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PostPosted: Sat Jun 04, 2016 7:27 am 
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Fourth paragraph, third sentence, second word: 'intent' should be 'intend.'

Ben, you are dead to me. :lol:

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Chronological Incontinence: Time warps around the poster. The thread topic winks out of existence and reappears in 1d10 posts.

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-'You know me. You know that if there was a way to become Monitor Shiva, I would.'


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PostPosted: Fri Jun 10, 2016 10:44 pm 
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Drawing the Dragon
April Adams


Drawing the Dragon was written in 2011 by an independent author, April Adams. Ms Adams is a former Army Paratrooper (this is a Marine review series but I won't hold that against her), who graduated UC Santa Barbara and lives in San Diego with her husband, children and pets. I bought the book from her in person at Phoenix fan fest 2015 thinking it might be a good review someday, and here we are 6 months later.

The setting is something of a mash up of fantasy and science fiction. The idea is that after settling the moons of Jupiter and pushing out into the galaxy we run into the natives of the Andromeda galaxy; who happen to be humanoid, skinny, short and have pointed ears. As such we dub them elves (for some reason what elves call themselves is never an issue). We also discover great space faring monsters that we dub dragons. Fortunately dragons are friendly. Unfortunately they're dying, or they were before humans came up with a way to say them by turning them into giant cyborg spaceships. I'm going to take a moment to admit that is an awesome idea and I really like this part of the setting. Ms. Adams goes one further by linking the dragon's captain and the dragon itself in a symbiotic relationship. I'm not sure how I feel about this part because it seems like everything is in a symbiotic relationship in science fantasy these days. In this case they bond with their pilots as hatchlings (who are called Jordans for some reason) and grow into fighters and from there into capital ships. The dragons are grown via...magic. An “engineer” gathers together the metal and other materials needed (for example diamond) and using unexplained magic powers bonds that material to the dragon and by increasing the air pressure inside the dragon (remember they've been modified to have human/elf crews living inside of them) cause them to grow quickly. We're actually shown this happening in the book so I have to give Ms. Adams points for showing instead of telling.

The dragons and their Jordans are the main characters of the book, there are three of them each naming themselves after the color of their dragon: Jordan Blue, Jordan Scarlet and Jordan Jade. The story mainly focuses on Scarlet (a human woman) and Blue (an elf woman). Jade (an elf man) isn't really as prominent. We are given a view of his life, but we don't spend as much time with him as the other two. To be fair, he's not as interesting and doesn't have lot to do in this book, but he does get one important job. I found Scarlet the most interesting because in a lot of ways she is the most flawed. She's vain, taking a lot of effort and care to preserve her admittedly very good looks (on the flip side, good looks are something that do take a lot of work to maintain, like strength or intelligence), and she has a vile temper. She is also prideful and petty, making decisions driven by those emotions. She is also brave, tough as hell and driven beyond belief. She does all of this without becoming a terrible person. In combination, these traits mean she is often driving the plot. Blue is no slouch either being a fairly decent character in her own right, but because of her really tight relationship with Galen (a doctor and an elf) she often feels like half a person. It is possible that because the story is about Blue, I end up giving Scarlet more credit for stealing a good chunk of it. Blue does have her own stuff going on, there's a fair amount of strangeness in her back story Most of her life however seems to revolve around her dragon or her boyfriend Galen, to the point of getting some sort of magictech comm chip embedded in her ear so she can talk to him 24/7. Which does seem a little unhealthy. While I don't dislike Blue, I kind of find her confusing and while I appreciate her character, there's not a lot of pay off. I'll come back to this.

There is one element I do know how I feel about, the Chimera. The Chimera are an artificial race built to look perfect and be in great physical shape, so of course they were built as a slave race. More specifically, a race of pleasure slaves and living status symbols; owning a Chimera was a sign of wealth and prestige. Until they eventually rose up, killed their masters, and fled out into the darkness of space to plot revenge on the societies that created them. These are, of course, the villains of the story and honestly they're kinda lame. I'll grant that an interstellar society allows for a vast scale so even exclusive luxury goods can be made en mass, but that same scale means they would be extremely widely scattered across light years. Hell there could only be a couple thousand of them on a planet. These aren't sapient creatures being created in millions to toil in factories or mines, but people being made to serve as sex toys and status symbol nannies, butlers, and maids for the super elite. All of this begs the question of how the hell did they managed a coordinated uprising and escape? Sure they had people helping them who weren't Chimera but you would need a hell of an organization to pull that off. This also brings up another question. Why? OH WHY? WOULD YOU EVER MAKE SAPIENT SLAVES!?! ESPECIALLY SAPIENTS WHO WOULD REALIZE THEY'RE SLAVES AND HATE IT!?! WHY WOULD YOU EVEN WANT TO!?! This is a society where we are shown they have the ability to make non-sapient constructs who do the jobs that the Chimera did just as well and were just as pretty. So even pretending there would be no moral questions about this, there are a host of practical and safety related questions that arise.

This is a repeating theme in fantasy and science fiction stories that take on the role of a morality play (a story meant to teach about good and sinful behavior basically). Honestly I'm getting a bit tired of it, or rather I get tired of it being jammed in without any real thought about it. The humans in this story are suppose to be descended from our Earth. The book even shows us a far future remake of the Wizard of Oz, so clearly parts of our popular culture survived and spread. One of the repeating lessons of our popular entertainments is that creating slave races is bad! So why would you do it? It doesn't help that a lot about the Chimera themselves are left a mystery. We know they have ships (or at least one ship) but are they now a rival empire? A roving fleet? A terrorist organization? The book treats them inconsistently, with the central government refusing to authorize violent action against them despite them committing several acts of war. This is something I found frustrating because there's no explanation for why the central government is dragging it's feet. And then there's Bjorn.

I loathe Bjorn. Not in the love-to-hate way I do a lot of villains of page and screen, but in the way I do characters that just annoy me. Ms. Adams seems to want me to sympathize and root for Bjorn when he decides that he's in love in Scarlet but I just found this creepy; mainly because he decides this after spending a couple hours torturing her, including taking a blowtorch to her ribs. Call me old fashioned, but I'm of the opinion that once someone tortures you that severely, they're off the dating list forever. Frankly, his willingness to throw away his plans and advantages to protect Scarlet from others comes across as creepy and obsessive. It doesn't help that Ms. Adams like to suggest that Scarlet does feel a major attraction to him and is just lying to herself about her feelings. Okay yes, Bjorn is very pretty, but I'm going to argue that prettiness stops being compelling after a torture session that almost kills you, along with various murders and attempted murders of people you know and care for.

Additionally, the pacing is a mess. There are flashbacks without any announcement, so you're left trying to figure out why a character who was piloting a dragon 2 pages ago is now on vacation with her boyfriend on abandoned Earth. Changes in viewpoint character are sudden and if you're not paying attention you miss them entirely. I get the feeling that Ms. Adams is trying to create a feeling of being unmoored in time and space for her reader as part of the theme she is proposing rather haphazardly in the book, but instead makes the book hard to read and the story difficult to follow. Several minor characters wander in and out of the story without much announcement, which only makes the problem worse. There's also the narrative device she chooses to impart the history of her universe to us: that of a Grandfather telling stories to his unknown-how-many-great's grandkids. I'm supposed to being wondering what the Grandfather's deal is and who he really is, but I'm so overloaded with mysteries and schemes in this book that I simply don't care. It would also help if she didn't try to hide the identity of the characters in the flashbacks. Yes, I get that the Jordans changed their names upon becoming Jordans. No, having flashbacks to their training appear as disconnected sections with nothing to do with the plot until the very end without any identification of who the hell I'm reading about didn't make me feel favorable. It's fairly easy to figure out by the 2nd time it happens, so when the reveal comes there's little feeling of pay off. Frankly this book needed an editor badly or at least someone to tell Ms. Adams that yes, she is being very clever with all of this but cleverness comes in a distant 2nd to telling a story that the reader can follow.

There's also my eternal complaint. The story isn't complete. We're left with questions that are only raised in the last 30 pages of the book, and character conflicts that literally only happen in the last chapter! Instead of this being a pay off for the story and a conclusion, it's basically an announcement to read the next book to find out what the hell is going on. At this point I think everyone knows how I feel about that. It's okay to end a book with someone setting up a quest for the next one. Just make sure you've told me a complete story before you do it. I pay you money for this, the least you can do is give me a complete story! I feel like I'm banging on this drum every other review and I honestly don't mean to, but everyone keeps doing this! We had a build up about some revelation about Jordan Blue that was frankly half done for example. So I find myself very frustrated with Drawing the Dragon. There's a good story here with an interesting universe and very human characters but it's screwed up by lousy pacing and jarring shifts in the narrative; and a lack of a satisfying conclusion. So, while I want to give it a higher grade because cyborg dragons! In Space! In the end Drawing the Dragon by April Adams gets C, because that's what it earned.

Bah, next week we're going to try something new. A historical graphic novel. See you then.

This review was edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2016 12:29 am 
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Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender
by Onrie Kompan
Art by Giovanni Timpano

I actually picked up this comic at Phoenix Comic Con this year, because I wanted to read something short and was interested in the subject matter. I wasn't planning on buying any comics this year but when the gentleman running the booth told me what it was about well... I figured what's one more comic in the box right? I thought I would break trend and read, then review it within weeks of buying it instead of months.

Onrie Kompan is an American born and raised writer, as far as I can find out this is his first project and he's labored on it for almost 3 years. This includes several trips to Korea to research Admiral Yi. His passion for this work even got Stan Lee involved, who wrote the foreword to the comic. I do want to note that his passion for this is self evident, even just reading the comic I can see this is something that Mr. Kompan worked very hard on and believed in very much. Mr. Timpano is an Italian born artist, who is still very new to comics. That said his art is pretty damn good; I personally like the choice of deep, rich colors for this comic. That said I could do with less use of black and shadows as it makes even scenes that are taking place in broad daylight out on the open sea feel like they're taking place in some twilight forest, though everything is easy to see and tell apart. Which given the equipment of the time is hard to do. I also want to mention I appreciate the care lavished upon the gear and ships in this series. The Turtle ships themselves are incredible! They look menacing and dangerous from the first panel, just like a super weapon ought to!

Let me talk about the real life Admiral Yi, who was ironically an officer of the Korean Army sent to the navy as a punishment. So one of the greatest admirals of all time... had no formal training as a naval officer, he just kinda taught himself. Seriously if you wrote a fictional character who did this, critics like me would eat you alive. He joined the military at a time when the military was looked down upon as a lesser career path. This was a by-product of the Confucian philosophy that had major influence on Korea at the time. I believe the saying that illustrates this is “Good Iron does not make nails and good men do not make soldiers.” That said officers were still considered upper class and had to pass examinations to achieve rank. Yi passed his examinations and served with distinction in the army but had a lot of political enemies who constantly got him demoted. Dumping him in the navy was intended to be a kind of final insult, but ended up in some ways being the salvation of the Korean nation, preserving it from Japanese Conquest for hundreds of years.

The comic begins with the Japanese invasion in full swing (with a quick prelude of Shogun Hideyoshi vowing to conquer the world) and starts us off with the battle of Okpo in 1592. It's the first of several battles shown in the graphic novel and they are well done. Sticking fairly close to the historical record of what actually happened, with a few flourishes here and there to make things a little easier to follow or to make it work better as a story. One example of this is a confrontation between Admiral Yi and ninjas. As far as I can find out, ninjas were never used by the Japanese Army in Korea. On the flip side they could have been and the fight itself is pretty awesome... so I'm willing to forgive it. When it comes to the actual war itself, the graphic novel does a good job. Showing the grim odds against the Koreans that were overcome by a combination of new weapons, Yi's genius and the troops own courage and masterful execution of the Admiral's plan. I enjoyed these parts greatly and like the sheer amount of effort put into it. It's when the graphic novel wanders away from the battlefield that it gets into trouble.

While I enjoyed the graphic novel over all, there are a number of decisions that I have to disagree with, and others that I don't disagree with but I disagree with the implication. There are also some choices I could go both ways on. For example, the Japanese Generals Todo and Michiyuki are revealed to be having a love affair with each other. My problem here is that neither general was gay in the historical record and there is no evidence of such an affair. This might seem like a small thing, but these were real people. In such cases I feel we should try to get as close to the actual person as possible (for example there was a gay President of the United States, he was unmarried and had a male 'friend' in the white house with him. I leave it to the reader to figure out which President that might be. I will just say showing him as let's say in a passionate love affair with a woman would not have my support either). On that vein is the disappearance of Admiral Yi's family in this story! His eldest son and his nephew were present at a number of battles with him. He was a married man (and also had a concubine but given that was the custom of the time, I won't hold that against him). His best friend was the Prime Minister of Korea! Instead the Admiral Yi we're shown in this graphic novel is a grim island unto himself with admirers and supporters but few friends. By choosing this more boring approach, Mr. Kompan has turned his back on a number of story possibilities. In story terms, it seems like he did this to create a semi-romantic relationship with the head nurse Injung, but that doesn't go anywhere so I'm left asking “why?”. Speaking of romance, we also have a young refugee lady named Jin who seems to exist in this story mainly to stir up trouble. I'm holding my opinion on her here because her story arc ends in a cliff hanger of sorts, but like Injung her subplot doesn't seem to go anywhere. Also, her decisions make very little rational sense to me and I have no idea what she is supposed to be doing.

Another issue I have is Baron Seo, a Korean informant to the Japanese, and former slaver who hates Admiral Yi with all his being for some past action. He's supposed to be the main villain but he's just so unnecessary! We don't need a conflict between Seo and Yi because we already have a several conflicts! We have Yi vs the Japanese, as they attempt to destroy his way of life and his very nation. We have Yi vs his fellow admirals and officers as they fight for credit and to steal command from him. We have Yi vs his own damn king who wants to keep Yi under control and worries about a wildly popular and successful military man overthrowing him and taking his throne. Let me throw this in as well; Seo is really one dimensional! He has one character trait which is that he is Evil Mcevil Face! Seriously every time he's the focus of the book he is either doing something worth the death penalty or helping someone else do something worth the death penalty. Frankly he brings the quality of the whole work down, because I'm not invested here, I'm rolling my eyes and asking when I can get back to Yi fighting off a mass invasion with only a small army of devoted men. Which is kind of the story I paid money to see!

While I was entertained and enjoyed a lot of this comic, there are entire characters and sub plots which felt like wasted space. Additionally, changes to made to historical characters didn't really seem to make the story any better. That said this wasn't a bad comic. The battles were awesome, the story easy to follow and the art was good. All of that said Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender by Onrie Kompan is going to clock in at a C+. It's better than average but the fact is that Mr. Kompan added a lot of things that didn't need to be added and took away things that made the story weaker. I'm going to suggest my readers check out the Extra history series on Admiral Yi as well, you can find it here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ieaDfD_h6s)

Next week, we go back to novels. See you then.

Edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 24, 2016 9:28 pm 
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Yamada Mongartari: To Break the Demon Gate
by Richard Parks


To Break the Demon Gate was written in 2014, by Richard Parks. Mr. Parks is a Mississippi native who currently inhabits New York with his wife; and veteran author of short stories who has only recently started writing full blown novels. While this is the first work of Mr. Parks I've read, looking at a list of his work there is a certain bend towards Japanese influenced fantasy. It's kinda interesting how wide spread Japanese works and influence is in North America. I'm certainly not immune to it, the first work from outside the Anglo sphere (English speaking nations, pretty much the United Kingdom and former colonies) was a Japanese light novel. Part of this is the sheer amount of Japanese work that makes it to North America. Speaking for myself when I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, my choices were often English fiction, American fiction or Japanese fiction. Back then, that last was mostly in the form of anime but that did spark an interest in the culture of Japan in a lot of people. That's not entirely one sided either, anime was inspired by Disney Animations. To be honest if I had to guess, I would say that Japanese works are often foreign enough to be new and interesting but influenced enough by American works that it's not completely bewildering.

To Break the Demon Gate, fits into that. It's set in a semi-historical feudal Japan where ghosts, demons and more are real and drop by way to often for comfort. Our main character, Yamada Mongartari is a broke washed-up minor nobleman who now works as “nobleman's proxy”: solving mysteries and problems for the wealthy and powerful who need these issues resolved quietly and discretely. When he's not working, he's drunk. Mostly to forget his failures and personal loses. In other words, he's a noir private eye. In feudal Japan. With magic and ghosts. You could stick him in the Maltese Falcon and he would work just fine! I can almost hear Mr. Parks yelling at the top of his lungs ‘Genre conventions be damned I want my Japanese ghosts in my detective story!’ The thing of it is, it works masterfully in this novel. Yamada is an interesting character, the mysteries he's hired to solve are complex, strange and help to pull you in. Additionally, Mr. Parks clearly has an understanding of Japanese history and culture and unlike a lot of writers goes to the pre-Shogunate era, to a time when the court of the Emperor of Japan did actually rule Japan. This is a very neglected period, so it gets bonus points from me. When I read this book I actually feel like I'm reading a noir mystery that could happen in a ghost ridden Japan of that bygone age. Additionally, there is an attention to detail in the time period that I enjoy. Characters communicate by exchanging poems (something the nobles of the time did to both show off their education and maintain a level of privacy in their communications). The word samurai isn't used as it hasn't come into vogue yet, instead the warrior class are referred to as Bushi and they're not at the top of the totem pole yet, so they mostly serve as retainers to the noble class. The Taira and Minamoto clans are both referenced although their confrontation in the Genpei wars hasn't happened yet. Instead the story takes place during the Taira domination of the Imperial Court (made possible by their strategy of getting the Emperor married to a Taira princess as often as possible without causing massive inbreeding). However conflict between them and the provincial Minamoto clan (whose claim to power is they're doing all the actual fighting against rebels and barbarians to the north) is on an upswing.

Before I get into that let me get into some of the characters, first off we have a character who doesn't actually have a lot of screen time but looms large over the plot: Princess Teiko, 2nd wife of the former Emperor, mother of the current heir to the throne (imperial succession was complicated). While we don't get to see a lot of her, her actions shape a lot of the plot. She acts with one goal on her mind, to ensure that her son gets crowned Emperor of Japan. She does this using every tool and person at her disposal--including herself--with a ruthlessness that is actually rather shocking in its purity. In fact I'm going to note that frankly she is the most ruthless character in this book. For all that, she's not malicious or violent. In fact she's actually a fairly sympathetic character, showing that sometimes ruthlessness is wasted on the wicked. Alongside her is her brother Prince Kanemore, who wants nothing more than to renounce his title, start his own clan and hack his own fief from the howling wilderness. For that to happen his nephew must take the throne. Prince Kanemore not only is a friend to our main character Yamada but also serves as patron, ally and conduit into the halls of power where a lot of the struggle takes place. He's also serves as kind of a straight man to Yamada's sneaky cleverness at times. On the other end of society we have the vagabond exorcist Buddhist Priest Kenji. We don't find out a lot about Kenji in this book but we do find out that while somewhat reliable (when sober) Kenji wears his vows lightly (hence the sober remark). That said, he's often a useful ally to Yamada and helps shines a light on supernatural matters. Arrayed against them is Lord Sentaro of the Taira clan, who himself is wealthy, powerful and ruthless in the pursuit of his goal. Placing a son of the Emperor and Taira princess on the throne of Japan. To that end he will lie, cheat, steal and even murder men, women and helpless children; and sleep contently because he honestly believes such a goal is worth any sacrifice. I honestly love villains like this. Lord Sentaro isn't in this for primarily personal gain (he's already at the very top of his social structure) he's playing for the benefit and enrichment of his family and his family's family unto the 10th generation. Lord Sentaro is a vile human being in a lot of ways but he's one I can understand and even respect. I'd still recommend shooting the bastard mind you, but I can respect and hate a person at the same time.

The conflict between the Taira clan and the various other clans clan over control of the Imperial court under-girds the whole book, providing the basic conflict but the book avoids focusing on that. Instead it's about the personalities and their conflicts that really take center stage. This isn't just a dynastic struggle between two family groups. It's a personal struggle between Yamada, who is fighting for people he loves and cares for, against a man he hates. After all it was Lord Sentaro who got Yamada ousted from the Imperial court in the first place. Meanwhile Lord Sentaro blames Yamada for his failure to get his candidate chosen as heir to the throne. So both these men are carrying large grudges against each other and would really love if if the other guy could just... Fuck off and die already. On top of this are a number of characters with their own secret motivations and desires that I can't discuss for risk of spoilers. Those motivations however cause actions that end up steering the plot in many ways and it's how Yamada and Lord Sentaro navigate and deal with those actions that display their virtues and vices. Throw in a number of unexplained murders, a supernatural uproar and plots within plots and you have a really fun story.

The characterization is downright amazing,the attention to detail both historical and plot-wise are very well done (he has most payments being made in rice! Yamada pays his rent in rice! Everyone forgets that detail about Japan, a lot of payments were made in rice!). The dialogue can be a bit stilted to western ears as Mr. Parks adopts a more formal way of speaking with his characters (which also makes sense as most of them are upper class noblemen with an education, not to mention that Japanese has a formal form of the language that English just lacks entirely. Translating would also lend to the stilted feeling.) which may be a problem for some readers, although it honestly didn't bother me. That said I did grow up with the King James Bible so any work that doesn't have Thees and Thous (there is no such thing in this book, just a formal tone in speaking) is honestly not that difficult for me. Perchance if thou had hast my training in thy youth, thou wouldst tread upon the same path as I. There is an issue with pacing as well. Mr. Parks did most of his writing in short stories and it shows here, so in a lot of ways this book reads more like a series of interconnected short stories than a full length novel with a single story. On the one hand, I kinda like that and I can say that Mr. Parks manages to do in 50 pages what more than a few of the recent books I've read couldn't do in over 300. That is: tell me a story with a middle, beginning and ending! On the other hand, he should consider working a bit harder to develop stronger interconnections between chapters. In total it didn't impact my appreciation of the story; it was still quite easy to follow; and at least I didn't feel like the last 75 pages or so was a headlong rush to wrap everything up because oh crap we've run out of novel (you know who you are. You know!). Your mileage may vary on Mr. Park's pacing though, so be aware of that going in.

All in all I really enjoyed the book. It's not often I read a story before the Genpei Wars in Japan and less often that I read a story set in a Japan that never was that's not about samurai doing samurai things to each other. On top of that, I appreciated the noir style of the tale and characterization, but the same time the story didn't leap headfirst into the darkness that lot of modern noir tales tends towards. I also enjoy a story willing to defy rules like when and where certain stories are suppose to take place and do it well. The pacing issues and the dialogue may detract from the enjoyment and sadly do bring the grade down on this book, but I am also left more than willing to read more of Mr. Parks work and certainly would like to see more of Yamada. After the last couple books, this was a welcome breath of fresh air and I am glad not to be taking a veteran writer to task but to celebrate their work instead. Because of this I am awarding Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate by Richard Parks a B+. Let's see if we can keep up the good times right?

Next week, we return to light novels for a bit as I need kind of a brain dump before tackling one of the historical non-fictions on my shelf demanding that I get over here and learn something. See you then!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.​

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 01, 2016 10:11 pm 
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Log Horizon 3
By Mamare Touno


A bit of a recap for anyone who hasn't read the last couple of reviews: Log Horizon is the story of what happens when a group of thousands of gamers wake up in the world of their MMO game, in the bodies of their characters. But Mr. Touno doesn't stop there; see, the gamers aren't trapped in a video, they're trapped in a no-shit real world that shares many characteristics and physical laws with the MMO game. What does that mean, you ask? It means the NPCs are real sapient people with their own thoughts, desires, and wills. It means the monsters in the wilderness can act and make their own plans. It means there are consequences for how you treat people even if they aren't players and you cannot take things for granted. Mr. Touno presents these as the themes of this light novel and just like the last two, I enjoyed it.

Shiroe and company got a bit of a shock when the local government of the People of the Land (the self given name for the NPC natives of the world) invite representatives of The Round Table Council to attend a yearly conference. Shiroe attends with a number of representatives of a number of powerful guilds including Crusty the leader of the combat guild DDD (don't look at me like that, I didn't come up with the name). While Crusty was introduced in book 2, it's in book 3 that he becomes a major character in his own right. Mostly because he's able to deal with NPC aristocrats on their own ground without any real problems. While nothing is said about who he was in Japan, I do kinda feel his behavior and ease around the powerful hints he was a child of the upper class. This book also introduces new characters who are NPCs such as the Princess (I'll get to her in the next book) and the Magician Li Gan. Li Gan also goes by the name of the Sage of Miral Lake, as you might guess Shiroe and him hit it off. It's in their conversation that we learn a bit about the sad history of the world and why it is the way it is. Additionally we learn there might be some consequences to death even if you are a player. Every time you die, you lose memories. Not a lot, little things, but it could add up.

Meanwhile the characters whom fans have been known to dub Scrub or Noob Horizon takes center stage in their first real story line. First we have the twins Minori and Tohya, who were both introduced last novel. They had been being held basically captive by a guild who was using kids as sweatshop labor. Shiroe liberated them and the other kids while founding the Round Table Council because he's just that awesome. Minori is the quiet thinker who looks up to Shiroe, while Tohya is more outgoing and carefree and looks up to Naotsugu. I honestly like how Tohya and Naotsugu have this sort of star player/coach relationship going on in the background. It's low key but it's there in how Tohya thinks about things that Naotsugu has said to him as guidelines on how to live. Along with them is Isuzu, a young high schooler turned bard who was also held captive; Raundelhaus, a young man who is an incredibly outrageous sorcerer (this guy could have easily gotten annoying on many levels but Mr. Touno balances the characters mannerisms with his teammates to keep everything under control); and Serara who we met back in book 1. These characters have been tossed together in a training team. This is part of a larger effort to train up the new players who have found themselves trapped in the game-made-reality and brings to home just how organized the government that Shiroe founded is becoming.

How do you train noob adventurers you ask? The same way you do in the game of course, you send them into dungeons to kill things. The Round Table has set up a “summer camp” for the low level kids, to teach them the basics of combat so they can defend themselves and level out of the lower brackets. Which makes sense as a realistic response to the environment they've found themselves in. By leveling the kids (even if it means throwing them into the combat) they're ensuring that the kids can defend themselves in a world literally overrun by monsters. That seems a bit cold but remember, they can't actually die and frankly it's better they learn this sooner rather than later. It's in this story line that Mr. Touno shows that he understands how RPGs and MMOs work, because he graphically shows that without teamwork and communication you won't get very far in a combat zone. Unlike some similar stories, there aren’t going to be lone wolves tearing everything up while all the other characters just gaze admiringly. The kids have to learn to communicate the play styles and strengths of their character classes with each other while working together to cover each other's’ weakness. If they don't they have to run for their lives from very real monsters. If they do, they become greater than the mere sum of their parts. It's a good illustration of how planning and organization are needed to get you anywhere when you operate as a group and it does this without any tiresome sermons or beating the point into the ground.

That leads me to my next point, other characters are given important things to do and lessons to learn. This prevents character fatigue, I don't get tired of Shiroe and company because I'm being switched over to other characters. I don't get annoyed by spending time with Noob Horizon, because I get to see the cool plotting and sneakiness that the adults are up to. Crusty remains interesting without stealing the spotlight from other characters. It's still Shiroe's show to be blunt, but other people get their own acts. Other characters get to do cool and interesting things. If you want to avoid people thinking you're a Mary sue, this is a good tactic to adopt. Another one is that Shiroe doesn't always have the right answer or the best idea. Sometimes he has to listen to other people to get his shit done. That's another good tactic for a writer to use. Additionally, by expanding the cast and splitting them up, Mr. Touno shows that there's more going on in this world than just the little bubble inhabited by the main characters and expands the possible stories he can tell. It's a good move.

That said a lot of this book is simply set up for part 4 and the book ends on a cliffhanger. Remember how I said the NPCs had their own wills, motivations, ideals and desires? That doesn't just apply to the good guys; while the adventurers were holed up in their town freaking out and trying to figure out how they were going to live they weren't out there in the world killing monsters. This gave the monsters time to plan, organize, and prepare. That has consequences that unfortunately won't be explored until book 4. Because of this I'm giving Log Horizon Part 3 a B+, it's a good book but at times feels like only half a full story.

Next week, we leave the eastern shores of Asia and fiction behind and go to hotter, drier places and to history. See you then!

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 08, 2016 11:41 pm 
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In the Shadow of the Sword
by Tom Holland


Persian Fire, also by Tom Holland was one of my earlier reviews, my third one actually. I hope this review is a little more in-depth then that one. Let me start by talking about Tom Holland the writer. Mr. Holland is a English born writer, born near Oxford and educated in Cambridge (receiving a double first in Latin and English, which means graduating with honors for us Americans). He lives in London with his wife and daughters, and is known for being an avid Cricket fan. Mr. Holland is a prolific writer with over 11 books to his credit, a play, 2 documentaries and a translation of Herodotus: The Historians (and I was proud of hitting 60 reviews). One of those documentaries “Islam: the Untold Story” is roughly based on this book. When it was shown in England it provoked over 1000 complaints to the channel that showed it and a number of death threats against Mr. Holland. Now I'm not going to pretend that death threats are a Muslim only thing. A brief google search of Christian death threats makes that embarrassing clear (As a Christian, guys don't send in death threats because someone said something you didn't like, not only it is wrong but it frankly makes me wonder if you even read the New Testament). That said, if you're going to be part of the 21st century you're going to have to get used to people believing and saying things you don't like, well at least if you want in on the good parts of the 21st century. I think I'll leave the discussion on death threats at that. Let's get to the book, you know, the reason we're all here right?

In the Shadow of the Sword starts with a very basic thesis. See, the standard history about the formation of Islam is that Muhammad, a merchant from Mecca received a visitation from the angel Gabriel in a cave and as a result began having visions. Those visions became the basis for the Quran, the holy book of Islam which he would recite to his companions who wrote it down (or passed it on to people who did). The basic agreement is that the Quran was received whole and unchanged from Gabriel as the final revelation of God and has been unchanged since that time. It's one of the things that makes Muhammad unique among holy figures. Unlike Jesus or Buddha, who despite being the founders of their faiths were dead, or at least no longer among the living, when the holy texts of their faiths were written, Muhammad or at least his companions were still alive. Mr. Holland argues that may not actually be the case. He argues that the traditions and stories that have grown up around the Quran and the Hadiths might actually not stretch back to the founder of Islam. Additionally he goes so far as to suggest that the Quran was not written as early as we've all been led to think. In fact, much like the New Testament it might have been assembled by scholars who only really begun the project once the events of Muhammad's life had passed beyond living memory.

First however, Mr. Holland takes us on a tour of the world that would develop Muhammad and followers. This means of course taking look at the middle of late antiquity, when the middle east was divided between two great, but today nearly forgotten superpowers: the Persian Empire and the Byzantine (or Roman if you prefer) Empire. On one side the Christianized Roman Empire, having lost the western half of the Empire but still one of the greatest powers in the world. It was a centralized, bureaucratic state with a state army. Of course in the early days of Christianity, what it meant to be a Christian was up for negotiation. The nature of Jesus, the trinity, what books were going to be in the New Testament. Whether or not there was going to be a New Testament, all of these things had to be hashed out and often it was a messy and at times violent process. On top of this already complicated and muddled process was the working of the Roman state, whose Emperors were determined to exercise some control over this process and ensure that whatever came out of the other side of it was something that would mesh with the Roman government be of use to them. This wasn't always a process dominated by political goals however, the vast majority of the men (and back then I am sorry to say it was a discussion where only male voices were really welcomed) involved did hold an honest and deep belief in the doctrines they were arguing for. Many of them were willing to die or face life long exile rather than believe anything else. Frankly that is one of the reasons that the process was so complicated and bloody in the first place. Now, because this isn't complicated and layered enough, everyone involved was also trying to hash out what makes a Christian not a Jew. Today that seems a silly question, as it takes but a few minutes to outline the border between the two deeply related but very different faiths. Back then however, there were Christian Jews and Jewish Christians and that's not two ways of saying the same thing. Not that the Christian Bishops were the only ones involved here, the Jewish Rabbis were fully part of the project of creating a clear distinct border between the two faiths and ensuring that they would stay separate. Honestly I feel this is a subject that merits a book all on it's own but moving on.

We also have the Persian Empire, which at the time was dominated by Zoroastrian faith. I've always had a low-level fascination with that religion, which amazingly still exists in Northern India and eastern Iran even today. Like in Rome, the Persian Monarchs had identified themselves with a single faith and were more than willing to use it shore up royal authority. That authority is something they might have needed more then the Romans, because their empire was feudal in nature with great families able to raise their own empires ensuring that a cycle of civil wars would dominate Persian politics. The Zoroastrian priests would preach that the Persian Empire itself was a religious object, an expression of the order of the universe, uniquely blessed by God to uphold the divine order. Stop me when I get to something you haven't heard before. The Romans would do the same of course and like the Romans, the Persians were surrounded by hostile barbarians constantly testing the strength of the empire's defenses, hungry for a chance at the wealth behind those defenses.

We also are shown the other religions of the time. Like the Samaritans; who prayed toward Jerusalem, refused to eat pork, and declared there is no God but God and Moses is his prophet. Or the many prophet lead rebellions within Persia, many of them preaching a utopia where true believers came together and shared their resources and abilities so that no one was hungry or in need. Paganism held on in the corners and forgotten places of the region, despite the best efforts of authorities in both empires. Each of these groups in turn rebels and upon losing scatter into the desert. Mr. Holland also shows us the Arabs in their pre-Islamic state, looked down upon as barbarians but used by both empires as border troops to try and prevent raids on their homes. The two rival federations fought across the centuries and decades with a savagery that would be legendary in it's own right. All the more savage for the religious elements the struggle took on. The Arabs who took Persia's money turned to paganism, to the point of human sacrifice. The Arabs who took Roman coin, converted to Christianity. To put it bluntly the Middle East was seething with religious upheaval and political instability (something I'm sure no one today can envision the Middle East being like) and the wide feeling that an age was coming to an end. Mr. Holland shows us this vivid, brilliant, brutal world that teemed with ideas, faiths and loyalties. Then he shows us the end of that world.

Like most things, it started small. Insect small, as fleas carried by rats on trade ships brought plague to Egypt. From Egypt it spreads across the Roman world and from there into Persia. As many as one out of 3 died. Entire cities are left as ghost towns, whole provinces hollowed out and left barely inhabited. Both empires only held on through the unceasing work of talented and ruthless men determined not let this be the last chapter of their civilizations; even as the empires began to claw their way back from the abyss, ambition, fear and greed combine to throw those civilizations back in. The Emperor of Persia, feeling that his hold on the throne is frail and may be slipping, decided to throw the dice and go for broke. He summoned up his armies and crashed into an exhausted Roman Empire. It looked as if the long feud might finally be over but the Roman Emperor was not a man of small gifts. Having scraped up a tiny army, he lead his men into the heartland of Persia and attacked the temples of Zoroaster, destroying them and attacking at the very heart of the Persian Emperor's power. It's an insane gamble that worked, and Persia fell apart into civil war. The Roman Army staggered home believing that now, at last there is time to heal and rebuild. The End of Days had been averted. Then from the desert come the (now Muslim) Arabs. They hit like a mailed fist through glass, Persia collapsed and Rome was reduced to a rump state fighting to hold on to the provinces in Anatolia. The Arabs had risen from a barbarian people on the margins to the masters of the civilized world.

But how is this world to be governed? What is it that makes a Muslim? What makes a Muslim different from a Christian or a Jew? What is the position of the Commander of the Faithful? Does he speak for God? Who can judge him? These are the problems of victory that the Muslims had to grapple with. Where the Caliphs believed they had the answer (that they clearly were chosen by God to be the ultimate authority) the scholars of Islam had different ideas. On top of this come in the newly converted Persians, Syrians, Egyptians and more, all of whom are pushing for their own rights within this new society. From the bottom come the masses of slaves that the Muslim Arabs took as god-given plunder. They converted and began adding their own input into what Islam should be. It was in this environment that the first written records of Islamic civilization begin to filter out, over a century after Muhammad's death. Tracing those records and discussing the context and conflicts between those records leads Mr. Holland and the scholars whose research he used to a conclusion that the Quran is not quite what we've been led to believe. That instead it was a project that took place over a sustained period of time and was the result of intense debate within the Islamic community over what God’s will actually was.

As I mentioned earlier, I am a Christian, so clearly I don't believe that Muhammad was visited by Gabriel and I don't believe the Quran to be divinely inspired. That said, I am also well aware of the nature of the New Testament's assembly and how intensely debated it was, so frankly I'm very comfortable with the idea of a Holy Text being the result of the work of men. Whether this case would convince a Muslim, I will leave to the actual Muslims. To be honest I can't help but feel this is a conversation that the followers of Islam should be having, not us non-Muslim westerners but let's be honest: this is a conservation that can't be held by most Muslims. Not when voicing such ideas in places like Saudi Arabia or Iran is likely to get you jailed or doing so in Egypt or Jordan will get you murdered. Maybe in the future however. There is always hope for a more open and free world, after all. As I read this book, I was reminded of a saying that has stuck with me. Faith is about God, but religion is and always has been about Man. Mr. Holland certainly argues that case here.

Mr. Holland gives us a grand tour of the world that gave birth to Islam and to the forces in the early Arab empire that struggled to define Islam in the wake of it's great victories. I'm not entirely sure that I can rate Mr. Holland's thesis as proven but he certainly makes a bold case worthy of discussion. If you're interested in the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia; if you're interested in the history of the Middle East; or if you want to know more about the history of Christianity, Judaism, or even about the other religions that roamed across the God Haunted sands of the middle east then this book is for you. I learned a lot and the imagery and thoughts in this book are going to stay with me. For these reasons I give In the Shadow of the Sword an A.

Next week, brace yourselves! For we going to have a clash. Because the report has come in and it's VADER DOWN!

This review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 15, 2016 8:34 pm 
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Vader Down
By Jason Aaron and Kieron Gillen
Art by Mike Deodato and Salvador Larroca

“All I am surrounded by is Fear. And Dead Men” Darth Vader

This comic is a crossover between the Vader series and the Star Wars series starring our happy band of rebels trying to overthrow the Empire. I haven't reviewed the other series but I do want to let you know that it's coming. As a consequence, this review is going to mainly looking at it through the viewpoint of the Vader series. Fair warning: I'm going to hold off on talking about Jason Aaron and Mike Deodato until I actually review their series. Let's get into it shall we?

Last time Vader had gotten a tip that Luke Skywalker; the person he has spend money, lives and material to learn about and find like a drunken sailor on leave was on the planet Vrogas Vas. Without a second thought in his helmeted head the Dark Lord of the Sith rushed to that planet alone to confront and capture Luke... only to find it's a trap (please insert your favorite Admiral Ackbar joke here). It wasn't a trick however, Luke Skywalker was on the planet to visit a deserted Jedi Temple and he brought along a few friends. A battalion of them or so (well more like 3 squadrons and a company but really who’s counting? Besides me I mean.) and Vader is about to brawl with them all. I just gotta say, this is one glorious brawl.

This is where we see Vader just unleash himself because he is just done with everyone's crap. I can't really blame him. His boss and mentor is openly talking about replacing him; people keep disrespecting him to his face; he keeps having to work for sub par officers; it would make anyone murderous never mind a dark side worshiping near-psychopath. Now, I'm going to be honest, up til now my benchmark on what a Force user could do was pretty much Luke Skywalker and watching the Jedi in the prequel movies (yes, yes, we all dislike them but they exist). When I saw Vader going up against dozens of star fighters and companies of troops I was kinda asking myself ‘just what is it he can do?’. I'm not going to go into details here but let me just admit I didn't know the power of the Dark Side. Vader goes head to head with a small army and it swiftly becomes you worried about the army instead of being worried about Vader. To future writers and creators, this? This right here? This is how you sell me on a villain being utterly terrifying! Vader becomes a force of fucking nature, like a man sized black wearing be-caped Godzilla in a worse mood than usual.

Vader isn't the only character on display here. Our protagonists from the movies (you know, Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie and the Droids) are also here, along with what I've labeled Vader's Villain Party. They all show up for a messy brawl where all the characters throw down and mix it up. Now what happens in a lot of crossovers is you're left feeling that one team was tossed under the bus, forced to lose the fight by writer fiat. That doesn't happen here, it really feels like two teams of protagonists going at it and using everything they can think of to win this brawl. My favorite bits happen to be the droid on droid violence and the awesome fight between Chewie and Krrsantan. That said, Dr. Aphra and Han Solo also get their moments and their duel was fun to read. Meanwhile Luke, who has no clue what's really going on just yet is scrambling to avoid being captured by... Everyone.

However interestingly enough the real conflict of this story isn't Vader's, Luke's or even Han's. It's Leia's. Princess Leia wants Vader dead and with damn good reason. He did help blow terracide her culture. Yeah, you could argue that was Tarkin's order but Vader was up to his neck on that one. There is also the little issue of Vader torturing Leia back in A New Hope. I'm just guessing here, but something tells me Leia might be the kind of lady to hold a grudge over stuff like that. Personal reasons aside there are also solid political and military reasons to pour out a small planet's worth of resources to kill Vader. He is still the Emperor's right hand man and a Dark Lord of the Sith. While this comic shows that his combat value is... insane, it's his value as someone the Emperor can trust to solve any problem he's pointed at that makes him a high value target. To be blunt it's actually worth losing a literal regiment or more to kill Vader, assuming you can get the job done. Leia is also faced with the question of whether or not it is it worth losing Luke and her friends to kill Vader. I would argue no, personally on simple practical grounds. Yes, killing Vader would be a massive blow to the Empire but the Emperor can replace Vader. It would take years, maybe even over a decade to train an equivalent Sith but it could be done (the biggest strength of the Empire is that it is a machine, every part except the Emperor can be replaced because that is how the Empire was designed. As long as the Emperor lives, everything else can be rebuilt). The Rebellion cannot replace Luke Skywalker, if he dies, the likelihood of their victory drops immeasurably. They can replace a thousand ground troops, they can replace squadrons of fighters but a Jedi? Not so much. Course I am arguing with perfect hindsight here so my math may be tainted by outside knowledge. She doesn't know it but it's Leia's decision here that is going to determine the course of the war and the fate of galaxy. I found that really cool.

The action is bone jarring, the pace fast but not break necked, the attention is fairly well balanced (although Luke and friends do get a bit more time then Vader, Vader gets more time than any single character so I feel it balances out). The writing works well, despite some minor shifts in tone depending on whether it was Aaron or Gillen writing, and some dramatic shifts in the art style (I find myself preferring the Vader's team art but that's a personal decision). This is a story of a battle, one of the many small battles across the galaxy that almost by accident ensure the final fate of the Empire. I greatly enjoyed seeing Vader go nuts on companies of innocent infantrymen. Yeah sure he's the bad guy but there's something satisfying in seeing an actual powerhouse of a villain go all out and drive his enemies before him. Because of this Vader Down gets an A. Get thee hence and give it a look if you're a star wars fan, you'll thank me later kid.

Next week, we find out just how it is you deal with a goblin army in the tens of thousands and if fate can be denied or not. See you then.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 16, 2016 6:02 pm 
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I have been collecting the StarWars: Darth Vader comics, of which Vader Down is a mere chapter. The story has been solid across the board, and Vader has been shown not just as a melee powerhouse, but also a man who has put some thought into keeping his place as the Emperor's Right Hand. However, the series is winding down, and supposed to end at Issue 25 (current issue is #22). What is truly impressive is the sheer amount of story they have packed into such a short run.

Frigid mentions Vader's Villain Party. These are Dr Aphra, who is a rogue scientist with a touch of Indiana Jones-style adventurer, and a great love of rebuilding combat droids. Through her, Vader obtains the droid pair 0-0-0 and BT-1 and hires the Wookiee bounty hunter Krrrsantan. Krrsantan is not fleshed out that much: he enjoys pit-fights, taking down other Wookiees, and getting paid.
"Triple-Zero" is a protocol droid programmed for infiltration, interrogation, and torture, and who truly enjoys his job. Besides waxing eloquently on his love of his job, he is often suggesting ways his body might be upgraded in order to improve his efficiency, and would like to see all droids upgraded to remove the problem of fleshy beings. The most amusing bit is he's a CP-model, which means I'm reading Triple-Zero's dialogue in C3P0's voice.
BT-1 (BeeTee) looks like a R5-model astromech, but is actually a 'blastomech'; a specially designed assassination droid whose astromech body hides a truly insane number of blasters and mini-missile launchers. Like all other astromechs he only speaks Binary, but the context clues in Triple-Zero's replies leave no doubt BeeTee is more murderous as his partner, ascribing to the 'there is no overkill' mode of thought.

I am not looking forward to the end of the series. When Dr. Aphra first meets Vader, she knows one day it'll be her on the end of his blade, and requests when that day comes he makes it quick. There's only three more issues before we find out if Vader keeps that promise.

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PostPosted: Sun Jul 17, 2016 12:14 pm 
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Having gotten around to reading Ancillary Justice, let me clarify an issue. (Yes, it's a couple pages back.) The Radch most definitely do have a concept of gender. There are two things going on here:

1) They don't have any gender signifiers in their language or gender roles in their society

2) One Essk aka Justice of Toren is an AI running around in a human meat body and has no personal investment in gender.

The combination of 1) and 2) leads us to having a narrator who thinks of gender as at best an irritant (she's not good at telling gender without obvious clues and some people get upset if she uses the wrong pronouns). It also leads us to not actually knowing the gender of many of the characters because the story is told by first person narration by a character who is effectively gender blind.

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 22, 2016 8:58 pm 
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Log Horizon IV
by Mamare Touno


So imagine you play an MMO, a very popular one. Imagine you woke one day and found yourself in the body of your character and in the world of the game. You're lost and alone in a strange world, most likely surrounded by strangers. Fighting is actually painful and scary now, not to mention now the monsters aren't pictures on a screen but in your face with real-live maiming action! How interested would you be in doing game quests which involve a lot of combat? What if there were consequences for not throwing yourself into the meat grinder; really bad ones? What if the game world acted like a real world; complete with sapient NPCs, with their own motivations, desires and plans? What if, when the monsters come out and you don't fight them. real people--men, women and children--are going to suffer and die; what do you do then?

Volume 3 ended with an army of thousands of goblins pouring out the mountains to fight, kill and plunder under the lead of a new Goblin King. This happens right when our new government of the town of Akiba (the town where most of the characters make their main base along with 15,000 other players) are in the middle of sensitive negotiations with the local powers that be in the League of Free Cities. The League is a Confederation of noble fiefdoms where the the various nobles have agreed to support each other and not fight. They're not very organized however, having to set everything up by ad hoc committee. I'll admit to being somewhat snobby about this, but I suppose this is what happens when you don't have a clearly defined leader or hierarchy. What I mean by that is that the rank-structure of the League of Free Cities seems fairly flat. Each noble is almost completely independent of the others, meaning that you kind of have to treat the Baron next door as an equal even if you're a Duke. It's not like there's anyone to appeal to if he rounds up an army to force the issue after all. Having the adventurers show up and start acting like actual people and organizing into a city state is upsetting a lot of this, as now they have to figure out how to treat them and the Goblin invasion is forcing the issue.

In the middle of this is Shiroe, who really wants to help fight off the Goblin Army but also has to keep an eye to the future. If he folds to easily then he might find himself stuck in a situation where the League views the adventurers as their own private army of super humans and acts accordingly which could cause conflict or even open warfare as the adventurers are not going to consent to that. On the flip side, take to long to help and thousands of people could die and that's going to stain and mar the relationship between the two power blocks. Meanwhile the nobles need the adventurers to bring the pain but can't let themselves be held in a position of weakness. They're already militarily weaker than the adventurers on pretty much every level and so feel that politically they need every advantage they can get. This is where I want to talk about a certain princess...

Princess Reinesia was introduced last-volume but didn't really impact the story until this book. I would like to take a moment to point out this is a great method of bringing characters into a story. Princess Reinesia was introduced as the daughter of a Duke, one of the more powerful nobles in the League. In volume 3, we saw Crusty form a relationship with her based on mutual desire to get out of socializing and work. So instead of the princess coming in out of nowhere, we already know this character and have a good idea of what she wants and who she is. Who she is, well she's what you might call a natural born NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) which is a term that came to describe a number of young folks after the recession hit and they graduated college and found no work waiting for them (there's also a population of them in Japan for separate but comparable reasons). Princess Reinesia is ,frankly, lazy, aimless and rather adrift. She dislikes associating with the young men of her class because they do nothing but shower her with compliments and empty gestures. She dislikes the young women of her class for much the same reasons. She doesn't have the drive or temperament to be a rebel so she just kinda mopes and hopes to be left alone to be lazy. I actually found myself somewhat sympathetic to her (on the flip side I am the guy who arranged his class schedule in the pursuit of having at least one day a week where I didn't have to put on pants but could just chill at home). However, when the Goblin army comes roaring down from the mountains she doesn't mope about the possible lost of her lifestyle; she worries about all the people in their path and tries to do what she can to help. She decides what she can do is cut the Gordian Knot of relations between the adventurers and the nobles of the League, and she does it pretty decisively even if the whole time she's trembling in fear that she's going to puke in front of everyone (also something I can sympathize with).

We also got Scrub/Noobhorizon's doing front line combat with the Goblin Horde. I actually enjoyed this part of the story the most. It's a group of scrappy, willing kids who have just finished their training putting it to use to defend a town of innocent people against ye olde horde. The fight scenes are good and there's a real understanding of how to turn game mechanics into something that works for you instead of against you. I also really enjoy the kids team dynamic, it's different enough from the adults to feel fresh and new but is still a team full of good people who care and like each other. There are rough corners to their friendship, mainly because it's so new that it still squeaks if you handle it wrong. A good part of the drama here comes from Rudy, who’s a sorcerer with a secret. That secret means that bluntly Rudy doesn't belong on the battlefield and is the worse equipped person to be on the field. I can't say why because of spoilers but what I can say is that the very laws of the world are telling Rudy to stay home sit down and let someone else do the fighting and Rudy is telling the very physical laws of his universe to go to hell. The fact is Rudy is trying to swim uphill but he's doing so with all his heart so you can't help but cheer for the guy. The fact that he's willing to throw himself out in front to help and protect people doesn't hurt either. I'll be honest part of me likes a guy who when told “you can't do this” says “fuck you I'll do it twice as good as you thought I could.”

That said there are parts of the book that get a bit dry, mostly those told from Shiroe's view. I'm also disappointed in how Mr. Touno tells us things that are happening off screen in the blandest way possible at times, and his pulling back at the last moment from following the war all the way to the end. The end of this story has a lot of tell instead of show, which is something I hope Mr. Touno doesn't get into the habit of. Still, it's a fun story and one I enjoyed. Because of that Log Horizon 4 by Mamare Touno gets a B+. Next time, I think I should do a fantasy novel, don't you? Let's go somewhere new shall we?

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 29, 2016 8:04 pm 
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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
By N.K Jemisin

One of the reasons I started this review series 2 years ago was to push myself to read new works. At the time, I found myself--for a variety of reasons--pulling inward and sticking to familiar and well worn paths. I won't bore you with the maudlin personal details but it wasn't just in reading and I found myself needing to do something to break out of the rut. This review series was and remains part of that. That is why you have and will continue to see independent and not as well known authors showing up here. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an example of that. Before starting this series I would have never picked up this book, written by someone I've never heard of with no real connection to anything else I've read. Frankly, not every book I've picked up in that spirit has been a winner and there will likely be more reviews that consist of me howling in rage or muttering darkly in disappointment. This will not be one of those reviews.

Let's start as we usually do, with the writer, N.K Jemisin. Ms. Jemisin is the first African American woman author to be reviewed in this series. Why I mention this will become clear in a moment. Born in Iowa City, she would later attend Tulane University receiving a B.S in Psychology and later a Masters in Education from University of Maryland College Park. Before becoming a writer, Ms. Jemisin worked in education as a counseling psychologist, concentrating in career-counseling of young adults and adolescents. She started writing in 2002, with her first credited short stories showing up in 2004. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was her first full length novel and was released in 2010. Since then she has earned Nebula, Hugo, Goodread Choice Award, and the World Fantasy Choice Award; and then there is her brief feud with Vox Day. At first I wasn't sure whether or not to address it but I decided it was best to do what I always do, confront it head on.

The beginning of that feud comes from a speech that Ms. Jemisin gave in Australia. I don't agree with everything she said but I haven't lived her life and that's all I'll say there. Vox Day quickly attacked her calling her among other things an educated but ignorant savage (some people just cannot disagree with someone without doing it in the most hateful and awful manner). Some of his supporters have suggested that she was given her awards on account of her skin color. Here's what I'm going to say. I don't do research on the writer for these reviews until after I have read the book and decided the grade I'm giving it. So I didn't know a lot about her and was vaguely aware at best that she wasn't a white male. So I have done the next best thing to a “blind taste test” if you will. I find these allegations to be, bluntly, horseshit. Which makes the allegations about the average quality I expect from Vox Day and his supporters. I could sit here and tell you about how he should be ashamed of himself but one should not expect a rabid puppy to change it's nature, that's how you get bit. That's all the space I want to waste on this subject, let's talk about this book.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the story of a young woman, barely more than a girl really, named Yeine Darr. She is a noblewoman and ruler of her nation of Darr, but is not sovereign. This is because her nation, in fact every nation on the planet, is ruled by a single family (a very large extended family) of god's chosen aristocrats. We've all heard this song and dance before but this time the family not only really is chosen by a god but can prove it. Of course that proof is blasphemy (I'll come back to this) and a gross violation of all that is good and noble, but details. The proof is provided by four enslaved gods. You see, a long time ago the gods battled and fought over... Everything. The winner threw down the losers and forced them to be enslaved to the whims and desires of a single mortal family. They used to gods to, say it with me now Pinky, Take Over The World! In some ways their rule is somewhat detached as they rule through the local elites and have set up something of a parliament where those elites have representation and can discuss the laws of the world. In other ways their rule is the most absolute tyranny the world has ever seen. There is no religious, economic, or political freedom; the members of this family are utterly above the law and able to act in any way they wish unless the head of the family and De Facto King of the World feels like stopping them. There is no safety or shield from the depredations of those above you expect to cry out for pity from a group of people who have been taught from birth that pity is a vile sin. Worship the wrong god and they will find and kill you, possibly using the very god you were worshiping. Speak poorly about your masters and plagues and monsters may be visited upon you. Trade in the wrong way or with the wrong people and your children will be made to starve. No one is safe, not even members of the ruling family who prey upon each other in ruthless and relentless power games and have enslaved every member of the family who is not a direct, pure blooded descent of their founder, the priestess that their tame gods were entrusted to.

Yeine Darr is very aware of this and hates it, perhaps in spite of the benefits she has gathered from the system or perhaps because of those same benefits. Ms. Darr is a half breed, her father was the son of the ruler of Darr, a matriarchal nation on the edge of the world. A nation that no one would pay any attention to if it wasn't for the fact that Yeine's Mother was the daughter of said King of the World who rejected her position to marry him. Yeine is their only child, raised in Darr away from half of her heritage. With the death of her parents she has been summoned to Sky, the palace city where only those blood related to the rulers of the world can live through the night safely to meet the degenerate rulers of the world, her family. She will have to confront her family and be pulled into their power games, because the King of the World is dying and someone has to take his place. If she wins, she can rewrite the entire world. If she loses, she'll die and might just take her nation with her into the grave. Meanwhile she'll have to untangle the past and find out just who her mother was and why she did what she did.

I like Yeine, she's an interestingly complex and somewhat flawed character. Mildly sexist given her upbringing in a Matricidal society that considers men somewhat less capable of self control than women. She also has a terrible temper and a tendency to screw up by not controlling herself very well (which is ironic given the above). That said, she is also very intelligent, brave; willing to put her life on the line for her nation and allies, and to keep digging for the truth even if it's something that she might not want to hear. She's ruthless in her willingness to risk herself for her goals and I respect that. She isn't a perfect person or a saint. She's a person with flaws and mistaken beliefs which were ingrained into her by her culture. She is also someone who is in a terrible situation under a huge amount of stress, and she acts like it. She comes across as believable and a real person in a lot of ways. Which is a good thing because the entire story is told pretty much completely from her point of view via first person narrative.

Which actually leads me to one of my complaints. The first person narrative is actually distracting from the plot and other characters because Yeine often takes detours from the story to tell us things. Sometimes it's information that vitally provides context to what's going on. Other times, it's stuff I figured out 30 pages ago or stuff that's kinda interesting but has nothing to do with the story. Other times it's to repeat stuff that has already been covered in the story. Additionally you'll find her arguing with someone else in the narrative, which also doesn't really add anything to the story. Everything does tie together in the last chapter but I often find myself wanting to tell Ms. Jemisin to get on with it! Part of that is her tendency to use this to create mini-cliffhangers within the book itself. Which I will admit grates on me; partly because I want to know what's happening next (which admittedly means Ms. Jemisin has gotten me to care about these characters and the plot); partly because while there is nothing inherently wrong with cliffhangers, I feel it to be a very abused method of generating suspense unnecessarily. Additionally there are jumps forwards and backwards in time due to the narrative choices which I found annoying. Stopping right before a major confrontation to go back a day and tell me about something else is like ripping a juicy piece of turkey out of my mouth. It's annoying and kinda rude. Diversions from the plot also happen when Yeine is dealing with the non-human characters in the plot, the enslaved gods and boy does she do interesting things with these characters.

I am, I admit, speaking as a Christian and a 21st century American here but I have always considered it a type of blasphemy to enslave a fellow human being. If it is blasphemy to enslave a mortal sapient being crafted in God's image... how much more blasphemous is it to enslave a being whose image we are in made in? The empire that Yeine is trying to survive in is built on the enslavement of four gods, one of whom is older than the universe itself. Having lost the war in heaven they were sentenced to serve the whims and commands of the winners most valued mortal servants. It would be bad enough if these gods were simply used as weapons (and they are) but they are used as servants and playthings on top of that. The sheer gall it takes to look a being that is eternal and immortal and command it to do petty demeaning service is frankly beyond me (or at least I hope it is). It should be no surprise that these gods hate their captors and plot to bring death and pain to any of them they can. What is a surprise is the nature of divinity in this world. It is not just humanity that has been crafted in the image of their creators, the gods are forced into shapes and behaviors by the expectations and desires of the humans they created. They are in a very real way made more real and more limited by interacting with humanity and yet even before their enslavement they did it as often as they could. I really wished Ms. Jemisin had spent more time on this idea, it's a very interesting and subtle one, even if it is an incredibly modern take on the relationship between gods and humans.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms brings a story that takes place exclusively in the upper reaches of a society that is rotting from the top down. The elite class (the 1% if you will) has held power for over a thousand years with no curb or check on their behavior and has received divine sanction for their misdeeds. As you can imagine it’s become a venomous, depraved atmosphere. This is an imaginative and rather original setting that manages to be dark, rich, evocative and disturbing and she is be credited for accepting the implications of her premise and going rather far with it. She doesn't get to Bakker levels of darkness but then that wasn't the point of the story. The story is a good one, the stakes are both extremely personal (the life and well being of a single person) and epic (as her relatives are willing to burn entire nations to hurt her) all at once. We are given a very limited view of this world but it's an eye catching one as we are guided by a character who is both amazingly privileged and among the downtrodden masses (there are a number of characters like that in this story actually bringing some very interesting nuance to the plot). I enjoyed the book immensely. That said I am hoping that Ms. Jemisin is willing to try a more traditional narrative. While I have harped on the narrative choices I will say that a lesser written book with the same narrative style would have led me to abandon it in disgust while with this one I was pulled on regardless. Because of that I am giving The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K Jemisin a -A.


Next week, what happens when someone puts a book in my hands and tells me Amazon has declared the writer the next Tolkien? Let's find out!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 29, 2016 8:19 pm 
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Needs another editing pass. You have a hanging sentence fragment and used the word "matricidal" when I'm pretty sure you meant "matriarchal".

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PostPosted: Sun Jul 31, 2016 2:12 am 
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Good catch, I think I found the hanging sentence fragment, it was suppose to be the ending to the sentence before it.

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 05, 2016 8:11 pm 
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The Crown Conspiracy by Micheal J Sullivan

Let's be honest, I am not a modest man. Modest people don't start review series where everyone can see them shouting out which books are good and which are crap. You need a certain, call it “healthy respect" for your own judgment before you can do something like that, even if your audience is measured in the dozens (that's not a complaint, I appreciate each and everyone of you who reads this). Why do I start with this? So you understand where this is coming from when I tell you that I found out about Mr. Sullivan when Amazon and a Barnes and Noble employee told me that was the next Tolkien; my reaction was “No! I’ll tell you who the next Tolkien is, thank you!” So yeah let me be blunt, the knives are out now (not that I ever put them away but details!).

Mr. Sullivan, born in 1961 in Wisconsin and started writing at a very young age when he found a typewriter in his best friend's basement. He would dabble in the art on and off for decades while raising a family with his wife. Frankly the interview where he outlined this was incredibly interesting because if nothing else it shows how much the internet has changed things. Mr. Sullivan talks about mailing (through post!) his stories to friends for comments and working on things via typewriter. The internet has been a bane in some ways; we have floods of sub par fan fiction (we all start out writing doggerel, my advantage is I wrote it in 1995 when the internet wasn't really a huge thing yet) and thanks to the internet we have 50 Shades of Grey. On the flip side we also have a massive expansion of the market and feedback that you can get without being published. Mr. Sullivan would not have reached the market without online publishing, a good number of the writers on this review would not have made it without the internet. I would have never gotten to read really amazing works without the internet (I think one of the best fantasy writers of my generation is an unpublished Canadian who lives in British Columbia), hell this review series wouldn't exist. The same happened here because Mr. Sullivan was rejected over a 100 times and had just about given up. At this point Mr. Sullivan was mostly treating his writing as a hobby until his youngest daughter (who is dyslexic) came along. He started writing to give her something she would actually enjoy and she demanded that he turn it into a real book. He decided to self publish it on the internet and it took off like a rocket. Eventually Orbit made a deal to publish the books for mass printing.

Which brings us to the Crown Conspiracy, the first of Mr. Sullivan's works to be released to the public. The Crown Conspiracy gives us the beginning of a series of major adventurers had by a pair of thieves for hire. The secretive Royce Melborn and the rather honest (for a thief) Hadrian Blackwater. The relationship is established pretty quickly in the story, Hadrian suggests a nice thing they could do (like not murdering a band of bandits who try to rob them with faulty gear) and Royce gripes about the trouble that it will cause and then does it anyways. Hadrian serves as a the moral compass and heart of the pair as well as the muscle, being an incredible fighter who carries three swords for some damn reason (speaking as Marine, I feel if you lose more than two weapons in a fight you're either in the wrong fight or the wrong profession, but I digress). Royce is the drive, the stealth and the guy who does all the lock picking. To be fair he's pretty good in a fight all on his own and has absorbed one of the more important lessons on fighting for a living: a fair fight is for suckers. We are introduced to them carrying out a daring theft of incriminating letters on behalf of a noblewoman so she can avoid being forced into a marriage she doesn't care for. I'm right away struck by the similarities to a television show or a movie; you open with your heroes doing something daring that isn't very related to the main plot to establish how awesome and cool they are and set some of the facts of the world. It's done pretty well, if in a rather traditional manner with no real surprises.

The facts about the world are honestly more interesting. We learn that the world is divided into kingdoms, theocracies, and republics that were set up in a dark age after an glorious empire that had ruled all of humanity fell. Today there are three major factions. The first are the Nationalists; mostly composed of up-and-coming commoners who want to live in a By God Republic. The next are the Imperialists who want to re-establish the empire of old reuniting all of humanity under a single throne, mostly backed by the most powerful church in human lands. The last are Monarchists who really just want things to stay as they are with the Monarchs on top for the most part. It's the struggles between these three factions that drive a lot of the plotting and intrigue at the upper levels of society. Intrigue that our heroes honestly couldn't care less about. What they do is commit crimes mostly for nobles on other nobles for pay. What they want to do is do their job well, escape, and live to get paid. But of course they are going to be drawn into it anyway. This happens when they take the wrong job and end up framed for a crime they didn't commit.

They find themselves pulled into a battle for the throne of their home nation and having to deal with a grumpy Crown Prince, a high spirited and independent Princess and a cabal of rebellious nobles (and friends) looking to stick someone else on the throne. They're alone, low on resources and being hunted by most of the royal army but they'll have to defeat the plotters, keep the crown prince alive in spite of himself and most importantly of all, live to get paid. Along the way they find themselves learning facts they rather not know and meeting the strangest of people. Like an imprisoned wizard who states he's over 900 years old and might actually be that old, and a monk named Myron who has never left his monastery but has a fantastic memory. I actually liked Myron although he didn't serve much of a purpose in this book, beyond bringing in some comedy (I did get a chuckle over him mooning over horses which he's never seen before, and upon seeing his first woman ever turning to Hadrian and declaring woman to be even more beautiful than horses). The violence is honestly somewhat indistinct. Mr. Sullivan is clearly not interested in giving us in-depth descriptions of bloodshed. Which is odd given how much violence there is in the book. Instead where he shines is in dialogue and in exploring his characters motivations. The dialogue is snappy and fun injecting a bit of light heartedness into what would otherwise be a dark story about betrayal, family feuding, and plots that look to overturn entire nations.

The influence of T.V shows in the plot, with the pacing of the plot feeling like it was written for a twelve episode season. We have characters enter scene, problem or information is presented, characters work to resolve problem or flee from it, or learn the information and react. It also shows in the way that the characters are treated. We learn a lot about our supporting cast. For example, Alric our grumpy crown prince who wants to discover who murdered his father and why; the aforementioned Myron and others. However revelations about the main characters are doled out slowly and grudgingly. The problem here is that I already know what half of these revelations are before they are revealed. Hadrian and Royce are fairly well written and not without depth but there is really nothing new and exciting here. We have the mercenary fighter who wants to do the right thing and look out for the little guy and is hiding secrets based on his amazing fighting abilities. Royce is the super sneaky cynic thief can't bring himself to believe in human decency because he's been burned too many times. A lot of the secrets are somewhat telegraphed. That doesn't mean the story is bad, just that there are no surprises in it. There are a few attempts at leading you on a false turn but their hooks don't really set in with me. In short I found things predictable. I think part of it is I've been reading fantasy since I was roughly nine years old and well...there are almost 70 reviews in just this series covering what I've read in just the last two years. I've been told that most people don't read half of that (to be fair I watch a lot less T.V than the average person). That said if you've not read a lot of fantasy this is a great book to start with! It's got relative depth and is not a Tolkien knock off (no dark lords, no mystic chosen ones, just a pair of thieves trying to do a job and not be utter bastards in the process) and it isn't so sunk with world building that you find yourself somewhat intimidated.

That's not to say that there isn't any world building here but Mr. Sullivan wisely avoids the doom of many a young writer by measuring it out with a teaspoon instead of trowel. There are hints and clues that are carefully placed throughout the story to make you realize that this is an old world with a lot of history and many things have happened to lead up to that story. The story also doesn't dwell on this over much so if you're the type who doesn't care about world building then this won't bog down for you. Magic clearly exists as do elves and dwarves but they are rarely seen in this story and the magic is subtle for the most part. You will see no fireballs here, but you will see rituals to peer into the darkness to find out secrets. So basically with a well-written--if fairly standard--story with engaging characters that you've likely seen before, it makes a good book to hand to someone who wants to see if they might like fantasy.

I did enjoy the book but I'll be blunt. Mr. Sullivan is no J.R.R. Tolkien, or at least he's not convincing me with this story that he is. That said, I may be judging him by reading his Hobbit instead of his Fellowship of the Rings. Luckily the book is sold in an Omnibus with it's sequel, so that's what we'll be looking at next week. The story itself stands up rather well on it's own though. Because of this I'm rating the Crown Conspiracy by Michael Sullivan a solid B-. There's not a lot of innovation here but there is solid craft work with fun characters and a good story that saves it from being just average. Although I am going to have to talk to people about what it takes to be the next Tolkien... Well, see you next time.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 12, 2016 8:35 pm 
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Avempartha by Michael Sullivan
Avempartha is a direct sequel of the Crown Conspiracy, taking place some months after the first novel. Our two troubleshooters have left the kingdom of Melengar, where they saved the crown prince from his own Uncle and (most importantly) lived to get to paid. Feeling they had business elsewhere they took their money and ran (also they needed to find the guy who got them into this mess and explain why that was a bad idea). Once again the television influence on Mr. Sullivan is very apparent with the first chapter functioning more as a teaser than anything else. I find myself wondering if maybe Mr. Sullivan missed his calling and should have been writing episodes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer or something. We are swiftly reintroduced to the main characters, Royce and Hadrian and learn a new tidbit about them. We learn that Royce was once an assassin for the thieves guild he belonged to and that experience didn't go well for him. It's after learning this that we get throw into the story itself with the character of Thrace.

Thrace is a farmer's daughter from the back edge of nowhere. When a monster starts killing her neighbors and family members she walks alone and unguarded to the city our boys are in and just starts walking up to people and asking where to find them. She's naive and innocent and sweet and...that's it. I'm not really fond of characters like Thrace, not because she's a nice girl, I think there's room in fiction for people who are just good people, but the ‘Aw Gosh The City is so BIIIGGGG’ makes me groan. This is especially irksome because we have to go through Thrace being unrelentingly sweet and naive for 2/3rds of the book. Being a good or nice person doesn't mean being an idiot or unobservant, nor does it mean not having a bit of an edge to you. The nicest guys I know also are the last people you want to piss off. That said I was okay with her being ignorant, she is a farm girl from the very edge of civilization after all. I just wish I saw that there was more in her head then fluff and puff before the final chapter.

Which leads me to her surviving family Theron: a crusty old man who as seen all his dreams disappear into blood and pain. He had pinned his hopes on his son becoming a tradesmen after sacrificing everything to drag him and his wife out to the very edge of the known world so they could have their own land and what happens? Some thing from the night attacks and kills everyone, his wife, his son, his grandson, his daughter in law. Everyone except Thrace. I found Theron the most interesting character in the story because here's a guy grappling with very real loss and pain and doing it in a very self-destructive but believable way. He believes there's nothing left of his hopes and dreams and everything he ever wanted has been taken away so he's lashing out at the few people left who give a damn about him and pinning everything on just being able to kill the thing that killed his family. I buy that, I get it. That said I feel we spent a little too much time with Theron; while his character is believable and human, it's not like there's a lot going on with him either.

On the flip side we have Princess Arista Essendon, sister of the crown prince that our boys protected from a severe case of dead. As a returning character she has a bit more space to work with and a good part of this book is given over to her as she struggle to figure out how she's going to fit into her brother's government. Her brother--trying to help out in this--makes her an ambassador to foreign lands. That attempt to help just gets her pulled into more intrigue as she learns the role of the church in her family’s trouble as well as the role of her old teacher in magic (I'll come back to this). She ends up being pulled into attending a monster hunt while unearthing a conspiracy by the church that is literally a thousand years old, and trying to decide if she still wants to learn about magic. On one hand, she's intensely intelligent and curious and magic offers her a road to secrets undreamed of. On the other hand, she was almost burnt as a witch and made a fall guy for her brother's murder in the last book so she's feeling a bit mage shy. The suggestion that the man who taught her magic in the first place was using her as a stalking horse so he could escape his prison doesn't help. I also feel a little frustrated with Arista as a character. Basically... she's a woman who is not allowed to exercise her gifts and talents to their full extent because of her gender. Which (don't get me wrong) is awful, your gender should not be an obstacle in reaching your full potential. There’re enough problems and distractions that will stop you from reaching that full potential that society doesn't need to toss up such barriers. That said her story is one I've read hundreds if not more times in fantasy and science fiction. If you're going to pick up this storyline, you should really try to do something with it besides walk along the well worn path trod by thousands of writers before you. It's not that Sullivan is especially bad at this, it's just that he isn't interesting either and doesn't really seem to have anything to say on the matter that we couldn't figure out ourselves.

Enough of that, let me talk about the Church. There are two gods worshiped by humanity Maribor, third son of the creator and maker of humanity and Novron his son. Novron was the one who united humanity and led them to war against the elves. In doing so he forged a unified empire and carved out a living space for humanity enforced by a treaty. Generations later, the emperor, a direct descendant of Novron, was killed and the empire fell apart. Since then the church of Novron has in the main supplanted the church of Maribor and become the main faith of humanity. The church schemes to remake the empire with an emperor under their control. To that end they have arranged a monster hunt. That monster that Thrace hired our daring duo to kill? It is a magical elf construct, a weapon of war. The church believes they've figured out a way to kill that thing which will allow them to crown their chosen emperor of humanity. The Church of Novron is of course a villainous Catholic rip off and for that, I'm going to voice a complaint. For some reason fantasy writers seem to be under the impression that there is a requirement to pattern their fantasy religion after the Catholics. Let me assure all aspiring and practicing writers: this is not the case. You may now go forth and find other models now. Seriously, it's becoming a sign of laziness people! I understand that there is no single other church as powerful or as long lasting as the Catholics but come on! At least look at the Eastern Orthodox churches or the Hindu Temples or something! I'm also rolling my eyes at making an entire institution evil, when it's main job is to administer to the spiritual well being of it's people. In the last book I was willing to buy a corrupt/evil archbishop; I could even buy that a group of powerful men are working to subvert a church from within. But everyone down to the village priest is shown to be corrupt, venal, and interested in their own comfort over anything else. Look, as the son of a pastor, if you're interested in comfort and wealth over anything else there are really better options for you out there, even in the medieval world. I mean why would anyone maintain faith in a church like this? Work with me Mr. Sullivan!

Then there's the wizard Esrahaddon, who claims to be 900 years old, to know who exactly murdered the last Emperor and his family, and has shown up at this little village at the end of the world. Not to deal with their monster problem but he's going to have to get what he wants. Luckily for the village he's the one guy on the planet who knows what this thing actually is and how to kill it, because he's run into this before; nine hundred years ago before the empire fell. Esrahaddon is another returning character, he taught Arista magic in a gambit to escape his prison that actually worked. He's also running around trying to find the right heir to the empire so he can resurrect the empire himself before the church mucks it up. To do that he has to break into the ancient elvish fortress that the monster lairs in, avoid being eaten and cast a complex magical ritual... with no hands. So you know, just another day at the office. His primary job in this book is mostly to explain things to Royce and sometimes other characters. Mainly about how awesome the empire was and how everything sucks now and that things are getting really dangerous because the elves have likely built their numbers back up for another war against humanity. While to humanity a 2000 year old grudge seems rather silly, to the elves what happened 2000 years ago might as well been last Tuesday. So Esrahaddon has to find the rightful Emperor before the elves pick up on how weak and divided humanity has become. This honestly jars my suspension of disbelief. The human realms have been divided and fighting each other for hundreds of year to the point that they lost the secret of indoor plumbing (seriously how devoted are you to kicking the shit out of each other that you lose the secret of plumbing? You'd think at some point people would start declaring plumbers untouchable to maintain the luxury of not shitting in an open field right?) and the elves just... didn't notice? I mean... really? Considering there are elves living in human lands you think some of would have popped over to tell their cousins right? I'm just not buying this.

I continue to state firmly that Mr. Sullivan is no J.R.R Tolkien. He is clearly trying to build a world with a deep history (or at least the feeling of a deep history) but frankly he ain't doing so well. The story itself is serviceable (it's basically everyone shows up to kill the monster and the unlikeliest person does it, now what?) but he doesn't do anything new or interesting with the story. The characters remain characters that you've met before and will met again. Hell the shocking revelations about our main characters here were so heavily foreshadowed that I was sure of it before the halfway part of the first book. Look foreshadowing is a good thing, but you want to measure your foreshadowing by the teaspoon, not the shovel. The dialogue is still good but is bogged down as everyone feels the need to explain the world, which is honestly kind of clumsy. Still, I would hand this book to someone who hasn't read a lot of fantasy and was feeling queasy at the idea of going full out high fantasy. If you've read a lot of fantasy though, this is kinda Campbell's chicken soup. It's okay if you like chicken soup but it's not anything really ground-breaking or world-shaking. I find myself having to give Avempartha by Michael Sullivan a C. Maybe if I come back to his next book I'll find something better.

Next week, we're heading back to nonfiction, as we discuss The Millennium

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 19, 2016 9:04 pm 
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The Millennium
By Tom Holland


Once again I found myself reading a book by Tom Holland. Shadow of the Sword was a reader recommendation and Amazon suggested Millennium on the basis of my established reading-habits. I can see why the two books are paired as well. While Shadow of the Sword covers the end of the ancient world the creation of Islam and it's expansion into Iran and the Eastern Mediterranean, Millennium covers the creation of the world that replaced the Roman Empire in the West. Of course as many of you likely have guessed if we're talking about the west in the dark ages, then we're talking about Christianity. Like Shadow of the Sword, Holland opens with a thesis that is somewhat surprising (but not as likely to provoke controversy); the pivotal moment of western history was in the Italian Alps in 1077 AD when the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (yes, yes I know the joke, we're not doing it here) Henry II walked barefoot to the Pope's winter quarters to request the forgiveness of his sins, thus creating the split of spiritual and political authority that in many ways has characterized modern western civilization. That division has worked out pretty well for Christianity and for the west as a whole. Say what you will, the Roman Catholic Church is still here and the Pope is still ministering from Rome, while the office of Caliph is part of the dust of history. But I digress. The conflict between the Pope and secular rulers and how that conflict mapped out how western society was going to work is a major thread of this book that ties a lot of it together.

Millennium covers a time period from the late 700s to the end of the 1st Crusade but really buckles down and focuses on a 200 year period before and after the first millennium (1000 AD), with the prior years really just brought in to provide context. It does however demonstrate the dramatic changes that can occur in some 300 odd years as Christianity goes from a religion under constant assault on all sides to a continent wide religion bound together within a single church under (theoretically at least) a single ruler. Mr. Holland takes us through the conversions of the Hungarians, Poles, Vikings and others. We watch the rise of Charlemagne's Empire and it's long slow death from the constant divisions between the sons of the Carolingian Kings. There was a struggle that lasted centuries to rebuild a reborn Roman Empire as Pagan Rome, once the oppressor of Christians, became the model for a universal Christian state. I found this haunting of western Christendom by Rome to be a fascinating part of the book. The Empire of Rome, once the greatest enemy of the faith had become the goal and hope that all Christians were striving for, the very model of what the Christian world should be. This tied into the ideas and folklore of the time, as a common belief came to be that Rome would rise up again and spread out to encompass the entire world and at that moment the last Roman Emperor would lay his crown down at Jerusalem to be taken up into heaven, and in doing so would unleash the Anti-Christ and begin the end of the world. This idea was taken so seriously not just by the peasantry but by the rulers themselves that the last Saxon Emperor Henry II vowed to go to pilgrimage to Jerusalem and lay down his crown on the very hill Jesus was crucified and thus bring about the end of days. He would die of disease before he could even leave Italy.

The social order was constantly on the verge of breaking down and often only just pulled back from the brink by heroic efforts and kludge-ridden compromises. Just going from this book, a reader can be forgiven for thinking that during the dark ages orderly and lawful societies were hard to find, fleeting, and frankly in a lot of ways they were. If it wasn’t the raids of pagan war bands (be they Wends, Vikings, Hungarians or worse) or Muslim pirates (who several times came close to raiding Rome itself), there were the constant battles between Christian warlords who brawled at levels ranging from the international to the embarrassingly local for land, money and power. This is was the unsightly origin of the Knighthood and feudalism. Men would build castles (often on someone else's land) not as a means of defense but as an offensive weapon and there didn't seem to be a difference between bandits and knights yet. There were times in France when if you left your home on a trip, you were virtually guaranteed to see more than a few dead bodies along the side of the road, and if you heard hoof prints that was a sign to flee for your life and hide.

We are also given a look at the consequences of that constant struggle to forge a stable society and social order. For example when all of society is looking like it's about to pull apart at the seams, it is no wonder that you start to think that this may just be the end of the world. Rather than make people lay down and die, the belief in the end of days often impelled them to action. Whether it be to go on pilgrimage to purify themselves or throwing themselves into the mass reform movement that swept the church and laid down the bedrock for the modern Church we know today. It also manifested itself in attempts to push back the chaos that seemed to be constantly attempting to pull down whatever pockets of peace and order remained in Europe. One example that I was completely unaware of until I read this book were what I call the Saxon Emperors. When the last of Charlemagne's descendants in Germany died, these were the men who were elected by the German Princes to carry on in his name. The Saxons would battle across the length and breadth of what would become Germany as well as battle it out with the still Pagan Hungarians and Prussians. These were the men who created the 1st Reich, and considered themselves the last Roman Emperors; and they could back this up by being crowned in Rome. I mentioned the last of the Emperors of this dynasty Henry II, I found myself actually feeling bad for the man as I read of his death and usually I don't approve of attempts to end the world.

This was not a time of a docile and quiet peasantry either but of men and women who despite their humble station were determined to make a mark on the world and leave behind something better. In France the Peace of God Movement driven mainly by the peasantry and Church as an attempt to get the early knights of the time to stop brawling with each other and setting the countryside on fire. This actually ended up being one of the main forces behind the feudal order we think of when we think of the middle ages, because peasants were prepared to trade their liberties and freedoms for peace, law, and order. Even a severely unfair and oppressive law and order was better for them then the sheer chaos threatening to engulf their lives. In modern times, it is not chaos that most of us are worried about, it is to much order suffocating and crushing our lives that motivates the majority of us. I find myself thinking that this is the one of the biggest changes in our worldviews and beliefs compared to people a thousand years ago. Today we fret about the law becoming the boot planted on the face of humanity forever, back then they were terrified that there would never be law again. This doesn't make either of us wrong mind you. The countryside of France in the 10th and 11th centuries was a completely different time and place compared to the modern west. We can travel outside the bounds of our towns and cities without worrying that there are armed men lying in wait to murder and rob us. In the west we don't have rival bands of warriors battling it out for lordship and dominion. We don't worry that strange sails on the horizon may be Vikings or Muslim pirates come to burn our homes, loot our wealth, and carry off our loved ones to a life of slavery and violation. On the flip side they didn't have effective law enforcement or communication networks. Most of them didn't benefit from organized effective government even on the local scale. I find myself reading this book and thinking to myself, no matter what it's sins (and it's sins are legion let us not forget) the nation-state has provided a secure and more or less peaceful environment for an increasingly vast part of humanity on a scale that has never been realized before on Earth. Let us give thanks for that even while we work to improve on the nation-state's shortcomings.

While the book concentrates mostly on Christendom, there are some space spared for the Islamic kingdoms and empires of the time. Mostly the Spanish Muslim states, which were honestly wealthier, more sophisticated, and better learned than almost any Christian state of the time barring the Byzantine Empire itself. There have been some attempts to rewrite those states as multi-cultural success stories, you won't find that narrative in this book. While the accomplishments of those states are noted and rightly so, we should also remember that these states had it has a matter of law that Christians and Jews could not hold government office for most of their history and demanded that Christian and Jews pay special taxes that the Muslims enjoyed exemption from. This doesn't make them special pits of depravity mind you, the Christians to the north were engaged in brutal wars with the various pagan nations around them that nearly took on the character of race wars (for example the English king Ethelred in 1002 carried out a mass pogrom of Danes living in his Kingdom. A good number of them were Christians at this point). One of the Muslim states, Cordoba, tore itself apart in a series of ethnic conflicts as natives turned against the imported Berbers that their leaders had brought in to do the fighting for them. The Berbers response was a simple one: they slaughtered the natives (shocking I know the idea that when you try to kill a group of soldiers and their loved ones that their first response is going to be to kill you back but there you go). Some are likely to make hay of this comparing it to the modern refugee situation in Europe, I'm going to state that there's a difference between a bunch of people fleeing a war and a group of people you specifically invited in to fight a war for you. But I do think Cordoba does carry a warning on the dangers of giving one ethnic group special status over another and how that can come back to bite you badly.

The book ends with the end of the 1st Crusade and the horrifying massacre that took place when the Crusaders took Jerusalem. This serves to end the book on a contrast from the beginning. The European Christians at the end of the book have gone from a people huddled in the wreckage of the end of a civilization being preyed upon by other cultures to launching military expeditions into the very heartlands of other cultures to take and hold territory in the name of wealth, power, and God. Millennium in this sense shows us the long slow struggle to rebuild a shattered social order, to preserve and expand Christianity, and to map the very foundations of modern Western Civilization. While I was frustrated in Mr. Holland showing me things I had no idea about and then wandering off to talk about things I know plenty about (like the Battle of Hastings, for God sakes I'm part of the Anglo-sphere I bloody well know about the Battle of Hastings the English won't shut up about it!), that's a result of the sheer amount of space and time that the book has to cover. It's educational, it's entertaining, and unless you're a medieval scholar odds are you will find yourself learning things you were completely unaware of. While I'm hoping that Mr. Holland will try writing more focused books soon, I find myself giving Millennium by Tom Holland an A. The sheer value of a book like this which is well written, and well ordered (with a time line in the back! Love that!) doesn't let me do much else. Hand his books to anyone who tells you history is boring or anyone who doesn't know where to start on the time period they cover.

Next week, a graphic novel as I try to take it easy. I'm sure nothing called the cycle of water can be that harsh right?

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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Mr Holland does a good job researching, and I know some of my Scadian friends value his novels for that reason. I myself have not had the pleasure.

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 26, 2016 8:12 pm 
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Okko the Cycle of Water
By Hub

Okko is a French graphic novel written and illustrated by Humbert Chabuel. Mr. Chabuel was born in Annecy in 1969 and educated in Lyons. Upon finishing his education he set forth for Paris to try his luck. Once there he worked on a number of projects, the most well known being a little science fiction film called Fifth Element (fun movie! Had the best guns!). He later decided to try his hand with comic books and would work on marketing and art for video games, comics and television shows. I haven't been able to find much about his comic work because I don't speak French. If there are any French speakers among my readers please feel free to add to my knowledge. Okko was published in France around 2007, the English translation was brought over by Archaia Entertainment owned by Mark Smylie (which some of you may remember as the writer of the Artesia series, review of series III coming soon!). Now that I covered all the dry logistical details that took way too damn long to look up let me get to the comic itself.

Okko is named after the leader of a group of Ronin Demon Hunters. The Empire of Pajan, which is a fantasy Not!Japan, has fallen apart into a set of violently feuding factions along clan lines using a new technology of Combat Bunraku, sets of large powerful armors controlled from within by puppeteers to battle each other. With the powers that be busy murdering each other by the wagon load, there's no one keeping the various demons, ghosts and monsters of this mythical land from running riot. Which means Okko is gonna clean up, both by getting rid of the various nasty denizens of the night and by getting paid to do it. Of course, a man has to have a crew to travel in safety and make sure he has all his bases covered. In Okko's case he has the giant masked Nubaro and Noshin the saki monk. Nubaro (who I suspect isn't entirely human) is always masked and seems to have more powerful senses. His main job is to provide combat power. Noshin plays go between for the group and the various kami that inhabit Pajan. By making sacrifices and cutting deals, he is able to convince the kami to provide favors and services that prove to be invaluable in their line of work. Everything from glowing homing fish to earthquakes is in Noshin's bag of tricks.

That said despite being the literal headliner Okko is not the main character of this story. No that honor goes to Tikku, the last son of a poor fishing family and narrator of the story. When a plague killed their parents, Tikku's sister sold herself to a Geisha house while Tikku vowed to find a way to defend his sister. Unfortunately for him, the world doesn't wait for you to be ready when you make promises like that. In this case a shipload of pirates shows up and kidnaps every girl in the Geisha house after a rip-roaring battle with Nubaro (who we can now confirm sleeps in his damn mask!). Tikku is forced to watch this happen helplessness to stop the one person he loves being taken away from him... again. This honestly speaks to how much Pajan society has simply fallen apart. I mean okay orphans selling themselves into slavery is a bad thing that goes without saying; sadly it’s something that happened in a lot of ancient societies. On the flip side, a pirate ship just showed up and kidnapped a bunch of people, murdered others, and burned the place down! When the reaction of the characters is to simply shrug instead of informing the authorities I'm left with the distinct impression that the authorities aren't really doing their jobs. Even during the worse parts of the Viking Age some local lord or knight would have at least come by! Mr. Chabuel never directly states that things are breaking down mind you, but leaves a number of hints such as this to paint a picture of a society whose leaders are so wrapped up in fighting each other for power that they're destroying the very thing they're fighting over. I’m actually liking the subtlety here. Anyway, back to the story. When Okko shows up in the morning more than a little put out that his buddies can't do something as simple as wait for him at a Geisha house for a couple days without ending up mixed up in something weird, Tikku is driven by desperation to make a deal with the demon hunter. If Okko will help him find and save his sister (or failing that avenge her death), Tikku will spend the rest of his life in service to him. Okko, who like any small business owner is always on the lookout for good cheap labor, accepts and thus begins the hunt.

The hunt will take them across the sea to one of the wickedest cities in the empire and beyond to half forgotten wilds. During this hunt, they will deal with men, monsters, and spirits; and Tikku will find himself progressing from a poor son of a fisherman to an appreciable monster hunter. Ready to learn how to scour the enemies of humanity from the earth. The Cycle of Water thus becomes a combination of origin story for Tikku, a Japanese style ghost story, and a good tale that takes you through the low urban and wild wastes of a civilization determined it seems to beat itself into a new dark age. The art is well done in a style different from most Anglo or Japanese comics but still nice to look at. The story is well done and dark in tone without dragging itself down into angst or being overwrought in horror. Instead Mr. Chabuel seems more than willing to let the events in the story speak for themselves without trying to force a response from the reader--which I appreciated.

That said the characterization of a number of characters is fairly weak. We don't get a lot from Okko, despite the series being named after him. Nor do we learn about Nubaro or Noshin beyond getting a view of what some of their talents and capabilities are. We learn a couple things about how Okko and Noshin view honor and their jobs but the story is honestly lean on looking at anyone but Tikku. I also have to give fair warning, this is an adult comic so there's blood, guts and smut all over the place. I definitely must recommend this be kept for the over 13 crowd at the very least. Still if you like ghost stories and enjoy a Japanese theme to your entertainment this is a pretty good book. As for my complaints on characterization, well there are more cycles to go so I'm willing to give Okko more time to see where it goes. Okko Cycle of Water by Hub gets a B and hope for the future.

Next week, we go pulp. With Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl.

This Review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 27, 2016 12:15 am 
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The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker

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Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl
By David Barnett


Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl (or GS Mechanical Girl as I'm going to refer to it for the rest of the review) is the 4th novel by David Barnett, which was released in 2013. David Barnett was born in England in 1970. He was a journalist for 26 years working across North England and later expanded his writing to fiction; his first novel “Hinterland” was released in 2005. He has since written eight novels (counting Calling Major Tom, his most recent one), six short stories that I am aware of and two comics using the open source character Jenny Everywhere (which is something we'll have to discuss another day). GS Mechanical Girl was his 4th novel and is dedicated to his wife Claire with whom he has two children, a boy and a girl.

GS Mechanical Girl is a modern pulp novel set in a steampunk universe, so if you don't like pulp or steampunk, this isn't the book for you. Let's just get that right out of the way. It's actually a fairly good example of modern pulp, in that it tries to model itself after that older style while modernizing it and dumping some of the more... cringe-worthy elements. Let me talk a bit about pulp fiction in general before I dive into the book. Pulp fictions were stories that ranged from horror to westerns to science fiction (usually heavy on the fiction, light on the science however) that were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper and released in magazines. There are a large number of authors who either got their start or worked completely in this setting (men like Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G Wells, Issac Asimov, and Robert Howard for example). I am a fan of good number of these writers and frankly we owe a debt to them. A large number of the archetypes and characters that stubbornly remain in our culture after nearly a hundred years are from this time period and these works. Characters like the Shadow, Conan the Barbarian, Tarzan, and Zorro to give some examples. For that matter, the pulps were one of the ancestors to modern comic books (among other things) so without those magazines or these characters, we wouldn't have Ironman, Batman, or Captain America--and you can forget about Superman or Spiderman. Something to consider the next time you line up to see the latest Marvel blockbuster in all it's glorious cheese. It's hard to make any real sweeping statements about pulp fiction but it was often known for being lurid and sensationalist. Modern pulp has stepped back from that a bit (after all we have fan fiction for that now) and often prefers to try playing with the expectations of the old genre and updating itself for modern sensibilities. To be blunt about it, modern pulp wants to tell stories in classic settings but ditch the racism and sexism of those eras, or at the very least subvert them. So let's take a look at Gideon Smith shall we?

It is the year 1890 and the sun does not set on the reign of her Majesty Queen Victoria or on the British Empire. Since the failed American Revolution of 1775, the Empire has only expanded. Now ruling nearly 3/4ths of the world directly or indirectly. London has become in a real sense the capital of the world and bids to become the capital of the entire human race. It is an industrial world, a world powered by gears, steam and clockwork. A world of factory ships, clockwork airships and the men and women who work them. Gideon Smith is 24 years old and the son of the owner and captain of the Cold Drake: a gear powered fishing trawler in the town of Sandsend. By day he works with his father laboring to bring in an ever decreasing catch of fish, by night he reads the absolutely true adventures of Captain Lucian Trigger “Hero of the Empire” as related by Dr. John Ross released in a magazine. While Gideon would love to see the world and experience his own adventurers, well...fish won't catch themselves. That is until his loving father (I'm coming back to this) takes the boat out without him one day and disappears. After a brief but hard bout of mourning Gideon finds a number of clues that convince him that whatever it was, it wasn't the ocean that took away his father. Which means if he's going to find out what happened and get justice for his dad, he'll have to get Captain Lucian Trigger's, Hero of the Empire, help. But what if Captain Trigger's help isn't everything it was cracked up to be?

Gideon is going to travel across England to shores beyond to meet a colorful cast of characters, some of which he thinks he knows. Characters such as Ms. Rowena Fanshawe “ Belle of the Airways”, a woman air-ship pilot running her own business the opinions of men be damned (not that she doesn't like the right sort of man mind you). She's handy, bold, brave and honestly I kinda like her. There's also Louis Cockayne, who I definitely like if only for his ability to wind Gideon up. Cockayne is a Yankee sky pirate (This review is completely justified just for letting me write that line) who plays the role of antagonistic mentor to Gideon Smith, teaching a number of life lessons while also just flat out fucking with his head. It becomes very clear that Cockayne is fairly fond of Gideon but isn't gonna cut him any slack because of that. As an older brother who has been informed that he is indeed an asshole... I kinda approve. Not of everything Cockayne does, but of him being a glorious asshole. There's also Mr. Bent, a fat, loud, low class, lewd news reporter pulled in because he was determined to uncover the truth of the Jack the Ripper murders. Mr. Barnett avoids over using Mr. Bent, which is good because with characters like this a little goes a long way. As it stands Mr. Bent is amusing without becoming annoying. We also have Bram Stoker and a certain friend of his appearing (not the one you think though). Bram and his friend are on their own mission but it overlaps with Gideon's pretty well. Lastly, I'm going to address the Mechanical Girl in the title. Maria is girl built entirely of clockwork who has to be wound up every so often. A girl who despite all of that is a person who while personally blameless still springs from a dark origin. Gideon runs into her in the mansion of her creator on the way towards London suffering from the abuse of the household caretaker. It's when Maria asks to be rescued from the man that I really warmed up to Gideon. Gideon doesn't hem and haw about whether or not Maria has the right to control access to her own body, he decides anyone who can declare they don't like this and ask for help deserves to be treated like a real person. Gideon has his faults mind you, such as being horribly slow to realize that maybe those magazines he love might not be entirely truthful about the world outside his home..

That said, the magazines were right about one thing. The world is full of monsters, vampires, mummies and worst of all wicked men who do not care about their fellow humans. The world also has plenty of people willing to fight and bleed to protect their fellow humans from those monsters. It is also a world full of marvels both wicked and amazing. We see most of this through Gideon's eyes, although Mr. Barnett also jumps to show us Bram's and Maria's point of view. Frankly I am somewhat grateful for this because there are times I want to beat Gideon with a clue bat until something breaks. Gideon Smith is a good guy, he's mostly honest, he's brave, selfless, and willing to help but God Above He Is Dense. You know I would like to see an honest, brave guy, who is actually insightful and clever as our hero. As it stands there seems to be a divide in a lot of fiction. Our hero can be noble, brave and true; or shifty, tricksy, and clever. A note to future writers, you can mix these traits up just a touch. Seriously try it! You might like it!

This story also takes a while to get started. This is also Gideon's fault as he spends several chapters trying to convince himself to do what he decided he should do about 37 pages into the novel! A bit of inner conflict is a good thing in a novel but not when I need the protagonist to get off his pale lily white butt so we can get this party started. For God Sake Bram Stoker was practically the main character as far as I was concerned for a chunk of this a novel with Gideon’s bloody name in the title! I agree that you don't want to go to fast but you should also realize when a section has served it's purpose and move on. Or to put it bluntly, stop malingering and get on with the story! That said when the story actually gets started it's a good one. The character interactions are fairly believable. They don't act exactly like 19th century English subjects but that's okay because they're from a very different world then our 1890 AD. The important thing is they don't act like 21st century Americans in funny clothes (I will admit they are a bit closer to 21st century acting then stereotyped 19th century but these are adventurers on the edge of society so it works). I should also speak to the treatment of British Society here. Basically through the plot and the treatment of various characters the sexism and classism of the time is put on full display. I have to compliment Mr. Barnett for being willing to put it on display. I also compliment him on not going too far with it and decrying the society as unsaveable and suggesting everyone who is part of it is a monster in human form. The British Empire comes off as a morally ambiguous enterprise in this book but one that manages to create a decent life for hundreds of millions of people and protects the world from even worse fates. Which is about the best you can expect from empires perhaps. The action is well done but is somewhat removed in it's descriptions, it's not as visceral as some other writers I've reviewed. Still it's done with a good solid effort and I appreciated it. I would encourage Mr. Barnett and other writers to maybe take a martial arts class or get into a boxing ring though. While I don't want anyone seriously injured, I think being punched in the face and punching someone else a couple of times really helps with your ability to describe it.

Another note: despite very clearly leading into it's sequel and not neatly resolving everything in the plot, the book does tell a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an ending. I know that doesn't seem like a big thing but those of you who have read a number of my past reviews will recall me pounding the drum against ending on a cliffhanger. We're paying a full story price, we should get a full story! This is after-all a capitalist society, which means among other things we should insist on getting our money's worth. While it has a slow start and a main character who can be a touch exasperating, what we get is a fairly solid and fun tale taking us into the British Empire that never was but also refuses to shy away from the dark underbelly and warts of the time without getting obsessed with that dark side. Because of this I am giving Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett a B. A great recovery from a slow start, interesting characters in a world I want to know more about and a genre I love really help.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 09, 2016 11:08 pm 
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Wolf's Empire Gladiator
By Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan

First, O Muse, sing of Galactic Rome, master of ten thousand worlds...
Prologue of the book

I was told about this book’s release by this review series’ own editor Dr. Ben Allen. Now I'll admit my main interest was in who was writing it, Ms. Christian, who I knew from her role as Commander Susan Ivanova on what remains one of my favorite science fiction shows Babylon 5 (Go Watch It!). That wasn't her only role, she;s done a legion's worth of work in movies and television (both live action and voice acting). She's also done songwriting and written a number of books. Two of them are about her life (Babylon Confidential and My Life Among Freaks and Geeks) and a good number of them are about fictional events. Two of them are Babylon 5 books, which unfortunately don't appear to be available anymore. Her co-author Mr. Buchanan has a great amount of experience as well, having written and edited comics, short stories, and a number of movie scripts. He also co authored Babylon Confidential with Ms. Christian. So this is not the first time they've worked together but this is the first fictional work they've created. A society so interesting I've already started theorizing how it came to pass. Let's take a look at it shall we?

Empire of the Wolf is set in Rome, capital of the Roman Empire (In Spaaaaacccceeee!!!) an empire of over 10,000 worlds divided into eight provinces. Each province is governed as a direct fief by a single Great House (well seven great houses and the central province arranged around earth is ruled by the imperial house). Each house has it's own army, fleet, and government led by a provincial proconsul. The Houses are all represented in the Senate of Rome, which serves some vague function that the book doesn't go into (to be fair giving me a tour of Space Rome's government and society isn't the point of the book... But I want it to!). This is a government that the Roman Empire of our world never used. That said... the way it is presented in the book makes its feel like a government that the Romans could have arrived at with enough time and experimentation. After all the historical Rome was a state that changed it’s methods and form of government a great many times. Nor is it the only state to do so, after all modern day France is on it's 5th Republic since 1792 (and I have money on them creating the 6th before 2100, don't let me down French Rioters!). More importantly the characters in the story feel very Roman--very pre-christian Roman. Let me be clear here, there's no truck with Judeo-Christian values or with Jewish preachers of any stripe. This Rome worships at least some of the traditional Pagan Roman gods and is very proud of it. It preaches the traditional Roman values of loyalty, duty, pride and dignity even unto death. It is also vain, greedy, and cruel much like the historical Rome. Ms. Christian and Mr. Buchanan don't shy away from either the virtues or the vices of the Roman way of life but rather try to update that way of life, making the changes necessary for such things to make sense. One example of this is using real-time internet voting to decide if a gladiator lives or dies in the arena. Like the Historical Rome, our Space Rome is expansionist and rather casually refers to all peoples outside of it's empire as barbarians. This is mostly aimed at aliens, as every alien character we see in this story is a slave, which our Roman characters consider good and proper. Now to be fair there are human slaves as well, but slavery does seem to be considered the natural role of aliens in the empire, which is another change as the historical Rome was able to accept outsiders as Romans, provided they civilized themselves and adapted proper Roman values and behavior of course. Let me talk about our characters and the plot itself.

Two great houses--the Viridian and the Sertorians--have nearly torn apart the Empire with their civil war. The Sertorians started it when they attacked the Viridians, trying to seize a minor ice planet on the edge of the Viridian provincial border. Millions have died; hundreds of planets were bombarded; thousands of cities have been fought over; and every house in the empire has taken sides. Things have gotten so bad that the Emperor with the full weight of Imperial forces has stepped in and announced no more warfare. Instead the civil war will be settled in a series of gladiatorial games during the festival of Jupiter. This is because the fight is more then a scuffle over territory, it's also become an ideological war. House Viridian is the traditionalist house in the Empire, preaching a number of virtues such as duty, honor, loyalty to family and the gods and so on. They have a number of vices as well, they're very conservative, stubborn, and bluntly they're a bunch of sexists. Meanwhile the Sertorians are radicals, while they aren't sexist, they preach an ideology of genetic purity and will to power; where the weak suffer what they must and the strong do what they will. Declaring themselves the new gods and the old traditional gods of Rome to be dead. That's right we're dealing with Internet Atheist Space Roman Nazis here. Honestly I tend to roll my eyes at villains like these but Ms. Christian and Mr. Buchanan avoid much of the worse of it by keeping the story intensely personal and focused (I'll get to this) despite it's rather galactic stakes. Instead of looking at their policies on a large scale or drowning in the millions of victims that such policies would produce, they give a look at the first hand behavior of the elite of such a society and the kind of people who would climb to the top in such an environment. They are brutal and savage monsters locked in eternal competition with each other for every scrap of power, prestige, and position they can get and through our main character we get our faces rubbed in it.

Accala Viridius Camilla, is a Roman noblewoman of House Viridian and the main character of our book. Accala wants to help her house defeat the Sertorians on the battlefield but women aren't allowed in the military. Her motives aren't entirely impersonal, when the war began her mother and little brother were on that minor little ice planet that started this whole thing. In fact they were at ground zero when the Sertorians started bombing the planet and she wants revenge for their deaths. When the Senate finally puts it foot down and refuses to let her in, she becomes a gladiator for the chance to face the Sertorians and kill them. A fact that has scandalized most of Roman society and set her father against her. When her father's manages to lock her out of the gladiatorial games, she finds herself resorting to drastic measures. This brings in Gaius Sertorius Crassus, who wants her to join House Sertorian's team, in return she'll get her brother back (who is alive) and Crassus will help her kill Licinus Sertorius Malleolus, a man who happens to be both Crassus' main rival for power within the house and the guy who personally led the bombing that killed Accala's mother. Accala's still on the fence about the whole join team bad guy plan when her Uncle, the proconsul of House Viridian pulls her aside and suggests this is a great way to get the secret behind House Sertorian's strength and to set up a double cross that will allow House Viridian to win the games, win the war, and in the process put an end to Space Nazis in the Space Roman Empire.

To do this Accala has to go into the very belly of the beast and spend a very long time alone with people who hate everything she stands for and want to turn her into a copy of themselves in all their narcissistic, sociopathic glory. I know those words get tossed around a lot but they are literally told to worship themselves as gods (and their proconsul as a god above them of course) and to not give a solitary damn about anyone else around them. Reading this section was incredibly difficult because I was reading a headstrong girl in over her head surrounded by terrible people who wanted to use her and turn her into a copy of themselves. It was very well written, which frankly made it harder to read. To be honest this section convinced me that Ms. Christian was fully engaged in the writing of this novel, no offense or slight meant but there are a lot of co-writing projects that basically turn into one person writes an outline and the other person writes the entire book from that. While I haven't read Babylon Confidential, I am very aware of Ms. Christian struggles with addiction and the fact that she made lot of self destructive choices. The experience of those choices and struggles display themselves to full effect in first half of the book. Especially for me, because while I've not gone down that rabbit hole (this is not a statement of moral superiority on my part, I've screwed up plenty in my past but by a combination of temperament and luck managed to avoid the worse of it.). I've had to watch plenty of other people do it and it's never fun or easy to see. Even in fiction. In this case you're almost thankful when the blood sports start, because watching people murder each other is going to be easier to read. The violence is very well written, communicating the swift jarring nature of violence and how easy it is for things to change and to lose track of things you really shouldn't. Mr. Buchanan has a background in the martial arts and I suspect this was mostly his work. It's not the best I've seen but it's way better than average and continues to suggest to me that writers who want to write about violence might be well served to join a gym so they can get a small taste of it. It turns out that the gladiator games are only the beginning of it as things spin out of control, Accala finds herself having to make decisions and choices that are going to affect the entire Empire. Like it or not Accala finds herself with no choice but to become a hero, in front of an audience of hundreds of billions.

Wolf’s Empire gives us a story with a tight focus, that of a 19 year old girl willing to go to any lengths to avenge her mother and save her brother with very large stakes. While about revenge it does manage to avoid preaching the old chestnut of the emptiness of revenge, instead we see fully and in detail what the quest can cost a person on every level. Accala may get her revenge but doing so is going to leave her battered and possibly broken, if not worse. Which frankly makes for a better story than some old mentor droning on about it. Accala is a very human character which helps greatly because she carries the book on her willful and determined shoulders. In short, the story works and works well but I kind of feel it needed more time to fully unwind and I was left feeling that I was purposefully given a very narrow view of the culture of Space Rome. This is something that leaves a guy like me with an Anthropology degree very unsatisfied. Still I do hope to see more novels about this setting in general and I feel this was a good start, despite having an ending that leaves things open for a 2nd book, it tells a complete story which is always a good thing. I also came into this book with low expectations, I mean seriously, a book about Rome in Spaaaacceeee? But Ms. Christian and Mr. Buchanan managed to surprise me. For this I'm giving Wolf's Empire Gladiator a B.

Next week, I go back into military science fiction! See you soon!


This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 16, 2016 8:37 pm 
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Unbreakable
by WC Bauers


Unbreakable was published last year by Tor books and is Mr. Bauers’ first book in print. Its sequel was released this year. Mr. Bauers is an American writer who lives in the shadow of Pike's Peak with his wife, three sons, and a rescue dog. He is also a big fan of French press coffee and knitting, and studies Taekwondo. Unbreakable is military science fiction, a genre I’ve found myself having a complicated relationship with ever since I started this review series. In the past I might have read books like Master Sergeant and Shadow Ops and simply forgotten about them, exiling the books to the back of my closet, now I have to actually think about them and really look at their faults and mistakes. There were also the Lost Fleet books, which while better than the other two books I listed, still weren't that great. This is frustrating to me because despite what the critics are going to say I know military fiction can be great. Whether it's the Black Company series, Hammers Slammers, or Lt Leary's adventurers, military fiction has a lot of ground it can cover and characters it can explore (let me also point mutely to Lois Bujold's work); but many writers seem utterly hell bent on focusing on the same couple archetypes. Whether it be a gifted enlisted grunt who rises to officerdom, a senior NCO who has absolutely no life outside of the military (No. Mr. Odom, I'm not letting that go!) or the officer who is about to stamp their name in burning letters upon history itself. Speaking as former enlisted, there are more than 4 or 5 types of people in the military guys... But now I'm just ranting, let's get to the book.

Promise Pean is a Republic of Aligned Worlds Marine from the planet Montana. I could swear this is the 3rd time I've run into a planet called Montana. Although the only one I can really point to is the one from David Weber's “The Shadow of Saganami”. The two planets are fairly similar: a libertarian culture led by a Congress and a President, mostly rural and into ranching. Having read both books, I think the similarities are due to both planets being based on the state of Montana, which has a fairly libertarian culture with elected officials and is really rural and into ranching. There's no real similarities between characters and Mr. Bauer honestly does a better job with his Montana (to be fair, he spends more time on it). Pean was driven to join the Marine Corps when a pirate raid murdered her father and burnt her home to the ground. In doing so she was turning her back on her father's beliefs (he was a pacifist semi-christian of some type, there's a lot of Bible quoting but God is referred to as the Maker and there's no mention of Christ. This annoys me but is too broad a topic to discuss here.), to underscore that she changed her last name to her mother's maiden name when she joined the Marines (her Mother died from disease before the raid). Pean's origin becomes important when she and her company of Marines are called back to the world of her birth when raiders begin hitting it all over again; finding themselves alone at the ass end of the universe against increasingly overwhelming odds, Pean is trying to preserve as much of her birth world as possible and fulfill her duty as a Marine. Before I get into that let me talk about the character.

Pean herself is an example of talented grunt made officer, she enlisted and rose to the rank of Sgt before the various crisis of the book propel her toward the dark fate of becoming a Lt. While that is a common archetype, she managed to be a fairly unique example in some ways, albeit typical in others. Some of the uniqueness I could do without. In the first chapter, I am brought into the book with a scene of Lt. Pean talking to the ghost of her dead mother while playing with a glock pistol (a family heirloom from her mother). I honestly found this incredibly alarming and was left wondering just what are the shrinks in the Republic of Aligned Worlds doing!?! You've just handed command of 40 marines to a woman who spends her free time talking to her dead Mother! The book doesn't really examine this or even try to guess at what's going on (since this is a science fiction I'm guessing Pean is talking to someone who isn't there bluntly) and the character does a good job of hiding this from everyone else. Marines can be a fairly superstitious group and I'm not sure which would be considered worse news: that the CO is crazy and thinks she can talk to her dead mother., or the CO is actually talking to the ghost of her dead mother. Either way I am left thinking that Lt. Pean isn't very stable and wondering just what the hell am I dealing with here. Honestly I if I wasn't reviewing the book I might have simply put it down right there and decided that Mr. Bauer doesn't really grasp what the military is like but I kept reading. That said I can at least say Lt. Pean is a human being and a workable character in her own right, besides her possible instability, she likes to knit, enjoys Bond movies and like 75% of other military fiction characters really likes military history. That last one actually does have a point to it, as military personnel are heavily encouraged to have at least a passing understanding of military history, even if it's just their own organizations and government's military history. Let me touch on those government's real quick.

The Republic of Aligned Worlds is a nation-state that broke away from the Terran Federation a long time ago. As you might guess from the title, it is a Republic. We don't learn a lot about it in this book. The RAW-Marine Corps (RAW-MC) had it’s origins in that revolutionary war, and because of those origins has a very non-standard structure. It’s smallest combat element is an eight Marine platoon, organized into companies of five platoons for a total of 40 men per company. For comparison, a USMC platoon would be three squads of 9-13 people (ideally three fire teams of four men each, but that rarely happens), arranged into companies of four platoons plus the company headquarters with staff officers and senior NCOs. That totals 144 men plus staff officers and senior NCOs, with officers and staff you’re usually a bit higher than 160. So in my eyes, the RAW-MC is very undermanned, with under-strength units.

That said, the book does get bonus points for creating a Marine Corps that isn't a carbon copy of the USMC or RMC (Look I do like me some US Marines in Spaaaccceee, but nations should have their own military traditions rooted in their own histories or it just feels less real). While the units of the RAW-MC are very under manned by my standards, they are massively upgunned. Reading the book, I got the sense that just one 8 man platoon could walk through my company or perhaps even my battalion and not only win but win without any loses. These boys and girls go to war in mechanized suits that are co-piloted by semi-sapient AI's and carry enough weapons to make me feel somewhat embarrassed and under-armed. They have anti-armor missiles, heavy rail guns, grenades and more. Additionally, each suit can deploy sensor drones called whiskers and link in real time to the rest of their fellow Marines creating a full map of the battle field. This is really impressive and while Mr. Bauer's grasp on how much this would change infantry combat is imperfect, I'm not sure anyone could really grasp it until it happens. For that matter we also see the use of robots to carry gear and perform labor for the Marines (I'm not sure I approve of that, Marines should not outsource the cleaning of their own weapons. Of course that's easy for me to say, now that I never have to worry about turning in a weapon to the armory ever again!). This makes the RAW-MC feel really different and like something from the future instead of a modern military wearing different colors.

The RAW is involved in a cold war with the Lusitanian Empire, a British style Constitutional Monarchy that has gone aggressively expansionist. The two powers have run right smack into each other and someone needs to get out of the way. We honestly don't get a lot of information about the two nations, except for some off-hand comments about how the Empire is fairly predatory towards new territorial acquisitions and how they engage in underhanded shadowy tactics to engineer crisis' on their borders so they can move in and take over. Their actions in the book don't paint a pretty picture of them: funding pirates to weaken their enemies; trying to take out inconvenient planetary governments; attempting massive cover-ups, that kind of thing. That said the Empire doesn't come across as some evil that needs to be resisted at all costs. Nor does the Republic come across as a shining beacon of good (if anything we are given a number of complaints from the Montanans which mostly focus on the Republic being a neglectful government that doesn't live up to it's promises).

Honestly that's to the stories credit. Not every conflict is a massive war between good and evil, or an ideological twilight struggle to determine which way of life will continue and which won't. Sometimes it's just power politics or conflicting interests between two imperfect nations with imperfect but basically workable social and political systems. Honestly it's that kind of war that I think could stand to be examined more in military fiction. Don't get me wrong there's nothing wrong with epic wars of good and evil amidst the stars or grand struggles to tear down dysfunctional and predatory systems that need to go so people can live decent lives. Those are also things that happen in real life and in history... but they are relatively rare. After all, not every war is World War II and not every story needs to be World War II in space. If nothing else, looking at the wars that are more gray in moral character driven by things other than national survival or moral imperatives would open up more stories to the genre and I'm pretty sure that would be a good thing.

The story itself is fairly serviceable, while the good guys are on the ball and alert for trouble, the bad guys are also shown to be competent and able to get their hits in. While Lt. Pean's company does suffer heavy casualties to illustrate the cost of war, we don't really spend enough time with the Marines for their deaths to really register as the loss of an individual. Bluntly for that to work, Mr. Bauers really should have taken another 50 or 75 pages to spend time with Marines who weren't Lt. Pean so we would know who it was that died in that epic last stand or was caught out by the clever enemy counter tactic. Mr. Bauers is really good at showing that the bad guys are thinking hard on ways to kill you and won't just stand there waiting for you to complete your master plan and I appreciate that (this is a rarer thing in military fiction then I really like). However, without time spent on expanding your characters and making them people in the eyes of your readers, heavy causalities just become what I call last stand porn where the characters win by the skin of their teeth but all those red shirts died and isn't that just awful. So I have to say Mr. Bauers failed to really bring home the terror of war. That said it's not an awful book. I definitely prefer it to a couple of the books I mentioned earlier. Lt. Paen is a lot easier to deal with than certain other military characters I could go into, despite my lingering dread that she might in fact be insane and we have a mentally unstable person leading enough firepower to reduce a good sized city to burning rubble. Because of that I am giving Unbreakable by W.C. Bauers a C+, it's better than average but not great. That said this was Mr. Bauers first book, on the very slim chance he reads this review, I want to encourage him to keep writing because I honestly thought there was heart and thought in this book. It just needs work.
Next week, I’m showing y’all something good. Folks we’re going to meet Fell’s Five.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 19, 2016 12:13 am 
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Hey Frig, ever read the Discworld novel "Monstrous Regiment" by the late (much missed) Sir Terry Pratchett? If not, consider it recommended for review. It's one of the stand-alone books of the series, taking place far from Ankh-Morpork in the land of Borogravia, and features one-book protagonists (although we do see some established ones from the other books).

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 23, 2016 7:43 pm 
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Dungeons and Dragons I: Shadowplague
by John Rogers
Art by Andrea Di Vito

“Adric, let's be frank. This town has adventurers. I expect a certain amount of murder.” Lord Warden of Fellcrest

You don't expect much from a commercial tie-in, as a rule. Sure there are exceptions, notably in the Transformers and GI Joe comics, but usually tie-ins are rather dismal. On top of that, while DnD is a fun game, there are issues trying to make a comic out of it. DnD doesn't have a singular setting or cast of characters, in fact the game itself discourages that in my view. I've run DnD games (said the guy with a book review series, shocking no one) and I've usually made up my own settings to do so. It feels more rewarding and less constraining that way. This comic series started publication in 2010, this was during the time of the game's 4th edition. Which has a... contentious reputation among gamers to put it lightly. This is a book review series, not a game review series so I won't get into it. Let me just say briefly that 4th edition showed up very close to the heels of 3.5 and introduced major gameplay changes, many of them were rather unpopular in a number of circles. The comic uses the 4th edition cosmology (which I honestly kind of like) but creates a setting out of whole cloth. Who’s the guy they convinced to do all the heavy lifting here?

John Rogers is a veteran writer of comics and screen, when I look at Mr. Roger’s career I find myself both impressed and horrified. This guy is the co-creator of Jamie Reyes aka my favorite Blue Beetle, he co-created the cartoon Jackie Chan Adventures (which I'm a bit old for honestly but a number of my younger friends loved it) and the television show Leverage. On the flip side he co-wrote the Michael Bay Transformer movie in 2007, the Core in 2003, and perhaps most shockingly he admits to helping write the Catwoman movie of 2004 (yeah, that one, you know which one). I believe in forgiveness, but Catwoman? That said, I'm willing to believe that Mr. Rogers was drowned out by his co-writers on the movies or that he just played a minor role. On the other hand we have the artist Andrea Di Vito, a Roman born Italian who got his first major start in the ultimately doomed Crossgen comic company. I was a fan of a couple of Crossgen’s comics so someday I hope to discuss this. Mr. Di Vito however would survive Crossgen and start working for other companies, most notably Marvel Comics. Now let's get to the comic.

D&D Shadowplague introduces us to our heroes, a group of adventurers that have been dubbed by fans Fell's Five. This group is led by the human fighter Adric, who has a complicated past to say the least. It's clear that he has some military experience and has fought orcs at some point. He's also capable of coming up with plans very quickly and is rather fearless. These are very important talents to have. That said he also keeps a number of secrets about his background. Adric's best friend seems to be Varis the elven ranger, who can't go home again. We don't find out a lot of Varis in this graphic novel other than his unwillingness to allow Adric to die and the fact that he gets a bit nervous when around dark magic artifacts that run on the hearts of fey. There's Bree three hands, the amoral halfling rogue. As a result of tthe amorality Adric doesn't really trust her that much but keeps her around because someone has to find the traps...and it's better the he knows where Bree is at all times. Bree is an example of what seems to be the new halfling stereotype of sneaky, underhanded, stab-happy half pints who are tired of your shit. It's kind of enjoyable but I do think we're going to have to dial it back a bit. I'm not saying that halflings can't be bad-ass, just that some of them must give a crap about something besides themselves. If nothing else someone has to raise the next generation of light fingered halfling thieves. The next member of the group is actually my favorite, Khal the dwarven paladin and poet! Khal actually decided to become a paladin both to do good and prove himself worthy of the love of his life. Her family disapproved of their romance due to him being a wild and degenerate poet, who writes about things like thinking about disobeying your clan but not doing it! I like Khal because he's actually a good guy who tries to be better instead of the stuck-up fun-police that paladin's often get characterized as. Lastly is Tisha, a Tiefling warlock. Tieflings are a race of people whose ancestors interbred with well... demons, and has a result have less-than-human appearances (tails and a horn for example) and reputations that could use a Public Relations firm or three. It doesn't help that warlocks are a group of magic users who get their powers by making a deal with dark and dangerous things from beyond the pale. Tisha herself is a driven character, she is looking for the murderer of her parents, who also happens to be her sister.

The graphic novel does a good job introducing us to these characters and a number of supporting cast. We don't spend a lot of time in Fellcrest but we do get an interesting introduction to the cosmology of the world and a fair bit of the world itself as well. We learn there are two alternate worlds alongside the main world, there's the Feywild: the green wild home of the elves and other fey creatures and the Shadow: a dark place that seems to spawn zombies and other dark nasty things. We get a brief lesson on this in the graphic novel when our heroes stumble over a changeling using a dwarven artifact made using dark magic and the previously mentioned fey hearts. From this we have our group fighting everything from orcs to cyclops in an attempt to prevent bad things happening to good people. It's actually a pretty good adventure. The dialogue is fun and snappy (it's everything I can do to keep from littering this review with quotes), the violence is rather raw and full throated, and the characters interact with each in believable but different ways allowing the writers to showcase a variety of different personalities and relationships (for example we have Adric and Varis cracking wise at each other, Khal's supportive actions towards Tisha and Bree... Well Adric can vouch that she is indeed a halfling). That's a great thing to have in a team book, a variety of personalities is good, but it’s also important to change up the relationships. Bree and Tisha have a different relationship than Adric and Khal and so on. This creates a believable group dynamic. More importantly enough of these characters seem to like and trust each other that I believe they would not only voluntary spend time with each other but throw themselves into dangerous situations in each others company. Something often lacking in team books, especially ones who like to be “gritty” and “realistic” with dysfunctional teams that hate each other. Sometimes you want to read a book about people who don't hate each other and will help each other kill monsters, fulfill quests. and go about the dirty dirty business of making the world safe for others. Unfortunately, the story ends on a cliffhanger so it doesn't get an A. Instead I'll have to give Dungeons and Dragons: Shadowplague by John Rogers and Andrea Di Vito an A-.

Next week, we're going to read about elephants.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa
By Dr. Caitlin O' Connell


Wait, my editor is going to be taking part in this review? That’s not in my contract!?! It is!?! Oh I am having a talk with my agent about this… I mean… On with the review!

This is a first for this review: a non-fiction book that isn't about history or politics. Instead The Elephant's Secret Sense is about research that was carried out in the 1990s and 2000s to investigate a newly discovered means of communication between elephant individuals and herds. In short, this is a zoology book. Why did I bring a zoology book into this review series? Well, because I found it interesting in the main and wanted to talk about it. Second, because why not? After all variety is not only the spice of life but in moderation keeps us young. Besides I loved elephants since I was child (one of my first coherent memories is seeing an elephant up close in a zoo and thinking that nothing could be so grand or powerful as a living elephant. While I wasn't entirely correct, I can think of few things grander to see then a live elephant on the move.). Also it's not like I can be fired from reviewing books so...

This book was published in 2007 by Dr. O'Connell, it was her first book to hit publication. Dr. O'Connell is currently a Consulting Assistant Professor (Note from the editor: It is a form of visiting faculty. They come in to do research and maybe teach the odd course in their area of specialty, but cannot supervise graduate students. It might be surprising to see a zoologist in a medical school, but they often employ anatomists because the best way to understand an anatomical structure is to understand how it varies between organisms.) in the department of Otolaryngology (this is the study and treatment of diseases in the ear, nose and throat, fun note, this is the oldest medical specialization in America) for Stanford University school of Medicine. She's also considered one of the leading experts in elephants in the world, having spent a decade or two studying them in the wild. This book talks a lot about her studies which, when they weren't taking place at the Oakland Zoo, were done in the northeastern portion of Namibia’s Caprivi strip, which is a thin strip of land that separates Angola and Zambia from Botswana. African Elephant herds move across this narrow strip of land roaming across all the nations mentioned with a fine disregard for boundaries and politics. In fact they host some of the very last migratory populations of African Elephants. Unfortunately this often puts them in conflict with their human neighbors.

While human/elephant conflict isn't the focus of the book, it does get discussed and examined quite a bit. In the case of Caprivi (and elsewhere) one of the main issues are elephants raiding farms. Elephants as you can imagine require a lot of food to keep going (these are animals that measure their weight in tons and routinely stand over 8 feet tall) and farms right before harvesting tend to have a lot of said food. While this doesn't come up in the book, some parts of Africa have had problems with elephants raiding villages to ransack breweries. That's right folks, elephants, just like us will go to amazing lengths to get a good bit of booze, but back to the book. The problem comes in when you realize that the farmers need food to keep going and Namibia doesn't have a food stamp program, so it's grow food or starve for a number of these people. So a good amount of Dr. O'Connell's time was taken up by finding ways to keep hungry elephants away from the crops of hungry farmers (and thus reducing the temptation of said hungry farmers to resort to more direct measures of preventing the elephants from dining on their food).

In this role she was a government employee and like all government employees found herself dragged into politics; no matter if she felt those politics had anything to do with her. An interesting note was a bit of gender politics as Dr. O'Connell found that she made more progress by connecting with the women of each community and working with them. That said, she found herself in political struggles between men more often then she would have liked, be it struggles between opposing tribes or turf battles between bureaucrats, the good doctor takes us through them. Which is a good thing because it's these struggles that actually give Dr. O'Connell a motivation to really dig into the central issue that fuels this book, because she was wondering if she could use the information she found to create a system to keep elephants away from people's crops. She did tend to treat larger events that intruded on her research as minor obstacles to evade or get over on the course of her research. I understand that the book is about researching elephants but when discussing the end of a notorious rebel and poacher it would help if you gave a bit more context.

So what is the central story of the book, you may ask? Well it all starts as a young not-yet-a-Doctor O'Connell was sitting at her watering hole watching herds of elephants drink. Now these were family herds; adult females and children live separately from adult males in elephant society. Each family is led by a female elephant referred to as the matriarch. Every now and again the matriarchs of certain herds would break off from the others and start well... listening. Not just listening though, at times the matriarch would lift one foot from the ground a bit and start touching the ground with specific parts of that foot, as if it would aide in her hearing. At first our good Doctor wondered if she was just seeing some personal quirks but she soon found the behavior was present in each and every elephant herd that visited the water hole. Even the bulls did it, although a good deal less than the females. So she began to ask “why?”. Was there something they could hear through their feet? If so, what were they hearing? Was there a seismic component to elephant vocalizations? How were they sensing it? What was it that they were communicating and could we replicate that communication?

This began a research project that would last a decade. From gathering data observing animals in the wild and proving that this was something that a large population (if not all elephants) were doing; to hunting down physical characteristics that might explain what's going on; to finding ways of recording these newly discovered sounds and vibrations and seeing if they could use them to provoke a response. Dr. O'Connell was likely slowed down by the fact that she had to do a lot of other necessary tasks, like performing an elephant census and trying to get certain elephants collared so they they could be tracked by satellite. This turned into an interesting discussion in and of itself. I had honestly forgotten before reading this book just how far satellite tracking and communication has come. Today we're all rather used to pinpoint GPS tracking and nearly flawless communication (at least by the standards of our parents) across vast distances. The idea of ever really being out of touch is something of a luxury now. During the days of Dr. O'Connell's research project, it was being in touch that was the luxury. One amusing story is how she would have to go down to the local post office once a week, plug in her laptop to the only phone with the proper connection to download her emails and upload her replies. Needless to say, getting her data out to be analysed and get proper help from other specialists could take weeks if not months.

Additionally there were the issues of getting ahold of an elephant corpse and start cutting it up so they could figure out what physical characteristics would come into play. Still the obstacles were overcome and as a result we learned a lot about the magnificent mammals. For example: elephants have a pad of fat on each foot, along with fat in their foreheads that is actually very like the fat in a dolphin's head (the part is called a melon amusingly enough) which actually helps in sorting out sound waves. This doesn't mean that elephants can echolocate like dolphins, they use it to pick up sound transmitted through the ground. In fact, to help them concentrate, it was found they have a set of “lips” in their ears that let them pinch shut their ear canals so they can focus on seismic communication. To be honest I found this rather wondrous.

Of course there needed to be experimental proof, so she headed over to the Oakland zoo, where experiments were run using a female elephant named Donna. Interestingly enough Donna was born in the wild and brought over to the US, when African Rangers found that her mother had been killed in a cull. The culls are something no one is happy about, but there are times when the population of elephants gets too high for the local park to sustain them and steps have to be taken. These days a lot of work is taken to find alternatives, like relocation or even transporting elephants into captivity, which is preferable to shooting them or allowing an ecological collapse to lead to mass starvation.

Note from the editor: It really is a problem. African countries can only really protect their wildlife populations inside national parks. They don’t have the budget or manpower to police the whole of their territories, and poaching is a massive problem because elephant ivory is highly prized as a decorative item, and by the chinese for use in Traditional Chinese Quakery Medicine. Protected areas also minimize elephant-human conflict in agricultural lands; which is also a problem because elephants like to get drunk and go carousing. Imagine an eight ton bull elephant behaving like a belligerently drunk university student. However, elephants are nomadic. They move constantly to find food and water, and a herd of elephants rips up and consumes a lot of vegetation, so if they are confined to one place they tend to denude the plant life unless their local population is kept in check. It is a poor solution, but the best one we have. Ok, that is not actually true. In the past few years, we have developed birth control for elephants. We basically vaccinate males against their own sperm, decreasing the rate at which elephants reproduce. You can imagine data collection for those experiments: having to go out and get *ahem* samples from bull elephants. I will leave you wondering how they do that.

Donna's experiment was actually fairly simple: using equipment suggested by geologists, they would create a seismic “noise” similar to the ones that elephants used in the wild. Donna would then hit a yes if she “heard” it and a no if she didn't. It did not take long for Donna to understand the experiment and through they were not only able to determine that Donna was picking up this “sound” through her feet but they could figure out the extent of an elephant's hearing range. Using that they returned to Caprivi and did experiments on the local herds to see if they would react to alarm calls transmitted in this fashion. The herds did, sometimes alarmingly (one matriarch would attack the equipment in frustration when she couldn't find the elephant that was calling wolf).

This book not only provides us with a good look into how you prove a theory in the wild, so to speak, but gives us a peek into the challenges of working in Africa. It also gives us a window into the never-ending struggle to balance the needs of animals and the humans who live alongside them. In Caprivi a working compromise was established by creating locally run and managed parks. This turned the elephants from a danger to a farmer's survival into the means of survival by making them an economic asset for the local people. If you're interested in learning more about this kind of work, or you're interested in zoology or just in elephants, this book is a good one for you. I will note that Dr. O'Connell does tend to ramble a bit in places and on several chapters goes into side trips. Many of those are fairly personal windows into working in Africa and others are just kinda leaving me wondering if a stronger editor was needed here. All in all, I'm giving The Elephant's Secret Sense, the Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa by Dr. Caitlin O'Connell a -A.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen


Announcement! In these next 4 weeks we will be running an experiment of our own. We're doing a theme month in honor of Halloween guys. That theme being dark stories, not necessarily horror mind you but dark all the same. We here at the review series have chosen 3 already but I am throwing the 4th spot open to my readers.

October 7th we start out with Charles Stross' Laundry Series with the Atrocity Archives and a bonus of the Concrete Jungle.

October 14th we return to Matthew Stover's work with Caine Black Knife.

October 21st we go even darker with R. Scott's Bakker's The Great Ordeal

October 28th Is up to you! Leave your choice in the comments/threads and I will choose from among them. Happy Halloween!

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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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