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PostPosted: Fri Oct 07, 2016 8:17 pm 
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The Atrocity Archives
by Charles Stross

Charles Stross was born in Leeds England, in the year of our Lord 1964. His first written works were for the Dungeon and Dragons game where he invented the Githyanki, Githzerai, the Slaad, and the iconic(at least for me) Death Knight. These monsters were published in the White Dwarf magazine back before it became a Games Workshop shill. I won't go into these creatures or White Dwarf here but feel free to ask in the comments. Mr. Stross attended the University of Bradford got a degree in Pharmacy, and qualified as a pharmacist in 1987. He reentered the university to get a degree in computer science and started work as a programmer in 1990. In 2000 he started writing and went full-time. He has since won the 2005, 2010, and 2014 Hugo awards; along with the Nebula award, the Locus award, and more. In short he is very well received. Mr. Stross currently lives in Edinburgh Scotland, and is a member of the Green Party. This places him firmly in the British tradition of howling left wing writers like Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock. Although given both of them are anarchists (with Mr. Moore refusing to vote at all), I'm going to say that Stross is frankly more reasonable than most men who can be placed in this tradition and that shows in his work. Generally he writes towards a view of being somewhat critical of society. I don't say that as a criticism, without critical voices a society cannot notice it's own flaws and change for the better. Writers and thinkers like Stross have an important role to play and even when I don't agree with them I'm not going to deny that role is needed. There is nothing in greater danger than a society that believes itself perfect and without the need to change. Well except maybe a toddler in a Lion’s Den but work with me here folks. Now, that doesn't mean I agree with all of Mr. Stross' criticisms. He once referred to the five eyes intelligence sharing organization (an alliance between the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom for sharing intelligence and to a certain extent organizing operations) a top-down parasite looking for justifications for its own existence. I rather disagree with that, as we need open eyes and ears in an unfriendly world. That said I do find his criticisms about how well... Beige our political systems are becoming to be somewhat spot on, or at least I did before this election.

The Laundry Files follow the career of the magnificently named Bob Howard (if you don't why, read more Conan); an up and coming young man who in spite of himself proves an effective trouble shooter for the covert organization of British Intelligence known as the Laundry. The Laundry won't wash your shirts but they will do their best to save civilization from things beyond the universe and creatures beyond your ken, provided that our heroes aren't done in by office politics and complete the paperclip audit in time of course. Howard has to deal with entities that will possess you and eat your brains, Iraqi terrorists who are dabbling in forbidden magics, and the horrors of Matrix Management. Bluntly, after reading up on just what the hell Matrix Management is... I'll take the terrorist necromancers please. Seriously how is any work supposed to get done under Matrix Management? That's not an organizational method, that's a promise of open warfare in the office... but I'm off topic. Let me get back to the premise: basically there's good news and bad news. First the good news, magic is real. Now the bad news, magic is real and it's made of math! Use your math well (or badly as the case may be) and you may gain the attention of things that live beyond our universe and they may even do you favors! Or if you're really unlucky or just stupid, they'll come to visit. This results in things that we call bad. Additionally perform magic without the proper safeguards and your brain will literally turn into Swiss cheese. The best way to do it is to through a program on a computer. Basically, if you want to do magic safely? There's an App for that and you best use it young wo/man!

How do you combat this though? I mean magic is depressingly easy to do once you know how and ruinously dangerous. Basically in the Laundry system, we're looking as every citizen having a nuclear bomb in their pocket that most of them don't know how to arm correctly, let alone disarm. The solution the governments of the Laundry-verse have come up is absolute secrecy and control. If you find out about this stuff, men with secret clearances are going to come after you and things are going to get upsetting for you. That said they're not going to kill you (well they might if you prove yourself unreasonable, so if the nice man in suit and really conservative haircut offers you a job... take it). that's frankly rather unseemly for a government to engage in regularly murdering of it's own citizens. Worse, it's expensive to murder dozens (at least) of people each year and cover it up; even worst it's very likely to cause other people to start asking questions and some of them might find out what's going on starting the whole process all over again! No, no, no, this is a British Intelligence service after all, that means a limited budget and a desperate need to keep the good taxpayers alive long enough to keep the pension fund afloat. So instead the Laundry will bring you in from the cold and if need be let you count paperclips for 20 or 30 years until you retire. As. Long. As. You. Keep. Your. Mouth. Shut.

That's not good enough for Howard though. He wants to be part of the effort to save the world and as such is pushing to be reassigned from Laundry tech support to field duty. He has the talent to be a good field operative and just as importantly, the luck. The problem is he's a smart-ass kid who thinks that he has a right to know everything and often forgets the stakes of the game he's in. Fortunately for us (unfortunately for him) the men in the field office of the Laundry are willing to take him in hand, educate and train him and basically make sure life kicks the cockiness right out of him without killing him. I actually like Howard as a character. Yes, he reminds me of way too many PfC's who are all too sure they know waayyyy more about this war stuff then those stupid old men who have actually seen the elephant; but he's not malicious or self righteous about it. Just another damn boot is all and that's fine, it also helps that Howard is someone who wants to be a decent human being and can recognize his shortcomings and try to address them. This makes him infinitely more tolerable than many perfect characters or characters with one or two shortcomings that never actually bite them in the ass--and get bit in the ass he does. This is where our other lead Mo comes in.

Mo, short for Dominique, philosophy of mathematics professor who found herself trapped in the United States when her research took a turn for the mind controlling kind. Yeah, that's the kind of Universe that Mr. Stross is writing. Even philosophy professors can be dangerous and useful... and even gainfully employed! Because of the forbidden knowledge that Mo is slowly but surely piling up all on her own, she's been made a target by a group of Iraqi terrorist (the book is set in the year 2000, before the Iraq war and 911) and is trapped in the US by the US version of the Laundry, the Black Chamber (which actually was a US intelligence agency and the forbearer to the NSA, it was shut down in 1929 by Secretary of State Henry L Stimson). The Black Chamber is a bit of misstep by Mr. Stross in my opinion, betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of how the US government and intelligence community works. Bluntly, there wouldn't be a single all powerful agency in charge of this stuff in the US. I mean look at how we do normal intelligence work. We have the CIA, the NSA and the FBI often doing counterintelligence work, along with military intelligence organizations who are doing their own thing. This is a minor thing though, it just bugs me. Anyways back to Mo. I like Mo, she's smart and despite being terrified half the time is remarkably useful and level headed. In this story she mostly serves as the goal/target of the bad guys, bait and as someone for Howard to explain things to. What I'm left with at the end is really wanting to see a Mo who understands what the fuck is going on working with Howard in the field. I'm pretty sure that would be amazing.

The book as a few conceits I don't care for. Howard has a tendency to get knocked out or not around when major violence is happening. Additionally there are times when instead of showing me the climactic action, Mr. Stross cuts away to the future and just has Howard tell me what happened via the medium of the briefing. This is an effective method for communicating the perils of bureaucracy and the navigation thereof but is really jarring and annoying at times to read. I want to be shown the action, not told about it later. Thankfully the big climax at the end of our story is not skipped ahead but shown to us as it happens. Otherwise this story would be getting a much lower grade. There were also characters I could have done without in the story itself. For example, Howard's ex-girlfriend who thankfully disappeared halfway through the story. I kinda wondered if she had a bigger role in past drafts? You could make an argument that she is there to show just how stuck Howard feels before getting into field duty but really their interactions just left me frustrated with Howard and reinforced my feeling that he was a smart mouthed dumb-assed PfC in need of a good kicking from his Cpl. The civilian world really would be improved by the introduction of a NCO class I sometimes think, but I wander off topic.

That said I really enjoyed the story itself and the world of the Laundry. Howard is a interesting and good guide to this world as well as being a rather good protagonist. Mr. Stross is supremely capable of creating the dark, surreal, but also sublimely ridiculous atmosphere that occurs when you go out, save the world from ye elder things that dwell beyond the rim of the universe, and then have to come back in order to fill out an expenses and accounting form in triplicate. There's something fundamentally British about this to my mind and I honestly enjoy it. I also enjoy the treatment of magic and the fact that we are not only able to use it effectively but we can modify it and our technology to work together in safer and faster ways than the traditional methods. We have summoning pentagrams made from lasers, palm pilot spell casting, mass produced magic items and weapons and more. This lends itself to the surreal modern feeling of the story. So while we may be very small fish in a possibly very doomed pond, we are not without our own abilities and resources. The threat that we are shown in this story is vast and terrifying as well and is rather fitting for the Lovecraftian nature of the story. In the end though I wouldn't call this a true Lovecraft story as there is victory against those dark incomprehensible forces, but it is entirely possible that this is at best a fleeting temporary victory against the many headed forces of extinction that are slowly gathering around us. Due to some of my frustrations with cutting away from the action in the story and some of the other bits and pieces that bug me, I have to give The Atrocity Archives a B+. I really recommend it however!





The Concrete Jungle
by Charles Stross


It's 3 am and the phone rings. Who do you want answering it? Bob Howard of the Laundry of course! The Concrete Jungle takes place after the Atrocity Archives and shows us a case in the life of Bob Howard as he is roused to determine why there is an extra concrete cow in Milton Keynes. The answer is someone has hijacked the Laundry's best defense system against invasion by creatures man was not meant to know. Howard has to find out who is hijacking this extremely dangerous weapon system that could end up killing millions, keep it a secret from the general public, and navigate office politics as the never-to-be-sufficiently-damned matrix management system means he has actually has three managers (I'm not sure anyone really deserves that, I mean yeah Howard's got a smart mouth but I figure just make him do some push ups).

The weapon system in question is a technological version of a medusa stare. Medusa are not only real but are normal people who through the power of Cthuloid brain tumors develop the curse of turning anyone they look at into burning radioactive stone rubble because they turn a chunk of our meaty carbon molecules into silicon ones. This causes a number of side effects, like for example... death. The British government has figured out how to do this with machines and has realized that the best defense against the creatures from beyond was to upload this into their ever-expanding network of public surveillance systems. This system would let them zap monsters pretty much anytime they showed up in an urban area. One problem: you've planted a weapon of mass destruction pointed at your populace within your very cities. Interestingly enough everyone's aware of this and is very unhappy about it but decides that this is the better option, which should tell you something about what these cameras are meant to fight I think.

Much to my disappointment there is Mo in this story, she's off training on the coast. Instead, Howard is paired with a lady inspector cop who is kinda fun in a no-nonsense “I can break both your arms” kind of way. We also get to see more of Howard's relationship with his field bosses and it becomes very clear to me that they're pushing him through some fast training with an eye towards promotion. I'm not sure Howard understands that, all he seems to grasp is that they keep throwing him at big messes with a broom and a mop. In this case, when the person hacking the camera systems is revealed to be someone rather close to home, Howard is racing not just to save the British people but the Laundry itself.

The Concrete Jungle is a short story that was included with the Atrocity Archives in my copy of the book. It's enjoyable and provides a look at some of the stuff that Howard has to deal with as well as clearing up some problems from the last book that simply were too close to played out to make it to another novel. Additionally I get shown more of the action than last time, which is a grand improvement I think. That said, I really want to see Howard and Mo together in the field and Mr. Stross just isn't letting me have my damn cookies. Still, I enjoyed it so I'm giving the Concrete Jungle a -A as it's showing improvement in my opinion.

These Reviews edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

I would like to remind our readers that the floor is still open for suggestions for the Halloween review!
Next week, Caine Blackknife!

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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 Oct 14, 2016 7:27 pm 
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Caine Black Knife
Matthew Stover​


“Faith is adopted”
The river of bells flash-froze in midair
page 191​

Caine Black Knife takes place some years after Blade of Tyshalle which was reviewed earlier in this series (go check out the archive!). Caine is now in his 50's and older than he ever thought he would be, unfortunately for him, no one wants to leave an old man alone. Let me go over the premise for those of you who missed or don't remember the reviews of the last two books. There are two worlds, one of them is Earth: a future Earth that thanks to weaponized super rabies descended into a nightmarish hell of a caste system enforced at gunpoint by a totalitarian government of for and by the super elite 1%. The other is Overworld: a fantasy world with a variety of non-human sapient creatures and native born humans all rubbing elbows, knives and every now and again more intimate parts. There's a native population of humans on Overworld due to the elves (or primals as they prefer) kidnapping or bribing humans to come to their world and serve them. So honestly the elves have only themselves to blame for this whole mess of a planet. Anyways they were able to do this because our worlds are intrinsically linked due to magic... or Quantum Physics. Let's be honest, in fiction Quantum Physics is a way of saying magic. Later on the people of Earth were able to figure out how to reopen that link with technology and they started sending actors. Actors are people who pretend to be adventurers and heroes... by doing real adventures and heroics so that the people back home can experience the thrill thanks to really well done VR tech and the ability to beam everything the actors are experiencing in real time to a computer. The people of Overworld are not fans, because the studios of Earth keep stirring up wars and worse to give their actors places to get into adventures and perform heroics. In the last book Caine and his friends slammed the door between worlds shut.

Years later Caine finds himself being pulled by prophetic dreams being shoved into his uneasily sleeping head by God (who has a hell of a backstory with Caine in this story, if you want to know more read Heroes Die and Blade of Tyshalle). He heads to the last place on Overworld he wants to go in order to rescue Orbek, the Black Knife Ogrillo that had adopted him into the clan in Blade of Tyshalle. That place being the place where he became a superstar and a legend. The place where he found out just how bad of a man he could be. The Boedecken, where over 35 years ago he waged a war of genocidal proportions on the Black Knife Ogrillo Clan. Not because they were trying to kill him, not even because of what else they did to him, but if we're going to get down to it for two reasons; he did that because of what they made him watch and what they made him learn. The Boedecken is the scene of Caine's first great massive triumph that turned him from a 3rd rate Actor Adventurer to a mega star known throughout two planets. In the present it's the domain of the church of Khryl, granted to them at the end of the wars that created the most powerful empire on the planet. It's a human dominated theocracy ruled by warriors that can heal themselves (and sometimes others) of almost any injury, are blessed to be nearly unstoppable killing machines, and they can sense the truth. In short, they are paladins. They preach a lot about honor and justice. They also keep a massive Ogrillo under class in their human dominated state and only lets them advance socially and economically if they accept castration (and you thought your boss was demanding?).

It took me a couple chapters to figure out what bothered me about the Khryllians. It's not just their racism and hypocrisy. Nor is it my 21st century American uneasiness with militant theocracies (we just haven't had a lot of luck with those). It's the unending turning of everything into a conflict, armed or unarmed, to the point of fetishising being at war itself. See, I'm not exactly what you call a pacifist and respect or even admiration for the military doesn't exactly give me the vapors. But here's the thing, war? Battle? Conflict? Those are all a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. It may be paradoxical but the whole point of war is to create a peace that's better for you and yours. Otherwise you're just a glorified pack of bandits. Now I grant I enjoy a war game as much as the next guy but you know... Those are games, no one gets hurt. When I bomb a city in Civilization or besiege a fortress in Total War? No one except my social life gets hurt. I'm not going to deny that yes there is a certain grandeur to war and the armies that fight them. Being in a war is one of the most enduring memories I have. That said a war is nothing to celebrate in and of itself. It's a hard, demanding job we have to do to get what is hopefully a better, more just peace that will prevent further wars. Or at the very least create safety for the people we love and care about. The Khryllians have taken this state and used it to create a society designed to build and maintain a war machine led by divinely empowered super soldiers and do fuck all with it except bully some Ogrillos. Which makes it a fucking waste at best. Moving on...

Caine, as one might expect is grumpy and honestly comes off as a bit tired. In the last two books he was playing for the lives and freedom of people he loved and cared for way more than he does himself. So he might have come off as a tad unreasonable if I may attempt British understatement here. He's also a touch bitter about how his life has gone but he doesn't moan about it a lot. It pops out in odd moments when something reminds him of his wife (it's interesting that he's decided that she hated him, I didn't get that from the last book but then that marriage was a resounding testament to the poor communication skills of the people involved) or of past decisions. In this book is he constantly trying to be reasonable and adult and no one will let him. It's actually kinda funny in a dark amusing way. On the one hand Caine appears to have grown a little bit as a person, on the other hand no one else believes this. Caine keeps trying to just cut a deal with people to let him take his little brother home and be out of this crap and everyone refuses to believe that it could ever be that simple. Worse, they all keep demanding that he perform a little job for them first. Honestly it leaves me wondering if there's a some sort of learning disability that's become common in the future or maybe something in the water in Overworld? Because it seems to me that if one the most legendary killers, who you know has a talent for causing massive chaos and wrecking everything even when he's not trying to, is someone you might want to bribe to stay away from your really tense, intricate situation with the plan that has to go juuuusssttt right.

Because of this Caine finds himself between the Church of Khryl, a group of freedom activist trying to gain full civil rights for non humans, and the Smoke Hunt; a terrorist group of Ogrillos who randomly show up and start killing people until they're put down. As is usual, Caine is basically alone in this. No one likes him and all he wants is to get the people he cares about out of the line of fire. Intertwined in this story are flashbacks to the last time he was here, the adventure I mentioned earlier. That part of the story is damn brutal and dark and ensures this is a novel you want to keep in the hands of adults. We have people being eaten alive, tortured, murdered, raped and more. We see what kick started Caine's rise to the top and we see some of the really nasty things he's done to gain him his rep. One of those thing is basically wiping out the Black Knife Clan, which frankly... I find it hard to condemn him for. I think I'm supposed to see the Black Knives as an analogue for native Americans and other groups who had their lands taken by invaders and reduced to 2nd or 3rd class citizenship but... look asking me to feel bad that Caine destroyed a group of people whose reaction to finding a bunch of strangers nearby was “Hey, let's kill, torture, main and eat them and if they're really lucky we'll wait til they're dead to start snacking on them!” is a fool’s errand. The Black Knives terrorized their fellow Ogrillos as well as other species. They were reavers and threw themselves into the joys of murder, torture, and worse. Frankly the world--any world--is simply better off without societies like that and I find it hard to really muster up any moral outrage towards Caine for those actions. Other actions in this book, sure, but Caine does a good enough job punishing himself for them anyways.

Let's be honest, up until now Caine hasn't been the worst fantasy protagonist I've ever read. He's head and shoulders above people like Malus Darkblade for example and vastly preferable to the protagonists of No Game No Life. Yes, he's been violent and brutal but it's not like his birth society or his adopted society gave him any choice. Every time Caine gets extremely violent and starts tearing everything down, he gets rewarded. Every time he tries to not be a in his own words “a bloodthirsty thug” everyone lines up to kick him in the face. At no time has Caine really been given an option other than being a super violent killer, or be a dying broken man. If nothing else I think this book series encourages us to consider that if a lot of our successful people display certain character traits and behaviors, we should consider if maybe, just maybe, it's because our society is rewarding those traits and behaviors and we should think about what that says. That said, Caine does some screwed up stuff in the flashback scenes. Just what actions were screwed up however is a matter of opinion. If you have a book club with a strong stomach, having them read this and discuss just where and when Caine crossed the line would in and of itself tell you a lot about what people consider important.

As you might guess, I admire Mr. Stover for giving us a dark, violent book that actually has a lot of thought in it. There's also a fair bit of anthropology in here as well which always gets approval from me. There is one thing that frustrates me however and that is that this book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I really hate it when a book does that. It's not as bad as it could be considering that Mr. Stover makes sure to tell us at least one complete story in this novel but I'm still left hanging. So I do have to apply my penalty here. Which means I give Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover a -A. If you got a strongish stomach and are interested looking at social and personal conflict this is a book you might just enjoy. I would recommend however reading the last 2 books, or at least the last book to really get a grip on what's going on as there's a lot going on in the background you can't grasp unless you've read them.

Next week? We go darker with the Great Ordeal. Brace yourselves!
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 Oct 21, 2016 7:44 pm 
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The Great Ordeal
By Scott Bakker


“There is no such man as Anasurimbor Kellus... No such Prophet. Only an intricate web of deceptions and stratagems... bound by one inexorable and as you know, quite ruthless- principle”
Anasurimbor Kayutas page 340


Scott Bakker is the best writer I review that my readers also hate. Well, a good number of them anyway. The complaint is usually that his work is to dark and to grim. It's a fair point, as Mr. Bakker's work is exceedingly dark and on many levels. When I read his work, I imagine him as someone who has studied the ancient world, understands how it worked, and in a way committed himself to rubbing his readers face in the more unpleasant truths of the world of antiquity. I say that because while in the first trilogy cribbed deeply from the events of the 1st Crusade, the wars between Islam and Christianity, and the world that those events took place in; the people in are people of the ancient era. To be fair the men and women of the medieval era would have a lot more in common with the pagans of old Rome than they would 21st century Europeans and Americans (or Canadians, Australians, New Zealand and the other far flung outposts of the west). Many of these characters, magic aside, could fit themselves into a story about Caesar or Alexander with ease. Hell! Kellus could be Alexander with ease. He is after all a man who has conquered the entire known world and taken the greatest army in history off the very edges of the map. He is a man who has risen himself up to be worshiped as a god. He is the most powerful man in the world and he may be utterly mad.

Insanity drips from this story and plays a part in each story-line; from Sorweel, chosen of the goddess of birth and fertility to kill Kellus, who is sent as a hostage to the non-men of Ishterebinth. Ishterebinth is the last fortress of a doomed race (the non men as some of you might remember were a pre-human race that fought the bad guys before human civilization. The bad guys lost the war but won the peace by offering to make the non-men immortal. Which they did, they also killed every female member of the non-men race). For while the Non-Men are immortal, their minds are not able to cope with thousands of years of memories and loses. I invite you to imagine for a moment losing every woman you know and care for and having to spend centuries locked in an endless war with numberless enemies; knowing that even if you win, it won't matter for humanity. Now remember that the human mind has limits and you literally cannot process all the information you absorbed in those thousands of years. So when I tell you that the last fortress of a doomed immortal race has become a barely glorified insane asylum, understand that I'm not speaking in metaphor here. Ishterebinth has literally become a storehouse of madness. Of course--even mad--the average surviving Non-Man is closer to a superhuman murder machine then anyone moral or sane would really like and a lot of them can do magic. The cherry on top of this bad news sundae drenched in chocolate nightmare fuel is that this place has fallen to the control of a puppet king for the bad guys. The Unholy Consult. So Sorweel, in the company of the youngest Non-Man alive and possibly the last sane member of his species, Oinaral Lastborn, must walk through the bowels of this insane asylum and bring the news to the Lastborn's father Oirunas: Lord of the Watch and a giant among Non-Men; seriously he's about 15 feet tall or so and back in the day was known for going one on one with dragons. He's a member of the group that the Non-Men in all their serious understatement call “The Tall.” The Tall are crazy but more coherent than most of the Non-Men, the problem is they're also waaayyy more prone to violent, homicidal rages at the drop of a hat, scarf, or anything really. Basically Sorweel and Lastborn's plan is, let's take a walk through the parts of this crazy house most infused with the very essence of madness to go talk to a Giant killing machine that could flip out because we're standing wrong and kill us with his pinkie and tell him that his home as fallen under the control of his worse enemies and see what happens. It's a great plan and I'm excited to be very far away from any of the consequences of it!

Consequences and Insanity continue in the story-line of the ordeal itself. The army of a quarter million soldiers hundreds of miles away from any civilization has been feasting on Sranc. I'll explain Sranc simply: take orcs and scrape away every little bit of humanity. Any feelings of friendship, pity, love, or even the ability to comprehend these ideas. Leave behind only a ravening desire to kill, eat, rape and a very basic ability to use tools and you’ve got a Sranc. Sranc make the orcs of Tolkien look like guys from Doctors Without Borders, that's what we're dealing here. Kellus at the end of the last book declared that with the army being beyond any logistical chain at this point would start eating Sranc. I'm going to ask my editor here to back me up that I repeatedly said that nothing good would come of this.

Note From the Editor: Yes, yes he did say that. Repeatedly, at length. Also.. No no no no no! The Sranc are BAD. Not only are the soldiers going to have to contend with the utter madness of eating A) the same thing over and over again which is never good for morale and B) being really close to cannibalism, nothing turns someone into a beast more than devouring one’s enemies; they have to contend with whatever is inside the Sranc. The Sranc are so bad, and the beings who created them so fucked up (pardon my language, but Fucked Up) and twisted, that there is no way they did not plan for this sort of contingency and poison the flesh of the Sranc. I would. Bad Plan! Even if the army survives and wins, the only choice is to have gnostic sorcerers nuke it from orbit, so as to be sure.


Boys and Girls pick up that phone, because I called it! The army is slowly but surely losing all discipline and self control as it falls increasingly under the spell of Sranc meat. To the point of not seeing the Sranc as enemies that have to be fought and killed but rather as feral cattle to be harvested. Frankly, this is the most terrifying thing in the book for me because the very existence of humanity as a species is riding on this army reaching the stronghold of the Unholy Consult and tearing it down before they can unleash the most terrible weapon in this world's history. Here's the thing readers: inside every army is a howling mob and the thing that keep that mob from escaping is training, control, and discipline. If discipline is lost, then any armed force becomes just an armed mob capable of inflicting terrible atrocities. I say this not because I am critical of militaries mind you, but because every armed force that has lost control of itself has found itself committing terrible acts. The ability to commit atrocities doesn't come from being a member of an armed force, it comes from being a human being. It is discipline, whether it be from self control or imposed from external forces, that prevents it. The effect of eating Sranc is tearing apart the ability of the troops to control themselves as well as the officers to keep them under control. This is displayed to terrifying effect in the climactic battle where we see men just go berserk and charge into a Sranc horde so they can begin eating the corpses! I find myself asking if Kellus is even going to have an army when he gets to his target or a ragged mob of howling savages barely able to conduct basic tactics and that question is horrifying given the stakes here.

Then we have Drusus Achamian (who is still not allowed nice things) having finally reached the stronghold of the Dunyain only to find it in ruins. It was torn down by the Unholy Consult who frankly seemed to have panicked at the idea that there's a group of men out there who can see through all their disguises. That said there are two survivors... an adult and a child, the adult is Kellus' oldest son, sired before he left for the wider world. The child is Kellus' grandson (seriously there is something about this bloodline that seems to make killing them impossible). We also learn why the Dunyain are a male dominated society and it's a monstrous reason. I won't spoil this for you but I will say I had to put the book down for a couple hours when I hit that spot. The survivor as the adult calls himself is a scarred, half mad wreck of a man who is the most human and sympathetic Dunyain character in the whole bloody series. The Survivor saved the child (who has no name), his son and fought a war in a deep underground maze for over a decade against Sranc and sorcerers and against his own insanity for the single overriding goal of keeping his son safe. This is despite that by the standards of Dunyain society, his son is defective (he has a deformed hand) and should have been put to death. He is a PTSD ridden, insane ruin of a human being but he becomes a glowing ember of light in the darkness of this book. Kellus has repeatedly said he loves Esmenet, the women he lured away from his teacher Drusus but honestly I have found myself quite often questioning that. Or wondering if Kellus means the same thing I would mean in such a situation. In all honesty I find myself wondering if Kellus or any Dunyain could feel emotion beyond base primal urges. Sure, Kellus says that he has taken harder paths because of his love for his wife but... those harder paths at times seem awfully profitable for him. The Survivor however proves that it is possible for a Dunyain to love and care about someone more then themselves and he does it in the manner that means the most. He proves it through his actions and in the most unarguable manner. We learn more than this in this story-line but I won't speak of that here, I'll just say Drusus' still has a great part to play in the fate of the world and I have no idea how that specific die is gonna land.

Our last story-line is honestly the one most uninteresting to me. Part of it is because it focuses on Kelmomas, the youngest surviving child of Kellus and Esmenet, who is crazy. It also focuses on Esmenet herself who doesn't really get to win victories in this. Every time she actually pulls something off it's quickly nullified or she gets saved by greater powers. This is really frustrating for me to read. If Kellus does love her so much, which I am willing more than before to grant, he really should have given her more training in controlling the Empire. The one that's falling apart without him. Putting to risk the very person he claims to want to protect more than anyone else. The focus on a mad child in a book already over-flowing with insanity and Esmenet's general inability to really shift the plot just kind of leaves me cold to the whole story-line. I know some people will disagree with me but... can we give Esmenet something to do besides be fought over by men? Even in the ancient world powerful women were able to do more than that. That said the theme of madness shows up here as well and takes on a divine tinge as we see the madness of a prophetess and a boy who thinks that he is being stalked by a god. Which at least gives a different spin on the theme.

As you might have guessed from this review the Bakker train still has no brakes. Mr. Bakker takes us to a world shaking on the knife edge of extinction or victory and keeps us there for the entire book. The mood is palpable and the themes are heavy and thoughtful. The book is relentless in showing us and exploring madness and what it can drive people to do. That said the pacing in this book is slower then I would like and there are parts especially in Sorweel's story-line that drift incredibly close to navel gazing. I'm honestly left kind of exhausted and worn out by this book, though it's well-written despite some parts dragging a bit on the pace. I also feel that Mr. Bakker should spend less time taking us through the internal mutterings of his characters and more time describing what they're seeing. When he does describe the scene and the characters it's powerful and well done but sometimes he prefers to linger on how the scene makes his characters feel and think and I find that frustrating. The book doesn't quite end on a cliffhanger but comes close. Despite all my complaints here, this is a book that leaves an impression and gives you something to talk about for hours. I had to argue with myself a bit here but in the end I found myself preferring Caine Black Knife. So I am giving The Great Ordeal by Scott Bakker a B+.

I'm gonna try something lighter for my next review... Let's say a graphic novel about death knights fighting a bunch of necromancers who summon monsters that fed on human flesh! That sounds downright relaxing right now. See you next week!

Note from the editor: In other words, Frigidmagi needs an adult, and some light-hearted necromancy. It took me years to finish the first trilogy by this author because… Oh. My. God. They are kind of like Galadriel; beautiful and terrible. Terrible in the sense that after reading one of them, I find that I need to be held. I need to read this next trilogy but… watching videos of an Ebola outbreak in Africa is full of less despair.

I don't need an adult! I'm fine! Everything is fine!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 28, 2016 7:39 pm 
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Death Vigil Vol I
Art and Story by Stjepan Sejic


“That Necromancer has a fine nose! I shall take it!”
Gunnar undead super Viking


Stjepan Sejic is a Croatian born writer and artist, there's not much about him floating about except for the fun tidbit that he wanted to be lawyer before becoming an artist. This is Mr. Sejic's 2nd appearance on this review series; he was an artist for Rat Queens, and I did say we would be reviewing this series sooner or later. Promise made... promise kept! He does most of his work for Top Cow Studios. You may be asking “just what is Top Cow studios?” and that's a fair question. Top Cow is the little sister company of Image Comics, which was founded in 1992 by a group of comic artist rebelling against the policies of the big two (Marvel and D.C), centered around the idea of letting creators keep ownership of their own characters. The biggest early hit of Image Comics was the demonic hero Spawn (if you don't know who this is... you missed the 90s, which honestly isn't that terrible of a thing). Today Image's biggest hits are a pair of comics known as Saga and the Walking Dead. Marc Silvestri, one of the founders of Image set up Top Cow as his own studio, working mainly on a comic named Cyberforce (I'm not looking into this because there is no way that the Cyberforce on paper is as awesome as the Cyberforce I'm imagining right now. I will leave my delusions pure on this one). Top Cow's line up would later include comics like Witchblade. I'm just going to go ahead and admit that I didn't read lot of Top Cow comics and still haven't. So let's get to the book itself.

The story itself is mainly told from the viewpoint of two characters, although it does skip around a bit. In a break from tradition, we meet both characters on the day of their first death. Let me address them in order of appearance. First we have Sam; Sam was coming home from a Halloween party when he saw a pair of girls being mugged, since he was dressed as a cop he jumped in hoping his fake gun would scare off the mugger. He got shot, then he died in an alley. Clara on the other hand had just said “I love you” to her boyfriend for the very first time. She then agreed to accompany said boyfriend on a visit to his father's grave as it was the anniversary of Daddy Dearest’s death. After showing her the grave and going on a crazy rant... he stabbed Clara to death as part of a magic rite to break the veil between life and the beyond. Then in both cases the Reaper showed up with a recruitment spiel. The Reaper in this case being a cheeky pale lady by the name of Bernadette, who is looking for a few good (dead) folks to given a second shot at life--with a price. Her recruits will be locked into a war with inhuman monsters who seek to destroy reality as we know it and their all-too-human servants, the Necromancers. The Necromancers bind themselves to creatures beyond the limits of our universe they call Primordials, who honestly look like Lovecraftian monsters filtered through H.R. Giger. The cherry on top of this is that Primordials eat people, so it's difficult to see any peace treaty really getting off the ground. On the flip side you do get immortality, superpowers, and membership in a rather nice social club. There's also the perk of not being dead so it balances out if you ask me. The superpowers come from the magic weapons created by Bernadette's scythe. Well they're not always weapons, sometimes they're a deck of cards, a mask, goggles, or a even a magic feather.

This story is more about Clara with Sam as an observer honestly, as it's Clara's abilities and insight that move the plot along. That doesn't mean that Sam doesn't get anything to do or doesn't get some nice character movements of his own. Sam starts off the comic as a veteran member of the Death Vigil, with the ability to beat people up with his magic shovel and pick as well as use them to summon a crew of Viking Draugr (Draugr are what zombies would be if they grew up with any ambition or drive) but he's unable to tap into the special abilities of his tools. Clara on the other hand figures out the abilities of her tool in a matter of weeks; a magic feather based on something she came up when a child. She's a little slower in picking on some other abilities she has due to her unique origin but we'll let that pass and I won't comment on them because those should remain a surprise. Sam and Clara play off of each other really well and have a really solid human relationship (in a platonic way). While Sam might be jealous of how fast Clara is picking things up, he doesn't angst or get ridiculous about it but handles it like an adult. This is a welcome change. Clara for her part doesn't dump all over Sam for not picking up things as fast as she can but respects him for his own talents and abilities. `

Mr. Sejic also avoids making this world to black or white by introducing us to several characters who are decidedly gray. For example Allistor and his daughter Mia, Allistor is a Necromancer but it's honestly hard to hold that against him. Recruited in medieval France by a cadre of Necromancers who had infiltrated the Catholic Church for his genius, he actually made contact with Bernie the Reaper because he wanted to find out her side of the story. I feel for this guy because if my pastor (who is also my father for a double whammy) came to me telling me that God wanted me to pick up these super powers to do His Work, well I would be inclined to believe him. Unfortunately Allistor and Bernie had a falling out and afterwards his daughter Mia grew terminally ill. So Allistor used the same rite that was used on Clara to bind a super Primordial to her and save her life. It also kinda turned her into a monster who eats other Primordials... But you know... as long as she's not eating humans, it kinda feels like something heavily drenched in Not My Problem! The relationship between the vigil and Allistor and Mia is complicated, some of them are friends and some of them are not. It interjects a human element to the conflict showing that this isn't a bunch of crazy maniacs fighting a bunch of Immortal Death Knights but a conflict driven by people with human desires using forces that they really, really, shouldn't use. Interestingly enough the villains of our piece have a lot in common with Allistor, to the point where they almost feel like a twisted reflection of his story and as kind of a signpost of how things could have gone terribly wrong for him and his daughter. I won’t go into details because… Well spoilers. Mr. Sejic does well in making his villains human, mainly by keeping the utterly monstrous necromancers to the background and giving us people with understandable motives and grudges.

I also enjoy Mr. Sejic's art style, which uses a lot of muted colors without being drab or overly dark. His facial expressions are a real strong point as well and he's better then a lot of comic book artist at conveying emotion without being utterly ridiculous about it. That said, he tends to give away a bit too much, there's a lot of things that the characters haven't figured that even a very unalert reader is going to be able to figure out real fast. I would encourage Mr. Sejic to be willing to give out less hints in the future for secrets he doesn't want to reveal until future storylines. Still, it's a fun story with good art and likable characters (which was needed) so I am giving Death Vigil Volume I an -A

Next week, we're going grave robbing! Join us for Mark Smylie's the Barrow!

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 04, 2016 8:50 pm 
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The Barrow
By Mark Smylie


This is Mr. Smylie's third time on this review series, and the first novel of his that has appeared. The other two appearances being his comic book series Artesia. In this novel Mr. Smylie shows us that he's basically gripped by a creative vision that is not letting him go, as he has been working on this for over a decade now. The Barrow, published in 2014 by Pyr books is set in the same world as the Artesia comic series but instead of the relatively backwater highlands where the first comic series took place, this novel takes place mainly in the Middle Kingdoms. Whereas the highlands are a rural place divided into a series of petty kingdoms, the Middle Kingdoms are (in theory at least) unified under the rule of a High King. Being a feudal society, there's a lot of infighting and rebellion among the noble class, which of course has a lot of consequences for the lower classes. The Middle Kingdoms are more densely populated than the highlands, having large cities, vast kingdoms with great populations, and all the problems that those things bring. There is a strict class system with nobility and commoners being fairly divided with the rare mingling usually taking place on the margins of society. For example a lot of the clerks and skilled labor of the royal courts are commoners, with a large minority of noble born younger sons who rub elbows with them on and off work. They're educated at a university which is open to men of noble and common birth (no girls allowed, I'll get back to this). The clerks are exiled to the edges of court society (to the point that one of the nobly born characters doesn't know the names of his little brother's commoner friends) and aren't considered worth any mention in commoner society. Adding to this tension is boiling pot of three-way religious conflict.

The Middle Kingdoms are a place where the Old Religion of the worship of Yhara Queen of Heaven has been mostly supplanted by Islik, Divine King of Heaven. A lot of this was done by the invasion of a new ethnic group that invaded the Middle Kingdoms a long time ago that basically took them over, burnt down all the temples, committed atrocities, and then declared themselves the pinnacle of morality. This is really a metaphor for... basically all of human history (seriously I could put anything in here from the Aryan Migration theory to the Imperialist Age). The third religion is despised by both groups, because... they literally worship the Devil. The Nameless Cults are all about corruption, depravity, and ruin. I mean, we literally have them practicing human sacrifice and eating people! The Old Religion hangs on mostly in the rural areas among commoners and members of the ethnic groups displaced by the new nobility, the Religion of the Divine King is mainly in the cities and in proper society. The Nameless Cults show up in the wilderness and the darker cracks of urban society working to subvert and corrupt the world. These conflicts help drive the plot forward and provide both background and character motivations. Speaking of character motivations, let me talk about the characters a bit.

Stjepan, the Black Heart, royal cartographer, adventurer, and man with a past is one of our protagonists and viewpoint characters. Despite that Stjepan keeps a lot of secrets from us (to be fair all the characters do), but then keeping secrets seems to be fairly second nature to him as throughout the entire book he's keeping secrets from his friends, his protege, his boss and well... Everyone. Stjepan is a Athairi, one of the older ethnic groups which in the story serve as a kind of a gypsy analogue without the reputation for theft and kidnapping. They are one of the groups that remain worshipers of the Old Religion and tend to live out in the country and in nomadic groups. On top of that Stjepan's mother was a priestess of the Old Religion (which got her burned at the stake for witchcraft, we flashback to this a lot in Stjepan dreams) combine this with Stjepan having an education from the royal university (where they also store all the forbidden magic books because where else would you hide all the books you don't want read but at a place full of people eager to learn anything and thumbing their noses at social convention!). Stjepan's role in this story is basically that of the experienced leader who doesn't tell anyone everything. This is reinforced by the fact that no matter where in the Middle Kingdoms we go in this story there is someone who knows Stjepan or at least knows of him. You’re certainly left feeling that this guy has been around a bit.

Erim serves as Stjepan right hand... not really a man, huh let me explain. Erim is a city born brawler who is exceptionally dangerous and may be one of the best sword masters in the Middle Kingdoms. A commoner born, Erim lives a life by selling fighting services and doesn't really fit in well anywhere. There's a good reason for that, you see Erim is also hiding a secret, from everyone but the reader. Erim is a girl. Now for a 21st century American like myself you may be saying “big whoop”. Well, Erim lives in a society with very strict gender roles and strict sexual mores and she's a bisexual woman who is fulfilling a male role that would be disapproved of even if she were a man. The thing is, Erim isn't someone like Stjepan who has enough grounding in a different culture or education to be able to consistently reject society's judgment, she is a person completely formed by her culture but is unable to fit herself into the hole demanded of her. She honestly feels guilty about this and believes that she'll be punished for it and worse, believes she deserves it. I end up feeling bad for a number of characters in this book but Erim takes the lead in my sympathies and ends up being one of the more interesting characters. Although seriously, someone teach her how to read, I'm not kidding this could kill her sooner or later.

Three of our characters are nobility from the same family. A family that has fallen due to scandal and disgrace. Let me hit them in order of appearance, first there's Harvald, a younger son who was sent off to university and works as a clerk of the court. It's not that bad a life as he also gets to run loose with Stjepan and have violent adventures. I started out liking Harvald as he's a charming rogue when he wants to be but... oh God is this man an utter monster. This is hammered in when we see him go home and interact with his sister. Which brings us to Annwyn, which while I sympathize with Erim the most, I find myself truly saddened by Annwyn's story. Frankly her life is awful and I find myself not agreeing with the choices she made but understanding them and seeing her reasoning as justifiable. While Erim is wronged by her society in a general way, Annwyn is flat out victimized by the men in her life--by the very people who should have protected and helped her. Frankly her character arc is heartbreaking. Lastly is the older brother Arduin. I'm an older brother myself so Arduin kinda annoys me deeply. It's worse because unlike Harvald, Arduin isn't a screaming douchebag on purpose. There's no cruelty or drive to humiliate in his actions but Arduin is an idiot. That's harsh, but he is utterly wrapped up in himself and his drive to get his family out of disgrace and isn't even paying attention to that family. Additionally, despite being thrown under the bus by his society for something he had nothing to do with, he refuses to think that there might be a few flaws in his society. Additionally: listen bro, I ain't batting a thousand as a brother. I'll admit that, but you know I've at least tried to talk shit out with my siblings when there were issues. Admitting to your sister that you felt bad about your part in things and wish you could change it would have likely avoided at least some of the worse of it for you. Arduin is a man too caught up in his prejudices and problems to remove his head from his ass. Seriously his skull is firmly wedged in there and that kinda causes more problems then really necessarily. I want to have more sympathy for him because he's not an awful person, just... stupid, but he's just so deep in his own rectum that I can't.

We also have a number of adventures joining us. There's Gilgwyr, a brothel owner and pimp that I was leaning towards liking but... let me sum up his introduction this way. Hi! I'm Gilgwyr, I'm a brothel owner but I don't force myself on my girls and do everything I can to keep them in good health and spirits. Because they don't deserve to be shit on for their occupation. Instead I like to blackmail my clients into giving me blow jobs! His character only gets worse from here folks. I hate this asshole. He's smarmy and self serving and pompous and if Arduin had cut him open then I would have been a lot more forgiving of Arduin's failures because then he would have at least done something useful. Mr. Smylie kinda telegraphs Gilgwyr's fate and well... I laughed. That's all I'm going to say there to avoid spoilers. We also have Leigh, a crazed wizard who... is actually bat shit insane and evil. I've run into a lot of “crazy” wizards in fantasy and this is the first guy that actually really came across as dangerously insane. He goes from cheerfully buying pastries in a shop to cursing (I mean with magic here not swearing) the shop owner at the drop of a dime for example. He's grandfatherly and protective one second and malevolent the next. Leigh honestly feels like someone you need to have in your sights at all times because having him out of sight means you have no idea what he's doing and that is when he's most dangerous.

All these characters come together to follow a magic map to find the tomb of an ancient witch king who was buried with a divinely blessed magic sword that said witch king had stolen. It's a mess of conflicting motivations and secrets, of characters who are working against each other when by doing so they place each other in greater danger and a group with a cross section of simmering resentments and outright hatreds that could boil over at any moment only held together by mutual need and desire for reward. The Trek takes us across the Middle Kingdoms which Mr. Smylie takes as an opportunity to show a place with a intense depth of history and culture being played out. As you might guess I enjoy settings like this, although I get a little twitchy with his somewhat half-hearted attempts to make the Cult of the Divine King into a fantasy Christianity (seriously why does everyone turn us into sun worshipers!?!). I can see and feel the vast amount of care and thought that Mr. Smylie has put into the setting, he just manages to avoid the sin of paragraphs of massive info dumps mainly by having the historical information come out in conversations between Stjepan and Erim or with other characters. There are a ton of interesting places in this book, like the Plain of Flowers, or the Waste Beyond the Watchtowers (that interestingly enough are a result of good guy actions not bad buy actions). It's a setting where I actually understand why there's an Inquisition because holy fuck there are cannibal rapists lurking about who worship the fucking Devil! There are also references to real mythological figures buried in the book (like the Corn King for example) although they are twisted a bit.

That said this book is not for minors. There are graphic sexual scenes in here, some of which are intensely depraved. I don't mean there's some blindfolds and ropes, I mean this stuff is all manner of messed up. Mr. Smylie train also has no breaks, which is becoming a theme in adult fantasy in the 2010's maybe. I kinda feel this a reaction to people pooping fantasy as being rather restrained in some ways (David Eddings for example would write that Anglo Fantasy works at least tended to be very prissy in terms of human sexuality and he blamed Tolkien for that) but I really do need to research this further before making any real definitive statements. There's no holding back on the violence here either, nor are the consequences of said violence sanitized. People--innocent people--die in this book in rather terrible ways (as do a number of not so innocent people). That said, this isn't nearly as dark or depressing as Bakker's work, there are relationships that are good ones here and characters are allowed to have good ends. I actually find myself emotionally satisfied in the ending even if it is somewhat morally ambiguous. So while I wouldn't hand this book to anyone under the age of 16, or even to all adults, I do think it a very well written book that isn't afraid to confront some really dark stuff without getting pulled down by it. I find myself giving the Barrows an A, the character work, the action and the overall depth of the setting more then carry it there. That said, this book could have stood with the other Halloween books rather easily, so I'm going to try something a little lighter. You know... I haven't tried a Manga on this review series have I? Let's give it a shot.

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: Sat Nov 12, 2016 4:49 am 
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[align=center]Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan
By Hiroshi Shiibashi
[/align]

Okay, it's been a long week but I'm not letting that stop the review. So I know it's Veteran's Day but...well....a friend has really been wanting me to take a look at this for a while. Also, I'm a vet and want to do a short review so I can go play on veteran's day. So, let's hit it. Nura was released in Japan in 2007 as a one shot and started running as a comic in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump in march 2008, it ran for until 2012. Weekly Shonen Jump is not only the most successful and longest running (48 years as of 2016!) magazine in Japan but the birthplace of many manga and animes that have been popular here in North America. Such as One Piece, Rurouni Kenshin and Dragonball Z (admit it you know at least one of these series). The writer and creator of the series, Hiroshi Shiibashi was born in Osaka Japan in 1980, before creating Nura he was an assistant on Steel Cannonball run, an arc of the series Jo-Jo's Bizarre Adventure (not going to discuss that series, because then I'll have to write a novel). Having gotten all of that out of the way... Let's look into the book itself.

The book centers around young Rikuo Nuru, a young man who has been born into power and wealth... of a sort. The Yokai are type of supernatural creature from Japanese folklore who usually exist to scare the crap out of humans. Now some of them were actually fairly benevolent (tengu for example were credited with teaching humans swordsmanship) but on the whole they were at least very fond of pranking people. You see Rikuo is the grandson of the leader of the Nuru clan, the Lord of Night, the Supreme Commander of the Yokai. This wouldn't be a problem except that Rikuo is 3/4ths human, due to having a human mother (dead) and a human grandmother (dead) along with having a dead father (all parental deaths are unexplained but let's be honest Japanese stories tend to require absent parental figures). So he's raised by his grandfather and his Yokai retainers, who are visually interesting and written in a fun way. Since he's in line for the throne so to speak his human heritage is an issue. Rikuo starts being very pro-Yokai and wanting to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps but as his exposure to humans and human culture change his mind to where he wants to be a human being and starts turning his back on Yokai culture in favor of embracing his humanity.

Now brace yourselves because frigid is going to read waaaayyy too much into this. As I've noted before my parents are deaf, so I kinda know what it's like to have one culture at home and have to deal with another one at school and otherwise. So I kinda get where Rikuo is going through, he is having to make a choice between two cultures and most of his peers are members of another culture. Rikuo starts off as totally gung-ho for Yokai but faced with the problem of dealing with his peers who don't believe in Yokai or think they're nasty monsters... His enthusiasm wanes and he starts hiding his home culture and situation in an effort to blend in. I kinda dealt with this, where I went from thinking sign language and associated habits were normal, to trying to hide my deaf connections, to growing up and just learning to deal. In this case confronted with the fact that the Yokai might not be shining heroes like he thinks, Rikuo decides he isn't gonna have anything to do with this to the point of rejecting his ambition to take over from his grandfather. This becomes a problem, as his grandfather really wants to retire but there is no one else that the clans that look to him for leadership will accept and a good number of them won't accept someone with not just a human mother but a human grandmother to boot. Sensing weakness, the plotting begins and Rikuo's struggle to balance the twin cultures he's a member of threatens to spill over onto his human friends in the form of good old fashioned violence!

This is complicated by the fact that a number of his human friends have formed into a club specifically to find Yokai (hilariously this is kind of his fault). Included in this club is a young lady who is an exorcist who specializes in finding and destroying Yokai. So of course the family retainers find her terrifying. Rikuo has joined the club for a couple of reasons: first to keep the club from finding Yokai; second to keep any Yokai they find from actually hurting them; third to keep the exorcist from destroying any of his family retainers. Although that one pops up later. To be honest outside of Kuna (his oldest friend from school) who is a nice young lady none of the other human characters really stand out to me. I enjoy their interactions however and get a chuckle from Rikuo's constant efforts to keep them from, you know, dying.

Lucky for our boy, he does have a card he can play and it's an ace. Turns out through some quirk of magic genetics (because seriously he's 1/4th spirit being, this shit gets weird) he can switch over to the power and bearing of a full blooded Yokai... in the dark... with no memory of what happens afterwards. Basically we have two people in his body. One of them is a boy who identifies as human and wants a normal human life. The other is a young Yokai noble with ambitions of uniting the Yokai of Japan under his rule and murdering any Yokai who tries to fuck with him and his buddies. Interestingly enough his Yokai side acts and speaks like a full grown adult and has a completely different personality from our all-too-human protagonist. It's almost as if his twin cultural allegiances have split off into different personalities. That said they both agree that they will not stand for Yokai harming human beings and if need be that rule is getting enforced via stabby death. I can't say much more about the Yokai personality because he only appears briefly and doesn't really speak much, so while I know he wants to protect humans and rule Yokai... That's about it. I do find it interesting that the Yokai shows up as an adult to Rikuo's child, as if showing a possibility of what Rikuo could grow into if he learns to mesh his human side and his Yokai into a single whole.

I'm not sure other readers would enjoy Nura for the same reasons I do. For that matter I'm pretty sure that I'm engaging in what we call Death of the Author, where I project meanings and subtext into a story that the writer never stuck in. But what the hell, if college professors can be paid to do such things, I can surely do so for free! Without the interesting conflict the protagonist is experiencing though, you get a pretty bog standard manga for boys. Character must master hidden inner power and confront bad guys and and then kick the crap out of them. It does at least avoid the sin of Dragonball Z by having fights be frankly unnecessarily long in length (to be fair this shows up in animes more than mangas but still...). But because of the subtext and the fun of the Yokai characters who are honestly at this point more interesting than the human characters (who frankly aren't standing out that much from each other yet), I can give Nura: Rise of the Yokai a B-. I'm interested to see if Rikuo comes to term with his identity or continues trying to life as a split personality forever being pulled in two ways and if the writer will actually confront this issue.

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I own the complete set of Nura: Rise of the Yokai novels, and can say that the author does address the issue Frigid asked about roughly about the middle of the series.

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2016 9:59 pm 
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Digital Divide
by K.B. Spangler


I'm not sure that Digital Divide counts as high concept, but damn if the premise doesn't pack a punch. Published in 2012 by K.B. Spangler, a young lady who lives in North Carolina with her husband and dogs, Digital Divide is her first novel but is not her first work. That work happens to be a girl and her fed, a web comic (that she was the artist and the writer for) that actually provides the setting for Digital Divide (it's also the work she's most known for). That said you don't have to read the web comic to follow or understand the story of Digital Divide. It is completely self contained and provides a full story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's just that the story is one of many set in a greater story. That said the novel speaks for itself and explains itself rather well and I could hand it to someone who had no idea what a web comic even was and they would still grasp everything going on pretty well.

The term digital divide has an actual meaning, at first it meant the gap between those who have access to a computer and those who don't; as society has changed the term has also changed to mean the gap between those who have internet access and those who don't. As we become more and more digital (last time I went looking for a job 2 years ago, most of the places I checked didn't even have paper applications) the more things become stacked against people who either can't access the internet or develop the skills to use it. Think how much of your information comes from the internet? How many products have you bought using it? How much of your contact with people flows from it? Imagine you didn't have that, how much would your life change? In this story the divide is turned up to 11. See, in the time the story is set, five years ago fresh from the shock of 9/11 the government was handed a technology that would ensure that it never happened again. It meant there would be a way to seamlessly integrate different government agencies and ensure they shared information quickly, efficiently, and consistently. The technology donated by a private company was that of a cybernetic implant that went into the brain and allowed the user to directly interface with the internet and with machines and computers that were online.

The government authorized a pilot program of 500 government agents from across the federal government. Military, law enforcement, regulatory; basically any government agency could send a candidate and if they passed the testing phase, they would receive an implant. Everyone sent their brightest and their best, which made the results even more heartbreaking. The implants worked alright but... the interface responded erratically to the agents, prone to react to their emotional state, instead of direct commands. It even showed up in their dreams when they were asleep. It began to drive them mad. A stopgap measure of drugging the agents into an emotionally neutral state was adopted along with heavy use of sleep aides to ensure they actually slept. However this rendered the agents useless for field operations and frankly an embarrassment. They were quietly shuffled off into the gray hell of ignored failures left to moulder and die while being kept as comfortable as they could with busy work. This busy work resulted in a not entirely chance meeting between an agent of the program and a certain young lady. They were able, with the help of friends (you're going to need to read the web comic for information on those friends!), to turn off the interface and pull the agent back to the realm of humanity. But what to do now that everyone was awake and firing on all cylinders?

In response to this the agent in question, Patrick Mulcahy, the guy who freed everyone and as a result was made the leader of this band of cyborgs, made a decision. He went public and broke the story to the world. By the time he did so there were around 350 surviving agents left. This book however is not about him. It's about one of the agents who was pulled back to humanity by the efforts of Mulcahy and his friends and how she tries to at least be of some service to a government that frankly doesn't deserve it. I suppose I could say that is the curse of humanity to be governed by governments that always act in a rather ungoverned manner. It is our blessing that those governments are served and often held in check by young men and women whose skill, talent, and loyalty are entirely more then those governments deserve. This book is about one of those people: Rachel Peng.

Rachel Peng is something of a unicorn. I don't mean she has fur and a horn, but instead to refer to her so-rare-as-to-be-mythical status. I'm not referring to the fact that she's an American girl born to a Chinese mother, or that she's gay (although those facts don't hurt the unicorn status), or that she's an active duty officer despite her organic eyes being rather useless. I mean the fact that she's an Army MP who managed to not only become a warrant officer (a nearly extinct breed), but that she's a warrant officer who was tapped for officerdom but was detached out to civilian duty! The fact that she's a cyborg is really just an ‘of course she is’ fact at this point. I mock but I actually like the character, it would have been really easy to let a number of labels overwhelm the character but they don't. Agent Peng clearly has a Chinese background but isn't “the Chinese character.” she's attracted to women but isn't “the Gay character.” These parts of her aren't hidden or shoved to the background but they're not allowed to overwhelm the individual that is Rachel Peng, which is how you want it to be. Our little unicorn is still on detached duty actually, as she has been sent out to the Washington D.C. Metro police in order to build ties and render her unique skills and talents via implant, and otherwise to aide in serving and protecting the District of Columbia. Unfortunately she is somewhat less than popular, by which I mean openly hated and reviled for her cyborgy nature. But when a young woman is murdered in front of an ATM camera and there's no video of the murderer, loved or feared, Agent Peng is needed. The murder leads her to other crimes, each related by the fact that one had digitally altered the evidence to either remove any visuals of the attacker or edited it to make it look like someone else was attacking. Things that would be really easy for a Cyborg to do.

So now Agent Peng with a handful of allies (including two other agents! One of whom is an asshole!) must lead an investigation against an opponent who has been carefully planning ahead, with no idea as to his identity, goals, or his limits; and they need to find him before he kills again. They also need to find him without breaking the rules however, as going to far in a rush to find him will alienate not just the law enforcement community but runs the risk of branding them as monsters who will respect no law or boundary. Given that they are in the middle of Senate hearings to figure out just what do with these people, a single wrong step could prove disastrous for Agent Peng and her fellows. Ms. Spangler uses this conflict to not only give us a well done police procedural but to address ideas of security vs freedom and how far can the right of privacy extend in a world where someone with access to google search and some skill with computers can unearth things about you that you would really prefer to keep private. Additionally it's not enough to catch our villain, Agent Peng as to figure out the motive behind his actions. Why try to frame the Cyborgs? Why intentionally poke 350 of the most powerful people on earth? Is there someone else behind it? If so, what are their goals?

She has to figure this out while dealing with a politically ambitious judge who wants to make his election chances soar over the cyborgs broken bodies; police detectives who view her as a freak and possible monster; and the ever present power of bureaucracy slowing her down or threatening to get everything tossed out if she doesn't dot every I and cross every t. It's an interesting look at some of the obstacles that the police encounter, complicated by the fact that we really don't have rules for some of the stuff now coming out. If I equip a drone with an IR camera capable of pinning down a person at 500 meters through walls... Do I need a warrant to use it to film a suspect's home? Does a search warrant for everything in plain sight cover looking through a browser history? What if I have an app on my super-phone that automatically connects with your computer and pulls up your browser history(pretty sure that's not possible... yet)? Is that covered by the warrant? As technology continues surging forward, these are issues we got to consider and Ms. Spangler does a good job of this while using the cyborg characters as almost a metaphor for these challenges and in doing so avoids demonizing people. We're shown that the cyborgs despite the fact that they can basically run amok if they choose are not bad people and work to rein themselves in for the betterment of those around them. The folks who worry about the issues the Cyborgs present are in turn shown not to be awful people but having a real basis for their concerns. I really actually appreciated Agent Peng's struggle to find the murderer before he killed again and not shatter the rules that govern our legal system in the process. This isn't to say that she doesn't bend a rule or two, but all in all she ensures that people's rights are respected. Even when she doesn't want to, which I really respect. Of course I tend to agree with Benjamin Franklin “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.”

If you enjoy a good mystery, then you will find one here. If you're interested in reading a police investigation with a science fiction spin? This is your book. K.B. Spangler uses technology and interesting characters to weave us a tale of murder, politics, intrigue, and drama. The violence is low in this book; there are shocking confrontations to be had but most of it is driven by investigation and character interaction. So if you're looking for an action soaked, pulse pounding read, you're likely to be disappointed. What violence there is in the book is fairly standard really, but then I may be spoiled by a steady diet of Matthew Stover books. All of that said, I enjoyed the book and I kinda went out and ordered the sequel. So you can expect to see more of Ms. Spangler’s work on this review series. As you might have guessed Digital Divide by K.G. Spangel is a B+, the lady's opening novel is better then the work of some veteran writers I've reviewed here and I hope to see only improvement.

Next week? We're going back to the Old Kingdom, with Goldenhand

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 25, 2016 10:13 pm 
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Goldenhand
by Garth Nix


So here we are, back in the Old Kingdom. The nation that holds back the pure chaos of free magic and necromancy with a combination of charter magic and state sanctioned necromancers called Abhorsens. Let me break that down a little for people who never read Mr, Nix's series or have missed the reviews I've done on the other three books. The world of the Old Kingdom is awash in a dangerous magic called free magic; while usable to humans it is a corrupting and twisting influence. There are also creatures completely made up of free magic with their own desires which are often (but not always, free magic creatures are unpredictable) dangerous to... pretty much all life as we understand it. Necromancy is the most dangerous form of free magic, it involves reaching or travelling into death (which is a supernatural place as well as a state of being) to pull out spirits who refuse to move on and control theml often by stuffing them into bodies to do their necromancer’s bidding. Sometimes however, a spirit or a necromancer becomes something infinitely more scary then even a free magic spirit: a greater dead. A spirit that has refused the call to pass and eaten so much life and gained so much power that is not even recognizable as a human being anymore nor does it think or act as one.

Lirael returns as the main protagonist of the story, she is a shy girl who left her home in a glacier full of her future-seeing relatives to become someone who can gaze into the past and a necromancer. Not just that but an Abhorsen. As a student of Sabriel (the current Queen and head Abhorsen) she serves to keep free magic creatures and the Dead (and those who would wake them) under control and at bay. This book takes place some time after Abhorsen, where Lirael averted the literal end of the world. It's a good thing she's had time to rest because while this new threat is a bit smaller in scale (being only the possible end of civilization) it's still nothing to sneer at. The Lirael in this book has clearly grown into her powers and position. While she's still shy and a bit of an introvert (there's nothing wrong with being an introvert mind you), she is way more comfortable asserting herself. Especially on important matters and willing to fight to be taken seriously. Which is a lucky thing because it's time to go home again. Not only is she going to have to return to her childhood home, but she is going to receive a message from someone in her past, someone she has a lot of baggage with and she's going to have to untangle some emotional issues... while in a crisis situation. Lirael is not allowed to do anything at a relaxed speed.

See, this book incorporates the events of the short story of Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case, which I read but didn't review because... It's a short story. Nicholas Sayre is also a returning character from prior books (he got most of his screen time so to speak in Abhorsen) a friend of Prince Sam of the Old Kingdom he's actually from Ancelstierre, or as I like to call it, most certainly not England! Magic doesn't work in most of Ancelstierre. Between the two kingdoms is a massive wall made of charter magic which helps regulate the flow. On the flip side, nothing machine-made survives in the Old Kingdom (Nicholas learns this when his clothes flat out rot off his back in a few hours). There is however a borderland between the two nations where both technology and magic can work... Imperfectly and inconsistently. Because of this, relationships between the two nations are often... full of misunderstandings. Because of this, Nicholas kind of got himself possessed by a spirit of free magic older than the world itself and almost ended existence. Luckily Lirael and friends were there to prevent this but there were lastingly... aftereffects. Nicholas found himself filled to the brim with free magic, this is bad (see corrupting and twisting effects) to prevent this a charter mark was placed on him (people who can do charter magic have a magic marking on their forehead). It was supposed to be a simple seal but it's turned into something more. Nicholas's charter mark and his connection to the charter isn't sealing away the free magic but appears to be almost filtering it, turning Nicholas into a walking, talking source of charter magic. This suggests all sorts of interesting things about the relationship between charter magic and free magic (especially when we know free magic came first, and charter magic was an intentional creation). It also serves a handy role in the story because Lirael is going to have to go outside of the Old Kingdom to deal with a threat.

The threat is Chlorr of the Mask returning. Honestly she's frankly a step down as a villain from Hedge. Which is ironic because Mr. Nix's has put a lot more effort into Chlorr, even writing her a prequel novel which I believe was supposed to set her up as a tragic villain but had the opposite effect on me. Let me put this way, imagine you run into someone who despite having good intentions made a series of increasingly bad choices and ruined their lives. You would consider that tragic. Now imagine that same person given an opportunity to rebuild that life turns around and makes the same series of choices. You could be excused for throwing up your hands and calling them an idiot. That's Chlorr. So instead of being excited that she has returned, I find myself sighing and asking if maybe Mr. Nix would be better off not exploring his villains to much? Ironically Chlorr gets very little screen time and so serves almost as a plot device within the story instead of a character. Which doesn't help me feel the tragedy here, if anything it makes Chlorr feel like a rather standard dark lady (man, I miss Hedge!). This is easily Mr. Nix's biggest misstep in the book.

Still there's plenty to make up for that. There's Ferin, a new character who opens a whole new window on the world of the Old Kingdom. Ferin is not from the Old Kingdom, she is from the north of the Kingdom, from a wild land full of barbarian tribes where Free Magic runs wild and the Charter is fairly unknown. Ferin gives us a fascinating window into what the other cultures of the world of the Old Kingdom do to survive. The different tribes, from Ferin's own mountain tribe to various horse tribes on the rolling steppe have had to adopt their own tactics and strategies for dealing with free magic creatures and users without the protection of the charter. Often by using chained free magic sorcerers or imprisoned free magic creatures, giving us a whole new set of golems and such to marvel at. On top of this, they have to deal with the fact that they were conquered by Chlorr. As far as dark overlords... Dark overladies go, Chlorr isn't that demanding. She just demands that every tribe raise one of their children to be trained from birth to be a possible vessel for her spirit. Basically if her current body dies or grows weak, she destroys it and hijacks a new one. Because of this Ferin doesn't even have a name, it's a nickname that comes from the mispronouncing of her tribe’s word for offering. Her tribe would rather not have to sacrifice one of their own children every generation in exchange for not being wiped out to the last babe however, so when a certain Abhorsen's mother leaves them a message to be delivered at a certain day to my favorite necromancer, Ferin jumps on that job. Ferin herself is an interesting character in that she is someone who is very used to magic and weird shit but is not someone from the Old Kingdom, which gives us another fresh pair of eyes to examine this from. She's also pretty awesome in her own right having no magic powers, few weapons beyond her own grit and courage and still being willing to brawl it out with free magic golems and necromancers. I'm hoping to see more of her. In fact, this book leaves me wanting to know more about the world beyond the Old Kingdom's borders. If this is what lies to the north of the Old Kingdom, what is over the sea exactly hmm?

Another fun spot is the relationship between Nick and Lirael, which honestly is a lot better done for me then the relationship between Sabriel and Touchstone in the first book. These two kids are a bit awkward but not painfully so. Additionally Mr. Nix doesn't keep this dance going on to long, there are no wacky misunderstandings or characters refusing to admit how they feel to each other for painfully overwrought reasons (take notes fantasy writers, dragging it out too long is a pain in the ass). Instead we get two kids, one of whom is painfully shy and the other worried of frightening the other off, talking to each other like adults and realizing their feelings are shared. It helps that there was a private dinner with some really nice wine (make a note of that everyone, not just the writers). It's a relationship that evolves well and believably and works on a professional level since Nicholas is a now a moving power source. I'm honestly interested in seeing more exploration of that idea. It's also through this relationship that we learn more about the Charter and its interaction with free magic. It's the implications that are really interesting though. With revelations given in Abhorsen in regards to the origin of the Charter (that it was willfully designed and created by magical creatures wanting to place free magic under some control for safety’s sake) and how Nicholas' charter mark interacts with his internal free magic. I am left thinking that the Charter stones that power Charter magic all across the Old Kingdom aren't power generators after all but instead are filtration systems. Filtering free magic through the marks of the charter to create a form of magic safe for life as we know it. I'll be honest this just a theory but I think it’s a sound one and getting more information to prove or disprove it should be interesting.

The battles in the book are well done, especially Ferin's running battle against the free magic sorcerers, nomadic warriors, and worse trying to stop her from reaching Lirael with her message. A number of minor characters are introduced and very well written here to give the struggle additional meaning and let us see the view from the ground as it were (not everyone is an Abhorsen or a Royal after all). However the last battles, while engaging and interesting are... rushed. It feels like Mr. Nix was running out of steam when he hit the climax and didn't spend as much time on the end battles and confrontations that he should have. They're still fairly well done just bloodlessly so. Part of this may be that I am just rather hard to please when it comes to writing violence. I want to believe it and most modern writers don't have the experience to do that. It's hard to write something you've never done after all, especially when some of your readers have. Additionally this is not a good place to join the Old Kingdom. You'll need to have at least read Lirael and Abhorsen to really understand the characters relations to each other. Anyways, I found Goldenhand an engaging and fun read but with noticeable flaws, you're not going to find a classic villain here but you will find a good story with good characters here and you know... that is enough. Goldenhand by Garth Nix gets a B.


Next week… The blog that became a best selling novel, the novel that became a best selling film, the film that got our asses back to mars. Next week The Martian!


This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 02, 2016 9:40 pm 
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The Martian
By Andy Weir


The Martian was a story rejected by several literary agents (meaning it never even got to the publishers), so Mr. Weir decided to post it as a serial on his web site back in 2011. It grew popular enough that a number of people requested he post the entire thing up as a novel on Kindle. Mr. Weir did so, charging people the grand total of 99 cents. The Martian exploded onto the Kindle Bestseller list, selling 35,000 copies in 3 months. This finally got the attention of publishing companies, the hardcopy publishing rights were bought by Crown (a subsidiary of Random Publishing House, the world's biggest publishing company) for about $100,000 in 2013. By 2014 The Martian had hit the New York best seller list. In 2015, the film directed by Ridley Scott premiered, but we're just going to focus on the novel. This makes The Martian one of these stories that can only happen in the internet age as in 1987 this story would have ended with its’ rejection by those agents (I wonder how many of them are having second thoughts?). While the internet has brought us a lot of rather awful things, it's also brought us some really awesome stuff like this and you know... Let people thousands of miles away from each other talk directly to each other and get to know each other but let's not focus on minor things.

Andy Weir himself is kind of a nerd's nerd. Born in 1972, he is the only child of accelerator physicist father and electrical engineer mother, who grew up reading Asimov and Clarke. He started working as a computer programer at the age of 15 and ended up working on Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (on the unlikely chance he reads this, thanks for that Mr. Weir, I liked that game). He began writing in his 20s, creating webcomics and short stories. His most famous short story 'The Egg' has been translated into 30 different languages and been turned into a short film (not bad for a story with two speaking parts). It's a very interesting story that can make you think, but I'm not going to go into it other than to encourage you to track it down and read it. The Martian is his first full length published novel (his first novel “Theft of Pride” was never published but can be downloaded from his website) and was incredibly researched with Weir doing research into orbital mechanics, planetary conditions, and of course... Botany. He is currently reported to be working on a second hard science story set on the moon from his home in California.

But let's focus on the story in front of us. The Martian focuses on Mark Watney, Mark is an astronaut and a scientist and in the year 2035 had the honor of being one of very few people to set foot on Mars; which is awesome. Mark however is going to be setting a few other firsts whether he likes it or not. Like first man to be injured on Mars or perhaps more important to the story, first guy to be ever left behind on a NASA mission. See, while on their mission to Mars, a bit of storm kicked up and threatened to wreck their ride home. So they were ordered to get themselves in the rocket and get off Mars. On their way to the ship however, Watney got hit and got hit bad. So bad, that even his space suit thought he was dead. To be fair, he likely would have died if not a combination of Mars atmosphere and his suit not letting him bleed out. So instead of dying, he was just knocked out in the middle of a dust storm, which lead to him being left behind. On Mars, Mark seems to be the kind of guy who finds a 100 dollar bill on the sidewalk and gets hit by a car while picking it up honestly. While we don't actually see the scene until a ways into the book, it is stolen by Commander Melissa Lewis. Commander Lewis goes all out to find Mark and is only defeated by a combination of zero visibility and the fact that her ride off Mars is about to be pushed over by high winds. Nor does she risk the crew, sending them onto the ship, when the first search fails and continuing to search solo to the very last minute.

While the book is incredibly focused on Mark Watney and his struggle not to be killed by Mars, it doesn't neglect other characters. The crew of the Ares III, while not given nearly as much time as Watney are given enough time for us to see them as people. Additionally they are given their own roles and decisions that make them heroic characters in their own right. Whether it be plotting the first mutiny in space (there are so many firsts in this book), or creating bombs to use as braking mechanisms. The lengths they go to and the efforts they put forth to rescue Mark are pretty amazing and would make them worthy of being the center of their own novel. I feel the most for Commander Lewis out of this group, because I'll be frank, after losing Watney and her follow up actions to rescue him... she's never going to be allowed to command space mission ever again. That's not mentioned in the book but NASA is a government agency and well, that's how they work. Watney is utterly fearless in his defense of her (because she made the right call) but odds are she's stuck planetside. There's also a decent amount of attention paid to the NASA ground team, as they frantically work on ways to keep Watney alive and to bring him home. There's a lot of attention to detail and the non-Watney parts of the books show that this was a team effort involving thousands of people at times across a number of nations, including the People's Republic of China (usually a rival of the United States) coming together in a common effort to save a man's life.

But the meat and potatoes (heh) of the book is Watney's struggle to avoid becoming the first man to die on another planet. Mars cuts this man no breaks, seriously this book could have been titled Mark Watney vs Mars. Unlike more fantasy oriented stories where a man is lost on Mars (or perhaps Barsoom), the Martian environment grants him no favors. Forget worrying about food or water, there's no air to breath except what he can make for himself. Of course he actually does have to worry about food and water on top of that. That said he does have some luck; given the hurried nature of the withdrawal, all of NASA's stuff got left behind! So that means he has a fully stocked habitat made of canvas, with an oxygenator and water generation system. He also has all the rations that the team would have eaten during the mission! Which he will have eaten his way through in several hundred days. Luckily for Watney, he's a botanist, and since NASA believes having only one job and not being cross-trained within an inch of your life and sanity is a sin worthy of the lowest circle of hell, he's also been trained in engineering. I like how there is an actual freak out where Watney screams and howls that he's fucked and doomed and so on and so forth. It makes him human. I also like that after a good night's sleep and a decent breakfast, he puts his big boy pants on and commits to fighting for every resource, every advantage and every second of life he can. Watney's will to survive and to do whatever it takes to live is his biggest and best advantage in this battle, because it doesn't matter what learning you have, or what tools you have at your disposal if you don't have the will to put it use. Watney displays that will in spades, but does so in a believable fashion. Engaging in black humor, moments of despair and worry but above all refusing to give up until he's actually dead. That's admirable.

This book also shows a conflict that I haven't really covered that often in this review series. That of man vs nature, most of the books I've reviewed have been man vs man (or man vs magic thingy but details). Honestly I usually prefer that kind of struggle. There's a certain depth that can only be acquired when two different intelligent beings are locked in a struggle in my opinion. That said, there are definitely things that can be done with man vs nature here that you cannot do with other struggles and it's a good idea to step back and appreciate just how dangerous “nature” can be. That can be a foreign idea to us in the first world sometimes. At least until a tornado hits, or an earthquake happens... or a firestorm engulfs an entire town. A reminder of just how frail we are against the universe is sometimes necessary, as is the showing of how far we’ve come in mastering our surroundings and how far we can go in mastering environments that nature never intended for us to experience. Mr. Weir using Mark Watney as a demonstration of these two ideas shows a great talent for communicating and showcasing both at once, which I find impressive. It's very easy for a story to stray over the line into navel gazing, maudlin moaning over the frailty of human life or stumble over into a boastful squeal of triumph of the will over nature itself. Instead Mr. Weir treads the line very well, letting us feel awe and fear at the sheer danger that the alien land of Mars represents, while displaying the determination and strength that allow Watney to survive against all odds in that environment.

The biggest weakness of the book is the format in my opinion. It's mostly done in a series of first person journal entries from Watney's point of view but doesn't let us really get to know the main character except what he chooses to write. We know he's a credit to the space program, very intelligent and determined and from Chicago but... not much more. I suppose that's a benefit in some ways. I don't know anything about Watney's political views, or his thoughts on religion, I'm not even sure what his hobbies are... I just know that he really hates disco and is the best damn botanist on Mars. Which helps make room for the readers to project onto him and make him over a bit in the reader's image. This isn't always a bad thing but I do find myself biased against it (blame Stephenie Meyer, who in my opinion abused the technique). I do hope in the future that Mr. Weir opts to go a little deeper on his character work. There's not much in the way of action here either, that said the book isn't what I would call boring by a long shot, but I am also left wondering how Mr. Weir would handle writing a more traditional action scene. Ah well, maybe next book.

The Martian is, despite my caviling, a great read. If you have even a vague interest in science or in the space program, hell if you enjoy stories like Robinson Crusoe, this book will have something for you. I'm giving The Martian by Andy Wier a -A. Go read it and watch the movie. You'll have fun.

Our yearly hiatus approaches! But first! We will ride forth from the Steppes and crush the thrones of the world beneath our feet! We will shake the pillars of heaven and reorder the earth! We will go forth with Genghis Khan!

This review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 09, 2016 9:11 pm 
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Genghis Khan
By Dr. Frank Mclynn


Trying to write a comprehensive biography of someone like Genghis Khan may not be the very definition of “doomed to failure” but it's likely as close a metaphor as any. While the Great Khan's life isn't in the dimly lit ancient past from which few contemporary works survive, he grew up on the bloody steppes surrounded by people who in some cases were unaware that learning to read or write was even an option! The Mongols and their various related peoples were in face so lacking when it came to written works that when they started their imperial enterprise... they adopted Uighur script and just paid a bunch of Uighur scribes to do the actual writing (well, until they had a bunch of conquered Chinese scribes to do it). What this boils down to is a lot of Genghis' early life and the life of his parents is based on oral tradition, an oral tradition that is frankly going to be geared towards the glorification of the most powerful and important Mongol man to have ever existed. Some might argue that I'm overstating things when I say important or that I am granting some type of approval. Let me state for the record that being important doesn't make you good or righteous. It just means that you have an undeniable impact on many lives around you and it's undeniable that Genghis Khan did. A note for the review, Genghis is not the guy's name. I am aware of that. I know his real name is Temujin, but the majority of my readers are way more familiar with the title Genghis then they are with the given name. So I will be referring to the Great Khan by his title and not his given name for this review.

All of that said, Frank Mclynn while openly admitting to the difficulties of the project jumps into it with both feet. Dr. Mclynn is a British professional writer and you would be correct in guessing that this isn't his first time at bat. He has been writing biographies and histories since 1981. So, longer than most of the people I know (and a number of you reading this I would guess) have been alive, basically. Among the biographies he's written are ones of Napoleon, Marcus Aurelius, and Carl Jung so he's had a lot of practice at this. Dr. Mclynn is also an academic, having been educated at Wadham College, Oxford, and the University of London. He's also been a research fellow (this is basically a position where they pay you to research things, independently or under the supervision of a Professor for a specific subject, often called a post doc) at St. Anthony's college, Oxford from 1987 to 1988. From 1996 to 2000 he was a visiting professor in the department of literature at the University of Strathclyde. His last academic post was at Goldsmith College of London when he served as professorial fellow from 2000 to 2002. Afterward he retired from academic life to write full time. This is his latest book having been released in 2015.

Dr. Mclynn starts by focusing on Genghis' father, who was a mongol chieftain, but not a conventional one. Instead of leading a group bound by family and clan ties, Genghis' father led a group of freebooters who were bound to him by personal loyalty, his own charisma and shares of loot given to them. While Genghis was very young when his father was killed by his enemies, I think it's pretty clear that his father's style of leadership was deeply imprinted on him. I'll come back to this, but the first point the book makes that isn't often bandied about is that Genghis not only defied the conventional mores of his society but was the son of a man who made a career doing so. The book also spends time with Genghis' mother, who was the person who did the most to raise him. Now we don't have a lot of information on this time period. Although Dr. Mclynn does draw from a source I didn't even know existed, the “secret history” of the Mongol court, written at the behest of the Mongol Khans after their conquests had brought them into the big leagues. This is an interesting thing to find out that the Mongol elites commissioned their own written history and suggests that the sons and grandsons of the Great Khan were trying very hard to ensure their and their people's place in history. However for the most part the secret history appeared to be the writing down of oral traditions and it very much has a political bias in making the Mongol ruling class look good, and Genghis specifically look amazing. Dr. Mclynn will point that out repeatedly in the book and show where there are holes in the narrative and where different accounts don't match up. Which is a point in the book's favor, as Dr. Mclynn does help the reader grasp the idea that the sources, even those written over 600 years ago often have their own agenda's and axes to grind and you need to keep that in mind and double check things when you can and yes, that includes this review series. These reviews after all are nothing more then my opinion.

One thing that every source does agree on is that Genghis was hard to control, even at a young age. An example given in this book (and every other bloody word I've read about Genghis) is Ghengis’ murder of his older brother over a fish. One thing that sets Dr. Mclynn apart from other authors is his providing context to the story. The first thing is that Mongols did not typically fish in those days, in fact it seems that Mongols had a large number of hang ups over water. This would be illustrated later in the laws made by the Mongols (such as never bathing in running water... this could not have helped their smell). Next, we learn that Genghis' brother at this point had made a habit of poaching food that Genghis had caught and eating it himself. Another tid bit is that we learn this was his eldest half brother, his father's son from another wife and a political competitor for what little inherence they could get. With this information, the act of Genghis killing his older brother over a fish becomes less a berserk act of rage and more a calculated act to remove a competitor who had repeatedly tormented him. A calculated murder that Genghis carried out at the age of about thirteen.

It's the providing of context for Genghis' actions and showing the culture that Genghis was operating in that allows Dr. Mclynn to paint a full picture of Genghis Khan: a man who emerged from the margins of his culture and through the use of charisma, political horse trading (sometimes literally), and loyalty bonds as much as through the use of military power and cold blooded ruthlessness, to unite his culture. It's clear that Genghis was driven by ambition, greed and rage but there is also a man who is concerned about his people and wanting to elevate them from a pack of barbarians on the edge of the civilized world to the rulers of all who live. I don't suggest that Genghis was soft hearted or nice; his method of elevating his people did involve the killing, enslavement, and maiming of millions of others to the point of near genocide in some nations after all. What's also interesting is that instead of a thoughtless barbarian who was lucky (this was the characterization of Genghis in some parts of my childhood) we actually see a thoughtful man who carefully and prudently plans his wars. Genghis paid close attention to logistics (a number of would be conquerors could have stood to learn that lesson) and to casualties. After uniting the Mongols for example, he spent years gathering information about Jin China, the empire that ruled the northern half of that nation, and embarked on a number of lesser campaigns to secure his flanks and rear before committing to that titanic struggle. Dr. Mclynn takes us through these campaigns and the logic behind them and shows us the long build up and information gathering that took place before any major efforts. So it becomes clear that Genghis while woefully uneducated was not a man who disdained education or careful thinking before action. This honestly helps explains a great deal of his success, as there are dozens if not hundreds of would be steppe conquers who came before and after Genghis and did not achieve a tenth of what he did. This book really does carry the idea that Genghis was something different even compared to other nomadic warlords.

We also take a good long look at Genghis' sons and at Genghis' favorite generals. Another aspect that's overlooked is the fact that Genghis may have assembled the best team of cavalry generals in history. Some of these guys I think even merit their own books, such as Jebe or Subutai. The story of Jebe alone is like something out of a fantasy novel. Jebe was a warrior in a rival tribe during Genghis' war to unite the steppes, in fact Jebe was one of the guys who came the closest to killing Genghis by shooting him in the neck with an arrow. When Genghis recovered and won the war, he asked who had shot him, and showing the kind of bravery that thrills storytellers, Jebe stepped forward and admitted to it. Genghis took the guy into his household and later made him a general. Jebe would make history by leading one of the longest and most massive cavalry raids in history; leading a force all the way around the Caspian Sea and into the Kievan Rus. Subutai ran away from home at the age of 14 to join Genghis' army. A commoner, he was able to rise to the rank of general. During his service he would command over 20 campaigns, conquer over 32 different nations and fight and win 65 battles. For those of you without a military background, that's pretty much like being the Michael Phelps of warfare. Among those campaigns were the Mongol attacks into Poland and Hungary, events which traumatized those nations for over a century.

The book is thick at over 500 pages and full of information. If there is one flaw here however, it would be Dr. Mclynn's need to insert French phrases every 20 pages or so. Which frankly smacks of showing off and slows everything down when you need to either plug things into Google translate to figure out what the author is trying to tell you or abandon figuring out the meaning of the sentence entirely. Some might argue that I shouldn't hold this as a flaw but I'm going to be blunt. Dr. Mclynn in his own foreword calls the book a popular history. If you're going to write for us plebeian masses, you should stick to the language we actually speak. I've met enough average Englishmen to know that they're not all fluent in French so this really feels like Dr. Mclynn is trying to show off how educated he is, which is a redundant effort when he has written books like this. This also seems to be recurring flaw in some sections of academia unfortunately, which in my view has the effect of limiting the spread of knowledge and information which is frankly sad as it should be their goal to do the exact opposite. But that's not the point of this work.

Genghis Khan is a great historical work that gives anyone interested in reading not an understanding of the accomplishments of Genghis Khan but of the people who made those accomplishments possible and the environment in which they took place. If you're interested in Asia or Central Asia, if you're interested in Genghis Khan, or if you want to take a look at one of the most successful campaigns of conquest in history go ahead and pick up this book. Genghis Khan by Dr. Frank Mclynn gets an -A because I really only have one major complaint with it.

On that note, it is time to go on our yearly vacation, I and hopefully my editor will be back January 13th. Until then, be safe, have fun and enjoy the eggnog! See you in 2017!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 10, 2016 10:12 pm 
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Subotai is in the running for being the best military commander in all of human history, right up there with Aléxandros ho Mégas. Between the two, it's hard to decide which one would be the number one. If you value personal badassery and prowess in combat Alexander is easily number one, but i think if measured only on the merits of command Subotai takes it. Though if you make it a matter of pure leadership, both military and political, then arguably it's Chingis Hán himself.

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 13, 2017 9:06 pm 
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Maker Space
By KB Spangler


Maker Space is the second Rachael Pen novel set in the universe of the web comic of A Girl and Her Fed. Luckily you don’t need to know anything about the web comic to enjoy the novels as the premise behind the books can be summed up pretty quickly. In the aftermath of 9/11, a wealthy industrialist, who interestingly enough became a Senator, donated a special kind of tech. An implant that allows whoever is implanted to access and exercise a level of control over all sorts of information technology. It also allows for instantaneous communication between people who are so implanted. Five hunred men and women from across the federal services were implanted, the idea being that this would allow for greater coordination between federal organizations. It didn’t go well and those men and women were left to quietly sink into madness. Until one agent found a way to control the implant and regained his life and then helped others regain theirs. Over a hundred agents died before that happened and some of them? They had help in dying. The agents quickly decided that going public was not just their moral responsibility but their best defense.

Racheal Peng, an American born Chinese gay woman and Army vet, in the wake of this revelation was assigned as liaison to the Washington DC Metro Police and was promptly ostracized by the cops as a fed-freak until she helped solve a murder case. That got her a promotion, a raise, the respect of her peers and co-workers, and a hell of a rep to live up to. In this story Peng learns that getting a reputation for success often means you have to live with the expectations that it brings. Which is that everyone expects you to keep succeeding. Even if everyone else is failing.

When the biggest terrorist strike since 9/11 happens right down the street killing an entire street full of people in broad daylight (seriously there’s only one survivor from the attack and he’s maimed for life), she’s going to have her hands full. Because there are no suspects, no motive and damn few clues that she can find in the rubble and ruins of way-to-many people’s lives. Worse, as the panic and anger builds, she has to deal with the fact that a lot of folks are thinking that this attack was an in-house job. By which I mean they think the attack was carried out by the US government. She needs to find those clues, figure out the motive, and catch the bombers before the concerned citizens of DC and perhaps the whole country decide that this was done to them by their own government and become a screaming mob. Worst of all, Agent Peng also has to deal with the fact that the technology to do this is commonplace, easy to find and can’t be controlled.

These two things are kind of at the heart of the novel. The increasing distrust (both for good and bad reasons) of the government mixed in with the fact that the information and technology to do incredibly bad things at increasingly large scales is becoming more and more commonplace as well as harder and harder to control. We the People find ourselves at the mercy of the most unbalanced among us, while dependent on the protection of a government that seems at time completely uninterested in actually protecting us and untrustworthy when it does. While I personally do not believe the situation is as bad as it seems (because believe it or not I believe that the government is still made up of people who are trying to help more than people looking to lord it over others) I can understand why people feel that way. All I can really do is point to the facts that tell us that violence is actually at a very low point in human history whether it be crime or warfare (There’s a book about this that I am actually going to review this year). I’ll admit that’s no assurance that it will stay that though.

All of that said this is not a bleak or despairing book, but a rather hopeful one all things considered. Part of that is our introduction to the Maker Community, a group of young (and not so young) nerds who are committed to making things that help rather than harm and have created a working code to ensure they stay in those bounds. It’s even better when you realize this group is based on real people across the entire country who live this ideal out to the best of their ability everyday. Part of it is the fact that the book shows us people trying to help one another even in the middle of a riot. While the novel gives us no easy solutions to the issues here, it also points out that if we continue to work together and remember that we are not enemies, then we can find a solution. It will take time, it will take effort but a solution will be found.

For that matter, this book is actually pretty bullish on technology, mostly in the person of Agent Peng who makes a valid if somewhat military centric counterpoint. Because of social media, enlisted men and women can talk and air concerns at a speed and over distances unconceivable in prior times. This means that the brass cannot simply ignore those concerns or bulldoze through the protests of the enlisted. I'm sure that someone will come along and blubber about military discipline but my rejoinder is that maintaining discipline is not an excuse for lies, cover ups, and the use of rank as a club to silence real concerns and doubts. As it is the enlisted men and women who do the actually fighting and work, not the politicians at home and not even the generals and other upper rank officers who lead them, they have every right to expect those concerns and criticisms to be meet in a thoughtful, honest and mature manner. If we are expected to fight, sweat, and bleed for a cause, we should after all have a right to a full accounting. Agent Peng frames this mostly in the context of crimes committed in the armed forces because she was a member of the military investigation branch (The Criminal Investigation Command, CID). I will note that one thing that isn't covered is the perverse negative incentive that unit commanders find themselves saddled with. See Officers and Senior NCOs get promoted if their unit does well and is generally clean. A unit where someone was murdered or raped by another member of that unit is not doing well and is not clean, regardless of the circumstances. So if CID finds one of your troops or god forbid one of your leaders is guilty, you can kiss your chances of promotion in many cases goodbye. Even if you had nothing to do with it. Now, there are a great many honest Captains, Gunnery Sgts and more who take the hit because it's the right thing to do or because it's their duty to their troops. They get punished. There are also those who work to block or slow investigations, if they are successful, they are rewarded. I think most of my readers are clever enough to figure out where this leads in many cases. The great strides in communication and recording technology has made covering things up harder. This is a benefit not only to people who have been victimized but to everyone.

The book also brought up the benefits that technology can bring through the makers and the agents. If the downside is the mass spread of often dangerous knowledge, that's also the upside as we are shown people using that knowledge to toil (often with little reward) for the betterment of their fellow human beings. They are not presented as saints, having their own odd quirks and hazing rituals, but as people trying to make good and beautiful things for others. This has the benefit of ringing a lot more truthful than an urban monastery of saintly tech wizards. I have had some limited experience with the maker community here in Phoenix myself and I can tell you on the main, they tend to be good people with a strong desire to create. So the book manages to convey a good experience on a small but driven and hopefully growing community. The villains are themselves not painted in black, but as real people pushed to extremes by events beyond their control and by reasons that are all too heartbreakingly human. Despite the fact that their actions were inexcusable and frankly mass murder... I found myself feeling sorry for the poor bastards. More than I ever thought I would anyways. Ms. Spangler seems to have a gift for showing us that even the people who do terrible things are still people.

I am glad that I picked up the second book in this series and I find myself being pulled to the 3rd (expect a review on that book to before too long at this rate. Ms. Spangler used her novel to paint a picture with a great many different shades of gray that manages to avoid becoming a depressing slog through grim darkness. That's a hard line to walk but she does it by reminding her reader that while there are always downsides to technology and changes, there are almost always upsides as well. She also reminds us that no matter the changes we go through, there will still be good people out there trying to use whatever they can to make things a little better. Maker Space by KB Spangler gets an A.

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 20, 2017 10:39 pm 
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Log Horizon V
By Mamare Touno

Does anybody know what time is it? Why festival time of course! I mean when you've established a government, created an economy, won a war and made peace with the neighbors? Why wouldn't you throw a party? And that is what the 5th installment of the Log Horizon series focuses on, the first Autumn Festival of Akiba and the consequences there of. In case you haven't read the reviews on the last 4 books, let me cover the basics. The game of Elder Tales is the most popular MMO in the world, using a fantasy setting on a half sized world map, it's played in almost every nation on the planet. So when the creators of Elder Tales announces a new expansion, people flock to be online during the release. This turns unfortunate as everyone who was online for the release wakes up to find themselves within the world of Elder Tales. It gets even stranger as the world becomes real, with the NPCs during into real people with their own feelings, thoughts, and desires. Lucky for our heroes, everyone who did trasition over did so with their in game abilities and gear, meaning that they still have access to all their firepower and the ability to respawn. That doesn't make battle any the less terrifying, or death any less painful however. As 30,000 people hovered on the brink of despair and panic, our hero Shiroe uses his brains and his friends and every other resource he can to get everyone organized and give them a reason to keep going on with their lives. Shiroe ain't the only person pursuing his goals in this brand new world however and not all of these people are as benevolent as he is.

The book opens with the Autumn festival about the begin and that means marketplaces, special foods, events and parties! It also means manuevers of the romantic kind. Honestly these days I tend to wince when I run across romantic plot lines. Most writers simply don't seem to do them well, or engage in some really cringe worthy relationships (If I started listing authors who did that, we'd be here all day, feel free to insert your favorite one here and we'll keep moving). There are the special snowflakes that do both of course, but thankfully Mamare Touno avoids that despite playing with fire. I'll get to that in a moment but first I want to talk about the actual conflict the book. Which is a group of People of the Earth (the natives of the world who were NPCs when this thing was a video game) are deliberately trying to cause a fuss in the festival as a sort of underhanded social/economic attack. Shiroe needs to marshal his allies and organize them while not letting the regular adventurers and People of the Earth know that this is even happening to maintain confidence in the government and ensure that the festival goes off without a hitch. Additionally he has to make sure that their best ally the Princess Raynesia doesn't get hit in this attack either, which may be easier said than done. It's in this bit that I run one of the reasons I enjoy reading works from other nations, because it's always so interesting to see how people see themselves as opposed to how you see them. For example when Shiroe notes that trying to undermine confidence in the government is a silly tactic because gosh darn it the adventurers are all Japanese and as such are to cynical to have any such confidence... Well I almost laughed my head off.

Like most of my readers, I'm an American but as a Marine I spent time in Japan (specifically Okinawa which has some cultural differences from the rest of Japan but is fairly culturally Japanese... (Just think the differences between say Florida and Louisiana as an example). By my standards the Japanese had an extreme high trust (one could say nearly disturbingly high) trust in their government, then again I'm from right north of Texas, where a number of citizens lose their minds when a routine military exercise occurs... You know what? Let me get back to the romance plot…

A big subplot of this novel is a love triangle of sorts, in where Akatsuki and Minori have started competing for Shiroe's attention and love. This of course leads to a lot embarrassment and confusion for Shiroe, who doesn't seem to have learned to decline things gracefully or deal with awkward social situations. I have to admit I'm not huge fan of this sub plot, partially because I'm honestly kind of done with love triangles. Let's be honest most of them are poorly done, take up to much time and used as a cheap way to inject unneeded drama into a plot (I'm looking at you, just about every bloody X Men writer ever who thought I wanted a poorly done soap opera in my superhero comic!). It doesn't help that some writers seem to think they're a requirement for any group with more then 2 girls or 3 guys. This love triangle is made extra awkward by the fact that Minori isn't even in high school and Shiroe and Akatsuki are both graduate students (or were before being transported to a medieval fantasy world). Thankfully, Mr. Touno never lets it get creepy, Minori's feelings for Shiroe are a to be blunt about it a student crush on a gifted and kind teacher. Shiroe for his own part makes it clear by the end of the book that while he sees Minori as a protege and gifted student and... that's it. Of course Shiroe's relationship with Akatsuki remains stalled due to both of them having the social skills of drunken mice, not to mention that Shiroe is dense enough to qualify as some new type of black hole. I got to be honest and say it's kinda aggravating. Can we just have two people be attracted to each other and then have one of them ask the other one out? Not every time, but you know... Try it out once! Just to see if we like it?

Lastly we have new villain revealed at the end of the story that Shiroe of course already knows about. This really flopped for me, not the new villain who is an adventurer not unlike Shiroe who pulled her own adventurer city together, organized a government and made peace with the locals. It's just Shiroe knows all about her and her city without having made any efforts on screen. It's a cheap way to make him look smart without giving the reader a chance to follow along and it's very tell don't show. Additionally not a lot of time is devoted to what should be a major reveal. So there's not a development going on here either. I found it disappointing.

Log Horizon Volume V is an alright book, but it doesn't deliver on being a slice of life or on being a good transition from one plot arc to the next. In fact it's frankly the weakest novel in the series so far. That said it isn't terrible and avoids a lot of the major pit falls of it's genre and plots here. It just doesn't do anything beyond dodge those pitfalls and give us a lack luster transition. Because of that Log Horizon Volume V by Mamare Touno gets a C. There are worse ways to kill an hour or two but there are also a lot better.

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 27, 2017 8:39 pm 
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The Magicians
By Lev Grossman


Published in 2009 by Viking Press (which is owned by Penguin Random House), The Magicians is a fantasy novel by Lev Grossman. Let me talk about him for a minute. Mr. Grossman comes from a talented family, his twin brother (Austin Grossman) is a video game designer and novelist, his sister Bathsheba is a noted sculptor and his father is a poet while his mother is a novelist herself. Mr. Grossman himself started out in journalism (as a number of the writers who show up on this series seem to do) where he's written for the New York Times, Salon, Village Voice, Wired, and the Wall Street Journal. He also wrote one of the first reviews of the Twilight series; yes the one with the sparkling vampires. So he was well versed in writing when he turned his hand to novels. His first novel Warp was published in 1997 about an aimless 20 something in Brooklyn. His second novel Codex was published in 2004. The Magicians and its follow up books are the most well received of his creations.

The Magicians is set in the modern day with the main character being Quentin Coldwater. Quentin is a genius, one of those kids whose gifts in certain subjects seem to have no limits but he's miserable. His parents have basically adopted an attitude of benign neglect towards him and his two best friends have paired up. This really sucks for him because one of them, the girl named Julia? He has a crush on her but she doesn't feel that way for him. At the beginning of the book they're all lining up for an interview into Princeton but things get off track. The interviewer dies and due to a couple events, Quentin instead finds himself testing for an entirely different school; a school where he's not gonna learn chemistry or Hindi or Western History. Nope, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy as you might have guessed from the title, teaches fucking magic. It's one of the greatest schools of magic in the world and the only magic school in North America. In fact Quentin is one of only 20 kids who get in. Everyone else who fails the exam? They’re supposed to get their memories wiped out and sent off to live in blissful ignorance of the opportunity they screwed up.

Brakebills is more like a real school than Hogwarts, the school work is difficult and boring, the teachers run the gamut from interesting and helpful to so unhelpful you think they're malevolent, but never unprofessional. It's a very realistic way school in it's own way, with the students given a lot of time to themselves since they're all high school graduates. Which makes a certain amount of sense. Magic in The Magicians is hard, finicky and requires a lot of concentration and attention to detail. The consequences for making a mistake can be pretty bad. In fact there are some magical works where making a mistake means lethal consequences... If you're lucky. If you're unlucky you'll attract the wrong kind of attention and learn real fast that humans are not on the top of this totem pole. If you're really unlucky you'll find yourself being moved up that totem pole and I don't mean as a promotion. Mr. Grossman doesn't spend a lot of time detailing how his magical system works beyond communicating that is incredibly complicated, complex, and somewhat tedious. On the flip side if memorizing 900 pages of grammar and moon cycles is all it takes to create a tardis in my backpack then so be it.
While at Brakebills Quentin falls in with the Physical kids (Magicians are broken down into specializations called disciplines, which in turn are lumped into groups which turn into student cliques) and... man these kids need some mentors! We got Eliot who is from a rural Christian family, bullied as a child for being gay and a semi-functioning alcoholic due to familial rejection. We have Janet, who is in love with Eliot and angry at the entire planet. We’ve got Josh, whose magical power and ability wax and wane randomly and he can barely pass Brakebills. We have Alice, who is smarter than Quentin and more responsible due to growing up in a dysfunctional magical family and losing her brother to a magic spell gone wrong, despite this she is, frankly, dumb enough to jump into bed with Quentin... no one's perfect I guess. We also have the in-and-out again character of Penny; a wannabe punk who is pretty anti-social and serves as kind of competitor for Quentin. Honestly he's the most like Quentin out of all the characters and I frankly dislike him for that. All these kids are carrying weights that any reasonable and interested adult could have helped them come to terms with. Which, you know might be a priority since we are handing them the keys to reshape reality to their whim? Maybe? Anyone? Frankly, if this is the kind of attention given to growing magicians, it's a wonder they haven't shattered the planet yet. That said, Brakebills has a higher survival rate than Hogwarts so maybe I'm judging them too harshly (send your kid to Brakebills! 30% more likely to survive here then other magical schools!). I also really wish we spent more time on these characters, as they’re all more interesting then our main character. There was a point when I was 2/3rds of the way into the story asking myself: why is Quentin the main character and not Alice or Eliot or even Josh? All of them are fighting much harder battles against greater burdens.

I suppose this does tie into the main theme of the Magicians book. Which is power by itself doesn’t really solve anything. None of these people are made happier by their access to power and easy wealth. It doesn’t make them better, smarter or wiser people. If anything it just seems to increase the avenues for self destruction and delusion. It’s an interesting choice of theme for the book and runs counter to a number of other such books where learning magic and gaining the power it grants does solve your problems. Although in their defense I will point out that usually means tripping into new, bigger problems. Here, while there is a monster or 10 lurking out in the darkness waiting to do bad things to our protagonists, their biggest problem and greatest danger is their own flaws and weakness… And the shit they do to each other because of those flaws of course. The biggest problem preventing me from fully appreciating this theme and others however, is the main character himself.

I refer to of course Quentin himself, who has the least issues out of all these kids but manages to be the biggest jackass of them all. Quentin's issue is that he can't stop feeling sorry for himself and just grow up. It's not until after he graduates Brakebills that he really gets stuck in my craw though. That when he decides despite being a genius, with the very stuff of the universe at his fingertips, being able to go anywhere and do anything he wants? He's gonna squat in New York City and get drunk and high every night with Eliot. I can understand Eliot's chemical dependency here, which frankly is a cry for help more then anything but Quentin? He is just being childish and letting himself rot. People like that frustrate me to no end. I'm not a genius, nor am I naturally gifted, most of us aren't and that's honestly likely a good thing. It teaches us to work and strive for what we want and to value our achievements, I think. Or perhaps I'm just clawing for silver linings, you decide my good reader! Quentin having gifts that most us can only dream of and options that are almost infinite, sees fit to whine and mope about his rather mundane and frankly solvable issues. If your life is in a rut you don't need magic to fix it, you need the willingness to break out of the rut. If your relationship is rocky, you need to sit down with your loved one and talk out your problems, maybe go to a professional for counseling. But Quentin of course can't do any of that because it's not self destructive enough. If you're like me, you'll want to smack him in the mouth by page 25 and by page 50 you want to grab him by the ear and force him to start growing up but at this point I think I hit old man screaming about those damn kids levels so I'll stop here.

Another major plot point is the not-so-imaginary land of Fillory, which Quentin is quietly obsessed about (in fact every magical kid seems to have read and been fan of this series... Huh). The Fillory series was written by a gent by the name of Christopher Plover who detailed the adventures of the Chatwick kids next door going to another world and coming back. The novel series was unfinished however due to the untimely death of the writer. So imagine everyone's shock when not only is this magical land real, but there's a way to get there. However, the land of Fillory has been through some rather harsh changes and isn't the same place as the books anymore. The guardian gods of the land are missing and the people are at odds and terrified of the various dark evils that now roam free without check. I have mixed feelings about Fillory because while it's a rather awesome set up, Mr. Grossman seems to also want to make it some type of sarcastic retort to Narnia and other child fantasy worlds. On the one hand, the image of a smoking birch tree in a bar with a bear who drinks peach schnapps is great and I love it. On the other hand taking swings at Narnia is rather silly. Yes, it was unreal and very black and white... Narnia is a Christian Children's Story! If you walk into a story like that expecting shades of gray, you're going to be disappointed. I'm also disappointed that Fillory was honestly a place where we spent very little time. I could have done with less New York City and less of Quentin going home. That said I'm willing to be forgiving as this book is covering over 5 years. Fillory however, does shine when you realize... this is a real place that's suffering a dark age, their gods have disappeared, they have no real rulers and their greatest hope is that 4 people from another planet will come along and pick up some crowns. That's pretty dark when your hope is that a band of aliens will take power and deliver you from elder beings who lurk in the darkness outside your window. Mr. Grossman doesn't shy away from this and is clearly working to make Fillory stand on it's own. So while I don't approve of his jabs, I feel them forgivable as we all have moments of weakness, but spending more time here and less in the mundane world would have real helpful in giving Fillory legs of it's own.

There's very little whimsy in The Magicians, although there are moments of wonder. Clearly drawing it's inspiration from a wide variety of fiction but putting his own stamp on it Mr. Grossman presents us his idea of what a hidden world would look like. This setting does however owe a heavy debt to the works that come before it and it shows in the writing. That's not a terrible thing but it is something to keep in mind. Still it is a world with wonders and delights to sate any desire but it can only be as great as the eyes that view it. This becomes a weak point for the story as the eyes we see it through are Quentin's and he is bound and determined to suck out all the joy. Honestly Quentin is my biggest complaint in this story. I cannot bring myself to like him and there are points where the story becomes somewhat bogged down with his constant childishness. That said there are hints of a much better person in Quentin, for example at the end of the book he accepts his mistakes and does his best to atone for them when it turns out he can't fix them. He overdoes it of course but at least he tried. The book is very well written, with great supporting characters who deserve more time and an interesting setting. As a result I am giving The Magicians a B. It's miles better than average yes, but between the main character and the heavy debt the setting owes and never quite gets away from, it still needs some work I think. That said if Quentin Coldwater doesn't make you want to chew someone's face off then it's easily a B+, bluntly this book comes down to how well you can tolerate the main character.

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 03, 2017 8:46 pm 
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Ravine
Written by Stjepan Sejic and Ron Marz

Mr. Sejic is becoming one of the most featured people on this review series, he is a Croatian comic book artist and writer and I've covered him in both my second Rat Queens review (Oct 2015) and in Death Vigil (Oct 2016). I've really enjoyed his work and I really enjoy fantasy so picking up a fantasy comic by him wasn't a hard choice. Ravine is an epic fantasy comic written by Mr. Sejic and Ron Marz (yes, I'll get to him) published in 2013 by Top Cow, which I discussed in the Death Vigil review so I'm not going to retread that ground. Instead let's talk about Mr. Marz.

Ron Marz has been writing comics since at least 1991, which means his work is measured in decades. He's worked for Marvel, DC, Darkhorse, Image (and through Image, Top Cow), and Valiant; and was a writer for several Crossgen comics (Oh Crossgen, you keep coming up and I keep pushing back when I talk about your story). Ron Marz is likely best known for his work in DC however, especially his work on Green Lateran, specifically a story known as Emerald Twilight. That's the story line where Hal Jordan went insane and became a mass murderer and Kyle Rayner became a green lantern; and for awhile at least the only Green Latern. How you feel about that is going to come down to how you feel about Kyle. For the record I like Kyle (at least more than Hal) but I didn't care for turning the Green Lantern Corps into the Green Lantern dude. The argument was that being part of a Corps meant he wasn't special, my response to that is taking away the Corps means he's pretty much just like all the other heroes on Earth. So instead why not embrace the entire sci-fi magic insanity part of it? I should stop here since this isn't a GL review.

Ravine is an epic fantasy set in a world that has been deeply shaped by the relationship between dragons and men. Magic is a gift from dragons to mankind, to aide in their survival dragons changed men into different races as they confronted new magical threats. It's hinted at here that dragons have come into the world of mortals from a different world and brought baggage with them. Most of that information comes from a short story and appendix in the back of the comic, however none of that is really necessary to understand the story itself so I'm not going to ding the comic for it. I will however take points off for how one of the main characters is introduced and honestly for the prologue. Ravine opens up with a massive battle full of people we don't know anything about fighting for reasons that... I honestly find myself indifferent to. It's told to us in narration boxes while splashing the page full of truly beautiful battle art but without any investment into it, I'm left cold. The prologue is meant to introduce us to our villains but honestly I'm left confused as to their motivations and desires. This isn't a bad sequence though, it just lacks context to make it meaningful in any way. If it had been moved to later in the series after the heroes had run into the villains and were trying to learn about them then it would have been a good reveal I think. I can't say the same for our introduction to one of our main characters Stein, where we met him surrounded by a band of adventurers... As he's leaving to go follow a migrating... flock of dragons? Flight of dragons? What do you call a group of dragons anyways? He's following them to some semi-mythical gathering place so he can loot a bunch of dragon scales and sell them off to retire filthy rich. Of course we have one of the party members muttering about how Stein is bitter behind his smile and carries a burden beyond his tender years... All things we've seen packed into everything from bad fan fiction to worse movies. Don't tell he's bitter behind a laughing facade, or that he carries burdens beyond that of mortal men... show me! It's just pretentious and eye rolling to have some character I never see again pontificating about it as the main character wakes away to be edgy.

As you might guess, I don't like Stein. A big deal is made of him but he doesn't do much besides run around at the edges of what looks to me as the real plot. Frankly if I had been the editor I would have told Mr. Sejic not to waste the comic space but use it to greater effect on the things revealed to us with the other main character's story, that being the dragon riding redhead Lynn. Lynn's personal story isn't anything all that special. She's the heir of a nation training in secret to be a dragon rider because the military strength that dragon riders bring is important enough that even heir's to the throne get risked in the rather dangerous training. Honestly I would have thought that if this is a feudal system that dragon riders would be the lords, them or mages. I've never been able to figure out feudal systems where the people with the most military strength don't have elite social positions, especially those modeled off of the western feudal systems. Those were founded on the idea if that if you had a lot of military strength, you got to be a social and economic elite too. Here we learn that Lynn is dreading losing her freedom to the throne (fantasy protagonist plot #3 I believe) but will have to assume the throne because (say it with me) her parents are dead!

Additionally she and her nation are being sucked into a conflict between the feudal lords and the local church. The Church of Damanal worships an imprisoned god, trapped below a mountain. The leader of the church, the hero of the last epic war has been subverting feudal lords and soldier into following him instead of their kings. This of course begs the question, who imprisons a god and why would you imprison a god? Any answer that I can come up with leaves me asking why worshiping this guy is a good idea. That doesn't make people worshipping the imprisoned god unrealistic mind you, just likely not a good idea. Honestly this conflict is the part I like most about the book besides Lynn hanging out with her military friends, worrying about how adulthood is going to go. Lynn of course complicates everything by deciding during her knighting ceremony to make a go for a Grimlas: super magic weapons with spirits living in them. Of course drawing one means you lose all title and are sentenced to wander about doing whatever you please. This is backed up by divine mandate so I don't question it has much but I am lukewarm on the super magic weapon bit, especially since on that front all we get in this story is set up for what they might be able to do.

Ravine is densely packed and takes a bit of reading to unwind. There's good ideas here and some interesting characters but the execution is spotty and there are also not-so-good ideas and characters. Frankly Mr. Sejic ends up trying to do too much here and the story suffers for it. This was written before Death Vigil (2 years before) and I can clearly see the lessons he learned in focus and pacing. Frankly I would advise a rewrite, this is reads a lot like a 1st draft of what might become a great epic fantasy but is in need of a lot of work. While I found some interesting stuff in here I find myself having to give Ravine by Stjepan Sejic a C-. If you want to see what he's really capable of, go read Death Vigil.

This review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 10, 2017 10:53 pm 
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Emperor of the Eight Islands: The Tale of Shikanoko
By Lian Hearn (Gillian Rubinstein)


Published in 2016, Emperor of the Eight Islands (EEI from here on) is a fantasy story set in I Can't Believe It's Not Japan. Released under the name Lian Hearn, the writer, Ms. Rubinstein, was born in England in 1942 growing up in the countryside and splitting her teen years between English boarding schools and her mother and stepfather's home in Nigeria (her father died when she was 14). She studied languages in Oxford and worked in London and Europe as an editor, freelance journalist and film critic before moving to Australia in 1973, she remains there with her husband Philip with whom she has had 3 children, all adult now. She released her first book in 1986 (Space Demons which won a number of awards and was fairly popular), since then she has written over 30, as well as 8 plays and a vast number of articles and short stories. She began writing under the name Lian Hearn in 2001 when she released Across the Nightingale floor, which was the first of a five book series set in a fictional feudal Japan. As I mentioned earlier EEI is also set in a Japanese style setting but is a fantasy. Ms. Rubinstein has insisted that she is not a fantasy writer and these books shouldn't be necessarily considered fantasy. While I can't speak to her other books, in this book the main character gains magic powers through a ritual where he is imbued with power through a deer bone mask. There are spirits, magical creatures and more. This book is a fantasy and I have to wonder at attempts to declare it as anything but some strange denial. I have to wonder if this is part of the idea that fantasy novels cannot be adult or serious.

This idea lead Scott Bakker's professors to mock his stories as children's books and for others to suggest that you cannot be writing anything with any real depth or impact if you dare put an elf or have some magic knocking around. Which frankly is a ridiculous idea. Yes, there are plenty of silly or bad novels published in the genres of sci-fi and fantasy but to be blunt more than a fair share of “serious literature” is made up of self-indulgent pretentious crap that could have issued forth from your average three year old. We all remember the books that our english teachers insist are great but you find yourself utterly loathing. Ghettoizing genres just because we don't care for them is a sign of immaturity in my opinion. I don't care for romance novels but I won't declare the genre worthless, I'm sure there's at least two or three romance novels worth reading, just damn if I'm gonna spend the time to find them. Let me actually talk about the book.

EEI has a host of characters who all share several things in common. They tend to be unlucky, whether it's in having their father's die young and thus turning them into a victim for power grasping uncles; or having fathers who decide to break your little brother's marriage so you can marry his wife; or having an enemy with vast magic powers and royal protection. Secondly, they all make terrible decisions or convince themselves that they have no choice but to make terrible decisions. The second one is honestly very true to life and I have to congratulate Mrs. Rubinstein on capturing that so well. I mean the book opens with a terrible decision when the main character Shikanko's father decides to go play Go with a group of tengu (Japanese Birdmen, who sort straddle the line between goblins and fairies in their mythology). As you might guess, Shikanko's father never makes it back and his mother decides to get herself to a nunnery leaving the boy in the not-so-tender care of his Uncle. When Shikanko (side note, that's not the story that Shikanko starts the story with, but since it's the one he uses most often and the one he prefers, it's the one I'm using for this review) approaches manhood, his Uncle decides it would be best if Shikanko had a hunting accident. Fortunately, he's as skilled at creating hunting accidents as he is an honest and honorable man, being perhaps the only person to actually kill a deer when he was just using it as cover for an assassination attempt. Then again, Shikanko's Uncle was only able to take power when circumstances cleared away all opponents so maybe I'm expecting too much of him when I expect him to be able to kill an unarmed teenage boy. In fact, he makes such a hash of it, not only killing a member of the wrong species but the way the killing took place allowed Shikanko to be able to access the mystic power of the deer. Shikanko encounters a mountain sorcerer who, in a long magical ritual, carves him a mask from the bones of the deer that died in his place, allowing him to become something much greater than he ever would have without that assassination attempt. Thus our story beings.

The main driver of the story is a dynastic dispute over who should inherit the throne. The Emperor is old and frail and while the Crown Prince has a lot of supporters and is reasonably competent, he's got enemies. A member of the royal family, known as the Prince Abbot (because he's a Prince and an Abbot) is a wealthy and politically powerful man who is also a powerful wizard. Served by monks, warriors, and magical creatures such as talking birds called werehawks who serve has his spies and couriers. The Prince Abbot is looking to place his own candidate (a nephew of his) on the throne. Not himself of course, as being a Buddhist Monk, he can't hold a throne. Our next character is the guy who pulls Shikanko into these politics: Lord Kiyoyuri of Kuromori. Lord Kiyoyuri is a man with bad luck, who makes worse decisions. His bad luck comes in the form of the death of his first wife and his rather cold blooded father. While Kiyoyuri is in deep mourning of a woman he cared for and loved, his father decides not to waste an unmarried child. So he announces to both his sons (Kiyoyuri and Masachika) that he's going to have Masachika's marriage broken up and have Kiyoyuri marry the girl instead. To Kiyoyuri's credit, he argues against this but being a Feudal Japanese Noble, gives in when his Dad puts his foot down. I expected this but found it disappointing as I would really like for someone to just “Well, yes we could do that honored parent and I could also take my knife and make myself head of the clan in a sudden and tragic homicidal stabbing accident. Let's both agree we should back off from having ideas for a while okay?”

Sadly not to be, instead both brothers yield to their father's will. This also means Masachika gets sent off to a rival clan to marry their daughter. Splitting your kids up and sending them over to rival teams was actually a fairly common practice in Japan back then. The rationale being: that way no matter who won the fight, at least one family member stood a fairly good chance of being alive and in the good graces of the winner. It... worked often enough to justify the scheme. This leads us to the Lady Tama, who found herself passed between brothers like she was a football. I honestly appreciate the story giving her some agency and goals. She makes her own bad decisions, which I won't spoil but I will say she misjudged which brother was the better man and by the end of the story she knows it. She is also bound and determined to keep her family lands and home and if she has to do so over everyone's dead bodies so much the worse for them. I respect someone who has clear goals and is willing to commit to them. That said, this book is clearly a prelude to the rest of her story so she doesn't get much time on the page. Most of it is given to Kiyoyuri and Shikanko.
Both of them get pulled into the civil war that flares up in this book but from different ends so to speak. In Kiyoyuri's case his story is a fairly straight forward and mundane one. He is a feudal lord trying to keep faith with his lord. He does this by fighting and bringing his own men who can fight in support of his lord's cause. Things get complicated when his son gets kidnapped and he has to make decisions that he frankly isn't built to make wisely and his family pays for it. The fantastic elements of the story weave in and out of this hitting Kiyoyuri without warning and he is utterly defenseless against them. Nor does he understand these mystic powers and the people who use them. Despite this, he tries to do what he believes he’s suppose to. Shikanko on the other hand is on a very mystic and strange journey that would seem to have next to nothing to do with anyone else except for the fact that our Prince Abbot keeps pulling him in. The Prince Abbot flat out wants Shikanko working for him and is willing to train him and teach him and reward him if that's what it takes. He's also willing to utterly destroy him and tear him apart if that's what it takes too. So Shikanko has to decide in this book if he's going to take a position as the student and servant of a man willing to murder thousands of people to put a puppet on a throne or fight a man who commands armies both magical and mundane. He has to make this decision while struggling to understand just what it is that he's been given and what the stakes are in this game. In short he has to make a decision when he's the least equipped to and at the worst possible time to get it wrong. Isn't that just life in a nutshell?

Emperor of the Eight Islands is an interesting and fast-paced story where Mrs. Rubinstein has managed to capture the feeling and sights of feudal Japan fairly well and infuse it with a magical side that is wondrous and strange with amazing powers and dark secrets that people will kill for. That said there is a bit too much going on in this book. At 250 pages, a number of the characters and stories are basically just set up. Almost half the book is used to set up stories that will be told in sequel books and not brought to any satisfying conclusion in this one. Which you know, does affect the grade. If you're a fan of Japanese culture or you would like some magic heavy political skullduggery in a book that doesn't imitate a brick, then this is one is for you. Just keep in mind to see everything through you are committing to buying at least one more book. I'm putting Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn at a C+. It's an interesting story and it's going interesting places but if it's going to do this much set up you could at least take another 20 or 40 pages to bring everyone to a good stopping point.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 17, 2017 9:33 pm 
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Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon
by David Barnett


Published in 2014, this book is the sequel to the book Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, which was reviewed here. I am going to warn everyone up front: there are spoilers for the first book in here. Taking place in a steampunk clockwork world where the British Empire still reigns supreme over the American colonies and most of the world in the year of our lord 1890, the first book gave us Gideon's rise to heroic status and his first mission to avenge the murder of his father and prevent the destruction of London by an Ancient Egyptian made superweapon: the aforementioned Brass Dragon. The Mechanical Girl in the title refers to Maria, a woman made of clockwork, kid leather, a murdered women's brain and tied together using a strange artifact found on a shipwreck in the Atlantic ocean. At the close of the last book, Gideon saved London and avenged his father but managed to have the dragon and Maria hijacked out from under him. To be honest it's not bad for a first attempt at heroism all things considered.

This book, the second in the series picks up with Gideon having completed several weeks of firearm and hand to hand combat training and being sent out into the world. His first mission is to recuse a pair of British Scientific and Action icons, the Professor of Adventure Stanford Rubicon and the steam powered cyborg Charles Darwin. Both of these gentlemen have been shipwrecked in Japanese waters (I'll come back here) on the mysterious island known only as Sector 31, the Lost World, which is full of you guessed it.. Dinosaurs. It's a sadly brief section but I enjoyed it. After finishing this mission Gideon finally gets the mission he wants, he gets sent off to North America to find the Brass Dragon and Maria and bring them back to English hands.

It's a strange and fractured North America that Gideon is being sent to, at least to our eyes. The West Coast is in Japanese hands, although they are mainly focused in California. This comes from when Emperor Komei of Japan was infected with smallpox, a Japanese scientist figured out a way to keep him alive using well... Steampunk Cybornetics to replace his blood daily. Aghast at his father turning into a high tech (well by their standards high tech) vampire and realizing there's not a lot for the heir of an immortal machine Emperor to do, Mutsuhito, heir to the Japanese throne fled with his followers to California to establish a more progressive and less blood drinky version of Japan. Louisiana is still ruled by the French government, given that the Louisiana purchase never happened. To be honest I don't view that as realistic, but the book doesn't go into that so I'll let it go. Meanwhile over in the east, the British government still rules the colonies, due to a mysterious British hero named Gideon stopping Paul Revere's ride (if this isn't a clear and obvious time travel set up then I don't what is, but we'll have to see). The exception to this is the Deep South, which split when slavery was abolished. This led to the British government building a vast wall across the border. British control doesn't extend very deep into the continent however, with a part of the interior under the control of the Free States of America, where various rebels fled when the revolution failed and Texas being split into warlord states. The wealthiest and most powerful of these being Steamtown ruled by the madman Thaddeus Pinch.

Steamtown, built where our own San Antonio is, became wealthy on two things. Coal mines, crewed by slaves and a massive amount of sex slavery where kidnapped women from around the world are forced to work as whores in the brothels of the town. It's a vile, loathsome place that exists because everyone else is too far away, too weak, or too busy to stomp it out and it's ruled by a man who’s been replacing every part of himself that he can with cutting edge steampunk machine parts. I noted that Charles Darwin had been made a cyborg earlier and it's interesting to contrast the two characters despite Darwin's very brief appearance. Charles Darwin remains a very human character despite being made up of a high amount of metal and needing to burn coal to be able to move. Thaddeus Pinch however, is pure monster. Spurning the flesh he was born with, he believes that each replacement brings him closer to godhood, which gives him the right to treat mere mortals as pawns and tools to do with as he pleases. Somehow, I don't think this is what the average transhumanist had in mind, or at least I hope not. Thaddeus Pinch has the dragon but sadly not the means to control it as Maria was removed from the wreckage. So he holds Louis Cockayne prisoner, hoping that Louis will cough up what he needs to know to operate the dragon, unite Texas, and conquer the world so he can rule it as a steampowered god forever. Into this, armed with a pistol, his wits and hopefully more luck then he needs, rides Gideon Smith.

Gideon Smith has grown since the first book, this is no longer a young man who needs his hand held and everything explained. That said, Gideon still has a lot to learn and a fair amount of growing to do. Interestingly enough Louis Cockayne turns out to be his main mentor despite the fairly adversarial relationship between them. This relationship stems from the fact that it was Cockayne who stole the brass dragon at the end of the last book, with Maria plugged into it. Speaking of Maria, another issue is Gideon confronting and grappling with his feelings for the mechanical girl. A lot of us would have some problems admitting that we're actually in love with what is essentially a robot using a dead person's brain as it's CPU, let alone a young lad raised in the conservative British country side of the late 1800s. Again it's Louis Cockayne who guides him through this. I actually like this somewhat adversarial relationship, you can clearly see that Cockayne likes and cares about Gideon but really can't help himself when faced with temptation. It gives their relationship a jerky big brother and scrappy little brother feel that isn't a bromance but something a bit more interesting in some ways. That said Gideon is going to have to take everything that Cockayne teaches him while proving Cockayne's worldview wrong. That'll be interesting to see.

There’s an interesting theme running through this as well which links our villain Pinch and Gideon. Gideon is learning to accept the fact that he’s different and that it’s that difference that lets him achieve the heights he can. Pinch has already achieved heights, granted as a slaving monster trapped within a shell of man being turned into a monstrous machine but none the less. This is illustrated when Gideon and Pinch first come face to face with each other. Pinch asks if Gideon is disturbed by his appearance as a half machine, half bleeding wreck of humanity and Gideon being a brave lad cops to it. When called unnatural Pinch doesn’t deny it but instead embraces it, rightly pointing out there’s nothing natural about men flying through the sky or well… Anything about industrial society, so why deny it? It’s humanity defiance of nature that holds the seeds of its greatness as according to nature we should all be naked shivering on the African plains hoping the Lions find someone else to eat tonight. I hate Pinch’s mechanical guts but I gotta admit he’s got a point here. So we’re led to the statement that Gideon’s life might just be unnatural but… So what? It’s not like your life is all that natural either is it?

We also have a cast of supporting character returning in this sequel, most specifically Rowena and Bent. Rowena is a lady airship pilot and in the last book she didn't have much to do other then fly the ship and flirt with Gideon. This book is good enough to give Rowena something to do besides play air taxi and be turned down by the main character. That said even that arc doesn't get a lot of space but it's more than she had in the prior book. Bent is actually moved somewhat into the background for this story mostly to clear space for new characters; such as the daughter of a Spanish appointed governor of a Mexican town named Inez (with no American Revolution, it seems that the Mexican Revolution also did not get off the ground) and her Indian boyfriend named Chantico. Inez is an interesting girl, who has a slight obession with a disappeared Mexican hero, who wore all black and was really good with a sword. He was of course named Zor... La Chupacabras, yes, that's totally it. Inez has taken fencing lessons in secret because that's practically required for any young aspiring aristocratic lady character. Chantico, I didn't care for. Mainly because his role is to do stupid shit in the plot and then have everyone who says they love him tell him what an idiot he is. I would say if you have a character whose main role is to do stupid crap to advance the plot and be called an idiot you need to rethink that character. It's a shame not just because he's the only major Indian character in the story but because I'm thinking that he could have contributed a lot more to the story if he had been allowed to be even slightly useful.

Additionally we have a mysterious character knocking about the story who calls himself Nameless. The Nameless is a man who is very good with a gun and seems to have an ability to basically will himself across the North American continent. The Nameless mainly works with the secondary characters pursuing a bit of a side plot where he tries to create a new melting pot in America. A place where various peoples of different backgrounds can live together and pursue common goals in peace. It's a nice nod to some of the ideals that fueled our country, of many people from diverse places coming together to build something greater. I won't go into details to avoid spoilers but I am left wondering why the Free States of America (which got named dropped but remain unseen) couldn't serve this function? The Nameless is fairly clearly a supernatural character and fits in well. I find the idea of a human embodiment of the melting pot ideal something interesting in and of itself in this day and age and I’m going to note it’s a part of America worth defending and embodying.

Mr. Barnett continues to provide us with two fisted, steampunk style action, very much in the style of the old pulp stories. At the same time he's able to inject a good amount of grey into this world and additional complexity by not shedding away from the dark parts of the time period and of an openly imperialist culture. I enjoyed seeing these characters again and I did enjoy the tour of at least some of North America. Unfortunately we don't get to really spend a lot of time anywhere but Steamtown which is the one place I didn't want to see a lot of. That said there was at least a good pay off for it. I did think there were a couple more side plots in this novel that weren't needed but Mr. Barnett does manage to tie them all together in a workmanlike manner if not in an especially eloquent way. All in all I'm giving Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon a B-. It was good and fun but there was a lot of flailing around for not enough pay off. Still there are a lot worse books out there.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 24, 2017 10:17 pm 
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Caliban's War
James S.A.Corey


Caliban's war is the sequel to “Mr. Corey's” (it’s a pen name for two authors) rather amazing Leviathan Wakes. Caliban's War was published in 2012 by orbit publishing. I should note: I am about to spoil the hell out of Leviathan Wakes so stop here if you haven't read it yet. In Leviathan Wakes, Mr. Corey took us to the sort-of-distant future where humanity has colonized the Moon and Mars and is expanding into the outer planets and the asteroid belt. While the Earth is politically and economically unified, Mars has become a rival state and the outer planets/belt have evolved into a radically different culture with it's own language, customs, and mores from Earth or Mars. With the evolution of that separate culture has come resentment of the more powerful inner planets as the people of the outer system view them as foreign imperialists. This was all brought to a head when a cabal of corporate scientists began experimenting on an alien piece of biological technology known as the protomolecule. As an experiment they release it on a large and very densely populated outer system habitat. The protomolecule kills everyone and uses their biological mass to rewire the habitat and turn it into a spaceship on a ramming course toward Earth. The cover up leads Mars and Earth into the brink of a shooting war and it's only by heroic action that the protomolecule is diverted into Venus and war averted. Now the protomolecule is reworking Venus and what does the divided solar system do? Start prepping for another war against each other of course!

Both Earth and Mars move to divide up the solar system between themselves while the Outer System resists both of them, tensions are simmering high and everything just needs a match. On Ganymede, which is the breadbasket of the outer system and the safest place to bear and give birth to children, that match gets struck. When Gunnery Sgt Roberta Draper's platoon of Martian Marines finds itself confronted by a monster of nightmare that just wiped out a UN Marine platoon and proceeds to tear them apart, their attempts to kill the damn thing kick off a mass fleet conflict that shatters Ganymede. Gunnery Sgt Draper, aka Bobbi, finds herself the sole survivor of a confrontation of what seems to be a weapon of war made from the alien protomolecule. However neither her government or the government of Earth seemed as interested in that fact, as they are interested in getting ready to blow each other to pieces.

Except for Chrisjen Avasarala assistant to the undersecretary of the executive administration of the United Nations. A woman who if she isn't the most powerful person on Earth, politically speaking, is certainly in the top five. When she gets involved in trying to stop a war from occurring and getting everyone focused on the fact that Venus is being rewritten into... No one knows what, she's finding a lot more resistance than she expected and finding out that she can trust a lot fewer people than even she thought she could. She's trying to piece together who is doing this and why before everyone is dragged into a shooting war that is going to benefit no one--not even the cockroaches--if things go wrong. This is because if whatever Venus is turning into is hostile, not even the cockroaches are gonna be around afterwards. It's not that no one’s paying attention to Venus mind, just about everyone is aiming telescopes, radars and more at the planet and watching as some alien technology thousands of years beyond our own is changing the very nature of the planet in months. It's just that everyone else is reacting by plotting to clunk their neighbors over the head so they can consolidate power in the face of this mind boggling event.

Meanwhile suffering the consequences of all this is Dr. Praxidike Meng, a biologist on Ganymede who before all of this cared about exactly two things. His daughter Mei; a toddler who suffers from a rare disorder which renders her immune system defunct unless she gets regular medical doses; and his research into growing better and stronger plants in low and zero g, so he can fed the outer system. All of that is torn to pieces when Mars and Earth start shooting each other in his home and he finds out that his daughter was kidnapped... Before the shooting started. His work is ruined, his home is a bombed out war zone and is slowly sliding into utter ruin but that doesn't matter. Doctor Prax has just one goal after his life has been shattered by forces outside of his control: find his daughter no matter where he has to go or who he has to go through and the only one who can help him is…

The one and only Captain James Holden. The maniac who inadvertently started the last round of shooting and helped saved civilization. When his boss (for a loose definition of the word) points him at Ganymede to figure out just what is going on, he sets Captain Holden on the trail of conspiracy to create the next revolution in warfare and to unify humanity under one banner, even if everything humanity has built has to be wrecked beyond repair first. Only Captain Holden isn't doing so hot, as what he saw the last time he confronted the protomolecule has scarred him for life and his attempts to ignore that or pretend it didn't happen are dragging him deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. It's an open question as to whether or not he can tame his demons long enough and well enough to be of any use but if he doesn't everyone might end up paying for it.

Both Holden, Doc Prax and Bobbi are struggling with nasty cases of PTSD in this book and one thing I like is how Mr. Corey has them express it in different ways. Captain Holden growing more and more paranoid and prone to violence to solve his problems, something that hasn't escaped the notice of his engineer and girlfriend Naomi Nagata, who feels he's becoming more like the burnt out cop Detective Miller... Who didn't survive the last confrontation with the protomolecule. Doc Prax is suffering PTSD from being turned into a refugee and losing his daughter. Either one is something I can only imagine dealing with. I mean, imagine your home being turned into a bombed out ruin with foreign troops everywhere. Your friends are fleeing or slowly going insane and you're not much better but you can't leave because the only family you have left is missing and you have to find them. Meanwhile Bobbi has become withdrawn and rather obsessed with finding the monster that killed her Marines and killing it back. Interestingly enough, another crew member kind of steps up to the fore here, Amos Burton. Like Holden, Amos is from Earth but while Holden had a rather idyllic childhood being raised on a farm by his 8 parents (genetic engineering makes having children more interesting!), Amos had a much darker past and it gets brought to light here. Part of it is the rather odd connection between Amos and Dr. Prax, as Amos becomes rather committed to finding the Doctor's missing child himself. The stakes are both low and intimate with the survival of a single child and the sanity of her father at stake and high and frightening as things could spin out of control and start the most destructive and possibly last war in history.

I do have trouble with how eager some people are to start this war has well, because frankly this is like the US and the USSR in that no one can win it. Basically Earth and Mars can utterly ruin each other to the point of wrecking their planets for human habitation. Mars is still only habitable by dome and Earth has over 30 billion people on it. Both planets are basically a few high speed rocks away from utter collapse and with that wrecking civilization itself. I know I'm discounting the outer planets but I have doubts about their ability to keep a high tech functioning civilization going without the inner planet's resources and infrastructure. I'm not saying that such a group wouldn't arise or wouldn't try for it. The Soviet Union and the United States both had warhawk factions after all and frankly my thought is if you have leadership who thinks they can win a final confrontation with the enemy and achieve total control... Then sooner or later they're going to go for it. But you think more people would be saying “hey would there even be anything left on a meaningful level and would there be enough of that left to protect us from whatever is going on on Venus?”. The larger story here that the story of Prax's search for his daughter and Bobbi and Holden grappling with their traumas and losses threads through is how do civilizations deal with outside context problems and do you come together in the face of that problem or do you try and force everyone to follow your lead?

We also get to see Earth and get some interesting facts. For one thing Mr. Corey does try to address the objections to the population of Earth by pitching the idea the once everyone had reached a certain standard of living and most jobs were lost to automation that there was little else for most people to do but collect their government monies and make more people to collect government monies. It's a tidy answer, given to us by Bobbi so it also has a certain amount of deniability, because Bobbi could be wrong. On its own I don't buy it. What tends to drive birth rates is whether having children is economically viable or profitable. When the majority of people were farming for a living it made sense to have large numbers of kids, each child was another mouth to feed but you could turn them into additional farm labor pretty quickly and they would cost a lot less than hiring a non-related adult to help you on the farm. These days having kids is an economic net negative, ask any parent, kids are pretty damn expensive. Basically you need to make having kids not be a money pit. That said it's not a huge part of the setting and the rest of the setting is pretty awesome so I suppose I can let it go.

I also like how Mr. Corey treats the military in this book. There are military villains to go with our heroes yes, but the book is able to touch on the virtues displayed by members of every military involved as well as looking at the vices those same services have. The military as an institution is not mindlessly praised or disparaged, instead we are shown that the militaries involved are full of good people and bad people with many virtues and vices shared among them. Some of them are venial, selfish, short sighted or just mean, but we are also shown self sacrifice, loyalty, and a willingness to go beyond what is expected of you for the benefit of the group.

Caliban's War is a great book and shows just what great science fiction can be. Mr. Corey has given us a great story that builds on the last one and shows us the consequences of those actions. The story doesn't entirely work as a stand alone but honestly that doesn't bother me too much. I'm giving Caliban's War an A. This is one of the better books I've read this year.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

So a note on what's to come. I got graphic novels spilling out of the box, so it's time go ahead and clear some of out. So next month is graphic novel month! I also want to give some time to independent writers so April will be independent novel month.

March 3rd - Vader's back!
March 10th - Dwarves vol I!
March 17th- Ravine vol II
March 24th- Monsters
March 30th Rurouni Kenshin Vol I

Coming up in April- State Machine, Warp III and Seedbearing Prince III! Keep reading folks and next week we once again turn to the Dark Side!

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 03, 2017 10:36 pm 
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Darth Vader: The Shu-Torun War
By: Kieron Gillen, Art by Salvador Larroca

“Of course I'm not going to shoot you, I'm queen, I have people for that”


When we last checked on Darth Vader, we saw him fight his way out of a situation where a Battalion or 3 of rebels had found themselves trapped alone on a planet with him. You might laugh to read that, but I can assure you, the rebels ain't. Despite being set up by a rival for his job and having plots within plots against him, Vader fought his way to and murdered the traitor through the power of his sheer awesomeness and the Force. That also marked the first appearance of the main Star Wars cast into the Darth Vader comic and the capture of Darth Vader's right hand girl Dr. Aphra. With the loss of the leader of his evil adventurer crew, Vader is finding himself having to get his hands dirty. Which frankly doesn't seem to be a problem for him. That's good because the Emperor has a very dirty job for him.

The World of Shu-Torun is rich in metals and heavy elements, things that the Empire needs to build things. Things like blasters, useless stormtrooper armor, star destroyers, Death Stars; you know all the little bits of the Empire's war machine of doom and despair that we know and love so much. These metals have been mined under a feudal government where the Ore-Dukes organize and lead the mining from great mining citadels that function as massive mobile equipment, cities, and fortresses. This system has been co-opted by the Empire to fuel the imperial war machine Now that really hasn't been a problem for these nobles (the opinions of the common miners aren't really mentioned), but lately the quotas have been skyrocketing and the payments aren't increasing to match. They don't mind supplying a genocidal regime mind you but they expect reasonable demands and payment equal to the supply and risk. Despite my snarling this isn't an unreasonable expectation so long as you don't live under a brutal military power that doesn't give a damn about your opinion. Anyway, with the nobility restless, the crown of Shu-Torun grows uneasy and begins plotting on it's own, which ends badly for most of them.

You know I actually feel really sympathetic to the royals of Shu-Torun. Rebellion against the Empire is a dangerous bet at best. It's one thing to bet your own skin against the enemy or even your family but the royals would be betting every man, woman, and child on the planet. Rebellion against the Empire has two outcomes, either you win (which at this point no one has really managed to do yet) or eventually the Empire masses enough troops and firepower to kill you and everyone who is within a light year of you. With those as the stakes, if you take the responsibilities of being in charge even slightly seriously, you're sweating bullets and crapping bricks. Sure your underlings will talk a big game about putting everything on the line for your principals but when everyone's kids are on fire and your entire culture is being erased from the face of the universe, it'll be all on you. So the royals here have to walk the line of dealing with overwhelming force from above and boiling discontent from below. There are many ways to deal with this, many of them very subtle and complex involving playing different factions against each other and a lot of give and take as you reach an arrangement that everyone can live with.

This however, is the Empire. Additionally while the last two volumes have shown us that Darth Vader can do under handed and subtle... That requires him to give a crap and Vader does not have time for Shu-Torun's shit. As far as he is concerned this is a sideshow from his important work, so he's giving Shu-Torun two choices, submit or go the way of Alderaan. So when he walks in to present this choice and gets an assassin team sicced on him? Vader decides to just start killing his way across the hierarchy until he reaches someone sensible enough to listen. This actually brings in a new character Trios, 3rd daughter of the king and newly crowned Queen of Shu-Torun by the grace of Vader's lightsaber. She's the character with the biggest arc here as she grows from a dutiful daughter and unassuming young royal to a rather canny and aggressive political operator under Vader's “leadership” and the extreme pressures he puts her under. Trios puts a face on the dilemma that the Empire presents to rulers across the galaxy. She is a collaborator with the Empire, the very force that murdered her family, because the alternative is the very death of her culture. She is surrounded by people who refuse to see that and she finds herself going further and further to kick these people into submission so she can keep the Empire from killing everybody. I wouldn't mind seeing more of her honestly.

Our evil droids are very present in this story arc and we get to see them interacting directly with Vader, which honestly isn't as entertaining as their interactions with the good Doctor Aphra. There's no give and take with Vader, the droids have wacky antics and Vader sort of puts up with them as long as they achieve the goals he's set. Vader just doesn't do interpersonal relationships on that level I suppose. Still despite the lack of humor there's a good story here showing just how the Empire maintains its control and Vader's role in this. This is a weak point because without Doctor Aphra here, the interactions lack a certain spark as Vader doesn't really play off other characters well in anything but “obey or be destroyed” ways. It doesn't advance the main plot of the series all that much beyond the confrontation Vader has with the pair of cyborg twins trained from birth. The confrontation lays seeds of future plot but doesn't really pay off in this novel. To be honest the plot of Vader confronting twisted mockeries born of DARK SCIENCE! Is fun but holds no suspense. We know the Dark Lord of the Sith is going to ruin them all sooner or later it's just a question of when and how.

Additionally, we see Vader as a battlefield leader and frankly he's a good one. He leads from the front, often taking dangerous missions to sway the balance of power on his own leaving his men in protected positions while he goes and shows off his murdering skills. I'll be honest this basically feeds into my belief that Vader would have been rather popular with the enlisted Stromtrooper. What's that? What about his tendency to choke people? Well let me ask two questions. One: do you really think the enlisted Stormy is going to be upset that Vader choked to death... let's the say the guy who screwed up the insertions into the system and alerted the enemy that they were coming insuring that there would be heavier casualties on the assault? Two: did you ever see Vader choke someone under the rank of Captain? Trust me, your average Lance Corporal isn't going to be that broken up if an incompetent officer or 5 pay for their mistakes.

I really like this series and I enjoyed reading this part of it, however the group dynamic is wounded by the lack of my favorite evil Archaeologist/techie and it's more of a side story than a part of the main plot. Because of that I'm giving The Shu-Torun War by Kieron Gillard a B. It's good but not as good as the past installments.

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 06, 2017 1:48 am 
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I have to agree with you on this one. Sho-Turan was all but padding for the series, even with the introduction of The Twins and their Creator. While their roles will grow a bit down the line, there could have been other ways to make the introduction.

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 10, 2017 10:28 pm 
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Dwarves Vol: 1 Redwin of the Forge
By Nicolas Jarry, Ar by Pierre Denis Goux


“Our great art must be expressed through life.” Ulrog the blacksmith

I was bopping around the internet when an advertisement for comixology popped up letting me know they were having a fantasy comic sale where I could grab a bunch of graphic novels for $2.99. I've never heard of the series on sale (Dwarves and another series called Elves, not exactly the most descriptive title but there you go) but what the hell, so I dropped $15 and got 7 graphic novels. Not a bad trade. I wasn't expecting much but this time I got lucky. Dwarves was published in 2016 by Delcourt comics, if you've never heard of them, the reason for that is simple: they're a French company and Dwarves is a French comic. Delcourt is the 3rd largest publisher of Frenco-Belgian comics with about 480 publications in a year. It was founded in 1986 through the union of two magazines. The comic Dwarves was written by Nicolas Jarry, a French novelist and comic book writer who prefers writing fantasy. He was born in 1976, studied biology in Bordeaux and worked in a bookshop before committing to writing. He's been accredited in about 119 distinct works since he's been published. All that having been said, let's get to the comic itself.

Dwarves is, obviously, set in a fantasy world and is concerned with the workings of dwarven society and with dwarven characters. There are some interesting breaks from tradition here; the dwarves live above ground divided into fortress-states but unified by orders that function as guilds maintaining the interests and knowledge of their craft across borders. Our main character Redwin and his father Ulrog belong to the order of the Forge. The order of the Forge is a powerful and wealthy one because as you might imagine not only do they forge all the weapons and tools needed for society to function but they have also have a monopoly on the runes that grant magical powers to those same tools and weapons. Of course while the order is wealthy and powerful, not all of it's members share equally in the wealth. Ulrog the master blacksmith is not a well regarded or respected dwarf because of his refusal to forge arms or armor. Instead he makes tools, toys and art from the metal and stone he works with at his forge. His son Redwin is less than thrilled by his father's stubborn refusal, he not only wants to become a weaponsmith but wants to become a powerful warrior. Not just a warrior, but figure of power, respect and fear, a Runelord. Runelords are warrior smiths that fight duels that decide legal disputes between the fortress states, preventing all out war and providing something of a blood sport. There's a bit of frustrating realism thrown into this conflict in that Ulrog never really explains himself nor do find out what if any events led him to his position. We learn that he did forge some weapons in his youth but stopped for reasons unknown leading to a rift between Ulrog and his own father. This makes the conflict between Redwin and Ulrog faintly ironic in a way but also more real. Redwin wants to be a traditional dwarf, glorying in arms and combat and Ulrog while standing against that never really explains why beyond a short speech about how such violence is a poison to the soul and no way to run a society. I found this realistic because it's very often that I see parents failing to properly explain their beliefs and reasons to their children, often assuming that because they raised those same children that they magically absorbed their parents reasoning. For that matter by making Ulrog something of a mystery even to his only son, it does reflect how for many children large stretches of their parents lives are unknown and hard to imagine.

Additionally we have the conflict between Redwin and the local bully boy Rom, who receives everything that Redwin wants. Training in the martial arts, in battle runes and how to create weapons of death and destruction, and misuses those gifts by beating up Redwin and sneering at everyone else. Rom is a living example of why if you're going to teach someone violence, you need to teach them the why and when of it. Learning how to fight without learning some moral code that teaches you when to fight, who to fight, and what to fight for simply creates thugs and brutes. These thugs often enough let themselves grow lazy by simply bullying those who can't fight back. Redwin himself comes to display that when he falls in with his uncle Jarsen, a wealthy and powerful member of the Order of the Forge who takes Redwin's training into dark and dangerous places. Jarsen realizes that Redwin doesn't have time to catch up to people training to fight since they could walk and simply teaches Redwin how to kill, and frankly Redwin is very good at it. That said the violence, while coming in fast and often as Redwin sinks deeper and deeper into a lifestyle of debauchery and state endorsed brutality, it's not the main conflict of this book. Hell, the appearance of a trio of demon possessed mages attacking the dwarves homes isn't the main focus of the book. Which is likely just as well as we've all read the story of a the great war to drive back demons in fantasy. The main conflict and story here is the conflict between father and son and how far a loving father will go to protect his child, even when that child has spit in his face and rejected him. While Motherhood is a great thing and deserves to have books written about it, I think it's a good thing to have a story praising fatherhood. Also I like this way of presenting a good parent, I’m going to pick on J.K. Rowling here but Ulrog is actually a character in this story… Lily Potter isn’t, she’s a combination of plot device and platonic image. Think about it, James Potter had flaws, he changed and grew and Harry’s understanding of him did as well. Not so much Lily who was always presented as this perfect mother figure/perfect woman. This honestly made her less believable as a character and a person. Whereas Ulrog’s faults and emotional outbursts when dealing with his son Redwin did makes him a believable person and character, that actually draws a reader in more than being told how great and wonderful a person was.

There's a lot of blood and fighting in this book and there are scenes of topless female nudity so this is definitely not a book to hand to a child. That said, the art is very good and the story is a good one as well. We are pulled along with Redwin in a downward spiral that he has no idea how to stop and isn't sure that he wants to stop or accelerate to the rock bottom. I've read it several times now and I still enjoy it. For that reason I am giving Redwin of the Forge an A, every now and again you get lucky and find something awesome when you go digging. I would really like to see a translation for a physical copy of this series someday and frankly if this is what we can expect from French writers, we might want to see what can be done to bring more of their works to the States…

This Review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 17, 2017 9:26 pm 
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Ravine II
Written by Stjepan Sejic and Ron Marz



Have you ever wanted to like something but just couldn't bring yourself to? Ravine is the epic fantasy creation of Mr. Sejic and Mr. Marz. I've discussed Mr. Sejic and Mr. Marz in prior reviews so I'll just get to Ravine itself. It's a very interesting setting with a lot of things happening in it, many of them are very interesting. Some of these interesting things even get to be in this story, which is kind of the problem here. Ravine looks and feels like a very dense setting with a lot of moving parts and the story doesn't really give us time to discover the setting or really understand it. It's kinda like if JRR Tolkien had started his stories of Middle Earth in the middle of The Two Towers and expected us all to just catch up. To be fair some very gifted writers can actually pull that off with a combination of engaging characters and well crafted plot. Here on the other hand... It's the end of Volume II and I still have no idea what the main bad guys of the piece actually want or a vague idea of their plan other than kill things with dragon like monsters and make ponderous speeches about fate and sacrifice. Additionally the characters are a mixed bag.

Our main character is still Stein (although thankfully Lynn is still there) and I still don't like him. A lot of the problem with Stein is his presentation, I constantly get other people telling me how awesome Stein is, or lamenting how awful a burden he carries. You see, Stein is also “The Reaper” a powerful magic user who can use entropy to destroy and decay. The Reaper is a morally ambiguous figure as he's primarily known for destroying cities and armies. But that doesn't mean he is unwelcome everywhere he goes. For example, when they arrive at Wade, a city state that is independent mostly due to the efforts and power of Stein, we get a random character who has the power to see how many people you've killed. As you can guess that character mostly stands around talking to other characters about how terrible and awful Stein's life might be. This is filler, it serves no real point in furthering the plot and doesn't tell us anything new. Plus he's not exactly isolated or hated in Wade; he's welcomed into the royal palace, he gets to have dinner with the ruler of the city, and he runs into friends who are happy to see him and help him. The issue becomes less that Stein is forever cut off and isolated from his fellow men by his “dark burden” and more that Stein is unable to confront and accept that part of himself and learn to live with it. While he does carry around some rather intensely destructive power (in addition to being practically invincible and carrying a super-power magical weapon) that only makes him feel more like an edgy fan fiction character. I mean, he has friends all over the place but keeps talking about how isolated he is. His dialogue when he uses his power doesn't help, nor does his insistence that his travel mate Lynn never see him use it. For that matter part of it may be that I read Death Vigil first where he approaches a character with Stein's abilities much more maturely and makes much better use of them. Honestly, this leaves Stein looking like a prototype for a much better and more interesting character but that might just be me.

As for Lynn I like her a lot more than I like Stein. That said she could also use some work, what with with the whole “being a secret heir to the throne who was hidden and raised as an orphan in a foreign land for reasons” thing. We learn this was because her entire family was wiped out in a plague and if Lynn dies or is somehow disinherited, another branch of the family will rule: a branch known for it's fervent support of the The Church of Damanal, for those of you who didn't read the first Ravine review (link here) or have forgotten, Damanal is a god imprisoned under a mountain for reasons unknown. His church has been growing in secular power recently as their worship spreads across the allied states. The various kings and lords are working to maintain a balance of power to keep the Church of Damanal from turning all the allied states into de facto theocracies. If Lynn takes the throne of the country she hasn't seen for most of her life she maintains that balance (as you might guess I find their plan for maintaining her safety slightly flawed), if her distant cousin does then the majority of nations will be controlled from under the mountain. Lynn herself is actually fun and interesting though, even if she is as thick as two short planks sometimes. However, that's a common character flaw in fantasy protagonists, especially in an author's early stories. To be fair David Eddings would defend this by pointing out that by making your main character ignorant of the world around them, you could educate the reader by simply having someone educate the main character. While her backstory is actually rather standard (secret hidden orphan heir! Complete with magic powers!) her personality is fun and at times funny, that will carry you a good distance.

Several other characters are given time in the volume but I honestly kind of consider it a waste as Volume II is the last entry in the Ravine series as far as I can find. Which is a shame because the setting is actually good. While most of the elements aren't new here, the way they're put together is at least stimulating. This is a problem with doing epic fantasy in something like a comic series, unless you can ensure a long enough run time to really explore your setting, you end up with a story that drowns in it. Additionally a neat setting isn't enough to make up for rather lackluster characters. It’s easier to do this kinda stuff in a novel (where you have the space to tell a complete story) or a webcomic (which you can keep going by simply finding a place to post your comics and keep working). If you are going to tell the story in a comic, focus on a single contained story that can lead your readers to the setting (Last week's comic Redwin of the forge did that magnificently if you ask me). In short get your readers hooked on the characters and the plot first, then you can tool around in your lush, dense fantasy setting. This story simply wasn't focused enough, nor it's characters engaging enough to keep things going.

Sadly I'll have to give Ravine by Stjepan Sejic and Ron Marz C-. An interesting setting just isn't enough to make up for lackluster characters and a struggling plot. It's not terrible to read but... We can all do better. I honestly want to give it a higher grade, but on this review series I give you the grade you have earned. There's talent in here but it's in dire need of more practice, which thankfully Mr. Sejic got. Go read Death's Vigil for an example of what Mr. Sejic can do with some more practice. Next week we go into strange distant corners with Monsteress by Majorie Liu. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 24, 2017 11:05 pm 
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Monstress Vol I: Awakening
By Marjorie Liu, Art by Sana Takeda


Monstress is an dark epic fantasy comic published by Image Comics, it has been running since 2015. Its author Marjorie Liu was born in Philadelphia to a father from Taiwan and a mother from the United States; she spent her early life reading. She attended Lawrence University in Appleton Wisconsin, which is where she first got into comics books. While she was familiar with the X-Men due to the 1990s animated series (if you haven't seen it, try it out!) it wasn't until college that she started reading the comics and writing... well, fan fiction. Fan fiction for those of you who might be entirely aware are stories written about fiction universes by fans, like if your little brother wrote his own Superman stories for example. Honestly I'm rather supportive of fan fiction, it's a good place to practice your writing skills and learn how to write other characters. Anyway, after graduating, Ms. Liu went to law school at the University of Wisconsin and even did intern work for the US Embassy in Beijing. She grew disillusioned with law practice after that however and returned to writing. First she wrote poetry, short stories and novels but after seeing a small boy in a Spider-man costume, she thought it would be awesome to write for Marvel. She ended up writing a number of X Men tie in novels and NYX, an X-Men spin off comic. Sana Takeda was born in Niigata Japan, while she started out as a CGI designer for SEGA, she is now a veteran comic book artist, having done work for Aspen, Image and Marvel comics (most famously doing the art for the Ms. Marvel comics (the blonde one, before Marvel decided to do the obvious thing and make her Captain Marvel). Now let's talk about the comic, shall we?

The world of Monstress is a sharply and likely unnecessarily divided one. On one side we have the Federation of Man, ruled from the shadows by the all girl religious order of the Cumaea. The Cumaea are women with psychic powers and access to a hidden science which allows them to extend their lives and enhance their powers at a hideous cost, but I'll come back to that. On the other side we have the Arcanics, who really aren't a race, yes, I'll explain. Leading arcanic society is a group of beings known as Ancients. They're--to be blunt on the matter--immortal beast men, who have a number of magical powers and from time to time like to dally with humans. The Arcanics are the offspring of such unions, some look entirely human, most don't. They live divided into two courts, the Court of Dusk and the Court of Dawn. This leads me back to the method through which the Cumaea get their extended lives and powers. It's called Lilium and the only way you can get it is by rendering the bodies or bones of Arcanics or Ancients. The “witch-nuns” of the Cumaea would use their Lilium fueled powers to take over the Federation of Man from within and goad it into war with the Arcanics. It was a brutal and devastating conflict made all the worse by the atrocities the Cumaea would lead humanity into in order to feed their need for Lilium. Arcanics were enslaved, experimented on, murdered and chopped up, not always in that order. The war ended in a truce, when something caused utter destruction at a place called Constantine. The Arcanics convinced the Cumaea that it was a new magic weapon and they would use it again.

Our main character Maika Halfwolf was at Constantine and survived, the war did not leave her unscarred however; she lost her mother and her arm. She also gained something, what she gained is more of an open question. It is not an open question how insanely dangerous that thing is, for something sleeps inside of Maika Halfwolf and when it wakes, people die. It's not like Maika really understands what's lurking inside of herself either, in fact she spends the entire story on a quest for answers. Answers like “what did you people do to my mother?”, “What did my mother have to do with you?”, and “What did my mother do to me and what the hell is going on?”. This quest is going to involve Maika going into the very sanctuary of her enemies to find clues to the answer and then to escape with what she's learned. Meanwhile everyone else is starting to figure out what is going on and their reaction is to panic and Maika's quest may restart a war that no one human or otherwise can afford to have restart. Joining Maika in this quest is Kappa the young Arcanic who Maika liberates from the illegal slave pens of the Cumaea and Ren the cat (cats are a mystic race, who seem to add tails as they get older and more powerful). Kappa doesn’t really do much but act frightened but determined, while Ren serves as the voice of reason in the group. Which means his job is to be utterly ignored until everything Maika has tried has failed, which is less often than you would think.

Most of the book is taken up with Maika's rampage, subsequent escape and the consequences of both. Now Ms. Liu has avoided the trap of making everyone on one side to be monsters and everyone on the other side shining paladins. We run into good humans (one minor character named Emila is frankly the moral and upright character in the book, risking her life to save people she doesn't know simply because it's the right thing to do) and bad Arcanics. Even our bad guys for the most part show positive emotions like love and affection. Which only highlights the terrible effect that racism has on both sides have when you see characters be loving and gentle and then turn into cold blooded torturers because they've decided their target isn't a person and has no rights. What underscores for it me is that this has all been deliberately stoked and fed (there are repeated mentions in the book how Arcanics and Humans were once much closer as little as 3 generations ago) so a small elite group of women can have an excuse to use fellow sapient beings as fuel. What I do like is this is never spelt out for the reader, you're not clubbed over the head with an Aesop as Ms. Liu seems to trust you can figure this out on your own once you've been informed of the facts.

The art is amazing, it's manga influence but avoids the excesses of the styles (just about everyone is drawn fairly realistically) and blends in a heavy influence of western style creating something rather lovely to the eye in my opinion. Ms. Takeda should be praised for her work. Additionally the writing is very well done, the characters have layers to their personalities, the dialogue is interesting with different characters having different speaking styles and the story is entertaining and manages to avoid being too predictable. I am constantly shown not told things and the setting is peeled back slowly and carefully. Folks, take notes this is how you do an epic fantasy in comic form. Ms. Liu was nominated for an Eisner for best new series and I think she earned that nomination. Monstress by Ms. Liu and Ms. Takeda has earned itself an A. I'm already lined up for volume II which will be coming out this year. Next week, we’re going to back to the past to take a look at a certain red headed Ronin. 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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