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PostPosted: Fri Mar 31, 2017 9:18 pm 
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Ruroni Kenshin Vol I
By Nobuhiro Watsuki

So it's the dawn of the 21st century. I'm stationed in Okinawa and like many young men there, bored out of my skull and in a video rental store (In my day you had to go to a store to get movies! In a car! Both ways!) when I see a skinny redheaded dude in a samurai get up plastered on a video box with the imaginative title “Samurai X”. I rented that movie and would watch it 10 times in 2 days during a weekend when we weren't allowed off base thanks to Bill Clinton (he was visiting so no one was allowed to see a civilian so we wouldn't embarrass the old horn dog). That was my introduction to Himura Kenshin the Battosai, and I was hooked. It wasn't until years later that I was able to hunt down the manga that kicked started the whole thing. Ruroni Kenshin was first published in venerable Weekly Shonen Jump magazine starting in April 1994 and would continue until November 1999. From that beginning would come forth anime series, movies, video games and a grand empire of licensed goods. So let's take a look at where it all started, but first, our humble writer and artist.

Nobuhiro Watsuki was born in Tokyo in 1970 and raised in Nafaoka in Niigata prefecture. It is currently a large city and while it was a big one in Nobuhiro's childhood, it has grown a great deal since then. A videogame and anime fan, Nobuhiro studied Kendo in high school but by his own admission wasn't very good at it. He has a long list of works, many of them set in historical periods although like in Ruroni Kenshin he does take certain liberties to tell a story. He does avoid my pet peeve of radically altering real people, or as far as I know he does. He's also known for encouraging his fans to write fan-comics and even asking fans to send them to him. Which honestly speaks well of him in my book. He currently lives in Tokyo with his wife Kaoru Kurosaki.

The Kenshin story is set in the early Meiji era of Japan, where the Shogunate was replaced after a series of battles, upheavals and turmoil known as the Bakumatsu. Our main character Kenshin was in the thick of it during that time working for as an assassin for the anti-Shogun forces. He gained a reputation as a walking blood bath by... being a walking blood bath. At the end of the conflict, Kenshin resolved to find a way to live without being one of the top five causes of death in Japan; even going so far as to have a sword forged that would be difficult to kill with (Katanas usually only have one side sharpened, Kenshin has the other side sharpened so a normal strike won't cut you open, just break your bones). Our story begins when Kenshin wanders into Tokyo and runs into a young lady trying to clear her dojo's name. Some mysterious thug has been running about killing people declaring himself a member of that dojo, giving them a reputation as a pack of mad dogs. As a result of this, most of the students have left. The young lady named Kamiya Kaoru is hoping to find this thug, beat him senseless and turn him over to the police to clear the dojo's name. Kenshin is drawn into this when he witnesses the confrontation and the thug declares himself the Battosai. While he's not proud of being the Battosai and is trying to be a different person… He ain't going to let just any two bit thug pick up his name and run with it either.

That said, I have to mention this: now I know it's before television or even radio but... Humira's a bloody redhead in Tokyo! He looks nothing like the towering thug who's pretending to be him. I mean sure I can understand some confusion over what an assassin looks like but he didn't kill everyone who saw him! Just like 90% tops! Considering everyone else in this series is drawn with a standard Japanese phenotype you think word would get around that hey, the Battosai is a skinny redheaded guy so if you find yourself in the street with one... run! Sorry, but that bugs me. Anyway, when the dust settles, Kaoru imperiously invites Kenshin to stay at her dojo, providing our set up for the series.

Let me touch on Kaoru a bit here, she is the only child of a sword master and dojo owner and when he dies, she is determined to keep the dojo going. This is despite the fact that women aren't really considered proper teachers of swordsmanship at the time. Lucky Kaoru is actually very talented in the martial arts, if completely out of her league at Kenshin's level. Kaoru is kind of the center of the group here, it's her dojo that gives them a base of operations and it's because of her that Kenshin hangs around long enough to form the group. Her main connections are with Kenshin and Yahiko though. Speaking of which let's talk about Yahiko.

Yahiko was the son of a samurai who died during the transition from Shogunate to Meiji Era, his mother being dispossessed of her home and property had to turn to prostitution to keep her son and herself fed. This more or less worked until she contracted a disease and died from it. It's a sad but not uncommon story of the time. What's interesting is Yahiko isn't ashamed of his mother's action, but of his own after her death. He became a pickpocket working for the yakuza and goes after Kenshin. He gets caught and the arc becomes Yahiko wanting to go legit. We learn at the end of the story line that Kenshin is refusing to pass on his skills with the sword and encourages Yahiko to learn under Kaoru instead. Yahiko plays the part of the apprentice in most of the story lines, the jr. member that needs things spelled out to him because well, how else would he know?

We're also introduced to Sanosuke, Sanosuke was a member of a extremist group, the Sekiho Army that was destroyed by the Meiji side of the civil war despite fighting on their side. It's touches like this that I enjoy about this series by the way. While Nobuhiro is clearly not a scholar, he is also very clearly a big fan of history and does study the period he uses a bit. While he does include a lot of fantastical elements, he also brings in little touches. Sano is pretty bitter about this and becomes what he calls a “fight merchant” or what I call a low rent mercenary. He's actually hired to fight Kenshin and is excited to battle him. The fight is a pretty good one without going overboard, in fact a lot of the early fights are actually pretty quick. Which helps enforce the idea that Kenshin is a scary man. Sano is the first fight that lasts for a bit, which helps give Sano a bit of credit with the readers.

We're also introduced to the last member of the crew Megumi, she's a woman from a long celebrated line of doctors, unfortunately it looks like she is the last survivor of a long line of celebrated doctors. Her older family members marched onto the battlefield to provide care for the injured during the uprising and never came back. She did manage to get work as an assistant to another doctor but he turned out to be in bed with a very wealthy drug dealer making a type of super opium (this is another little touch). When the doctor is killed in a disagreement over money, Megumi is left as the only person who knows how to make this super drug. Despite the fact that she has been part of a drug ring that kills people, Kenshin is still more than willing to come to the rescue when he finds out.

Which brings us to the themes present in this collected edition. We met each of the members of the team, Kenshin, Kaoru,Tahiko, Sanosuke and Megumi. With the exception of Kaoru, each member of the team has a past they are not proud of and want to make up for. They all have special talents and skills that are the result of practice, study, and determination. They're all hopeful of a better world while admitting that the current world falls woefully short of the expectations of the people who sacrificed for it. Make no mistake the Meiji government is painted as corrupt and fairly insecure here. So we have hope and redemption against a background of sin and violence. This creates a great dynamic for the story. Nobuhiro manages to avoid the perils of Shonen stories, such as drawn out fights that devolve into “now let me show you my true power” or everyone having to wait around for the main character to solve everything, as Sano and Yahiko and even Kaoru are given things to do (although in many cases Kaoru is turned into a hostage or made to wait at home, the fights tend to be boys only here). There are touches of the ridiculous, such as a villain with flint for teeth and a oil bag in his stomach so he can be walking flamethrower but I'm willing to accept some fantasy here. That said, if you dislike manga on principals and can't stand Shonen stories, then you might want to pass on this. Still I enjoyed the book and for that I'm giving Ruroni Kenshin Vol I (the collected edition) By Nobuhiro Watsuki a A-.

Edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 07, 2017 8:20 pm 
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State Machine
By KB Spangler


“Wouldn't life be easier if the psychopaths didn't blend in?”
Agent Peng page 236


So we are kicking off Independent Writer Month here on the review series by going back to a world created by KB Spangler. It's a world much like our own, except that right after 9/11 a government cybernetics program was launched. This program created a group of men and women who would be linked to each other and able to access databases without any equipment except what was in their heads. The program worked, but unfortunately it was sabotaged by its creators. The implants were designed to break down the will and personalityof the agents and render them mentally broken meat puppets for use. Fortunately these immoral men were thwarted by one of their very agents when he met a young lady named Hope... but that's not the plot of this novel.

This novel takes place after that story. In this one we follow Agent Rachel Peng. She is a former member of the CID, differently sighted, and a cyborg of Texan-Chinese ancestry attached to the Washington DC Metro Police Department. She is joined by her partner Raul Santino, a police officer with more degrees than a teacher’s lounge, an army veteran detective Mark Hill, and hard-boiled homicide investigator Zockinski. Together, they fight crime! Weird Crime! When they get called in on a robbery gone wrong, it is not the crime itself that is weird, but everything surrounding it. Who breaks into the White House and kills a secret service member in order to steal an old lumpy piece of half-corroded metal? How does this tie back to the oh-so-handsome and wealthy Senator Hanlon? The aforementioned Senator is the owner of the company that developed the implant and brainwashing process the agents suffered through, and the greatest political enemy they have domestically. Most importantly, how does Agent Peng’s investigation turn into a trap that might destroy the OACET and spell the ruin of all 350 remaining cyborgs?

Also showing up again is Agent Jason Atran; computer genius, pretty boy, and asshole trying to reform. I say “trying to reform” because after making a very bad impression in the first book Agent Atran has been trying to change his behavior, especially with Agent Peng. This is more front-and-center in this book as the two agents are finding themselves repeatedly working together and Agent Peng is forced to turn to Agent Atran for help. You see, Agent Atran is pretty awesome with computers and Agent Peng is...well... she can find puppies on her tablet. This makes her the best-worst cyborg ever if you ask me. Another interesting note is that we have Agent Phil from the bomb squad returning along with Bell, a young lady who was introduced in Maker Space. In fact all of three of them are brought back together as a unit because they're in a polyamorous relationship. Ms. Spangler has a very good history of writing inclusively (I mean look at our main character) and she continues that tradition. We don't spend a lot of time on the trio's relationship because it's not important to the story and Agent Peng states pretty firmly that she doesn't get it. That said it is treated respectfully as a real adult relationship, not as a phase or sign of decadence. It is not turned into some freak show exhibit for the reader’s pleasure; it's noted and it's part of the characters but isn't turned into a drum to bang on. While I'm personally monogamous, I like that treatment. On the flip side we also see more of Agent Peng's girlfriend Becca who was also introduced in the second book. There isn't a lot of time spent on their relationship either but... well it's not really part of the story so why would you?

This is Senator Hanlon's first appearance in the book series and I like how he's done. He's a man in full control of himself. He is publicly charming and considerate enough to make friends with secret service agents and the staff members of lobbyists that he does business with. He's also a cold, calculating, amoral monster who doesn't hesitate to murder people when they become liabilities and try to take that murder and use it against his political enemies without a single tinge of hesitation or mercy. He's up against a cabal of cyborgs who can command any electronic device, penetrate any encryption, and many of them were trained government military or intelligence operatives before they got super powers. He is still able to force them to fight a grinding slow war of political attrition to unseat him and make him face some consequences for his actions. Part of that is the fact that the cyborgs are forcing themselves to follow the rules (think of it as part of the same reason why Superman just doesn't heat laser Lex Luther to death and be done with it), but a lot of it comes down to Hanlon's cunning and cold blooded savagery. Ms. Spangler is wise enough to use Hanlon sparingly, making his presence felt by the actions of his minions and allies both directly and indirectly. This turns the whole thing from a battle of super powered cyborg soldier and cop vs middle aged man with a title to one of a single woman with a few pieces of a puzzle vs vast, faceless, machine operating in the dark. It also interjects a high degree of uncertainty (which is good for a book like this!) into everyone's actions. Are those gunmen working for Senator Hanlon or for someone else? The lobbyist approaching from the telecom companies (I'll come back to this), is he moving on his own, or did someone put him up to this as a sting operation? With Agent Peng having to constantly guess (even with her superpower of being able to view your emotional state through her cybernetics) at what's really behind the actions of others, she finds herself having to second guess her every move. I hate Senator Hanlon's guts as a character but he is well used here.

Ms. Spangler also reminds us in this book that she's very good at writing politics, as another thread is the said lobbyist. The telecommunications companies have supported Senator Harlon to the hilt as a matter of survival. After all, if everyone gets the implant and can access the internet at the speed of thought, what the hell do we need comcast for? Our favorite cyborgs in OACET however are willing to cut our modern day robber barons a piece of the pie if they'll drop the Senator like a hot rock in a Pheonix summer (look it gets up to a 120 degress down here alright?). To be fair, the first generation implant is too much power to hand out to just anyone, with it you can just walk right through any digital security and communicate what you find through a channel no one can jam or block. There is no privacy from an OACET cyborg save what they grant you. Then there's the hive mind issues, since you're in constant communication that is the next best thing to telepathy, there's a lot of bleed through. You can experience emotions, memories, all sorts of things through the link. That's something that could bring it's own set of problems. I certainly would prefer to keep my own head private and I dare say that most people would also feel that way. We do get to see some interesting debates on these subjects in the book and I do like that Ms. Spangler isn't shying away from just how much social upheaval and chaos could spring from this, while also pointing out the vast array of benefits mostly by just letting us see those benefits in actions. For example, Mako Hill, an agent who married another agent and fathered a child shows us an array of cyborg keyed technology that makes parenting a toddler so much easier. There's also a bit of a look at the efforts someone with superpowers would have to go through to raise a semi-normal child, like posting signs to remind everyone to vocalize so their kid can learn to speak English. I'll be honest, I would read a book that was made up of just the OACET agent's interactions with each other and outsiders. If Ms. Spangler ever wants to write Tuesday at OACET, I'll be there though that might be the Anthropologist in me talking. Anyway, the political intrigue in this book is done very interestingly and kept to a level that an average person can understand.

We also see more of Agent Peng's boss Patrick Mulchay and his wife Hope. They're the main characters of the webcomic that started this universe, A Girl and Her Fed. I'm a fan of the webcomic so I did enjoy seeing them but they don't steal the show in this story, letting Agent Peng and her crew have center stage while getting some character development and fun of their own. So the good news is that if after reading the Agent Peng books you want more, there's more waiting for you, but you don't need to read it to understand what's going on in the books. While part of a shared world, the books are all self-contained stories that tell you everything you need to know to follow the story within the pages of the novel itself. I approve of this deeply. In fact Mulchay is in this story mainly to give Peng someone to report to and remind us that she's not barreling about alone here. Hope is in here to remind us that Agent Peng can fight and that Hope is walking murder on two legs.

There is also plenty of action in this book, we’ve got gun fights, fist fights, a boxing match, foot and car chases through downtown Washington DC! We have robbery, murder, resisting arrest, and possibly even tax evasion! Through it all Agent Peng displays a level of human competence and entertaining slip ups that makes for tense sequences and moments where you're snickering at her pain. We also get to meet the cuddly hippos, a group of government assassins turned cyborg and they play an interesting role in the action scenes while also providing another example of OACET restraint. Again we could see that they could simply kill Senator Hanlon at any time but that wouldn't fulfill their goals, so they keep playing by the rules and slowly but surely grind Hanlon down. This is alternated with the action to keep the reader on their toes and invested in the result. I had a blast reading this book, in fact I read it twice in the last month. So while there were a number of characters I wish Spangler would give more time to, I have to praise her ability to keep the story going and not let herself get dragged along on pointless side stories. For good action, interesting political intrigue and characters I actually like going through all of it, State Machine by KB Spangler gets an A-. Seriously pick up this series on Amazon or at the girlandherfed web site. You'll thank me for it.

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Image "it takes two sides to end a war but only one to start one. And those who do not have swords may still die upon them." Tolken


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PostPosted: Fri Apr 14, 2017 9:00 pm 
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Warp World Vol III: Ghost World
By Kristene Perron and Joshua Simpson


“Independent, that's what I call her,” Shan said. And then, smiling, “Named her after you”
Shan, page 622

Let me start with my traditional disclaimer. Josh is a friend of mine, we met online shortly after I got back from Iraq and we've been friends for years. It has been a long time since I wrote about this series, waaaay back in 2015. So let me go over the basics. Ms. Perron is a Canadian writer who currently lives in Nelson, British Columbia with her husband. Before this she was professional stunt performer for television and film, she wrote a number of short stories and in 2010 won the Surrey International Writers Conference Storyteller Award. Joshua Simpson is a Texas native who has worked in everything from trucking to safety to pain relief therapy and has been all over the United States. Warp World is a series about Seg Eranranat, combat anthropologist, and warlord; as well as Captain Ama Kalder, ship captain, adventurer, and manic. It details their struggle to hack out a life together across cultural divides, a slowly dying world full of bloodthirsty lunatics, and a pair of writers who delight in their pain. Let me talk about them both here.

Seg Eranranat is a raging asshole on his good days. This is due to the fact that he's a full blown genius surrounded not just by immoral idiots (who call themselves The People, because they're uncreative slaving racists), but immoral idiots who all sharpening their knives to plunge them into his back and kill him if he's lucky. Frankly if you placed me under the stress and the crowd that is normal for Seg, I would running naked through streets eating people's faces in a week. I'd also gladly leave the people of his native culture to die slow, but I'll come back to this. Seg isn't going to do that, despite the faults of his people, he's going to save them and breath life back into their dying culture... even if he has to do on top of a heap of bodies. In the first book, alone and cut off on an alien world, Seg not only engineered a massive raid but created an alliance that let him topple the ruling class of that world and walk away with his own private army. In the second book, we found out he was in more danger at home then he ever was in alien territory (which explains why he was so happy in the first book I suppose). Despite this, Seg trains his illegal army of aliens who are all considered property on his home world and leads them on a lightning assault on a rogue fortress to create his own holding in direct contravention of all the traditions and beliefs of his people. Of course, he loses Ama in the assault and believes her dead. In this the 3rd book, Seg learns a truth I had beaten into my head as a young Cpl. It ain't what you can take that matters, it's what you can hold. His fortress is free and independent, the single place in the nation of The People where there are no slaves, only free men and women. However, Seg is surrounded by enemies within and without who are jealous of his successes and not only want to topple him from power but clap a cybernetic slave implant to his neck. As his own Guild of Anthropologist suspend him and traditional allies turn their backs on him, Seg has to master challenges he never trained for on a whole new scope with the cold and sure knowledge in the back of his mind that if he fails, it means slavery or death not just for him but for the thousands of people who have decided to follow him. Alongside him are the men and women who swore allegiance in the last book, be it the eternally cranky pilot Shan, the Kenda rogue Viren (who remains a favorite of mine) and the increasingly unstable Force Commander Fismar as well as others.

Before I switch over to Ama I do want to talk a bit about the setting, the world of the People. The People live in increasingly cramped and decaying cities under shields powered by what is frankly a magic power source called Vita. Vita is created by people investing a place or object with intense cultural or religious value, like a certain stone in Mecca, or a statue in New York. It can't be something that was special to a single person but has to have been special to a group over a period of generations from what I can tell. The People don't generate Vita anymore. Their culture and society is too sterile and empty with all their energies turned to looting slaves and Vita from other societies on other worlds. The reason for this is the Storm. The storm isn't some dinky weather system with delusions of grander, this is a world ending monstrous... thing that devours all life it touches. The People have survived for generations in the face of this which is an amazing feat of engineering and stubbornness but in doing so have become stuck up parasites. Their biggest acts are creating interdimensional portals to other worlds sneaking in combat anthropologists to scope out the lay of the land and then ambush the people of those worlds and their sacred places, carrying off people to a life of wretched utter slavery and debasement in the process. They've also started turning on each like rats in a cage, life among the People is a constant struggle to watch out for people looking to fuck you over and take everything you have so they can crawl a rung higher up the ladder. It's a world where even the vast majority of the People are treated as expendable labor, given just enough to encourage them to knife each other for more while a shrinking upper class plunges into decadence and madness to avoid realizing how empty and hollow their lives and culture are. To be short, I still can't see why Seg wants to save them.

Now back to Ama, who isn't dead. Instead she wakes in a strange new society of escaped slaves who have fled the shielded and decaying cities of the People to make their own homes in the wastelands. Being escaped slaves on a planet full of technologically advanced monsters in human form who will kill you if you're lucky and living in a scarce environment where almost everything is a predator and even the food can kill you has led to a society that is constantly on the edge of extinction and as such they're a hard untrusting lot. It doesn't help that they're actually several groups from different worlds with little in common but a need to work together or die. Ama has to prove she can be a contributing member of this society and has to do it fast, additionally she has to do it while having lost her memories. This storyline introduces a bunch of new characters, such as Gelsh, the leader of the pond workers. The pond workers harvest fungus from underground ponds for food and provide one of the main food sources of the tribe. We also have T'Cri, hunter and priest who finds Ama in the wilderness and spares her upon receiving a vision. There's Chotke, a human with a shell growing out of his head and a very good climber, as well as leader of his own group of people. They all live under the domination of Mother, a woman who has taken control of the tribe and rules it with an iron fist, backed up with a group of warriors who call themselves the As Dead. The As Dead frankly could fit in with the People, referring to everyone outside of their group as animals and delighting in torture and murder. I'm not sure where they're from but I'm pretty sure I don't want to go there.

Out of the two story lines I prefered Seg's by a country mile. Ama's story-line feels repetitive compared to the last two books and is only saved by the combination of the new characters and the payoff at the end (which I'll admit is a hell of a pay off). Seg's on the other hand is new and interesting and sees him dealing with new challenges that force him to react and grow. Such as making peace with Jarrin his mentor and learning to work together with him or to do things for the sake of politics so he can make and keep allies. It's enriched with characters I've gotten know over three books so I care more about the struggle between for example Fismar and Cerd. Cerd wants to spend more time policing the keep and enforcing fair treatment between citizens. Fismar rightfully points out that you can't use an army to police people without eventually killing a fair amount of them. Meanwhile Ama's is... Oh look she's lost in a world full of people who don't like and mistrust her and must win them over with her ability and willingness to help, which will eventually get her the wrong type of attention from those in authority. I'm also frustrated by the memory loss plot point as well, the only time it works for me is if it's a mystery for me to. As it is I'm sitting there waiting for the character to learn things I already know. My last complaint is that I really would like to see what Seg and Ama can pull off together. There are a number of authors out there who seem to delight in setting up couples or groups with all sorts of possibilities if they work together and then never let it happen, instead making me meander through entire series of the group/couple being split up having to work through things alone and coming together for 5 minutes at the end. My big hope is book 4 will let me have Seg and Ama working together, which will be a new dynamic and interesting. Not to mention let them tackle whole new problems.

I like this book, but honestly it's my least favorite book of the series so far. Ama's storyline is only saved by the supporting characters like Gelsh (I'm really sad I can't see Gelsh, Viren and Fismar slamming across the multi-verse together, it would be awesome!) and the juicy, juicy payout which reveals new facts about the storm and the world. Seg's story line on the other is great to read, but I also feel a number of characters were wasted, for example we have Trinh, a high level member of another house who gets wrapped up in Seg's story line but... her character isn't given much to do and she's gone before we can really get a feel for her. So I'm left wondering what was the point of her character and her storyline? It's possible it will pay off in future books, but it kinda just sits here in this one. Additionally we're ending in a with not just one but two cliffhangers, which as always I do not approve of. All that said, I did enjoy the book, it was interesting to read and I'm left wanting to grab the next book. Warp World Vol III: Ghost World by Kristene Perron and Joshua Simpson gets a B, a good fun book but I wasn't a fan of some of the decisions made here

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 22, 2017 12:47 am 
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Colony
By Max Florschutz


This review actually has a bit of story. A reader of this series who goes by StellarSeeker recommended it to me and I put it on what is frankly a long and staggering list. To be honest at that point I had forgotten about it and it likely wouldn't have popped up on the rotation anytime soon, but Mr. Florschutz then contacted me and offered me a review copy. Which leads to the disclaimer, Mr. Florschutz did generously provide me a free review copy of this book, for which I thank him. All I can say is I hope you don't take the criticism to hard, fellow viking.

Let me speak a bit about our brave author here, Mr. Florschutz was born in 1986 in the wilds of Alaska and would spend his childhood there. He would attend Brigham Young University Provo and BYU Hawaii taking a break for a two year mission for the Mormon church. He would graduate in 2011, afterward he spent a brief amount of time in the world of video games before returning to his first joy of writing. His first story was One Drink, a modern fantasy story about a private detective who deals in odd events. Colony is his latest work and what we'll be going over today.

Colony takes place in a somewhat grim future. The world is divided between the UN and a collection of Mega-corporations. The UN is corrupt, full of bureaucrats who answer to no one, and uncaring about the plight of the average citizen as it pursues its goals of federalizing the entire world and off planet colonies under a single authority. The MegaCorps aren't any better, being ruthless organizations who chase profit at all cost and constantly work to undermine and outright buy out the few remaining independent nations so as to better exploit their populations and resources without pesky things like laws or civil liberties getting in the way. The history isn't outlined in this book, because well.. the characters have better things to do then sit through history lessons, but we're given enough information to hash out that most of the powerful nation-states like the US, the PRC, etc have either fallen, been co-opted or otherwise rendered irrelevant (Which you kinda need to do to make a setting like this work). The only real hope of living a free life without either a corps or the UN over you is catching a trip off world to the colonies. However, tickets off world are expensive and while you can take your chances by basically taking a free trip, you'll have no control where you'll end up or how you'll be treated at the end of your ride. There are colony planets worse than Earth out there, which makes this sort of trip a hell of a gamble.

While this is a very Cyberpunk setting Mr. Florschutz has decided to step away a bit from the orthodox setting and experiment a bit, by adding a competing authority in the UN and off world colonies. The majority of the book is set on Pisces, an alien world that was colonized decades ago despite having no land masses, no life, and being completely underwater. Additionally because of the complete lack of anything to break up the weather patterns, massive storms and waves routinely sweep the surface of the planet, so you can forget about living on an artificially created island paradise sipping drinks made with cane sugar and eating vat grown sealife (no native life to fish, sorry). Nope, you get to live in a dome! On the ocean floor! Where you wear power armor style dive suits if you want to go outside! Or drive in badass sci-fi submarines! Wait... That doesn't sound all that bad really... except strangely enough the UN has a massive presence on the world, with a massive submarine fleet and a city-fortress base squatting on the north pole, that is also the only real landing pad on the planet. Having a science fiction setting on another planet and having most of the book take place completely under water isn't done very often and Mr. Florschutz places a decent amount of time and effort into the technology and weapons of this brave new undersea world without diving (har har) into technoporn or technobabble.

I'll admit that while I enjoy a lot of Cyberpunk stories, I often find myself thinking that the conceits that underlie the setting may be getting a bit stale. Like a lot of genre's Cyberpunk often finds itself locked into certain themes, characters, and settings. This is a dangerous thing that can limit a genre and possibly kill it. In a lot of ways this may be because of how influential the people who started the genre back in the 1980s were. A lot of writers who turn to Cyberpunk in my experience work very hard to create the next Neuromancer, which was a great book, and if you ask me a classic, but much like how fantasy needed to step out of Tolkien's shadow (and did so decades ago, even if the general public is only now noticing), Cyberpunk needs to step out of the shadow of Dicken's “Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep” and Gibson's “Sprawl” Trilogy. Thankfully, there are also a lot of writers doing just that. Mr. Florshutlz does use a lot of the themes and ideas of the Cyberpunk genre but plays around a lot with the setting and that helps. Now let me address our characters and our plot.

The plot goes like this, the MegaCorp SoulComp is one of the most powerful software creators in the known galaxy. Everyone uses their products, including the UN, which uses one of their programs named LockOut to track every piece of gear and every person sent off world and ensure it's arrival across interstellar distances. In the next best thing to real time. It's a piece of software that requires constant updating and maintenance to keep running. As you can imagine, this means a constant stream of tasty tasty contracts loaded with UN money for SoulComp. So when a large chunk of junk code is found that no one understands and no one knows where it came from, the CEO of SoulComp knows he needs to find the guy who was in charge of creating LockOut in the first place, Carlos Rodriguez. There's a problem with that: five years prior Carlos Rodriguez took a ticket on a colony ship for Pisces and fell right off the map. So in the name of profit and sustainable revenue streams he'll gather three special people with the right skills and look out to make a great team of shadowru... I mean edgeru... Troublesho... Wait, *ahem* Independent Consultants, yes that’s it. Their job? Find Carlos Rodriguez and get him or the information needed to solve the puzzle back to SoulComp and keep it quiet. Let's meet them.

Jake Tames is a freelance corporate investigator, if you suspect a manger of fraud or worse embezzlement, you hire him to figure it out. Jake specializes in investigative work and gathering evidence. He’s worked on every continent and sometimes even used his real name. He prefers to work alone however, and rarely trusts his employer, which is a good thing in his line of work. Jake has a lot of character moments in this story which focus a lot on his backstory and dealing with a deep phobia of water... while working on an ocean world where everything is under water. That said, I kinda feel he doesn't get as many awesome moments in this story compared to our next characters but he gets enough that you never ask yourself why he's here.

Anna Nares on the flip side is a professional mercenary from South America, often specializing in bodyguard work. She enlisted in a mercenary company and became an augment: someone's whose strength and speed has been enhanced, allowing them to use the neural skinsuits to the gear's full capability as well has plugging into power armor. While Anna started out as a mercenary, she quit the company after paying back the cost of her augmentation and went freelance, also preferring to work alone. Anna is death running in this story as she tears through all manner of opponents with all manner of weapons. Mr. Florshutz does a good job showcasing how augmentation with training can put someone into a whole new class as Anna is practically a superhero here.

Ray Candy, aka Sweets, is a whitehat hacker. He goes boldly forth into the internet to find security holes in the systems of governments and corporations and shows them where those holes are in exchange for a modest fee. Of course if they won't pay, he'll post that information publically and force them to plug the hole in their security, but for some reason Sweets refuses to consider that blackmail. I mean it's one thing if someone hires you to do this but Sweets and others like him often take it upon themselves to break into systems uninvited, often just to see if they can. Since most of the time they're doing it to power hungry governments and somewhat sinister Megacorps, I'm not really weeping into my coke zero for these people but still, call a spade a spade here. Sweets is the nicest guy on the team and strangely naive for someone who knows that getting caught breaking into the wrong system could get him killed.

Which kinda leads me into my main complaint, our main characters inhabit a decidedly gray moral universe in this setting, every major political and economic power is corrupt and authoritarian. Normal people often find their rights and liberties ignored as being inconvenient and for that matter our main characters make their living in rather shady if not outright illegal ways. Despite this, they often come across as maybe a little too clean. This could be me and my own bias coming into play honestly, as mostly I focus on Anna on this. There are scenes where Anna gets upset at the conduct of other soldiers such as firing into crowds and what not, but to be blunt, Anna... you're a damn mercenary. I was in Iraq and I know perfectly well what modern mercenaries are like. I'm not saying that the US military that I was a part of was a band of perfectly blameless angels but I found private “contractors” to be way looser in their behavior and less caring of the consequences. So Anna's sneering often fell flat, as I find it hard to believe that her mercenary company never performed any equivalent actions. For that matter Jake conducts investigations that often run right up to the edge of the law if not over and doesn't trust his employers over much but still acts surprised when he witnesses their callous if not outright brutal behavior. On the one hand it's nice that they're not burnt out jaded cynics with nothing left for their fellow men, on the other... it seemed a little overdone for me. I also felt that splitting the team so often really hurt the dynamic before it really had a chance to form. I would hope that in any future outings that Sweets would get the chance to spend more time with Anna and Jake.

That said I enjoyed the book, it was good departure from a lot of the stock setting and tropes of Cyberpunk and explored the idea of high tech underwater technology and living which I haven't read a lot of. Mr. Florschutz is also very good at seeding the novel with clues and moderate touches of foreshadowing so that when surprises arise, they feel organic and not out of nowhere. Some of those surprises are foreshadowed a little to heavily, as I found myself figuring out a number of them well before the characters did. There's more I could discuss but I really can't do so without spoilers, so let me just say I liked the reveals quite a bit and I'm very sure I would enjoy any sequels that come out. So all together Colony by Max Florschutz gets a solid B. It's a good book by an author who shows promise I think.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 28, 2017 7:36 pm 
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The Course of Blades
By Davuan Sanders


It's been a long time since I've covered any of Mr. Sanders' work in this review series. I'm glad I was able to get back to it. Let me course provide my disclaimer here, I know Mr. Sanders, we've worked together and we still work for the same company. I've known him since 2014 and I found about these books by talking to him at work. With that out of the way…

Mr. Sanders has lived in Phoenix since 2002, where he moved after earning a degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He started writing novels after the 2008 great recession forced him to step away from architecture. He has since then written 3 novels, a variety of short stories and scripts and found time to start a family. He is currently the proud father of twins, who hopefully will not drive him mad in the near future with games of “why” in stereo. All of this done while avoiding the relentless Phoenix summer and also working at a day job. Before I go any further, while I will not spoil the events of the 3rd books, there will be spoilers for the 1st and 2nd novel. You have been warned.

The Course of Blades is the third novel of the Seedbearer Prince series. In the last two books, we met Dayn, a young man growing up on the world of Shard. Shard is a farm world that provides food to many other worlds in the Belt. Dayn doesn't dream of being a farmer however, he dreams of being a courser. Coursers are people who travel the belt using grappling line, near magical life support technology and a special suit. To be blunt about it, these guys spider-man their way from world to world, to bring news and carry small but time sensitive goods and messages. Frankly this might be the most metal occupation I've ever seen in science fiction or fantasy. Dayn has been training for this in secret and in his secret training that comes into contact with the Voidwalkers, the soldiers of Thar'Kur, a world far away from the belt shrouded in mystery and terror. In his battle to prevent the Voidwalkers from destroying his world, he came into contact and became the bearer of an ancient artifact known as a Seed. A Seed has the power to create life, bringing forth plants from barren soil, creating water where there was none... It also the power to destroy life utterly. It all depends on the user of the artifact, who is known as the Seedbearer. This thrusts Dayn into great events and entangles him with the Ring, a great fortress satellite that carries the inter world orders of the Defenders, military fighters who seek to maintain peace in the Belt and fight the Voidwalkers, the Preceptors, who serve as the scholars and scientists of the Ring and the Consorts who serve as diplomats, trying to keep the people of the Belt from killing each other resources. It also forces him to learn the awful truth of the Belt, that it's actually the remains of a single world, cracked apart in an attack by Thar'Kur and only capable of maintaining life through the use of powerful technology that over half the population doesn't even remember exists. Even bountiful Shard, his home is nothing more than a crumbling fragment of what once was.

This isn't even the worse of it, Dayn is taken prisoner in the 2nd book and tortured and tormented by the Voidwalkers, especially by their mental ability known as the Thrall. While he is able to free himself and through alliances and his connection to the Seed inflict a powerful military defeat on the Voidwalkers, protecting one of the last ships able to take a large group of people to a new world beyond the shattered remains of his own. Dayn is still suffering the mental and emotional fall out of his captivity and abuse. Worse, his trauma is infecting the Seed itself and making more and more prone to destruction and poisoning as opposed to being a source of Life and Protection. To pile error upon ill fortune, the powers that be within the Ring are incredibly disinclined to give Dayn the space and independence needed to heal and find his center again. This is one of the biggest mistakes the characters in the novel are making, speaking from experience, finding the space and time to heal after an ordeal is incredibly important and if you don't get that... Well then you don't heal and in fact get worse. The novel doesn't shy from this or from showing us the consequences of those mistakes, in fact I would say consequences are kind of the theme of the novel here.

The forces seeking to use Dayn are shown to us mostly in the character of the Lord Ascendant, the ruler of the Ring from the Veiled Throne.. The Lord Ascendant is an driven, intelligent woman, determined to use Dayn and the Seed as an instrument to unite the Belt under her direction and is incredibly unwilling to give Dayn any input into that bluntly. This becomes a problem as Dayn is drawn into the murky politics of The Ring and finds him disapproving of a lot of their decisions. To the point of having an incredibly dramatic confrontation with the lady in her own throne, which if nothing else shows us how brave she is and how committed Dayn is to holding to his own sense of Justice. It was interesting in that I could see both sides point but in the same time, the Ring is not very trusted by the people it protects and the reasons for the confrontation really help display why the Ring is not trusted.

I have to admit these are two strong points to the book, Mr. Sanders does not shy away from examining the consequences of the various character's decisions, alliances are frayed here, friendships ruptured and loyalties strained. On the flip side, we also begin to see a lot of the why's of the setting, why is it so hard to unite the worlds of the Belt, why is the Ring distrusted, we get a good chunk of the answer right here in this book and I enjoy that a great deal. I am going to toss out that trying to be a trusted authority when you sit behind a Veiled Throne is going to be a problem, as most folks are going to see nothing good in a ruler who hides his or her face. While there are reasons for veiling the throne (one idea given was to try and prevent people from having too much personal loyalty to the person sitting on the throne), they honestly kind of ring hollow to me, but that may be my dislike of the Lord Ascendant talking honestly. As she simply will not stop trying to pressure or control Dayn in one fashion or another. Dayn in turn cannot help but resist this as he has his own ideas about what is right and how to help the Belt and I can't blame him for holding to that.

All of this, is incredibly unhelpful to Dayn's mental state, even as he struggles to pull himself together and help the people of the Belt in his own way. The question of Dayn's mental health. Which even he can't answer with any authority at this point is the main question of the book, one that his friends, allies and enemies will be attempting to answer. Because while Dayn has inflicted a major injury on their efforts to subvert and damage the belt, they're still in the fight and they have plans to hit back just as hard if not harder. If Dayn is to broken to defend himself or worse, so mixed up that he ends up being an asset to the Voidwalkers, then the entire Belt may be doomed. On the flip side, even if Dayn can keep it together and fight back against the Voidwalkers, he may end up doing more damage to himself and corrupting his connection to the Seed beyond redemption.

It's not just the struggle against Thar’Kur that drives the plot however, as Dayn gets a shot at living his dream in the midst of all this. Dayn not only gets to course in the torrent (the fragmented parts of the Belt between livable fragments) but he gets to do in the Course of Blades, the competitive coursing event that takes place as part of the Belt's version of the Olympics. People from all the Belt come to compete in a variety of events and sports and to watch others do the same. There Dayn meets a colorful assortment of characters from across the Belt and gets to see the problems of the Belt in miniature. No one really trusts each other, everyone has stuff that other people need but for various reasons trades are difficult to do at best. The met and greet between the various Coursers, men and women who throw themselves into space to travel to other fragments of a shattered world, is really interesting. Between the Course of Blades itself, where Dayn races across a small asteroid field against over a dozen professionals and the battles against the Void Walkers we get a lot of action here mixed in a fair amount of political intrigue and even moral considerations that despite the character's insistence, do actually have a fair amount of gray in there. Problems such as it is a wise thing to delve to deeply into the technology and tactics of a morally unsound people? How far can you go using those same weapons and tactics without becoming the thing you're fighting? Mr. Sanders approaches these questions without getting lost his own navel and avoids giving us any hard or fast answers.

The worlds of the Seedbearing Prince are incredibly fantastical and exotic but Mr. Sanders populates those worlds with characters that are very real and solid. Dayn is person under a lot stress who isn't allowed to heal and we see real consequences and reactions from that. The Defender Nassir and the Preceptor Lucas are constantly finding themselves trapped between their individual sense of right and wrong and their responsibilities to both the Belt at large and the Ring as an organization. This book is darker and full of more uncertainty than the past two books but it's a logical change of tone in the story as events start to catch up to the characters and their actions come back to haunt them. I will note that you need to read the past two books for any of this story to make sense to you and that does impact my grade a bit. That said, the book itself does tell a complete story and bring us to a satisfying conclusion, which can be hard to do a continuing series. I love this setting, I like Dayn as a main character and I enjoy most of the supporting characters (even the ones I dislike) and I look forward to seeing book 4 hit the presses. Because of this I am giving The Course of Blades by Davaun Sanders a B+. Read the first two books but have no fear that this book will let you down, it's a worthy continuation of a good series.

No editor as he gave himself the week off. Fracken Unions!

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PostPosted: Fri May 05, 2017 9:30 pm 
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Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard
By Lawrence M Schoden, Ph.D.


Dr. Schoden was born on July 27 1957, in Chicago Illinois, the youngest of 4 children. His family moved to Southern California when he was 18 months old and he grew up in Clover City. He graduated from California State University Northridge with a BA in Psycholinguistics and would move on to get his MA and PhD in Psychology from Kansas State. He would spend 10 years as an assistant professor in a number of colleges before moving to the private sector. He started writing in the 2000s, with a number of stories set in a common sci-fi universe, featuring creatures named buffalito. He's also one of the leading experts on the Klingon language and an advocate for the created language. He currently lives in Philadelphia with his wife Valerie. Today we are going to review his novel Barsk, published in 2015 by Tor books.

Barsk takes place over 60 thousand years in the future. Humanity is extinct and not even a memory but it's legacy lives on in the dozens of uplifted mammalian species that now spread across the galaxy. The species live in a semi-united polity called the Alliance which is ruled by a Senate. I say semi-united because the planets have a lot of control over their own affairs and there's a lot of prejudice and bigotry running through the Alliance as its members collectively look down their snouts at each other. There is one thing that unites the members of the Alliance: the fact that they hate Fants. Fants are uplifted Elephants and they've been consigned to a galactic ghetto, a single planet that doesn't even have continents, instead having islands spread across it's watery surface. That planet is named Barsk, however the Fants have ended up with something of a last laugh. Barsk is a treasure trove of plants with vast medical and recreational possibilities. The Fants have become experts in identifying these plants and turning them into finished products for the Alliance. In exchange? All they ask for is fair trade and to be left alone. No other species is to set foot on Barsk. This is a deal called the Compact that has held firm and been profitable for both sides for generations.

The most important of these drugs is Koph, which allows certain people to summon forth the dead. This is explained by the idea that your memories aren't just relations between your synapses stored physically in your brain, but are also made up of quantum particles that are called nefshons. This also takes advantage of the fact that your cells are constantly changing, that the atoms that make up “you” are different ones from the atoms that made up “you” last month or even last week. Those atoms were part of different things before they became a part of you and they'll go on to be part of different things after you die. As Carl Sagan said, you are made of star dust. Those nefshon's don't disappear when you die, they disperse out into the universe and if enough of the right ones are brought back together into the right pattern, your memories emerge and with them your personality and thoughts. It is magic covered with the words Quantum and Atoms but as far as I can tell most of us regard Quantum Science as a form of magic anyways. I'll admit for my own part Quantum Science might as well be magic for all that I am capable of explaining it or really grasping it. That said, I'm not criticizing the story for this, the magic of nefshons is internally consistent and makes sense within the story, which is all I'm really going to ask for. There's a lot of pretty-much-magic in science fiction (often starting with the FTL drive) so there's no point in being snobbish about it. Although I do think it's interesting to trace what type of science we turn into our magic. In my own life time, I can remember when it was nanotechnology (or nano machines son! If you prefer) that was the primary magic word of choice and before that Atomic or Radiation did well in a pinch. Additionally there's fair bit of using bio-technology or genetic engineering as well but I digress.

Those who can use the drug to call up the dead are called Speakers (mainly because necromancer would been to on point?). The first Speaker was a Fant herself, in fact she forged the Compact with the Alliance and taught them how to use Koph and in doing so bound every Speaker of every species into following 3 little rules. That Never shall a Speaker summon a Speaker. That Never shall a Speaker summon the living. That never shall a Speaker summon herself (or himself). Beyond that, Speakers do have some limitation. They have to have a pretty good idea of the person they're summoning (you can't just pull up a random dead person), the easiest way to do this is to summon people you knew before they died. You can also gain information from written sources that can allow you to recognize the nefshons and summon a public figure (the best is first hand sources such as letters or diaries, well researched biographies will work but general history books don't seem to have enough information). So basically you couldn't use my copy of The Millennium to summon a figure from the dark ages, but you could likely use Theodore Rex to bring forth Theodore Roosevelt (I am not responsible for any damage that Teddy Roosevelt does to any Speaker who summons him however, take that as a warning).

This is all rather handy for our main character Jorl ben Tral who is a historian, a Speaker and a bearer of an honorific also cooked up by the first Speaker. He has a tattoo made from glowing ink that is called an aleph. The aleph let's Jorl operate beyond the laws of his very tradition bound society and his ability as a Speaker is rather handy in gathering information for his work as a historian. So all things considered you would think he has it made. Except he has a number of problems. First off, his gift was triggered in the aftermath of his best friend's Arlo's suicide. I should note that this suicide is touched upon repeatedly and plays a heavy part in the plot. Jorl isn't dealing with the self inflicted death of his friend well and has repeatedly summoned his shade to try and figure out why he did such a thing, only Arlo isn't telling. Add on to this that Jorl is trying to help Arlo's widow Tolta take care of the young son Arlo left behind named Pizlo. This is complicated by the fact that no one else will admit Pizlo exists. Pizlo was born before Arlo and Tolta were properly married and has a number of birth defects, such as albinism and an inability to feel pain. Fant tradition is that such children are to be abandoned to die. Arlo and Tolta defied the convention but the rest of Fant society stubbornly holds to their traditions and shuns a six year old. A six year old that may be a genius and is rapidly developing abilities and powers that may become dangerous in the future but even that has to be put on a shelf because there's yet more problems on the horizon.

The Alliance has grown tired of depending on the Fant for koph. It's not enough that they've bottled up all members of the species onto a single planet. It's not enough that the Fant produce enough koph to keep all the Speakers of the Alliance supplied. At least not for some Senators of the Alliance who feel that it's okay to break the Compact, if it means that Alliance gets to control of the supply of koph from now on. Of course they have no idea what koph is made of or the correct process for making it so they have to resort to underhanded means to get it. On top of this, the recently departed (which is literal in Fant society as the elderly take themselves off to a hidden island to die out of sight) aren't responding to being summoned. Remember how I mentioned the first Speaker was a Fant? Well she could also foresee the future and left behind some prophecy foretelling such a situation. That prophecy is also telling Jorl that this is his mess to clean up. To do it, he'll have to confront both the living and dead and break not only his society’s rules but a number of rules that apply to the entire Alliance. I suppose it's lucky that first Speaker set up the aleph system in the first place giving Jorl tacit permission to break those rules (hey... wait a minute... Bloody precogs!).

I got mixed feelings about this book, the Alliance is in many ways corrupt and frankly frightening. It has the ability to declare it's citizens resources and strip them of their rights and those people have no recourse. On top of that there seems to be no oversight on the Senate and no check to their power. This is definitely one setup that could do with an independent executive or judicial branch to reign this crap in. This makes them very handy bad guys but we're also set up to view just about every non-Fant character in a fairly unsympathetic light so we're not provided a very balanced view of this group. I do like how Fant society is portrayed, it's not a group of angels but clearly a group of beings who have in their isolation allowed their society to become rigid and overly bound by their traditions. Traditions aren't necessarily bad things mind you, but they do need to be questioned and updated to prevent them from becoming stale and a drag on the society they're suppose to serve. That said I think using the Hebrew naming system for the group of educated people forced to live in a ghetto by the bigotry of greater society was bit... Unsubtle, to the point that I was wondering if Dr. Schoden was afraid I would miss the metaphor here. Additionally, I felt the villains of the piece weren't really well done, for example the Yak Senator who serves as Jorl's main adversary has his negative qualities clearly displayed and then we're forced to sit through several rounds of him pretending to be a kind old grandpa. I'm also somewhat lost as to his motivations as I find myself asking why he's so determined to seize complete control of the koph, he can't personally use it and it won't give him any advantages nor will it really improve the situation of the Alliance as the Fant are already providing koph in as much quantity and speed as can be done. Also given Jorl's treatment of several non-Fant characters, a number of his protestations of how awful the other characters ring a big hollow. So I have a number of frustrations with this book. Still this was rather interesting book that explored it's ideas fairly well and I also liked that sheer amount of depth to Fant culture and could recognize the influence that elephant behavior had on it. I also liked that the uplifted mammals were not humans in furry suits but completely different creatures with different responses to their drives and such. That said, I myself really only able to give Barsk By Lawrence M Schoden a C+. I like the book but the inability of the characters to really engage me left me kinda spinning my wheels.

You know... Maybe I need to go back to nonfiction for awhile. Next week... We talk about some real elephants.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri May 12, 2017 10:07 pm 
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The Elephant Don
By Dr. Caitlin O'Connell


We return to zoology with another book about the most magnificent of living land mammals: the Elephant. I'll admit that part of this stems from my own interest in the animals. One of my earliest memories as a child was being at the zoo in Milwaukee, seeing my first elephant and being utterly convinced there could be nothing grander than one of these gray giants. I have been through a lot and seen a lot more in the decades since and I still think I may have had it right that day. Moving on, this is Dr. O'Connell's second book to appear in our series. For those who haven't read my review on her book “The Elephant's Secret Sense,” the good Doctor is a world renowned expert on elephants, an instructor at the Stanford University Medical School, consultant, founder of the non-profit Utopia Scientific (a science and education organization) and a writer of fiction and non-fiction. In short she is a very accomplished woman.

Elephant Don is one of her more recent books, published in 2015 and it challenges an orthodox belief about elephants. It has long been commonly believed that male elephants lived solitary lives, while elephant society was made up of the females and their calves. Female Elephant groups live in extended families often led by the oldest member who would decide where the herd went for food, water, and shelter on the rare events that an elephant might need shelter. While Male Elephant patrolled alone unless in Musth, which is a state where the production of testosterone rockets up, the elephant in question experiences physical changes and feels compelled to start looking for a female elephant ready to mate. In the meantime his aggression goes up and it's bad news for any other Male Elephant he encounters. This can be a bit of a quest; remember that elephant pregnancies last nearly two years. A nursing elephant won't mate, so elephants typically mate once every four or five years. Imagine waiting that long for your partner to feel in the mood!

In this book however, Dr. O'Connell documents a Male Elephant society that she calls the Boys Club. Within this Boy's Club we see coalitions, alliances. and friendships form change and adapt to changing situations. This strongly suggests that the old beliefs about the lives of Male Elephants may be very mistaken and need to be revisited, as she not only documented fairly intense interactions between Male Elephants of various ages but also clear evidence of a hierarchy and even leadership exercised by one male elephant specifically. The Boy's Club is observed by Dr. O'Connell at a watering hole, this is honestly the only practical way to do this as Elephants can a lot harder to track than you would think and can move fairly vast distances. That said, just about everything that lives on the land has to drink eventually and elephants more than most. So by tracking what elephants arrive at the water hole together, how they interact, along with things like who gets to drink the good water and who has to go over and drink the muddy water at the wrong end of the water hole, Dr. O'Connell is able to build a bit of a social map of the relations between the elephants and the changes that occur. This gets a little frustrating at times because she cannot track or follow the elephants into the bush, so we're often left wondering why these changes happened. This also touches on some of the problems with studying elephants, which is why less is known about them in the wild or their native capabilities then we would like sometimes. To risk pointing out the blindingly obvious, elephants are incredibly hard to contain and supply. Also there's the issue of how do you test a multi-ton animal's intelligence anyways? It's a bit too expensive to make them run a maze like we do smaller animals; but I'm wandering off point. Let me talk about the star character's that show up in this book, starting with the main character (if this book can be said to have one) Greg.

Greg is the Elephant that gives the book it's title. The regal and magnanimous Don of the water hole, who controls the Boy's Club. Greg is actually an interesting character here in that he doesn't rule completely through strength. Instead throughout the book, we find that Greg is actually fairly indulgent of the younger males (these would be ones who have most recently split off/been thrown out by their families, I'll talk about this more in a bit) often letting the youngest members come drink with him at the spots where the water is clearest and coldest. Additionally he often steps in to prevent bullying by older and larger males, which almost suggest that Greg is enforcing a code of conduct of sorts (I'd like to note that Dr. O'Connell doesn't suggest that, because being a good scientist she's not going to suggest something like that without a raft of evidence to back it up. I'm not a PhD though, I'm a book reviewer and not as constrained). Greg isn't a wimp however and demonstrates that he can back up his authority with the most basic foundation of power there is: the art of ass kicking.

We are actually introduced to Greg when the 3rd ranked Male Kevin goes into Musth, picks a fight with him and... Well... Kevin gets the testosterone beaten right out of him in a larger than life confrontation right there at the watering hole. We actually get to know Kevin quite a bit; he's a bully and if he was a human I would call him a braggart. He also acts as Greg's disciplinarian in a lot of ways, smacking down lower ranked males who step out of line. This also makes him unpopular with other elephants as he has problems socializing when Greg isn't there. On the flip side, his opposite number Mike, is Greg's number two elephant and Mike is a truly soft touch who prefers to avoid physical confrontation a bit too much. Even in Musth, Mike avoids violence with a dedication that would make Rev. King Jr. proud. These three are adult males in their prime and contrasting them we have a number of younger elephants in their teenage years (literally honestly as elephants tend not to hit their prime until their 20s) like the super confident and social Congo Connor, who shows up in the middle of the book and seems to be able to just charm his way into the society out of nowhere. There's also Keith, a younger elephant who while not as charming as Congo Connor is very favored by Greg and drives Kevin nuts in a lot of ways. The mystery of Keith caused Dr. O'Connell to start checking the DNA of the elephants involved via their dung. Yes that's right your dung has elements of your DNA in it and tests have been invented to determine just whose scat belongs to who. Interestingly enough while most of the full grown males weren't related, Keith was a 1st order relative to Greg (making him likely a son, or at least a nephew as I understand it, editor? )[Editor’s note: A first order relative is one who shares 50% of an individual’s genes. So in this case, a son, full sibling, or parent. In this case, given the age difference, most likely a son], others were found to be 2nd and 3rd order relatives[Editors note: These would be those sharing 25% or 12.5%, so half-siblings, cousins, nephews, and grandchildren at 2nd order, 2nd cousins etc at 3rd. Hi! I am an out-of-work biology Ph.D. Ask me how!]. Which means that Greg may be mentoring a number of cousins, sons, brothers and nephews... Which I think is a good place to discuss a bit of what is known about the Male Elephant's life cycle [Editors note: If this is the case, I would be fascinated to find out how they detect kinship, or they don’t, whether it is just a geographic bias. Big dominant males tend to father the offspring in a region and as a result the young males they wind up supervising just so happen to be their relatives. Interesting research question for aspiring mammal behaviorists. I am an insect behaviorist myself and my training is ill-suited.].

Male elephants as you may guess spend their childhoods living in the female controlled extended families that are the best known and studied parts of elephant life. They are raised by their mother's, older sisters, aunts and grandmothers. However as they get older and stronger, they grow in confidence and start pushing their boundaries and the authority of their elders. This leads to confrontations that can get rather violent until the teenage rebel either has enough and leaves or is tossed out. At this point the teens tend to go wandering until they find a territory they like and settle down. Now when I was growing up, it was often written that while male teen elephants will sometimes travel in a group, once they find a territory they turn solidarity until they grow old and die. Clearly this isn't the case, Dr. O'Connell herself cites a number of events that call this into question even without her own work. There was a case of a group of teenage elephants moving into a national park after the management was forced to enact a cull in their home range (this is sometimes necessary because of the sad fact that there's only so many elephants a patch of ground can support and elephants can no longer range freely over the continent like they once did. To prevent mass starvation, it's sometimes necessary to reduce the population). Rather than kill the selected elephants, they moved them to a park that had recently lost just about all it's adult males. The teens turned extremely aggressive and started killing rhinos, investigations have found that teen elephants experience a massive testosterone boost if there are no elder males in the area, higher than even Musth. To put it simply, the boys lacked any older authority figures and their bodies pumping them full of aggression enhancing hormones went berserk. These rhinos were also endangered so a this sparked a bit of panic, until someone brought in a male elephant in his prime, who swiftly brought the young hot heads under control. Additionally, the testosterone production in the teenage rogues plummeted This isn't an isolated incident either, as comparable events have been found in other parks in Africa. As someone with Anthropology training, it's interesting to note that you see something like this in human society. In societies that suffer a massive lost of adult men, you will often see teenage boys pushing the boundaries harder and faster than usual. This isn't to suggest women are less capable of exercising authority mind you, just that there are times when teenage boys are best served with an authority figure their own gender.[Editors Note: This is a thing common to just about any animal with a social hierarchy. Maybe not to the extent that it exists in elephants, and yes, humans count. When aggression determines one’s place in the pecking order and high-ranking spots are left open, young males clamour to fill them, often violently. However, young males also don’t know what they are doing, particularly in the more intelligent species that rely more on learning than fixed action patterns to regulate their behavior. You end up with relatively unchecked aggression. Put someone back in to assert dominance over them, and they start behaving. It is actually pretty interesting when this happens in baboons. The females tend to take over the social hierarchy and coalition together to keep the bullying alpha males out.]

As you might guess I really enjoyed reading the Elephant Don, now that said there may be parts that some people will find a bit dry. As Dr. O'Connell will explain various experiments and processes in some detail but this is cut with stories of life out in the African bush and the interactions of the elephants themselves. As well as the interactions of Hyenas, Lions, and a host of other animals. Irrespective of that, if you're interested in animal behavior, especially the behavior of social animals and willing to learn a few new terms, this is a great book. I'm giving the Elephant Don by Dr. Caitlin O'Connell an A. This is the good stuff guys. Next week we're gonna head back to fiction for a bit before jumping into some history books, as we review Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. Keep reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri May 19, 2017 8:06 pm 
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Twelve Kings in Sharakhai
by Bradley P Beaulieu

Born in Kenosha Wisconsin in 1968, Mr Beaulieu first started writing in college. However, in his own words “life happened”. He returned to writing with the dawn of the 21st century, starting with short stories; his first titled“A Trade of Shades” appearing in the now defunct bimonthly Alien Skin Magazine (which was actually an E-zine but details). In 2006 his story “In the Eyes of the Empress Cat” was voted a notable story in the Million Writers Award, since then his stories have appeared on number of top 10 lists. Today we'll be reviewing a more recent book of his published in 2015, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai.

Mr. Beaulieu takes us to a world dominated by a desert, known as The Great Shangazi Desert. It is ringed in by great mountain range but it dominates the center of a continent and with the mountains presents a dividing barrier between four cultures. If these cultures want to trade with each other in any real volume, they must cross the desert. The desert has it own peoples, divided into great tribes that guard their control of the sands with blades and sharp vigilance. In the center of this desert a city grew from an oasis, a city that came to dominate the trade ways and whose people turned away from the traditions of the tribes. This was upsetting the tribes who lived in the desert, plus as the city grew and became rich, it encouraged more outsiders to travel into the desert. Worst of all, people began to abandon the tribes and their nomadic lifestyle for the wealth and ease of the city. So the tribes gathered in their numbers and decided to destroy the city and be done with it. The rulers of the city found out about this and realizing there was no way they could defeat the tribes in open combat, turned to the gods of the desert and pleaded for help. The gods answered: they took human sacrifices and turned them into the Asirim, twisted, powerful undying creatures who wrecked awful carnage upon the attacking tribes. The rulers of that city became the Twelve Kings, immortal demigods with powers beyond human understanding and complete command of the Asirim. In addition to the Asirim, they have their human soldiers the Silver Spears who also serve as the city's police force and the Blade Maidens. an elite force of fighters and bodyguards. They are made of the mortal daughters, grand and great-granddaughters of the Kings themselves, trained to the heights of human ability, armed with magical blades and more. Every six weeks on the night of Beht Zha'ir, led by the one of the Kings, the Asirim prowl the city gathering more sacrifices to pay the gods bloody wage. There are those who say it's an honor to be chosen but most hide behind locked doors and pray that the honor fall to someone else. For generations the Kings have ruled this city Sharakhai, the City of Amber, completely and secure in their invincibility. For their rule has been sanctioned by the gods, upheld by the willing sacrifice of their own citizens who were turned into monsters on the holy night of Beht Ihman... Or so the histories all say.

The rule of the Kings is not uncontested however. Within the city and without men and women gather together in a group known as the Moonless Host and they wage a campaign to overthrow and kill the Kings of Sharakhai. That said, it's questionable at best if the Moonless Host is any better then the Kings they fight. Often engaging in outright terrorism that kills more of the common people than any of the elites of the city or in banditry against people who are simply traveling the desert. Their leader a man of the tribes named Macide is a man with the blood of women and children on his hands and frankly won’t be happy until he's pulled down the city and forced it's people to scatter to the four winds. The reaction of the Kings to these attacks is to resort to brutality and collective punishment, often against the very people of the city they claim to rule and protect. This leaves the people of the city caught between a rock and hard place and doing whatever they have to do to survive.

One of these people is our main character, Cedamihn Ahyanesh'ala a woman of many parts and roles. An orphan whose mother was executed for crimes against the Kings, her father unknown. She is a pit fighter who fights behind a mask and the moniker of the White Wolf and runs of licit packages for the ruler of the fight pits. She was also trained from toddlerhood by her mother in how to use a sword and on the night of her mother's death looking up her hanging body swore an impossible oath. That she would hunt down and kill every immortal King of Sharakhai. While she has the skills and she has the talent... She has no idea how to fulfill her oaths and as a orphan who spent most of her time in the streets of the city running wild, she doesn't really have the connections to get at the Kings either. Nor does she really have the tools to pull it off. Even worse she is utterly ignorant of her mother's heritage or just who her father was. For that matter she has no idea what her mother's plan was or what she was trying to accomplish on the night of her death and the people who could tell her have decided not to for her protection. That's a fairly realistic thing, but I have to admit it annoys the piss out of me in real life and fiction. Ignorance is almost never protection and what you do not know, can and will hurt you. Often a lot worse than what you do know about. There are two men whose goals overlap with Cedamihn or Ceda as she prefers.

The first is Emre, another street rat who ran the streets with Ceda. He's been with her since childhood and in a lot of way he and Ceda are more like brother and sister than anything else. He's a charming fellow but doesn't have more to offer than that. Emre is aware of this however and dislikes that about himself and throughout the book we watch him struggle with it and try to rise above himself. Emre is also carrying a lot of anger and loss as members of his family were taken from him and he was forced to confront how corrupt and uncaring the Kings are about the struggles and pain of the common folk. Just what he's gonna do about that corruption and the suffering that it inflicts on him and his loved ones is a question he'll have to take most of the book to work out. Our other character however knows exactly what he's gonna do about his problems if people would just stop getting in his damn way.

Ramahd isn't from Sharakhai, a noble from the nation of Qaimir which lies to the south of the desert. Like Ceda and Emre, Ramahd is on a revenge mission but he's not aiming at the Kings. Two years ago, Ramahd visited Sharakhai on the orders of his king, he did his job and packed up to go home. Only for Macide and the Moonless Host to attack his caravan and rounded up the survivors, forcing the men to kill themselves to buy the lives of the women and children. Each man did so, but one women attacked the Moonless Host rather than allow her husband's death. That woman was Ramahd's wife and to pile tragedy onto loss, Ramahd's only child would die of thirst before they could find their way out of the desert. Because Macide also took all their supplies and told them best of luck. This wasn't just a vile and brutal act... It was also a fairly stupid one. Ramahd's wife was the daughter of the King of Qaimir and he ain't taking it lying down. Not only is Ramahd seeking far and wide for Macide to murder him, but he has access to royal resources to do so and a sister in law who has delved deep and hard into the darkest of magics to pull this off. Whether Ramahd, Ceda, and Emre can all make common cause to achieve their goals or whether they'll all turn on each other and do their enemies work for them is something you'll have to read the book to find out. But let's talk a bit more about the setting.

While of a lot of talented writers (a good number of them reviewed in this review series) have worked hard to push the boundaries and conventions of the genre. Medieval Not-Europe still remains the default setting for fantasy in most people's mind. Although Feudal Not-Japan is often a close second. Mr. Beaulieu avoids both and instead goes into a mystical desert setting that shares some vague similarities with Arabian culture (in that there's some methods of dress that are borrowed but not much more) but for the most parts manages to stand on it's own two feet. It's an interesting setting, full of forbidden magic and dark pacts and fueled by the politics of wealth, power, corruption, oppression and the resentment and rage that those things breed. Each of our characters here would have likely lived lives that were of no danger to the people above them except for the fact that those same people couldn't refrain from indulging their baser instincts. While the story itself is tightly contained in Sharakhai and its immediate surroundings, Mr. Beaulieu is also able to drop information and hints of much wider world beyond the desert sands while keeping us focused on what is going on right here in the story.

That said, the story at times moves in fits and starts and takes a while to get to the point. Part of that is that a good number of the chapters are flashbacks to Ceda's childhood. These flashbacks are thankfully fully marked and noted just where and when they occurred so you're never left guessing just where in the story you are. That said a number of those chapters are somewhat self indulgent and at over 500 pages you are dealing with a story that is in no hurry to get to where it's going. There's also a number of character conflicts that I felt were somewhat unnecessary, in that they could have been avoided if the characters in question had simply talked to each other and explained just what the hell they thought they were doing. Ceda's and Emre's character arcs specifically are full of moments like this. Some of this is Ceda doing this to herself as she not only has to be smartest person in the room but has to do everything her way to the point that I want to shake her until her teeth rattle (I'll admit this would be a bad idea, Ceda would likely rip my arms off for trying). That does effect my enjoyment of the book. That said it was a good read and I enjoyed it. I'm giving Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P Beaulieu a C+ for it's interesting setting and good, if somewhat pigheaded characters.

Next week, we return to non-fiction and we look at a show down in the ancient world that affects us to this day. Join us for Mastering the West!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri May 26, 2017 8:11 pm 
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Mastering the West
by Dexter Hoyos


The Punic wars have always captured my imagination, for those of you who haven't run into the term before, the Punic Wars were a trio of conflicts between the emerging Roman Republic and the state of Carthage. They were fought mostly in the western Mediterranean with the 2nd Punic war being the biggest and most hard fought. Rome was of course centered in Italy, this was for the most part before the creation of the Roman Empire as we think of it, but during the period where Rome was the hegemon (ruling state) of Italy. It's interesting to note that at this point in time Rome was not directly ruling most of the Italy but instead the peninsula was divided into subordinate colonies and allied city states. Carthage was a city in northern Africa, in modern day Tunisia. It was an older power then Rome, focused mostly on trade and commerce but ruling Libya and other parts of North Africa. The clashes ended when Rome destroyed the city of Carthage at the end of the 3rd Punic war and became the dominant power of the Western Mediterranean and in many ways set the course for Rome's rise to Empire and its position of glory, horror, and fascination in our history books. In case you're wondering my position tends to be that the Roman Empire was both great and terrible, as just about every empire tends to be. Some will lean more towards the great and others more towards the terrible but just about everyone will admit that the Roman Empire in many ways lay the foundations for the modern world as we know it. Certainly if Carthage had won those wars, we would looking at a very different world today.

The standard narrative I heard growing up (mostly from library books or from going over a trio of Ancient history books my Father had) was that the growing power of Rome and the established power of Carthage started rubbing each other raw and it was inevitable that the two would crash together in open warfare. The rivalry and dissatisfaction grew and simmered until the Romans, deciding it was best to start the war on their terms, invaded the island of Sicily to create a pro-Roman buffer state and the rest is history. Professor Dexter Hoyos suggests that the narrative might be incorrect and in fact might be people applying hindsight to history. When they're not outright fabricating propaganda. Let me talk a bit about Professor Hoyos before I get into that however. Born on the island of Barbados when it was a British possession, Professor Hoyos received his PhD from Oxford University in 1971 after completing courses at McMaster University in Ontario and BA: U of Jamaica. He then took a teaching position in the University of Sydney in 1972 where he taught until retiring in 2007. He's written a number of books about Rome and Carthage, with Mastering the West being published in 2015.

Mastering the West covers each war separately as well as the inter-war periods between them. It also provides a good amount of information on what was going on other than the battles and political maneuvering. That said Professor Hoyos doesn't really delve into the details of either the Roman system or the Carthaginian one beyond giving a general sense of how they worked. This is a shame because the first two wars were in a very real sense a test of two different military systems. On the other hand, the governments of Carthage and Rome weren't that different, both being Republican governments where power was controlled by a small elite class made up of wealthy families but with a limited amount of input by the common people that couldn't be ignored if those same elites wanted to stay in power. The book does focus more on Carthage's government system, which I was honestly happy about because just how Carthaginian society and government worked was something of a mystery for me. Finding out that they weren't all that different in government from Rome was interesting and the differences while not explored as much as I would have liked were very interesting. While the book only really covers the military system of both nations in passing really, it's enough to highlight the differences. Rome depended heavily on citizen soldiers, men drawn from the citizens of Rome and its allies. The mainstay of the Roman military was it's heavy infantry, at this time the legionaries that everyone is familiar hadn’t been developed yet. Rome was using a three line system of infantry (two sword and shield, one of spear and shield), with a screen of light infantry and some cavalry. While Carthage did have citizen soldiers of it's own, it appeared loathe to deploy them, preferring to use mercenaries when possible and depending way more heavily on their cavalry arm, supplemented by the legendary war elephants that even Hannibal would rather not do without. I do want to note this was also a time period where troops were expected to provide most if not all of their own gear. This meant that the lower classes were often locked out of the high loot generating parts of war in some ways. That said if you could afford a shield and some javelins, with some luck you could get enough loot while serving with a victorious general to jump a couple tax brackets.

While I grew up with the idea that the Punic Wars were deliberate acts of policy, Professor Hoyos suggests that the first Punic War might have been something of an accident. In the first Punic War, Rome invaded Sicily. In theory to support a city state ruled by mercenaries who rebelled against their employers who had appealed to Rome for protection and to throw Carthage out of the island. Professor Hoyos notes that if the goal was to throw Carthage out of Sicily the Romans went about in a rather odd way. Rather than fighting the Carthaginians, they focused on warring with native states and often tried to avoid fighting Carthaginian armies until several years into the war. For that matter, the armies of Carthage aren't presented as being all that eager to slug it out with the Romans here. What's frustrating about reading this however is that Professor Hoyos avoids explicitly saying that the first Punic War was the result of events getting away from everyone and declines to outline a real case for it but instead rather coyly points out things that would seem to support his case but doesn't dive in. That said after a couple years the Romans and the Carthaginians got over their shyness and did start slugging it out. The first war would remain a very limited one, with the battles only being fought in the ocean and on Sicily. Rome as you may have guessed won that war, causing Carthage to withdraw from Sicily and Sardinia and by terms of the treaty paying Rome a war indemnity.

In the period between the first and second Punic wars, I was actually surprised to learn that Rome actually ended up providing Carthage a fair bit of support. In the wake of their surprise defeat, a number of their vassal and client states in Libya and elsewhere in Africa rose up in revolt. This was called the truceless war for the rather savage and unrelenting way it was waged. Interestingly rather than support the rebels, which would make sense if the removal of Carthage as a rival and powerful state was a Roman goal, the Romans sent money, food and mercenary troops to help Carthage reimpose their control of North Africa. Here Professor Hoyos does a much better job of outright stating his case and providing a supporting argument, where he states that there was no deep well of cultural hatred or driving desire to see Carthage removed in Rome. Pointing out a number of sympathetic Carthaginian characters in Roman entertainments at the time and growing links between the two elite classes. That said there was one family in Carthage by the name of Barca that wasn't going to accept the new way of things lying down. Most of my readers may know them from the most famous member of that clan, a career general with a few famous victories to his name, a gentleman by the name of Hannibal. The rise of the Barca clan and the Second Punic War take up the bulk of this book. Hannibal's father Hamilcar would respond to the loss of Carthage's empire by turning to Spain and forging a new empire for his city in the then silver rich hills of Iberia. By the time of his death Hamilcar and his family's works had made Carthage richer and even more powerful than they had been before the First Punic War. Which made some parties in Rome nervous.

The Second Punic War, was an epic confrontation with battles raging in Spain, Italy, in the east north of Greece and in North Africa. Because of Hannibal's march Rome is forced to devote a great fraction of its armies to fighting an enemy and rebels in its own homeland. Carthage makes alliances with ambitious kings in Macedonia who are eager to push Rome out of its eastern holdings. By the end of the second War, 1 out of 3 military age males will be under arms in the Roman State. An amazing feat of organization and sheer bloody mindedness as Rome repeatedly refuses to surrender even when a number of their Italian allies switch sides and they have entire armies practically wiped out. It's here we see Rome's real advantage over Carthage, it is simply able to maintain a higher level of commitment for a longer period of time even in the face of massive losses, where the Carthaginian system didn't have that ability to absorb losses or keep going at so high a tempo. Additionally, throughout Professor Hoyos writing we see that Hannibal, while a tactical mastermind lets a great number of strategic opportunities pass him by to force Rome to terms. Strategic dithering in fact seems to inflict the entire Carthaginian officer corps, whether it's Hannibal's brother’s strange refusal to leave Spain and reinforce his brother or Carthage's main admiral’s refusal to do anything useful with his navy for the entire war. We also see the rise of Scipio Africanus (this isn't his birth name but the one awarded to him for beating Hannibal in North Africa) Scipio’s career starts poorly, being present at the age of 15 serving with his father at a massive Roman defeat. By the time he's 25 and leading the armies in Spain however, he's shown to be a tactical battlefield leader who is easily Hannibal's equal and better then him on a strategic level. By the time of their fateful confrontation in Zuma, Hannibal is written as basically standing there poleaxed as Scipio’s army simple tears his apart (I'm left wondering if maybe Hannibal wasn't suffering something like a nervous breakdown at this point?).

The book does cover the final war, the 3rd Punic War but it's practically an epilogue to the book. To be fair, at this point Carthage had been reduced to a demilitarized city state and Rome was the greatest empire in Europe. The conclusion was foregone and it seems that the Romans fought the war just to get it done and over with so they would never have to deal with Carthage again. At the end of the 3rd Punic we see the city of Carthage destroyed and left in ruins with the last remains of the Carthaginian state simply annexed and made a province of the growing Roman Empire.

Mastering the West is very informative, especially if you have questions about Carthage but also if we're going to be honest, its written in a very dry style and is at points frustrating to read. There are points where Professor Hoyos seems about to make a case against the traditional understanding of the war, only to shy away from any real argument over it. Instead preferring to airily wave everything away by pronouncing our sources are terrible so nothing can be really known for sure. Now I'll admit he ain't really wrong on this, as the Romans would spend a lot of time clouding the history with stories meant to make themselves look better, while pro-Carthage writers would cloud things the other way. Still trying to parse this stuff is kind of part of his job and I would think if you were going to spend the time and effort to write a book like this you would try to stake out things a little more clearly, or at the very least explain why you think things happened the way you think they did. I'll admit I may be asking too much but between a writing style that’s bare bones and awfully dry about some of the most epic things in history and the refusal to make a real case on some assertions I was left frustrated. I'll freely admit I am not qualified to argue with Professor Hoyos on the events of ancient history and I'm not going to. I am fully qualified to say that this book could have been written a lot better though and I am going to do that. That said I did enjoy examining Hannibal's campaign in greater detail and learning in depth about Scipio. If you think you can put up with dry writing and you're willing to deal with a writer who doesn't like making definitive statements on his arguments then this book will work for you a lot better then me. I'm going to have to give Mastering the West by Dexter Hoyos a C+ however.

Next week... Screw it we're going to Grand Central Arena. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 02, 2017 8:21 pm 
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Grand Central Area
By Rye E Spoor


Rye Erik Spoor was born in Omaha Nebraska in 1962, both of his parents were teachers. He has lived in a wide variety of places and managed to nail degrees in a surprising amount of subjects. As you might guess his prior occupations are also all over the place (everything from burger flipping to production management has been listed). He currently lives with his wife Katherine, who he married in 1995 and has had four children with. Mr. Spoor was also what we call an early adopter of the internet, oddly enough. Like most of us he wrote for fun and entertainment for most of his life and even co wrote fan fiction with his wife (Saint Seiya fan fiction, which honestly is a series I haven't seen), which is posted on some dark corner of the internet. It's interesting to note that according to Mr. Spoor, it's due to his wife's influence that he can focus on characters. Mr. Spoor is also a mighty fan of old science fiction series such as Skylark (which I missed coming up) and the Lensmen (Kinnison for President!), this is important because not only are series like the two above heavy influences on the book we're reviewing, they're the reason he become a published writer in the first place. This all starts with an internet flame war you see. A flame war between Mr. Spoor and Eric Flint. Mr. Flint is a professional writer known these days primarily for his 1632 series (which I'm not discussing in-review sorry). Back then he had been put in charge of a reissuing of James Scmitz's stories and was misquoted stirring up a lot of opposition, some of it led by Mr. Spoor. This being the internet, Mr. Flint was soon involved and strangely enough, instead of the argument dissolving into a screaming flamefest... It turned into a rational discussion and led to peace (I should note that no one recommends trying this as a method of breaking into publishing, you're just as likely to get yourself locked out). From this point Mr. Flint and Mr. Spoor developed a friendship, which led to Mr. Flint finding out about Mr. Spoor's writing and finding out he liked it and recommended it to Jim Baen, the owner of Baen books and here we are today...

That said Grand Central Arena isn't his first book, just the first I've read and damn if it ain't interesting. The set up goes like this: in the not quite so far but not that soon future Humanity has worked out the majority of it's crap. The creation of Artificial Intelligence and nanomachine driven 3D printing along with the final perfection of fusion power has solved the material needs of humanity. With the cheap power that fusion provided (I assume with better batteries as well honestly because our power storage technology is kinda meh) humanity was able to expand all across the solar system. No one goes hungry, no one lacks for health care, living space, or opportunities to develop their skills and talents. Genetic modification is easy and relatively painless, so there are many avenues of self expression through body modification or you can enhance yourself to meet the challenges of a new environment or job if you get truly bored. Most boring labor is done by robots (super roombas have finally seized complete control of janitor duties) meaning people can focus on jobs they would actually want to do, as opposed to have to do or starve to death (and to be blunt we arrange things that way currently because there is no way enough people would volunteer to be janitors or trashmen or what have you actually keep things running). With nothing material to fight over and enough space for everyone to live comfortably, along with virtual realities to help provide an outlet for people... Things have grown super peaceful for humanity. There's barely a government, money is generated by getting people interested in what you're doing and donating “interest vectors” which gives you more access to energy and materials. Basically... Imagine a bunch of modern techie anarchists wrote star trek, only with no FTL or aliens (or Eclipse Phase without the manic AI's and oppressive governments for those who need a geekier reference).

Speaking of the lack of FTL, there's a gentleman who working on solving that, named Simon Sandrisson. Simon is a super-genius who has already upturned the realm of physics by proving that there's an Universal Frame of Reference.I asked a few physics buddies about this and their response was “Imagine someone just proved that there is a God and he's watching the universe, because that's basically what would have just happened.” Simon isn't content with making mathematical discoveries that have a profound scientific and theological implications however. He wants the Holy Grail, he wants to go Faster Than Light and thinks this can help him do it. Being a responsible lad, he used unmanned probes with his FTL engine first. There's a problem with this... They keep not coming back. He tried sending probes with AI pilots, when they come back... They show they were off the whole time. So he decides what he needs to do is set up a manned mission, to lead it he recruits the best damn pilot in the whole Solar System, our main character Ariane Austin. Ariane is a professional space race pilot, which means she flies at brain melting speeds through the void of space in a single pilot ship through obstacle courses that would turn fighter pilot's hair gray (well, their flight surgeon's hair at least). When offered the chance to make history she goes for it and helps Simon recruit a crew of men and women willing to go where no man has gone before and it's a doozy.

They find themselves in Grand Central Arena, an artificial creation of an ancient race no one has ever seen, whose technological abilities were so damn advanced that it looks like magic to characters who lived their entire lives with replicators and easy space travel. The GCA is a scale model of the universe, each star system is represented by a sphere usually about 20,0000 kilometers across. Inside the sphere is a scale model of the star system in question. The outside of a sphere is usually a habitable environment with a breathable atmosphere. It is possible to fly from sphere to sphere. In fact a number of aliens make it a point to settle spheres as colonies. For you see the GCA not only solves the whole FTL thing, but also provided an answer to Fermi's paradox. Fermi's paradox, thought of by Enrico Fermi, one of the great physicist of the 20th century, to express a simple question: according to biology and physics there should be other planets with life on them, given the observed age of the universe, there should be planets where life developed before us. So given all these facts... Where the hell is everyone? The answer in this series is they're all bopping about the GCA. These spheres aren't floating about unconnected in the ether, they're connected to the Grand Central Arena itself. It's a marketplace, a diplomatic meeting place, a gladiatorial arena all in one. It's practically Babylon 5 if it was built by the first ones. I mention technology that looked like magic? This place creates personalized life support for each individual, by which I mean this. Imagine you and three aliens meet in a room. You need a oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere at around a single g for comfort, however one of your alien buddies needs 3 times that gravity and a methane based atmosphere, another one needs about .75 g's and a chlorine atmosphere and a third one can breath oxygen but requires a much wetter environment to keep her skin from drying out. In the GCA you can all meet in that single room without any specialized life support equipment because it converts the atmosphere as it hits you and is constantly adjusting the effect of gravity to your comfort on an individual level. Yes, just make this clear, you could be standing a foot away from someone and they'll be experiencing three times the gravity and breathing poison as you and you won't feel a damn thing! On top of this, the GCA is capable of changing basic laws of nature, nuclear events won't happen in the GCA. No nuclear bombs, no nuclear power plants, all fission and fusion just goes inert. This is an issue because the FTL ship is powered by a fusion reactor! So now our characters have to figure out how to buy enough power to turn their FTL engine on and get back home. Luckily there's a thriving market in selling energy, they just gotta figure out how to make the trade.

It's not all sunshine and magic however, the builders of the GCA have disappeared millions of years ago leaving it inhabited by aliens who do not understand the technology that built it and are not unified in purpose (the GCA is so damn old that sapient species have evolved within it's environment). The aliens are divided into factions, some are friendly, some are neutral, some are secretive and others are downright hostile. They all have their own goals and objectives and are interested in getting humanity to further them. The GCA has laws that it enforces via environmental control (get too stroppy in a public place and you'll find yourself being smashed under 3 times your normal gravity for example) and a group of public enforcers who act as police and judge. Araine finds herself by the virtue of being the captain of the first human ship to breach the FTL barrier as the defacto leader of humanity in the GCA. This is an issue because the factions and alien species solve their problems via challenges, which can be anything from competitive puzzle solving to fights to the death. With Humanity being the first new species to emerge into the GCA on it's own power in over 5000 years, they attracted a lot of attention and everyone has their own ideas about what humanity should be doing. Araine has to protect her crew and protect our unknowing species while building up enough credit to get everyone back home. Oh, she also has to avoid not dying while being pulled into a factional fight between aliens with powers we can't understand who’ve taken a personal interest in her. But hey if the job was easy, everyone would want to be Captain.

As you might guess, I really enjoyed Grand Central Arena. It helps that all the human characters were reasonable adults and that Mr. Spoor avoided any silly drama for the sake of drama. For example Simon and another character Marc Duquesne (who is a Skylark reference and I'll stop here for the sake of spoilers) both have a thing for Ariane. There's no high school back stabbing or underhandedness here though, they both make their interest known like adults and both manage to work together as professionals agreeing that making sure everyone gets home alive is more important than getting laid. Ariane for her part makes her own feelings known clear and doesn't jerk anyone around, nor does she let this shit get in the way of her job. Frankly I approve of this. Additionally the factions were all fairly interesting if basic, I didn't go to in depth into them here to avoid spoilers but I found the way Mr. Spoor balanced them to be interesting. I also loved the aliens, the majority of them were non-mammalian and nowhere near humanoid but not strange enough to be unrelatable That all said, this is pure 21st century pulp sci-fi of the highest quality. If you don't like pulp, if you're be put off by people monkeying about with the laws of science and what not... Then you're gonna hate this book. That said if you like some two fisted, thrilling heroics with exotic locations, strange new exciting people and the whole universe being flipped upside down? This is your book. This book was fun and interesting and I couldn't stop reading it. I'm giving Grand Central Arena by Ryk E Spoor a B+

Next week, it's time Glen Cook got some space on this review series, we gonna look at Sweet Silver Blues. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 09, 2017 9:05 pm 
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Sweet Silver Blues
By Glen Cook


Glen Cook was born New York City, year of our Lord 1944. He started writing in grade school (primary school for my English readers) and by the time he hit high school he was donating articles to the school paper. He had to step away from writing for a bit as he served a hitch in the navy (he spent part of that time interestingly enough with a Marine Force Recon Unit, but rotated out before they shipped off to Vietnam) and worked his way through college. However when he picked up a job at a GM plant that really didn't require to much mental effort from him, he picked it right back up. His first book The Black Company was published in 1984, a military fantasy work that would be listed as an influence by Steven Eriksen (writer of the Malazan series) and George RR Martin (if you need me to tell you, then please email me, you're gonna need a guided tour of the fantasy genre). Mr. Cook made a splash by injecting a dose of gritty, raw realism into his fantasy. His characters acted and sounded like real people who got hungry, tired, and every now and again just really needed to take a piss. He followed up the Black Company with an experiment, which is remarkable in and of itself as lot of fantasy publishing companies weren't terribly keen on experimenting with the genre. Of course I suppose when you open with something like the Black Company, they tend to let you have a little bit more rope. Additionally, fantasy itself was still experiencing a lot of changes with works from people like Michael Moorcock being as influential on new writers as Tolkien in a lot of ways. This specific experiment however, was the combining of noir detective stories with a fantasy setting. A combination that has grown popular in later years especially in the realm of urban fantasy (those are fantasy stories set in the modern “real world” for the most part). Sweet Silver Blues however sets itself in a full blown fantasy world but brings noir style characters and outlooks to the setting.

Garrett is a lot of things, a ladies man, a war veteran, habitable over drinker and private investigator. Setting up shop in the city of TunFaire, Garrett is who you turn to when you want a mystery solved quietly. As long as you're willing to pay for it. Loosely (very loosely) based on Archie Goodwin from the Nero Wolfe series (there's another character who is based on Nero Wolfe, but as I said loosely), Archie in that book series worked for Nero Wolfe, an investigator who hated leaving home, so he had Archie do all the clue gather and what not. Garrett differs in that he's self employed and operates a lot more independently. Garrett in this book comes off as a cynic who would really like to be an idealist but has simply dealt with to many people for that to be possible. That said there's a refreshing lack of condemnation for most characters from Garrett. Oh there are some utter assholes that Garrett calls out but you don't see a lot of Garrett getting on his high horse. He knows his faults and is mostly tired of people pretending that they don't have theirs, but is also willing to give them all the credit they've earned. It's a very fair way to look at things. Of course Garrett doesn't let any of this get in the way of doing his job, he is after all here to get paid.

Garrett has never figured how to live without beer and food but he has figured out if you're good at something, don't do it for free. TunFaire is the capital city of the kingdom of Karenta, which is ruled by a band of sorcerers who are at war with another band of sorcerers who rule the next country over (Venageta). They're fighting over a region of the world known as the Cantard, a blasted, wild wasteland which happens to hold most of the world's known silver reserve. Along with hostile Centaur tribes, vampire nests, and packs of carnivorous unicorns with their own trained hunting dogs (that's right unicorns who want to kill and eat you and have trained dogs to hunt you). This is worth waging a long unending war because magic is fueled by precious metals like silver. So, I suppose you could say Karenta and Venageta are having their own little oil war. Thankfully Mr. Cook doesn't beat us over the head with this but the war the constant drain of resources and the strain it puts on society are constantly in the background and show up in the very fabric of Karenta. For example all male citizens are required to serve 5 years in the military, be it the army, navy or the marines. Garrett being brave, strong, loyal and perhaps not all that bright at the time, went for the Marine Corps. His buddy Denny Tate, a dwarf with a touch of elvish blood, served in the cavalry. Denny managed to pick up some plunder when his regiment hit an enemy pay caravan, he then without anyone knowing except an old girlfriend and his army buddies turned that bit of plunder into a rather large fortune. Which he never really got to enjoy as he fell off his horse, split his skull open and died (odd way to go for a cavalry man if you ask me but nobody did).

Garrett isn't hired to investigate Denny's death as everyone is pretty sure it was an accident, given that it happened in broad daylight with a lot of witness. No, Garrett isn't that lucky. Instead Garrett has been hired to hunt down the woman that Denny left his fortune to, the said ex-girlfriend. The said, married, ex-girlfriend (as she got married after Denny left). The said, married, ex-girlfriend that Garrett had a fling with when he was stationed in her hometown before she met Denny. The married ex-girlfriend who has disappeared into the Cantard. Which means Garrett has to whistle up a crew, travel to the girl's old hometown and try and hunt her down in a warzone infested with enemy soldiers, screaming monsters, angry natives, and vampires. Additionally, Denny's old army buddies would rather he pass on the job, see they figure if they just grab some of Denny's letters and keep writing, they can fool the lady into keeping this money making plan going for at least another year or two and they're willing to get violent to do it. On top of that, he's got to deal with the fact that Denny's little sister Rose, is willing to move heaven and earth to keep him from doing it. Because if he fails, she gets all that money. It's a sucker's job, the kind most people would run screaming from and most of the rest won't come back from but Garrett's gonna do it anyways. Not for the amazingly high fee (although that's part of it). Not just because Denny was a friend and a fellow vet (although that's one of the reasons). Not just because he wants to help an old girlfriend (although that's on the list as well) but for himself because he wants to set this to rest and not have it gnawing at the back of his head. Garrett might not be his own worst enemy but he should certainly list himself on a top ten arch foes list.

Garrett's not alone in this job however, with him he's bringing a half dark elf named Morley Dotes, a pair of half giant, half trolls with their little brother; and to top that off, he's getting advice from a dead guy. Let's take a look at this crew. Morley has a number of unattractive traits if we're gonna be honest: he's quick to kill requiring Garrett to hold him back a few times, and he really enjoys sleeping with other people's wives and is one of those vegetarians who heckles you about enjoying a good ham sandwich (look living to 125 on cattail roots just doesn't sound worth it). Now before anyone gets excited, there's nothing wrong with you being a vegetarian, there is something wrong with you demanding I be one. I won't pick on you for your diet and you won't pick on me for mine alright? All of that said, Morley is very dependable in this book, willing to follow Garrett into the worst of places on the barest of plans. I’ve got to admire that level of friendship because frankly Morley could have cut and run pretty much at any point and likely made it somewhere where he could live comfortably. Plus his back and forth with Garrett is pretty damn funny. I honestly like their relationship, Garrett's a bit of a questionable guy himself but having Morley around helps highlight his good points and makes his flaws more comedy than tragic. Plus having a friendship as one of the core relationships of your book keeps the tone from getting to dark. That doesn't mean that Morley doesn't have his own goals mind you, just that his friendship can be counted on here. The Grolls don't have much character here beyond hit things and laugh but they're dumb muscle. The dead guy? Well he ain't human, literally. He's a member of the Loghyr race, who hang around after they die. The Dead Guy is a genius however and provides Garrett with clues and ideas on how to operate out there in the big bad world, which makes a bit of a call out to Nero Wolfe himself. He doesn't play a major part in this book honestly beyond the beginning but like I said does provide some valuable information for Garrett.

Sweet Silver Blues is an interesting look back into the past, while I'm not sure if it's the first book to mix noir story lines and characters with fantasy elements, it's certainly a very early example of it. The book is gritty, with characters who are flawed but not hateful or disguising. The humanity of the characters is used to give them clay feet but doesn't drag them through the muck either. Which is frankly an improvement on several modern examples, as there are those who believe that characters with any unalloyed good points or virtues must be hunted down and erased. If you like a story where the characters feel real but there are still plenty of laughs and awesome moments or if you like a mystery story that doesn't revolve around a murder you'll like this. Mr. Cook builds a settings that has questions of racism, corruption and the question of when it is right to go to war and lets you examine those issues by looking at the impact on the characters in the story. Which is a great and subtle way to do it. I had fun with this story and I think you will to. That said the story does end up feeling a bit rushed towards to the end and I wish the journey back had been given a bit more attention. I'm giving Sweet Silver Blues by Mr. Glen Cook a B+.

Next week we take a look at KG Splanger's book Greek Key. Keep reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 16, 2017 9:15 pm 
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Greek Key
By KG Spangler


Greek Key is the 4th novel by Ms. Spangler and like the last three it is part of her own expanded universe from the web comic “A Girl and Her Fed”. As such I should start this review with a bit of a spoiler warning. If you've only read the Rachel Peng novels, this book carries many spoilers for what's going on. You know those secrets that Rachel's boss keeps from her? They're front and center in this book and massively part of the plot. So if you want to avoid finding out before Rachel does, you might want to skip this book (or at least this review) and go to Brute Force. That said if you've been reading A Girl and Her Fed, you're already in the know as it were and you have nothing to worry about. Now that I've covered that, let's get into the book.

Let me start with Hope Blackwell. Hope Blackwell is millionaire martial artist who discovered a secret government conspiracy when she realized she was under surveillance by a government agent who also happened to be a cyborg. Hope was aided by the fact that she is close personal friends with Benjamin Franklin, who is also a ghost. Said government agent, Patrick Mulcahy ended up teaming up with her to bust the conspiracy wide open and eventually went public with the whole damn thing. For more details, read the webcomic or prior reviews of the other novels. Hope is a woman with a lot of gifts, she's a great fighter, psychic (although she's terrible at it), a good friend, and studying to become a doctor. She also has a great many flaws, she has a foul mouth with a temper almost has bad and tends to prefer fast easy solutions. She also has a terrible attention span, in fact after checking for word of god, I confirmed that she does in fact have ADHD. Which makes this less of a character flaw in my mind and more of a disability you could say as calling it a flaw doesn't seem right to me. Ms. Spangler tries to reflect this in her writing by giving Hope a very different voice from Rachel Peng. Peng is methodical, focused and disciplined, she dislikes violence and while she's no wallflower, she isn't a full blown extrovert either. Hope throws herself from topic to topic, her narration is full of asides and observations, Ms. Spangler keeps this from getting out of control or detracting from the story by making a lot of those asides (the ones that don't directly serve the plot) footnotes, so you can completely skip them if you like. This is actually very clever and helps capture Hope fully without derailing the story into a incoherent wreck. I'm also tickled to see footnotes being used in a novel for mass consumption in 2017 when back in 1997 one of my English teachers firmly told me that footnotes were dead and never coming back outside of really dense academic papers. Let that be a lesson kids, listen to your teachers but realize there's going to have to be a point where you throw their pronouncements to the way side and make your own damn calls, just be prepared to live and die on those calls. Anyways back to the review.

Joining her on this story is Mike, also a terrible psychic but a terrifyingly good martial artist. Hope is something of a statistical anonymity in that she developed her psychic powers through genetic mutation. Mike on the other hand comes from a long line of psychics who have organized themselves into families with wealth, power, and influence coming from their gifts. Many of the families have withdrawn from the rest of humanity and there is more than a little feeling of their abilities make them better than the average schmuck. Mike decided that was bullshit and ran away from home when he was twelve and then worked his way up to becoming a master of aikido with his own studio in Los Vegas (it's a young city, not a lot of ghosts you see). Frankly Mike is bloody amazing but infuriating. He has worked very hard at not developing his psychic powers and not learning anything about them. Now his decision to not develop his God given abilities is his own, I disagree with it but it's his right to decide what do with his inborn talents, but being ignorant about them is down right dangerous and could get someone hurt. I'm of the opinion if you have a talent or a possession that could hurt someone it is absolutely your responsibility to know everything you can about it to ensure it's safe use or it's safe lack of use. I won't tell y'all how to run your lives folks but I will insist that you do not endanger the neighbors. There's also the issue that Mike is as self righteous as his family members and at some point I would like to see his face get ground into it. I say that despite liking Mike, because whatever his flaws he is honestly trying to be a good and helpful person. In this case he goes to Greece with Hope leaving behind his own life with little warning to help her guard herself (Hope really doesn't need protection honestly) and provide a second opinion on things (which Hope often needs).

Along with Mike and Hope is Speedy, who is a male Queensland Koala Bear. An overly ambitious scientist genetically (and surgically, since you'll note Koala's have no vocal cords) modified Speedy to make him intelligent. Speedy killed him when he realized the scientist was planning on dissecting him to see what improvements could be made on the next model. Speedy is a genius, an expert code breaker and a complete and total asshole. A lot of this is Speedy lacking the social instincts that a human would have because he's a fucking Koala! Part of it is the rather rough life he led until Patrick found him (leading to an intense bond of loyalty between the two of them). The rest of it is Speedy is simply an asshole who enjoys jerking people around. Hope is able to keep him in line with the fact that she can kill a small bull with her bare hands so a Koala wouldn't even slow her down and Speedy knows her impulse control is bad enough to make it a possibility; and you thought you had complicated friendships, right?

They are all in Greece to find out something very important. Just who built the Antikythera Mechanism and were they alive when they did it? See the Ghost of Ben Franklin is worried that if a Greek Ghost, say of Archimedes, built the machine and it gets discovered by living people, then the universe might... implode (I love that these reviews let me type sentences like this for the record). Sadly Patrick and our favorite Cyborgs cannot leave the country so it's up to Hope to head over to the sunny Mediterranean during her spring break and see if she can whistle up a ghost or five to explain just what is going on. There are problems with that: first, Hope can't see non-American Ghosts, so they'll have to basically try to play guessing games. Second, Speedy's the only person in the group who speaks Greek, both modern and Ancient dialects (just remember all of this stuff happened 2,500 years ago, think about how much the language you speak is different from your parents and... Yeah). Third, none of their ghosts can help them while they're in Greece. Fourth and this is a kicker folkers, they got the attention of a powerful Greek ghost alright, it's Helen of Tr... Sparta! She prefers to be called Helen of Sparta and I would recommend indulging the lady here. She wants Hope to do her a favor, she ain't gonna take no for an answer and she's gonna start beaming her life story into Hope's skull if that's what it takes. This is a journey that's gonna led them from Athens to Rhodes to islands in the middle of nowhere in the sunny sea. Meanwhile they also have to deal with hired goons, who really cannot take a hint, a hired archaeologist/treasure hunter/tomb robber... Who cannot take a hint and his cousin the lady black market treasure hunter... Who also cannot take a hint. It's not a very relaxing vacation.

On top of this Hope is also having to hide her connections to the afterlife as she and Mike are committed to keeping a secret on the logic that they don't have the right to spill the beans. I'll admit I have trouble following their logic, when they declare they don't have the right to the tell the truth. Which honestly sounds ass backwards to me, basically they're declaring that a lie must be maintained and Mike's position is the lie must be maintained at all costs. Now, I'll admit I'm not going to throw too many rocks here, because... Imagine tomorrow that the existence of an afterlife is proven, verifiable fact. Even putting religion on a shelf (HA!) here... How many changes do you think that would cause? Would you want to be the person who pulled that trigger? I'm not sure honestly that I'm brave enough to do it but here's the thing. Everyone has the right to tell the truth. The truth is what everyone is entitled to, now I'll grant that often the truth isn't what we want to know. There are times when a lie is more pleasing or may even be better for our well being. I'm not saying you should never tell someone a lie, just be aware that when you do... You're hiding something that the other person most likely has a right to (there are exceptions to this obviously, there are parts of your private life you have every right to keep private for example and if you need to lie to do it so be it but I'm speaking in very general terms here). I suppose this is nitpicky of me since, I'm not sure I disagree with the characters actions in hiding the afterlife and ghosts from the living. I just disagree with their reasoning. Some of you may suggest I'm splitting hairs and I'll remind you that I've decided of my own free will to review books for almost three years now. A certain amount of hair splitting should be expected!

All of that said, I continue to be impressed with Ms. Spangler's ability to use the written word. The story communicates Hope's lack of focus without damaging the plot. The interplay between the characters show a committed friendship between combative and strong will people without going over the line and making it look like they hate each other. The action is well written and really does communicate a sense of chaos while clearly showing what is going on. There are some writers who try to use martial art sounding names which leads to “He attacked with Floating Mountains Snow but was blocked by Grazing Hare Naps!” thankfully Ms. Spangler does no such thing here. As side note here to any aspiring writer, just describe what the character is doing and leave the fancy names to anime, alright? You're writing to help me form a mental picture of the fight. The dialogue is fun and the book as always is full of interesting ideas and facts on top of it's plot. I'm giving Greek Key by KG Spangler an -A. Go read it, have fun.

Next week, Gang Leader for a Day, keep reading.


This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 23, 2017 10:06 pm 
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Gang Leader for a Day
by Sudhir Venkatesh


Dr. Venkatesh was born in 1966 in Chennai, India. When he was a child his parents immigrated to California. Dr. Venkatesh grew up in suburbia and graduated from the University of California with a B.A in mathematics in 1988 and headed out to the University of Chicago to get a degree in sociology (this may seem a bit of mismatch to some of you but sociology is very statistics driven field in a lot of ways so this actually meshes pretty well). He was lucky enough to work with Dr. William Julius Wilson, who was and remains powerfully influential in the fields of African American studies, sociology and the debate of race vs class. I mean let me put it this way: when I was studying for my Anthropology degree I stayed away from North America and focused on other continents, mostly preferring Asia but my long suffering advisor did throw me into classes on Africa and South America. That said... I've heard of Dr. Wilson and for that matter if you've watched the second season of the Wire, you've seen work directly influenced by him (I would love to have enemies react to my appearance the same way Omar's enemies react to his... as long as I could avoid poor Omar's fate but I'm off topic). Now I'm gonna admit I was sharpening knives to go after the subtitle of the book, which grandiosely declares him to be a rogue Sociologist, but since the author himself has repeatedly disavowed the title and claimed it was the invention of Penguin's press marketing department... I'm gonna give him a pass. On this issue anyway.

In the 1990s, Dr. Venkatesh was a struggling grad student looking to make it big and impress his adviser. So he decided to skip a lot of paperwork and just running into the bad neighborhoods of Chicago and start interviewing poor black people with a set of survey questionnaires.[note from the editor: Holy Mother of… he didn’t even get IRB approval? Any human research, even surveys, requires IRB approval. WTF?! How the hell did he not get drummed out of the program?] (Simple editor! His initial survey's had approval but not for the neighborhood he went into, afterwards, he didn't ask.). If you think this went badly for him, you are correct and should get yourself a cookie. Dr. Venkatesh found himself held hostage by a street gang (the Black Kings) overnight, forced to hang out in a drafty project stairwell; the now-defunct Robert Taylor Homes. He was suspected of being a spy for a Hispanic gang and escaped a beating due to a couple facts, first of all he had shown up looking like a reject from a grateful dead concert. Second even the most committed gangbanger spy of the 90s would never think to show up with a clipboard and a set of stapled together papers asking questions like “How does it feel to be black and poor?” I'm white as printer paper and from Oklahoma and even I know that's a dumb question. Lucky for him he was rescued by the gang leader, who for the purposes of this book is named JT (we'll come back to him). Well to be fair, he didn't just start there, in fact he got his start talking to old black men who hung out in the parks, that's when he got the idea that the world they lived in was very different from his. By talking to these elder gentlemen, he got a peek into the differences between the way middle class suburbanites and the urban poor saw the world. He also got a look at how the racial divide shapes those differences and was guided through this process by a group of interesting people, I'm going to talk about some of the community leaders and the role they played here.

First is JT himself, the gang leader who was going to play the role of Dr. Venkatesh's main informant (this is actually an anthropological term, it means someone who provides you information and access to a local community) and gateway into the community. JT was an interesting figure to me, here's a guy who had actually gotten out of the projects and came back, a college graduate who quit his job when he was frustrated in seeing his white co-workers promoted ahead of him, even if he was better at the job then they were. I can sympathize with that, I've seen stuff like that happen and it's a garbage way to run a business. JT decided he would have better career opportunities and more respect from others and for himself if he went back home, joined a gang and started selling crack. I would like everyone to stop and think about that sentence for a little bit. To be fair JT is rather successful, rising to leadership and working to get into the upper ranks of the gang. Dr. Venkatesh shows a look at JT as someone who operates as a combination of a manager for a business and infantry commander in an occupied city with competing militias. With a lot of the decisions that eerily remind me of decisions that had to made by different young Americans in far off places. This isn't the only thing that disturbs me about the book but I do have to note that I wonder how much Dr. Venkatesh is down playing the JT's role in the violence that pervaded that community. JT is often shown trying to keep violence from happening or if he is being violent, using it in a disciplinary manner. I have to admit though this might be my own prejudices towards what a leader of an armed band of crack dealers would act like shining through.

Another community leader is Ms. Bailey, the building president and de facto civilian leader of the local community. Her own power is shored up by her access to the legal government and ability to arrange services for the tenants, which she supplements by taking bribes and providing additional goods and services, often paid for with those bribes. Another is her ability to make arrangements with the small businesses in the area. The relationship between JT and Ms. Bailey is fairly interesting one; while JT clearly has superior force at his command, he still pays her bribes to let him operate in the building. Part of this is that this lets JT claim that his gang is actually a helpful force in the community by paying for things like back to school shoes and supplies for the children. Another is that in many ways Ms. Bailey represents the woman tenants in the building. This study took place after the Clinton Welfare reforms, which had a ruinous effect on family life in this community. If you were married and living with your spouse, it was possible that you wouldn't qualify for rent aide or food stamps. However even if your husband had a job, it wouldn't be enough to pay the rent and get food. So the husbands and fathers were forced to make themselves into ghosts to preserve their families homes and in their absence a stabilizing force in their community disappeared. I talked about this a bit in my review on the Elephant Don and a lot of the same logic applies here. Ms. Bailey's options and the options of the women living in the building to control and contain the young men who often join the gang are very limited and leads to many of the young men running fairly rampant.

The last leader I would like to talk about is C-Note, who is the de facto leader of the squatters (although he doesn't really exercise a lot of power, more like control over who can work near the building). He's the weakest in terms of power but can provide a lot of services. Many of the squatters provide a number of services like car repair and doing minor home repairs and such on the cheap. Additionally Ms. Bailey can press them into service as a militia in case of an emergency, a situation which again reminds me of another place and time. C-Note is often squeezed by Ms. Bailey and JT for money and services and being an old man past his physical prime has little choice in the matter. Still without him and the squatters life actually becomes a lot harder for the people of the community.

There are those who hail Dr. Venkatesh's methods as revolutionary (mostly publishing agents, I should note that Dr. Venkatesh has not done so). I am not among them, frankly if I had written the subtitle, it would been “Sociologist student stumbles into Anthropology, does questionable job.” Seriously what Dr. Venkatesh is doing in this book is basic Anthropology work, called ethnography where an Anthropologist goes out to a foreign community and gathers information on how it operates, what it believes in, how it's member relate to one another, as well as who is in charge and why. We even have a name for the method he almost used Participant Observation, I should note that most traditional practicers would argue that if Dr. Venkatesh wanted to do that he should lived in the community full time. Dr. Venkatesh violates a number of rules for this type of research as well. For example he lies to the people he's studying, usually by omission to avoid confrontations but lying nonetheless. This is frankly a problem when you do this kind of research, because often you're better educated, wealthier and have better government connections. He takes sides in community disputes, often by accident because he doesn't really know what he's doing. He lies to his advisers because he's afraid they'll cut short his research. Additionally Dr. Venkatesh allows his research to be used by the people in charge (Ms. Bailey and JT) against the people he got it from. When doing a full study on how the tenants and the squatters make money, he provides the information to the both above, who proceed to use this information to shake people down and demand higher pay outs to avoid legal trouble or gang violence. He claims in the book he had no idea this would happen, which I suppose is possible but shows him to be painfully naive. Most of these aren't acts of malice or a desire to screw people over but are done because Dr. Venkatesh wasn't trained for this and because he didn't tell his advisers and professors the full scale of what he was doing, nor realized he needed to be trained for this. So I'm not suggesting Dr. Venkatesh is a terrible person, but I am suggesting that a long list of mistakes were made in this research project.

That said, I do commend Dr. Venkatesh for being honest about his mistakes, even if he spends a bit of time trying to excuse them. It's hard for me to throw too many stones at him, because when I was in my early 20s, I was in another poverty stricken place making terrible decision often on bad intelligence while trying to do the right thing...Despite not always being entirely sure what that was. So I suppose I get it. This book disturbs me not just because of the sheer amount of rookie mistakes outlined above, but how much the projects remind me of some of the realities of the occupation. That fellow Americans would be forced to live under a corrupt, haphazard government and turn to illegal armed forces for security, forces that also prey upon them is frankly shameful. It is a problem that also remains for many Americans and I don't honestly see a solution for it coming on the horizon. This problem lingers because we refuse to grapple with it beyond the most superficial ways and it will continue to linger until we do resolve to confront it. Despite how this book bothers me, if you are looking for a book to provide you some of the basics of how poverty impacts people and shapes the choices available, or how communities who lack a government that can provide security and basic services behaves, interacts and solves conflicts, this is actually a fairly good book. It's not an academic resource, having been written for popular consumption, so I would keep that in mind. Dr. Venkatesh does not cite the work of many Anthropologists and Sociologists who came before him in this book but since this isn't a scholarly work I suppose I won't hit him too harshly for that. However, this book is also an example of rather terrible field work in a lot of ways, where Dr. Venkatesh gets his data through sheer luck and persistence as much as anything else. I'm giving Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh a C+ because of that. Some of you will find it to be B material quite easily but I'm one reviewing this. That said, it was miles better to read then Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (that's right! I said it!), which is the book we had to read for our classes, so it has that going for it!

Next week, I'm feeling the need to turn back to graphic novels, so Lady Mechanika is up. Keep Reading!

This Review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 30, 2017 8:53 pm 
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Lady Mechanika
by Joe Benitez


Lady Mechanika is a steampunk adventure comic set in an alternate history Victorian England, first published in 2015 by Aspen MLT. Aspen MLT was founded in 2003 by comic book artist Michael Turner, it's lead comic is Fathom, which I may or may not review one day. The comic itself however is creator owned under Benitez Productions. As for Mr. Benitez himself, he is an American comic writer and artist born on May 21, 1971. He's mostly worked for Top Cow Comics, but has also done work for DC Comics. In addition to Lady Mechanika, he was the co-creator of Weapon Zero (a science fiction superhero comic) and the creator of the Wraithborn comic, which is urban fantasy originally published by DC Comics but now by Mr. Benitez in a redux form; but let's focus on the comic we're here to review shall we?

Lady Mechanika is a cyborg with amnesia. She was found in a cellar surrounded by dead bodies with no memories of anything that happened before. Through a series of utterly unexplored and only vaguely referenced events in this graphic novel, she managed to make a name for herself as an adventurer, private detective, and problem solver. The character has a distinctive style of dress that was very inspired by Kate “Kato” Lambert, a British ex-pat to the US, who is a fairly successful fashion designer and model with a heavy steampunk bent. Ms. Lambert started designing outfits with a Neo-Victorian and Post Apocalypse style in 2004 and founded her own company in 2007. I do need to warn any readers that if you look the lady up, not all of her pictures are safe for work so please keep that in mind. The comic itself however is fairly smut free. You might think I'm being pretty sparse when talking about the character herself and that's because... There's not much tell. To be blunt we don't get to know Lady Mechanika very well in this story. I know she's lacking memories of her creation and is very driven to correct that. She has a friendship of sorts with a man named Lewis who invents things for her to use on her jobs but I don't know why they're friends or how the relationship developed. It's all left a mystery in favor of pushing the adventure. Let's talk about that.

When a young lady dies after exiting a train that has just arrived at Mechanika City (we'll come back to this) that's a tragic mystery. Especially when no one knows who she is or when she got on the train. Throw on top of this that she was clad in rags and looks like she had fought off several attackers and it's a matter for the police. Add on that her arms were mechanical claws that she clearly wasn't born with and that gets Lady Mechanika's attention. This sends her on an investigation to track down the young lady's origin and find who did this to her and why. This means raiding the Ministry of Health (which seems to perform its function in a manner straight from Orwell's nightmares) for the body, to hunting down clues in a Gypsy circus and of course a confrontation on a giant airship (this is steampunk after all and in steampunk you never apologize for a giant airship... Nor should you.). This leads us to meeting a cast of characters that... We end up learning more about then we do our title character (YES THIS BOTHERS ME!), whether it be Gitano, the member of the circus who joins her quest or the Lady Katherine De Winter, Countess of St. Germains and bearer of the 7th key of the inner collective (no, we don't get to find out what this means), an evil redhead that has a history with our main character and likely served as a mentor at one point but this is referred to only in an oblique manner and a few others I won't mention to prevent spoilers.

The art is very good in this comic, despite a heavy preference for dark colors in a lot of scenes, there's enough variety in shading and colors that I never had trouble telling what was going on. There's also little chance of getting characters mixed up, which has happened to me on some independent comics, Mr. Benitez makes sure that each character has distinct visual characteristics that set them apart. The action is also very well captured, which can be a problem in a static medium like a comic book. So whatever problems the comic has it's not the art or the character design (although I think Lady Mechanika could stand to look less like a playboy model who got lost). Additionally the dialogue is fairly workmanlike, Lady Mechanika speaks in a light Victorian style voice, enough that I am reminded that she is not a modern character and that I never feel that she's a transplant from the 21st century. The same goes for the other characters, who are also given distinct verbal cues, so I never mix them up. My main problem is that the plot goes so damn fast that I still struggle to come up with ways to describe the title character of the book beyond a one sentence archetype, the same goes for Lewis her back up character. I've made this complaint before and I'll make it again, slow down on the plot so I can actually met and get to know the characters. I think part of the problem is I picked up volume I of Lady Mechanika expecting something of an origin story of sorts and Mr. Benitez has decided to skip that and just start Media Res (which is a fancy way of saying in the middle of the action). You can certainly start that way if you like but then it becomes even more vital for you to slow down and focus on the characters for a moment or five. We also have enough mystery to fill an oil tanker thrown at us but no answers, which is honestly frustrating, because a complete story (and I maintain a graphic novel should tell us a complete story) should provide some answers. Now you don't have to answer every mystery but you should answer some. I should also touch on the setting which is very contained to Mechanika City with a lot of suggestions that the technology we see on display (Cyborgs! Flying cars! Giant airships!) are all neatly contained in one city in the British Empire. If that's the actual case I would be very disappointed. If you're going to suggest massive changes to history, you should commit to it instead of trying to put them in a box. The kind of technology on display here would have modern nations devoting large chunks of their GDP to crash programs to try to replicate it. In the 1880s? All manner of nonsense would take place simply to figure out how to build their own fortress airships.


To be honest I don't regard this as a great start for the series but I do remain hopeful of improvement. While I do feel Mr. Benitez has made mistakes, most of them are rather common mistakes that writers starting out make. I mean for example, Mr. Sejic made a number of writing mistakes in Ravine but then came back and gave us Death Vigil. I think there's promise in Lady Mechanika's character, I really like the setting, what little I've seen anyways but I'm concerned with pacing of the plot and how many questions remain unanswered. Because of this I'm going to have to give Lady Mechanika a C-. Hopefully when I get to volume II, it will earn a higher grade. Next week, we're gonna feel blue, with the Blue Beetle.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 07, 2017 9:27 pm 
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Blue Beetle: Shellshocked (Vol: 8)
by Keith Giffen and John Rogers
Art by Cully Hammer


I was actually a little sad when I got this graphic novel because when I opened it up, I saw it used to belong to a public library. I'll admit to a fair amount of book greed but it's never a happy event when a public library collection is made less. Admittedly ending up in my library is better than what happens to a lot of books that are rejected from public libraries. They end up shredded and burnt. So on the balance I suppose I can call this a good deed (but seriously support your local library, you won't know you need it, ‘til it's gone).

Anyways, about the Blue Beetle, this is a hero that has been through a lot of changes. I'm going to provide some history here before I get on the review because I think it's kinda necessary. Keep in mind this isn't an exhaustive look. Blue Beetle was originally created by Fox Comics waayyyyy back in 1939, back then the source of his power was originally a special vitamin but this was dropped in favor of him getting his powers from a mystic scarab from Egypt. Dan Garret, rookie policeman, was the secret identity of the first beetle. He would have a set of powers that were defined as whatever the writers wanted him to have at the time, and he would star in comics, newspaper, and radio before the character was retired in the 1950s when Fox Comics went out of business and sold the rights to Charlton Comics.

Charlton Comics chose to re-image the Blue Beetle as Ted Kord, a student of Garret's who took on the responsibility of the Blue Beetle when Garret was killed fighting a supervillain but who did not have the powers of the scarab. The creator of Ted Kord was Steve Ditko and he tended to prefer writing about men without superpowers at the time. Ted Kord appeared as a back feature to Captain Atom in 1966 and got his own comic in 1967. Charlton Comics was bought out by DC comics in the 1980s who brought over the characters in the Crisis on Infinite Earths event in 1985. While he did get a solo series that managed to run for 2 years, his character didn't really take off for many people until he joined the Justice League and met Booster Gold. The two of them would prove to be grade A comedy material and even today remains a favored duo among the fans who remember that era. I do encourage y'all to check out those comics as the series is something of a semi-forgotten gem, under all the 80s cheese. Of course, in this world, nothing good and fun can last so after finding the scarab again but before figuring out how to unleash it's power, he's murdered. I'm not going to go into by who or how because y'all don't want this to be a 3 page rant with enough curses to peel paint. Instead let's get to something awesome that came out of that crap. Jamie Reyes.

Jamie Reyes first shows up in Infinite Crisis 5 in 2006. His solo series would start up 2 months later and would have to write around this event while creating an origin for the character and expanding(and in some ways retconning) the Blue Beetle mythos. These were actually the first Blue Beetle comics I ever read, so for me in a lot ways Jamie is the Blue Beetle and always will be. Jamie Reyes is a Mexican-American from El Paso, his mother works at a hospital and his father runs a car garage. They both clearly love their children and are struggling to ensure they have the best life possible, which was a part of the comic I honestly liked. They were fairly strict but it was because they didn't want their kids ending up on drugs or in a gang which were real worries in their neighborhoods. Jamie comes across as a good kid who wants to do the right thing and protect his family and friends but is, like a lot of us, often frustrated by the sheer amount of gray in the world and how often his role models and authority figures prove to have clay feet. I'm in my mid 30s and I can still relate to that and I'm sure a lot of y'all could too. Beyond his family Jamie has his friends Paco (a burly somewhat smart mouthed fellow Hispanic kid) and Brenda, a red haired, very smart, very talented girl with a terrible home life. I have to admit Rogers and Giffen show how talented they are when they make this clear in a single page, where Paco and Brenda get into a fight. Paco yells she's lucky boys don't hit girls and she yells back Father's do. It's a quick, efficient exchange that establishes the supporting characters while making you desperately wonder why DC comics has no Child Protective Services! The character work in this novel is pretty great, giving you a firm grounding on who all of these characters are and how they relate to Jamie and giving you a sense of who he is as well.

Unfortunately, there's a lot that isn't great. Due to having to work around Infinite Crisis the plot of the book suffers greatly. I'm also annoyed by the decisions of the writers to abandon linear storytelling in favor for jumping around all over the place time wise. You have to read the book 2 or 3 times to figure out the chronology of events as they are presented out of order with little to no identification. This is a problem because some of these events are separated by about a year. That's not a good thing and makes for confusing readers when they have to guess at the sequences of events. Additionally there's the sin of too many of other characters showing up in Jamie's story. For example, you open the book with Jamie trying to fend off Guy Gardner, aka the Green Lateran who got an even rawer deal than Kyle somehow. Guy doesn't really contribute to this novel beyond that, basically just having a fight and flying off at the end of it. You have The Stranger pop up and pop out with no explanation for who or what this guy is (I knew but I've been dealing with comics for over a decade now, if this had been my first experience I would have given up in confusion) and you have another character (no names to avoid spoilers) bopping around but he doesn't interact with the cast until the last panel! This makes for a very crowded and confusing experience and it's not a good way to launch a character.

Now this is just my opinion but in an origin story you need to give a character space to breath and time to find his or her footing on their own. Unless it's a team character of course but then just apply that to the team at large. I'm not against comic book characters having relationships with characters from other titles don't get me wrong but you need to give them the space to be their own characters so they don't get defined by their relationships to other more established characters. Additionally, their origin story should be able to stand on it's own and demanding that I hunt down an entirely different series just so this story makes sense is at best dirty pool. This should be Jamie's story, instead it feels like a small piece of a bigger story without any clear links. The character work is great and I enjoyed it but the plotting and the storytelling is rough at best and all over the place at worst. Combined, this makes for the mirror opposite of last week review, where the plot was well done but the character work scant and thin. I like Jamie Reyes so I would love to give his first graphic novel a good grade but... It's not to be. Blue Beetle: Shellshocked gets a C-. Better luck next time.

I think I need to go back and read a novel. Next week, the Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 14, 2017 9:38 pm 
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The Jennifer Morgue
By Charles Stross

I covered Charles Stross in my review of The Atrocity Archives, so I will just suggest if you want to know more about this chap, you read that review. The Jennifer Morgue, published in 2006, is the second novel of the series the Laundry files. Let me go ahead and sum up the concept behind the series. Lovecraft was right. Humanity is an over clever ape in a cold hostile multi-verse, where creatures and beings beyond our imagining lurk beyond the walls of our universe and in the dark corners of our own. Math is magic, combined with computer technology the right mathematical formulas and geometric creations can not only defy the natural laws of our world but can catch the attention of those inhuman beings. With their attention usually comes terror and death. Robert “Bob” Howard (which is in and of itself is a nice reference for me) is a drafted member of the Laundry, the more-secret-than-top-secret British agency whose job it is to not only delay and maybe even prevent the extinction of humanity but to keep most of us from finding out what is actually out there. The more people who know that this stuff can actually work, the more likely it is that someone will actually kill us all (by accident, or on purpose). I usually disagree with secrecy at all cost in stories like this but Mr. Stross has built a convincing case, in that letting this stuff become public is like handing out the plans to nuclear bombs and then making sure all the parts are cheaply available in your local corner store (plutonium is 20% off for repeat customers!). Since I'm very partial to living in a civilization with indoor plumbing and climate control... Or just living in general, I'm against that idea. Anyways let me get to the novel itself.

Humanity is not the only intelligent species on the planet. There are older, colder civilizations that dwell on our planet. Visitors from unknown stars that came to our tiny blue orb before our distant ancestors learned the secret of fire or flint. In prehistoric times they settled the parts of the Earth that they wanted, built cities, waged wars and did great deeds and they are here still. We evolved and grew on the part of the planet they do not consider worth having, we literally spent the infancy of our species unknowingly in their shadow in places they would deem worthless wasteland. They are indifferent to us and given their abilities that is something to be thankful for. The most well known of them is code named BLUE HADES by the Laundry, an aquatic civilization that signed a treaty with the powers of the world. They promise not to cause our extinction and to remain aloof from our affairs and we promise to stay in our reservation. Which is in this case means the dry land and the top layers of the ocean they have no interest in. Their rivals or perhaps their enemies, are a chthonian race of creatures known by the code name DEEP SEVEN. Not much is known because there has not been a lot of contact with DEEP SEVEN because they live deep in the Earth's crust. Whatever wars they fought with BLUE HADES would have ended before humanity discovered writing at the latest which is lucky for us because the type of weapons that these creatures would have used against one another would have been beyond our understanding and our ability to protect ourselves from. Those weapons are still beyond our ability to protect ourselves from.

In 1975, in the Caribbean sea, a United States agency attempted to retrieve something from the bottom of the sea. They used what was state of the art technology at the time, however they were foiled by the defenses that BLUE HADES had set up. It was an expensive lesson in leaving well enough alone but it was one that was learned. The United States made no additional attempts, neither did any other nation. In the opening years of the 21st century however, there's always someone who thinks that whatever the government fails at, private industry can succeed at. Enter our villain Ellis Billington, software billionaire, who through the use of magic, creative accounting and the joys of selling to the government and setting the prices via regulatory capture is a man with too much bloody money. Unlike most of the men before him, he doesn't get involved in politics or charity; Mr. Billington prefers more arcane pursuits like trying to conquer the world by retrieving artifacts of an advanced alien race from the ocean floor. However he has a problem, that being that just about everyone else on the planet (excluding a very small number of allies and employees) are very much opposed to him becoming planetary overlord. This includes the US paranormal intelligence agency, the Black Chamber, an organization that our main character Bob views with dread and loathing. Considering who he works with and for... That's saying something. Mr. Billington didn't get to where he is without a certain level of intelligence and cunning however, so using resources both mundane, esoteric and morally vile, he has assembled a protection which means that the Black Chamber cannot touch him and nor can conventional law enforcement. Unfortunately for him, he had to leave a gap in the protection for it to work and it's into that gap that Bob Howard is heroically pushed. For the record readers, I do mean pushed.

Joining Bob on this mission are Pinkie and Brain, former roommates, techies and sorcerers without peer as his support team. Additionally he is joined by Ramona Random, a bombshell blonde to die for, who is also a field agent (aka assassin) for the Black Chamber. Joined by a magical ritual that has them sharing literal headspace (literally), Bob finds himself having trouble sorting out which thoughts and which emotions are actually his. On top of that is the fact that Ms. Random is hiding a number of her own secrets and definitely has her own agenda. He's barely briefed, out of his element, working a budget governed by the principals of austerity and is the only guy on the board who doesn't know the script. Which might be the only hole card that he has. He's gonna need it along with anything else he can scrape out of the white sands and deep blue sea. Oh, he also needs to wrap this up before his girlfriend Mo (also a member of the Laundry) comes looking for him and gets herself into the firing line.

Stross takes this opportunity to write a send up on James Bond films using the dark humor and lovecraftian universe of the Laundry Files. It's honestly well written, funny and at times thought provoking but there's a serious problem here. The book spends time trying to make Bob Howard into James Bond (with Bob fighting the plot every step of the way, God bless him) and I honestly found myself hating that. There's good reason for it, Mr. Stross has made sure that it makes perfect sense and I've certainly seen worse but... It comes down to I picked up this book because I wanted to read about Bob bloody Howard, not James Bond. While I don't mind send ups, this gets rather intrusive and undermines the fun of the book for me. Another problem is Ramona just doesn't work for me either. On paper she's an interesting and sympathetic character, as a person who has been denied her Constitutional rights by an accident of birth (something that is more relevant in 2017 then I am really happy with bluntly) and by the fact that she clearly working in a job she doesn't want to be working in. But I find myself left entirely cold and just not really caring all that much about Ms. Random which is likely unfair but it is what it is.

I did find some of the commentary on corporate culture and government work interesting, but I also felt that Bob didn't quite grasp some things. There's a point in the book where he points out that the government would never let him have an Aston Martin but will gleefully hand him a million dollars worth of malware, which once he uses it will likely escape out into the open market and lose value. My view of that is well yes of course they won't give you an Aston Martin Bob, you don't need it to do your job. You do however need that malware and you'll likely fail without it. It sucks but it's the same reason I couldn't get a damn 5 dollar seat cushion on the LAV I worked out of during the invasion but Uncle Sam happily slapped armor worth thousands of dollars on my pale hide to keep me alive. That said Bob does have a point in that the penny pinching forced onto our government services is often penny wise and pound foolish. There's a damn reason the Veteran Affairs office hasn't been able to computerize its records: because Congress looks at the price tag, groans to itself and thinks that they're not authorizing that big a bump in the budget it's a bloody election year and the donors will kill them. Never you mind by refusing to just bite the bullet they actually stack up expenses as money now has to be shelled out to maintain paper records which requires a bigger workforce, more space and means that the sheer effort to do anything is increased which leads to even more costs down the line! Never you mind the human costs of such things in veteran health and sanity, no one ever asks about that during budget meetings because it doesn't show up on a spreadsheet! *cough* Right, review book, don't political rant.

Now we do get to see more of Mo, the professor who stumbled into things man was not meant to know and who Bob rescued in the last book. She has grown between the books, picking up new interests and knowledge and becoming rather dangerous herself in a lot of ways and I think this is the root of my frustration with the book. At the end of the last book I was excited to see Mo and Bob working together, I thought they bounced off each other rather well and really wanted to see that in the field as it were. Instead I get Bob operating on his own as a mushroom (kept in the dark and fed... yeah) and it's not fun to read for me. It's not that this is a detective novel where there's a mystery and Bob has to piece it together, it's that everyone else knows what's going on and doesn't tell Bob and we have to follow along in the wake. I might also be outside the target audience in that I've never been a big Bond fan. I've seen the movies of course, the more ridiculous ones like Moonraker often tend to be my preferred ones but even as a 12 year old I can't say I ever approved of James Bond. I tend more towards guys like Captain America and John Sheridan or... Bob Howard and I hope in the next book to see Bob Howard being Bob Howard. Still the book is well written and very well researched, so I am giving the The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross a B-.

Join me next week as we look at something a little more theological.... The Blood of the Lamb by Mark E Rogers. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 21, 2017 8:49 pm 
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The Blood of the Lamb: The Expected One
By Mark E. Rogers


I'm a book nerd and my chosen poisons tend towards fantasy and science fiction. I've defended both genres from critics as a whole repeatedly both in this review series and in other venues. I do feel, however that there are problems at times. One of the great strengths that both of the genres have is the ability to get us to look at a problem or an issue without raising our defenses by changing things enough to allow us look at it in a new light. This is often done with political or social issues in fantasy or science fiction, you see this books ranging from Harry Potter to the Goblin Emperor for example. The execution varies from masterful to anvil droppingly awful but one thing modern fantasy seems to shy away from is theology. I don't just mean the theology of modern religions but even most fantasy religions are fairly shallow. There are plenty of religious allegories in modern fiction, Harry Potter died for the sins of the Wizarding World and rose 3 minutes later not that long ago. Man of Steel was fairly happy to use religious symbolism. I think this is because most people aren't very learned in theology.

In recent history, religion in the United States has become politically charged with the Christian Fundamentalist Churches all but demanding sovereignty over these questions. Their own very sparse and harsh theology has produced people who are in my experience often unaware that there are other works out there to read beyond the Bible. If you're wondering I honestly recommend starting with The City of God by Augustine, as that's where a lot of western theology starts. You can never go wrong by starting at the beginning. Speaking as a pastor's son, many of the lay people could stand to actually read the Bible. This is not exclusive to Fundamentalist Churches to be fair, nor is a problem exclusive to Christianity. There are deeper levels you can go to, questions that theologians have been dueling over for thousands of years and it's there that we rarely go. Now some do go there, Scott Baker has staked out some interesting ground in his own series which is one of the reasons why despite so many people being outright horrified by that series, they keep reading it. I was bemoaning this to a friend, when he suggested an old series called Blood of the Lamb and that's what we're here to talk about today.

Today’s author Mark E. Rogers, was born in 1952 in New Jersey and wrote his first book while a high school student, The Runestone that would eventually become a movie in 1991. Mr. Rogers would graduate the University of Delaware in 1974 as Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelors of the Arts Degree. Mr. Rogers would come to be known primarily for two things, the Samurai Cat series, a parody work featuring a Samurai cat on a mission to avenge its master's death, and his artwork. However, when you peek beyond that you see a long list of novels, many of them dark, that grapple with moral and theological themes and pull no punches in doing so. The Expected One is honestly the first work of his that I've ever read but I find myself looking at the others as well. Sadly Mr. Rogers is no longer with us, having passed away in a heart attack in 2014 while hiking in California. He is survived by his wife and his 4 children. He is also fondly remembered by a number of friends who have written moving tributes of a man they considered to be thoughtful and intelligent. I want to say he is also survived by the work he left behind but if amazon is any indication his work is slowly disappearing. It is a sad and simple fact that only tiny amount of fiction writers will continue to have their work published after death, as publishers will prefer to devote time and energy to new writers who can produce more work. This is a sad and terrible thing in my mind but I honestly lack a solution to this. To get away from that subject, however, I think it's time we actually start talking about the book we're here to review.

This series takes place on a fantasy world that is similar but at the same time very different from our own. On this world is a group of people who are called the Kadjafim, an ethnic group united by it's shared religious belief in a single God and their waiting for a foretold Messiah. The religion of the Kadjafim is kept by an order of wizard priests known as the Sharajnaghim. They maintain the doctrine and rituals of the religion and are the final authority of the religion. However they are not sovereign, 20 years before the story begins the great Silver Horde of Batu Khan swept over the lands and conquered all before them. While he demands yearly tribute from the Sharajnaghim, Batu Khan is fairly hands off towards them, perhaps in gratitude for their aid against the Black Anarites, worshipers of a being that the Kadjafim consider a demon. The people of the Kadjafim are not content under the fist of Batu Khan however and rebellion seethes under the surface, even if it is punished quickly and brutally. However in addition to mere secular rebellion has come over the years an increasing number of men claiming to be the Expected One, the awaited Messiah of the Kadjafim. The Khan declaring that he is not a religious authority and would not wish to offend God, has given the Sharajnaghim the responsibility of ferreting out and trying these heretics. If the Sharajnaghim declare you to be a false Messiah, you are handed over to the Khan and executed.

It is in this setting that word arrives that a man known as Essaj Ben Yussef has been preaching in the backwater regions and performing miracles while referring to himself as the Son of Man. Despite the disquiet in the order in performing a role as the Khan's appointed hatchet men, 3 young members are dispatched to investigate Essaj and his claims to prove his miracles and to test his preaching to find fraud and heresy. Let's talk about these 3 young men a bit, first up we have Sharif, a handsome young man who is well gifted in magic and physical combat. Sharif is brave, earnest, devoted to the order and honestly not very good at intellectual pursuits. That's okay though, because he's mostly on this trip to bodyguard our other two characters. The first off is Erim, who while not as physically capable as Sharif is frighteningly intelligent and an expert in doctrine. His job on this adventure is to test Essaj's religious arguments and preaching and see if he can expose any heresy or weak points. Erim does have a weakness, however, when it comes to good food, good wine or good women, which I'll circle back to in a bit. Our last member of the trio, Nawhar stands opposite to Sharif and Erim in many ways. Nawhar's body is wracked with bad joints and skin that constantly itches, Nawhar has turned to religion for solace in the face of this and has become something of a zealot. He's a genius zealot however with a high skill in sussing out false miracles and trickery. As the confrontation between them and Essaj leaves them unable to disprove his miracles, miracles which seem to become increasingly unbelievable the longer they stay in his presence and attempts to discredit his theology founder, we see cracks in the friendship of these 3 young men. Erim begins to doubt that Essaj is a false prophet. Sharif finds himself rocked to the core and fearful of the future.

However there's also the question of whether or not the Sharajnaghim can really claim the authority to make these decisions anymore. Generations of wealth and authority have brought corruption, politicking and those more concerned with material gains than religious duty. Mr. Rogers shines here in showing this very subtly and not hitting us over the head with it. We see the members of the Sharajnaghim have grown disdainful of manual labor, we see that they grown lack in enforcing proper behavior in ceremonies (allowing a student to drink wine and celebrate in between tests for promotions when he's suppose to be meditating and praying for example) and have breaking their vows, such as vowing to be chaste but having mistresses and wives. The corruption is further shown realistically in that these aren't necessarily bad or faithless people, most of them even those who break their vows still have very real faith and belief in what they're doing and create rationalizations and excuses for their oath breaking. This is how corruption works in the real world, it doesn't turn everyone into a cackling super villain, even good people will indulge in it if encouraged by people they respect and if it's made the norm. That's how even the best of us can be caught up in it and it can bring down even those who aren't part of it. Nawhar for example sticks to his vows to the very letter but in doing so lets pride and anger cloud the reason for those vows in the first place, placing him in jeopardy of destroying the very thing he would protect through sheer narrow minded pigheadedness.

This isn't the only story line in the novel however, back in the home temple of of the Sharajnaghim someone has unleashed a Demon to hunt down and kill masters of the order. This plants seeds of doubt between the masters as it raises the real possibility that the demon that is hunting them in their very homes was summoned by a Master of the Sharajnaghim. Meanwhile they also have to contend with the possibility that the Black Anarites have sent this Demon to destroy them and end their long war. I have to note another thing I enjoyed here was the use of Demons, a lot of fantasy series turn Demons into basically another monster to fight and conquer. This kind of drains the horror from the concept and can leave one thinking that there's not much difference between a Demon and an Orc expect ability. In this book series however, the theological weight of Demons is restored. Demons are objects of horror, tormenting their victims physically and mentally. Displaying knowledge about them that you would think it would be impossible to have and using it to prey on people's mental and emotional weaknesses. The Demons in this book are elevated from a monster to figures of terror and secrets and that is a lot closer to the core idea of a what a demon is for me.

As I'm sure a lot of you have guessed by now, this is an alternate retelling of the gospels. Set on another world where the Biblical fall didn't happen until the 2nd generation of mankind, this means that mankind has access to more gifts than in our world. In this case being magic. This isn't a straightforward one to one transfer of the gospel to a different world however, the geography and history of this world is very different. For one thing there are no Romans, but there are Mongols who set up a massive empire. Essaj is of course the stand in for our Lord Christ and Jesus' teachings remain fairly intact if not engaged in-depth in this book. The theology of the Sharajnaghim is given more time and space in this book, given that is important for the trial that Essaj is going to find himself on, I'm okay with it. Most of the miracles are taken straight out of the gospels, I won't spoil which ones but the context in which they occur and and the order they're traditionally in is changed. Very little time is spent on the disciples which I found to be a shame, since they're fairly big parts of Jesus' story. The book is fairly unflattering to them, showing them as very focused on their status and on who Essaj favors more. This is honestly kinda accurate to how they were before the Death and Resurrection so I shouldn't nitpick too much here.

The book was an excellent change of pace for me, while there was plenty of action and daring deeds, there was also space for debate on religious beliefs and discussion on just where the space between doing your duty and being a hide bound fanatic lie. That said, the book is also rather thin to my taste given the subject matter being a mere 230 pages, still Mr. Rogers’s sense of plotting and pacing allow him to cover a lot of ground in a few pages, something that modern writers could use a little bit more of, even if I think the book could have used another 20 or 30 pages. Still this is the first book in a series, so I suppose I can't fault it too much for leaving room for the next book. I am going to penalize it for not completing the stories told in this book, however. While entertaining and interesting to read, none of the plot lines are brought to completion so I can't say I read a complete story here. Still despite that, I am giving The Expected One by Mark E Rogers an A-.

Next time, we take a peek at one of the longest running science fiction comics out there when I review Valerian. Keep reading!

This review edited by Cameron Johnson

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Image "it takes two sides to end a war but only one to start one. And those who do not have swords may still die upon them." Tolken


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