant so long as there was a king and in both official and unofficial sources opinions on the king and the royal family were largely reserved. We are unsure about how the Thutmosid dynasty came to power. We know that the previous dynasty failed to produce a viable heir and the mantle of kingship was passed to Thutmose I. Why Thutmose was chosen or any familial connection with the previous dynasty he may have had has been obscured. But we do know among his many children were Hatshepsut who took on the powerful and influential role of God's Wife of Amen, the principle deity of the city of Thebes associated with the sun. The God's Wife was a position traditionally held by a member of the royal family close to the king and came with control of the temple's wealth and influence. We assume that this role gave Hatshepsut sufficient experience to become a political operator in her own right.

Thutmose I was, in his turn, followed by Thutmose II, probably Hatshepsut's half-brother who she married as his Great Wife. Although the couple produced one daughter, Neferure, if they produced any male offspring it does not appear in the record. In fact Thutmose II had trouble producing any offspring and by most accounts appears to have been a sickly individual dying only a few years into his reign. This created yet another succession crisis within perhaps fifteen years of resolving the last crisis. Thutmose II had produced another son, Thutmose III, but he was just an infant and from a low-ranked birth mother, giving him a weaker claim in the complex web of Egyptian royalty we still don't fully understand. With the high child mortality it was questionable Thutmose III would even survive to rule, much less produce an heir of his own. But Hatshepsut stepped into this vacuum and provided much-needed continuity as regent.

It was not uncommon for queen mothers to step in as regents for their sons, and even made good sene because a mother was unlikely to sabotage her own son's reign. Hatshepsut's case, like so much else about her, was unusual. Hatshepsut was not Thutmose III's birth mother, but his own mother Isis was considered too low-ranked to actually serve as regent. Cooney argues, however, the fact that Hatshepsut became regent, and ruled unchallenged for nearly twenty years suggests that the religious and political elites trusted Hatshepsut and supported her role as regent and later king, to ensure that Egypt would continue to prosper while Thutmose III could grow up.

We know that Egypt prospered during Hatshepsut's rule because of several events. First was a series of highly successful campaigns in Nubia to maintain Egyptian hegemony and continue the flow of gold, gems, stone, and slaves which were immense economic boons for Egypt and Hatshepsut was able to channel the wealth to government figures, including new political appointees like Senenmut, ensuring their continued support for her reign. Hatshepsut also launched a successful trading expedition to the Land of Punt (believed to be somewhere around the Horn of Africa) which brought back even more wealth including the all-important incense which was not so much a luxury as a staple for the deeply religious culture of ancient Egypt.

This economic wealth was then channeled into massive construction programs throughout Egypt, resulting in upgrades of many temples from structures of the near-ubiquitous mud brick to worked stone, creating a new permanence to Egyptian life and the temple complex of Luxor at Thebes, making a veritable bonanza for archaeologists and Egyptologists of today. During all of this Hatshepsut continued to accumulate more power to herself and adopting the title of king, tying her legitimacy and right to rule with her descent from her father, the respected Thutmose I. Hatshepsut was formally coronated as a co-ruler in or about year 7 of Thutmose III's rule, and Hatshepsut celebrated the Sed Festival, a celebration of a king's successful rule, in year 16 of her and Thutmose III's ''joint'' rule of Egypt.

We don't know when Hatshepsut died, but evidence suggests it was about year 22 of Thutmose III's reign because that is when he launched his highly successful war into Syria and inscriptions make no mention of his co-ruler. The success of this first campaign made Thutmose III a warrior king who executed multiple successful campaigns to neighboring regions and exacted enormous tributes. But interestingly the evidence suggests that Thutmose III's attacks on his aunt, step-mother, and predecessor's legacy did not begin until fairly late in his reign, some twenty years after Hatshepsut's death. Why Thutmose III began this attack and destruction is unclear, but Cooney thinks the traditional explanation of a usurping woman being put back in her place is not only unconvincing but unsupported by the evidence of the continued respect and support of elites for Hatshepsut even after her death.

Cooney instead argues that perhaps it was the status of Thutmose III's own son, Amenhotep II, whose legacy Thutmose sought to prop up. Cooney suggest that Amenhotep II, much like his father, was born to a lower-ranked wife. Because of this lack of direct links with the dynasty, usually reinforced by brother-sister marriages in the royal family to keep the bloodline concentrated, Cooney argues that Thutmose III was seeking to change the source of legitimacy to a father-son link rather than a larger dynastic link. It wasn't important if the mother wasn't of sufficient background or even within the family group, as long as the next king was son of the previous king. To this end Thutmose III tried to connect his kingship to his father and grandfather, Thutmose I and II, and edited many of Hatshepsut's statues to be dedicated to his father and grandfather. by eliminating or reducing his aunt, Thutmose III shifted the focus from a family dynasty to a male line, reinforcing Amenhotep II's own claim on the throne.

Overall I thought this book was really interesting. Ancient Egypt is an area I have little to no knowledge so a lot of this was new to me and I thought Cooney did an excellent job explaining not just the history but the larger context of Egypt some 3,500 years ago. The image of Hatshepsut that emerges is a queen who is, above all else, successful. It seems her reign enriched and expanded Egypt, to the benefit of at least the elites, if not everyone. It certainly seems unlikely that a cruel and wanton usurper would be able to rule unchallenged, even in Egypt, for twenty years. Even if Cooney has to rely on conjecture to fill in the blanks left by the fairly sparse historical record, I highly recommend people check out this book.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie

Today I'm looking at another book in the universe of Joe Abercrombie, set sometime after the events of the first three books, ending with Last Argument of Kings. This book is set in Styria, an island located to the east of the Union which has been plagued for nearly twenty years by relentless war. Grand Duke Orso, allied by the marriage of his daughter with King Giselle of the Union, has been attempting to crown himself king of all Styria. He has been opposed by the League of Eight, but decades of campaigning have left Orso poised on the brink of achieving his goal. And this is largely because of the mercenary band known as the Thousand Sons led by Monza Murcatto.

Personally, Murcatto is hoping that this year will be the last fighting for Orso and she and her brother can finally retire. This all goes out the window very literally when Orso and six other men betray Murcatto and her brother and throw them from Orso's mountaintop castle out a window. Miraculously Murcatto survives, despite her body being desperately broken, and as you can imagine from the title she swears revenge on her attempted assassins. But killing seven of the most influential men in Styria will be no easy task, and Murcatto will have to put a team together including the northman Caul Shivers, former Inquisition practical Shylo Vitari, a numerical savant known only as Friendly, and a handful of other cutthroats, scoundrels, and criminal scum to accomplish the task.

This book feels a lot like the other books in Abercrombie's series, although in this case I was less invested in the characters than I was in the earlier books. With this being a revenge/assassination plot I was hoping that there would be a little more variation, figuring out how to get at people who are probably in highly secured locations. And there's some element of that with the effort to get to a banker which includes a break-in into a bank to put poison exactly where the banker will encounter it. But most of the rest of the time the characters are just going in and killing people in the messiest way possible. As a result it doesn't feel like a variation on the previous books, instead it feels like more of the same and it starts to get old after a while.

As you can probably see on the cover, there's a quote from George R.R. Martin ''This is his best book yet.'' and I feel like it's because Abercrombie and Martin have similar approaches to their writing. Martin and Abercrombie seem to favor gratuitous sex and violence in their books. On the one hand I can understand upping the amount of sex and violence in fantasy. There's always been violence in fantasy from Lewis and Tolkien to going as far back as Beowulf and beyond, but not quite on the brutal levels that Martin and Abercrombie take it to. Sex hasn't really been as much a part of mainstream fantasy and I can understand the desire to incorporate it into more modern fantasy works.

Now I'm not saying that sex and violence shouldn't be in fantasy works, there's every reason to have fantasy as a genre handle complex topics. But what I'm concerned with is that Martin and Abercrombie don't really do it in a reasonable way. I feel like they're putting the sex and violence into their works for the shock value rather than to really contribute to the story. Obviously there's a way to include sex in fantasy in a way that's meaningful, but including it solely for shock value probably isn't the best way to go about this.

Overall this book is okay at best. I feel like people seem to be excited over it because of the sex and violence factor rather than the plot and characters which seem underdeveloped in comparison. I'm probably going to avoid Abercrombie's stuff in the future just because there doesn't seem to be that appeals to me personally.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Phasma, by Delilah S. Dawson

So if you've seen anything going on with Angela from the Doubleclicks recently you'll know she's a huge fan of Captain Phasma and said she really liked this book. Since it became available on audiobook at the library I decided to give it a try. This book delves into Phasma's past on the planet Parnassos and how she met Brendol Hux and eventually joined the First Order. There are some moments where Phasma manages to do some really cool stuff in this book, but like most of the rest of the books in the new expanded universe canon I feel like there's far too much protesting that the Empire and the First Order aren't all that bad. You know, despite the fact that they kidnap children to be soldiers, probably practice slavery, and try to blow up planets.

This book has a framing device of Captain Cardinal, a First Order captain with special red stormtrooper armor, who is interrogating Vi Moradi, a Resistance spy. Vi Moradi recently made a trip into the Unknown Regions to get information on the First Order and their leaders, but was captured by the Star Destroyer Absolution. Cardinal wants information about Phasma who's been taking over the stormtrooper training program. Cardinal wants dirt on Phasma so he can take her down in the deadly game of New Order politics.

I was interested in this book because I was curious to see if Phasma did any really badass stuff in it, and I have to concede Phasma does some pretty freaking cool stuff including the equivalent of a ''Diana, Shield'' maneuver. If anything it really makes me wish they had used that in Force Awakens and Last Jedi because I got the feeling that they were trying to build Phasma up into the next Boba Fett-level badass. Now, to be fair Boba Fett did absolutely nothing in Empire Strikes Back but sass Darth Vader and even less in Return of the Jedi. (Way to get punched into that Sarlaac by a blind man, Fett.) So if anything it's a criticism of the fandom's rabid love for Boba Fett than anything else. But I think it would have been a lot better to have Phasma do cool stuff in the movies, rather than having to go to a book.

As for the issues with the First Order, we have both Captain Cardinal and Brendol Hux (father of Armitage Hux who's the Hux in the movies) extolling the virtures of the First Order. They put a lot of emphasis on how the First Order treats everyone equally and brings law and order to the galaxy, opposed to the chaos and anarchy of the ''nebulous freedom'' that the New Republic supports. They also argue that the majority of people in the galaxy don't know what's good for them, so they need an enlightened group of people to tell them what's best for them, and everyone except for Vi Moradi seems to just be...fine with this argument.

Now I can understand the equality argument working for a lot of people, especially the people who are on planets that have, or feel that they have been left behind by the New Republic. Especially in the case of Parnassos which was devastated by a nuclear reactor accident and then abandoned by the mining conglomerate that had caused the accident. I can understand people being upset that the mining company didn't suffer any legal consequences for their actions, and the Empire or the New Order sure wouldn't tolerate that level of incompetence. But when you start saying that you need the ''right sort of people'' to make decisions for everyone else, it begs the question how do we decide who's going to be making the decisions. And all too often it's the people with the biggest guns who decide who's going to be making the decisions for everyone else.

So I'd say that this book is in the middle territory for books in the Star Wars universe. Phasma does some awesome stuff, but also leaves me absolutely terrified because she's willing to kill anyone to achieve her goals. Seriously, don't mess with Phasma. But like with the rest of the new canon, I'm not a huge fan of the fact that people seem to be super okay with the First Order going around killing people, creating child soldiers, enslaving people, and just...just being bad people.

- Kalpar