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PostPosted: Fri Sep 15, 2017 9:17 pm 
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The Man Without a Face
by Marcus Wolf

“The propaganda battles of the Cold War were conducted in a moral vocabulary that hid the real technological and military substance of the conflict.” Man Without a Face page 266

The Cold War was a period from 1947 to 1991 when the United States with it's clients and allies faced off against the Soviet Union and its clients and allies in a series of conflicts meant to determine not only which nation would become the single most powerful nation in the world but which ideology the emerging global system be founded on. My first hand experiences are from childhood, I wasn't even 12 years old when the USSR fell. My earliest most enduring memory is being about 6 or 7 years old, walking into the living room and seeing my Father watch a news report of a Summit, where Gorbachev made a joke about the US being the great naval power not the USSR. It was at that point that due to my unceasing prodding my poor Father had to explain the Cold War and the concept of nuclear exchange. At first I saw it as an episode of my GI Joe cartoons writ large; dastardly Soviets lurking to ambush valiant Americans who stood tall and ready behind their defenses. My Father was quick to explain that the Soviets had no desire for a war either. That paradox bothered me; how can you be in danger of a war if no one wants to fight, I asked. With no good answers, I didn't sleep well that night. My second memory is of the wall falling down and my Father letting me stay up late to watch it on the news. I was older at the time, but not yet out of grade school but I was excited. As far I was concerned this was the fall of an evil empire and a victory for freedom. Markus Wolf, a man who had devoted his whole life to the communist party and to socialism saw it differently.

The book is an autobiography and as such covers Mr. Wolf's early life as well. Ethnically a Jew, Mr. Wolf was born in Hechingen, Germany in 1923. His parents were Friederich and Else Wolf, both were open and vocal members of the local communist party. So when Hitler swept into power in 1933, the writing was on the wall. The family soon fled to the Soviet Union where Mr. Wolf would grow to adulthood. His father was a doctor and was often away on business, or conducting affairs that resulted in a small brood of half brothers and sisters. It's here that I notice something that becomes a theme in Mr. Wolf's work. While he admits to his father's behavior, he seeks within the book to soften it, painting his father as a great romantic adventurer who simply could not help himself. It's a behavior that is repeated not just for his father but for the communist party, for the Soviet Union, and the German Democratic Republic. He will admit to the faults and ill behaviors but at the same time try to paint it all in the best light possible attempting to convince the writers that yes, these things happened and they were bad but they were done with the best of intentions. There are two major exceptions to this pattern of defense and they're Stalin and himself. Mr. Wolf grew to adulthood in the Soviet Union in the very midst of the Stalinist purges and admits to the fact that being a teenager he didn't grasp the full implications of what was going on around him. He does show that it had a terrible effect on his parents, with both of them jumping in terror anytime a knock on the door came in the evening hours and his father finding excuses not to be in Russia to avoid being swept up. Soon however came a peril that he could understand and could not ignore: the Nazi Army invading Russia.

Mr. Wolf would spend the war serving in the radio arm of the Soviet Union, while his brother Konrad (who would later become a celebrated movie director in the USSR and Warsaw Pact) fought in the infantry. Mr. Wolf was clearly very proud of his brother and treasured his own efforts in World War II and had hopes of being allowed to become an aeronautical engineer. Instead he was ordered to become a spy for the Communist Party and did so without question. It's here that I encounter one of my major disconnects with Mr. Wolf. I understand obeying orders, I was in the Marines after all, but I cannot for the life of me grasp allowing a bureaucracy to so completely order my life. (Editors note: I kinda get it. He was raised as a communist from the cradle.) For Markus Wolf it was as simple as the fact that's what the Party wanted so that was what he was gonna do. While he does briefly discuss some regret that he never got to design airplanes like he wanted, he also seems to think he did the right thing in submitting to the dictates of far away men in far away places.

After the war, he and other German exiles were installed as the new elite class of the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, which would become the German Democratic Republic. The GDR (Editors note: in German it would be die Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR. Make all the dance party jokes you want, but I speak german and will insist on the proper name at least once. I’ll just be over here singing some of the East German children’s songs I learned in university like Der Volkspolizist.{I would like to remind everyone I am not responsible for my editor}) was the front line state between the NATO powers and the Warsaw Pact and as such Markus Wolf was expected to build a functioning spy system within the Federal Republic of Germany (Editors note: That would be the FRG as abbreviated in English, in German it would be the Bundesrepublik Deutschland or BRD) while preventing NATO from doing the same in his own nation. He has to do this while many of the Germans he finds himself set over resent him and the Red Army. Despite not having desired to be a spy, he threw himself into the work, focusing on Western Germany with a laser like intensity. Such a focus did give him a number of advantages, despite their divisions Germans remained well... German. It is much easier to slip an agent into a nation that speaks the same language as he does and in the 1950s at least the culture of the two nations had not diverged much. One method was to use the names of Germans who had died but whose deaths weren't reported to Federal authorities to slip in East Germans as long term moles, a work that had mixed results honestly. Mr. Wolf admits that his greatest successes came from two groups: western defectors who agreed to feed him information out of ideological idealism (Editors note:After the war there were plenty of communists in the BRD. The German Social Democratic Party managed to politically outmaneuver them with the assistance of the western allies. As a result it was pretty easy to recruit disillusioned West German communists. Social Democrats are also, well, another socialist offshoot, and thus pretty easy for Communists to penetrate or convert. I say that being one myself. We obviously did the same thing with non-communists in the East.) and people who were for lack of a better term seduced into the cause. The first group were often men who believed that in sharing information they were either ensuring peace or serving the cause of a united Germany. I have to admit from my own point of view that seems naive, feeding information to governments that are militarily opposed to yours is as likely to get your fellow citizens killed as protect them. Of course the people you're giving information to won't say that, they say whatever is needed to keep you giving them information! At the same time, I have to admit that I have repeatedly stated my belief that it was both sides possessing nuclear weapons that prevented world war III from happening. Without that, I still do firmly believe as soon as one side or the other believed they could win, they would have attacked and then we would have burnt down the European continent for a 3rd time in a single century and I don't believe the Europeans (on either side) or us Americans would have benefited.

As for the second group, there appears to have been a number of false starts. Mr. Wolf details how at the urging of his Soviet superiors he began to use sex and romance as a weapon against the west. First in clumsy attempts in setting up honeypot brothels to blackmail visiting westerners (he very firmly states that this was direct idea from a KGB agent, to me it's almost funny how prissy he is on this) which were very hit or miss. Then progressing to to his much more successful tactic, the one that made him famous. The Romeo Spies. Mr. Wolf realized during his efforts to infiltrate the west that there was a demographic that he could tap. At the time (1960s) secretary work was done entirely by women, the hours were long, the perks were crap and the pay was meh. With a lack of free time these women also found themselves suffering from lackluster social lives and as a result lacking in romance. Mr. Wolf recruited men who deeply believed in the communist party and the gospel of the coming socialist utopia, trained them in field work and set them forth to find, meet, and seduce these women into the service of the GDR. While he didn't invent the tactic, he did get some good use out of it and was able to reap a bounty of secrets. What's interesting to me is his repeated insistence that the romantic feelings kindled between spies and secretaries was in fact genuine and he points to more than a few of them becoming long lasting marriages. It's interesting to note that while he was wildly successful in many of his operations in West Germany, he was less so in operations to penetrate the United States. In fact when attempting the same Romeo tactics on American girls in the 1980s (again under Soviet pressure) the operations failed due to cultural differences between the States and Germany at the time. This seems to tie back to a fact that I run into repeatedly, for all the long decades that we contested each other across continents and ocean... The Communist world never really understood American society or it's culture. Mr Wolf was not without his own losses which he covers very candidly and bluntly, fully admitting fault in areas where he could have done better. Additionally while he does discuss different agents, he only names agents who are already known. Other sources and agents who were never discovered by the west he stubbornly refuses to name. I have to admit I respect that.

Which brings us to the elephant in the review. As the 2nd highest officer in the Stasi, Mr. Wolf was a member of an elite group of people leading a state that was often harshly repressive of it's own citizens. Mr. Wolf is consistent in this book in trying to avoid any personal responsibility for the excesses of the GDR specifically and the Warsaw Pact in general and makes it clear that he still believes in the cause of his youth. Which is where he loses me. I find it next to impossible to believe that a man that high up the chain was as unaware of the abuses going on as he portrays himself to be. There's also the manner of his complaints about GDR agents being tried by Western courts, but I would have to ask if anyone seriously believes for a moment if the shoe had been on the other foot if any mercy would have been shown? Mr. Wolf also portrays himself as increasingly aware of the problems within his government and society but refusing to do anything about it besides sit at his desk and secretly hope for a reformer to come forth from the aether to solve socialism's problems. This honestly makes the book something of an object lesson as well, because Mr. Wolf and others allowed themselves to be cowed by their leaders and not push for reforms... Their nations and governments rotted out from under them. It may be an unpopular position in Russia and other nations from what I'm told but in the end the US and NATO won, not because of our technological superiority, not because of superiority of arms or spies, or because of media lies, or because of any inherent greater virtue in the western peoples but because we had the better economic and political system. Our system was not only more efficient and gave more freedom to it's inhabitants but was better at reforming itself and adapting to changing times. That's something we need to remember however, that it was our ability to reform our governments and societies that gave us a critical advantage. If we seek to hold those same governments and societies in unchanging and unadapting forms then we commit the same mistakes that Moscow committed.

My frustrations with Mr. Wolf aside this is very informative book if on a very narrow subject matter. If you have no interest in the spy game or in Cold War politics, you'll find it boring. Mr. Wolf is adapt in weaving his personal life among his stories of running spies, and plotting the shadowy battles for influence and information that shaped the Cold War. It can also serve as a very telling lesson on what chasing utopia can lead to. Mr. Wolf and his generation began with the the best of intentions and at every step because they knew they were creating a utopia, they refused to consider any protest or opposing viewpoint. Their refusal led to them instead of creating a utopia creating a prison of a nation and a society that collapsed because it's own people decided they didn't want anything to do with it anymore. Still I would only recommend this book to people who have general idea of what happened in the Cold War and why, otherwise they'll quickly find themselves lost in the events of the book and unable to grasp the context. As Mr. Wolf tends to assume that his readers have at least the basics of German politics and Cold War history down. I give Man Without a Face by Markus Wolf a B+.



Next time, can a book about Full Grown Mutant Army Tigers promising sex and violence be any good? Join me as I find out next week as we review STAR JUSTICE! Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 17, 2017 12:08 pm 
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I read Mr. Wolf's autobio over a decade ago due jto it being listed by Norman Friedman in the long list of books he used as material for his history on the Cold War. What struck me about the book was that Markus Wolf came off as hurt and stung by the failure of Communism in the end. It made me wonder what it must have been like for him. He spent his entire life devoted to the ideology, to the belief that Communism offered the way to a brighter future. He gave everything for that future. And in the end, it was for nothing. Communism failed. Capitalism triumphed. His efforts had been for naught. It's been a while since I read the book, a long while, but that sense of a lost life, of the wound of everything being lost, I still remember it.

As for his complicity in the crimes of the Stasi, his defense is IIRC that he wasn't involved in internal security. He was foreign intelligence. Holding him responsible for internal security matters would thus be like, say, holding the Director of the CIA responsible for Ruby Ridge or Waco. Which is an understandable argument, but at the same time, internal and external security weren't as divided in the Eastern bloc IIRC, indeed, external security often included dealing with dissidents, like when that Bulgarian defector got an ankle full of ricin. Andropov, during his time has head of the KGB, was notorious for demanding efforts against defectors and dissidents.

His complaint about being put on trial by the BRD (see, Ben, you're not the only one familiar with the German names!) is understandable if you see it as believing that the unification was a union of both Germanies. He was an officer of East German government, so putting him on trial for treason or espionage or similar acts is thus inappropriate. That was, IIRC, his argument, plus a sense that this was "victor's vengeance" (specifically revenge for the fall of Willy Brandt after the East German agent in his staff was arrested and publicly revealed). Of course, as you pointed out, a reunification in the other direction is hardly likely to have seen the head of BRD 's foreign intelligence be spared trial by the victorious republic of German workers. And one suspects that trial would have been far less respectful of civil rights. I would further point out that one could argue the DDR was not, in fact, a legitimate government. It was a foreign imposition by a conquerer imposing their ideology and way of life on the German people, and that a restored Germany is within its rights to consider the officers of that government to be traitors who collaborated with the foreign occupiers.

Now that I've spoken on that, I will recall my favorite story in the book. The part where Wolf describes being on a Soviet flight to Havana that had to stop in NYC due to technical problems. This caused a short diplomatic fracas with a concern that American police might board the aircraft. Among the passengers were a pair of Chinese Communist officials, as this was just before the final Sino-Soviet split (although IIRC that was already showing). These two had been surly and standoffish the entire trip. Wolf relates that the two, worried about US agents boarding the plane, decided to safeguard the letters and materials they had been charged to bring to Havana... by eating them. Wolf and his traveling companion witnessed these fellows having to devour the distinctly-unappetizing papers and, if I recall his wording correctly, they contemplated whether they should assist their socialist comrades in their distasteful duties, but ultimately decided that this would be an intrusion into the internal affairs of a fraternal Communist party, so they did nothing. It was the way Wolf described the entire thing that made me LMAO, and which has stuck with me since.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 22, 2017 8:55 pm 
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Star Justice: Eye of the Tiger
Michael-Scott Earle


Michael Scott Earle was first introduced to fantasy and science fiction in the late 1980s, claiming the Palladium RPG Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other strangeness as his first influence. He would branch out to a variety of other tabletop games when he reached high school and found other table top gamers. Afterward he headed to college and while he was originally aiming at a degree in the performance arts, he switched over to finance and got an MBA. Getting a job in accounting, he worked his way up the corporate ranks until he was director of sales. He liked the job but was away from his family, traveling on average 40 hours a week. Upon reading Name of the Wind, he decided he could write a novel just as good but in his own words “it would be for adults, with lots of bad ass violence and detailed sex.” I include the quote because, I admit, I find it puzzling because if there's one thing the fantasy and science fiction genre aren't lacking, it's violence. I mean even authors who prefer to write for younger readers include a heap of it in their stories, C.S. Lewis had a bunch of violence in his stories for Pete's sake. As for sex, well, I'll admit that fantasy had a bit of a prudish phase, which is famously blamed on J.R.R Tolkien but... Seriously have you seen A Song of Ice and Fire, aka Game of Thrones? Even that series is not as groundbreaking as you might think as you'll find that sex scenes and rather detailed one's are all over the place and have been for awhile. Sex was firmly brought back into fantasy at least a decade before I was born (not sure it ever left science fiction) but I should move on before I devolve into slapping someone with a copy of “Kushiel's Dart” or something. Mr. Earle started publishing in February of 2016 and has since published over 22 books (keep this in mind I'm coming back to this) and founded his own publishing company. His first book The Destroyer, a dark fantasy is free on Amazon, I'm reviewing his science fiction work instead.

Star Justice EoT, set in the far future where humanity has settled at least part of the galaxy, is the escape attempt of Adam a former Jupitian Marine (Can’t even get Jovian right), Yakuza enforcer, and genetic experiment; and Eve the telepathic, telekinetic, immortal vampire who spent 3 generations in a tube waiting for Adam to come along and break her out (a telepath who is telekinetic cannot escape the damn tube? Really?). Together they must escape the corporation dominated planet they are stuck on by stealing the super top secret prototype starship that Eve knows about because she can read minds. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that the corporation knows who they are, is offering a massive bounty for their heads, and is pretty sure they have to go through corporate holdings to escape. All Adam and Eve have going for them are their superpowers, willingness to mow down any mook who gets in their way and the help of super hacker Z, who they picked up on the way. Let me take a bit to discuss each the characters individually.

Adam (who has no last name given because... Reasons) was a super badass Marine in the Jupiter Marine Corps until he deserted to join the Yakuza, but wait! He only joined the Yaks because the heartless commanding officers of the JMC wouldn't let him resign to care for his little sister who was stricken with cancer! I gotta note that I am dissatisfied with this, because it looks like Mr. Earle couldn’t commit to what kind of character Adam was. So we get “Yes, he joined a group known for selling drugs and people but only because of a sick little sister!” Adam is captured and jailed for crimes he totally did commit and thrown into a privately owned prison, who sells him off to a mysterious secret outfit who subjects him to brutal, sadistic (because there no other kind in this book) genetic experiments turning him into an even more super bad ass weretiger with the regenerative powers of Wolverine and super senses that are honestly kinda par for the course for these situations. Outside of his origin and his powers... There's really not much more to Adam. He's super stoic and justifiably angry but at the same time I'm really left questioning his origin. Even in the bad old days of the late 1800s and 1900s there were options for troops with sick family members who needed medical bills paid (never mind that in an increasingly long list of modern nations where that wouldn't even come up), today there are more options and you can even make your parents military dependents if they meet the qualifications, which gives them access to government subsidized medical care. Since Adam volunteered for military service, that means that there's a certain level of care and treatment that has to go into enlisted personnel to keep the military life attractive enough to keep troops in. Because frankly if you treat them like shit, they can just leave after their contract is up and often find money elsewhere. Especially if corporations are looking for triggermen to police entire planets and overthrow governments! Moving on, Adam is kinda two dimensional in other ways, he has no hobbies or other interests besides murder, bragging that even in the Marines instead of enjoying his liberty time, he was constantly practicing his killing skills. I've complained about this before especially in my review of Master Sergeant by Mel Odom. We don't act this way guys. We're people, not meat killing machines. The blunt fact is that if we don't blow off steam in our down time and have outside interests, the vast overwhelming majority of us go insane. Plus there's only so much training you can do in a stretch before you actually just start hurting yourself, diminishing returns is a thing. For the Love of God, please, please give your uber badass of doom some outside interests and hobbies! Music! Art! Dance! Stamps! I don't care! (Get back to the book Frigid. I am the only one allowed to indulge in off-topic ramblings.)

Right moving on, Adam also suffers from not displaying a lot of character traits beyond being a badass and being stoic. We're told he's honorable (because honorable people always join organized crime!) repeatedly but we never see him in a position where breaking his word would be all that beneficial (Technically he violated his oath to the Jovian military/government when he deserted… so not that honorable. Oh wait, sick little sister the Jovian military wouldn’t let him care for… eh, they broke their obligations first. Carry on.). I mean sure he could double cross the telepathic blood drinking immortal who freed him but why trust the corporation he would have to turn her into not to enslave him? Not to mention he doesn't speak the local language anyways. He dislikes feeling feelings but he struggles with feeling possessive and jealous of anyone Eve pays attention to. Now to Adam's credit, he realizes these feelings aren't good ones or justified and tries his best to keep a handle on them. Also I do have to give points for Adam and Eve actually talking out this problem like adults! There's no fake drama from silly relationship stuff here; of course the book only takes place over a couple of days or so, so there's not a lot of time for a relationship to organically develop. Adam also tends to speak in a pseudo military speech that grates on me a bit because it doesn't feel real just forced. For example Adam never says yes, or yeah, or you bet. He always, always says confirmed even when it just makes things awkward and leaves me wondering if the extra mass for his weretiger form comes from a giant stick rammed up his rear but now I'm just being picky.

Eve isn't much better, she states that she was in the tube long enough that the grandson of the man who caught her had grown up to adulthood and taken over studying her. During that whole time she read everyone's mind and when they brought by people who were important harvested a legion of secrets from them. Yet somehow she was not able to use the fact that she can read minds and communicate telepathically to escape a tube! I mean the security system is impressive and full of guns and robots of death but... Look loyal readers, I'm pretty sure if I stuck any of y'all into such a situation and gave you 3 whole lifetimes to figure out an escape plan, you could do better then “I will wait for a passing stoic, tormented weretiger to sweep me off my feet and do my bidding.”. Eve's escape was sheer luck; she had no way of knowing that Adam would be sent by the mysterious organization that ruthlessly altered him and that she could destroy the means they were using to keep him prisoner (I mean what if instead of a collar they had injected him with something?). That said, she swiftly becomes the driving force of the plot as it's her decision to escape with Adam when he shows up, she directs him every step of the way and it's her plan they use to make their escape from the planet. Despite this Eve keeps insisting that Adam is in charge, which is honestly strange to me but maybe she just wants to be sure Adam will keep throwing himself between her and all the bullets (I mean, if I were a strangely inept vampire psionicist, who suddenly finds a stoic tormented weretiger who is unaccountably obsessed with me, I might well use that obsession to make my escape...oh wait. If I were that calculating I wouldn’t be inept and would have escaped decades ago. Maybe she just doesn’t know what she wants out of the relationship?). Beyond her powers, beauty and immortality we really don't know much else about her. Which is less of a problem since this story is suppose to be about Adam... Although there are points where I'm wondering why isn't it about Eve?

The last character present in this story is Z. Z is a pretty, blonde, super hacker (because ugly girls aren't allowed in this story!), who is hired by Adam to hack the corporation's personal files so they can find someone to kidnap. When she’s inevitable double crossed by the non-Adam people she foolishly trusted she is forced to throw in with Adam and Eve and pray to her heathen gods that they can actually get her off the planet. Z is the one person in the story with a bit of a personality even if it is expressed mostly in her howling in terror when she realizes she's stuck with a weretiger and a vampire and being hunted by an army or complaining at a number of super dangerous or just degrading things she has to do to make this plan work. Normally she would be annoying but at this point I was glad to have someone who reacted like a human being. Plus she was plotting to use the money Adam was paying her to buy a pet cat so she can't be completely terrible. Another bit of realism in this story that I actually liked is that Z used a lot of social hacking as opposed to muttering about double encrypted firewalls. There's one scene where she literally calls up a member of the enemy tech support scene and sweet talks him into giving her a password into the system. Which is kind of how this stuff works and why you should always force your callers to follow security procedures.

The action in this book is rather predictable and honestly gets a bit samey as you reach the end of the book. Adam mows down wave after wave of faceless enemy soldiers who honestly aren't very good at their jobs nor seemingly possessed of a strong desire to live. For that matter despite this being in the far flung future, technology doesn't seem to have changed much outside of a very specific areas like FTL spaceships and the ability to turn people into magic were-tigers. Beyond that people are still using rifles, shotguns and grenades against men with body armor. There are other more advanced weapons but they're not all that present in the story. Although remote pilot drones do show up for a couple of action scenes to provide an enemy that actually gives Adam trouble. The book moves quickly and cleanly but without any time to pause and take a breath we're not left a lot to give us any attachment to the characters; nor did I feel any suspense or investment in the stakes. That said there are realistic moments in the book and parts that are handled well enough that I feel like Mr. Earle was honestly trying to tell a good story but was either to rushed to give it the time it needed to be told (which is very possible since he's pumped out something like 2 books a month) or wrote it many years ago (sitting on a pile of rejected books is fairly normal for a lot of writers and when you get big enough, people will often pay you for those books, so choose your own adventure here). That said, there's not enough work done to develop the characters and the conflict is rather devoid of tension so I feel like I read someone's first draft instead of a finished book. This is reinforced by the ending in which the book just kinda stops. So I find myself giving Star Justice Eye of the Tiger by Michael-Scott Earle D+. I didn't expect to give this book an A grade by any means but I do wish I could grade it higher. That said I am hopeful that Mr. Earle will improve with time.

Next week, we're going to review another book with a Tiger main character, join us for Forests of Night! Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 29, 2017 9:27 pm 
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Forests of the Night
By S Andrew Swann


Mr. Swann was actually born Mr. Steven Swiniarski; he adopted the moniker S Andrew Swann as a pen name. He spent all of his adult life in the Greater Cleveland Area (which explains to me why his first book is set in a barely working dystopia {It could be worse. It could be Detroit!}) where he lives with his wife and works a day job as a Database manager. He’s written 25 novels with the first being the work we are reviewing today! Forests of the Night was published in 1993 and is a fine example of Bio Punk. Now a good number of you may rightly be asking ‘just what in the name of all that's Holy is Bio Punk, you manic genius?’. Well Biopunk is an outgrowth of Cyberpunk, for those of you are new (Welcome! Glad to have you!{Hi!}) Cyberpunk is a genre of science fiction that is usually set in the near future and is focused on an examination of new technologies like the internet, virtual reality, and the the increasing digitization of our society(*sniffs*I smell the 1980s and early 1990s. Oh no. I caught a whiff of the cocaine.). It pairs this with a society that is breaking down and falling into a dystopian nightmare where the super rich and their servants live in luxury with their whims catered to by that technology and everyone lives in their trash. Most Cyberpunks aren't that extreme but the idea is to examine how technology doesn't necessarily make everyone's life easier or improve society. Bio punk takes many of the themes and stories of Cyberpunk but instead of examining information technology likes to examine biological technology. Things like cloning, genetic engineering and so on.

Mr. Swann's book was released close enough to the 80s to be affected by the common ideas of fiction at the time and his efforts at subverting them leads to a book that... Strangely echoes modern anxieties. The Pan Asian War ripped across Asia in the biggest bloodbath in history and our side lost. Japan and India were subjected to nuclear bombardment by the People's Republic of China, who went on to occupy them. The United States remains a great power by the skin of it's collective teeth but whether or not we'll keep that status is open to question. It is not helped by the fact that reactionary political party has risen to power demanding that the federal government be cut back to the mythical ‘drown in a bathtub’ size (this last part seems odd to me, we have lost a war and our allies are in chains and your reaction is to demand tax cuts for corporations and cuts to government services?). However those forces haven't won yet and the US federal government is still able and in many cases willing to enforce its will on the corporations that operate in it's borders. The corporations however wield influence through campaign contributions and lobbying, just like today. Meanwhile, new minorities have arisen due to government's turning to genetic engineering for super soldiers. Franks, genetically created humans and Moreau's, people who were created by blending together the genetic traits of animals and humans. While due to a Constitutional Amendment, Moreau's have all the legal rights and standings of natural born humans, in fact they are heavily discriminated against. Forced to live in ghettos and systematically denied education and employment and subjected to a police force that acts more like a hostile occupying army then a police force (why does this sound familiar? {If this description is accurate, the author is A) not being subtle, and B) is...well not prescient because what is true now was true in 1993 but no one cared}). Not that long ago the situation exploded into a series of riots that were put down with military action and now as the United States stands with largest population of free Moreau's in the world, it also stands on the knife edge of social violence.

Into this comes our nudist detective (hey clothes are a pain when you have fur), who is also an 8ft tiger, with a pair of thumbs, a troubled past and a bad attitude, Nohar Rajasthan. He's got a couple of rules: always finish the job, get paid, stay away from murder cases, and never take a job from a human (or pinks as Moreau's refer to us). As far as Nohar is concerned nothing good comes from messing around in human business, but like all private eyes in their first story, he's dead broke and the client a genetically engineered Frank from abroad (or is he?) who offers him more money than he's ever had at once... His better judgment is drowned out by not only a strong desire to be able to pay all his bills at once but his curiosity . Nohar has been hired to investigate the murder of a human, Daryl Johnson the campaign manager of the 12th district Congressmen Joseph Binder, a member of the reactionary party who is now running for Senate. The good Congressmen is pressuring the police to sweep the investigation under the rug and Nohar's employer, a major contributor to the campaign, would like to know why and is willing to pay for the knowledge.

This investigation pulls Nohar into the deep end real fast as he finds himself targeted by both the local and federal police for his investigation but also by the Moreau Rat gang the Zipperheads, or Zipheads as most call them. Nohar finds himself pulled into a political conspiracy and into racial street violence at the same time. As the connections between the company paying for the investigation and the Binder campaign are found to be more numerous, deeper, and stretching out into places that seem nonsensical, Nohar becomes a target for people that want him to just walk away. He has to connect the dots and and figure out just what is going on before the body counts gets too high or he ends up as part of it. That said Nohar isn't completely without allies or weapons of his own. His foster father, Manny the Mongoose works with the police as a morgue assistant (At least he’s not a vulture or hyena…) and the guy they call in to handle Moreau bodies. I gotta be honest I really like the relationship here. Mr. Swann does a good example of showing us a relationship between two people who honestly care about each other but also have a lot of history between the two of them, not all of it good history either. This is complicated by the fact that much of the bad in that history isn't either of their fault but is the result of actions by Nohar's biological father and Nohar's own efforts to understand his biological father. Manny clearly wants to keep Nohar safe and whole, while Nohar is struggling to prove that he can be his own man and finish the path he's chosen for himself. Speaking of Nohar let's talk about him.

Nohar is as befits a private detective in a punk setting, an intelligent and cynical person with a complicated past that has left him an outsider in Moreau society while his genetic heritage has made him an outsider in human society. Nohar isn't just distrustful of human authorities figures, he's often borderline contemptuous of his fellow Moreau's. He doesn't hesitate to point out their self destructive tendencies or how those tendencies are egged on by human authorities to justify their bigotry. Despite his distrust of human government, he is able to have human friends (Wow, we have seen this before. Do the other Moreaus call him him an Uncle Tomcat?). For example the human hacker Bobby that he works with, who also happens to be a childhood friend. He is also able to connect with Stephanie Weir, an assistant to the murdered Mr. Johnson who is either the witness that will help him figure everything out or the target that gets him killed protecting her. While Nohar may be cynical and has problem making friends, he isn't dismissive of other people's lives and we see this as he rescues Angel, a rabbit Moreau, the last survivor of a gang wiped out by the Zipperheads. I can't talk too much about Angel without unleashing spoilers but suffice to say, what she brings to the table is an interesting piece of the puzzle. Nohar's isolation stems more from him not being to confront his personal problems but preferring to focus on... Anything else. I can't get to down on Nohar for that. It's a very human personality flaw shared by a lot of people.

I enjoyed this book as you might have guessed. Nohar is a flawed but good protagonist who retains a moral compass and a desire to at least try and make the world slightly better. Although like most of us he would like to get paid while doing so. The mystery is an interesting one that is gradually revealed through Nohar doing the classic detective work of talking to people, tracking down witnesses and leads and at times engaging in good, old fashioned violence. The action in this book is well presented, while Nohar is allowed to be the kind of terrifying force that an 8 foot tall tiger man with fangs and claws capable of tearing people apart (human senator:”I just see weapons in our schools”) should be; he’s not an untouchable avatar of war here, his injuries and mistakes mount up and take a toll on him. This gives the action a sense of realism and helps ground it a bit. Which is a good thing when a lot of your book is battles between rat gangsters and tiger private detectives. The villains, mostly personified in an Afghan hound assassin named Hassan who manages to be terrifying despite my mental picture of him being utterly ridiculous, have an interesting motivation that makes sense. It's also one that you will not guess in the first chapter of the book but is well enough foreshadowed that it doesn't feel like it comes out of left field, which is always appreciated. The rats on the other hand don't really feel that menacing until the last part of the book, but I think that's because for 2/3rds of the book we're literally reading about small groups of rats trying to threaten and intimidate a bloody Tiger! I mean... Thing's that just aren't happening (Criminals are often dumb? Do they breed like rats? That might explain why they are so blaize about their casualties.{Well, Nohar says that the Latin American governments went with rats specifically because of their fast breeding times so, yes.}).

I do want to talk about the Moreau's before I give my grade on the book though. I have to be honest and say I really don't see humanity using genetic engineering to create sapient races of laborers and soldiers. Robots are cheaper and don't have to be sapient, which means they can't rebel, can't unionize, or start thinking they deserve things like paid vacations, coffee breaks, civil rights... You know all the little things that some employers dream of not having to give to their labor force. Frankly if I found out we were, I would be willing to go really far in stopping it from happening. We shouldn't create another species or 50 just to foist off our wars on. For that matter we shouldn't create a sapient race--biological or mechanical--until we know damn well what we want to accomplish from such a feat, how we're going to provide for such a race, and that we can behave in a manner that won't end up shaming our descendants when they read about it in the history books. When it comes to triumphs of science like this, we should asks ourselves not just if we can do something but if we should do something and if we're ready for the responsibility that it entails. That said Mr. Swann does a good job of showing us some of the consequences of not thinking ahead on things like this and holding up a mirror to our society to consider in some ways. I find myself giving S Andrew Swann's Forests of Night a B+. It definitely left me wanting to see more of that world and you should give it a look as well.

Next time, we hit some lighter fare with yes... Another Log Horizon novel! Keep reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen, whose comments how up in the red.

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 06, 2017 8:34 pm 
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Log Horizon 7: Gold of the Kunie
by Mamare Touno


A brief note, Vol 6 has not yet been reviewed for various reasons I won't bore you with. I will review that volume but decided to go ahead with vol 7. The good news is that the storyline of book 6 takes place at the same time as book 7 but in a different place. Apologies for any confusion.

Here we are in the world of Elder Tales again! Now just in case you've skipped the last 5 or so reviews... I will briefly explain. Once upon a time in 21st century Earth there was a super popular MMO called Elder Tales that had a massive player base across the entire planet. Upon the release of a new expansion, people found themselves trapped in the game, and the game world became more and more real. NPCs, who called themselves People of the Earth, were now real people with real emotions, hopes, and goals. Monsters now display tactical planning and react to situations like living, thinking beings who don't want to die to provide you experience points and gold. The players found themselves inhabiting the bodies of their game characters and able to use their abilities. However combat became terrifyingly real and while you would come back when you died (unlike the natives) dying still hurt and costs you memories. In the city of Akihba the player base fell into disarray and apathy. Hither came Shiroe: enchanter, master plotter, and strategist who decided to pull the whole city and the players within kicking and screaming into a working society whether they liked it or not. We have seen him so far establish city governments out of whole cloth, revitalize an economy and engineer a peaceful and productive relationship with the local native state. Of course he was utterly unable to do this alone and it was only with Shiroe working with the people around him and often just explaining his objectives and letting them determine the best use of their own talents and gifts to achieve those objectives that he was able to pull off such dizzying achievements. A lot of people would be content to call it a day and put their feet up, maybe have a nice drink after all that. Not our boy in glasses though, in this book, Shiroe goes raiding.

Now some of you may be asking what a raid is. In the context of a MMO game, a raid is an adventure where a group of players will combine forces to achieve a goal. This is typically an attack by a large group of players into a dungeon to clear it, kill the dungeon boss (usually a boss monster with a frightening amount of hit points and enough special abilities to make you sick) and gain the loot. These boss monsters often take several tries to defeat because you need to learn their combat routine and abilities along with their weaknesses before you'll have a real shot at victory. Raid players are usually happy to take these tries however as these types of raids are well known for the special items that can only be gained by defeating the raid adventure. Most groups will have a system worked out to determine who gets what gear and believe me, this can be hotly contested. The raid in this book is no different, as Shiroe is here to get the kind of epic loot that would make anyone jealous. You see, there is a primitive banking system in the world of Elder Tales, run by a group of people known as the Kunie clan. Now the Kunie clan will hold your cash and store items for you but they don’t do loans. Which is strange for a bank. When Shiroe meets them to talk about a loan, he’s told to take a walk. His response? Sure, he’ll take a walk, right to the dungeon where the source of all money is, but he'll have to overcome some personale difficulties first.

In this book we have the reappearance of the Silver Swords, led by William aka Mithral Eyes. Now the Silver Swords were a powerful raid group that Shiroe invited to join the Round Table government in Akihba but they turned him down (the only guild to do so). Afterward they moved to Susukino, took over the town from the misbehaving adventurers there and started raiding, but then they found themselves falling on hard times. According to William this was because while you still come back from death, you are forced to... well kinda confront yourself and see the flaws within you. Realizing that you're not that great a person is never fun and violently dying and then having your face rubbed in all your flaws sounds like the kind of thing that would get real old, real fast. Especially since not only is dying still really painful but you get to pay for this wonderful privilege by losing some of your memories. Which honestly leaves me wondering: under such a system would it be possible to die so often that you come out the other side a completely different person? I mean who we are if often fundamentally shaped by our experiences and our environment. If you take away those experiences aren't you left with a completely different person? Now the memory loses told to us in the story are fairly minor, Shiroe forgets the name of a ramen restaurant in his home town. Krusty in an earlier book mentioned that he couldn't remember the name of his pet cat from his childhood but this sounds like it would add up. Sure Krusty can still remember having a cat but how long before he loses that? Or the name of his mother? Or if he had any siblings? How much would this change him? The story elects not to answer this question and leave it to the reader to consider.

Another return is the mad monk Demikas, who used to be the bandit king of Susukino, until Shiroe wrecked him in public and William moved in and started enforcing decent behavior. The conflict between Demikas and Shiroe is a petty one in scope but is still interesting as it's two people who hate each other having to learn to acknowledge the other person's humanity and work together. Honestly, Demikas is a horrible person who in my mind wasn't punished enough for his crimes of tormenting and even enslaving the People of the Earth in his area before being stopped. Shiroe's willingness to try and be empathic to Demikas is more than I think I could pull here. I honestly liked the fact that the writer did reform Demikas' behavior but left his basic personality as a violent thug intact and instead of trying to dramatically alter it, just showed us how in specific circumstance even violent thugs can do the right thing and maybe even learn to be a little less thuggish.

This book gives us a look at the consequences of Elder Tales becoming a real place and at the same time shows us how resurrection from death might not be that big a favor. It also lets us see the heroes placed in despair and deciding if they can keep going. I like how it's actually William here who stands up and gets everyone to find their backbone here. The series continues to allow other characters to be awesome instead of only letting it's main character do anything cool. This is a good, self contained story that still touches larger issues and brings up more things to consider in the series. Not to mention a look at the bigger world in the series itself. That said, I kinda feel like the past actions of characters like Demikas are excused to easily. He doesn’t have to pay a price for his misbehavior nor does he acknowledge that was bad behavior. That doesn’t quite sit right with me. That said I enjoyed it and I'm giving Log Horizon 7 by Mamare Touno a B. It's a good interesting entry into the series and I'm really interested in seeing how it plays out. I can't say much more than that without venturing into spoilers territory though.

Next week, we're Keeping it Real with the Quantum Series. Keep Reading!

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 13, 2017 7:53 pm 
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Keeping It Real
by Justina Robson


Say you're a Shadowrun fan and you'll get two reactions: ‘what the hell is Shadowrun?’ is the most common, and ‘you should try this it's like Shadowrun, but…’ is the other. For those of you asking the first question, Shadowrun is a fantasy cyberpunk RPG game, which basically means you can play a Cyborg Elf trying to kill Corporate Wizards while your Troll Hacker buddy breaks the internet to steal the paydata. When done right, it's as awesome as it sounds, when done wrong... Well, at least these days you have smartphones while waiting for your turn kids (Manaball! Wait I am editing instead of playing my angry mercenary rabbi-wizard in Shadowun. You are talking about Shadowrun in your book review. Focus on the task at hand Frigid!)

Right, let's start with our author; Justina Robson was born in Leeds England in the year 1968 AD. She studied philosophy and linguistics at the University of York. In her own words it took seven years of working as a secretary and over 2 million words before she finally published her first novel. Her first published work was in the small press magazine The Alternative in 1994, with her first novel, Silver Screen following in 1999. It was well received and nominated for the Arthur C Clarke award and the BSFA award in 2000. Since then she has published a number of novels and short stories. When she started the Quantum Gravity series, she had 3 novels under her belt and a number of short stories. The first book Keeping it Real was published in 2006, it is the first in a 5 book series. The Quantum Gravity was recommended to me as 'you should try this it's like Shadowrun but...' so let's dive in, shall we?

The background to the Quantum Gravity series goes as such. In the year 2015 AD, there was an explosion in the superconducting supercollider in Texas (if you're saying to yourself. wait there's no such thing in Texas, you're right! In our world it was canceled in 1993 because we are not allowed nice things{An eternal pox be upon congress and all their vile works}). This explosion caused a hole in space-time because quantum. This hole in spacetime caused a number of things to happen backwards and forwards in time (Are there angels what weep? Is Steven Weinberg’s office a TARDIS now?) and odd things resulted. Fast forward to the present year of our story and people refer to Earth as Otopia for some reason (It means ‘local’ in greek) and are aware of five other “realms” of existence and in contact with 4 of them. The first one is Zoomenon, the realm of elementals, where every element on the periodic table is present in abundance but the place is incredibly hostile to human life. The Elementals appear to humans as personifications of Earth, Wind, Water, Fire and Wood (Wait wait… it is both the periodic table of elements Elemental Chaos and D&D style Elemental Chaos? Is there a Fluorine Chemistry elemental whose special ability to is steal ALL the electrons and then violently explode?). The second is Alfheim, which many of you will have likely guess means elves and the snobbiest elves of course. While Alfheim has diplomatic relations with Otopia, it has otherwise closed its borders firmly shut and tried to keep its people in and everyone else out. It's a Eden like place otherwise, since human technology for the most part doesn't work there's been no industrialization. Instead of technology the elves have magic, which I'll get to a bit. The 3rd realm is Demonia, which is the home of the Demons. Demons are of course much more welcoming of humans than Elves but you do travel at your own risk. That said Demon scientists have been very eager to share information (*sings to tune of Flash Gordon* FAUST! WOOAAAAAH! He’s doomed ev’ry of us!) Next up is Faery, home to well... Faeries. Faery has been extremely welcoming and even adopted human bureaucracy, issuing tourist visas and passports and what have you. The last realm is one no human can really discuss, Thanatopia is the realm of the dead and with the exception of necromancers, you have to die to get there. No one comes from Thanatopia and only necromancers visit and come back.

Magic of course exists and is used by, well everyone except humans from what I can tell (have we just not figured it out yet?). Granted Elementals are to alien for any real relationships between the two groups but when a being shows up as nothing but fire, I think it safe to say some magic is being used. That said the most dominant magic users are Demons and Elves, using what they call the aetherstream (or Ispace as humans insist on calling it for some reason) to cast spells and conduct rituals. Another type of magic is that of games, games are magical contests between two people. They have rules with dictate the behavior of those people until the victory conditions of the game are met. Every game has a prize and a forfeit, which can be anything from a song to a life. As you might have guessed this has caused a fair bit of upheaval in human society as humans who can't sense or interact with magic (but can be acted on by magic) are at a harsh disadvantage when it comes to games. However, whenever anti-games laws are enforced, the cops, lawyers, and judges find themselves locked into a game with the accused person and it usually goes poorly from there. I'm honestly impressed by this because it gives people who are leery of contact with non-humans a pretty good reason for their fear. If you're not careful around these people you could end up under a magical compulsion to give them everything you've ever had for a literal song and there's nothing anyone can do about it. So as you can guess relationships between the different peoples of the multi-verse are somewhat fractious and hazardous. Enter our main characters.

Lila Black is a special agent with the NSA, due to injuries she suffered in the field, she is officially dead and has been remade into a top of the line cyborg (Aren’t the NSA basically just SIGNIT spooks, not field spooks?{Yes, but this is a universe where Texas had a supercollider, clearly things are different}). The kind of cyborg that makes Robocop look like the ultra cheap basement bargain model. She has on-board internet connections and AI, weapons, armor, and an internal nuclear reactor to keep her going forever. Lila could only be turned into the kind of weapon that could face off an armored company due to the fact that she was practically killed by Elvish Magic and turning her into this was the only way to keep her alive. The price is that she is left a wreck of a person with a horde of mental and emotional injuries and a body that is still adapting to it's new metal extensions when she is sent off into the field. Which is a problem for me honestly. At this point Lila is a one of a kind agent, no one else in the entire multiverse is like her. So what you do for her first solo mission and as far as I can tell her first mission in the field? Toss her into a massively complex situation (to be fair her commanders couldn't have known how complex) with loads of Elves involved! I mean I figured out by chapter 3, that Lila shouldn't be on this mission and given how much time and resources have been devoted to turn her into an agent and weapon at the cutting edge of technology... An agency, with a limited budget and personal would frankly be more careful. I wouldn't have risked her breaking down on her first mission and wrecking herself over a bloody rock star even if he is an Elf with secrets.

That Elf is Zal, lead vocalist of the No Shows, the hottest new band tearing up North America. Now traditionally Elves do not rock, nor do they run around hobnobbing with humans and demons, getting drunk and more. As you can imagine this has the various purity factions on all sides of all the divides in a snit. Because of this Zal has gotten a vast number of threatening letters and snarling death threats in all manner of media. Including some from the Elvish Covert Service and this is what caught the NSA's interest. Zal himself is a bit of mystery as he seems to have a rather deep relationship with the demons (who are suppose to be forbidden to elves) and able to break a large number of Elvish taboos, which are suppose to be magically enforced. Lila's job is to keep Zal alive and find out just why the Elvish version of the KGB wants him dead. While dealing with all the past trauma that dealing with the same group of people that burnt her limbs off invokes, and finding herself pulled deep into a game with Zal and Elvish royal politics. She may have been thrown into the deep end of sink or swim territory but at least they gave her rocket boots.

Now I found Lila interesting even if I thought she shouldn't be here, Zal I found less so for most of the book. When his motivations were revealed, I found myself rolling my eyes as I don't think his actions match his words. To be fair, that's actually realistic as most of us will say we want one thing or to accomplish one goal while doing everything we can to take ourselves the other way. So I don't count this against the story but do consider it as another reason as to why I find Zal a bit annoying. That said his goals are interesting and the story does explore them a bit. Which is a good thing because it's Zal's goals and the goals of his family that make the main conflict of the story. Here, Lila is the protagonist but her goals are largely on the sidelines (beyond the usual of don't die and win) as she gets pulled into Zal's and other people's problems. What Lila brings to the table is her emotional/mental tangle that she has to work through because Zal's family unknown to her or to him are very much a part of her near death and it's their goals and the means they're willing to use to get to those goals that are causing the conflict here.

The novel is fairly short at about 330 pages with most of the plot happening in the last 200 pages or so. Once the plot gets moving and we start meeting the antagonists the book is rather interesting and a good read, however the first third of the book is rather rough and a good part of it feels disconnected from the last 2/3rds. This is a book that takes some time to actually get going but unfortunately the slow start doesn't give us any additional insight into the characters other than to show us repeatedly that Lila is very damaged. We do get a bit of a look into Elvish society and how games between elves help uphold that society for better or worse and how it drives some of the differences between Elves and Humans and I found that interesting. The Elves have a Caste Society and like most Caste societies, it's held up with a mixture of political ideology, religious belief, power, and the pushing of a crisis that can only be overcome by maintaining purity at all cost. I kind of wish that some of the 100 pages spent on the setup had instead be given over to looking at Elvish culture instead. I'm giving Keeping It Real by Justina Robson a C. It's certainly good once it gets going but the rough start holds it back.

Next week, I veer off into fantasy for a bit with The Shadow of What was Lost. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 13, 2017 10:53 pm 
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If you want some good "Shadowrun but not Shadowrun" action, keep with S. Andrew Swann. How about you bite into some more Caine? I'm interested in your opinion of some of the later books.

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 20, 2017 8:21 pm 
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The Shadow of What Was Lost
By James Islington


I almost walked past this book, the fact that it had a tag declaring that ‘If you love Wheel of Time, you'll love this book.’ didn't help. While I have a lot respect for the late Robert Jordan, I feel that Wheel of Time was full of filler material and could have been done in half the books. I also feel that he contributed to the current trend of books that are 6 to 700 pages long without an improvement in quality over older books with maybe half the page count. But the blurb on the back and the inherent promise that this series would be limited to 3 books sold me. Let's take a look and see if my faith was rewarded or punished.

James Islington is an Australian born in southern Victoria about 36 years ago. A fan of Raymond Feist (there's a name I haven't heard in a long time...) and Robert Jordan, he was finally inspired by Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss to start writing. This actually makes him the 2nd writer in this series to be inspired by Mr. Rothfuss, which is interesting in and of itself. He currently lives with his wife Sonja and their young daughter on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. The Shadow of What was Lost is his first book and was published by Orbit Books in 2016 in the United States and 2014 in Australia. Orbit books is an imprint launched in 2007 by the Hachette Book Group, which in turn was founded in 2006 by Hachetter Livre, the largest publishing company in France. But enough chasing descending turtles (No Frigid, you have to go deeper*Inception Sound*), let's turn to the book!

Mighty Andarra, the largest and strongest nation on the continent was once ruled by the Augurs, men and women who had the power to read and control people's mind, foresee the future, and even more. They were directly served by the Gifted, people who could use essence; the basic life force of the universe to do a number of great things, like heal injuries, physically empower themselves and strike their enemies down with that same energy. Guided by the oracle foresight of the Augurs they ruled Andarra for generations until over 20 years ago the visions of the Augurs... Stopped. At first the Augurs were able to hide this from everyone, but sooner than anyone thought people began to realize that the Augurs could no longer see the future and their claim to power grew weaker. Then a rebellion of people who had no magical talents rose up and killed every last Augur who could be found. The Gifted were spared but were forced through magical rituals to live under the 4 Tenets. That the gifted may not use their powers to kill, harm, or intimidate the non-gifted; and that they will obey the commands of the Administers. In exchange the Administers will not use their powers to harm or harass the Gifted. The Administers are non-magical men and women who took an oath and went through a ritual which grants them the power to order and control the Gifted. Their job is to protect the non-magical men and women of Andarra from the Gifted and to protect the Gifted from them.

The Gifted for their part have withdrawn to fortress communities called Tol's and scattered outposts that serve as schools and collection points for Gifted born into non-magical families. Their movements are regulated, their access to food and other materials controlled and they are always, always watched by the Administers and their soldiers. Those same soldiers are armed with magical devices that allow them to track rogue Gifted, capture and control them or even kill them. The Gifted are trained in the permitted uses of their powers until their late teens, where they undergo a series of trials. If they pass, they become adults and are welcomed into the Gifted community. If they fail, their ability to use Essence are stripped from them and they become Shadows. Shadows are marked by black marks on their face and are the lowest of the low. They are used for grunt labor within the Gifted community if they’re lucky or exiled to the outside world otherwise. The non-magical portion of humanity has no mercy for Shadows, who have no protection under the law and as such are free game for all manner of abuse and degradation. Additionally any Gifted who breaks the Tenets or disobeys the regulations of the Administration can be turned into a Shadow.

This is actually a fairly interesting social set up. One question I've often found myself asking is, if magic allows a fairly decent number of people to be so powerful that a non-magical person is no match for them in a fight, why aren't they in charge? While there are variations on the theme, in a lot of ancient and medieval societies political power was based on military strength and the guys who can call lightning from the very sky kinda of have an advantage in that respect. In the past fantasy series have come up with ideological or practical reasons why magic users weren't running everything but what Mr. Islington has done is declared that they did run things, but the source of their legitimacy was undercut and those they ruled found a way to counter their powers and turned them into a despised minority. With the creation of Shadows however he provides an outlet for the Gifted, people can put up with a lot as long as they believe there is someone else who has it worse. In my own country's history poor whites in the south put up with quite a bit because among other things they could always tell themselves that blacks had it worse for example (That’s actually being charitable. It isn’t like they thought “well it’s not so bad, black people have it worse” it’s more like “At least I’m better than the <insert racial slur>”). It also provides a threat: “as bad as you have it now, it'll be much worse for you if we turn you into a Shadow”. Which continuing my examples from the American South “Yeah it's bad for you as a black slave but it'll be worse if I sell you down the river to the deep south where the cattle often have more rights”. This threat is brought into focus with our main characters here. Let me discuss them.

Davian is a Gifted youth of unknown parentage, unfortunately when going out on a supply run for his school he was attacked by a number of non-magical men and grievously injured. He is as such unable to access Essence despite all his best efforts and constant studying. Although he has developed a few tricks such as always being able to tell when someone is lying to him. The Trials will be soon and if he doesn't break through his block, he will fail and become a Shadow and likely cast out of his home. This is incredibly disturbing to him and his two best friends Wirr and Ashalia (who is mostly called Asha). Wirr, who transferred to the school years ago is incredibly talented in the gift and highly intelligent, having received training in politics and law, along with other things. Ashalia in her own turn is very talented, charismatic, and fairly brave. When Davian is given an option that might keep him out of the trials but put him at terrible risk, he and his friends find themselves making decisions that may have an impact on a lot more then their lives because the history of Andarra didn't start a few decades ago.

Long ago in the misty past, a gifted man Aarkein Devaed led an army of monsters and worse against Andarra in service to an ancient evil. Many battles were fought against him and many heroic deeds done to undo him. He was not defeated however, only sealed away by the Boundary. The Boundary is a massive magical barrier that stretches across the north of the continent, it has stood for thousands of years and now, because what fantasy series would be complete without the following phrase, the boundary holding back the armies of darkness is weakening and may soon fail. I'll be honest this part of the plot was the part I liked least because we've seen it enough times that I have to ask what's the point of revisiting it. Plus I'm of the opinion that fantasy doesn't need Dark Lords or imprisoned evils to tell a good or epic story (Look at Grace of Kings for example). Still it's not like the presence of a great dark evil is in and of itself a bad thing. Scott Bakker’s books have them, as does Tolkien and many others. Mr. Islington at least doesn't make the ancient evil of yore the focus of the story, although it is not a small part of the story. Rather the weakening of the boundary serves to place emphasize on the weakness and division of Andarra society that may no longer be able to maintain the barrier separating them from their enemies or have the tools and abilities to meaningfully combat those enemies. Perhaps a reminder that internal division and infighting have brought about the end of as many civilizations and societies as external enemies. Because while Andarra is in great danger from its external enemies, it will be the inability of the non-magical and Gifted community to come together, get over their past conflict, and put their shared survival over their disagreements that gets them killed here (Gonna take this opportunity to point out that the Gifted don’t have the cultural or political power here. The peace overtures kinda have to come from the non-gifted… I hope the author doesn’t the oppressed underclass make joyous peace with the status quo for the greater good, but that’s just me.).

The strength of The Shadow of What was Lost is it's ability to take old themes and cliches and combine them with new ones, as well as give us another angle to look at those old stories. It also provides some pretty good characters to follow along with, which leads me to it's weaknesses. This book has about 4 or 5 main characters, each with very separate but intersecting arcs and a large number of supporting and minor characters, with a chunk of them only really appearing in a single plot line until they are all brought together. As you might imagine this can led to a lot of jumping back and forth as the characters split up into different groups and switch around at times. Additionally there's a lot of setup that clearly won't pay off until the 2nd or 3rd book. That said to the book actually does tell a complete story in and of itself. Which I have to admit was a relief for me. I liked the book and enjoyed reading it but I cannot tell you in good faith that this is a great book. Still it's a good first book and an entertaining read. I'm giving The Shadow of What Was Lost a B-.

Next week, Stoneskin by K.B. Spangler. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 27, 2017 8:29 pm 
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Stoneskin
By KB Spangle
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KG Spangler is an independent author, who is not only the creator of the web comic “A Girl and Her Fed” but has written a number of books that we've covered in this review series; such as Digital Divide, Maker Space, State Machine and so on. She is honestly one of my favorite writers for her ability to make interesting characters that manage to be very different from each other and using them to tackle some very relevant themes while examining parts of civilization most of us take for granted. In Stoneskin she keeps to form and does both. She also mixes science with complete fantasy, which is another common element of her style. Unlike all her other books, this is not set in the modern day with Cyborg federal agents but instead is set 3000 years in our future. As humanity ventured out into the galaxy we ran into an energy field with the characteristics of a living creature... Or a living creature with the characteristics of an energy field? I'm not entirely sure to be honest, which is okay because no one in the story is entirely sure of the nature of the being they call the Deep. The Deep is a friendly and caring creature, as evidenced by its tendency to not just adopt humans but provide unending favors for humanity. The Deep is the main transportation system for the entire galaxy, upon the request of humans it will move objects, people, entire ships across the light years instantly without so much as a “screw you physics”. The Deep also plays favorites: it chooses humans it likes to provide not only these favors, but others like immortality. The witches--as these humans are called--run the transportation and logistic networks of the entire galaxy, stationed throughout the Milky Way they are the backbone of a galactic civilization. Our main character Tembi Stoneskin has been chosen to be one of them by the Deep. Most people are chosen in their late teens to their late 20s, usually after a terrible break up or other event that leaves them heartbroken. Tembi has no such event. Tembi is also 8 years old when she is chosen.

Tembi Stoneskin (born Tembi Moon) is from the planet Adhama which suffers from high speed winds and terrible storms. To survive this, the people of Adhama have genetically modified themselves with thicker, stronger skin, and more mobile ears to pick up the wind. Tembi's people aren't the only ones to have done this, but I'll come back to this. Tembi in a lot of ways is what we expect from a young character that has been selected to join a magical world. She's from a poor household, having grown up in a home converted from metal shipping container in the bad part of town. What makes her different from characters like say... Old Harry Potter is that Tembi is no innocent, having already engaged in pick-pocketing and other petty theft as well as fighting with other kids in her home area. Additionally for a good part of the book, she is actively hiding her witch status with the help of Matindi. Matindi is an interesting character in her own right, a gene-modded person from a world that is overrun in fast growing plants. She serves as both an early mentor and a bit of mother figure for Tembi as her ability and relationship with the Deep sets her apart from her biological family. In the first part of the book she does this by coming to Tembi's homeworld and assuming the role of Tembi's teacher as well as mentoring her outside of school through more, arcane means. Later she serves as Tembi's guardian and local mother figure. Matindi is also something of a rebel witch hiding Tembi because she wants her to have time to grow outside of the Witch's system and away from their ideology, which is a sprawling and self serving thing.

Like all groups, the witches have come up with traditions, rules and an ideology that not only punishes bad behavior and rewards good but justifies their beliefs, hierarchy, and power. Interestingly enough a good amount of it revolves around protecting the Deep's credibility and hiding just how intelligent it is from other human beings. They are constantly taught the refrain that the Deep doesn't make mistakes, witches make mistakes. Given that the Deep clearly has a will of it's own and can get distracted, bored, or even upset, this means that Witches are being trained to take the blame for anything that goes wrong; the justification being that better that people lose faith in individuals rather than the system. The Witches also tend to take the Deep for granted to be frank. I mean, they have at their disposal a being who loves them enough to grant them immortality free of old age and transport whatever they want across the galaxy and they use it for everything ranging from laundry transport to garbage disposal. Here's where another difference between Tembi and other comparable characters emerges; to keep picking on Mr. Potter, he believes that magical society is just fine and needs some reform around the edges. There's nothing inherently wrong about magical society, it just needs to deal with bad eggs like those Malfoys he would say. Tembi's position is that the Witches society is inherently wrong in how it treats the Deep (and frankly it's hard to disagree with her) and that it needs to change or God help her she will make it change. Of course the issue is that it's not only the Witches' society that has issues.

Gene-modded humans are all over the galaxy and unfortunately humanity hasn't learned from it's own mistakes as some base form humans (called Earth Normal in the story) are prejudiced against those who are Gene-modded. This isn't a major concern for Tembi at first because as a Witch she's shield from most of it. Nor is Tembi unusual in being a gene-modded witch. Her friends, like Bayle who is a human modified for life on an oceanic planet named, not so imaginatively Atlantis; and Steven, whose ancestors chose to have scales for some reason, are also gene-modded. The prejudice also seems to vary from place to place, with Lancaster, the home system of the witches being rather devoid of it and other systems... Well other systems are suffering an embarrassment of riches when it comes to bigotry. In the Sagittarius system a movement among the Earth Normal population has risen up declaring that the Gene-modded are using planets and stealing resources best used for the Earth Normal so of course they must go and this movement isn't suggesting that they move. Since the Gene-Modded people of Sagittarius aren't in a mood to peacefully lay down and die, a massive war is ripping through the local systems complete with the bigots setting up death camps to clear their lebensraum (or maybe I should use the Serbian term?) of undesirables. If you paid any attention in history class this likely sounds depressingly familiar to you.

The Witches do not intervene in wars, nor will they use the Deep to move military forces. In the past, this principled stance limited the damage of wars, but humanity--never to be deterred in its quest for a better way to set the neighbors on fire-- invented FTL that doesn't depend on the Deep. It's nowhere near as fast, accurate, or cheap but when you're fighting off a genocidal army, money is something you spend in whatever amount you have to. Even in the face of this conflict, the Witches are holding to their no intervention line afraid that if they intervene even slightly that they will have started the process for taking sides in every war and fatally compromising their ability to keep human civilization going. I can see their position here; I mean if witches start taking sides in wars as a group, they become a military asset to be deployed, used, and targeted. Worse, what if a war comes along and the witches find themselves split and fighting on different sides? Such an event could mean the collapse of the supply chain for the entire galaxy. I'm not just talking about the mail not being delivered in such an event. I'm talking about entire star systems starving to death as their vital logistical link to the rest of humanity disappears. The counterpoint to that is, when does such an argument become an excuse to ignore the suffering and dying of billions and possibly trillions? How many evils must you let pass because of your fear of an evil that might happen, someday, in the far future? When does a stand of principled non-intervention into the affairs of others become rank cowardice as you let innocent people you could have saved die? That said, there's is something else to consider, in all the arguments that the Witches are having amongst themselves and with outsiders, no one ever really thought to ask ‘ hey what does the Deep, the being who actually does all the work around here think we should do?’. Well almost no one thinks to ask I should say. Faced with a society that has forgotten perhaps it's most important member, Tembi is going to have to grow up quick and learn to think on her feet.

Stoneskin does suffer from the fact that it's a prequel, also I kind of feel that Ms. Spangler is holding back in this story for the sake of the sequels and not giving us the full experience of the galaxy she maybe could be. There are also side characters like Moto, an older witch from Adhama that I really feel should have been given more screen time. As it is he just kinda pops in and out of the story making him feel like a plot device while Tembi acts like there is a long and deep relationship between the two of them. That said this is an interesting science fantasy of sorts and it's driven by Tembi's character which is fully explored in the story and given free reign to be an imperfect child trying to grow into a better adult than those who came before her. I enjoyed reading it and it was interesting to see what Ms. Spangler can do when not writing in the setting of a “Girl and Her Fed”, I hope to see the sequels soonish. I'm giving Stoneskin by KB Spangler a B.

Next week, the Cold War goes strange as we look at The Witch that Came In From the Cold. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 03, 2017 8:48 pm 
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The Witch who came in from the Cold
Created by Lindsay Smith and Max Gladstone
Also written by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Michael Swanwick and Ian Tregillis

No man can serve two masters: for either he. will hate the one, and love the other; or else. he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Book of Matthew 6:24

In this review series I have often defended the internet and pointed out it's positive effect on the writing world and I will continue to do so. If nothing else I am old enough to remember being told as a child that when I reached adulthood I could very well be in a minority for being literate. The internet has made that idea laughable, but there are also a wide range of stories and writers who could only have been possible because of the internet. Authors like DaVaun Sanders, Dr. Bruce Davis, and KB Spangler have arisen because the internet provided them a medium to reach an audience without having to go through the publishing houses. The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, provides an example of another idea that has come back to the fore because of the internet. That being written serial fiction.

The idea of a larger story being printed in smaller parts is not new of course, it reached its greatest level of popularity in the 19th century; Sherlock Holmes was born in serialized fiction, the Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo were originally released as serialized fiction. In Russia such works as Anna Karenina were serialized, even Qing China had serialized stories going to print. In the US, stories like the Princess of Mars and the adventurers of Conan the Barbarian were serialized stories as late as the 1930s. However, as radios and televisions became cheaper, more and more the niche of serialized fiction was taken over by episodic television shows. By the mid 20th century serialized print fiction, outside of comic books, was rare and in many ways a dying art. Then the internet happened. In the early 2000s the first web serial novels began to appear in the English Web while in Japan the light novel evolved and became amazingly popular (see my Log Horizon reviews for more information on that) with the most popular web novel at this time most likely being Worm, by the writer known as Wildbow. Enter the service known as Serial box founded by Justin Yap and Molly Barton bringing together teams of writers to write books the same way you write a TV season with chapters serving as episodes written by a different writer or part of the team tying together into a single book. Let me briefly touch on those writers.

Lindsay Smith lives in Washington D.C her works include the young adult novels Sekret, A Darkly Beating, and Dreamstrider. She's the lead writer in this series. Max Gladstone is the author of the Craft series, which starts with Three Parts Dead and continues to the current installment of Ruin of Angels. Ian Tregillis, who wrote the Milkweed Triptych and Something More Than Night. Cassandra Rose Clarke, who won the Yalsa best fiction for young adults and the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice award, she's written many novels including Our Lady of the Ice, and Magic of Blood and Sea. Michael Swanwick, has written 9 novels and for his sins has received the Nebula, the World Fantasy award, and a Hugo; his latest book is Chasing the Phoenix. I honestly wish I could go into detail on each of these writers, they all deserve it, but we're here to talk about The Witch Who Came in from the Cold and if I spend the time to give you a detailed look over each of the writers, we won't get to the book. Speaking of that, let's jump into that.

It's 1970 Prague, Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring, an attempt by Czech Socialist leaders to moderate away from hard-line Soviet Communism, has been crushed under Soviet tanks. The grip of “normalization” lies heavy on the city and the nation and the act has caused cracks in relations between the Soviet bloc and the western communist parties. The United States is still shuddering from the effects of Vietnam and spreading social ills sap at it's strength as the Nixon administration works frantically to address this and hold off a USSR which is increasingly becoming moored in it's own domestic problems. Despite all of this the Cold War grinds on and seems only able to end in nuclear exchange. The covert organizations of the Warsaw Pact and NATO grimly duel in the shadows of this war, each side seeking any secret, person, or resource that will give them the advantage... Or at least stave off nuclear Armageddon for one more day. That's just the shadowy struggle that the people of the world are aware of however. Hidden even under the secrets of state is another world where sorcery and magical ritual are the weapons of war. Ice, an alliance of traditionalist magic users, mostly tracing their ancestry from long lines of sorcerers and witches seeks to maintain the world. Meanwhile it's opponent the Flame seeks to destroy everything in a blaze of magical power in order to build a newer, better world from the ashes. Unbeknownst to the world at large both the Flame and Ice grapple for resources and position across the world, one side to lock the world into it's present state, the other to destroy it.

In the early months of 1970, both wars will slam into each and find themselves hinging on the same conflict as the agents of the CIA and KGB stations in Prague square off against another as do the sorcerers of Ice and the acolytes of Flame. CIA Gabe Pritchard has the misfortune to be stuck in both worlds. He is not a sorcerer, nor has he been raised in the secret world of ritual and spell. Instead through sheer misfortune and unrelenting paranoia he has been pulled in when he stumbled into something dark and rare in a basement in Cairo Egypt. Since then he has been afflicted with headaches and worse and his job performance is slipping. Something noticed by his boss and station leader Frank, who while not unsympathetic is running a spy ring in enemy territory and has zero margin for screw ups. Gabe has few people he can turn to besides Jordan Rhemes, neutral witch and bar owner, who feels responsible for Gabe's condition but has her own problems. Her bar is set on a very nice location and every one wants it. He could also turn to Alistair Winthrop, British Spy, Ice Sorcerer and a closet gay man (Editor: Being gay in the clandestine services back then was no picnic, ladies and gentle beasts) who may or may not be romancing Gabe's magically unaware partner Josh but Alistair clearly wants Gabe to join Ice and Gabe's not going easily. Gabe's struggle is to try and grapple with these vast new forces in his life and get a handle on them before they destroy his future.

Meanwhile Tanya Morozova, KGB agent and sorceress of Ice finds herself in an increasingly difficult situation as she must not only try to penetrate the plots of the CIA but fight off the Flame as more and more of it's foot-soldiers arrive in Prague seeking a rare Host for an elemental spirit that could give them the power to start their world burning. On top of this her own station chief is clearly looking to either kill her or break her into working for him instead of Moscow (Porque no los dos? This is the KGB after all). Her partner Nadia who is also in the KGB and an Ice sorceress is right along side her but as Tanya finds herself having having doubts in Ice's methods (in part due to the brash CIA agent Gabe) she finds herself wondering just who her friends are (You know, I can see this getting confusing. One minute, you are trying to kill the british spy, the next minute, you have to work with them to prevent some anarchist from exploding the world…). Tanya has to sort out her loyalties and work out her relationship with her past before the web around her gets to close. I feel Tanya is a tragic character in a lot of ways, her disillusionment with Ice mirrors the lost of faith many of her countrymen would soon have in Communism. While I'll never mourn the fall of communism, I can't help but feel sympathetic to people like Tanya who are good, loyal people pouring out their blood, sweat and tears for a system that frankly doesn't deserve their sacrifice. I suppose all I can say is someday we will have a world worth their loyalty and when we do it will because of those people as much as because of the people who stand outside the system and push.

The story uses Tanya and Gabe as characters who bounce off of each other, sometimes helping one another, sometimes foiling one another and as characters whose struggles and troubles reflect the other. This is incredibly well done in my opinion, both of them have supporting characters whether it be their partners like Nadia and Josh who serve as aides and characters who serve as antagonists. Their battles parallel each other but they are different enough that they not just duplicates of the other. For example Gabe has to constantly keep secrets from Josh, his CIA partner when it comes to magic. Nadia is completely aware of magic and might even be better at it then Tanya. Instead Tanya finds the distance coming from her doubts in Ice not from any secrets she has to keep. Tanya's station master Sasha is very much an antagonist to her constantly prying at her secrets with a goal to turn her into a personal minion or to kill her to prevent her from learning any of his secrets. Frank, Gabe's station master on the flip side is clearly a demanding boss but one who will back up any agent that he knows is giving 100% and doing good work and isn't planning on killing any of his employees. Which is always a big plus in a boss in my mind. There are characters that connect Tanya and Gabe as well, Jordan Rhemes who will aide both of them within reason. Alistair who as a fellow sorcerer in Ice is an ally to Tanya at times but as an agent of MI6 is an enemy at others. There's also Zerena, an ambassador's wife who’s clearly playing her own game, in which world and for what I'll leave to you to discover. Each of the supporting characters have their own goals and desires, Nadia and Josh don't feel like sidekicks but like people with their own stories and desires.The worlds of espionage and magic weave in and out of each other with breath stealing speed and intensity that pull you further and further into the story as secrets are slowly unspooled and operations both magical and mundanely covert are launched in the secret four-way grapple. That said, for those of you wondering why I opened a review on Cold War magic-using spies with a Bible Verse? Because as I read the story it comes more and more to mind. Sooner or later Tanya and Gabe are going to be pushed up against the wall and will have to decide what loyalties have the most claim on them because no one can serve two causes forever.


If you like magic done in dark secret places, if you like mystery and underhanded dealings, if you like stories that acknowledge the banal side of espionage (another thing that ties Gabe and Tanya together is their dislike and despair at all the paperwork involved!)l or if you're interested in seeing what Urban Fantasy might have looked like at the height of the Cold War... Well this is the book for you! I honestly enjoyed this book, I expected to dislike at least some of the characters, as a good number of them are bloody KGB spies but the writers managed to humanize them and keep them from doing anything that would send them over the moral event horizon. I even dare hope that a Russian would find the CIA agents here worth sympathizing with. That said there's not a lot of direct action or violence this book, not that this book is bloodless or without a good fight or three, just this has more of thriller about it than an action movie. Because of this, I give The Witch Who Came In From the Cold by way too many people for me to list again an A. The sequel (aka season 2) is out on Serial Box as well as season 1 so you can get both in a single pop or if you feel like being cautious you can buy an episode for 1.99$. You can also do what I did and pick up season 1 in dead tree format at Amazon.

Next week a look at the soft reboot of the Rat Queens! Keep reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 11, 2017 12:05 am 
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Rat Queens 4: High Fantasies
By Kurtis Wiebe
Art by Owen Gieni


So back in 2015 I literally tripped over a fantasy comic book called the Rat Queens, starring an all female group of adventurers who fought hard and partied harder. Each of the characters was an interesting hot mess of emotions and problems but the fact that they were always there for each other gave them a human air (I say with really only one member of the group being human) that made them sympathetic. The books also managed to keep their sense of humor for the most part while tackling some rather good storylines. Then, things went a bit pear shaped, by the end of volume 3 the creator of the book Kurtis Wiebe had declared the book on hiatus and it seemed that Rat Queens was going to join the long list of comics that have a good start but quietly slip away into cancellation (much like the Fell's Five D&D comic that IDW still needs to be brought back, not letting that go!). Well, it seems that Mr. Wiebe was able to get things sorted out enough to restart the comic this year with the fourth graphic novel being released in October of 2017. I discussed Mr. Wiebe in my first review of the Rat Queens back in October of 2015 so I'm not retreading that ground. Mr. Gieni who takes over the art duties in this book is known for his work on Manifest Destiny (a comic series where Lewis and Clark run into monsters while exploring America) and Shutter (a comic about a woman explorer confronting some family secrets). Mr. Gieni's art is a bit heavy and somewhat paler in it's color choices than the previous artists but the art is actually pretty nice. Now on to the book.

First let me reintroduce our characters as it has been about a year since I spoke about this. The Rat Queens are led by Violet, a dwarven fighter and sort-of tactician. Aiding her as the voice of reason is Dee, the human cleric who is dealing with the fact that her gods might actually be real. Betty the always cheerful smidgen (aka Hobbit) stoner and thief serves as the emotional support of the group. Hannah, a half elf/ half demon sorceress is the bad influence of the group; she remains steadfast in her refusal to actually admit that she loves and cares for the other members of the group and will always argue for the easy way, especially if it lets her break some rules. Joining them is Braga the orc barbarian, who is actually fairly even tempered and intelligent especially when discussing the equity of her home. I like the addition of Braga to the group as she's an interesting character in her own right and meshes very well with the team. Also appearing in this book are family members of the main cast: Gerald, Hannah's step-father and Barrie, Violet's twin brother. Barrie has founded his own group of adventurers, the Cat Kings (who are male distaff versions of the Rat Queens) mainly to good naturally compete with Violet and screw with her head in the time honored fashion of siblings everywhere. I mean, if you can't mess with your sibling's heads from time to time, then I have to ask you my readers, what's the bloody point of family? Although frankly I think Barrie made a mistake in naming his team the Cat Kings, I mean Dog Brothers was right there and creates a more opposing feel than Cat Kings, which honestly just feels lazy as a name.

This is a soft reboot, in that most of the preceding story-lines happened and are directly referenced in the story but a lot of the stuff that was left hanging at the end of book III is simply resolved with no further discussion. For example Hannah is back with the group, with no real explanation of how she escaped the magical prison she was trapped in at the close of volume III. In fact the events of volume III seemed to have been quietly swept under the rug. Palisade, their home town and base is still in ruins from the events of Volume II and worse there's a sky-squid-worshipping cult that is using violence to prevent rebuilding. Other adventurer teams have scattered or abandoned the town (with even one of my favorite supporting group the Dave's breaking up. Which is completely awful news). This changes the dynamic in the town completely leaving the Rat Queens (and Barrie's Cat Kings) the only game in town. At least until the Chorus, the shiney church-sanctioned cult hunter group shows up. I'm going to hold off discussing them right now because they really only show up for a couple pages and don't impact the story, hopefully we make it to Volume 4 and I can discuss them at that point.

Speaking of the story, there is no connecting larger plot for this volume. In fact it feels more of a setting the status quo for the new series of Rat Queens then anything else and frankly the book does suffer for that. There's also a lot of setup being done here, with confrontations being set up between members of the Rat Queens and the cult, the chorus, and others but no real pay off. Instead the book doubles down on the humor, which is fine but leaves it a bit unbalance without a good plot to offset it. So it feels kinda like the book is treading water before actually diving into anything. This might be unfair as my judgment is very affected by the fact that I wanted to see the resolution of the story set up in Volume III take place on screen rather than being brought in afterwards and told everything is fine. That said the book does take some time to let us see Barrie and Violet's relationship and a bit of Hannah and Gerald’s, which is fun and to fair, well done. On the flip side I feel like the Cat Kings would have worked better if the writer was taking them a little more seriously. In the end the book is fun and serviceable but bluntly after the last three books, I know that Mr. Wiebe can do better and I hope as he gets back into the groove that he does. As it stands, I'm a bit sad to give Rat Queens Volume 4 by Kurtis Weibe and Owen Gieni a C+. It's better than a lot of books out there but they need to get back to the plot.

Well join us next week as we get historical with Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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


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PostPosted: Fri Nov 17, 2017 10:07 pm 
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Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates
By Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger


I picked this book thinking it would be a nice uncomplicated history book review and quickly realized that I would writing a review that would be running alongside some various historical and political issues. Additionally... Well you'll see. I should note for the record that looking up the writers is the last thing I do, because I don't want my opinions of the writers influencing the grade. That holds true here. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates was published in 2015 by Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Sentinel was founded in 2003 to publish right of center political works (saying so right on their home website). While I'm of two minds of partisan publishing houses, the fact of that is that they’re something with a long historical tradition behind them and they’re a fact of life. Brian Kilmeade is the co host of the TV show Fox and Friends, a graduate of CW Post (now known as LIU Post) in 1986. Since then he has worked in news and sports programs. He has written five books, three of them on early American history. He is married with three children. He's also known for sticking his foot in his mouth so deeply he can tell you what his knee tastes like as he has repeatedly made ass-backwards remarks about other religions and races. I won't go into the details because this is a book review not a “rehash of someone's mistakes” review and that's all we're going to say about it here (this goes for you to Editor [Awwwww. OK. I will comply]). Don Yaeger is an American Sports Journalist who has written over a dozen books. So let's turn to our book.

The book covers the 1st Barbary War between the United States and what was then known as the Barbary States. The Barbary States were North African states that were, in theory, provinces of the Ottoman Empire but functioned as independent states. They maintained their own rulers, laws, and foreign policy. Their foreign policy could be summed up as piracy, blackmail, and worse. The states of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, along with the fully independent state of Morocco were infamous for attacking shipping, stealing goods, as well as kidnapping people and then enslaving them until high ransoms were paid or the slaves converted to Islam. While the rulers of these states would piously mouth that their plundering was sanctioned by the Quran, the laws of the Quran against victimizing your fellow Muslim didn't weigh upon them very much as they would also freely murder each other for wealth and power. The European powers paid tributes to these states to avoid having their shipping targeted. This tactic had very diverse results, we should say, and the Pirate Lords would raise the price of safe passage if they smelled weakness. This went on for so long and on such a scale that a Catholic Holy Order had operated in France for centuries whose goal it was to raise money for the comfort and ransoming of prisoners.

At this point US merchant ships had sailed under the protection of the British Navy but with the signing of the Peace of Paris and the US becoming an independent nation, they were now fair game. This fact was brought home with the brutality that only a slaving pirate can muster when the American ships Dauphin and Maria were attacked and their crews and officers enslaved in 1785. At the time Thomas Jefferson was the US Minister to France, his wife had just died and he had taken his eldest daughter his wife's half sister, the enslaved Sally Hemings, to Paris. Jefferson, hearing the news about the capture and enslavement of white Christians grew disturbed and began through letters a discussion with his friend John Adams as to the problem and how to solve it. Jefferson firmly believed what was needed was a navy that would sail across the ocean, confront the pirates in their home territories and defeat them. Adams didn't necessarily disagree but felt the US was too poor and weak to afford such a navy (strange as that sounds to modern ears[I know, right? Now our navy dwarfs the next 15 largest navies combined, what a glorious modern age we live in]). Jefferson felt the US was to poor to afford not having such a navy. However, Jefferson lost the first round of debate until his election to the Presidency.

Instead, the United States, in a slow and painfully expensive process, negotiated tribute treaties with the various pirate states over the course of a decade. In 1795 Algiers agreed to release the crew and officers they had taken for over 1 million dollars, about a 1/6th of the US budget at the time (This fascinates me. “We are too poor to afford a Navy, but not too poor to pay pirates a sixth of our state revenue, as well as continued tribute”. That makes no sense. At those rates, you might as well build some frigates. Thankfully, that is exactly what we did.). With the amount of demanded tribute increasing, the US founded the Department of the Navy and started building ships. By the time Jefferson was elected in 1800 the US Congress had authorized 6 frigates for the navy and more were coming. It's here that the USS Constitution was born although she would not achieve fame until the war of 1812. When the Pasha of Tripoli declared war on the US by cutting down the flagpole of the US embassy Jefferson did not hesitate to send in the new ships to defend US merchant shipping and gradually the amount of ships, men, and money grew until it was enough to win the war. This would take years. However, the US was not unassisted in it's first war on foreign soil; the Kingdom of Sweden (They were once pretty formidable, though not in their hayday anymore… no slouches) would join forces with the US Navy and the Kingdom of Naples would loan ships, materials, men, and supplies to the mission. This was America's first foreign war and the first time the US would deploy forces to the old world. This is when the US realized that even behind the Atlantic ocean there would have to be some active involvement in the outside world to safeguard trade, if nothing else. Given recent events, I would say that has some relevance to us now, especially as the US public seems to question any involvement in the outside world.

The book does a good job of setting the stage and letting us see the problem. It also does a decent job of leading us through the various campaigns, examining the different commanding officers of note and their missions. We are shown the up and down blockade of Tripoli, the quick peace made with Morocco, the single longest treaty relation in US history and still in effect to this day. This was not a flawless war nor were the men who commanded it flawless professionals. Many mistakes were made and to it's credit the book goes over each and every one of them. It also discusses the fearless actions of junior officers and enlisted men to make those mistakes good. Whether it be sneaking into an enemy harbor to burn a captured warship of the United States rather than see it in enemy hands, or marching across the desert of Libya to attack a fortified city. Speaking of taking a fortified city it speaks a bit about the expedition led by US Marines to attack the city of Derna and gives us a fair idea of the problems of marching through the desert with hundreds of mercenaries as well as the measures needed to gain success as a small force operating on the very end of a thin line of support. The book is very good at showing the many acts of bravery and courage that were performed by members of the US Navy and Marine Corps at the time. Although it tends to focus heavily on officers rather than discussing enlisted men (Makes sense. The officers are more likely to be known publicly at the time, are more likely to be literate and writing diaries, are more likely to be sending formal dispatches etc. There is just more to be known about them.).

That said the book is rather shallow in its coverage, running over events without any real examination of the detail and barely any analysis. No space whatsoever is given over to discussion of the Barbary States. How were they governed? How did they organize their forces, decide their goals, what factions existed in them? None of that is really discussed with the exception of the rightful heir of the throne of Tripoli, Hamet. The then-current Pashaw Yussef had seized the throne in a bloody coup and Hamet had been living in exile in Egypt. This is mostly noted in a very bare bones fashion however. We're not told anything about Yussef's coup or how he maintained power. For that matter the relationship between the Barbary States and the Ottoman Empire isn't discussed at all beyond the fact that the Barbary States paid tribute to the Ottomans. For that matter the domestic situation in the United States and how it impacted the war is not discussed beyond the first debate between Adams and Jefferson. We do not get the different policies of the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans in regards to the war and how the US developed its goals with the exception of a brief discussion in Jefferson's cabinet over whether or not he could actually order the US Navy to attack Barbary ships without the explicit approval of Congress. As a result of this, one might be excused from walking away from the book thinking that Thomas Jefferson forced the United States Navy into being alone on pure strength of will as opposed to having the support and aide of a number of other men all of them historically relevant on their own. This simplifies both the war and the lead up to it as well as drains the history of the details needed to really understand the events that occurred.

Then there's the afterward. I'm going to be blunt; the afterward of this book plunged the grade to it's current measurement. In it the writers attempt to try to link the Barbary War to the War on Terror and US operations currently taking place in the middle east, clumsily flailing at some idea of civilization conflict being played out over centuries. The argument isn't going to convince anyone who isn't already fully on board because it is made in a lazy, clumsy, almost half-hearted manner. The writers barely put any effort into connecting the Barbary pirates to the current day Wabbahist extremists who plague Syria and other nations. To be fair that might be because there's no bloody connection to be made between a pack of decadent wealth seeking pirates, and bloodthirsty terrorist, maniacs beyond their common religion. By that logic I am fully fledged member of the IRA or the KKK! I mentioned earlier that the Barbary Wars may have some relevance to modern audiences and I stand by that. An examination of our earlier commitments to foreign shores helps us look at our current deployments and ask: what are realistic goals to set? What are we expecting to get out of this? How far and how long are we willing to go? Attempting to smash the Barbary Wars through a War on Terror shaped hole however is frankly just silly and I am honestly offended by how lazy and clumsily the argument is made. At no point is their point framed clearly, at no point are supporting arguments and facts marshaled and lined up and it certainly doesn't lead to a clear conclusion that gives a complete and thoughtful argument. Frankly I would expect better from a college freshmen (Christ, man. I’ve graded those papers.) and they would have a done the book a great service if they had cut the afterward with a razor.

This is a book that starts out well enough, moves too quickly and too shallowly over a subject that deserves better and completely blows it in the final pages. Without the Afterward I would have given the book a C, because I haven't seen too many books on the Barbary Wars and most of my knowledge comes from books that discuss them as a prelude to the war of 1812. I was disappointed at the lack of information on the Barbary States and the insistence on using outdated translations of Turkish terms but I could accept the latter as a stylistic choice. With the afterward however, combined with the lackluster scholarship here, I am giving Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger a C-. The Barbary Wars and the brave men who fought in them deserved better from us.

Next week, I turn to Kevin Hearn's new book Plague of Giant to try and chill a bit. Keep Reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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


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PostPosted: Fri Nov 24, 2017 10:30 pm 
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A Plague of Giants
by Kevin Hearne


“I'm not changing my tale to please them. That would betray my duty to the poet goddess”
Fintan Raelech Bard page 141


Kevin Hearne was born in December of 1970, and graduated from Northern Arizona University (which we won't hold against him) with a degree in English Education, and was an high school English teacher in California before returning to his native Arizona. He currently lives in Colorado with his wife, son, and hound. His first published work was “Hounded”, the first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles, a series which was not only impressive for it's character work but for the in depth of care that Mr. Hearne took when dealing with mythologies. Although I don't think his interpretation of Thor is going to win out in the public consciousness, even if his Thor has the mythological correct hair color and magical equipment. I've read quite a bit of the Iron Druid Chronicles and enjoyed them, so when I was informed that Mr. Hearne had taken a stab at more traditional fantasy well... I was thankful that it was released in mid-October only weeks before my birthday. I do want to note for the record that I have briefly met Mr. Hearne (in 2012), thanks to my favorite local bar the Rula Bula (if you are in Tempe, try the fish there, it's great and the guinness is good as well!) and my friend Jack, who made a point to tell me that Mr. Hearne was having a meeting there. He was even kind enough to answer a question or five from me and I have to say seemed like good people to me. I doubt he remembers that however and as much as I enjoyed the meeting it's not going to affect his grade!

Plague of Giants takes place in a fantasy world of Teldwen. The known world of Teldwen is divided into six great nations. Five of these nations have had their cultures heavily shaped by the existence of magical gifts that they call kennings. Each kenning is somewhat thematic in its blessing, the kenning of Rael is based on the earth with many of the blessed (as they are called) being able to work stone and earth with a thought. Brynlon's kennings are water based, with their blessed able to travel through water and shape it as well. Kauria's is based on the air and their blessed can even fly if powerful enough. Forn is plant based and their blessed can command any plant. Hathrir's blessed control fire and if that wasn't enough the people of Hathrir are also giants who can stand over 10 feet tall. Out of all these nations only poor Ghurana Nent has no kenning of it's own and it's people for the most part huddle in cities with great walls to hold back the monstrous creatures of their plains while holding onto hope that maybe, one day, somehow, someone will find the mythical 6th kenning that in theory would allow someone to control the beasts of the plains and convince them not to eat people. The kennings come at a terrible price however, in order to receive a kenning one must literally risk death. The people of Kauria must cast themselves off a certain cliff, where they will either fly, land slowly, or fall to their deaths. The people of Hathrir throw themselves into lava flows. Brynlon's people dive into an underwater cave where it's be blessed or drown and so it goes. Additionally while small everyday uses of the gift cause no problems any major use of the gift literally steals away years from your life, aging you years in minutes... or killing you if you push too far. Despite their differences the 6 nations currently live in an age of peace and trade and there are those who hope that peace will become a habit that does not break. Unfortunately they are about to find themselves in a brand new age of violence and struggle. This age is announced like so many other violent ages by a natural disaster.

When the volcano Mount Thayil in Hathrir explodes, the leader of the doomed city of Harthrad. Gorin Mogen starts a gamble that's been long in planning. Instead of fleeing south deeper into the lands of Harthrad and fighting other giants for a place to settle, he takes his people north. Where he'll invade the lands of other, smaller, less fire-proof people and establish a new city in a place less likely to...explode. A place with many trees and rich soil and many beasts to hunt and eat. A new land to rebuild in his own image. Of course the natives have other ideas and aren't eager to see even a small part of their nation overrun by fire slinging giants. You’d think that would be enough of an issue but way on the other side of the continent a completely different group of giants is invading. They are pale, thin, and armored in bone. With their faces painted to look like skulls they’ve slammed into the eastern shores of Teldwen and simply started butchering everyone who gets in their way; man, woman, and child. No one knows why they are there and the language they speak is unknown. The only thing that can be said for sure is they intend to wipe out the native people root and branch and will have no mercy. The people of five of the known nations in the world are going to have to work together and many of them are going to have to make terrible sacrifices in order to protect the people they know and love, or avenge them. Meanwhile out on the plains of Nent, a young man makes his own discovery, one that in the end might lead to more upheaval and destruction then all the armies of giants in the world put together...

The story is told via a recital by an in-story character; the bard Fintan, with his stories serving as both a framing device and a nested narrative with another story taking place around his spoken stories of the war with the giants (both tribes of them). Let me discuss those a bit. A framing device is something you're most likely familiar with even if you've never heard the term. It's when the story is introduced to us by a in-universe story teller, this is a pretty old device that's shown up in The Odyssey and in the Ramayama and I'm willing to bet this was invented by some pre-farming hunter standing up in front of fire telling stories to his tribe, if not even earlier. It's often used to help provide context for the story as well give it a clear beginning and end. Now a nested narrative is when the framing device is itself a story or when you have several stories within stories moving about. My own favorite example of this is actually 1001 Arabian Nights, where the clever vicar's daughter Scheherazade is constantly delaying her execution by telling her husband the Sultan a story only refusing to end it until the next night, where she immediately begins another story keeping the man hooked for 1001 nights and thus keeping herself alive and sparing any other poor woman a similar fate. In the case of A Plague of Giants, our narrative of a pair of giant invasions is nested within another story involving a nation trying to rebuild itself and characters grappling with loss, moving on, and having to deal with intrigues between nations that, having won the war, now seek to position themselves to dominate the peace. With the bard Fintan and the scholar Dervan right in the middle of it. I wasn't entirely sold on this at first, as Mr. Hearne has us jumping around from character to character quite a bit but he's able to use Fintan to remind us which character is who and who is doing what fairly cleverly. Mr. Hearne was also smart enough to include a quick list of characters in the beginning of the book. I would like to note for writers who intent to use a large cast of characters or groups of characters whose stories remain mostly separate within the tale... this is a great idea and you should use it.

I would also like to take a moment to discuss the world of Teldwen a bit further, or rather the people in it. Mr. Hearne has made a very inclusive fantasy world here; some of the nations are inhabited by people with dark skin, others with people of pale skin. They live under different types of governments, with some of them having an elected leader, others having kings or being divided into clans and city states. We see merchants, hunters, soldiers and scholars. We see people with different sexualities and orientations, young people and old people all working towards different ends. Mr. Hearne avoids a trap that pulls in many an aspiring fantasy and science fiction writer; he doesn't create a fantasy not-Europe or not-Asia but instead an entirely new world with it's own arrangement of ethnic groups, cultures, and ideologies. He does pull inspiration from real world myths and cultures but doesn't allow himself to be locked in by them. Instead he creates something new and different and I am honestly happy to see that. Before anyone gets excited there is nothing wrong with using real-world cultures as the basis for your own works. It was done by writers like David Eddings, David Drake, and George RR Martin. It has been done well but keep in mind you don't have to write fantasy Not-Europe or some other fun house mirror fantasy culture. You can embrace a bit of variety or deviation and create a medieval democracy of a sort (after all Rome did start as a Republic) or a world with completely different ethnic relations and histories. It’s more work because you can't just crib off of a conveniently developed society. You will put in most of the work yourself, which will mean some study and consideration if you want it to hang together, but if you put in the work like Mr. Hearne did here you won't have to worry about your readers sighing and going “Oh look another fantasy England, hooray” in a tired tone.

A Plague of Giants is a book with interesting characters of all types and manages to keep you interested despite it's large cast and many, many plots. That said it is a bit slow to start. I wasn't really able to get into the book until about page 100 or so (that said it's over 600 pages). While I like Fintan the bard and the plot taking place in the “modern day” of the book is interesting in it's own right, I'm not sure it was entirely necessary to set up such a complex narrative structure. I suspect that Mr. Hearne may in fact be showing off a tad here but he is showing off in an impressive way at least. While the book does tell a complete story, it also leaves a lot of hanging plot threads (this may be because it's telling several stories at once) and that does lower the grade a bit for me. I also think starting the book where he does robs it of a bit suspense, because we know in a general sense what the outcome of the war is going to be. It's a question of the price to be paid to get there. All that having been said, it was a good read and Mr. Hearne shows both the heroism and tragedy inherent in war, and how it can serve logical ends but be utterly senseless at the same time. Gorin Mogen is shown as a completely human character who is a loving husband and father, as well as a dutiful leader looking out for the well being of his people as a whole... while being utterly ruthless, willing to sacrifice individuals, and commit some rather awful crimes to get what he wants and that complex characterization holds true for many of the characters in the book. Because of this I am giving A Plague of Giants a B+, the incompleteness of many of the plots and the many characters hold it back a tad but it's still a great book.

Next week, I'm going to read something that isn't north of 500 pages, join me for Log Horizon. Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 01, 2017 9:19 pm 
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Log Horizon VIII: The Larks Take Flight
By: Mamare Touno


“We really should live gallantly”
Roe2 page 215


Alright folks, this is eighth review of Log Horizon I've done. If you don't know the concept behind the series, just take a look at my prior reviews because I've gone over it repeatedly (insert link to Log Horizon I here). So this time let me just catch us up on the plot. In the last two books Akatsuki and Shiroe had to deal with separate problems that while small were dangerous in what they could grow into. Akatsuki did so by confronting a man possessed by a cursed sword that him into a super-powered serial killer. Shiroe lead a raid into the most terrifying dungeon he'd ever seen to prevent the ownership of zones (basically sections of land where ownership would be enforced by the laws of physics) from ever becoming a problem. In this story, we focus on the Jr. team of Log Horizon, the kids who joined the Guild; Touya, Minori, Isuzu, Rundelhaus and Serara. None of these kids are old enough to drink but due to the laws of the world they are trapped in, they are all adventurers and thus immortal killing machines able to do feats beyond the abilities and prayers of mortal men and women. In this story they take their first solo trip without the direct supervision of their elders, doing a road trip to gather the materials to make magic bags (which requires that they kill wyverns, which is basically a small dragon without the intelligence or ability to breath fire), which also turns into a bit of a musical tour and well... and a small war. So to startwith, let me talk about the other side in that small war.

Plant Hwyaden is a group of rival adventures who found very different answers to the problems of being trapped in the world of Elder Tales. Where Shiroe created an alliance of guilds and fostered cooperation, the leaders of Plant Hwyaden forced every adventurer to join a single guild which would then serve as the government of the starting city of Minami. They quickly proved to be expansionist and took over the starting city of Nakasu. They cemented their own alliance with a People of the Land (also called Landers) nation, the Holy Empire Westelande who claims to be rightful ruler of all Yamato. With Plant Hwyaden providing new magical technologies and combat abilities the Empire's leaders are looking to expand right into the lands of Akiba and it's allied Lander state. In this book we see the first opening moves of this plan which has consequences such as the military forces of the Empire cause a monster migration into settled lands. We also meet a disturbing faction of adventurers, the Odyssea knights, a group of adventures who have figured out how to make roving resurrection points that they carry with them as portable shrines. The Odyssea Knights trek across the world of Elder Tales seeking to fight and die as often as possible because they believe that if they die enough, they can go home. This is disturbing given the fact that in Elder Tales every time an adventurer dies they lose a piece of their memories. That said, neither of these factions are the focus here so let's look at our main characters.

The twins Touya and Minori are mostly supporting characters in this book although they both get development and moments where they get to be focus. More of that goes to Touya who before being trapped in an MMO was wheelchair bound due to a terrible car accident. Before the accident he had been a very active boy who loved playing soccer. Afterward he stopped watching his friends play because showing up made them all feel guilty that they could still walk and he couldn't. This led to some complicated feelings on his part and granted him some insight into how people hide their suffering, which comes up when they run into Dariella, a wandering travel writer who falls in with the group. Minori on the other hand is more involved with the other person they meet, the confusing and mysterious Roe2. Roe2 is an adventurer that doesn't seem to be from Japan and from time to time speaks about very strange things. Minori takes it upon herself to figure out just who the hell Roe2 is and where she comes from. Serara doesn't get as much attention but time is taken to show how much she has grown since her first appearance as basically a damsel in distress.

The real heart of this story however is Isuzu and her evolving relationship with Rundelhaus Code. Isuzu sees herself as a plain country high school girl who loves music but doesn't have the talent to actually pursue it as a career. This low estimation of herself is fed by her father, a professional musician who couldn't make it into super stardom but was able to make a decent living. Her father would brag about his glory days to his little girl and undercut her own efforts by telling her that she didn't have the talent he did. To be fair to the man, it is heavily implied that he was trying (badly) to tell his daughter not to worry so much about such things. His exact words were “If you have to ask if you have the talent to make it, then you don't.” Leaving aside whether it's a good idea to brag to your teenage daughter about all the hot girls you dated when you were younger, if I squint I can see what her father was getting at. Having said that, the consequences of her father's bungled attempts at teaching a life lesson leave Isuzu with the belief that she can't be a real musician and it's up to Rudy to try and convince her that she has skill and talent. Because Isuzu is a bard, but beyond that she is a young woman with not only a major love of music but the kind of musical training that is just impossible for the natives of the world to get and it's her understanding of that and her reaction that might just change the world.

This was a fun story with good amount of interpersonal drama and the reactions of children who are growing into adults walking into great events that they could never have been prepared for. There's a bit of stage prepping for the next major story arc happening here but it's all done in support of the ongoing story so I don't feel like I'm merely spinning my wheels (Like in Volume V). That said, Mr. Touno keeps shying away from showing major events whenever he can. The entire development of Plant Hwyaden occurred off screen for example and they're only now really starting to show up in the story itself; and he stubbornly refuses to actually address the questions raised by this. There are also philosophical discussions that occur in the book that aren't brought to satisfying answers partly because I'm not sure Mr. Touno has satisfying answers to give. Bringing up these questions as a part of the plot and then leaving them hanging leaves me rather cold. You don't have to hand down a definitive answer but you should at least have one character give an answer instead of chewing on whether or not an answer can be given. Log Horizon 8: The Larks Take Flight by Mamare Touno gets a B- because of that. It's still a fun story and there are worse things to read.

Next week, we take a look at Guy Gavriel Kay's book Under Heaven. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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


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PostPosted: Fri Dec 08, 2017 9:58 pm 
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Under Heaven
By Guy Gavriel Kay

“The Son of Heaven cannot be wrong”
Shen Tai page 317


Guy Gavriel Kay, born in 1954 in Saskatchewan Canada, is a writer who is not as well known as he should be in many ways. While understated he had a great influence on the fantasy genre. For example, when Christopher Tolkien (the son of JRR Tolkien) needed help editing his father's unfinished works, he selected Mr. Kay who at the time was studying philosophy at the University of Manitoba. While the Tolkiens were the writers of the work (Christopher Tolkien would put in a lot of work turning his father's unfinished work into something that could be read and understood), to declare that Mr. Kay had no influence on the work at all would be foolish. If that was all he did we could safely declare that he had influenced the genre, but he wasn't done yet. When he was finished with that task in 1975 he returned to his native Canada and completed a law degree at the University of Toronto, and was called to the bar of Ontario in 1981. He would restart his writing career by becoming the principle writer for the Canadian radio drama Scales of Justice. In 1984 his first novel The Summer Tree was released, with our current review Under Heaven being released in 2010 and he continues to this day. Mr. Kay has won acclaim in the field, being awarded the Prix Aurora Award in 1987, the White Pine award in 2007, the World Fantasy Award in 2008, the International Goliardos Award, the Sunburst award for the book we're reviewing here and in 2014 he was awarded the Order of Canada. Mr. Kay primarily likes to write in fantasy versions of historical times and places, not in the way many other writers do but by choosing specific times and events in history and focusing on those. This is something that a number of North American writers have done like Robert Howard, although what Mr. Kay does is a bit different and shows more devotion to scholarly research.

In this case Under Heaven is set in the 9th Dynasty of the Empire of Kitai, a fantastical version of the Tang dynasty empire of China, which in our world is regarded as a golden age for China in many ways. It is however, a sad truth of our world that golden ages end. Before this book began, there was a war fought between Kitai and the Empire of Tagur (Tibet sort of). The war ended in the battle of Kuala Nor, a massive battle in a mountain valley with a beautiful lake that claimed the lives of over 40,000 people. The battle was such a shock to both empires that peace was made and sealed by the marriage of the Tagur Emperor to a Kitai princess. Many years late the Kitai general who fought that battle died. In Kitai unless an active member of the government or the military, a man must withdraw from society for 2 and a half years to mourn and perform the required rituals. Our main character Shen Tai, the 2nd son of this general did more than that. He went to Kuala Nor, now a ghost haunted field of horror and story and dwelt there among the angry ghosts and regrets, finding the bones of the soldiers of both nations and burying them. This story spread across boundaries and borders until it reached the Princess sold to the foreign Emperor, who enjoined her husband to make a gift to Shen Tai. The Emperor does so, making a gift of 250 Sardian horses. Now, Kitai is rich in men, in learning, silk, rice, grain and gold; but it is poor in horses. Sardia on the other hand raises the greatest horses in the world, fast and graceful, tireless and strong. That many Sardian horses is not just enough wealth to make a man a billionaire by our standards but to gives him the ability to create a fearsome military force that can shift the balance of power across the Empire. Shen Tai, a man who had a short and somewhat odd military career and studied in the capital but never passed the examinations needed to hold civil office is now thrust into the center of the intrigues of the Kitai empire. Because there are people who will kill him to get at those horses, people who will kill him to keep anyone else from getting those horses and people who simply want to kill him but can't because of those horses. Meanwhile Shen Tai has his own concerns because he learns as he returns to civilization that his little sister Shen Li-Mei has been adopted into the imperial family, declared an official princess of the empire and given in marriage to the heir of the throne of nomadic empire to the north. To make matters worse, the man who might have masterminded it is his elder brother Shen Liu. Who is now the principal advisor to the First Minister of the Empire, Wen Zhou. To throw even more trouble onto the scales, before Shen Tai left to the margins of the world, Wen Zhou was a rival for the affections of a woman, a courtesan who used the name Spring Rain. He does have allies however; a Kanlin warrior (mystical warrior elites who work for hire) named Wei Song, hired by Spring Rain to protect him at all costs. The famed drunken poet, Sima Zian called the banished immortal and friends from beyond the bounds of the empire that he never meet but who work to protect him and his family nonetheless.

With a grudge against his brother and an unresolved feud with the man running the most powerful empire in the world Shen Tai rides into the very heart of their power in the capital. He is protected by the fact that the horses can only be delivered to him and he needs to be alive for that to happen. He is also protected by the fact that the Empire is on a knife's edge and his horses could make the difference one way or another. Shen Tai is not the only person that First Minister Wen Zhou has decided to have a feud with. In recent decades the rulers of the Empire felt it was safer to select barbarian generals to lead their armies and guard their borders (This is never never a good idea!). One such general is Roshan, also called An Li, who now leads three armies in the North East and governs a trio of districts. He is militarily speaking the single most powerful man in the empire, feared and hated by First Minister Wen Zhou. In turn Roshan believes First Minister Wen Zhou to be a threat to himself and his sons. Before the belief was that barbarians could not gather enough support to overthrow Emperors. For decades this has held true but now the Emperor is old. The Emperor is old, distracted, and besotted with a new young consort; a young woman who was supposed to be married to one of the Emperor's many sons. But once the Emperor laid his eyes on her... well, he felt he could always find his son another wife. So a young woman named Wen Jian, young enough to be the Emperor's granddaughter, finds herself having to balance the empire, because the First Minister Wen Zhou is her cousin and An Li is a friend and favorite of hers. If she can keep them in balance and prevent them from trying to openly kill each other, she can keep the Empire together. Because she is a woman, she cannot do so openly but must constantly work behind the scenes, influencing men, whispering to the Emperor and making everything look like she's a silly young girl to keep the court from deciding to get rid of her because she's a woman who is getting above her place. She can do that however and she can keep doing it as long as needed. As long as no one upsets that balance of power. As long as no one does anything stupid out of fear of that balance being upset.

Mr. Kay presents us a world of wealth and privilege, soaked in luxury and wine. A world wrapped in ritual and outlined in poetry. Through his story we are shown a fantasy version of a golden age and we are shown how it all ends. These events, while not shoved to the side, are not the focus of the book however, instead the focus remains on a family drama and a personal feud between two men that frankly could be called tawdry if it took place under any other circumstances. The action is fairly understated in this book, while there are battles and sword fights the primary work is on the intrigue, character conflict, internal character motivations, drives, and the forces that limit them. For example Spring Rain, who once worked as a courtesan and is now a concubine to Wen Zhou is limited because of her gender and her station but still acts as much as she can, often risking her life to achieve her goals. Wen Jian, whose station is more exalted in some ways is even more limited in what she can do than Spring Rain and for both of them the limits placed on their gender force them to constantly work through others and use indirect means in what I can only imagine to be a maddening way to work. The men in this book are also limited. Shen Tai is limited by the rituals of the court and the intricate laws that govern his society. Laws that say that he cannot even declare what was done to his sister an injustice or openly express his rage that his sister has been exiled to live in savagery by her own brother without a so much as a by your leave because to do so would be rebellion against the Emperor and the Heavens itself. It's that observed limitation that led me to chose the quote that starts this review, because frankly if someone could have challenged the Emperor on his behavior, I can't help but think much of this could have been avoided. I suppose one of the lessons we should take away from this novel and the Tang dynasty it is based on is that you should never deify someone while they're still around to enjoy their godhood. Because there's nothing more dangerous than a person who decides that everyone around them is right and they are a god on earth.

I'll be honest and admit that intrigue and heavy dramas aren't usually my cup of tea but this book held my interest as if I was caught in a steel trap. Shen Tai is protagonist that you can identify with pretty easily and he has goals you can't help but be sympathetic to: get his sister back, resolve his feuds with his brother and Wen Zhou, and don't die. You can also feel for his allies as they are often exasperated by his stubborn insistence on provoking the powerful and not admitting to the danger he is often in. What's interesting is that our antagonists, while not likable, are understandable and at times sympathetic as well. I can fully understand what drives Wen Zhou against the Barbarian general An Li, or why that general feels increasingly threatened and pushed against the wall. Some of the characters may come off as short sighted or foolish but they don't come off as cackling villains which makes the story feel more realistic even if you can clearly point at some of them and say “This person is in the wrong here.” Because of this I give Under Heaven By Guy Gavriel Kay an A. Give it a peek and I think you'll find a book you'll enjoy.

Next week we end the year with Persephone by Allison Shaw. Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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


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Persephone
By Allison Shaw
Art by Allison Shaw


“In fact, I think you're the only one who ever took my feelings into consideration”
Persephone page 135


This is an odd review, but it's been an odd year and the Almighty alone knows how odder still next year will be. Allison Shaw is an American artist and writer whose work is mostly known from a pair of webcomics, Far to the North (farnorthcomic.com) and Tigress Queen (http://www.tigressqueen.com). Earlier this year she launched a kickstarter to print her version of the Persephone myth in graphic novel form. It succeeded wildly and your not-very-humble reviewer was one of the donors. As it stands, there are no copies for sale but I am told it will be released on the Hiveworks website in the near future. As many of my readers will have likely guessed, I have a more than passing interest in mythology and knowing Ms. Shaw's work I was very interested to see what she would do with it. Let me discuss the myth in question first, just in case I have the honor to be the first person to tell you this story.

Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, the harvest, and fertility; and Zeus, king of the gods, lord of the sky and lightning, major pain in the ass, and despoiler of unsuspecting ladies (Read: Shapeshifting Rapist, Literal Golden-shower Enthusiast, Swan Aficionado etc). Persephone was the goddess of spring and flowers. One day while she was picking flowers, the earth split open and out came a terrifying black chariot with an invisible driver. That was of course Hades, lord of the underworld and judge of the dead. He grabbed Persephone! Then turned his chariot around and sped back under the dark earth which closed behind him with a crack of doom! There in the land of the dead he wed Persephone, some say with the blessings of her father Zeus. However Demeter was grieved that her only daughter was taken from her and refused to allow any crop to grow on Earth (Poor humans. The gods engage in dickery and who do the other gods punish? Humans who had nothing to do with it). Compelled by the prayers and cries of the starving masses, Zeus relented and ordered that Persephone be returned to her mother. However since she had eaten Pomegranate seeds while in captivity Persephone needed to spent one month in the underworld for each seed consumed. Which surprisingly, happened to be the number of months that winter lasted! So in the spring and summer Persephone dwells above with her mother bringing forth new growth but when harvest comes, she treks to the underworld where she spends the fall and winter with her husband.

Well... That's the traditional myth anyways. The thing about myths is that each generation looks at them from another angle because myths aren't dead things. A real myth? One with staying power? They're stories that are supposed to tell us a truth about ourselves and the world or give us a model for behavior to look up to and strive for. Stories like that change over time as the behaviors society holds up as honorable change or as our understanding of ourselves and the world around us changes. This isn't a modern idea either, the Greeks themselves were perfectly happy to modify their myths, as many of their plays took up scenes in the Iliad and rewrote them bringing in different character interpretations, changing the fates of minor characters and exploring the fates and feelings of background characters. This of course means that the ancient Greeks not only invented fan fiction but took it further than most other cultures (excluding the Romans, who with the Aeneid made fan fiction one of their founding myths!). So Ms. Shaw is joining a very old and storied company when she rewrites the myth to give us a different view of it.

That viewpoint is that of the young goddess herself. Persephone is a sheltered young woman in a lot of ways, which makes sense given the behavior of the gods around her. After all, given that Zeus is in charge of the justice system here, how far would you let your daughter stray? (The chastity belt! It does nothing!) This is reinforced as the story opens with Persephone literally being dragged by Apollo to an archery contests with Eros, who some of you might know better as Cupid. Persephone doesn't care for Apollo and certainly doesn't care for archery but Apollo has a cunning plan to fix this, he'll just have Eros shoot her with one of his desire inducing arrows and then when Persephone can't help herself, he'll... Well help himself (Insert Bill Cosby joke here). Eros is indifferent to this whole plan but from what I can tell owes Apollo a favor or perhaps just has bad judgment (this is certainly supported by later events in the story). This whole plan is thrown off the rails by two things: first Apollo decided to use a live dove as his target and Hades took offense to Apollo's rampant dickery. So when Hades breaks up the party to give that young whelp Apollo a talking to? He takes the arrow meant for Persephone and immediately declares that he is not going to be led around by his nethers by the magic of a mere arrow. Persephone on the flip side takes an instant shine to Hades, not only does he scare off Apollo and force the god of light to listen to him but he also treats her with some politeness and actually listens to what she wants. In fact Persephone decides she actually wants to be like Hades, because at least everyone respects him and isn't plotting to get into his robes. Hades on the flip side is looking for a cure to his feelings of desire at any cost because he believes that Persephone couldn't possibly be interested in him and his attentions would only cause her trouble. Meanwhile the two weave in and out of other mythical stories like the race of Atlanta or the fate of poor Daphne.

This take on the two is new and interesting. Now there have been plenty of modern setups where Persephone is all in favor of being kidnapped or has a thing for tall, dark, brooding older men who happen to be her uncle (look reader, they're ancient Greeks what do you want from me?). This story is the first I've seen to present it from Persephone's point of view and show us why she might like Hades and his company. This Persephone has goals, desires, and actually acts on them. It's almost always an improvement on the story if you can take a character who’s mostly served as a passive plot device and turn them into a character who wants and does things. Hades is also somewhat reinvented here. Where most popular media had a tendency to make him the bad guy (looking at you Disney and Clash of the Titans), here he's overworked, isolated, and grim but actually a pretty good guy. He works where he can to bring just a little more justice into the world and tries to act as a restraining force on the other gods but is limited in what he can actually do. He does this despite everyone fearing or hating him for the job he does. It's to the point where when Persephone tries to make it clear that she's actually excited to see him, Hades can't believe she’s doing anything but mocking him, because no one is ever happy to see the Lord of the Underworld. I gotta admit I felt for the guy at that point, imagine not even being able to consider someone might like seeing you. I like this Hades, he's stern and a bit distant but at the same time he's fair and as considerate of the people around as he can be. It's an interesting take and gives him more dignity than most.

I enjoyed the story, although I do wish we had gotten a bit more of Persephone trying to be like Hades or even seen more of them together. I also would have liked to see more of the underworld and what Persephone did there. In the event that Ms. Shaw reads this review, forgive the suggestion but you could always do the myth of Theseus and Pirithous if you were interested in continuing the story of Hades and Persephone. That said this book is a complete story in it's own right and makes for a nice romantic and modern retelling of an old myth. The art is amazing as well using a background that evokes greek pottery with smooth, modern character designs. I will note that this graphic novel is not for minors as there is a fair degree of nudity, sex and sexual overtones in the story. Still if you like cheesecake or beefcake, then there will be something in this book for you. I'm giving Persephone by Allison Shaw an A-. I hope Ms. Shaw gives us more books in the future based on myth or her own orginal work.

That's it for this year folks, my editor Dr Allen (who is commenting in the red text) and I will be going on hiatus until January 20th. Let me wish you a Happy Holiday and a Great New Year. Until we return... Keep Reading!

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


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