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PostPosted: Fri Mar 09, 2018 9:52 pm 
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Mice Templar
By Bryan JL Glass and Michael Avon Oeming
Art by Michael Avon Oeming

Byran Glass was raised with two siblings in a Philadelphia neighborhood known as Fishtown. Originally he wanted to pursue a career in filmmaking but was pulled into the world of comics instead; first by providing photo covers for various comics and becoming a writer in the early 90s. While he did work for the big two (Marvel and DC) he kept returning to independent comics. His most famous work is likely the comic series Powers, on which he worked alongside Michael Avon Oeming. This wasn't the first time they worked together but it was the most famous one. Powers would win several awards and become a television series. Today he lives with his wife Judy in Pennsylvania. He first started work on Mice Templar in 2003 when Michael Avon Oeming brought him on board to help flesh out the story and concepts. Michael Oeming got started in comics when he was 14, starting as an inker and it was as an inker on Daredevil that he got his big break. Afterwards he would work on a number of titles both for DC and Marvel as well as Indie comics but his work on Powers that gave him the influence to try out an idea. Inspired by the secret of N.I.M.H and Watership down (although ironically he never read a single Redwall book) he wanted to try telling a mythic fantasy story using mice. The first volume of Mice Templar was published in 2009 by Image comics after years of toil. It would go on to win a Harvey award, named after Harvey Kurtzman and founded in 1988 to take over the Kirby awards which were discontinued in 1987. So let's take a look at volume I.

Once upon a time, in the Dark Lands, the night time dwelling of mice, a warrior priest named Kulh-en rose up to unite the mouse tribes and founded a warrior order to protect mice and other creatures from the many, many predators that hunted them (Editor who studies predation: rodents, the potato chips of terrestrial ecosystems like ducklings are marsh pringles). They were called the Mice Templar. Like all mortal creatures Kulh-en died, but the order he created endured. It was tested and triumphed but triumph brings its own tests. The doom of the Mice Templar came not from it's many external enemies but from within. Greed, disunity and the politics those things bred led to a civil war within the order, where Templar fought Templar and the order was shattered. With the fall of the order, came the fall of Mouse Society, now each city and village turns away from each other and the ties that held mousekind together fray in the face of corruption and cruelty. Faith in their god Wotan is falling and in its place rises a new religion worshiping the very creatures that devour them, led by an order of rat Druids who have allied themselves with the last Mouse King. A king whose lust for power has driven him mad. It's in this world that our main character Karic was born and raised. Now a young mouse on the verge of adulthood, he is pushed into the center of events that he doesn't really understand when an army of Rats attack and destroys his village and takes his family into slavery. Karic is driven by visions granted to him by Wotan and other ancient gods and the belief that he is being called to carry out a purpose. A purpose that no one else understands and that most of them don't believe in. Whether it be the mouse who trains him Pilot the tall, the very priesthood of Wotan or the ragged remains of the Templar order, still lingering over their self inflicted wounds.

Nor is Karic the only figure in this story. His family has been dragged away to slavery or even worst fates in the one-time capital of the Mouse Nation, among them his best friend Leito. Like Karic, Leito is carried forward by his fate in Wotan, but unlike Karic Leito doesn't have mystic visions to sustain that faith. In a lot of ways, I'm finding Leito to be the braver character, and one I can understand better. That said Karic isn't hard to grasp. He, like a number of characters I could point to in the Bible or other stories, is filled with self doubt over his suitability to serve as vessel for his god's will. Meanwhile is pulled in different directions by competing factions who either see his faith as something to use for their own profit or a symbol to rally people to their own ends. Karic has to struggle to become a Templar in order to achieve the purpose laid upon him and free his people. While Leito has to struggle to maintain his faith and the faith of those around them, to keep them from turning on each other if nothing else. Both these struggles are small pieces of larger battles around them, many of which were started before either of these mice were even born and are propelled by forces that will be present when both of them are laid down to rest. This really helps make the whole thing seem more real. While Karic and Leito both provide a face to what is happening to their society as a whole, it remains clear that their own struggles are symptoms of greater problems and overcoming those personal issues is really just the beginning for both of them. While this is their story so far, there are a large number of other characters, such as the Rat Captain Tosk, the Templar Cassius and others. While well done, these characters are clearly players in Karic and Leito's story.

The world of Mice Templar is drenched in deep myth, like Black Anais the witch, to the tales of the wars between bats and owls, even the existence of night and day take on mystic significance. The world and the story blend together elements from Arthurian myth, the Old Testament, and Norse myths to create something new but solid feeling. So I have to state that I think Mr. Glass and Mr. Oeming have done a fine job of world building and making characters to inhabit the world they made and to tell a story of faith and struggle. There were parts I found somewhat questionable, for example I'm not entirely sure what Pilot the Tall thought he was going to accomplish and Cassius doesn't seem to have a lot of self control. Additionally the book ends just short of what I could call a complete story, which knocks it down a notch in my view. That said, I'm interested and hoping to get to Volume II soon. I have to admit that when I picked up the book, I thought I would be looking at a copycat of the comic Mouse Guard but this book is a completely different story on many levels. It's more mythic and tied up in themes of faith and belief. The core of this story is the struggle of faith in trying time. I give Mice Templar by Bryan Glass and Michael Oeming a B+. Give it a try.

Next week, we return to Cyberpunk with Snowcrash and then I venture forth to Ready Player One. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 16, 2018 11:42 pm 
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Snow Crash
By Neal Stephenson

"Wait a minute, Juanita. Make up your mind. This Snow Crash thing—is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?"
Juanita shrugs. "What's the difference?"
Hiro and Juanita, Chapter 26



A meme is a behavior, idea or style that spreads from person to person, it is the unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices. They can be transmitted through any means of communication: speech, writing, music, images, even gestures can be used to transmit a meme or become a meme. Some supporters of the idea often compare memes to genes, in that they replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. That's not the book we're reviewing today, instead we're reviewing another book that tackles memes and did so before the phrase Dank Meme broached from the dark depths of the internet. Snow Crash, approaches the idea of memes in a very related but very different way, instead of comparing memes to genes. Mr. Stephenson in Snow Crash instead compares memes to viruses.

Neal Stephenson was born October 31, 1959 in Fort Meade Maryland to a family of engineers and scientists. His family would move to Iowa afterwards where he graduated high school. He then returned to the east coast to study at Boston University. He started out as a physics student but switched to geography upon realizing that would give him more time on the university mainframe. In his first couple of books, he sharpened his skills for satire, parody, and tense action. Snow Crash, which was released in 1992, was his big break grabbing him a lot of attention, and was nominated for the British Scenic Fiction Award and the Arthur C Clarke award, Time magazine would place it on the 100 best English Language Novels.

Snow Crash takes place in an early 21st century LA where economic collapse has all but killed the United States. The land of the nation has been divided into patches of privately owned gated communities, such as New South Africa, Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong and more. Each of these enclaves have their own legal codes, enforced by hired mercenary security forces and are linked by privately owned highways that compete for traffic (Editor: So… Ancap heaven? Hell for me I suppose, but at least all the ancaps agree that child sex-slaves are bad…That is not necessarily a foregone conclusion.). Even the mail is privatized. Everything is delivered by hired couriers. Even national defense and intelligence services are done by private corporations with the federal government broken into a few struggling enclaves that are increasingly irrelevant to the society around them. Even organizations like the Mafia and the South American Cartels have become corporations that operate in broad daylight, with the Mob and the Cartels often taking their competition to the level of open urban warfare. We also learn that while North America has degraded into anarcho-capitalist chaos a lot of the world is even worse because refugees from Asia come across the Pacific in their hundreds of thousands by the Raft. The Raft is a massive conglomeration of ships tied together propelled by the tide and wind of the ocean with the aircraft carrier Enterprise at the center (What. The. Fuck?). Every couple of years in a cycle the Raft unleashes a tide of refugees who survived the violent lawlessness of the Raft by being the fastest, strongest and most ruthless of the people trapped on the Raft (Cannibalism! Fun for the whole family!) onto the beaches of the west coast. The good people of the west coast react in a number of way and surprisingly only some of them involve machine guns!

Within this manic chaos live and work our characters: the freelance hacker and master sword fighter Hiro Protagonist and the 15 year old skateboarding radical courier, Y.T (standing for Yours Truly). Neither of these two were born with those names. Hiro, the half black, half Korean son of a WWII vet, adopted the name because, let's be honest, you're never forgetting that name are you? Not being forgettable is rather important when you're a freelancer. Hiro does most of his work in the Metaverse, a Virtual Reality style internet that people interact with through the creation of avatars. Hiro was one of the early coders of the Metaverse, he helped write the software that keeps it running and as such he knows a number of little exploits that allow him certain advantages. In real life Hiro isn’t bad with the matched pair of Japanese swords he wears, a traditional daisho of katana and wakizashi. But in the Metaverse? He's the best damn sword fighter in the world, because he wrote the code that allows for sword fighting in the first place (Dev Hax!). Y.T changed her name to keep her mother, a federal worker, from figuring out that she skateboards on freeways using a magnetic harpoon to latch onto cars to go faster as she delivers packages for a living, and because she thought it was cool. That second part is as anyone with experience with teenagers will tell you is the main reason. Despite her age, she is one of the best couriers in LA and incredibly skilled at taking care of herself and others. When she feels like it. Hiro and Y.T are partners in intelligence gathering and they are both separately and together pulled into a massive plot to destroy the world and rebuild it in someone else's image. This is where the meme's come into play you see.

There's a new drug on the street that shares a name with a virus appearing in the metaverse. Snow Crash, when used in the metaverse it disconnects the target from not just his computer but attacks him through his mind. It only affects programmers, attacking them through their understanding of binary. In the real world, the drug snow crash causes people to increasingly disconnect from reality, behave irrationally and increasingly experience bouts of glossolalia, or as most of us likely know it as speaking in tongues (Dang it! It’s a virus and not lovecraftian? Someone call Charles Stross.). The two are clearly related but how? Additionally how does this tie in to the reappearance of Hiro's ex-girlfriend and love of his life Juanita and her obsession with the language and religion of ancient Sumeria? (That’s more like it! Bring on the lovecraftian nightmares!) Hiro finds himself digging through the collected research of a professor who had been working on a theory about how Sumeria; the fact the humans speak many different languages; and religious expression throughout history, are all connected and can be used as an instrument of control. Mr. Stephanson also leaps into languages, in specific the discussion of not just why do we have a bunch of different languages but why do languages tend to diverge over time instead of converge? (Because language evolves by a process very similar to natural selection and isolation creates change?) Now this may seem strange because these days we live in a period of massive language convergence, which is due to the ease of global travel and communication. Not only are many languages disappearing under the onslaught of mass media, global trade and cultural assimilation but the languages that remain strong tend to pick up words from each other. You can see this by the appearance of English words in Japanese for example. The existence of English itself is a massive example of this, as it started as the unwieldy fusion of the French Normans and the Germanic language of the Anglo Saxons. Mr. Stephenson uses the idea of the Tower of Babel and in doing so also creates a bit of alternative history to go along with his Cyberpunk, which is a pretty good mix overall.

Meanwhile Y.T finds herself increasingly connected with the Mafia and the plans of Uncle Enzo the leader of the Mob in America to find the source of the Snow Crash drug in the real world and end it before it becomes a danger to the Mob's business plan (yes, this is a story where the mob saves the world, because it's good for business). It's through this that we see the Mob's own understanding of meme's which is rather rough and ready and how they see them as something to resist. Their belief is that they can resist ideology and through it the transmission of harmful memes by eschewing ideology all together and instead instituting a system of personal relationships and promises to substitute for policies and belief systems (So… neo-feudalism?). This is however subtly shown as failing because that idea itself is an ideology and therefore a meme. This is shown by the dissatisfaction of the elders of the Mob with the middle management that is coming up the ladder behind them. Often complaining that the youths and managers they've trained to look over the vast corporate empire that the Mob has built lack flexibility and a certain hungry desire. Instead they stick to the traditions laid down for them and operate by the procedures outlined for them. As always I find these complaints by elders very ironic since my reply to elders complaining about the youth is pretty much always the same. They are what you made them to be. If they have been made into something you didn't want, maybe you should start asking yourself just what you've been doing this whole time. Y.T on the other hand gains the approval of the Mob by rejecting the structures of it and the ideas underlying their organization. She's a very self sufficient young woman, who refuses to be to closely identified with a group, even her own couriers group. This is displayed by her relationship with Hiro, where she works outside the normal role of a courier by also dabbling in information gathering, and her willingness to ignore basically any rule she doesn't care for. Granted in this version of the future there aren't too many rules left to ignore.

The book shines mostly in its character work, the characters are well defined and in many cases larger than life. Hiro is an incredibly American character, being a half Black, half Korean man who is utterly obsessed with Japanese ideas and cultures but doesn't have the firmest grasp of what they actually mean. Meanwhile Y.T herself displays a cocky self-assurance through most of the book that masks the fact that she's not even old enough to drive and isn't really thinking everything through. Which I think most people would also consider rather American. They're supported by characters that don't take the center stage but are still powerful characters in their own right. Uncle Enzo would easily be an interesting protagonist for example, as would Juanita. The antagonist are suitably terrifying, especially the Aleut Raven, who would also be very able to serve as a centerpiece for a story all on his own. Mr. Stephenson also shows a great talent for humor and dancing between the line of parody and seriousness. Snow Crash parodies a great number of the ideas of cyberpunk and the common elements that appear in those stories by taking them to their ridiculous end point. At the same time there's enough realism mixed in and enough seriousness that you don't feel that Mr. Stephenson is trying to be hateful towards the genre but instead inviting everyone to take a step back and have a chuckle at just how silly some of this stuff can be when you look at it in the right way. The book itself takes a good hard look at memes especially those communicated through religion, which even today is one of the most effective memes and vector for their transmission, and how that can be a tool for good or evil. Meme's can promote independence, rational thought, and freedom of expression... Or they can promote mindless obedience, self destructive behavior, and willing enslavement of yourself to people who view you as a resource to be expended. That is always something you need to keep in mind. In the end, even the dankest of memes is nothing more than a tool.

The book's not perfect, Mr. Stephenson does get some historical facts wrong and also makes a big deal about the disappearance of the Sumerian language. While there's still some debate about it, most folks think it might have had something to do with the conquest of Sumner by the Akkadians, who were the first guys in human history to build an out and out empire. With that conquest Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian and while it lingered much the same way Latin does today, eventually it was replaced by other languages. Another note is the fact that Pentecostal Christianity didn't start in Kansas, the idea of speaking in tongues did but it wasn't codified as a part of worship until the Pentecostal churches got started... In L.A. I don't think this detracts from the book that much although I am enough of picky nerd to point it out in the review. Still I can forgive a science fiction writer for playing a little fast and loose with history in order to tell one hell of an inventive story that encourages you think a bit on things. That said, I love this book. It shows just what you can accomplish with science fiction and Cyberpunk in general and the fact that you can look at these serious and heavy themes but still have the space and time to have a good laugh. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson gets an A from me.

Next week, we get a little more modern with Ready Player One. Keep reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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"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 Mar 23, 2018 10:25 pm 
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Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline


Ernest Cline was born in March of 1972, in Ashland Ohio. Before becoming a novelist Mr. Cline performed at Austin Poetry Slam venues with some success, becoming a national champion in 1998 and 2001. In 2005 he sold a screenplay for a movie called Fanboys, was released in 2007. It didn't do well. Part of that was the great deal of drama around the movie where massive changes were made to the story-line and then frantic attempts were made to repair those changes. Another part is likely the limited release; it simply didn't play in very many theaters. The last part would be that according to most who saw the film, it just wasn't very good. Still to Mr. Cline's credit he picked himself up, dusted himself off and jumped right back in. Today he's lives in Austin Texas with his wife Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, a nonfiction writer and poet, and their children. Let's take a look at Ready Player One.

Ready Player One was a New York Times bestseller and was praised by NPR, CNN, io9 and more. Described as everything from large hearted to a page turner. Warner Brothers bought the screen rights to the book before it even hit bookstore shelves. While it was widely celebrated at the time, I didn't read it. I saw it at the bookstore, read the back of it, and decided to buy another book. It wasn't until last year when I heard a movie was being made and one of my best friends mentioned he loved the book and read it every year that I decided I should give it a shot. Let's discuss shall we.

Ready Player One takes place in the increasingly not so distant year of 2045 where humanity is something of an energy shortage but still has plenty of electricity to power a virtual reality internet (World of Warcraft according to the best information I could find uses 75,000 CPUs across 10 data centers to provide 24/7 access to a player base in the mere millions) that everyone is using. Our Hero is Wade Watts, a young man who’s rather grim life. Both his parents are dead, his father dying when he was very young and his mother overdosing on drugs when he was eleven. His aunt would tell you that she took him in, but considering she doesn't let him sleep in her part of the trailer and only uses him to commit food voucher and welfare fraud, I wouldn't believe her on a bet. Wade was basically raised by the public school system and OASIS, the virtual reality internet system created mostly on the efforts of one insane genius James Halliday. As a result despite being somewhat socially awkward, he is really good at games and computers in general. In the real world Wade lives in a haphazardly welded together tower of trailers (Editor: FOR THE LOVE OF MARX! WHERE ARE THE BUILDING CODES!?{Have I mentioned I'm not responsible for my editor?}) north of Oklahoma City (I'll come back to this [editor:screams in terror]) and has to ride a bike to generate enough electricity to access the OASIS . What's interesting about the OASIS is that you can access it for the one time cost of $0.25 for a lifetime account with a single avatar. With that avatar you literally gain access to an entire galaxy, whole planets of games, information and services. Wade even goes to school within the OASIS, a program started by the government to cut down on fuel consumption (and honestly not a terrible idea) What gives him hope and keeps him going is the idea of finding the Easter Egg.

When James Halliday died, a video was released, promising that anyone who could find the hidden Easter egg would inherent Halliday's billions (How did he make billions off a service that’s a $0.25 lifetime subscription? Advertisement? Licensing for developers? Do the Users have to pay for premium content or something?{A combination of selling virtual goods and selling virtual real estate, to move from one world to another you pay a fee to the OASIS owner, to own “land” you pay the OASIS owner, etc} ) and ownership of the OASIS. This was protected by a iron clad will and a standing army of lawyers that would terrify national governments into submission. Large groups of men and women have devoted themselves to this task calling themselves gunters. Many of them are organized into clans, cooperative efforts to find the egg and share the prize, while others hunt alone, refusing aide. Given Halliday's obsession with 1980s era entertainment and trivia, they pore over the video games, movies and music of the time hoping to find a clue to the riddle that will let them even begin the search. This has led to the 1980s becoming a major fad among teenagers and the younger adults. However they're not the only ones looking for the egg, the corporation of IOI is also looking, with a paid army of hunters, called sixers. Sixers give up all rights to the prize in exchange for a wage, steady work, health care and dental (Behold the way capital exploits the working class and alienates them from the value of their labor. Look, communism doesn’t work, but I’ll be damned if good old Karl wasn’t a fantastic diagnostician). IOI is widely despised for their plans to turn the OASIS into place you can only access for paying a monthly subscription fee and to unleash advertisers all over the OASIS. Wade is a gunter but honestly doesn't expect to find the egg, it's just something to give him hope... Until he solves the first riddle...

The world building is honestly kind of uneven. The OASIS is very well done with attention given to detail building off of current internet standards and expanding them and moving them forward. As such I can fully believe that the OASIS works more or less the way Mr. Cline says it does. It's an amazing world to write and play in and you could honestly set entire stories within the OASIS and not ever touch the real world; which might be a good thing, because the “real world” of Ready Player One isn't one I can buy at all. For one thing I was brought up from childhood in and around Oklahoma City, you are not going to have rickety welded together skyscrapers of trailers there (That might happen in Texas though, where the state doesn’t even have a fire code, leaving those to county and municipal governments. Honestly, any society that gives as few shits about the poor as this one seemingly does, is gonna have some pretty ramshackle slums.). Oklahoma gets on average 52 tornadoes a year. Oklahoma county, the county containing the Oklahoma City metro area holds the distinction of having the 2nd most tornadoes hitting in that state! Moore Oklahoma, (which is right bloody next to Oklahoma City) was hit by 4 high powered tornadoes in a sixteen year period. You can verify this with a five minute web search. If I wanted to be nasty I could make the comment that this novel is really just Wade's last dream as he lies under the shattered remains of his home dying from blood loss after it was leveled by an F5. For that matter I found the villains entirely too black and white to be believable. IOI's plan is to make the OASIS accessible only to people who pay a monthly fee is an act of a profit hating lunatic. A modern corporation wouldn't endanger it's monopoly like that, not out of any morality or goodness mind you but because it's way more profitable to allow people to continue to access the OASIS but add a bunch of pay to win features. You want to level up your avatar? Sure you could grind newbie quests and hunt rats... Or you could buy XP, $16.99 gets you 10,000 XP! Ultra rare artifacts in our loot crates, only $35 a crate! For that matter the vast mass of people on the OASIS is itself a commodity, simply change the user agreement giving IOI the rights to sell your data for targeted advertisements that only you will see tailored to your tastes and experiences! These are business models that not only exists but have often brought in way more profit then the pay to play model. There's a reason so many tablet and phone games are free to play but littered with micro-transactions, and Facebook has proven that you can build a wildly successful company using your consumers as your product. That's not the only issue, frankly there isn't a lot of thought given to the real world set up beyond a vague hand wave and a firm declaration that everything sucks so people lose themselves in the OASIS. We're not shown this bluntly, we're told this by Wade. I found myself constantly trying to hold myself back from trying to outsmart the world. Wade mentions that the oil ran out (I'm sure this is a simplification by a 18 year old boy who really isn't paying attention due to his addiction to Virtual Realty) and thus cars are barely used etc. I find myself asking what about biodiesel? Liquid Coal? Did you know you could make a car run on natural gas? Hell, Electric cars? We're already building the infrastructure for them (Did this society completely reject the splitting of the atom? I mean, with sufficient Glorious Nuclear Power Plants, we could use hydrogen fuel cells for transport pretty easily, or pull the CO2 from the atmosphere and make our own hydrocarbons for liquid fuel if we had to.). I'm honestly being picky but it just kinda shows how little world building went into the real world side of the setting where I'm questioning the central premise in under 10 pages. For many readers this isn't gonna matter, for me, it gets in my teeth.

Which brings me to the biggest problem in the novel, we're told a lot of things but not shown them. The entire novel is written from Wade's point of view as a memoir of sorts. Which is a good and interesting narrative framing device but does slap some hard limits on your story. Since we can only be aware of things Wade is aware of and the our knowledge of the world is only as good as Wade's. We're told that VR classrooms are amazing but we don't get to see them. We're told that Art3mis and Wade had built a relationship through spending a lot of time together but we don't see it. So I find myself not very invested in it and just kind of shrugging when that relationship runs into bumps and rocky points. We do get shown enough of Aech and Wade together (barely) that their relationship feels like a real one but not as close as Wade would claim it is. Now I did like the inclusion of non-western characters in the form of Shoto and Daito, a pair of Japanese gunters that Wade would claim as friends as well and the interactions we see were really well done. The brief parts of the books that were devoted to it really captured the wariness and problems of forming a relationship with someone you're competing with to win enough money to make Tony Stark look twice but we're told about the major episodes in this relationship instead of shown them! As a result the relationships don't feel... Real. I reject the idea that this is a result of those relationships being formed on the internet. Some of my closest friends are people I met on the internet and have only seen in person a handful of times. Don't get me wrong, you need friends in your local area but that doesn't mean your net buddies aren't real friends either. That said if you're going to write a book where your main characters creating relationships with other people is important to the plot... Then show me the character doing it. Don't say “Oh and I hung out with protagonist C every other Saturday, we became good friends by raiding dungeons!” Show me protagonist C and you raiding a bloody dungeon! Make it a chapter in the book! Because otherwise the relationship doesn't feel real or organic, it feels like PLOT. It's not that you and protagonist C are buddies because you've raided the dungeons of the Mad Liche Bard of Byzas together. You're buddies because the PLOT says you are.

Since this book is told uncompromisingly from Wade's point of view, I'm going to tell you up front if you end up hating him, you'll hate the book. Personally I'm okay with Wade. He's a good kid, has a lot of growing to do but in your late teens who doesn't? Wade is also a fairly believable character. He's a young man who, because of a lack of practice and role models to learn from, has a lot of trouble interacting with people outside of narrow fields of interest. Wade would likely struggle very hard to keep up a conservation with a stranger in a bar unless that stranger brought up something he loved. I can sympathize with that and that's a fairly realistic weakness to have in my view. Because of this Wade loses himself in a subculture that places a low requirement on social skills and will accept him as long as he learns about the same trivia and appreciates the same cultural artifacts that they do. There are millions of people who do that. The whole idea of fandom is kinda based off being accepted as long as you like the same thing everyone else in the group does and gunters in the end are kind of a short hand for fandoms across the internet. Wade is a fairly well done character, he manages to be clever but believably so. He's also rather flawed in his obsession with Art3mis and in being a bit of hypocrite. He's very disdainful of the men and women who signed up to be sixers as sellouts (he demonizes the competition, it’s normal) but once Wade makes it big? He signs every endorsement deal he's offered without a thought, for the money. Which is... Well.. Selling out. Given his abject poverty, it's perfectly understandable that he leap at a chance to have money but... You get what I mean.

The beginning of this book is also very rough (based on the first 20 pages alone the grade would have been lower.) and there are pacing issues as well. That said the plot is fairly well done, I thought the riddles were interesting and Wade's various plans and schemes were usually in my opinion passingly clever. That said other characters are allowed to solve problems or come up with ideas that work. So I wasn't left feeling that Wade was the only smart character in a world full of idiots. Sometimes he just comes off as lucky, or has to play catch up to other characters which helps reinforce the idea that Wade isn't the only person here with a working brain and motivation. There's a good story here and there are good characters buried in here. Unfortunately we're only really told about most of these characters as opposed to actually spending a lot of time with those characters. We're told more then we're shown, which in my opinion doesn't make for a good book. I honestly think Ready Player One could have used another draft or two to cut down on the amount of telling and devote more space to showing the relationships between Wade and the other players. For that matter we could have done with fewer references for the point of having references. All in all this honestly does feel like Mr. Cline's first novel and one that wasn't polished enough before release. I'm not without hope for improvement in the future and I can understand why some people would enjoy the novel. However, that doesn't counter the book’s many problems for me and I'm giving Ready Player One by Mr. Ernest Cline a C-. The book isn't the worst thing ever but that doesn't make it good.

Next week, I tackle the movie. This Sunday we look at RP1 vs Snow Crash. Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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"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: Mon Mar 26, 2018 3:46 am 
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Sidebar III: Snow Crash vs Ready Player One


I find it interesting that the two books are even compared at all really. Usually comparison arises when books are published fairly closely together, have similar characters or subject matter. Instead Hiro and Y.T are very different from Wade and the worlds they inhabit are fairly different as well. The stories themselves are different in a lot of ways a well. Still let's take a look at the two shall we?

First let me map what I found the books shared. Both books have a semi-humorous tone to them, Snow Crash's humor comes from the near parody like nature of it's world. Where it rides that fine line between absolute parody of cyberpunk and maintaining a fairly serious world. Ready Player One's humor comes more from the situation of imaging a teenager in 2045 being obsessed with Atari games and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The humor is fairly different though, Snow Crash invites us to share a chuckle while Ready Player One works really hard to make that outlandish behavior make sense and feel serious. I'm going to be honest and Ready Player One is actually fairly successful in that by tying that ridiculous behavior into a high reward in the story (If you can remember the lines to War Games, you might have a shot at winning enough money to match the GDP of a medium sized country after all). Both Hiro and Wade are fairly skilled with computers and like Y.T, Wade is growing up in a world that is flying to pieces. The biggest common ground however is the existence of a virtual reality internet in both stories. The Metaverse in Snow Crash and the OASIS in Ready Player One. Let me take a look at them.

The Metaverse is fairly constrained and honestly somewhat pedestrian compared to the OASIS. It presents itself as a single vast globe that can be traveled by train or programmed vehicles. People buy virtual estate in the Metaverse and build offices, homes and headquarters for their internet needs. People move about in avatar with most people using black and white flat avatars with computer experts using more realized avatars and the wealthy buying off the shelf colored avatars for their convenience. All in all it's not a terrible view of the internet but it is constrained by the fact it was written in 1992 when the web was in it's infancy at best and no one really quiet knew it's full potential. Additionally the Metaverse does not get the same amount of attention lavished on it as OASIS does as most of Snow Crash takes place in the real world.

Meanwhile in Ready Player One, the OASIS is where the action is. The OASIS is bigger, more realized and immersive then the Metaverse. It's not a single globe, it's a galaxy of planets you can teleport around in if you have the money or fly using spells, spaceships or anything a programmer can dream of. People conduct business, play games, go to school, work, hang out, fight and love in this place. The OASIS feels like the internet turned into a truly amazing Massive Multi-Player Online Game. Everyone starts off with fully rendered and 3d avatars just like most MMOs but through grinding or money you can upgrade pretty quick. Ready Player One details the world of OASIS fairly deeply and devotes a good deal of time to it because the OASIS is most of the story takes place. Given that the book was written in 2008, it's no surprise that a greater understanding of the internet and it's culture is displayed in this book.

Let's take a look at our characters. I'm going to stick to our 3 main characters for brevity sakes. Hiro is a loner who could take a respected position in his society of hackers and programmers but refuses to due to distinct distaste for authority and a fear of being turned into an assembly line worker. Y.T is young woman who has rejected most of her society because it requires her to dumb herself down and pretend to be less capable then she really is. Hiro chooses to do most of his work in the Metaverse but has no problem getting his hands dirty in the real world (or even resorting to reason if necessary) if the stakes become high enough. Y.T is unrelentingly a citizen of the real world and embraces it fully. Both Hiro and Y.T accept their world and don't waste a lot of time thinking about how things were better in the past. That may be because Hiro as African American would look at the past as a time when he would have been locked out of his rightful part of things for something as petty as his skin color and Y.T simply inclined to think that way as she's very much someone who focuses on the present. Wade makes no bones about the fact that he thinks he lives in one of the crappiest times in history (I would say he's wrong but would admit the world he describes can't be called good). He, unlike the two above is very focused on the past and how things were better back then. Wade is also someone who has a community but refuses to take a bigger part in it out of a combination of pride and shame. Shame over his poverty and pride in refusing to ask for help instead clinging to the hope that he can strike it big on his own efforts. While it would look like something he shares in common with Hiro along with a love of computers, there's a difference. Hiro is coder and a programmer, one of the men who actually built the Metaverse, line by line. Wade is a gamer and while not a terrible programmer it's not his main skill set nor did he have anything to do with the creation of the Metaverse, Wade's struggle to take over a fully created world that he had no choice but to be in. Hiro's struggle is to understand the world he's help create, his role in it and to protect it. I suppose Wade might grow up in way to be like Hiro but I find it unlikely. Wade is honestly more set in his ways then Hiro and more committed to a course of action. I would honestly say both men reflect the generations they come from with Hiro being full of Generation X confusion bordering on apathy and Wade showing the self belief and frustrated determination of the Millennials.

This leads me over to the themes of the books in question which are also both very different. Snow Crash is a consideration of what Memes mean and what they do, how they tie into language and the very power of language over how we view the world. After all if you don't have a word for something how can you fully understand it? How can you explain it to others without words to give the concept meaning? What if someone could use a word to take that understanding away from you? What if someone could use a word to take you away from you? Weaving through that is a theme of coming to understand yourself and what it is you want to do in the world. Although I would consider that a lesser theme in Snow Crash. In Ready Player One, what Wade has to learn is that his obsessions are not a replacement for real relationships with real people. That while it's perfectly fine to have interests that you devote time and energy to, you also need to devote time and energy to being a member of society and not shutting yourself away from everyone. Wade's struggle to connect to his fellow human being is part of his coming of age. This is a young man who only had one close friend that he had never met in real life and never been on so much as a date by the start of the story.

Although now that I think about it there are a couple of other things that the books have in common. Wade, Hiro and Y.T are all status quo heroes. Wade wants to protect the current status of OASIS from being changed by the greedy corporation of IOI. Hiro and Y.T want to protect their world from being overwritten by a businessman who thinks he can become a god. Both are trying to maintain the world in it's current state against people would change it, in their opinion at least for the worst. This doesn't mean that they're against change but the changes that Hiro, Y.T and Wade do push forward in their stories are changes on a personal level in how they relate to their world and those around them. They don't seek to make sweeping changes to that world for good or for ill. It also interesting to note that in both books the villains are corporations. IOI is faceless villain for the most part, the sixers all look alike and Nolan Sorrento the leaders of the sixers is only a lackey for faceless powers that be. Meanwhile the corporation in Snow Crash has a face in Bob Rife, who is the owner of the business and the mastermind of the plot that Hiro and Y.T work to foil. The motivations are different however, as IOI seeks to seize the OASIS as a profit engine and possibly gain control over a major engine of the world's economy, while Bob Rife intends to flat out rule the world through being able to control the populace directly.

In the end I don't think Ready Player One stole anything from Snow Crash, the idea of a virtual reality style internet is one that has been around for a long time. If nothing else the existence of stories like Tron and Lawnmower Man would inspire someone towards that end eventually. Also corporations as villains is a staple in dystopias and cyberpunks and the motivations, organization and operations of the two villains in question are so different that I can't see Mr. Cline has taking to much inspiration from Snow Crash. I would argue that these are two very different books and I remain surprised at the threads on reddit and the various articles that insist on comparing them. While there are similarities, they're fairly skin deep ones in alot of ways. I remain steadfast in my belief that Snow Crash is the better book and the better story but I can also see how some people would prefer Ready Player One as the themes of that story and the journey that Wade goes through are very modern ones and might resonate more with certain readers then the themes in Snow Crash.

Next Friday, we take on Ready Player One the movie and after that Platinum Magic. This has been your reviewer reminding you, keep reading!

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 30, 2018 11:17 pm 
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Ready Player One: The Movie
Directed by Steven Spielberg


First, a quick note on how this review will go. Because this is a book review series, the movie will be receiving two scores. The first one will be on how well it holds up on its own as a movie; the second will be judging it on its merits as an adaptation of the novel. Fair warning there may be spoilers. Ready Reader? Let's go!

The movie rights for Ready Player One were bought before the book was even released to the public, what followed were a number of negotiations for rights to various characters that were actually completed fairly quickly all things considered. Now some rights were not able to be obtained, for example the rights for Ultraman, who plays a big part in the plot of the book, are the matter of some dispute at the moment. So the movie creators weren't able to get a hold of them because no one is really sure who to even talk to right now. So instead the Iron Giant was substituted. Most of the Spielberg references were removed on the insistence of Spielberg himself, because he felt it would be vain to pack the movie with references to his own work, even if his list of films is a massive cornerstone of the 80s. Let's take a look at Spielberg for a moment shall we?

Steven Spielberg was born December 18, 1946 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Cincinnati Ohio. Later as a child they moved to Phoenix, Arizona (once again a creative genius spends his childhood in this sun-blasted locale, I begin to wonder if there something in the water? [Editor: What water? Long live the fighters of Mua’Dib! Okay okay, it only has the temperature and dust storm of Arrakis, there are several rivers that have been fully drained by the time they hit Phoenix proper, and several artificial reservoirs. But if the metro area keeps growing the way it is… That’s gonna change.]) where Mr. Spielberg would take the first steps on his path by earning his photography merit badge using his father's movie camera, because the still camera was broken. At age sixteen he wrote and directed his first independent film. His parents would move to California and divorced before he graduated from high school. He moved to LA with his father and was accepted to California State University. While attending college he got a unpaid internship (Spielberg had one before they were cool/completely ubiquitous exploitation of free labor.) with Universal Studios, it was during that internship that he got a chance to make a 26 minute short film called Amblin'. The film won several awards at various film festivals and impressed Sid Sheinberg, a Vice President at Universal, who offered Spielberg a seven year director contract, making Mr. Spielberg the youngest ever signed director in Hollywood history. He would not complete his degree until 2002 (God, can you imagine being his film professor? Talk about imposter syndrome. “Hey Steve, you wanna just teach the class for the week? I’m going through a divorce and just… can’t handle this right now” or “Well Steve, I’d planned on having the class analyze one of your films but that’s right out now. Thanks.”) but considering we got ET, Jaws, and Raiders of the Lost Ark... I'm gonna say Mr. Spielberg likely made the right call there. Let's move on the movie itself shall we?

Ready Player One takes place in Columbus Ohio, in the Year of Our Lord 2045 AD. Wade Watts lives with his Aunt Alice and her crappy boyfriend Rick. His only escape is the OASIS, where he competes in the race for the copper key. The OASIS is a virtual reality internet, created by James Halliday. When Halliday died, he announced that whoever could get all three keys (Copper, Jade, and Crystal) by defeating all three of the challenges, accessed by solving riddles which would lead to the challenge locations, would inherent all of his money (half a trillion dollars) and full control of the OASIS. As you can imagine this made some people excited. Someone figured out that the first riddle led to a race, where King Kong jealously guards the finish line. No one has made it past him in five years, until Wade finds a clue that lets him beat the race. This attracts the attention of the one of the more talented egg hunters Art3mis, a young lady that Wade has been a fan of for years and more dangerously attracts the attention of the villains of the piece Nolan Sorrento, leader of the corporation IOI. A corporation that has used predatory loan practices to amass a slave army of workers and Sixxers, young men and women who compete in the challenges using faceless avatars under the agreement that if they win, IOI gets full rights to the OASIS and will remake it in their corporate image. Wade now has to race against time and with the help of his friends defeat the corporation, save the OASIS from ruthless exploitation, and learn something about himself in the meantime (There’s the Spielberg schmaltz we all know and love).

Ready Player One the movie is a fairly standard plot held up by amazing visuals and locations. Like a dance club with zero g dancing or that race track I mentioned. While the plot is done well and the characters are decently acted and written, frankly if you've seen a movie about a plucky underdog out to save the world from the powers that be and grow up at the same time... You can call this plot beat for beat and get a handle on the characters pretty quickly (but I'll talk about that in the second part of the review). That said the visuals are amazing and the writing and acting is better than your average Michael Bay Movie, so if you liked those, you’ll like this. If you came only to see those action set pieces and all the references in the movie you'll have a blast. Otherwise the movie is pretty average and I'm gonna have to give Ready Player One a C as far as movies go.

Now let's talk about this an adaptation, so if you don't care how the novel and the movie compare you can stop right here. I'm not going to pretend I'm a fan of the novel, I gave it a C- after all. That said, there were interesting and clever things in the novel and most of them have been ripped out of the movie because they weren't safe. Let me start on the changes to the characters, Wade is kinda bleached out of his individual characteristics to make movie protagonist #4; a young man who wants to make it big with a heart of gold. Gone is his cheerful, unaware hypocrisy where he criticizes sixxers for selling out while agreeing to endorse products he's never used for money. Gone is his general cynical view of humanity and his distrust of groups. Now instead of talking about using 500 billion dollars to build a spaceship to escape Earth and start over, he babbles about living in luxury. The movie softens him to a degree and makes his poverty less real as a result. Movie Wade does not feel like a kid living in poverty, he feels like a middle class boy chasing the dream of wealth. Book Wade did feel like a boy who came up from poverty, having a willingness to do things simply to get out of poverty and stay out of it. Also drained of gray characteristics is Nolan Sorrento. In the novel Sorrento is allowed to have some skill and actual grasp of the pop culture everyone is obsessing about. Not only that but in the book Sorrento isn't presented as a coward. The film goes out of it's way to make him look like a craven suit, bumbling to control something he doesn't like or understand but wants because it'll make money. Bluntly, this drains him of menace and dimension. Art3mis is given what I feel is an unnecessary tragic backstory and turned into your bog standard rebel fighter against the evil empire. She's also changed from Canadian to American (Why? I can almost understand but never approve white washing but… Red-white-and-blue washing? Why? The only cultural differences anyone would notice in a movie are accent, apology frequency, poutine, and saying zed instead of zee {Because everyone must be from Ohio in this movie… EVERYONE!}). These are all safe changes made to the characters to make them more like stock movie characters. There's nothing wrong with stock characters on their own, they serve as a shorthand for the audience but when you take a character and turn them into a stock archetype, you're basically deciding not to take any risk and to avoid doing work getting the audience to understand and connect to the characters in their own right. Now some of the changes were good, having Aech be a modder and craftsmen who makes money by creating new items on the OASIS was a nice touch and I liked that nod to the modder community in general. I am utterly annoyed by the changes made to Daito and Shoto, who in the novel were Japanese shut ins, referencing a real social problem in Japan, and it made the OASIS feel bigger to know that there people from other nations in it. It made the OASIS feel more like the internet we have today. Instead in the movie there's no reference to their nationality, but given their age and the fact that they show up in Ohio in person... I have to assume they're Asian Americans (*Editor Twitches*). This makes the movie OASIS feel smaller and more like a virtual reality arcade then an actual internet. We didn't need all five of our protagonists to come from the same city! Not in a movie about the bloody world wide web!(Of course we do Frigid, that’s how Spielberg rolls. He has to have his small-town Schmaltz, and if he can’t have that, it’s parental issues. So many parental issues.)

Additionally much of the indepth nerdery was taken out to pander to a wider crowd. So instead of Dungeons and Dragons adventures which are solved by Wade learning the right Latin word at the right moment, we get the race instead (Oh for the love of… The people who go to see this movie are going to at least know what Dungeons and Dragons is, and everyone pretty much recognizes Latin when they hear it even if they don’t speak it. I really don’t see the point of this one, even for the sake of pandering to the widest possible demographic. It can be de-geeked a little bit without losing that completely. What the hell?). The obscure animes of the 80s are replaced with references both visual and audio to major movies and video games. This makes it feel less like a celebration of geek culture and more a pandering trip to the widest lane on the nostalgia highway so as to hit as much of the audience as possible. I'm being a bit of a snob here, there's nothing wrong with preferring King Kong, Overwatch, and Doom over Dune, D&D, and Joust; but when you remove major references from the novel, I can't help but feel the motive was to pander to a wider audience so you could get at their wallets. In my view the film drains away what little subtly there was in the novel and replaces it with more pandering when the story was already dangerously over the top with it as it was.

I'm also going to take a shot at the changes made to the message of the story. In the novel the message was that pop culture obsessions cannot and do not take the place of real communities or relationships with real people. There’s nothing wrong with hobbies or liking certain kinds of entertainment but you need to balance that with spending time with actual people. Wade had to learn that by burning bridges with his friends and struggling to rebuild those bridges and work with them to win in the novel. Here it's reduce to a quick, power of friendship and a message that you damn kids need to go outside and stop staring at those damn machines so much. Given all of this. as an adaptation I have to give Ready Player One the adaptation a D+.

Well... Next week we're heading back to the books! We're reviewing Platinum Magic by Dr. Bruce Davis. Nut first, this Sunday a joint-sidebar with both your editor and I, your reviewer discussing a topic I like to call Crouching Author, Hidden Minority. Keep Reading!

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 01, 2018 9:46 pm 
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Sidebar IV: Crouching Author, Hidden Minority

Welcome readers! This sidebar is gonna be a little different, since it’s usually just me babbling about the topic and our good editor doesn’t even see them until I post them. Today, our editor Dr. Ben Allen will be joining us in the conservation since he has relevant experience (God Frigid, just tell them I’m gay, it’s fine.) I served during don’t ask don’t tell Doc, habits are hard to break. Anyways! We’ll be talking about minorities in fiction, most specifically minority characters you didn’t realize were minorities until the end of the story (*coughcough*Dumbledore*coughcough*). Dumbledore is a good example of that, as is Aceh from Ready Player One. Let me get into this.

Minority characters and representation can be a touchy topic. Certain types of people are underrepresented in lot of fantasy and science fiction stories. In all honesty I tend to be harder on science fiction and stories set in the modern day like urban fantasy (Because presumably cultural mores in the future and now are such that, say, gay characters are likely to be out of the closet, and travel between regions that might have different racial and ethnic groups is easy. As opposed to say, fantasy, where black people might have to cross a desert to reach NotEurope(™)). Although I’ll note that Rome in its heyday had a substantial African population, given that the Empire ruled a part of Africa. A varied population helps bring home the idea that your city is massive and important folks, just a thought. Now I’m not saying you should have a bloody racial or gender quota or what have you but having discussed this with fans who are of a different race or orientation then myself… I see where they’re coming from. If there’s no one like you in fiction, it starts to feel like your society is trying very hard to pretend you don’t exist and that would bother most people (While that is true, it’s a bit more than that too. Science fiction, fantasy, comics of various sorts… those are our versions of mythology. They tell stories about who we are as a people, what our values are. They give us heroes we can identify with and look up to at a young age when we’re figuring ourselves out. It’s harmful to be excluded from that.).

So I’m hoping most of you can see how this is kinda of a big deal, I mean imagine that for years you’ve been reading about characters that you like and identify with but there’s a gulf there because of a difference in experience (let’s not pretend that race, gender and more doesn’t change your life experience either folks) but you finally find a character who does match up. Maybe it’s a character that’s open about their faith and it happens to be your faith and this character practices it, not just pays it lip service. Now imagine this is the only character you’ve ever found that does this. How exciting would that be to finally have that? Now imagine that instead of seeing the character go to service, or pray or do rituals connected to that faith… The creator of the character just mentions it a year or so after the series has ended (ROWLING!!!!!!). How would you feel about that? The experience wouldn’t be the same at all would it?

And now for non-parenthetical commentary. What Rowling did is… look, it’s what I’m going to call post facto tokenism. It’s like, she felt like she had to include a gay character for the sake of diversity, but didn’t want to make the effort of actually having Dumbledore’s sexuality impact his character in some way or matter in the plot. She gets the props for including a gay character (after the fact), but didn’t take any of the risk. It’s cynical and insulting. I can see why it might have been difficult to include in the main story, but she’s a good enough writer she could have done it in the sections about Grindelwald. There could have been a conversation about Grindelwald and Dumbledore being a thing, and Harry being either confused or astonished by this. Hermione could have been pleasantly surprised at how progressive the Wizarding World is in this respect, while dismayed at his taste in men; not that she has much room to stand on. Seriously, why did Ron exist? (Ron isn’t the worst choice she could have made, it’s all the other men she’s attracted to that are questionable if you ask me but we aren’t getting into that). And this is in a setting where people of every other possible group is represented in some way. There is even a lengthy episode in book two that goes into the oppression of an entirely fictional slave caste. Now, in Fantastic Beasts part II, we have a not-explicitly-gay Dumbledore, in a plot arc where it bloody well should matter! I just have to hope Jude Law (that sexy manbeast) puts All The Subtext into his performance in such a way that it transcends the script, or I’ll be pissed. For fuck’s sake, Newt Scamander is a textbook autism case(And he’s awesome!) but noooo! Can’t have gay Dumbledo(Ahem) I’m ranting. I’ll stop.

Now I can see how a writer would be hesitant. It’s a lot easier to screw up writing a character with a different gender (look how often it’s done!) or race then yourself and writing someone with a different orientation is considered in and of itself a political act in the anglosphere. Writing a character of a different race can cause some of the more faint hearted writers to be leery because well, if that character is primarily negative or has a memorably negative personality trait, you’re inviting the audience to wonder if you’re making a statement about that’s character race. Honestly this can be counteracted pretty easily though, by having more than one character of each race (which is why avoiding tokenism is good for the author as well as the audience). There’s no reason your group is limited to one black man, or one Jewish girl or… You get the idea. Additionally if you present your minority characters in stealth mode, you can claim to be colorblind or trying to present the moral that these differences don’t matter.

Except they do matter, obviously. Being gay, or trans, or black, or jewish informs who a person is, and it informs their relationships with their society and other individuals. Someone who “doesn’t see race”, for instance, is also putting the blinders on with respect to how race impacts the experiences of their characters, and that isn’t just bad writing, it is itself a form of racism by way of erasure. Try telling a black guy, heaven forbid a black woman, that their experiences are irrelevant
(Telling them that their experiences are the same as yours or that their race didn’t impact those experiences is also a bad idea. I’m gonna suggest trusting me on that one.). Try telling me mine as a gay man don’t inform who I am. It won’t go over well.

Now not every story needs a super diverse cast. If you’re writing a historical fiction set in the countryside of 1620s England, then having members of the Zulu tribe show up is gonna be a little.. Odd. Interesting mind you, but odd. But if you’re writing a science fiction set in the far flung future of 3422 and traveling to other planets is as easy as flying a plane is today… Why not have several different ethnic groups interacting? Why not have some diversity in your characters? For that matter when writing fantasy, remember that before the Bronze Age Collapse, you had people traveling from Britain to Egypt to sell Tin. It was a long, dangerous journey (in literal row boats) but it was still done often enough that it wasn’t considered outrageous for those people to be there (As another example, there are cultural artifacts from the Middle East that show up in Scandinavia, indicating there was trade in both directions, either directly or through intermediaries.). Still that said, not every story needs a diverse cast and nor should this turn into a checklist you need to check off.

That said, if you’re going to include a minority character you should bite the bullet and let them be openly a minority character and don’t shy away from it. Just throwing their minority status on the table at the end of the story is frankly more of a checklist behavior than anything else. If you want to include a minority character but you’re not confident you can do it correctly, talk to us. I’m writing a Psi Corps fanfiction right now (The Corps is Mother the Corps is Father), and I have a section that deals with what it means to be Jewish inside the Corps. I’m only (very)vaguely Jew-ish (the hyphen matters). So what do I do? I ask a friend of mine who was raised Orthodox to check it over and make sure I got it right. There’s something to be said for writing what you know, so you might not want to dive too deep into a subculture you don’t have direct experience with for your viewpoint character (especially with a first person or third person limited perspective), but an outsider’s perspective is fine for secondary characters.

So in conclusion, the trend of hidden minority characters might seem like a good compromise but in the end doesn’t really work on any level. It’s better to either just have the minority character in the story (this excludes stories where the character hiding their minority status is plotline within the story, but that means you’ll have to actually write about it) or just not have the minority character at all.

So what do you think readers? Feel free to leave a comment or an argument below. But either way, keep reading! See you next Friday.

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 02, 2018 9:06 pm 
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In your hypothetical 3422 setting, if we're assuming that being gay is no longer a problem, how much does that character's sexuality impact life experiences? It seems to me that if you're writing in a setting where <insert minority here> isn't controversial or noteworthy or what-have-you, then you're also writing in a setting where that minority doesn't really matter all that much outside of, well, tokenism.

Put another way, if I'm writing historical fiction set around the US Civil War, a character being of recent Irish descent might be a major portion of both that character's background and the story events surrounding the character. If I'm writing contemporary fiction, a character being of Irish descent is an excuse for an accent and a redhead. I realize it's not an exact comparison, but I was reaching for a class that used to be a discriminated minority in the US but that, now, nobody gives a shit about.

Now, to extend the metaphor, I could then also make the character a former IRA member, but then I'm going well beyond them being a minority.

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 06, 2018 8:52 pm 
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Platinum Magic
By Dr. Bruce Davis


Before we begin, I must as always issue a disclaimer. I believe a reviewer should always be honest with his audience and admit when there is a prior relationship. I know Dr. Davis personally. I have been a guest in his home and I count his eldest son as one of my greatest and closest friends (Note from the editor: Dr. Davis helped raise me so…). Dr. Davis' family has been very kind to me over the years and has given me friendship, respect and more. As you can imagine I am very fond of all of them. That will not be affecting my grade, as I will, as always, be working to give you my honest opinion on the story itself, based on its own merits and flaws. That said, it would be dishonest of me not to tell you, my readers, that I knew the writer beforehand.

Dr. Davis is a trauma surgeon who lives in the Phoenix Area in Arizona (that's right, another creative writer laboring in this furnace of a valley, if it's not the water, or lack thereof as my editor insists, there must be some special kind of sun-caused madness). Dr. Davis graduated medical school at the University of Illinois in Chicago in the 1970s (which means he's been a doc longer then most of us reading this have been alive). He then joined the navy to serve as a naval doctor doing his residency at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He would meet his wife serving together in the Navy and he served with the Marines in the first Gulf War. He currently lives with his wife, family, and large dogs. Platinum Magic was published in 2018 by Brick Cave Media, founded in 2006 by Bob Nelson. They're currently headquartered in Mesa Arizona.

Platinum Magic is a police procedural set in a fantasy world, however this isn't your average Not! Europe fantasy world but one where a magical industrial revolution has taken place. As such, people use magic mirrors that fit in their pockets to communicate with each other, drive magically powered sleds through the air, enjoy the convenience of running hot and cold water through magic indoor plumbing; the whole nine yards. This is because human wizards methodically and carefully studiedthe magic they learned from the near immortal elves and sussed out rules that allowed them to create repeatable and predictable magical effects that didn't take much magical talent to use. The world isn't perfect however, until very recently it was split along racial lines and in a lot of ways still is. For example the Elves live in the Havens, the Orc homeland is the Azeri Empire, and the Dwarves have their own homeland where they live behind anti-magic barriers. Most humans live in the Commonwealth which is a mixed race society, humans, dwarves, elves, and orcs all live in the Commonwealth with the other races coming in to escape the confines of their own societies.

However, the Commonwealth is not a utopian paradise. The world of Platinum Magic has a history of wars and strife that we would likely recognize from various fantasy novels. As such, dwarves don't like orcs, orcs aren't fond of humans, and the elves look down their noses at everyone (Of course given how many humans with elvish blood there seem to be, it might be only the older elves doing so). For example there's a native orc population in the Commonwealth mostly shoved into reservations or they've moved into ghettos doing the manual labor in magic factories that no one else wants to do. Layered on top of this are class divisions that run within and across racial boundaries born from a combination of only some people having magical talent and the fact that industrialized societies tend towards very unequal societies. That means crime and terrorism, and just like in the real world crime and terrorism often hit the people who can do the least about it. Of course wherever there is crime and terrorist acts, there’s a police force to contain and control it. Enter our main character King's Agent Simon Buckley and his partner and foster father Haldron Stonebender. When they get a tip about an illegal bomb factory set up in a suburban home, they expect to find a bunch of orc terrorists. What they get is the estranged sister of the ruler of the Elvish Havens doing illegal blood magic and more. When she dies in the raid, our King's Agents find themselves on the edge of an international incident that could threaten their careers, their lives, and their good names (Interesting order those are in…). They'll find themselves digging deep into a conspiracy that could set the nations of their world at war and made up of the unlikest co-plotters. What does the family that rules the Elvish Haven have to do with a group of Orcish terrorists anyway?

The story is told through the first person perspective of Simon Buckley, as he digs into the mystery of what the hell was going on in that suburban home he raided. It's bad enough that he has to deal with the Elvish government breathing down his back and that he has to conduct the investigation with a way-too-attractive Elvish Ranger named Sylvie whose appearance invokes a lot of memories for Simon (Unintentional sexual harassment panda?). He also has to do this with a Lt. who is desperate to curry political favor and all too willing to offer up Simon's head on a stake to get it (Hmmm. I’ve seen this before. In The Wire. Anyone man enough to walk the streets with Omar?). Simon is going to have to work off the books, with someone he's not sure he can trust but is finding himself emotionally pushed to trust anyway.

Simon is an interesting if straight forward character. He's not stupid or naive but still believes in laws and justice and thinks racism is wrong but dances around confronting Hal over his racism against orcs (I was gonna comment on my racial profiling suspicion earlier…). For that matter for all his belief in laws, he is perfectly willing to break a law to prevent something worse from happening. As the investigation spirals into bigger and bigger problems and pulls up memories from his past he’d rather not deal with, we get a good luck at who Simon is. He is a good if flawed man, trying to do his best. Doc Davis' strength is he can write a character like this without drifting into melodrama or getting Simon to stuck up his own rear to get anything done. Which can be a hard needle to thread, but Doc Davis does it rather well.

We learn a bit about Hal and Sylvie as well in this story. Hal is an older married dwarf who, like many dwarves, lives in the Commonwealth. That said, there are a lot of questions about what went on in Hal's past, if Hal literally has a lifetime of experience on Simon, why is Simon his Sgt instead of the other way around? Seeing as the Captain of the peacekeeper station they work out of is a dwarf, I highly doubt it's a race issue (unless Dwarves have a different seniority track to offset their longer lives?[that actually would make a degree of sense, otherwise younger officers would live and die unpromoted]). Hal doesn't display any envy at his adopted son being promoted over him. If anything Hal is proud of his human son, and is mostly concerned at his physical and mental well being. So I find myself wondering at Hal's backstory. I kinda hope to see more of this in the future and if Doc Davis writes more I hope he digs more into Hal and Simon's relationship because I don't think we've ever had an adopted father and son fighting crime before, or at least I haven't (Other than Batman and his various adopted emotional proxies er, I mean children). Sylvie is interesting herself, presenting an alternative take on elves as opposed to the scheming politicians who keep throwing roadblocks in Simon's way. She also moves pretty quickly for an immortal, making her romantic interest in Simon clear after a couple days. I suppose when you've been alive for awhile you learn what you like and worry less about it. Or maybe she's in a hurry because she's worried Simon could die any decade now. Time must look a lot different to her then us after all. Since this is all from Simon's viewpoint we actually don't get a lot on Sylvie. For that matter we don't get to see a lot of the rest of Simon's squad, the dwarf/human pair of Jack and Ham, or the new-kid mage Laim. Again one of the weaknesses of choosing to do your story completely from inside the head of a single character.

I really enjoyed the world building in this novel. Instead of presenting us with Not Europe! or an exact copy of our own world but with magic, we get a completely alternate world with a completely different history. Which is, frankly, realistic. A world with more than one sapient species in it and with the ability for people to shoot fireballs at each other with a word is going to be radically different from ours. Ethnic divisions within humanity are going to matter less when there is a literal horde of bug eyed monsters coming to eat your children, to give one example. It's not just that, there's a lot of little things that stack up to create the feeling of a very different world. The characters use understandable but very different phrases. No one says hi or goodbye in this book, they say good meeting or good parting. No one says alright, they say all good. Little things like that help create a very real sense of being somewhere else. Doc Davis also plays the history of his world close to his vest. There are no massive infodumps here, you pick things up by their mention in natural conversations between the characters. Let me define my terms here. Infodumping is a term for when characters have a long speeches detailing some part of how their world works, either the technology or the magic or the history of the world even when all the characters present would already know this information. Another term for it is the dreaded As You Know Speech, after the phrase that usually starts an infodump. There are some writers, (looking at you Weber) who won't even bother to put that information into the mouths of the character and just dump it into the story as plain text. I know there are people who enjoy reading a good infodump and I would agree there are some stories that work with that but in all honesty it's very easy to break the pace of the story with an infodump and bog it down. Doc Davis instead prefers to give us passing details about the world and focusing on really letting us get to know Simon and pulling us into the mystery at hand. Which works because having to fill in the gaps is a good way to get your readers pulled in, especially when you have the world building supported by little details that enforce the feeling that these characters don't come from our world.

The pace of the book is fairly fast. The novel is barely over 300 pages; which is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand there are things in the story that I wish had more time and space devoted to them. I honestly wanted to see more of the other characters and there just wasn't space in the novel for them. For example Molly, Hal's wife and Simon's foster mother, looms large in Simon's thoughts but she doesn't get a lot of time on page. Hal could have used more screen time, as well as the rest of the squad. On the other hand in this era of bloated fantasy novels that could be used as hand to hand weapons due to their size and weight, it's good to see a writer actually buckle down and tell me a story without wondering all over the damn place. If you're used to reading Robert Jordan or George RR Martin, this is going to be a fairly big change of pace. I do hope if we revisit these characters in future books that we get to spend more time with them and see a bit more of their world. Another thing about the novel is the mix of predictable and unpredictable plot beats. There are some that are lifted right out of a 1980s cop movie and others that are fairly unique. Part of it is the world, there are times where it almost feels Victorian and other times when it feels perfectly 21st century and still other times when it feels like the pure fantasy novel it is. This is all done fairly well and Doc Davis uses elements that we've seen a hundred times before to hide the surprises in the plot until the very last minute like a stage magician. I honestly very much enjoyed the book, but if you're not a fan of police stories this isn't going for work for you. That said I'm giving Platinum Magic an A-. Much of the issues come from the relentless single view point of the story but it's done really well and will likely bother you a lot less then bothers me.

Next Week, we return to Warp World! Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 13, 2018 8:24 pm 
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Warp World IV: Final Storm
By Joshua Simpson and Kristene Perron


“My name is Amadahy Kalder and I came to this world to stop Slavers.” Ama page 440
Just like last week, a disclaimer. I've been friends with Joshua Simpson for over a decade now, we met online after I came back from Iraq. We've played games together, screamed at each other over politics and swapped stories. He's a good friend. Like I said last week, while everything I give you is my honest opinion on the story, I feel it would be dishonest not to tell my readers when a prior relationship exists. So with that in mind, let's start the review (The same disclaimer goes for me, the editor, dear readers. Any worries you may have about Frigid’s objectivity however may be allayed, as I am more likely to give my friends fantastic amounts of shit, and have higher expectations of them then I do the average prole.).

Joshua Simpson is a native of Texas who has a colorful life behind him and that's just talking about the jobs he had. Over the course of his life he’s been a garbage man, nuclear power plant safety inspector, professional truck driver; and now writes books as well has performs pain release therapy. Which, from what I can tell is a fancy way of saying he inflicts pain on you with his bare hands and that somehow makes you feel better (That’s basically it. He treats nerve adhesions, which is is when scar tissue and the like from injuries or surgery obstructs the movement of and irritated nerve fibers. Physiotherapy for this is basically extremely painful deep tissue massage.). Kristene isn’t any less colorful; she’s a former stunt woman for film and television and she has lived in Costa Rica, Japan, and the Cook islands as well as other places. Her written works have appeared in a number of magazines and she was awarded the Surrey International Writers Conference Award in 2010. Today she lives in her native Canada with her husband.

Final Storm is their fourth book in a five book series. I've reviewed the other 3 (links at the bottom of the review) over the time of this review series and it's been a hell of a ride. Let me recap. Seg Eraranat is a cultural theorist. He’s trained to study foreign cultures, infiltrate them, determine their weak points and lead raiding teams on them to gather slaves (Woah! This is definitely applied cultural theory…) and vita for his culture, which refers to itself as the People (proving that creativity is a rare virtue as that's a common name used by tribal cultures everywhere [But Josh gets points for accuracy. In this context it has another meaning, as seemingly they don’t treat other cultures like..well...people!]). The slaves are used for labor and entertainment, vita is a... Well magical energy generated by belief and mass emotion. Over the course of three books, we seen Seg claw his way up from junior officer to warlord of a major organization that he personally built brick by scheming brick. Seg is cold, logical and ruthless because the People of his birth would have murdered him in his sleep if he was anything else (or maybe not like people…You know, it strikes me that a non-sociopath who has to do sociopath things is probably going to be a traumatized and broken person.), but we'll get back to him. The People have developed into a parasitical culture that only survives by raiding the unaware; the reason they have developed into a such a culture is the Storm. The Storm is a massive paranormal phenomenon that in some ways behaves as it namesake but it doesn't bring water and wind. The Storm brings death, sucking the life out of anything it touches. It has turned the world of the People into a wasteland incapable of supporting more than the barest scraps of life. It has afflicted the world of the People for generations untold to the point that the World (because of course the People can't think of any other name for it) before the Storm isn't even mythology anymore, although that frankly has more to do with what the People have turned themselves into. The People sustain themselves by the theft of lives and Vita, the vita goes to power the shields that protect their cities and the gates that allow them access to other worlds, that they may raid again. They force slaves to do all the labors that they find to dangerous, dirty, or deary to do themselves. The culture of the People has been drained of anything I would consider a redeeming value, as the men and women who made up that culture have embraced decadence and made virtues of being the kind of monsters who attack the unsuspecting to destroy their holy places and enslave their children. That said, the People having been running on borrowed time for generations and are about to learn one of the constants of the universe. All debts come due and must be paid, one way or another.

Seg has struggled throughout three books to try and create something redeeming, to forge a better way for his people even in the face of massive resistance. However he learned in the last book that there was no point in it, as he found another world that had been inflicted with the Storm. A world that had died completely. With this evidence in front of him, Seg realized there was simply no point in trying to reform his society. It was doomed, so instead Seg turned all his energies to escape (Damn. I would have descended into nihilistic ennui at that point and probably offed myself. Good for Seg!). He's going to get his people off the World and he's going to take as many of the victims of the People with him as he can. He faces enemies without in the form of the CWA (the institution that opposes the Cultural Theorist Guild that educated Seg in the first place) and enemies within, in the form of spies and traitors. At least he and Ama are reunited.

Amadahy Kalder, known as Ama for short, is not a member of the People. She's a Kenda, a racial group from another world that was raided by the People in the first book. Ironically, Seg was the point of the spear in that raid and they formed a relationship that led to Seg creating a temporary alliance with the Kenda because they were an oppressed people. Ama is also not a typical human, seeing as she’s developed gills. This is a huge cultural deal for the other Kenda in Seg's group. He recruited a number of Kenda to serve has his private armsmen. In fact we learn that there are a lot of variations on the human form across the multi-verse that the People stalk through. Which is interesting in and of itself. I would love to see more stories simply touring the wonders and horrors of this multi-verse. Mr. Simpson and Mrs. Perron, through hints and meeting various individuals through these stories, have created a multi-verse that is diverse and interesting. Amadahy has gone through a number of changes herself throughout this book series, including becoming the first person in recorded history to be taken by the Storm and returned. Because of that she has been granted powers and understanding beyond human ken, she has also been cursed with a hunger for Vita that makes her a danger to others if she cannot learn to control herself.

This is the most military of the books, and in a lot of ways it serves as the climax of Seg and Ama's story arc as they move ever closer to their final confrontation with the corrupt and venal edifices that govern the World. While Seg has decided the only worthwhile goal is to escape and save whatever he can, Ama hasn't given up on tearing everything down before she goes (Oh I like her…). This actually tells us a bit about Ama's character. While it's easy to think of her as the nice one in the pair, I have to point out that upon hearing that the People who have lived in terror of being drained by the storm their whole lives are going to be destroyed, she's the one who decides their ultimate demise is not enough. She has to personally tear down and ruin their awful society before she goes.

She might be the one more prone to act of kindness but you still don't want to get on her bad side. Ama spends a lot of this book trying to grapple with the changes the Storm made to her, both good and bad. While the Storm healed the damage that the People did to her body, it also made her something not all together human, and because of that she is finding herself the focus of supernatural belief amongst Seg's people. While a minority believe her to be some kind of demon, many more believe her to be some kind of Divinity, sent by the God of the Kenda to bring justice and deliverance. This creates some internal conflict as Ama does not believe herself to be anything close to Divine. Ama and Seg spend a lot of time together in this book, which I enjoy since they've been split apart for at least a book and a half. Their relationship is a actually a very healthy one, created by the fact that they talk things out and are very clear about their expectations and why they are doing the things that they are. This is supported by the fact that they have learned to trust one another, so when one of them says this is something that they’ve got to do, the other backs them to the hilt. Neither one of them plays second fiddle to the other mind you but they do learn to work together and make their goals complimentary. It's a great relationship and it's the kind we need to see more of in fiction.

Other characters show back up to grace the pages, the charming rogue Viren (who remains a favorite of mine) finds himself saddled with the one thing he’s always managed to avoid: responsibility. Seg makes him the commander of his army. We don't get to spend a lot of time with Viren but I enjoy every moment. Shan the cranky but gifted pilot returns as well, and continues her own character arc. I like how Shan has moved away from a typical member of the People and grown as a person without changing her fundamental personality. She may see individuals who aren't members of the People as people now but she’s still as full of social grace as an annoyed rhino. The fact that she's paired with Viren is kinda amusing, most writers wouldn't be able to make a pairing of such opposite personalities work but Mr. Simpson and Ms. Perron manage it with some flair. The ever loyal Mantu is here as well (although he doesn't get a lot of character work). Also with us is Gelsh, who was introduced in the last book as an escaped slave who was kidnapped from his world by the People. He's not only dealing with that, but adjusting to the fact that Ama is with Seg romantically (Ama had lost her memories last book and started a relationship with him before remembering [Ouch. That’s gotta hurt]). In addition to that, he’s dealing with all the changes being wrought on his society by Seg and Ama not the least of which is a new element of hope.

But Seg and Ama aren't the only people with plans. Within the Guild of Cultural Theorists, in the halls of the CWA, in the lower decks of Seg's own fortress, schemes and plots are all being hatched with conflicting goals and objectives. This is another element of the book that I enjoy: watching everyone craft their schemes, carefully set up their plots and set events into motion... Only for the last 150 pages to be a example of everything spinning out of control as all the plots and schemes slam into each other at high speed and start piling up. Our authors actually do a good show of what combat would be like as no plan survives enemy action and everyone is left doing frantic improvisation to achieve their goals. Ama and Seg have an advantage here as chaos is inherently helpful to them since among their goals is to wreck this entire loathsome den of evil and piss on the ashes on our way out but, that's balanced by the fact that their enemies are shown to be somewhat intelligent and capable of using their greater resource base to good effect. The fact that their enemies land real blows and cause real loses helps make the struggle seem more real and gives the victories that are achieved more weight. A number of those blows are also landed by random chance, not out of nowhere mind you but by factors that have nothing to do with the main plot, reminding us that Ama and Seg operate in a world that isn't strictly about them.

There's also a lot going on in this book and if you haven't read the past 3 books, you are going to be completely lost as to what’s going on. I would call this a self contained episode but one in a ongoing series that draws heavily on what happened before. Thus I would strongly advise starting at book I. Even if you have read the last couple of books, you're going to be finding yourself a little dizzy from the sheer speed. Although Mr. Simpon and Ms. Perron do try to put in some slow moments to let you catch your breath, this book has a lot of ground to cover and only so many pages to do it in. This is a hazard of having more than one viewpoint in your story. It lets you explore your world and your story more deeply but it also means that each character and story line has less total time to be focused on. For example Gelsh's issues kinda get pushed to the background; which is fair because we have a lot more important stuff to cover but we really don't see a point where he accepts Ama's relationship with Seg or comes to any decisions about Seg (Maybe he never actually does? Poor schlub.). This book also ends with the ever-dreaded cliff hanger and I have no idea when book V is coming out. So I am docking points for that. Still this was a great read and was a book that had a lot of payoffs if you are a fan of the series itself. For the record I do recommend getting the entire series (the first book is completely free in electronic format! You have no excuse! I'm only mostly kidding here.). That said I am giving Warp World Final Storm a B+. It would have hit an A- if not for the bloody cliffhanger.

See the other reviews here:
http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2017/04 ... ld-by.html
http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2015/10 ... gades.html
http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2014/10 ... oshua.html


Next week, we move forward on another series with Ancillary Sword! Keep reading!

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"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 20, 2018 8:47 pm 
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Ancillary Sword
By Ann Leckie


Ann Leckie was born in 1962 and since then has lead an interesting life. She has by her own count been, a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a survey crew, and a recording engineer. She released her debut novel Ancillary Justice in 2013 while living with her husband and it received mass critical acclaim. I have reviewed the first novel and you can catch the link at the bottom of this review. She would follow up with two sequels (the first of which we are reviewing here) and additional works released in the same universe. She currently lives in St. Louis Missouri with her husband Dave and two children.

The most powerful human state in the galaxy is the Radchaai Empire. They come from a Dyson Sphere, led by the immortal and many bodied Anaander Mianaai, a single person who thousands of years ago decided to unify humanity under their rule. Anaander Mianaai is a single person spread across many minds through the use of technological implants, binding all those specially made bodies under a single personality and will. After unifying the peoples of the Dyson Sphere (because a Dyson Sphere is a big place, much, much bigger than Earth and look how many different cultures and peoples we have here) he led his fleets outward to annex planet after planet. To reduce the burden on his loyal citizens, he had the ancillaries created.

An ancillary is a cyborg human body with its personality destroyed and its mind linked to the AI of a military ship. In many ways it’s a high tech zombie. The person that used to be is dead and all that’s left is a body under the control of a foreign will and intelligence. Commanded by a small but capable citizen officer class, the ancillary armies and fleet of the Radchaai were unstoppable. Until they were stopped; halted by the intervention of a terrifying alien race who intervened in an indirect but unmistakable way by arming one of the planets that was being invaded by the Radchaai. The people of that system were utterly genocided by the order of Anaander Mianaai and a treaty that stopped the expansion was signed with the aliens. That decades-old genocide has had and is having consequences, however. Anaander Miannai has split themselves into two sides. One side believes that the genocide was a mistake and the treaty should be followed. The other side holds that they had every right to order the genocide and any action to limit or halt the expansion of the Radchaai (and therefore themselves) is an alien plot to destroy them. Breq, our main character, is one of those consequences and she is dealing with others throughout this book.

Breq was once One Esk, an ancillary (how is she an ancillary while maintaining an identity? The original personality is destroyed... {Justice of Toren had an identity and the Ancillaries are part of that identity}) on Justice of Toren, a massive troop ship that was destroyed in the opening moves of a civil war that Anaander Mianaai is fighting against themselves. In the last novel Breq was out to try and kill Anaander Mianaai, now she has a different mission. She’s been given a ship, Mercy of Kalr, and has been made a Fleet Captain (basically an admiral). She is heading for the Athoek system to try and make some effort at... Well I wouldn't call it redemption but perhaps restitution.

We often confuse the two in our society. This is partly because Christianity is so utterly a part of our cultural matrix that we tend to consider the two to be one in the same but they are honestly two different things. Redemption involves moving past the sin in question and becoming a better person who will not commit that sin anymore. Restitution involves trying to make amends or repayment for the sin or injury in question. You can redeem yourself without making restitution and make restitution without redemption. In Breq's case redemption is moot. The sin in question, the murder of a Lieutenant who was executed on the command of Anaander Mianaai for speaking up against an injustice, was not something she could have said no to. As an ancillary, she had no free will and as part of the Justice of Toren she could no more disobey the Lord of the Radchaai then I could fly just by standing in a field and wishing to. That doesn't mean Breq doesn't feel guilty or ashamed of those actions or that they feel that they are morally freed of responsibility for those same actions. Because of that, Breq is going to Athoek, where the younger sister of that Lieutenant is living in order to do whatever that sister asks of her to make whatever restitution she can.

Of course the universe isn't going to let Breq have it that easy. The unfolding civil war has led to a collapse in easy faster than light traffic leaving the system and Athoek very isolated. This means that in her capacity as a Fleet Captain, Breq will have to take steps to ensure the system's safety and continued good government. Assuming she can get the rest of the system government to agree with her idea of what good government is. Which might be a struggle in and of itself.

In the last book we got a good introduction to basic Radchaai culture. Their language has no genders (everyone is referred to using the feminine pronouns) for example. They also have a somewhat sophisticated polytheistic religion which lends itself rather well to assimilating the gods and goddesses of other cultures (because they believe that gods are simply expressions of universal focuses and powers and thus can be be expressed in many different ways). Story telling wise this is actually a good move, as it moves the Radchaai away from the sensibilities of 21st century Americans and allows us to look at a society that’s something other than America in Space! Or Great Britain in Space! Which is another favorite of space opera writers. This makes the society itself a character in the story and in all honesty lets the writer examine themes and flaws within that society without getting to mired in contemporary baggage.

Breq herself is a great character to have, she’s deeply familiar with the customs, beliefs, and actions of the Radchaai but is herself an outsider. She is after all not entirely human as you or I would think of it; she’s the remaining splinter of a Ship AI housed in a human body. The story is told entirely through Breq's point of view but because of her cybernetic implants, she is able to see things through the eyes of her ship and the station orbiting the world of Athoek. This actually helps get around a lot of the problems of a single viewpoint character and is fairly clever.

In Ancillary Sword, which is focused entirely on a single system we are given a much closer look at Radchaai culture, it's assumptions and the actual facts on the ground. Let me give an example. The Radchaai tell themselves that there are no ethnic divisions within the empire. Once annexed and civilized (or stripped of your culture and having it replaced by one more acceptable to your Radchaai conquers) all divisions based on language, religion, gender, and race, simply fade away under the benevolent light of civilization; and make no mistake the Radchaai do believe themselves benevolent. In Athoek however, we can see that those statements don't quiet hold up and that Radchaai civilization doesn't grip as deep into the planet's soil as many would like to think. The dominant ethnic group, the Xhai have made themselves very comfortable under Radchaai rule by collaborating, because of that their religious festivals are celebrated openly, Xhai are represented at the top levels of the system government and they fully reap the many benefits of empire. Other native ethnic groups like the Ychana however, are exiled to the outer fringes of society unless they fully assimilate and become Radchaai and even then there are invisible barriers. The Radchaai have kept control by mostly working on assimilating the Xhai further into Radchaai society and clearing space for people of other ethnic groups who assimilate, while ignoring those who don't.

Of course these are only the problems that Breq has to deal with the on the surface, her ship is not the only military ship in the system. While she outranks Captain Hetnys, the good Captain has been in the system for a considerable amount of time and knows about the civil war as well, so there are open questions about whether he has picked a side, will he pick a side, and if so what will he do. What has he done already? Breq has to look into this while dealing with an entirely new ship and a mostly new crew and figuring out the intrigues and intricacies of the system. She will have to deal with crime, social injustices, and possible international incidents. The book gives us a good ground eye's view of what it means to live in the Radchaai empire, where there are many who do benefit but also a good number of people who are ground down by the system. We also see the many justifications the people on the top of the ladder use for why the people at the bottom, well, stay at the bottom. It's never that the system is rigged against them after all, it's always their own fault that they can't climb up (if you ask the people already at the top of course). But you should remember that the people at the bottom have their own ideas and while they may be denied education and resources, that doesn't always make a person stupid. Sometimes it just makes them angry.

The book series as a whole has been very adept in considering the costs and hypocrisies of empire, because the plain truth of human existence is that you cannot build an empire without taking advantage of someone or some group of people. In this book we get to see a microcosm of the Radchaai empire, how the lies that the Radchaai tell themselves feed into the social problems that they're experiencing and in some ways made the civil war that’s being fought mostly covertly inevitable. Even when your ruling class is more or less a single mind, when it gets big enough, disagreement is inevitable. While the civil war doesn't take up much space in the book, it lingers in the background driving various characters motivations and beliefs, causing conflict and action.

This isn't the first space opera to take the stance that empires and imperialism are bad or evil of course. Empires are a staple of this kind of science fiction, both as settings, and as antagonist/protagonist factions. Space opera stories are full of the fall of empires, glorious rebellions of freedom against empires, the rise of empires, and the glorious victories of empires over dastardly rebel scum. What Ms. Leckie does here is take a moment to look at what empire means. An empire is a single group of people establishing a single political and economic rule over many different groups of people and often dictates a certain set of behaviors, many of them exploitative and oppressive. It's also true that empires are often massively beneficial to a great many of its subjects creating united trade routes, bringing greater cultural and economic opportunities but those benefits come at a cost often paid for by the people at the bottom of the heap.

Ms. Leckie prevents this from becoming an anti-imperialist screed by making these things part and parcel of the story by having Breq be more concerned with the immediate tasks of making government work for everyone while making the system safe for the one person she came to be of service to. By simply having those elements sitting there and having her characters deal with them explicitly, she does a better job getting people thinking about this than any moral haranguing. Ms. Leckie doesn't beat you over the head with moral stances but rather lets you see the situations and problems that arise from the Radchaai’s relentless push to empire and the conflict between their stated beliefs and actions. I honestly really enjoyed this story, although it's easy to get lost if you haven't read Ancillary Justice so I am applying a penalty for that. Additionally the pace can get a little slow in the book as a number of side plots are dealt with, with the main plot all wrapping up at the end. Because of that I am giving Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie a B+. This is a good example of what modern space opera can be if it applies itself and it's a great example of rather good world building paired with interesting characters.

Next week, we finish the series! Join us for Ancillary Mercy, Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.



Review of Ancillary Justice can be read here: http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2015/10 ... eckie.html

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 27, 2018 9:53 pm 
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Ancillary Mercy
by Ann Leckie


I discussed Ms. Leckie just last week so let me discuss Orbit, the publishing company. Orbit is a science fiction and fantasy publishing company founded in 1974 as part of the Macdonald Futura publishing company. It has dedicated publishing teams in the UK and the US, with an Australian group established in 2006. It currently functions as a imprint of Little, Brown Book Group which bought the Macdonald Futura in 1992.

Ancillary Mercy was published in 2015 and received the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and nominated for a Hugo Award. It is the last book in the Ancillary trilogy, let's take a look. Fair warning, there will be spoilers for the last two books, so if you haven't taken a look at them yet you might want to come back to this review later.

Fleet Captain Breq was once an ancillary; a cyborg soldier controlled by a ship AI. In Breq's case that was the Justice of Toren (an interesting note is that Justice is a ship class, the Radchaai empire had three: Justices, Swords, and Mercies). The Justice of Toren was destroyed by the Lord of the Radchaai empire Anaander Mianaai when the ship reacted to an order to kill a ship's officer. Breq was the sole survivor, a lone shard of the ship AI housed in a single body. Over the last two books Breq has pursued her goals with the single-minded determination you would expect of a computer paired with the adaptability you would expect from a human being. Those goals being to gain a measure of revenge on Anaander Mianaai and to protect the closest kin of that murdered officer. Breq manages to be very human and very alien at the same time in this series, I'm not sure how much of this is from the alien culture of the Radchaai. That said, Fleet Captain Breq, has achieved everything she set out to accomplish. Of course, achieving your goals is great, but you also have to hold on to what you have. While Breq may have secured the system of Athoek, she now has to deal with the rest of the Galaxy and what it thinks of her actions.

Breq has just about faced down all opposition within the system, out maneuvering Captain Hetnys and using him as a hostage to keep his ship AI in line. In doing that, she made an ally (more or less) out of the local Station due to showing concern for the undergardens; a section of the Station that had been allowed to fall to neglect and cut off from the rest. As you might imagine this bred some resentment in the AI who was built to care about the station and look after the people who were living on it. Breq however stepped in and while there was some damage in the ensuing confrontation, it meant in the end that the undergardens will be rebuilt and reconnected with the rest of the station. Additionally, with the aid of the young Lt. Tisarwat (I'll get to her in a moment) she's built a political support base among the leaders of the station and the planet. However, Breq's plan of simply rebuilding the undergardens and letting the people who were living there illegally move right back and take up legal residence just makes too much sense to go unchallenged. In this case the head priest of the the Station takes it on himself to publicly protest this, pushing for the idea that the large spacious quarters of the newly refurbished undergardens go to the “right” kind of people instead of actual residents. This is fueled by the ethnic divisions I discussed last review. See the people living in the undergarden are all Ychana. A group that has stubbornly held to its own traditions and beliefs after conquest by the Radchaai. As a result they get to live at the bottom of the economic and social ladder of Athoek. Meanwhile the Xhai, an ethnic group that assimilated to Radchaai culture and ideals gets to be the dominant group in the system and some of them just can't stand the idea of a group of half criminal, barely civilized Ychana (as they think of them) getting anything nice. I'm not sure if this was intentional but this part of the novel almost works as a comment on gentrification (there’s no ‘almost’ about it).

Gentrification is a process that occurs in cities when low class neighborhoods for whatever reason find themselves being economically revived (read: bought out, eminent domained, condemned, torn down, and then rebuilt on the extreme end. Or simply… invaded by rich people who drive up the prices). The process brings in more affluent residents and can, unless counteracted, end up pushing out the original residents of the neighborhoods who find themselves unable to afford the rising rents and prices of their own homes. This is often resisted and can lead to conflicts between the lower class residences who understandably don't like being pushed out of their own homes and upper class residences who want their homes to be comfortable and convenient (And oh so fashionable! It’s a cycle. I could rant about for days…) I'm not sure if this was accidental or on purpose though so I don't want to put too much weight on this.

This event gives us another interesting look into Radchaai culture. The Radchaai live under a Dictatorship, with all authority under Anaander Mianaai; who is supposed to be perfect and just and never does anything wrong. As such voicing out loud that the government is being unjust is... Discouraged. Radchaai therefore protest things by voicing no such thing. The head priest for example simply sits out front of his temple and refuses to do any work whatsoever. This is a problem because Radchaai temples are where you register things like births, deaths, marriages and so on. Meanwhile a good number of normal citizens who are not upper or lower class have started their own protest of the Head Priest by standing in line. You see in the Radchaai empire you don't need to stand in line, you can call up your local government office set up an appointment or get anything you need hashed out with the Station AI directly. So why bother? Well, it makes a great form of protest against actions you are opposed to. Which shows us something, it doesn't matter how efficient and ruthless your security force is. It doesn't matter how constricting and hide-bound your society is: people will find ways to protest what they hate and people will find out why they're protesting. While station security panics a bit at this, Breq is smart enough to just allow both protests to continue and assign Lt. Tisarwat to finding a way around this. Let's discuss her now.

Lt. Tisarwat is a brand new officer who was assigned to Fleet Captain Breq's ship right before leaving for the Athoek system by Anaander Mianaai (it's amazing how much goes back to her isn't it?). The reason for this was simple: so the Lord of the Radchaai could have a presence in Athoek. Using ancillary implants Anaander Mianaai took the young officer, destroyed her personality and implanted her own into Lt. Tisarwat's body (Excuse me, I’ll be over here screaming in existential horror.). Breq figured this out and during the events of Ancillary Sword destroyed the Mianaai personality in turn. Leaving the body of Lt. Tisarwat alive but inhabited by someone who wasn't Lt. Tisarwat or Anaander Mianaai anymore. In Ancillary Mercy we get a closer look at just what that means. As you may remember kind readers, Anaander Mianaai is at war with herself; her personality is divided under the stress of having genocided an entire system and having been forced to make a treaty with the alien Presger forbidding further conquest. One side believes the Presger have infiltrated the Radchaai Empire to destroy it from within and that she was right to order the murder of every living man, woman, and child in a star system for the crime of resisting the Radchaai war machine too well. The other believes the Presger have done no such thing and it was a mistake to commit genocide. It was this later one who killed Lt. Tisarwat to hijack her body, Lt. Tisarwat was 17. What remains is a person who doesn't know who she is and is in need of great deal of help. The relationship between Tisarwat and Breq hovers on the parental, which makes sense because it's due to Breq's action that this new person even exists. Lt. Tisarwat also serves to remind us that even if one side of this civil war is kinder to Breq, in the end it's still a tyrant manic who thought that stretching her mind and personality across thousands of bodies and leading a campaign of conquest and destruction across of human space were perfectly reasonable and justified actions... On the basis that she wanted to. Anaander Mianaai, no matter which of her you speak to is someone who regards all human beings as mere tools to be used for her own ends. That's the problem when you declare yourself the final arbitrator of all that is just and good in the universe, what is just starts becoming whatever is most convenient for you.

To make matters worse, the other Anaander Mianaai is heading towards Athoek and this one has even less qualms then the one who murdered Lt. Tisarwat. This one regards Breq as her enemy and believes her to be an agent of the Presgar. This is complicated by the fact that a Presgar translator has shown up in Athoek. I've been dancing around this so let me address the Presgar briefly. The Presgar are an alien race of massive power and are, frankly, beyond our understanding. Before the treaty Presgar would, for lack of a better word, prey on humanity and its ships. Appearing without warning and disassembling whatever they got a hold of. Stations, cities, ships... People. The treaty, which the Presgar hold is with all humans because they don't understand the idea of political divisions it seems is a simple one. The Radchaai will not commit any more violence against other humans or other aliens. In return the Presgar recognize humanity as significant beings and therefore having the right to... Live. It's basically a ‘do what we tell you and we'll stop hunting you for sport’ kind of agreement. On the one hand, I'm not a huge fan but on the other if it keeps Mianaai contained and keeps aliens of immense power and unguessable motives from turning my internal organs into external wall decorations I suppose it's an acceptable sacrifice, as most of us like our insides staying that way.

Breq has to figure out what the partly human, mostly alien translator is here for while dealing with an invasion of Radchaai ships that outnumber and outgun her led by an implacable immortal maniac out of for her blood. She also has to do this fast as the longer she waits the more likely that Mianaai is going to start killing people. Luckily she's made allies, she has tools and she's willing to go all in. This is her final confrontation with the enemy and whether or not she'll survive will depend on not just her skills but the skill of her crew, officers and the AI's she's befriended along the way.

Ancillary Mercy is a adventure story set in a political upheaval as Breq attempts to stand away from the major events of her time but finds them coming to her no matter what she does. There’s a fair amount of subtle social and political commentary of the type that science fiction is great at delivering by putting these events in far off, fictional alien cultures. It manages to deliver that commentary without raising the reader’s defensiveness. It also helps that Breq doesn't preach about the flaws in her society or go on long rants but instead simply exists in her society and doesn't pull back from it's flaws. She does attempt to fix what she can and limit the damage done when she can't but not in service to any political agenda beyond basic decency. Which I can appreciate. While it looks like this book is the end of Breq's story, Ms. Leckie leaves a lot of room for further stories set in this universe and I hope she continues to explore it. I'm giving Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie an A-. Give it a spin.

Next week we change gears a bit with the Bookburners, season I. Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri May 04, 2018 10:06 pm 
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Bookburners season I
By Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, Brian Francis Slattery


In the grim darkness of last November, I reviewed a book called “The Witch That Came In From The Cold”. It told an interesting story but the thing that set it apart (other then it's setting and characters but I digress) was the fact that it was written episodically. The book was a collection of episodes, each telling a complete story set within a greater story line. I discussed that at length in that review and I think it was recent enough that I won't repeat it. If you haven't taken a look at it, I would encourage you do so and then come back here. There will be a link at the bottom of this review. Now let's take a look at the authors of this work.

Max Gladstone was born in 1984 and studied Chan poetry and late Ming Dynasty fiction at Yale, then lived and taught Anhui province which is one of the smallest and more undeveloped provinces of the People's Republic of China. As you might imagine he speaks Chinese, he also sort of reads Latin and is strangely proud of having a horse in Mongolia throw him (I think I like this guy). Margaret Dunlap is a producer and writer, known for among other things, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Eureka and more. Mur Lafferty was born in 1973 and is an American podcaster and writer. She was the host of Escape Pod from 2010 to 2012 and is the creator and host of I Should be Writing (why does that phrase echo in my backbone?). She is also the editor in chief of the short fiction magazine Mothership Zeta. Last but not least is Brian Francis Slattery, an American writer and editor at the New Haven Review, he has also written four novels with two of them taking place in a collapsed United States.

Bookburners however takes place in our own modern world, just in the part of the world most of us can't see. Our world with our concepts of orderly natural laws, is an island amidst an ocean of chaos. In that ocean of chaos live sea monsters, both great and small. When human wade out from the island we've painfully built for ourselves or dig a metaphorical channel for these monsters to come inland, we call that magic. Magic is dangerous. It's laws, if there are any, are obscure and full of exceptions. To deal in magic is to traffic more often then not with monsters or to deal with powers you can't understand. Your average magic user is a toddler with a set of medical scalpels, running loose in a kindergarten (Sounds like excellent Evil Medical School recruitment material. Wait what? Did I say that out loud?). To prevent the destruction of civilization and keep our world from being overrun by monsters from beyond the pale the Catholic Church (I feel like there are a lot of Helsing and Reformation jokes I could make here) has assembled a number of teams under the banner of the Societas Librorum Occultorum with a single mission. That mission is to hunt down magical artifact, relics, and above all else books; stop any active magic due to these objects; contain the magical object in question; and bring it into the Vatican Library (And now there’s a heist movie. Liberate libros!). Books are the single most dangerous of the items in question, not only because they can spread the knowledge of magic but because most magical books have sealed within them beings that we can only call demons due to their power and sheer disregard for human life and dignity. However the members of the Societas Librorum are also racing against the tide, because more and more magical events are happening every year and sooner or later one of them is going to spin out of control and become uncontainable. They aren't the only people aware of this however, there are a great many organizations and private individuals who seek to control or at least understand magic. These people also seek out the books, to use them or make deals with the creatures imprisoned within them.

None of that would be a concern for New York Police Detective Sally (Sal) Brooks. She just wants to be a good cop and be able to deal with the things she sees while on duty. However when her little brother Perry shows up at her apartment panicking because of a book he found, claiming he's being followed by “them” she finds herself pulled into a world that she had no idea was there. This is because the book that Perry found is called the Liber Manus, or The Book of the Hand in English, and is one of those books that could end the world if it isn't kept closed and locked away. Confronting the demon locked in the book that has taken over her brother takes a heavy toll and Perry is left comatose after suffering a demonic possession (Ouch. How did she confront the demon? Did she find an old priest and a young priest in the middle of a crisis of faith?). From there Sal finds herself assigned to Team Three, the team whose job is to find, confront, and contain the books and the problems they create. Sal is our viewpoint character as a rookie and an outsider on the team as she works to prevent magic from destroying lives; she also peels back the secrets of her team, the society it works for, and the Catholic church itself .

She's working alongside some interesting folks as well. There's Liam, a computer hacker whose life was torn apart when he dabbled with powers he didn't understand. Rescued by team three, he's a bit of a fanatic and is downright frightened of magic. This leads to him clashing with Asanti, the archivist and senior member of the team who studies magic and is less frightened and more fascinated by it. Grace, a woman from China whose relationship with the team and with magic itself is...it’s complicated but she provides the muscle needed to confront the things that go bump in the night. Father Arturo Menchu is a Catholic Priest and the leader of the team, his feelings towards magic are closer to Liam's as his introduction was the destruction of his home and loved ones while he was trying to save them. That said he tempers those feeling with his faith and his desire to help people. So as you can see even within the team there is a fair amount of conflict over what to do with magic in general. This actually makes the team and the people on it feel more real and it makes magic feel more real within the story. The team isn't a hive mind with everyone agreeing and anyone who doesn't being automatically wrong. Instead these are people with very individual reactions due to their specific experiences that inform their stances and prejudices. They do care about each other and are willing to put their lives on the line for each other. That doesn't mean there aren't times where they simply don't like each other very much or where their disagreements don't run the risk of driving them apart.

For that matter, as you might have guessed Team Three isn't the only team on the Catholic Church's roster. Team One, is who you call in when the only solution is pure violence (Even more Helsing jokes). They're a cross between magically powered special forces team and an anti-monster SWAT team. Meanwhile Team Two is the cover up team, removing evidence, planting false evidence, making sure witnesses stay quiet and they do this through some rather questionable means at times. So even while Team Three has its own disagreements they also have bigger disagreements with the other teams which are in turn dwarfed by their disagreements with the other side. So you get less of a feeling of a well managed organization devoted to a common goal and more of an unstable alliance of people with common experiences and understandings who dislike what the bad guys are planning more than what their allies are. What do I like about this is that the writers don't shy away from showing the implications and fall outs of such thing and make it pretty clear that this is a result of a failure of leadership (I feel like there’s some social commentary here.). When you have teams in your organization with such diverse responsibilities and goals there's going to be tension and rivalries. This is normal and in some ways healthy! When your teams turn into opposing ideological camps however, you've failed to keep everyone focused on their common mission and the things that bind them gather. Speaking from my own experience this could have been prevented by cross training and having members of each team working with an opposite number from another team for a mission or three. There are also certain operatives that should have had choke chains applied to their necks a lot sooner but you'll have to read the book for that (Next time on Adventures in Management Failure…). Either way the teams could have been prevented from descending into such open ideological differences with some basic leadership.

That said , it's this ideological conflict over how we should treat and interact with magic that drives the overarching story; while many of the episodes are focused on chasing down magical artifacts and the monsters that love them. There are as I mentioned entire societies devoting themselves to studying or using magic and they exist in a state of conflict with the teams of the Catholic Church. So I find myself less interested in their conflicts with the demonic creatures of darkness and more with their conflicts with other human beings. This is because the conflict with the demons that show up here is fairly simple. They want to destroy our civilization and reduce us to chattel and livestock. We don't want that and work to stop them. There's frankly not a lot of room for argument there, you’re either for or against us. Don't get me wrong, there's still a lot of compelling storytelling that can be told in a conflict like this and the writers of Bookburners manage to tell a good, compelling story with raising stakes in such cases. For me however, it's when the team comes face to face with a collector of books who is actively seeking the very powers they're trying to lock away and they have to deal with the ramifications of such things that is way more interesting.

Another thing I like is how magic is portrayed in this book. In a lot of fantasy series, magic is basically a tame force. It responses predictability and consistency with any risk in it's practice being given lip service at best. This can work perfectly fine in a fantasy setting on another world but in an urban fantasy setting that takes place in our world, you're left asking... Why isn't the use of magic public and openly studied if it's so predictable and safe? In Bookburners, there's nothing predictable or safe about the use of magic. Magic means dealing with alien and often malevolent intelligences to alter the universe in direct defiance of the physical laws we know and understand. It means playing with forces whose rules we do not and maybe are unable to understand and as such the reactions of our poking it are unpredictable. Something as innocent as a wish to make your restaurant the best restaurant in town can end up enslaving your wait staff and turning your kitchen into some strange meat pit from hell (Welcome to Meat Hab). Simply reading from the wrong book can end up burning out your brain and tearing out your soul, leaving you a puppet to an invading force that considers sapient thought the prefered spice for a good meal. When magic behaves like that and carries enough risk that the average magician can accidentally end human civilization through a round of drunk casting, it makes perfect sense for large groups of powerful people think that it simply isn't worth the risk of poking. This is a force that makes things like gunpowder and electricity look like a child's toy in its potential to destroy and ruin. So even if you don't entirely agree with the Catholic Church's methods and goals... You understand why they're doing this because magic set free doesn't just pose a risk to individuals but to everyone. On the flip side, we see just enough potential for what magic can do that we can see why some people would think it's worth the risk (I’ll be honest… I’d be really tempted to Read the Latin(™){This is why you never get recruited to fight ye olde powers of darkness}). The magic here has more to do with H.P Lovecraft then Disney.

This is one of the better urban fantasies I've read lately, if one of the darker ones. There are a lot of mature themes in this story and it's held up by well done characterization of all the members of Team Three. It helps that while Sal is our viewpoint character, we do get to spend time in the heads of each team member and we get to understand not only what they think but why they think it. The writers also do an amazing job of keeping the tone of the work and treatment of the characters fairly consistent throughout the book even through each episode in the book has a different writer. That can be hard to do and takes a lot of communication and trust between the members of the group. So I would like to take a moment to congratulate the four authors of this book just for that accomplishment. Not to mention taking a group that in many stories would be the bad guys and giving them their own space to present their case. Bookburners by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty and Brian Francis Slattery gets an A from me. You can pick up the print version like I did on Amazon or your local bookstore or buy the season digitally from serial box, see the link below.

Whew... I just finished and reviewed a book with... 790 pages... In a week. I think it's time for something short readers. So next week, we're returning to the dwarves, join us for a graphic novel. Keep Reading!

You can read bookburners on line at https://www.serialbox.com/serials/bookburners?season=1
You can read my review of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold at http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2017/11 ... eated.html

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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"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 May 11, 2018 9:47 pm 
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Dwarves Vol 6: Jorun of the Forge
by Nichols Jarry, Art by Pierre Denis Goux


“He's a legend and I'm nothing” Jorun, son of Redwin.
In the dim past of March 2017, I reviewed a French fantasy comic with the rather undescriptive title of “Dwarves”, written by the prolific Nichols Jarry; who has a large number of comics and novels to his name in his native France published by Delcourt comics. They are still the 3rd largest publisher of comics within the French publishing world. It was then that I learned something marvelous and very frustrating. Despite our long political alliance and the fact that France is our 3rd largest trading partner in Europe, there doesn't seem to be a lot of exchange between us in regards to entertainment and fiction. There is some don't get me wrong, we all joke about French Art Films (I'm sure they joke about American Action Films) and such. But perhaps through an accident of history, we honestly get more comics, movies, and video games from Asia; especially from South Korea and Japan, or at least not a lot of French products end up here. I'm sure if this review series has any French fans, they would be quick to inform me that there is quiet enough American entertainment in France but back to the comic. The comic I reviewed was Volume I: Redwin of the Forge (go read it!), which dealt with the struggles of Redwin, a young Dwarf who had to learn how to control himself and just what it was he wanted in the world. I found the comic fascinating and bought the follow up volumes that, while set in the same world, did not really connect with Redwin's tale. Until now.

Jorun, our main character for this story, is Redwin's youngest son. Redwin has retired and given up on a life of violence and death, preferring to focus on being a blacksmith, husband, and father. For the most part he manages it but every child brings special challenges. In this case it's Jorun, a son who in his own eyes has inherited none of his father's talents in blacksmithing and fighting, but he has inherited his father's nearly bottomless rage and self loathing. It doesn't help that Jorun's older brother Ulrog (named for his grandparents) is a exceptionally talented smith and fighter; as well as charming, friendly and well... everything Jorun isn't,and that only feeds that rage further. This is sparked by a accident in Redwin's forge where Jorun scars himself as a young child and sets the tone for his entire life. People tell him what he should do to avoid getting hurt and angry with the world and he ignores them. He then gets hurt and lashes out. This pattern continues throughout his childhood with his Father trying to reign him in and only pouring fuel on the fire. This leaves both of them completely at the end of their rope with each other. Part of it is Redwin seeing himself in Jorun, his younger, self destructive, angry self that left a trail of death and ruin in his wake. Part of it is Jorun so damn sure that he’s inherited nothing of value from his father and refusing to consider any other options. This continues until after one last escalation, Redwin decides that there's only one step he can take to avoid a future where he and his son try to kill each other. He takes his youngest son and inducts him into the Iron Legion.

The Iron Legion is a mercenary army that takes in the reckless, the desperate, those with no hope and no future. It's a place where those accused of crimes or rejected by their families or even those who simply can find no other way to live can start over. All the Legion asks is utter obedience to their code, relentless training, and that you abandon your past and consider the Legion your new family. If this sounds like the Foreign Legion for Dwarves, you wouldn't be far wrong I think. Redwin sends his youngest son to them, leaving Jorun a magic sword as his birthright. Jorun for his part cuts himself off from his family entirely, burning the letters his Mother sends to him and burying himself in the Legion life. It's here that Jorun finds the mentor he needs, who strangely enough was an apprentice of Jorun's grandfather Ulrog. I mentioned in my last review that Ulrog's life was an utter mystery and here we are only given slight hints and clues. What did Ulrog have to do with the Iron Legion? Why did he leave? What drove him to adopt a strict pacifism that he would only drop to save his son's life? Under new mentorship, Jorun manages to contain his rage enough to have friends and even a lover but he's still just holding it back and he still cannot restrain his self loathing. However, he's going to have to learn to come to peace with not just himself but with his family and his past. Because his Father's past is coming and if they can't figure out how to deal with it, there might not be anyone around for Jorun to be angry with anymore. Because ye olde forces of darkness are marching on Dwarf lands once more and the divided Fortress states are dithering and quibbling instead of uniting. Jorun is going to have to decide what is most important to him and make decisions that will dictate the rest of his life from there on out.

This is a story about family, what brings it together and what drives it apart. Whether it be a Mother's love for her son, or a Father frustration with being unable to communicate with his son or a son's inability to look past his self loathing and anger with the world. Like Redwin, Jorun has to learn to deal with his flaws and find his place in the world. The writing is well done, Jorun is not a very likeable character bluntly but he is sympathetic in a way, as you realize as much as you might dislike him, Jorun dislikes himself even more. That said he doesn't whine about it, this book wasn't dripping in angst but it does dictate his actions. The art as always is amazing. The Dwarves look distinctive from humans even without the height difference and it's done without venturing into the uncanny valley. The action is captured in a very dramatic style and the colors are used in very nice way. That said, I do have to state for the record that the Iron Legion armor design is bloody ridiculous. Stop layering spikes everywhere guys, it's actually more dangerous for the guy wearing the armor then anyone else and makes standing in a shield wall or any other close formation an act of bloody insanity. You cannot stand in close file if the spikes layered all over the guy next to you are as likely to stab you as the enemy. Still that only real complaint I have here. So I'll be giving Dwarves Vol 6: Jorun of the Forge an A.

Next Week? We head eastward, join us for Log Horizon volume 9. Keep reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Read my review of Volume I here: http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2017/03 ... ge-by.html

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Log Horizon Vol IX: Go East Kanami
By Mamare Touno


So once again we have returned to the world of Log Horizon, where thousands of players found themselves trapped in the world of Elder Tales, a MMORPG turned real. The trapped players aren't helpless because they’ve awoken in the bodies of their characters and have gained their in-game powers and abilities. Through the actions of Shiroe, in Akiba (Which is geographically Japan, we’ll get to that later), a government has been hammered together to bring rules to the interactions between player. Peace has been made with the People of the Earth, who in the game were computer run NPCs; but are now sapient people with their own goals, desires, and feelings. That's Japan though, where the last 8 novels have focused but what about the rest of the world? Volume IX attempts to give us a bit of a peek at the rest of the world. As such it doesn't feature any of the characters from the last eight novels but instead gives us an entirely new group battling it's way across Asia to reach Japan. Let's met these folks.

Kanami, while never directly featured has been mentioned and discussed before in the series, as she was the leader and instigator of the Debauchery Tea Party, the old group where Shiroe, Naotsugu, and Nyanta meet and formed their friendship. Kanami back then was playing a swashbuckler but now is playing a monk and was online when the game pulled everyone in. Only she was in Europe living in Italy, with her husband (who was a member of Doctors without Borders) and young daughter. As such she's fairly interested in getting back to Earth. Kanami is a fairly whimsical woman, whose main motivation is seeing new and exciting things, but she is also a lot smarter then she lets on and fairly brave. For example looking around the chaos of Western Europe, she was able to find and recruit two powerful companions and logically figure out her best bet in achieving her goals. Kanami wants to get back to Earth, to that end she needs to figure out what exactly happened. Odds are high that it is related to the new expansion, Homesteading the Noosphere, which was only fully implanted on the Japanese servers before everyone was transported to the world of Elder Tales. Therefore she needs to get to Japan. Given how most characters are busy losing their minds in reaction to being transported to a fantasy world that looks like a video game they were playing... That's pretty impressive. Let's look at the people she's recruited for this.

KR is another member of the Debauchery Tea Party that Kanami was able to link with. He's a summoner, a magic class that makes its bones by summoning spirits and creatures to do their fighting for them. KR had decided to scout out the parts of Asia closest to Japan and used a summoner skill where he transported his conscious into the body of such a servant. In this case a horse like creature called a hakutaku from Chinese myth. KR isn't able to do much more than advise as while the hakutaku is fast and able to travel quickly for long periods of time, it's not really a combat monster. That's okay because Kanami has other members of the party to do the actual fighting and it's not like she's a lightweight in a fight being at max level. That said she does have company on the front line.

Elias Hackblade, is an Ancient, a turbo powered NPC. The Ancients were high powered NPCs who played a major part in the video game's backstory. They were presented as the last line of defense for the People of Earth, powerful magic users and knights who stand between them and extinction. However all the Ancients have disappeared leaving the People of the Earth dependent on the Adventurers (the players who have found themselves stranded) in the exact moment that the Adventurers are least able to serve the role. Elias himself was locked into a magical sleep until Kanami found him and rescued him, thinking that such a powerful NPC might be helpful. Elias had a fairly unique backstory written out out for him but with a rather harsh weakness. He can't actually kill monsters with his powers, as that would be kill stealing from the PCs. Back when Elder Tales was just a game, Elias was just a background character but now he's a person with his own powers of reason and motivation. Elias wants to find out what happened to the other Ancients, why it happened and who did it because if someone out there can wipe out every powerful NPC, it's likely they don't have good things planned for the people of this world. He and Kanami aren't alone however.

Coppelia is an interesting character in her own right. A high level cleric who Kanami found in France, she doesn't really have goals of her own but is content to follow where Kanami leads. We learn that she does however have her own reasons for heading to Japan even if she was unlikely to do so on her own. I can't really discuss her however without dropping large spoilers so I'll just say this: it's her relationships with the other characters in this book that are pivotal or maybe I should say relationship with one certain character that's important. Let's talk about him shall we?

Leonardo, named for a popular hero who is a ninja but totally not a turtle, is a New York Geek who fled his hometown during the chaos of the change (the world of Elder Tales actually uses a half size map of Earth, which is kind of clever. I mean think of it, you could simply use Google Earth to design your overworld, that has to save on some man hours). He did so by leaping through a not completely functional fairy ring, an instant teleportation device meant to ease travel between cities. The darn thing dumped him in Central Asia of places. Because of the lack of player base in Central Asia, it's very undeveloped in game content but as Leonardo finds out, underdeveloped doesn't mean completely undeveloped as he finds himself trapped in a raid event all by himself until Kanami and her crew get him out. Leonardo makes for an interesting change but is also honestly the weakest character here and I don't mean combat-wise. Most of Leonardo's character arc is taken up realizing things that we already know or seeing him commit to being a hero like his name sake. We've kinda seen this arc in the series, most effectively in Shiroe himself. So... Why is he even here then? Don't get me wrong, he's a cool character but I don't see what he's bringing to this story that hasn't been done already.

Additionally, I'm not convinced on Leonardo's Americaness. He doesn't act like the New Yorkers I've known, nor does he act like an American Geek. Instead his actions and preconceptions match pretty closely with the Japanese characters we've already seen. As far as I know Mr. Touno has never spent a lot of time in the United States, so I'm not shocked that he's not quite able to nail an American character in his first attempt. For that matter this isn't a unique thing on his part, I've noticed European writers have problems writing North American cities and characters as anything but Europeans with slightly different accents and I'm pretty sure there are North American writers who have utterly failed to get European characters (if you’re a European fan feel free to name names in the comments!). Now I'm not saying that any nation or people is a hive mind and all Europeans, Japanese, or North Americans will act or think or even believe the same things but there are cultural habits, beliefs and actions that make us different from one another. I've been lucky enough to speak to French men, English folks, Indonesian students, and people from Vietnam and East Timour; and we all approach things from a place that's informed by what we're taught growing up, our experiences, and places in life. An American Geek who models himself on a Ninja Turtle (sorry, frog) isn't going to act like a Japanese shut in. I suppose that while we should always remember the things that bring us together and that we have in common, we also need to keep in mind our differences as well.

Through this story we're given a peek at the rest of the world and we're shown that Akiba's government is a rare thing, perhaps the only example of it's kind in the whole world. A government where guilds cooperate with each other and the People of the Earth. I'm not entirely sold on that either but I'm willing to go along with it to see what Mr. Touno does with that. Although I would admit in such a real life situation I would be a touch disappointed in my fellow Americans. I mean really guys, not one of you would not try to follow the example of James Madison and write a Constitution? Not one of you would try to be George Washington, or at least Thomas Paine? Okay, I'm being silly here, this is a Japanese story and I shouldn't be surprised that Japan and the Japanese take center stage. The book also gives us information on the different character classes, it appears each server got a pair of it's own unique classes and I like that touch. It's something I could see a computer game company doing to help drum up local interest. Log Horizon Volume IX is interesting in it's change of scene, Mr. Touno clearly has been to Central Asia and admits as much with his vivid description of the environment and the sky. He also introduces new plot elements and clues in the ongoing mystery of how the hell did this happened. That said, Leonardo kinda brings the story down and having to suffer through the same character arc only from square one is a bit grating. The other characters help to an extent but I find myself asking why couldn't Kanami have center stage instead of Leonardo, as she at least has her shit together and it's her goals and agenda driving the plot in the first place, not to mention it's her name in the title. Log Horizon Volume IX: Go East Kanami by Mamare Touno gets a C+ from me. Not awfully done but Mr. Touno should be more careful in retreading the same character arc over and over.

Man, now I want to review some Ninja Turtles. You know what let me post our schedule.

Next Week, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the IDW Collection I.
After that, Delcourt Comics, Elves I
We'll kick off June with Maus Vol I and then Vol II.
Then we go historical with Trail of Hop and Black Wings.

Keep Reading!



This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IDW Vol: I
By Kevin Eastman and Tom Waltz

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were first created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984. The story being that during a brainstorming session Mr. Eastman sketched out a ninja turtle with a pair of nunchucks and everybody thought it was hilarious. The first issue of the comic (funded by a tax refund and a small loan from a relative) was partially meant to parody comics like Daredevil (the Foot Clan was inspired by Marvel's Hand clan of ninja's) and Ronin who were going through a celebrated run of stories using a gritty and dark tone. The first issue had all of three thousand printings and mostly sold at a local convention, but it caught attention because, dear readers, this was the eighties and there were powerful forces afoot in our entertainment industry: the Turtles caught the attention of the toy companies. By 1987 there was a cartoon series that would last for ten seasons (with more cartoon series that would come in the 21st century), later would come live action movies, more toys, a rock-band tour and of course during all of this was comic book after comic book. The Turtles survive to this day, despite the best efforts of Hollywood. Let's talk about the series creators first and I'll talk about Tom Waltz, who wrote specifically for this comic book series.

Kevin Eastman was born in Portland, Maine, in 1962. He was following a waitress he had met while working in a restaurant (He was dating this waitress, right? Not like, just following her? Because the way you put this is really up for interpretation{No idea, no source says, anyways it's not part of the review}) when he met Peter Laird. They founded Mirage Studios, the name was chosen because, having no money or facilities, the studio was more of a mirage than anything else (Okay, that’s actually pretty damn funny as far as I’m concerned). Eastman would try a number of things out besides creating the Ninja Turtles, such as founding Tundra Publishing (now defunct) and was the owner of Heavy Metal from 1992 to 2014.

Peter Laird, was born in North Adams, Massachusetts in 1954. Before the Ninja Turtles he was trying to scratch out a living doing illustrations for the local newspaper (which paid him the grand sum of $10 a picture) and local fanzines (I'll talk about these another day). It was that experience that lead Mr. Laird to set up a press kit for the release of the Ninja Turtles which helped them grab attention. Additionally Mr. Laird's Uncle actually loaned him the money to set up Mirage Studios, something that profoundly affected him. This led him to founding the Xeric Foundation, a charitable organization that would award grants to comic book creators to help them self publish. In twenty years they would award over 2.5 million dollars.

Now, Tom Waltz is a former active duty Marine serving during Desert Storm, he also served in the California National Guard, he is currently an editor for IDW and served as a writer for this graphic novel.

This collection serves as a reset on the Turtle Origin story. While a good amount of it is left the same as the other comic origins (where the Turtles and Splinter were lab animals, not pets accidentally exposed to the mutagen ooze). The turtles origin is in a botched case of corporate espionage, as they and the mutagen were stolen from the lab they were housed in by Foot Ninjas only for that to be foiled by Splinter in his pre-mutated state. Added is something only referred to a Psychotropic Compound, something that was injected into Splinter greatly increasing the rat's intelligence (thus he was a lab rat with human intelligence before he was mutated) and triggering something odd. Because in this origin the biggest deviation is the interjection of reincarnation. Splinter is not the pet rat of Hamato Yoshi, the wronged and murdered foot ninja, nor is he the ninja mutated into a rat. Instead he is the reincarnation of Hamato Yoshi and being injected with the Psychotropic Compound not only altered his physiology (as his blood now produces the compound) but awakened those memories within him. The turtles are also reincarnations, in this case the reincarnations of Hamato Yoshi's son's murdered by the Shredder many years ago. The turtles themselves don't have any memories of their prior lives but are able to learn the ninja arts at an accelerated rate, possibly due to being exposed to Splinter's blood when they were stolen by Foot Ninjas and rescued by Splinter (Oh wow… this is actually really touching in a way…). New characters are also introduced; in this case the figure of Old Hob, a mutated stray cat. His grudge against our heroes is the result of that botched break out, as a stray cat he tried to nab one of the turtles and fought Splinter. Splinter was injured and left bleeding, but Old Hob lost an eye and didn't get his meal. Old Hob seems to have taken that fight personally and made it his mission to kill the turtles and Splinter. Old Hob has also been exposed to the Psychotropic Compound through contact with Splinter's blood and uses his new intelligent for the twin goals of building an empire on the streets of New York and gaining blood soaked revenge on Splinter for daring to defend his loved ones.

There are also plenty of returning characters. April O'Neil returns as a college student, who while working as an intern Sees Too Much (™). Also we have Casey Jones, who returns as a troubled youth with a heart of gold and a drunken abusive father. Casey Jones is also Raphael’s best friend in this version and they get together at least once a week to cruise the streets and beat up criminals (Awww, they’re bonding!). There are also enemies that return here, such as the Shredder (can't really have a Turtles series without him can we?), along side of the Shredder are Kari, his granddaughter and right hand woman as well as the gang bangers Rocksteady and Bebop, although they aren't mutants yet (Aww man!). Also present in the background is the alien general Krang and taking center stage in this graphic novel, Baxter Stockmen, who was experimenting on the Turtles as a weapon development project for Krang. In this series, Baxter is a scientist and successful businessman. In fact he's the guy who develops the mutagen from the ooze provided to him by Krang. He also played a key role in the development of the psychotropic compound, but for reasons unexplained isn't able to replicate his work and as such funds (but doesn't aide) Old Hob on his quest for revenge as long as he gets Splinter's body reasonably intact at the end.

This is an origin story, a retelling of the origins of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their enemies. As such they do make it a point to make the characters work to find out just who the Foot Clan are and why Old Hob is hunting them. The series doesn't drag it out, knowing full well that most of us already know the answers to these questions so there's not much to be gained to prolonging the story. That said there are things that this series does pretty well. Perhaps due to the reincarnation angle, the feud between Shredder and Splinter feels more visceral, more driven by rage and loss then previous versions I'd seen. Additionally each of the Turtles gets an issue to themselves allowing work to be done on their characterization. The Turtles feel like individuals with their own family dynamics within the unit. Donatello, isn't just the smart nerd in the back, he's the one who openly doubts the idea of them being reincarnated people and is the one most willing to question Splinter while at the same time showing nothing but love and respect for his father. This makes him rather independent in a lot of ways. Leonardo is given more to do then just be consumed by the martial arts. He's the most spiritual of the group, the most willing to explore the idea that he might have been a Japanese teenager at one point in the past who was murdered by a warlord. He is also the Turtle most prone to accepting everything Splinter tells him, which is both a strength and weakness. Raphael is the angrest of the group but is also the first one to make a human friend. While he has a good amount of rage within, it's balanced by a desire to honestly help people. He's the one most likely to jump into a situation to help someone in trouble. Michelangelo might enjoy pizza and partying but he's also the biggest social creature out of the four and out of all of them seems to want to be able to be a part of human society the most. He's also the peace maker of the group, being the one to step in when any of the others are on the verge of brawling and reminding them of what's important.

This series carries the themes of revenge and family. Splinter wants revenge for not just his murder as Hamato Yoshi but the murder of his wife Tang Shin and their four sons. Old Hob wants revenge for his eye. What separates the two of them is that Splinter puts his love for his sons first and is willing to give up vengeance if it will be better for his children, showing a true devotion to fatherhood. Meanwhile Old Hob hates everything alive. The Turtles themselves are bound by brotherhood against a world that would hate and fear them if it knew they existed. On the flip side of that Shredder, Kari and the Foot Clan are held together by toxic and abusive versions of the family bonds that the Turtles display. We also see this in April O'Neil and Casey Jones, Jones family fell apart when his Mother died, his Father crawled into a bottle and never came back. Because of that Jones life is slowly circling the gutter and street violence is really his only outlet left. Meanwhile April's father has suffered a stroke but her family has pulled together to ensure his well being and that April finishes college. Having all these different versions of family as well as a look at revenge (for example Splinter certain has a better complaint then Old Hob but is willing to abandon it for the safety and well being of his sons. Old Hob won't drop his complaint even to save his own life) really ties the graphic novel together. I also found it a good buy in that it had 12 issues and 4 stand alones all brought together so it weights in at over 300 pages. Not bad in a world of shrinking comic page counts and rising prices. I'm giving Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Vol I an A.

Next week, Elves.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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Elves Vol I: Crystal of the Blue Elves
By Jean Luc Istan
Art by Kyko Duarte


Elves, a French fantasy comic published by Delcourt, is set in the same world as Dwarves. This volume was written by Jean Istan, a screenwriter, comic book author, and designer who was born in August of 1970 in Pontivy. The lead artist is Kyko Duarte who was born in Spain in 1975 and started out in advertising before branching into the world of comics. But let's turn to the comic. Elves is set in the same world as the Dwarves series but focuses instead on the Elvish peoples. The Elves are of this world are immortal beings unless killed by violence or accident and are highly varied, as they have spread out to a number of environments. There are 19 graphic novels in the series at the time of this review, each one focused on a specific group of Elves.

Crystal of the Blue Elves is a story of the Blue Elves, unsurprisingly. We would call them Sea Elves I think, because they live near the water and have a strong affinity for water and water magic. They are also a very calming shade of blue. The story itself is divided between two plot lines which intersect toward the end. The first plot revolves around the discovery, by a Blue Elf adventureress named Lanawyn and her human friend Turin, that all the Elves of Ennlya, a small port town have been savagely murdered. Among the dead a dagger of Yrlan is found, the Yrland are a group of humans whose King, named Rinn, hates the Blue Elves because they have the audacity to refuse him fishing and sailing rights in certain areas. However, while the Yrlan are a war like bunch and likely good fighters, it does seem strange that they could massacre an entire town of Blue Elves with no witnesses and leave behind a single dagger. Not to mention this is out of character for them, as they tend to look down on stealth tactics and prefer open warfare. Lanawyn and Turin find themselves charged by the King of the Blue Elves Aamon to figure out exactly what happened to the elves of Ennlya as inconsistencies mount and King Rinn of the Yrlan readies to take an opportunity for war and genocide. Luckily Lanawyn is an intelligent Elf and Turin has friends everywhere, they're going to need every scrap of wits and favor that friendship can call in to solve this and fast.

Meanwhile Vaalann, a young Blue Elf lady, finds she might have a storied fate in front of her. Long ago Ulronn, an Elf Mage, used unknown magical means to create three crystals. Each crystal has a unique but terrifying power. In fact, the creation of the Crystals drove him mad and he became a Dark Elf. Rather then give up the crystals or use them responsibly, Ulronn used them to try and (all together folks) conquer the world! A Blue Elf mage played a key part in defeating him so the crystal with the power to control the ocean (yes, the entire thing) was given to the Blue Elves. Worried about the corrupting power of such a powerful artifact, the Blue Elves hid it on the floor of the ocean and convinced a race of sea monsters known as the Myst to guard it. The Myst have the ability to look into the soul of anyone who approaches them, if that person's soul has anything but a desire to use the crystal peacefully and for good, the Myst drown them. A number of Blue Elves have risked their immortal lives because there is a belief that one day a chosen Elf will rise to use the power of the crystal and craft a golden age. Vaalann believes she just might be that chosen Elf but is she or just another in a long line of folks who've let their ego write a check they can't cash? The Blue Elves will need an answer soon, as they may find themselves in a war that if they lose will see the extinction of their race. So they might just need to resort to using the ocean as a weapon to stay alive.

The graphic novel gives us a pair of stories that are rather separate until the very end of the novel and frankly in my opinion the graphic novel suffers for it. The story has about fifty pages and as a result can't really devote enough time to really get into either plot line. So both stories feel like they're moving incredibly quickly, has such we know a lot less about Turin and Lanawyn then I would like and Vaalann feels a bit like a plot device. Additionally, there's a twist ending that just didn't feel satisfying. The story itself is a rather solid one and the characters are fairly likable and not uninteresting but they need more time and development to pull in the reader in my opinion. Additionally I didn't really get a sense of Blue Elf Culture or their beliefs. They seem to use water magic for a wide variety of things, foretelling the future for example but other than that? When I read Redwin of the forge, I got a good overview of a living breathing culture with Redwin as it's representative. Here I'm not sure how the Blue Elves live, how their culture functions or what they hold important beyond the sea itself. Nor am I left with an understanding of any of the characters, or what they're doing when they're not trying to prevent unnecessary wars. So I'm left with a mild interest in the Blue Elves and in the characters but not much else. That said, the art is amazing in this comic and I do get the sense that if given the proper space to tell this story that it would be a good one. So I have to say I think this fell victim to the page count, so I'll have to hold it as an example of remembering to match your story ambitions to your space. I am hopeful as I go further into the series though that I will see an improvement. From what I understand Elves was the first series so it would make sense that Dwarves benefited from it's lessons. All in all Elves Vol I by Jean Luc Istan and Kyko Duarte gets a C- from me. It's not awful but it's not anything I can honestly recommend either.

Next week, we kick off a month of looking at books that deal with World War II and its repercussions. So join me for Maus Part I. Additionally, coming in August will be Solarpunk month, if you have a solarpunk book you'd like me to review please leave a recommendation. If you have no clue what Solarpunk is? Don't worry you will by the end of August. Keep Reading!

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Maus Part I: My Father Bleeds History
By Art Spiegelman


Art Spiegelman was born in Stockholm, Sweden in February of 1948. His parents moved to Sweden from Poland after World War II, and in 1951 they relocated to the United States of America. Art began drawing cartoons in 1960 and was earning money for his work while in high school. After graduating in 1965, his parents encouraged him to consider something financially sound, like dentistry, but he choose to enroll instead at Harpur's College to study Art and Philosophy. He attended from 1965 to 1968, working at the college paper while going to classes. In 1968 he suffered a nervous breakdown, to pile it on his mother committed suicide a month after he was released from Binghamton State Mental Hospital. He moved to San Francisco and threw himself into the underground comix movement (which deserves a discussion on a later date). It's in 1972 he produced his first comic about the holocaust showing Jews as mice being persecuted by Nazi Cats. He would return to this but first he moved back to New York in 1975 as the underground comix movement hit a slow down. Here he met his future wife but I'll cover more of this next week.

Maus is an odd graphic novel. It's part history, part biography, part autobiography and part meta commentary on the work of creating the graphic novel. The comic was originally published in Raw, a magazine that Art was editing and his wife was publishing. A new chapter would appear in Raw until 1991 which published every chapter but the very last one. Maus was released at a time when comics were seen as either childish power fantasy with the mass market neatly divided between Marvel and DC or with a stalled and stale underground comix movement that seemed to be running out of gas. Unlike today, there weren't many comics that weren't superhero comics (although I'll admit even today superhero comics dominate in North America). The graphic novel was able to reach a wide audience because it was sold in bookstores instead of just comic shops and helped change the perception of what a comic book could be in the English speaking world. It won enough awards to fill a bookcase, among them the Pulitzer, the Eisner, and the Harvey award; and a small academic industry has grown up around the graphic novel as it is taught in schools across the world. As of 2011 it has been translated into 30 different languages, including German and Polish. It's not without its critics as its depictions of the Polish people is less than flattering (given that Mr. Spiegelman draws them as pigs just to start with), but let's discuss the comic.

Maus is focused on Vladek Speigelman, a Polish Jew (or as some would insist a Jew living in Poland but if a man whose father and grandfather were born there isn't a Pole than who is? (That’s an interesting question. It would depend largely on whether the Jews living in Poland considered themselves Poles, and whether the Poles considered said Jews to be Poles. Remember, these are ethnic concepts of nationality, not ones where place of birth--even after multiple generations--necessarily matters.{I'm aware of this as an anthropologist, but the thing is Vladek has enough Polish cultural traits that if he was a Catholic, everyone would call him a Pole} I would hazard, given the history of the Jewish people and the depths of antisemitism that existed--and still exists--within the country, that the answer is probably closer to Jews Living in Poland, though mileage may vary! You have to remember that while Poland produced IIRC the most Righteous Among the Nations acting as individuals, resistance to the Shoah was not organized like it was in Denmark, and collaboration by the Poles in the Shoah was absolutely rife, as much as the modern Polish government tries to deny and even criminalize acknowledgement of that fact. The reality was, Jews in Poland were associated with Bolshevism and seeing as there had been a war with Soviet Russia in 1920 and the USSR had invaded and annexed half of Poland in 1939...yeah. Note: I am using the Shoah to distinguish between the mass murder of Jews, and Holocaust which I tend to use for the whole Nazi program of slaughtering all Untermenschen und Mindervertige. There otherwise wouldn’t really be a word to describe that because both are often used only to refer to the killing of Jews. The other six million people who were worked to death or crammed into gas chambers are often little more than a footnote. Gay men were killed by the tens of thousands and to this day that’s pretty much ignored in the media and school curricula. Gay survivors were also kept in prison after the war because our existence was still criminalized. Anyway, I’m rambling and I’ll stop.)) who in the ending years of the 1930s has become an adult started a business, married, and started a family. Vladek as you might have guessed is Mr. Spiegelman's father and the book also includes scenes set in the late 1970s/early 1980s of him discussing what happened to him with his now adult son. As such we see the young Vladek and the old one at times right next to each other. We learn that Father and son have a rather complicated relationship, part of this is driven by Vladek's personality. He's quarrelsome, miserly in a lot of ways and suspicious of people (Gee, I wonder why…). Meanwhile Art Spiegelman is not without his own personality flaws and the writing addresses his own frustrations with his father and their relationship. That said our writer is not the only person having a strained relationship with Vladek, as the book also features Mala, Vladek's second wife. Frankly given what I've seen in this book, Vladek and Mala have one of those marriages you sometimes see where you're constantly asking yourself why they stay together or why they got together in the first place. That said most of the characters we are introduced to are in the past.

This part of the novel covers Vladek meeting Anja, his wife and Mr. Spiegelman's mother. We see their courtship and early family life. Here we learn that Anja actually came from a wealthy family and marrying her helped Vladek in setting up his business. That said, we also see a bit of Vladek's true feelings for his wife as he is willing to go to lengths to help her deal with postpartum depression after the birth of their first son, Richleu. We see that even without the Nazis there was a great deal of anti-semitism in Poland before the war, as Vladek and his family have to worry about riots and other actions by the Poles against them. I would like to note for the record here that this wasn't unique to Germany or Poland, there were many nations in East and Central Europe where Jewish people weren't safe (Read: All of it). Nor were they immune from discrimination and attack even in Western Europe. We also see a bit of the German invasion of Poland, as Vladek is called up into the Polish army and sent to fight and finds his first experience with Nazism as a POW. The book covers Vladek's actions to keep his family out of the concentration camps; hiding in bunkers or the homes of local Poles, some of whom are willing to hide Jews as long as those Jews could pay (See what I mean?). Mr. Spiegelman also gives us a look at the extent to which some Jews cooperated with the Nazis or at least tried to enrich themselves at others expense. Whether it be the Jewish councils who were put in a situation where they could give up part of their people or all of their people, black market profiteers or Jewish men who choose to work as enforcers in the ghettos for the Nazis. We are given a look at how the extreme situations gnaws at people's bonds to one another and to what extremes people will go in desperation to protect themselves and the people they love (If I go into complexity of this and how it was part of a complex Nazi scheme to both dehumanize their victims and keep them divided among themselves to prevent resistance...more than I already have...I won’t stop. If you can’t tell dear readers, the editor gets a bit worked up over the Holocaust.). Part I ends as every scheme, tactic and hidden place that Vladek can conjure up to protect his ever shrinking family finally fails and he and Anja are taken by the Nazis to perhaps the most dread place in Nazi occupied Europe in 1944. Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Vladek himself interestingly enough doesn't express a lot of anger or judgment at the people in these situations with him. Even mentioning being on good terms with a man who took advantage of his family in some ways but in doing so likely saved his life. His view is those were the times they were living in, where people did what they had to do to survive and that's really the stakes they were playing for. It's hard for me to condemn someone who trying to avoid being gassed and shoveled into oven, knowing that the people in charge of their fate viewed them as less than human and were happy to do so. The book pulls no punches when it comes to how Jews were treated. We see a nightmare through the eyes of a man who survived it. It's only through Vladek eyes that we see this nightmare, his wife Anja did leave between written records of her experiences but they were destroyed after her suicide by Vladek while he was in mourning. Mr. Spiegelman himself shows no interest in the experiences of Vladek's second wife, Mala within the book for that matter, focusing entirely on his father. Which suggests to me that among other things, this was Mr. Spiegelman's attempt to try and understand his father and make some sort of peace with him by traveling with him through the most traumatic time of his life and one of the great traumas of the 20th century even if it was only in memory.

Maus is a very small scale story in a lot of ways. You don't get discussion of what was going on in Europe or the world at the time. You don't see the great sweeping battles or the decisions made by the powerful that would dictate the fate of entire continents; and it's a stronger and better story for it. Instead you see the very human effects of those battles and decisions. This isn't the story of Europe or even the story of European Jews. There's no great action scenes here or epic intrigue. It's the story of a Jewish businessman trying to keep his wife and son alive while the entire world around him loses its damn mind and decides to try and kill him and his people over their heritage. It's a stronger story for maintaining it's low to the ground view and focus on a single person and his family because if nothing else it gives a face to those statistics we have drilled into us at school. Learning six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis for daring to exist is just a set of numbers, reading a man watching his father-in-law being send to his death or having to speak about the death of family members makes it something that happened to a person (There’s a reason why I periodically rewatch a multi-part documentary series called Auschwitz:The Nazis and the Final Solution, and watch other interviews with survivors. It has a lot of interviews with survivors. The Shoah, and the larger Holocaust, are not something we can afford to forget. Already the words Never Again ring hollow because as a global society, we have failed to prevent genocide in the post war period. In part, I think, because it has been reduced to numbers and it’s hard for humans to care about those.). Mr. Spiegelman does a good job of telling a human story set in an inhuman time. Maus Part I: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman gets an A. As for why I'm using this story to talk about World War II... Well, I'll speak on that to.

Red text is our editor Dr. Ben Allen, dark text is me, your own reviewer.

Next week Maus Part II: And here my troubles began. This Sunday, Sidebar why start here? Keep Reading.

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"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 Jun 15, 2018 9:15 pm 
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Maus Part II: And here my troubles began
By Art Spiegelman

Last week we talked about Mr. Spiegelman, this week I would like to talk about another person who was heavily involved in the making of this graphic novel: Francoise Mouly, Mr. Spiegelman's wife, editor; and for the all but the very last chapter of Maus, his publisher. Mrs. Mouly was born in Paris, France in the year 1955. She was the daughter of a plastic surgeon who pioneered a method of breast reduction and currently lives in New York with her husband Art. When she was 13, she lived through the intense social upheaval of May 1968 in Paris and this heavily influenced her politics as she grew up. She entered the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in the 1970 to study architecture but was unhappy doing so. So in 1974 she headed off to New York City. While in New York she mostly did odd jobs and worked on her English, she met Art Speigelman but neither of them were really interested in the other until she read his underground comix work “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” which moved her to call him. They proceeded to have an 8 hour phone conservation. When she went back to France to finish her degree, Art went with her. When they returned in 1977, they married to solve the Visa problems she was having. She would help her husband with a collection of his Breakdown strips when the printer botched it completely, with 30% of the run being utterly unusable. At this point she decided she would control the printing process to ensure it was done right. She founded Raw Books and Comics, where Maus would first be published, in 1978. It's goal was to provide an outlet for younger creators who didn't fit the current mold or European creators who were trying to get their work into the US. By the end of the 1980s Penguin books would take on publishing duties. But let's get to Maus II.

Francoise makes her appearance in this part of the graphic novel, as Volume II is more meta-fictional than Volume I in a lot of ways but I'll address that in a bit. Maus II starts off with Vladek and Anja being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau; a place that’s become a byword for horror and evil in a multitude of languages because of what was done there. In the interests of completion I will briefly touch on it anyways (If he didn’t I would. Still will. Weil, nie wieder.). Auschwitz-Birkenau was a complex of concentration and extermination camps. First built to hold Polish political prisoners, it opened in May of 1940 (at the site of an old Polish Army training base), by September of 1941 it was being used to murder people in large numbers (mostly through working them to death at that stage.). Upon the formal adoption of so-called Final Solution (after the conference at Wannsee), from 1942 to 1944 it was the center of a vast logistical network that transported people from across Europe to be killed, mostly by use of Zyklon B, crystallized hydrogen cyanide that sublimated into gas. (I feel like the history of this particular gas is important. Ironically enough it was invented by a Jew, Fritz Haber. Some of you might remember him for his Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing the Haber-Bosch Process: the catalytic synthesis of ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen, for use as fertilizer. We still use that process. However, he was a hard-core German patriot during WW1. This is the sad contrast between Jews Living in Poland and German Jews at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, before the Nazis. His love for his country became an obsession and he became the father of chemical warfare, inventing the process by which chlorine gas was synthesized and developing gas masks. On it went, in an arms race with fellow Laureate the French chemist Victor Grignard, until millions were dead or disfigured by their grotesque inventions. His wife Clara, also a chemist, committed suicide in protest of his twisting chemistry to murder. His research institute invented Zyklon A which was later developed into Zyklon B as a fumigant insecticide. Fritz was thanked for his obsessive patriotism during the Nazi rise to power by being forced to flee the country for his life. He died in Switzerland on his way to Mandate Palestine in 1934.) Other methods included torture, starvation, being killed individually by guards, refusal of medical treatment, and working people to death (Don’t forget environmental exposure, dehydration, human experimentation, and being put in conditions so cramped and unsanitary that communicable diseases like Typhus, Typhoid, and Cholera were rampant). In two years, over 1.3 million people would be transported there with 1.1 million dying on the site and only 144 people successfully managing an escape from the camp while it was operational. While Jews made up the majority of people sent here, there were also Poles (about 150,000), Romani and Sinti (23,000), Soviet Prisoners of War (15,000), Jehovah Witnesses (400) and Homosexuals (number unknown). Men, Women and Children were all sent here and disappeared without mercy into the ovens used to reduce their bodies to ashes (Also mass graves. The crematoria were the product of about a year of experimentation into body disposal, using the prisoners themselves as manual labor.). The camp would continue operations until the Soviets were nearly in shelling range, it was then that the Germans marched the prisoners out of the camp and force-marched them to Germany. I'm going to point out that this was the end of 1944; it was clear that the war was lost, Western Forces were liberating France, the Soviets had passed Warsaw... And the Nazis were still determined to kill every Jew, Gay, Romani and so on that they could. If you need a minute after reading this, that's okay, I needed a minute after writing it. (And I’ve wept a couple times between this week and last. There is no shame in that. The Shoah and the larger Holocaust are just that fucking awful.)

Vladek and Anja were sent into the maw of this hell pit during it's last year of operation. Here we can see the trauma that cemented so many of the behaviors that torment his son later in life. Vladek had to work furiously just to survive, he had to bend every skill and ounce of cunning he had to just keep breathing one more day in a place designed to kill him as humiliatingly as possible. Not only that but he had to constantly work to find ways just to stay in contact with his wife Anja, as well as helping her whenever it was possible. That said Vladek doesn't do this by screwing over other people; there are times when he helps the people around him. Getting shoes that fit for a friend by charming a Polish Kapo into helping him in exchange for English lessons, for example. By staying alert and grabbing at every chance he could get Vladek managed to survive another day, which in Auschwitz was an amazing achievement. Nor were they alone; throughout Vladek's account we see many people trying to do just one decent act before they’re murdered, whether it be an unknown Polish Priest (I am reminded of Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to take the place of a Polish Army sergeant named Franciszek Gajowniczek who was picked at random with ten others after several men escaped the camp. Maximilian Kolbe is now the patron saint of political prisoners.) who comforts and consoles Vladek before he was killed, or Mancie, a Hungarian Jewish girl who ran messages between Vladek and Anja. We also see many petty cruelties that serve no purpose but to amuse the people performing them. It's a grim story but one full of people who refused to be ground down and made into animals. I won't say they kept their dignity but I will say that they kept their humanity (I’d say they’re the same thing). It's here that we see why Vladek is the way he is, he is a miserly, neurotic, and miserable old man in a lot of ways, (who manages to be pretty racist against African Americans) a man whose actions and words often torment his son and his own wife. He survived--not thrived, because no one did in Auschwitz-- but to do so he had to develop habits and ended up with scars that would affect everyone around him until the end of their days. We see that not only in Mr. Spiegelman but in Vladek's relationship with his 2nd wife Mala, which nearly ends in this volume. We also see the end of the camps, Vladek's dealing with American troops in the opening days of the occupation and his cold satisfaction at the Germans suffering as the Western and Russian armies advance into Germany (I can't really blame him, he's way more restrained about the whole thing than I would be in his position). As well as his reunion with Anja and their decision to leave Poland, heading first to Sweden and then to the United States.

This volume is more meta-fictional than the previous one. Mr. Spiegelman's mental state becomes a part of the book as he discusses his own feelings about the story and the process of creating it. Additionally Francoise makes her appearance in the novel, as we learn about their marriage (and how she converted to please Vladek in the first place) and the her own involvement in the story process. We learn about Mr. Spiegelman's depression and his overriding desire to avoid living with his father. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. To be honest I'm not a fan of meta-fiction, where the process of writing the work itself becomes part of the narrative and having the characters acknowledge they're in a story. This is also called breaking the 4th wall. In most of the stories I've seen it used, it bogs things down as the writer then uses meta commentary to try and display how clever he is and how deep the story is. It also lends itself to pretentiousness or cheap humor that isn't actually funny. I'm not saying that there's no worthwhile meta fiction. The first Deadpool movie actually used it very well (and very sparingly). In the case of Maus, the meta-fiction does end up serving the story as a biographical and autobiographical work. It also gives us a look at how the trauma of the Holocaust didn't end with just the people who experienced it directly. It lingered and marked their children, whether it be Mr. Spiegelman always feeling inadequate to his father or measuring himself against Richleu, the child who didn't survive. That said, I can't say I was thrilled with those parts of the book where Mr. Spiegelman stepped out of the narrative and began talking about events outside of it. That's a personal opinion but be aware if you're less than thrilled at 4th wall breaking and meta-commentary, there's more of it here than in the first volume.

That said, Maus is a very good long look at the holocaust. Vladek, through Mr. Spiegelman, tells the story plainly and straightforwardly. I honestly find his matter of fact tone in the book rather amazing but it also helps ground the story and make it seem more real. Mr. Spiegelman gives us a look at the very real impact those events had on him, his father and his entire family and I would argue that this work is important and whether you like comic books or are even a history buff, you should sit down to read it. As you might have already figured out, this is a very adult story and might be disturbing for younger children. Maus Part II: And Here My Troubles Began gets an A-.

Next week Trail of Hope. Keep reading.

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 22, 2018 8:15 pm 
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Trail of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents
By Dr. Norman Davies


In the year 410 BC, 10,000 Greek mercenaries were trapped in Persia. They marched and fought their way back to Greece from deep inside a hostile empire. The book “The Anabasis” remains a classic of history and military literature for it's examples of courage, determination, and loyalty. It is not surprising I think that the greatest and most epic war in human history would produce a mass movement of armed men and their dependents on an even larger scale and for larger stakes. Let's talk about our writer first.

Dr. Davies was born on the 8th of June 1939 in Bolton Lancashire, in the United Kingdom. He would study in France in 1957 and 1958 before returning to England and earning a BA in history from Oxford in 1962. He would attain a Masters Degree from the University of Sussex in 1967. He attempted to attend university in the Soviet Union to earn his PhD but was denied an entry Visa (Which boggles my mind. “Hi, we’re the USSR. We don’t want a western academic to come and study our history from our perspective/to be propagandized and readily turned into an agent by us” makes little sense. I suppose they were worried he was already a spy?), so instead went to communist Poland. There he researched the Polish-Soviet war; a difficult undertaking given that the stance of the government at the time was that it had never happened, because talking about the time Poles successfully resisted Soviet invasion would have been a tad inconvenient for a Soviet client state. Because of this he entitled his dissertation “British Foreign Policy towards Poland 1919-1920.” Once he had his PhD in his hands, he rushed back to the United Kingdom and published the English translation as “White Eagle, Red Star” a history of the Polish-Soviet War. He than taught Polish history at the University College in London as well as serving as a Supernumerary Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford.

His career isn't without controversy. In 1986 he was denied tenure at Stanford in a 12 to 11 vote. Dr. Davies sued, claiming that his politics played a role in the vote and while there does appear to be something to that, the lawsuit was dismissed. It was found that the politics in question were relevant to the position and classes in question. His opponents at the time accused him of being insensitive to the suffering of the Jewish people and unacceptably defensive of Poles. Part of that was his focus on the suffering of non-Jewish Poles in the holocaust and some of it seems to be his willingness to point out Soviet crimes against the Poles but let's turn to the book.

In September 1st, 1939 Nazi Germany invaded the Republic of Poland, kicking off the European Theater of WWII. What is often not really covered however is the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17th (Bit inconvenient, as we would become allies of the USSR and bargain away Poland despite the Polish Home Army and doing a pretty good job resisting the Nazis and despite Polish pilots in exile helping defend Great Britain… Best to just ignore the whole mess of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.). This action rendered Poland indefensible as it was now fighting a two front war against two powers with vastly greater industrial strength and manpower (a situation that the Nazis would come to know intimately in the future, suggesting that karma sometimes does occur) and the Polish government ordered all troops in the field to attempt to escape to Romania if at all possible. Most of the army wouldn't make it. The Nazi marched into western Poland and proceeded to inflict their vile ideology on the people there, as we saw in Maus. The Soviets were no less determined to destroy the native culture of their slice of Poland and wipe out entire classes of people, although where the Nazis used racist pseudoscience, the Soviets would use Stalinist pseudo-sociology. Out of the 15 million Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others living in the 77,612 square miles that the Soviets annexed somewhere between 1 to 2 million of them would be deported. Additionally all Churches and Synagogues were closed, all Polish organizations disbanded, all privately held land was seized and schools and universities were forced to teach Russian mandated education. The laws of the democratically elected Polish government were declared null and void. These people were not fans of Russia or of communism, their experiences coming from a combination of having been invaded by the USSR in 1919 and living under the yoke of the Russian Empire. The USSR was determined to bring them to heel however. The Soviets focused on 5 groups: The first group were “illegal immigrants” made up pretty much of people fleeing the Nazis (many of them Jews). The second were Polish soldiers, officers were especially targeted with 22,000 of them disappearing permanently. The third group were the “social criminals” these were learned or well connected people could form the basis of resistance, this meant all civil servants (police, firefighters, teachers, etc), native politicians (including local communists), railwaymen, groundskeepers, professional hunters, engineers, architects, landowners. managers, business owners, linguists, and former aristocrats (the Polish Republic had abolished nobility.). The fourth group were the family and close friends of any of the above, women, small children, the elderly, etc. Families often found themselves broken up, with children split off from their parents with neither of them likely to see each other again. I imagine this may sound strangely topical to some of my readers. While I prefer to just review the damn books here, I feel given the current events in the Year of our Lord 2018, I am forced to comment. It is a terrible thing to split apart a family, children should be taken away from their parents if they are being abused or neglected by those parents. To tear them apart as a punishment is a vile act and to try to justify this with half a Bible verse is a show of amoral mania that renders one unfit for office in a free nation. My editor is an atheist but I am a Christian and the child of two pastors (And yet, I know the Bible better than Jeff Sessions…And several other holy books.). I am not only unimpressed but would remind you that if your actions echo those of a militant totalitarian power that it may be time to ask yourself just what the hell you think you're doing. I apologize for this unpleasant divergence and we'll return to the book now. The last category of people ripped from their homes were... Random victims. The NKVD officers conducting this were given a quota and in true Soviet fashion, shoddy out of date records with which to find their victims. Knowing that the penalty for failure would be to take the place of the Poles they were hunting the NKVD would at times simply grab anyone who was nearby and take them away.

Each of these five groups were subjected to show trails, where they were not informed of the charges and allowed no defense. The punishment was always the same. Exile to the remote reaches of the Soviet Union. This was not the first or the last group that the Soviet Union did this to; Stalin specifically was fond of taking troublesome groups and flinging them thousands of miles from their homes into extreme and underdeveloped regions as if he was some modern day Assyrian Emperor. Thousands of Poles would die on route as they were barely fed and transported in box cars with standing room only (Common motif in WW2). Thousands more Poles would be worked to death in camps in Central Asia, or near the Arctic or on the western edge of Siberia. The fate of the exiles seemed grim, but everything changed when the Nazis attacked. Stalin opened communications with the western allies, among them the Polish Government in Exile,and a deal was worked out. The Polish prisoners would be released in an “Amnesty” in exchange a Polish army under Polish Officers but Russian central command would be raised from among the prisoners to fight the Nazis. General Wladyslaw Anders, currently rotting in a NKVD prison cell was chosen to lead the army, one moment he was wondering when his execution was going to occur and the next the NKVD had pulled him out of a cell, given him a hot shower and clean clothes, a hot meal and asked if he would like to be a Polish General again. Let's meet our army commander.

General Wladyslaw Anders was born in 1892 to polinized Germans. This was when Poland was still divided under the rule of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires. When he was a teen he was recruited by Russian General impressed with the skilled horsemanship and courage he showed in controlling a pair of bolting horses. He would serve in the Tsar's armies in the first World War and resign to join the Polish Army when Poland declared independence. He fought with some distinction in the Polish-Soviet War and sided with the Republican government during the coup of 1926. His division was fighting the Nazis and was working to evade them and escape into Romania when captured by the Soviets. His battles were honestly just beginning as the process of recruiting and mustering an army from the Polish captives of the USSR would prove to a campaign in and of itself.

The Soviet Union was under massive assault at this point, with Leningrad under siege and powerful Nazi armies pushing deeper and deeper into Russia. Combined with the sheer indifference that the Soviets had for the Polish prisoners meant that little provision was made for transporting and caring for the people who at this point had suffered roughly 2 years of hard labor and near starvation. Many Poles found themselves once again riding boxcars with standing room only. Others, when they heard of the amnesty, were literally thrown out of their labor camps on the tundra and told to get walking. NKVD officials at every step looked for every way to stop or slow those heading to join the army. Walk they did though, a torrent of humanity over a hundred thousand strong heading towards the mustering point in central asia. Even for those who reached the recruitment center, the troubles weren't over. The NKVD, the internal security force of the Soviet Union which served as counter intelligence, secret police, and public law enforcement rolled up in one, was intent on enforcing the idea of Soviet sovereignty over the Polish areas they had conquered. One tactic they adopted was trying to restrict who the Polish Army could recruit. Declaring that only ethnic Poles were allowed and others, such as Jews, Ukrainians and Belarusians were forbidden. The Jewish declaration became a heavy point of contention as NKVD officers would often claim to Jewish men and women that it was a declaration that came from the Polish high command not the Soviet Union. Despite that 5000 Jewish soldiers were enrolled and 5 rabbis recruited, that said accusations of antisemitism would dog the Polish Army for the rest of it days and the officers of that army til they died. There likely were, if we're going to be honest, a good number of anti-Semites in the army, Poland was frankly full of anti-Jewish bigots after all, as well as having people who were sympathetic to the Jewish people. Some Jewish troops did report ill treatment, while others reported not being treated any differently than any other soldier. So it wouldn't shock me if there were officers who were more happy than others to comply with the order and others who rejected it entirely. In the end when the Army reached Palestine many of the Jewish troops would desert (2/3rds out of the 5000) some went to join British units, others joined the active Zionist paramilitary groups that were mustering in expectation of having to fight either the Arabs or possibly the Nazis if things went really badly. General Anders to his credit held his ground and demanded that the right of enlisted be given to all people who were Polish citizens in 1939 and did so to Stalin's face. Additionally he gave the order that Jewish deserters were to be allowed to go their way in peace, reasoning that if they felt the cause of a Jewish homeland strong enough, or were convinced that they couldn't get fair treatment in the army, it would be better to part on as friendly terms as possible. As if this wasn't enough the army was often starved of supplies because even supplies donated strictly for the Poles use were often stolen by Russians. The revelation that thousands of Polish officers had been murdered by the Russians in Katyn forest was the breaking point making it impossible for the Poles to fight under Russian command. Instead the Polish Army was re-dubbed Polish II Corps and sent to Iran to fight under British command where they would see action in the Italy campaign.

The escape to Iran and movement through the middle east was challenging but widely celebrated, because for the Poles this was considered nothing less than an escape from bondage. The civilian dependents (along with thousands of orphans and Polish civilians who walked from the arctic to Iran to escape the Soviet Union) would be scattered to refuges in Africa, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and India. The troops would move from Iran, to Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and finally Italy. Where they fought in the battle of Monte Cassino leading the Fourth and final assault on the abbey that after having been reduced to rubble by an American bombing run, was fortified by the Germans and anchored the defense of Rome. Three times the allies had attacked and been driven off with heavy casualties for light German loses. The Polish II Corps would fight through heavy German artillery bombardment and take the abbey and the mountain it rested on, raising the Polish flag on May 17th of 1944. They would go on to carry out a number of offensives in Northern Italy gaining high praise from Allied command. However in 1945 with the announcement of Poland becoming part of the Soviet sphere. An act many of them felt was a betrayal by the Western Allies who accepted the Soviet announcement and even spread Soviet propaganda that the Polish Army was a band of secret fascist trouble makers looking to undermine the peaceful and freedom loving Soviet Union (That’s because it was a betrayal{Perhaps but what we were going to do, fight our way through 13 million angry Russians when Europe was already a ruin?}). Most of the members of the army would never get to go home; they would spend the rest of their days in exile in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Others would come to the United States or other nations to build new lives but always knowing that their homeland was under foreign rule and occupation because the Polish People's Republic was a puppet state of the Soviet Union. While the Polish People's Republic would invite the enlisted soldiers back, very few took up the invite. Of the ones that did, many were arrested, given a show trial and declared traitors to the Polish people and jailed or killed. General Anders himself would die in 1970 stripped of his Polish citizenship and rank, a member of the Polish government in exile. He never saw Poland freed of Soviet influence and was buried in Italy, among the dead Polish troops of the battle of Monte Cassino.

Trail of Hope is a massive book at almost 600 pages. Dr. Davies uses a combination of first hand accounts from interviews of the survivors, as well as their children and grandchildren. He also used dairies, journals, as well as official and unofficial army documents dating from the time. He does seem to avoid using Soviet sources and while he never directly addresses that, he gives the impression that he considers them untrustworthy. Frankly I don't think he's wrong (Depends on which ones. The inaccuracies are often more in what’s missing than what’s in the official documents. Also narrative. But if you want to know how many people died in a given Gulag in a given year, you’re probably fine…). The book is also filled with a large number of photos taken by members of the army and others showing the troops, children, and others in a variety of day to day settings. Additionally he scouted out the trail that the army and many of its followers marched. Going into modern day Russia, Iran, through the middle east and into Italy. There he hunted down and spoke to natives who interacted with the Polish army, or found the children of Polish civilians who intermarried and stayed behind. Dr. Davies focuses more on the movement of the army to Italy and doesn't really cover the battle of Monte Cassino in depth, feeling there are plenty of other histories that do so. There are stories of heartbreak, such as the Polish orphans sent to New Zealand, many of whom would stay there because they dared not trust the Soviet Union, who to them was the entity that devoured their entire families with no trace. Even today their grandchildren and great grandchildren live as citizens of New Zealand and remember. There are humorous stories such as the story of Wojtek, the soldier bear taught to carry artillery shells and brought from Iran to Italy as a mascot. Wojtek ended his days comfortably in the Edinburgh zoo, visited by his fellow veterans (Best Bear Ever. He loved cigarettes. Not smoking them of course, but eating them). He even has a beer named after him. I tried to find some in Phoenix but I am sad to say it doesn't seem to be sold in the Western United States. There are romances, as General Anders met his second wife who traveled with the army as part of the entertainment division. They married after the war and remained married until his death. This is, in the west at least, a long forgotten part of World War II that deserves to be remembered. It's a stunning logistical achievement and a testament to the determination and courage that normal people can display in abnormal times. Trail of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents By Dr. Norman Davies gets an A from me. Give it a look.

So this was a long review but thanks for sticking it out with me! Next week we'll be covering Black wings which talks about Black pilots in the US. Afterwards we'll cover 1776, and we'll be covering an independent author book Shadow of an Empire with the last two weeks in July being given over to Watership Down (the book) and the French Canadian cartoon that was created afterwards, as this was requested by a pair of readers of this review.


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This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 29, 2018 8:45 pm 
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Black Wings
By Von Hardesty


Von Hardesty was born in 1939 in Byesville Ohio. He graduated from Bluffton college in 1961, received a Master's degrees in 1964 from Case Western Reserve University and a PhD from Ohio State University in 1974. He currently works as a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. and has written a good number of goods about aeronautic history. Today we review his book Black Wings. I picked up the book thinking it would give me a bigger overview over the experiences of Black pilots in the US military and civilian world. I include it in World War II month because the Tuskegee Airmen are the central line of the book. Although I should admit the book starts much earlier and ends later.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was a growing power on the world stage. World War I was over, the economy was shifting into high gear and people were secure in the promise of peace and prosperity. We were also a nation mired in racial ignorance and bigotry where most of our non-white citizens were both literally and metaphorically forced to the back of the bus (To be absolutely clear, slavery through the practice of “Convict Leasing” was also alive and well. Black people in the south would be arrested on bogus charges, convicted by an all-white jury, and then using the 13th Amendment’s criminal punishment exemption, sold up the river for the duration of their sentence. In addition, black people were also found in default of fabricated debts and put into illegal debtors prison, and subsequently convict-leased. This was a thing until FDR cracked down on it in the 1940s. Now we have private prisons and if I don’t shut up Frigid is going to hit me.). To be an African American at the time was to live under open Jim Crow laws in the South and de facto segregation in the North backed by popular opinion and the constant threat of violence in both places. Despite that African Americans managed to build businesses, own homes and achieve historical milestones, often while struggling under burdens massively greater then the rest of the populace. Manned flight was one of those areas. The American public black, white, and otherwise was enthralled with the exploits of pilots and aircraft and why not? Thanks to the Wright Brothers, a pair of bicycle mechanics with an unyielding obsession, powered heavier than air flight was an American achievement. A material event that we could point to as a sign of our progress as a people and a nation. We had found a way to fight gravity and win and a number of African Americans felt that if they could take part in such an achievement it could only help break down barriers.

The vast majority of flight clubs would not train black men or women to become pilots. However there was an elite cadre of men and women who weren’t going to let that stop them. Bessie Coleman, America's first black woman pilot for example, went to France and got a Federation Aeronautique Internationale license, she attended a flight school in the north of France in the Somme region and graduated in June 15th 1921. She returned to America and became a barnstormer. Barnstormers were stunt pilots, named because the first ones operated out of barns and any other structure big enough to hold an aircraft. They would perform aerial stunts for crowds in an early version of today's air shows. Bessie would struggle for funding until her all-too-early death in 1926 as a possible patron took her for a flight and the plane stalled and crashed. There were others however, such as businesses owner, World War I veteran William Powell Jr. William Powell had been a Lt. in the 317th engineer regiment and 365th infantry regiment and had been gassed on the very last day of the war. He would open the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in L.A, which was open to both sexes and all races in a time and place where most air clubs were white men only. Unfortunately the gassing he suffered led to him having to retire due to medical issues and he would pass away in 1942. As you can see the book shows a pattern of African American leaders rising up, accomplishing great things and then, dying or having to pass on the torch. While early flight was dangerous and many pilots of the time died in accidents, a good amount of these are because African American pilots of the time were often forced to fly old planes that even under the best maintenance weren't very dependable, or not fly at all. That said I do have to point out that even new aircraft with top of the line maintenance at this point in time weren't very dependable or sturdy. The simple fact of the matter was that flying, especially flight so near the limits of the aircraft's performance, was incredibly dangerous at the time and many pilots paid for their daring with their lives. (Smaller aircraft in general are like that. Modern commercial jets have all kinds of safety features built in and they’re designed within an inch of the lives of hundreds of engineers. Smaller craft… less so.)

As the 1920s passed into the 1930s however African American pilots kept pushing against the barriers. James Banning became the first black man in America to get a pilot license from the Department of Commerce. No flight school would teach him so he used his own money to buy a plane and hired a WWI pilot to teach him how to fly. In 1932, he decided to attempt a transcontinental flight across the United States becoming the first black pilot to fly coast to coast. Today that doesn't seem to mean much as someone can fly coast to coast in hours but back then? It took days. James Banning's flight took 22 days and he logged in 41 hours in the air. Sadly he would die in 1933 on a return flight as the plane stalled out and crashed. This wasn't due to pilot error but due to the fact that the plane was old because Banning had little in the way of financial support. However there were others to pick up the torch. Alfred Anderson and Albert Forsythe would fly the first transcontinental round trip by black pilots. Alfred Anderson (known by his nickname Chief Anderson that he picked up in World War II) learned to pilot by relentless effort, since it was difficult to find anyone willing to teach a black man how to fly, he worked as an airplane mechanic and bought his own plane, renting it out to pilots in exchange for lessons. He and Forsythe would gain attention for their flights across the US and Canada even embarking on a Pan-American goodwill tour in their plane that they had named the Booker T Washington. Anderson was recruited to serve as a flight instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen (see I told you there was World War II stuff in here). It was here he meet Eleanor Roosevelt who was touring the base and on her suggestion took her on a flight. As a result First Lady Roosevelt would remain a steadfast supporter of the “Tuskegee experiment.” (She was so awesome)


Let's talk about that for a moment. US military policy had become inherently racist in the 1930s, with different studies claiming that black men were unfit for anything but menial labor (Racism had, by this time, fully merged with the Eugenics that was popular at the time into an extra special American Racist Voltron, and America had insane bullshit like Beautiful White Baby contests. We also sterilized our own Mindervertige. By which I of course mean the disabled and people of color.) and were incapable of leadership (black women weren't considered for membership in the armed forces). As a result of this only 2% of the military was made up of African Americans (Who can blame them? Would you want to join an organization that declared you fit only for service as a human mule?) However by 1939 Congress created the Civil Pilot Training Program and opened segregated classes to pilot candidates, before the program there had been less than 50 African American pilots in the US, by 1940 there were 231. With war raging in and across three continents and three oceans, it was becoming clear to the government that there was no way to avoid being involved. It was also clear that if we were going to win, we would have to stop wasting talent. Executive Order 8802 established the Tuskegee Army Air Base for the training of black fighter pilots in July of 1941. Benjamin O Davis Jr, the eventual commander of the unit, enrolled. He had graduated West Point in 1936, despite being shunned by his white classmates and had grown up in the army, being the son of the army's only black general. His professionalism and knowledge of army culture were assets in the face of a military that really preferred that his unit quietly and quickly disappear forever. They faced many barriers, for example despite being officers they were denied the same treatment as white officers, for example being banned from officer’s clubs (Of course they were…). This led to a mutiny as a over 100 black officers would attempt to enter the Freemen Fields Officer club and were arrested. Three were court martialed but only one was convicted. Additionally there were issues in the civilian towns around the bases, in one town for example the laundry would refuse to wash black pilots clothes while happily washing the clothes of German POWs... (I mean… it’s Tuskegee. The Klan and the Nazis were reading from the same racist hymnal. I mean, in the same town they had a bunch of civilian black men under Government Orders to not get treated for syphilis because they were part of an experiment on the progression of the disease in black men. Ironically enough, because the doctor leading the study was trying to prove that white and black men were identical in that respect. For some reason *coughcough* racism*coughcough* that was a controversial position to take. )

Despite that the 99th Fighter Squadron deployed to Europe in 1943, they arrived in April. Their first combat mission was in June. Their first air victory was in July. By the beginning of 1944 they were achieving 7 to 1 kill ratios against German aircraft. Among other achievements, they also have the first enemy destroyer sunk by machine gun fire. Additionally, they flew combat missions in the battle of Monte Cassino (which you may remember from our last review). By the end of February, three more squadrons for African American pilots were created and in combat operations. In May of 1944 they were assigned to escorting bomber raids into Germany, Poland, Hungary and other targets. The 99th Squadron became part of the 332nd Fighter group and while on escort duty they would adopt the distinctive red tail paint job that they would be known by. Of the 179 escort missions they flew, they lost bombers on seven missions for a total of 27 lost bombers on their watch. The average lost for other units was 46 bombers in the same time period. In grand total they would fly 1578 combat missions, shooting down 112 enemy aircraft and destroying an additional 150 on the ground. Of the 992 pilots trained at Tuskegee Army Air Base, 322 would see combat, 84 would be killed in combat or in accidents and an additional 32 captured by enemy forces. They would receive a number of meritorious citations as a unit and individual pilots also received a number of awards. With 96 Distinguished flying crosses awarded, 14 bronze stars, 8 purple hearts and 1 silver star. In 1948, President Truman would sign Executive Order 9981 abolishing racial discrimination in the armed forces and leading to the end of racial segregation in the US military. Three of the Tuskegee airmen would go on to become generals in the US Air Force including the first African American Air Force General Daniel James Jr.

Unfortunately this wasn't the end of the struggle. While the Tuskegee airmen found themselves in heavy demand as instructors and commanders after the War, at least in the Air Force, in the civilian world the emerging airlines were less than thrilled at the idea of hiring black pilots. Marlon Green, an airforce pilot with 3000 hours in the air applied to Continental Airlines in 1957 and was rejected. He sued and in a battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, won in 1963. By 1976 there were 81 African American commercial pilots. NASA also proved a struggle, with Edward Dwight the first African American candidate being rejected, NASA officials would maintain that he had been rejected because those approved had scored higher than him but suspicion of racial basis would linger. The next candidate Robert Lawrence would die in a crash while training in the Air Force program. However Guion “Guy” Bluford, a Vietnam vet with 4,600 hours in the air would not only become the first Black Astronaut but he would log 688 hours in space while serving in the Space Shuttle program.

Black Wings gives us a full view of the struggles faced by African Americans who simply wanted to fly planes and be treated like actual citizens of their country. The triumphs and tragedy of that long struggle through the 20th century serve as a reminder of our nations shortcomings and its ability to rise above itself and become something better. The book itself provides a good, if somewhat short, overview of this history and provides a good number of photos and biographical information on the many larger than life personalities and heroes of the time. There are many more than I spoke about in the review. It's a good introductory text and I would recommend it if you haven't really looked into this area of history before. That said it's not an in-depth study of the subject and by trying to cover the whole 20th century in under 200 pages, it's a more of an overview than anything else. Black Wings by Von Hardesty still gets an A- however.

Next week, we celebrate American Independence with 1776! Keep reading.

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 06, 2018 7:59 pm 
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1776
By David McCullough


Perseverance and Spirit have done wonders in all ages.
General George Washington.

We've reviewed books about the American Revolutionary War before on this series; in 2016 we reviewed Fullisers (recommended to me be a reader of this review series!) and back in 2015 we reviewed George Washington Military Genius (another recommendation!). This year, given the difficulties the country seems to be facing, I thought it right to review a book detailing perhaps the single hardest year of the nation's life. That being the first year of 1776 when the nation was officially born and nearly strangled in its crib. Let me talk a bit about David McCullough first.

Mr. McCullough was born in Pittsburgh Philadelphia in 1933, on July 7th, so first let me wish him a happy early birthday. He began attending Yale University in 1951 and graduated in 1955 with a degree in English Literature. He harbored ambitions of becoming a playwright or fiction writer and served apprenticeships at Time, Life, the United States Information Agency and American Heritage and was eventually hired by Sports Illustrated. During this period he married his wife Rosalee, who he met when they were 17, they are still together and have five children and nineteen grandchildren. Mr. McCullough, at this point working for American Heritage, was writing in his spare time (for three years) and his first book the Johnstown Flood was published in 1968 to high praise. He decided to become a full time writer and we have all reaped the benefits ever since. Mr. McCullough has received the Pulitzer prize twice, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and more awards than I could really list in this review without sacrificing space for the book. All in all Mr. McCullough has contributed greatly to people's understanding of history through his writings and for that I am thankful. Now let's get to the book.

The book as you might imagine covers the year of 1776, for those of my readers not from the Anglo-sphere, that is the year that the United States of America declared its independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Before then the original thirteen states of my home nation were colonies ruled from London. I won't go into the arguments that compelled my founding fathers to rebel against King and Country, save to say that they were hotly debated issues in America and England and provoked powerful emotions. Powerful enough that certain words that couldn't be taken back were exchange and on the heels of those words, we began to exchange bullets. The British Government led by King George III resolved that what was needed was to use armed force to hammer the rebels back into line, feeling that to compromise at this point would only inflame greater demands. In addition was the belief that if a show of force wasn't made right then, that there would be a fight later as groups like the Sons of Liberty would continue pushing for independence. The Continental Congress was resolved that while they didn't want a fight, if it meant protecting their natural rights as free men, they were gonna fight. The British Army started out the year in Boston, and as if summoned out of the aether by magic, armed rebel companies gathered to put the British redcoats to siege. The Battle of Bunker Hill had just happened and emotions are high but emotions alone don't win wars.

Mr. McCullough takes some time to review the nature of the armies present here. The fact that the Rebel army, not quite yet the Continental Army of legend and near myth was made up of mostly New England volunteers and basically a collection of amateurs is fully displayed here. Most of them were volunteer companies who simply showed up for the siege of Boston. They had elected officers and no supply chain, and were organized by colonial origin. So you had companies from New York, brigades from Delaware, platoons from Pennsylvania and so on and so forth. Additionally Mr. McCullough takes pains to point out that while most of the British Troops were not yet combat veterans at this point, they were still professionals. They were uniformed, well armed and by the standards of the day very well trained. On top of this they were led by a professional officer corps, many of whom were veterans with experience in war. In short everything the American army wasn't. While George Washington had been appointed in command, he had not been a soldier for years and even then his record, while not awful, wasn't anything stellar either. General Washington's officer corps was also made up of men who for the most part had never fought in battle. Mr. McCullough is careful to introduce us to the officers on both sides as these are for the most part the men who will be either creating the Continental Army, slowly forging it into an instrument that while maybe not the tactical equal of the British will be at least capable of fighting the British Army and achieving victories in the field at the end. On the other side are the men who were fighting at the end of an extremely long supply chain in a foreign land, and were charged with the difficult task of ending the rebellion and returning British rule to the 13 colonies without starting a cycle of constant uprising and insurgency.

The book covers the Boston campaign, where the Americans and British would each in turn besiege and occupy Boston. It's during this we meet men such as Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene, as well as officers that you likely never heard of in your history class. That said, I think Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox make good examples of the general run of colonial officers. Both these men were still young men, with no experience in warfare or in commanding large groups of men. Despite that they are able to rise to high rank and high responsibility based on their willingness to work and sacrifice to get that work done. Course they had to do a lot of on the job learning which led to spectacular successes, driven by the fact that no one told them what they were trying to do was impossible. As well as rather obvious failures, also driven by the fact that they weren't entirely sure what was possible and what wasn't. We're given a good example of this in Henry Knox, whose family situation also serves as a microcosm of what America as a whole was going through. Henry Knox was a self made man, the eldest son who when his father died turned to working to support his family at the age of twelve (this is a common refrain in the colonial ranks, including George Washington's father, who died when the General was eleven). He worked up to owning his own book store which ended up being a fashionable hang out for loyalist Americans and his wife was the daughter (Lucy Flucker) of a noted Loyalist family. His brother in law served in the British Army and after the war, his in laws fled to England and never returned. Henry Knox's fortunes were sealed by his expedition to Ticonderoga. On Henry's suggestion George Washington sent him to steal some cannons from a pair of British forts and bring them back to Boston. In the dead of winter. Using wooden, ox drawn wagons and sleds. The cannons weighted 60 tons and the distance was 300 miles. If you're not sure why this is a big deal, I invite you to load down your car with as many heavy objects as possible, drive it off road and then try to push it uphill for 3 miles.

The battles for New York and Long Island are also covered. More attention is paid to the American side of things than the British side but there still plenty of care put on both, detailing things such as on the British side General Howe and General Clinton's inability to get along. There's also some social gossip such as General Howe's supposed affair with Mrs. Elizabeth Loring. It's here that we see how much George Washington had to learn as frankly the American forces are shown being outsmarted, out-maneuvered and out fought by the British. General Washington's forces weren't just pushed out of New York without putting up much of a fight, they were also chased clear across New Jersey by the British without managing to win any major battles and losing the vast majority of the minor ones. Mr. McCullough doesn't try to marginalize this, he is very clear in showing just how vastly superior British Arms were in 1776. At this point it shouldn't be a surprise though. While modern Americans may be justly smug in their claim to having the best logistical system on the planet and honestly pretty much of all of human history; in the Revolutionary War our logistics, that is the system of getting supplies to soldiers, was so awful that the British were getting their powder, uniforms and weapons shipped across an ocean and they were still better supplied than us. So the American Troops were clothed in rags, had next to no ammo, a shortage of weapons, boots, firewood and basically a shortage of every needed supply except enemies. Add in that many troops had only volunteered for short periods and hadn't been paid for a large chunk of their enlistments. The fact that Washington held the army together as an operational force, while constantly avoiding contact with a better supplied and trained army, in the middle of winter in New England and New Jersey.... Well despite having constant tactical loses and failures, General Washington still comes out looking like an amazing leader of men.

That said the book does end on a high note if you're an American Patriot, with the battle of Trenton. Needing a victory, after being chased out of two colonies and having lost Boston and New York City Washington elected to attack across the Delaware river on Christmas striking at an isolated post of Hessians. Hessians were German mercenaries hired by King George III to help bring his armies up to strength. The book discusses them in greater length but I will note for the record that the Hessians were not popular with the Americans and often accused of war crimes (most often of killing surrendering rebel troops, which the British do seem to confirm, if not as commonly as Americans accuse). For that matter British officers were also prone to accusing the Hessians of war crimes, especially when parts of New Jersey went up flames and was looted by the British forces. Anyways Trenton helped maintain faith in the Revolution at a time when everything seemed grim and Mr. McCullough walks us through it and the aftermath of the battle.

The book only focuses on a single year, so if you're looking for a general text on the Revolutionary war, this isn't it. It does however give a good look at what may have been the grimmest year in our history and lets us see how close we came to having the Republic snuffed out in the very year of its birth. It's an appreciation for the challenges we've faced in the past I find that helps us maintain faith in the future. If you're looking for a book that focuses on part of the Revolution or you're interested in seeing the first brutal lessons that shaped the Continental Army and George Washington... Then this is the book for you. 1776 by David McCullough gets an A from me.

Next week we return to fiction. Keep reading.

Other reviews about the Revolutionary War:

http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2016/05 ... erica.html

http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2015/07 ... us-by.html

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2018 10:41 pm 
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Shadow of an Empire
by Max Florschutz



This isn't Mr. Florshutz’ first appearance in this review series, back in April of 2017, I reviewed his cyberpunk novel Colony (link at the bottom of this review). Mr. Florschutz was kind of enough to offer me a free copy of Colony, which I appreciated. Shadow of an Empire was not a free copy; Mr. Florshutz offered but I honestly wanted to support a talented writer. That said, what follows is my honest opinion of the work.

Shadow of an Empire is a Western (in the literary not geopolitical sense) style fantasy novel, set in a world recovering from a civilization-ending apocalypse. A world where people and animals have been strangely affected by this Armageddon but have managed to rebuild civilization and achieve a level of industrialization. Before I get into that though, let me talk about the western a bit. The Western is an incredibly American setting and style of writing, rooted in what is in many ways a unique historical experience. Despite that or perhaps because of it, it has drawn a lot of attention internationally, from the Spaghetti Westerns (western movies directed and produced by Italians, which also launched Clint Eastwood to megastardom) to Japanese anime. I think part of it is it's a style of writing and setting that seems to translate well to fanastic settings. You don't have to set your western in the United States of 1800. You can set it on a science fiction colony world in the far future, you can set it on some fantasy world with magic and elves, you can set it on an alternate earth or a post apocalyptic wasteland. The elements you need are easily recognizable and fairly distinct. You start with a stark, harsh but beautiful land with an unforgiving climate, then you add native cultures in conflict with more technologically advanced newcomers who represent the leading edge of an expanding empire or nation. Plant rugged self-sufficient characters, some of whom have a questionable relationship with the law but most of them with a firm sense of right and wrong (although you can successfully dispense with that in some cases) as the center of your narrative. These characters must struggle against their environment and fellow men. Ensure that the expanding nation's grip is loose and it's government distant. Apply a healthy topping of violent problem solving, traditionally with rifles and revolvers. With this you have the basics of a western story, but just like cake is more then a list of it's ingredients, a genre is more then it's setting elements and themes. Let's talk about this specific story and see what kind of cake Mr. Florshutz has to offer us.

Shadow of an Empire is set in the Outlands, a remote and arid wilderness that’s sparsely settled by tough independent folk who prefer to be left alone by a government that stays distant. It exists between two heavily settled coasts ruled by the Empire, an expanding industrial civilization knit together by steam engine trains that run through the Outlands. The Empire rules the Outlands with a light touch because there's not much out there justifying a heavy presence and the folks who live there are quiet. That light touch is personified in our main character Salitore Amazd, imperial adjudicator. Adjudicator's are lawmen with broad but limited powers who seem to serve the same function as US marshals. They track down criminals at the behest of the peacekeepers and local governments of the land and deliver them back dead or alive as needed. Salitore is a veteran of the job, being able to survive alone in the harsh conditions of the Outlands, track his targets and trade unkind words or if needed bullets with those same targets. It's a life that keeps him on the move and with few close friends but it's also a life that Salitore loves as he spends most of his time under a wide open sky doing work that matters. It's also a life that is under threat, because down-at-the-heels nobleman turned-petty-criminal named Nirren has decided to jump to the big leagues. Nirren makes his jump from petty criminal to most wanted man in the Empire by staging a jail break, breaking out thirty-seven of the most dangerous killers, rapists, and thieves in the Empire from a train meant to take them to the Empires hardest jail. If that wasn't enough, Nirren also sent a letter to all the major newspapers declaring he had done so to liberate the Outlands from the rule of the Empire, claiming that the prisoners were just the first in a wave of revolution. Worse than that however? Nirren also claims to the newspapers that Salitore Amazd is in on the scheme. So to protect the people and the land that he loves, Salitore has to figure out just what Nirren is up to, track him and his band of cold blooded killers down and figure out how he's gonna take them out when he does so. It might have been easier if he had just stayed out in the desert honestly.

Luckily Salitore isn't alone in this; he has the help of Meelo Karn, imperial inquisitor. Inquisitors are not religious figures here but law enforcement officers who have the authority to go anywhere and use any resource while investigating or attempting to stop a crime. They're kinda like an turbo charged FBI. They mostly operate in urban environments but for a threat like this, well sometimes you gotta leave your comfort zone. Meelo Karn is a capable young lady who is a rising star in the Inquisition, being the youngest person ever promoted to her rank, she is, as you might guess, a driven professional who wants to make the world a little safer for other people. While she's not an expert in dealing with wilderness conditions, she can handle herself in a fight and is a skilled investigator. A lot of the book rests on the interaction between Meelo and Salitore; luckily the two characters play off each other rather well. In a kind of a break from modern convention, there's not a lot of quipping humor here but instead straightforward conversation and professionalism carry this relationship. Additionally what personality clashes there are get solved in a reasonable adult manner. This might not sound like a lot but after watching a number of writers drag out interpersonal drama for the sake of padding the story? I kinda enjoy it. It shows that you don't need artificially generated drama and angst to tell a good story. Mr. Florshutz manages to write Meelo and Salitore without making them into unconvincing idealists or turning them into jaded cynics. So instead we get a pair of people who know that there's a lot of bad in the world but there's plenty of good people and good things worth defending and taking satisfaction in their ability to do so.

Meelo's also got her own nemesis in Lady Varay, a crazed serial killer who targets men and carries a grudge against Meelo for catching her and getting her locked away in the first place. Giving Meelo a personal enemy in the group was a good call because it adds a personal element to the struggle. The story is told entirely from Salitore and Meelo's point of view and we never really get a first hand look at the insider of the villain's head. This helps preserves the mystery of what Nirran's plans are and what he's doing but it runs the risk of making the conflict between him and our heroes abstract at times, as they're mostly opposing each other on the grounds of one of them being a pair of law enforcers and another being a career criminal. This could have been a weakness of the book but instead it gives the plot an air of mystery as Salitore and Meelo struggle not just to chase down Nirran and his crew, but to figure out just what it is they think they're doing and how they're going to stop them while outnumbered about twenty to one. Mr. Florshutz also uses a good amount of action and suspense to avoid that, giving both our main characters secrets that they are holding but that he hints to throughout the book using the reveal of each secret to best effect.

The world itself is an interesting one as well. This is a world climbing back from the depths of a dark age so complete that few people remember the past at all. It's a world where people display strange abilities and powers, like being to absorb light and generate it, or sound, or heat, or kinetic energy. Nor are humans the only ones who are developing powers beyond the norm. Creatures like the Chort use their ability to absorb light and sound to aide in their hunting of the native cattle of the Outland, huge creatures that can have up to three pairs of horns and grow larger than a wagon. Mr. Florshutz also does well in showing how such powers would intertwine with technology by giving us steam trains that can run longer and further then they ever could due to men and women called boilers for their ability to absorb and redirect heat. This is taken to extreme degrees with the creation of the gray knights, steam powered one-man mechanical suits that are only made possible by the pilot being a boiler.

There are events outside the immediate story that are commented on and allowed to run alongside the main plot until they pay off. For example we have a running political thread of noble houses feuding with each other in the story taking up space in the newspapers, and the growing rift in the Wander tribes. Natives to the Outlands, some of them are willing to coexist peacefully with settlers like Salitore but others are choosing more violent reactions to the encroachment on their traditional lands. Mr. Florschutz avoids infodumping, instead just seeding information into the story, letting it come up naturally through the plot and having each revelation feed into the next. By building up on each revelation, the reader is able to get a good feel for what is and what is not possible in the world and isn't bogged down by paragraphs explaining details that we don't honestly need to know. The result is a setting that draws you into the story and becomes a character in it's own right.

In Shadow of an Empire, Mr. Florschutz creates a tightly woven story with gun battles, fist fights, and death-defying rides; all in the service of solving a mystery while on horseback. He does this against a background of a harsh but beautiful environment under a hot sun. Despite the temperature change I can't help but feel that much of this is pulled from his earlier life in Alaska, which remains the last bastion of the American Frontier (speaking as an Alaskan… yes. Yes it is.). There were a couple plot reveals that didn't quite work for me but they didn't bog down the story too much, and I won’t say which ones because I don’t want to spoil the story. For the most part the secrets that are revealed are decently foreshadowed so they don't feel like solutions pulled out of nowhere but aren't so heavily foreshadowed that you find yourself wanting him to just get on with it. It's a very different book from Colony and shows that Mr. Florschutz is capable of a good amount of flexibility in his writing and I look forward to seeing what else he can bring to the table in the future. I will note that Shadow of an Empire is a good bit shorter than Colony and they are both only available on Kindle at the moment. Hopefully we can see him arrive in print someday. Shadow of an Empire by Mr. Florschutz gets an A-.

Next week, upon your request readers, the book that led to many a childhood trauma. Watership Down. Keep Reading!

If you would like to see my review of Colony by Max Florshutz click the link below!
http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2017/04 ... chutz.html

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 20, 2018 9:48 pm 
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Watership Down
By Richard Adams


"You needn't worry about them," said his companion. "They'll be alright - and thousands like them."
Richard Adams was born May 9th in 1920, in Wash Common near Newbury, England. He attended Bradfield college from 1933 to 1938, moving on to Worcester College in Oxford to study modern history. In 1940 he was drafted into the British Army, and served in Palestine, Europe, and the far East as a member of the Royal Army Service Corps (which served as the logistics wing of the British Army) but saw no direct combat with Axis Powers. After being mustered out in 1946, he returned to Worcester College and earned a Bachelors in 1948, and an MA in 1953. In 1949 he married his wife Barbara. After gaining his Bachelors he went into the British Civil Service and started writing in his spare time. His first book, the subject of our review, was released in 1972 after several rejections (let that stand as a reminder to keep trying young writers!) and received immediate acclaim. Mr. Adams would go on to have a long successful career as a writer. He would pass away on Christmas Eve 2016 (Damn you 2016!), and is survived by his daughters, grandchildren and great children, as well as the books he left behind for all of us. There are worse legacies to have.

Watership Down actually started as a story Mr. Adams told his daughters in a car ride, this was before you could hand your kid a phone or tablet to keep them busy on long rides and fathers were obliged to entertain their children before they found their own entertainment. The story was good enough that his daughters insisted that he write it down and wondrously enough he did. The book would earn a number of rewards, winning the Carnegie Medal from the Library Association and in 2003 was voted 47th best book of all time. It would have a sequel released in 1996, Tales from Watership Down and has been made into a film, a cartoon series, and this year will be made into a miniseries by Netflix. The movie is well known for being marketed as a children’s film and having cute bunnies killed all over the place and being a bit disturbing if you're a young child; especially once the main villain shows up (I think there could be a sort of meta-story about this. A children’s book titled “Little Timmy’s First Childhood Trauma” or something along those lines; about a six year old watching Watership Down.). Still not a bad run for a car ride story.

Watership Down is a story about a band of rabbits fleeing the foretold destruction of their home and attempting to build a new life for themselves in a hostile and dangerous world. The story manages to mirror elements of both the Aeneid and the Odyssey. This is done both with the set up; a vision of coming destruction compels a young leader to gather followers and flee into the wilds, and the plot itself; the characters have to resist temptations and dangers both hidden and overt in a long journey home. This is reinforced by the characters who match a number of archetypes. Hazel is the clever and wise leader who uses his quick wits and the ability to manage his rabbits abilities to solve their problems. Fiver, the rabbit who gives the prophecy that starts the whole thing is the adviser with one foot in the spirit world. Big Wig is the large, strong, brave hero, confronting the dangers of the world with grit and pure raw force; being willing to fight cats, stoates, and other predatory creatures (Which totally breaks my suspension of disbelief because if you’ve ever seen stoates go after rabbits, the one thing you can hear in your mind from the other rabbits is “better you than me, buddy!”). We also have rabbits like Blackberry whose ability to understand and grasp concepts that other rabbits can't is very helpful; and Dandelion the story teller who provides us a number of tales within the tale. There are in fact a good number of characters in the story and if I'm gonna be honest, there might be too many characters, because a good number of the rabbits start blurring together after a couple of chapters. That said there are rabbits that stand out like the ones listed above, but they don't get as much time on center stage as I would like so outside of Hazel and Bigwig, they seem a bit underdeveloped. However, the interactions between the rabbits and their shared struggles does help cover for that and carry the book forward.

What sets it apart from many other stories is the attention to detail to the cultural life of the rabbits and their religious and social beliefs. In short the rabbits don't feel like humans wearing fursuits. While they're presented as close enough to human that we can understand and sympathize with them, they’re different enough that you are constantly reminded that these characters are not human and you shouldn't think of them as human. This is partly done by the stories told within the story of El-ahrairah, whose name literally means prince with a thousand enemies. El-ahrairah serves as a rabbit folk hero, role model, and figure of hope and deliverance. The book is peppered with small tales of El-ahrairah battles with foes both supernatural and natural as he attempts to provide for rabbit-kind and show proper rabbit behavior. He does this by out racing and out-witting his many enemies. Because if they catch him, they will kill him, but first they must catch him. We also see in the story that El-ahrairah is the combination of all heroic rabbits, as we see the actions of mortal rabbits woven into El-ahrairah tales. In this way El-ahrairah becomes the promise of immortality for rabbit-kind, while Hazel and Big Wig themselves may die and even be forgotten, their deeds will live on as part of El-ahrairah. This is even referenced in the rabbit's creation myth, which states that while individual rabbits may die, as long as they are cunning and alert, they can never be destroyed. So even if individual heroes may be forgotten, their actions remain remembered through El-ahrairah (I’ll admit, I kinda like this).

There's a fair bit of social commentary of a sort buried in the novel as well. We are presented with four different rabbit warrens with different cultures, structures, and mores. For example in the first warren, the one that Hazel and Fiver led the flight from, there is a fair amount of freedom but creeping inequality and an increasingly settled social structure means that Fiver finds a ready audience for his pronouncements that they must leave. With the exception of Big Wig and Silver, most of the rabbits who follow him and Hazel are rabbits on the margins of that society. Refusing to listen to the rabbits on the margins spells doom for that warren as it is destroyed to make way for human development. The next warren is one that has traded freedom for safety and as Ben Franklin noted lost both; it's a warren that is being... Farmed by a human being. He leaves food for the rabbits and kills off their predators but also leaves snares about the warren to kill a portion of their population for their meat and skins. Because food is left for them, the rabbits have a lot of spare time and have developed music, poetry, and art. However because they know they live in a giant trap their art has grown depressed and morbid. This warren comes off as a combination of the Lotus Eaters of the Odyssey and the Eloi from the time machine (with the human farmer as the Morlock). If I’m being honest, I think the growing horror of the situation is very well done (And so are the rabbits. Mmmm rabbit stew.). The third warren is a dystopian police state run by General Woundwort and his hand picked officers. Using the threat of discovery by humans, they force the rabbits living within to live lives of extreme regimentation. Feeding and emerging from their burrows in shifts and divided into sections run by officers who dictate every facet of life within the warren. This warren is presented as a short term success of sorts; it's suffering from overpopulation. In a normal warren this would be solved by some of the rabbits going off and forming their own warren but our power mad general will not allow a single rabbit to go beyond his ability to control them. In addition to that he even grabs any rabbit he finds and press gangs them into his warren. It's this that generates the main conflict of the novel as the fourth and last warren, the one founded by our main characters, is an egalitarian warren. Hazel is chief rabbit not because he's the biggest and strongest or because of family connections but because everyone agrees he's the right rabbit for the job. General Woundwort cannot allow such a warren to exist and present an alternative to his paranoid prison of a society so he must destroy it, especially after the rabbits under Hazel's command successfully defy him. For that matter it isn't strength that defeats the General but cunning, trickery, and good old-fashioned teamwork.

It's another piece of commentary that the main villains of the piece aren't stoates, hawks, cats or even foxes but other rabbits. Despite being surrounded by creatures that literally want to eat them alive, they simply cannot stop fighting each other. General Woundwort would say that he offers total safety from the creatures that would endanger rabbit-kind but he does so by imprisoning the rabbits he says he would lead. Hazel does not offer safety but freedom and trusts in not just his cunning and skill to maintain the rabbits in his charge but in the combined efforts of his rabbits. An extra bit of irony is the fact that General Woundwort never really understands that it's Hazel who is his main adversity here. Because General Woundwort is so focused on physical and military strength, he fails to understand the nature of his enemy and that ends up being his greatest weakness. It's an honest point that unfree societies often do not and cannot understand free ones. To use real life examples, the Soviet Union never really understood the United States and it's internal workings despite their many espionage successes. In one piece of history I read, Soviet agents were sure that the result of Nixon's impeachment would that a Democrat from the Senate would be installed as President and were flabbergasted when Ford actually succeeded to the office. For that matter their greatest danger before running into General Woundwort was the Lotus Eater Warren, where they were almost tricked into certain death by the rabbits here, who invited them in cynically knowing that having rabbits unused to being snared would increase their own odds of survival (That sounds more like real rabbits to me). While Predators are present in the world of Watership Down, they aren't the main danger to rabbit-kind, instead it's the dark side of their own natures that often present the greatest of dangers to them.

As for humanity, we're presented as a cross between fey creatures and ogres. A rabbit cannot hope to fight or bargain with us so it is best that rabbits avoid us entirely. Our technology is beyond their ken and our motives are senseless and gross to them. All rabbits know is that we do as we wish and they suffer what they must from us. There's a bit of an environmental message buried in the book and Mr. Adams was known for his support of environmentalism and animal rights throughout his life (he was even the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals from 1980 to 1982). That said, the book doesn't beat us over the head with it and does make a point to show humanity's capability of benevolence towards animals as well. So the rabbits and their struggles remain very much the centerpiece of the book without veering into a polemic about the evils of humanity. I found myself really enjoying rabbit culture and different societies presented in the book and I found the characters who were developed quite enjoyable but like I said earlier there are too many characters to develop them all and that means that some areas are not explored. For example Fiver's visions or spirit quests are something I wish could have been explored a bit more. Additionally no female character gets much time or attention, making this a very male centered drama. To be honest I don’t see anything wrong with a male centered story or even a story made up of just one gender or another. But the female characters that do exist here are shown mostly as objectives for the male characters or as a means to an end. Most of the female characters aren’t allowed to have their own agendas or characterization; which frankly drags the book down. This might be a reflection of the time the book was written in or may be a consequence of the already massive cast but it’s still not a great way to write female characters. So it drags down the story, otherwise it’s a good story with plenty of adventure if aimed at a younger audience then usual for this review series. I'm giving Watership Down by Richard Adams a B.

Next week, because you lot asked for it, we look at the cartoon series. Season I. Keep reading.

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 27, 2018 8:58 pm 
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Watership Down (TV Series)
Produced by Martin Rosen

Let it never be said I won't try to meet the requests of my readers. There were several requests for Watership Down (the novel) and out of those requests, it was mentioned that there was a cartoon series I should look at as well. So here we are. Reviewing a children's cartoon. Altered Carbon this is not (Few things are).

Watership Down the cartoon was a joint project between Alltime Entertainment of the United Kingdom and Decode Entertainment of Canada (with involvement by the Canadian Television Fund). It aired from for three seasons from 1999 to 2001, for a total of about 39 episodes. Which is about an average run for a cartoon series. While it was released on VHS and DVD in the United States, I could find no evidence that it actually aired in the US, though it did air in a number of nations, including the UK, Ireland, Germany, Greece, Israel, Japan, South Africa and Portugal and of course Canada. The show is very British in its environment and characters, with Bigwig sounding like he should be leading an RAF wing against the Luftwaffe for example, but given that we are talking about a band of rabbits in England, this does make a certain amount of sense (It’s almost like they’re british rabbits being voiced by british actors or something insane like that). As usual for non-book reviews there will two scores given. The first will be of the series as it stands alone and the second scoring it as an adaptation of the book. I should note I only watched the first season because... Look folks, I am not watching 39 episodes of a children's cartoon. I'm just not, the books won't read themselves.

The cartoon cuts down the cast massively choosing to focus on 5 rabbits, Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver, Blackberry and Pipkin; although secondary characters will move in and out of focus in different episodes. The series starts with them (along with Hawkbit and Dandelion) already having escaped from their old warren and being out in the open. The first season covers the story of our main characters encountering the warren of the shining wire (the warren where the rabbits are fed by a man so he can harvest them via snares) fleeing that warren and establishing Watership Down. It also covers their first encounter with Erafa and General Woundwort and the ensuing conflict. The series does a good job of moving the story forward, even if it does drag out some of the conflicts and keeps returning to problems that were solved last episode. So instead of a never-ending status quo, there's an actual story being told here. That said, the padding of things out by returning to old soup is a bit grating. We don't need the discussion of whether or not bucks should dig to drag out for three episodes, or Bigwig having to learn a lesson three times before it sticks. It gets tiresome. The show emphasizes using trickery and cunning to solve problems instead of violence, which is appropriate for the age range of its audience. It also leans on the idea that teamwork is important and you need to learn to work with the people around you. I don't disagree with any of these lessons but well... Children's cartoon. Even then there are some things I found highly puzzling, like who the hell locks their dog into their garden as a means of deterring rabbits. If I had done that, my dog would have dug up half the garden and saved the rabbits the trouble (My dog would have made friends with the rabbits). Also there's an episode involving the rabbits having to escape a greenhouse with a python hunting them... That just can't be legal! I mean who builds a greenhouse in the middle of forest and sticks an invasive predator in it!?! That's downright irresponsible and the kind of thinking that lead to foreign species practically overrunning the Everglades.

(Hi folks, I’m splitting this into its own paragraph. Now, this is the UK, so if they python gets out it will die but WTF!? Who does that? Who builds a greenhouse in the middle of the woods? Who puts a python in a greenhouse? Ok, I actually know some people who do that but at least they secure the greenhouse and it’s in a sensible place like their yard or something! I literally can’t even! I am professionally offended by this bullshit. At least in Redwall the snake is a native species and he’s free-range!)

As a cartoon... I'm not sure my grade is fair. I think five year old me would really liked this, but we're a good three decades away from five year old me. So I'll give it a C-. I wouldn't ever watch this again, unless I was being paid perhaps, but I didn't loathe it or anything...

Now let's talk about it as an adaptation, because wow there are a lot of changes from the book! First, Blackberry is now a girl. This doesn't bother me all that much because the book was a bit of a boys only club. While it does mean making a large number of changes down the road since the root of the conflict between Watership Down and Erafa was that Watership Down needed does because as an all buck warren they were kinda doomed to population collapse. Making Blackberry a girl and reducing the starting cast from 16 to 7 kinda means it harder to use that line (Also: Holy Inbreeding, Batman! They’re grandkids are gonna be like a spanish Habsburg!). I can't criticize them to harshly for this since “We need girls to make babies” isn't a plot line I would trot out to entertain 5 year olds either. (That is where we differ! I would use it as a teachable moment in operational sex ratios, inbreeding depression, and life history theory. Likely until The Children(™) concussed themselves on the walls!{This is why we don’t let you produce, write or direct children’s cartoon Doc}) What is interesting is how they made the conflict more ideological; with Woundwort not being able to stand the idea that Hazel was leading a warren that didn't operate like his. Which is another change. In the book Woundwort is totally focused on Bigwig and doesn't even realize that it's Hazel that is his main adversary. This helps underline the blindness of the system that Woundwort has created, as it is completely unable to understand other methods of authority and leadership. In the cartoon, while Woundwort isn't happy with Bigwig, it's Hazel he's focused on. This is a change that does rob a bit of subtly from the story. The story itself is greatly extended as well partly as a result of the cast being so greatly pared down. The great escape from Erafa isn't ten does, it's one doe named Primrose and a single buck (This isn’t Britain anymore… THIS IS ARKANSAS!). Because of things like this the story drags out longer but feels smaller in scope. The change that stuck the most in my craw was the fact that there are only two stories told about El-ahrairah! With the mythology of the rabbits being one of my favorite parts of the book, I was not happy with this change. To be honest the rabbits are greatly anthropomorphized compared to the book as well and I was left thinking I could have easily been watching a story about hunter gatherer humans in some ways. As an adaption I have to give the cartoon a D.

So that's the cartoon! To which we're never going back! However, I do have surprise for y'all. Join me this Sunday for a review of the movie that brought trauma and fascination to a generation! That's right, we're doing the movie. Because y'all can't stop me. After that we're embarking on month long examination of an emerging genre, in August, we're going to be asking and hopefully answering the question of what the hell is Solarpunk! We start with the book The Windup Girl.

Keep Reading!

Red text is your editor, Dr Ben Allen.
Black text is your reviewer, Garvin Anders.

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 30, 2018 12:20 am 
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Watership Down (Film)
Directed by Martin Rosen


Martin Rosen was born in New York City in 1936 but would move to the United Kingdom with his wife while working as a theater agent and talent scout. Watership Down was the 3rd movie he produced, the first being a Canadian work A Great Big Thing in 1968, the second was Women in Love in 1969. He wrote the script for Watership Down and produced it. He also directed Watership when the original director John Hubley died. He also wrote and produced the 1982 adaption of Richard Adam's work Plague Dogs. Mr. Rosen would also produce the film Smooth Talk and the Watership Down cartoon series. He has since retired from active life.

The film itself was rather successful and was nominated for Hugo awards in 1978. It did well in the Anglo nations, Scandinavia, and Germany; but was less successful in Spain, where there were still a number of supporters of Franco's regime and in Japan which also has a complicated history with it's militarist government. What's best know about Watership Down is the fact that many parents doing no research into the matter thought that any film with cartoon bunnies were perfectly fine for small children (hehehHAHAHA BWAHAHAHAHA!). This wasn't helped by the British system declaring this film perfectly fine for anyone over four (Gotta love those anglo-sphere rating systems that disproportionately penalize sex over violence and give you a discount if the murder is animated.). I got a nephew who’s about five and I certainly wouldn't show him this film so... Way to drop the ball there folks. Anyways, that got the film a reputation as the film that traumatized an entire generation with scenes of blood, guts and bunny murder galore but does it live up to that reputation? Does this movie hold up 40 or so years after it's creation? As always I will be issuing two grades here. First how the movie stands on its own as a work and second how it stands as an adaptation. So let's discuss.

The movie like the book tells the story of Hazel and Fiver, who in response to Fiver's vision of imminent doom of their home warren, led an Exodus away from it to an unseen but promised land where they will live free and safe (Oh you sweet summer children…). The warren is somewhat oppressive, as the military caste has turned to bullying and stealing choice bits of food from the civilians; but hasn't sunk into a totalitarian state. Many of the rabbits who join Hazel and Fiver do so less out of belief in Fiver's visions and more for an excuse to strike out from a society that forcibly keeps them on the bottom rungs with no route of advancement (I see some prescient social commentary here.). However, they have to flee through dangerous territory braving predator-ridden woods and dealing with unforeseen dangers to do so. The movie does not pull punches about how dangerous this trip is for the rabbits, as they have to deal with rats, dogs, owls, hawks and more. Nor is it a trip without loss, as not everyone makes it the promise land. The main conflict doesn't really get going until the 2nd half of the movie when they have found their promised land and proceed to build a new warren. This is of course the conflict with the totalitarian warren Erafa ruled by General Woundwort. If the original warren was becoming hidebound, Erafa has become a full blown dictatorship where officers do as they please and everyone suffers as they must. The story mostly focuses on Hazel and Big Wig, with Fiver as a major character but taking a back seat to them in terms of characterization and screen time. The movie excels at using visuals to tell the story and set the scene, along with using music to reinforce both. We see the reality of Erafa shown to us in a short sequence that tells us everything we really need to know about such a society and why some rabbits would want to flee a place where they are safe from all predators... Well safe from all predators except their fellow rabbits. The stark contrasts between Erafa and Hazel’s group isn’t crudely hammered into but make completely clear just by seeing the two groups in operations. That said very little time is spent on developing Watership Down itself, part of this is due to the run time of the movie which is about an hour and a half. I kinda feel even another fifteen minutes would have been helpful on that front. It's also bogged down a bit by it's age. For example the extremely stylized scenes where they reveal the fate of the characters birth warren and Fiver's vision that leads him to Hazel come across as completely 70s to me. Clarity is thrown by the wayside in favor of animation sequences that seem to assume you’re using some sort of chemical assistance while watching the film. The scene where they reveal that the warren had been destroyed was fairly nightmarish yes, but so heavily stylized that I wouldn't be entirely sure what I was seeing without the voice over. Additionally replacing Fiver’s vision quest to find Hazel when he’s wounded with a musical dance routine with the bunny grim reaper wasn’t a choice I could get behind either. I can't help but feel that a modern remake would likely do a better job getting those scenes across to the audience. That said the movie isn't bad, especially if you're going to use it as an example of it's time. Watership Down the film gets a C+ from me.

It's run time is however a massive chain around the film's neck in regards to being a good adaptation. Entire subplots are axed and characters banished to oblivion. Big Wig's moment of glory, his undercover mission to Errafa is cut down quite a bit in order to have room for the main battle. Fiver's part in that battle is nearly written out entirely! For that matter Fiver is increasingly shoved into the background as the film goes on, his visions and spirit quests are mostly written out of the movie, which is frankly a shame as they helped give the novel a mystical quality. Strangely enough some of Hazel's moments are undermined ever so slightly to make Big Wig look stronger (as if he needed the help!). With the exception of the prologue of the movie showing the Rabbit Creation Myth and Fall from Grace, all the El-ahrairah are cut right out of the movie. Which is entirely understandable as you only get 90 minutes to tell the whole story so the myths are expendable, but man I would really like to see them all done on screen. As they're a great show of how storytelling mythology works in a non-literate society. The rabbits are also made more human, which I feel was unnecessary. Having the rabbits be noticeable less human and more rabbit would have been an interesting touch. Although I can understand why a movie maker wouldn't want to take that risk. Honestly if I was doing these reviews in the 1990s or early 2000s, it would get a high grade but adaptations have markedly improved in recent years so the standards have slowly climbed upwards and onwards. As an adaptation I have to give it a C-. In earlier darker times I might have given it a B or more but thankfully we are past that.

Well that's all done. Next week, we begin Solarpunk month! Join me for The Windup Girl and after that the Waterknife! Keep reading!

_________________
"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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