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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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


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


“We really should live gallantly”
Roe2 page 215


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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 15, 2017 9:03 pm 
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Persephone
By Allison Shaw
Art by Allison Shaw


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 19, 2018 9:21 pm 
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Clockwork Boys
By T. Kingfisher


Howdy Readers! We're back! I hope everyone had a nice holiday! My editor and I have rested, read and dueled all challengers upon the dry desert sand of Arizona. As demanded of us to keep this review series going yet another year but enough of the trivial details, let us review!

T. Kingfisher is actually the pen name of Ursula Vernon, who was born in may 1977 and grew up in Oregon and Arizona (it is a bit of an irony how many writers I like who also lived in this sun-blasted state [Editors Note: The Deep Desert does that to people. Long live the fighters of Mua’Dib]). She graduated from Maeclaster college in St. Paul Minnesota, where she studied anthropology and art. She’s well known author and illustrator of children’s book, the first of which she published in 2008. Before this she was a freelance artist and illustrator and was also known did webcomics. It was one of those webcomics, Digger, where I first ran into her stories. I won’t go to much into Digger because that's not our review for today (someday soon however, I promise you readers) but I will note that Digger won a fistful of awards from all corners and earned every one of them. But what we’re here to talk about today is a prose novel she wrote, Clockwork Boys, which was published just last year in 2017. In fact I got as a Christmas gift, so let's take a look.

The Clockwork Boys is a fantasy novel primarily told from the perspective of Slate, a woman in her 30s, who is a “Creative Accounts and Records Specialist for Hire”. In other words she’s a forger who gets paid to create false financial records and then break in to replace the real records with her forgeries. It's a very interesting line of work and as you might imagine Slate has a background to go with it. She’s the only daughter of a high-status courtesan and she realized early in life that she simply wasn't pretty enough to go into her mother's line of work. I'll be honest, I can't really imagine wanting to be a sex worker, but being a fourteen year old girl staring into the mirror and realizing you're not pretty enough to be one can’t be fun either. If that weren’t enough, her life at the time the book is set is pretty ugly. First the country she lives in is under attack, besieged by a nation who commands massive Things (called Clockwork Boys) that are nearly immune to the metal weapons of normal soldiers. Second, this state of war led to a forging job of hers coming to light. This is a problem because, while she did it before the war, it’s still technically treason and has a sentence of death attached to it and the war has left everyone fresh out of mercy. Third, she only found out about this after she was arrested. She has one option to avoid the hangman’s noose, which is to lead a group of no-hopers through enemy lines, into the homeland of their enemies and steal the information on how the Clockwork boys are created, which will hopefully provide a way to destroy them. The good news is that success means a full pardon! The bad news is that two other groups have already tried this and been butchered to the last man. Also, the government is slapping everyone with a magical tattoo that will eat them if they try to escape. And you thought you regretted your college tattoo. I should mention by the way that Slate is magically sensitive due to a magic-working grandmother. Whenever she’s in the presence of something significant or magically dangerous she smells or tastes peppermint, depending on the strength of the magic involved. And because she’s not allowed to have nice things, she’s mildly allergic to peppermint so this leads to her having violent sneezing attacks and her sinuses go haywire. Honestly, I'm wondering if our good author Ms. Vernon just didn't like Slate or something.

As further evidence of this I would like to take a look at the team of experts that has been assembled to aid Slate. First we have Learned Edmund, who is the youngest man in this team at a whole 19 years old. Despite his tender years, he is a genius scholar from a male only cloistered order. As such he is terrified of Slate, due to her being a woman. Edmund does a bit of growing in this story but doesn't really get that much screen time because he's avoiding our main viewpoint character. I get the sense that we might see more of him in the follow up books but right now he's very much a minor character. Our second man on the team is Brenner, a talented assassin with a snarky sense of humor and a darkly cynical out lookout on life. To be fair, one doesn't really expect a professional assassin to have a naive and optimistic view on life so it makes perfect sense. While he does add some levity to the story, Brenner is honestly the most generic and flat of the characters in the book as snarky and cynical assassins aren't really all that rare these days. What really makes Brenner stand out is that he's Slate's ex-boyfriend and he doesn't like the ex part of that phrase. I honestly have to admire the fact that while sent out on a suicide mission and operating in a war zone, Brenner is devoting a good amount of his time and effort to attempting to lure Slate back into his bed. It's an uncomplicated and surprisingly pure commitment that you just don't see a lot of these days. That said, Slate is pretty sure she doesn't want to end up back in Brenner's bed and worse for our killer for hire is the fact that he has competition.

That competition is the secondary viewpoint character in the story and 4th man in this team, Lord... I mean, Sir Caliban. Sir Caliban is a fallen paladin of the Dreaming God, which seems to be the main religion in the kingdom. An orphan raised by the church nuns, he fully embraced the ideals and duties of paladinhood. Those duties were to hunt down demon possessed creatures and if they were nonsapient creatures like a demon possessed cow, kill them. If they were sapient like a peasant for example, he was supposed to try and convince them to come back to the temple to be exorcised. He was very good at his job and was a rising star and well known hero across the kingdom for his works. Until a demon found him and then took his body for a blood soaked thrill ride. While in the throes of possession Sir Caliban murdered and dismembered a handful or so of nuns before he was discovered and overcome. The demon lurking in his soul was killed but it's metaphysical body remains in his soul and even a dead demon is not entirely inactive. While judged innocent of the murders, he was judged guilty of something for a demon to find a way into him and tossed into jail. It's in exploring what being a fallen paladin means and Sir Caliban's relationship to the others (primarily Slate) that the book really excels. Sir Caliban's inner turmoil over losing his connection to his faith and his god, along with his attempts to find his faith again are believably done without drowning the book in angst. While Sir Caliban might be in despair over the fact that he is utterly cut off from his old life, I honestly find his refusal to give up his code of behavior to be something to respect. Even if his god won't acknowledge him anymore, he will still try to live up to the expectations and goals he was raised with and believes in and there is something noble in that. Additionally Sir Caliban isn’t just a walking ball of angst, he displays flashes of humor and compassion which makes him feel like a real person. Another strong point in the book is the relationship between Slate and Sir Caliban as they deal with a possible mutual attraction they're not sure they want to act on and the fact they could all be very, very dead, very soon. It's less teenage ‘will they, won't they’ and a more tired adult ‘Do I even want to and is this even worth the trouble right now?’. Which is believable to me.

There are things I consider weak points in this novel however. The Clockwork boys of the title for the most part remain off screen, while we see evidence of their work (the slaughter of a village for example) we don't actually see them at work. We in fact only see them in one scene. This kind of reduces them to a vague menace that we are told a lot about but are only shown hints and clues about their combat power. The action in this book is fleeting and doesn't take up much space, so this is not the book to pick up if you want some high impact violence. The main conflict is internal to Slate and Sir Caliban and the personality conflicts between the party members. It's well done but takes so much space that Brenner and Edmund really aren't left with much in this book. Additionally the book kinda ends right when the plot is picking up steam (which I suppose is what happens when your book is only about 212 pages long) and I do have to cut the grade down for that. Seriously it was like eating a great steak only to realize that someone had made off with half of it when you weren’t looking. That said the book is well written, the internal conflicts are interesting and the dialogue is fun to read. As it stands though, Clockwork Boys by T Kingfisher gets a B-, I'm definitely on board for the sequel.

Join us next week Readers, as we return to the world of Robert Howard's creation with Gail Simone's Red Sonja. Keep Reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 20, 2018 4:21 pm 
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Let's hope Red Sonja is better than the movie...

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 21, 2018 2:59 pm 
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General Havoc wrote:
Let's hope Red Sonja is better than the movie...


I've had surgery better than that movie. This is a comic by Gail Simone, don't worry about it.

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 26, 2018 8:52 pm 
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Red Sonja II The Art of Blood and Fire
By Gail Simone
Art by Walter Geovani


“You...You Put... You Put food. In a barrel of delicious Cimmerian Beer? You Monster!”
Red Sonja


I've discussed Red Sonja and Gail Simone in a prior review, many many moons ago (http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2016/06 ... -gail.html). I’ve already covered the long winding road from Howard's first inception of the character to the Red Devil that graces comic books today and I've talked about Ms. Simone's long and celebrated career from unlikely origins (Two lessons from Ms. Simone: never turn around to a fan and say “You think you can do better?” because they just might be able to; and never assume someone's writing talent from their prior careers). Let me instead talk about Dynamite Entertainment for a minute. Dynamite Entertainment is an imprint for Dynamic Forces, which produces collectibles. Dynamite started by producing the Army of Darkness comic in 2005. They added Red Sonja and Xena comics two years later, with issue one of Red Sonja selling over 100,000 copies. Today they are mostly known for comics that are adaptations of existing properties (the Barsoom comics, Terminator, Robocop and of course Red Sonja, to name a few). While it's nowhere near the big two in it's reach, it’s carved out a respectable market share and will likely continue to do so. Now having covered that, let's go into the comic itself.

There's an emperor who rules from a golden city. The slaves of that city labor night and day to fulfill his commands to build a tomb greater than any that has come before, because this emperor is dying and has one final wish: he wants to throw the party to end all parties before he passes into eternity. Of course to throw a proper party, you need the proper professionals. So Red Sonja is hired to track down and bring back six people. The greatest chef in the world, the greatest courtesan, the greatest beast master, the greatest dancer, the greatest swordmaster, and the greatest star gazer. The emperor will pay these people any price they desire, after all there's only so much that will fit into even the greatest of tombs. As for what he will pay our heroine? If she succeeds, the Emperor will free a thousand slaves. More than anyone has ever freed before. If she fails? Those thousand slaves will be buried alive in the tomb with the Emperor, doomed to die horrible deaths so they may eternally serve. Red Sonja has one month to track down these people across the ends of the known world, and bring them back, in order to bring not just freedom but a chance at survival to a thousand people. The great thing about this is that the motivation flows fairly well. This version of Red Sonja spent years in a slave pit having to fight for her life every day as cheap entertainment for the crowd. It's no shock that she might have some strong feelings towards slavery. As such she'll go diving into a swamp inhabited by inbred cannibals, or fight her way through a fortress monastery if that's what it takes to get the job done. What she's not expecting is what she'll learn and what she'll accomplish along the way.

Ms. Simone shows us a very interesting and different version of Red Sonja, one I would honestly call more human and in some ways all the more heroic for it. While in the Marvel comic version Red Sonja was sworn to celibacy, except with people who defeated her in battle (which... let's admit is kinda creepy), Ms. Simone's version has no such vows holding her down. So in this version she is a woman of powerful if at times odd appetites. This provides a hell of a weakness for Red Sonja but again makes her a person. Ms. Simone is clearly unafraid to show us Red Sonja afraid, humiliated, pouting or even just outright horny. At the same time we see her act heroically and capable of treating people with respect and when she’s sure no one will notice, with kindness. To be honest this version of Red Sonja reminds me a lot of the Marines I served with, making it my favorite so far. To illustrate the oddness of her appetites, for example Sonja doesn’t care one bit about cooking. Carefully seasoned and prepared food moves her as much as barely cooked food, which is to say not at all. At the same time she clearly enjoys a large mug of booze but is incredibly not-picky about things like vintage or age. It's enough that it's wet and will get her drunk. Pairing her with a artist of a chef, whose greatest joy is cooking the perfect dish is honestly as hilarious as it sounds. Although Ms. Simone is careful not to overdo the humor. Of the six people she chases down and drags off to luxury and celebration five of them are given their own character arcs that almost take the form of small morality plays While almost none of them can fight worth a damn, they are all shown to be people of character and worth. Whether it's Gribaldi the chef’s stubborn refusal to abandon Red Sonja even as her compassion for a dying bear lands them in a dungeon, or Aneva the courtesan's desire to provide some level of protection to her fellow sex workers against abuse and exploitation. The characters work together very well and I find I enjoy the byplay. This version of Red Sonja works best when she has a companion to play off of and contrast against.

That said it wasn't all fun and games. I found myself rolling my eyes when Ms. Simone decided to do yet another version of the pop culture version of Galileo. Never you mind that he wasn't arrested for suggesting the Earth revolves around the Sun but for printing a book where he calls the Pope a moron, a Pope who was openly supporting him at the time. I will remind you my dear readers, that got Galileo a trail and very comfortable house arrest. If he’d called one of the secular monarchs of the time those kinds of names, he would have lost his head! For that matter Copernicus, who actually came up with the model was never tormented by the church either. He died at the age of 70 years old from apoplexy. There were certainly many people who were tortured and otherwise terribly abused by the Church but neither Galileo or Copernicus were one of them. To be honest I found the treatment of religion in the story rather heavy handed and it just had me rolling my eyes throughout.

That said it was an enjoyable story-line and I wasn't disappointed. I should note because someone will ask that while the metal bikini does make some appearances for the most part Sonja wears practical gear while adventuring or expecting to fight. Ranging from a leather suit for swamp work to a full chain shirt that does leave her legs exposed but is hardly the worst thing I've seen a lady character wear. The art is good and the action easy to follow and well drawn; the dialogue is snappy and fun and the characters are interesting and well rounded. Red Sonja II The Art of Blood and Fire by Gail Simone comes in for a B+. A well done graphic novel.

Next week, we remain in Howard's world for the next volume of Red Sonja. Keep Reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 02, 2018 8:55 pm 
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Red Sonja Vol III: The Forgiving of Monsters
By Gail Simone
Art by Walter Geovani


So here we are with the final volume of Gail Simone's run on Red Sonja. I've gone over the character's history in my first review of Red Sonja, as well as a bit of Ms. Simone's comic book career (which I'll link again for y'all http://frigidreads.blogspot.com/2016/06 ... -gail.html which was also the first review that our editor joined us on!). In last week's review I also talked a bit about Dynamite, the company publishing the comic in question. So I believe this time, there's nothing left but to jump right into it.

We join Red Sonja hunting for the Wizard Kalas Ra, who has taken up the unpleasant hobby of kidnapping the elderly and doing vile experiments on them until they die. Why does he do this? Because children are too quick for him and prone to biting (his words folks!). Sonja rather quickly dispatches him when he makes the twin mistakes of letting her into slicing range and gloating about his power. Which leads us to the first lesson in this lesson-packed story: murder first, gloat after. Sadly our heroine makes her own mistake when she talks back to the wizard and gives him her Name (Editors Note: Oh god, no!). Which is the second lesson: never talk to a wizard you're planning to kill. Seriously I've read enough fantasy in this review series alone that the paper used in those books could make a full grown oak tree and it never ends well, not once! Just murder him (or her) as quickly and thoroughly as possibly and don't share any personal information! The dying Kalas Ra shows why telling a psychotic dying man with magical powers beyond the ken of mortals your name is a mistake by cursing her. His curse? Red Sonja will never again be able to forgive, not even for the slightest of mistakes.

What's interesting about this is that this doesn't cause some massive change in Red Sonja's personality or behavior. She's still capable of kindness and courage but at the least transgression she explodes into a berserk rage that can only be stilled by murdering people in job lots. Even this is really just a magnification of Sonja's own tendencies, so this doesn't feel like something that is afflicting Sonja; more something that is simply pushing Red Sonja to the extreme end point of what's already there in her heart and head. In the middle of all this wanders in the last survivor of the group of mercenaries who murdered all the people of Sonja's village (he's the last survivor of that band because Sonja killed the rest of them). As you can imagine Red Sonja is pretty willing to drop everything to hunt down and brutally murder this last loose end of the greatest tragedy in her life but even this simple and straightforward desire is complicated. Kalas Ra had a brother, Katharas Ra, who is also a wizard and wants to murder everyone for daring to hurt his brother. I'll admit this kinda doesn't sit with me as well as Sonja's quest for vengeance. I have a little brother. As is good and natural, I love the guy, but if I found out he was kidnapping people for vile, lethal experiments and someone killed him for that? I would be upset that he was dead but if you don't want to be killed, you shouldn't go around kidnapping and murdering people! There's a point where you have to admit that even your brother kinda earned his fate. I suppose it might be because Katharas Ra doesn't view the villagers as people so he doesn't care about their losses. Only his own.

In this story Sonja grapples with the power of forgiveness and how far she is willing to go to reap revenge for the wrongs done to her. It's also here that we see her at her bravest as she is willing to take extreme steps to ensure that she doesn't become a danger to innocent and defenseless folks. It takes courage to rise up against those who would oppress or harm you but it takes even more to disarm yourself so that you will not in turn oppress or harm others. Of course, even disarmed, Red Sonja is a dangerous person and Katharas Ra is finding himself staring down the barrel of something he's been trying to avoid for years: a fair fight. I have a few words on forgiveness myself here. Forgiveness is a powerful and in many ways a good thing and there is a danger in curling up to every harm and slight ever done to you like a beloved pet. That tends toward hatred and rage that warps you and leaves you unable to feel much else or to become so obsessed over what was done to you that you can't make your life about anything else. That said our modern day pop culture often confuses the idea of forgiveness with forgetting what the other guy did and letting it go without consequences. Note I say consequences, not punishment. It's entirely possible to forgive someone while deciding they're an awful person and it's healthier for you to have nothing more to do with them. Sometimes it's necessary to forgive someone for your own well being but that doesn't mean you should wipe the slate clean and forget it happened. Redemption is a completely separate thing from forgiveness and has much stricter requirements, and I think that's something else modern pop culture forgets. I'll stop here but if anyone really wants me to get into this, say so in the comments and I'll be happy to discuss it.

The next story in this graphic novel is Red Sonja defending a library and I'll admit I’m a sucker for a good defend the books story line (Editors Note: Is anyone surprised? I’m not! Also, the editor approves!)! The Empress Dowager was a common born woman who won the Emperor's favor. Being a very strong willed woman she was able dominate the court and when the Emperor passed she took the throne. If this sounds familiar to you, it's because it's basically a version of the story of Empress Cixi of China, one of the last monarchs of that nation. Her story is to long and complicated for this review but let me encourage you to look her up for yourselves! Anyway, this version became a woman-hating tyrant, turning against the idea of educating women or allowing other women to have high station upon taking the throne. Red Sonja in a post orgy doze is approached by four nuns and asked to defend their library which has been marked for burning. Sonja is less then excited at this idea but her own nagging sense of morality pulls her into it and along the way she manages to learn a little bit about the value of the written word. Even if that means facing down three of the worlds best assassins... Alone. I enjoyed it, but then I hope no one is expecting me to dislike stories about how important books are.

Gail Simone's run on Red Sonja leans toward morality plays a great deal. Where Red Sonja is given a task or put to an ordeal and learns a moral lesson along the way. Some of these lessons are fairly profound, such as the courage of a chef who refuses to abandon her even if that means rotting in a pit; others can be a bit cliché. There's a bit of irony in this for me as morality plays are a very Christian form of entertainment. While Sonja's love of drink and casual sex make her a very non-Christian protagonist in a lot of ways, her efforts to defend people who can't fight for themselves and the values she learns mean that in other ways she wouldn't be out of place among more Christian heroes. I don't think this is intentional but merely a demonstration of how deeply Christianity still influences our society. This version of Red Sonja is frankly my favorite so far. While crude and rather hedonistic, she's also brave and shows a certain rough compassion towards her fellow human beings. The balance of flaws, failures, virtues and successes make this Red Sonja feel like more of a person to me some of the earlier versions I've read and I hope future writers learn from this and build on what Ms. Simone has laid out for us. Some will note that the scale mail bikini is present in the series, Red Sonja never wears it out in the field where she's expecting violence but seems to reserve it for “formal” encounters with people in authority which makes it an act of rebellion in many ways. This Sonja instead wears armor that covers most of her body when doing serious violence. This graphic novel was violent and action packed while not shying away from the consequences of violence and had a good number of interesting minor characters that appear to liven up Sonja's life or at least keep her focused on the task at hand. Red Sonja Vol III: The Forgiving of Monsters by Gail Simone closes out this series with an A. I encourage everyone to read it.

Join us next week as we return to novels with The Priestess and the Dragon by Nicolette Andrews. As always, keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 09, 2018 11:14 pm 
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The Priestess and the Dragon
By Nicolette Andrews

Nicolette Andrews was born and raised in San Diego, where she continues to live to this day with her husband and two daughters. Currently self published, her first book, Diviner’s Prophecy was released in 2013. The book we're reviewing today was released in 2015 and can be found on amazon.

The Priestess and the Dragon is set in a fantasy style Japan (or what I like to call NotJapan, perhaps the second most popular fantasy setting in the last couple decades only beaten out by NotEurope [Editors’s note: for Anime, it’s NotPrussia or NotGermany specifically. See FMA and Attack on Titan]). This Japan seems to be pre-Shogunate as the Emperor still rules the nation with generals and others reporting to him directly. The Emperor and his family claim direct descendant from the Eight, the old gods who created the world. As the Eight rule the cosmos from their heavens, so does the Emperor rule humanity from his palace, or so it goes. Alongside but hidden from humanity live the Yokai. In Japanese folklore Yokai are supernatural creatures that can bring calamity or good fortune on those who encounter them. A good number of the Japanese creatures that you're likely familiar with, like the Kappa or Tengu are considered Yokai. In the story Yokai is used as a catch all term for any creature that is supernatural and immortal but not a god. For the most part the Yokai are hidden from the human world, although some Yokai may choose to interact with humanity. These interactions can run from marrying humans and living with them to hunting down humans and eating them. Only humans who are born with or have trained up a certain level of spiritual power can even see Yokai who don't want to be seen, but Yokai aren't without their vulnerabilities, they can be hurt or killed. Humans can even seal away Yokai with enough strength and knowledge of the right rituals. It's the sealing away part that causes the problems in this story but let's discuss our characters first.

Our main character Suzume is the daughter of the Emperor who has frankly found herself suffering some hard times. Suzume's mother was one of the wives of the Emperor before she was caught having an affair. Now, given that the Emperor has more wives than sense, that isn't really unusual but getting caught isn't something that gets forgiven. Her mother was banished from the court and the Emperor decided to take the rare step of disowning all of his children with her and banishing them as well. In Suzume's case she was banished to a temple in the North of the country where she would be trained to be a priestess. Suzume is less than thrilled with this and is fairly upset with her mother for letting this happen to her. As part of her training, she is symbolically married to the god of the shrine in a ritual which does not go as planned. Instead of a nice boring religious ritual that traps her in a life she doesn't want Suzume is revealed to have a good amount of untrained spiritual power which shatters the seal of the shrine and wakes up the Dragon sealed within. An imperious dragon who instantly starts barking orders and thinks presuming on the marriage ritual to tease and taunt her is funny. A dragon that sets her teeth on edge and might be the single biggest danger to her in the story (but we'll get to that). The Dragon is actually our second character, Kaito.

Kaito is a dragon, a shape changing, immortal creature with the kind of power that could make nations tremble. Kaito is also a dragon with problems. Kaito has been imprisoned for centuries and he doesn't know why. Knowing who imprisoned him on the other hand actually makes things worse because the person who imprisoned him was the human priestess Kazue, who was his lover at the time. None of this puts him in the best of moods when he awakes and finds out that hundreds of years have passed, the kingdom he ruled is gone into the mists of time, and even most of the immortal Yokai that he knew and befriended are dead or disappeared. In fact the Yokai world seems to be in tatters with most of the leaders of the Yokai gone or dead and some dark mysterious force destroying anyone who could take their place. Kaito however isn't letting that distract him from the more important things. Like finding Kazue's reincarnation and brutally murdering them for something a past life did so he can feel better, and if he can't do that he'll settle for brutally murdering all of her descendants and burning down everything they've ever loved and cared for. Because Kaito is the kind of dragon who doesn't like leaving a vengeful rampage half done or leaving a lot of witnesses behind him. He also expects Suzume to help him on this quest for emotional catharsis in the blood of the innocent whether she likes it or not. This leads to a further complication when Suzume realizes that Kazue might be an ancestor of the Imperial Family (you know, her family?) and to top it all off Suzume might actually be Kazue's reincarnation... Which means not only could Kaito turn around and tear her heart out if he figures that out but he could also end up destroying everything of value to Suzume and her family members. Which would mean burning down the country and possibly wrecking human civilization. She is less than thrilled by this and as such is not quiet the picture of helpfulness, or sympathy, or friendliness. In fact she's outright hostile and willing to do whatever she can to sabotage Kaito's quest and frankly I can't blame her.

Suzume and Kaito's relationship is the axle on which this story turns so let me go into it a bit as it becomes a fairly complicated and complex relationship. Kaito while incredibly angry at Kazue's seemingly senseless betrayal is still very much in love with her and can't even deny it to himself. Suzume both reminds him of her but at the same time is a very different person which leaves him in turns depressed, confused and infuriated. While he loudly announces that he's all about that blood soaked vengeance, for most of the book he seems more interested in trying to figure out just what the hell happened because from his perspective one day he was in a happy relationship where he was trying not to think about Kazue's eventual death from old age; the next day he was being attacked and sealed away by the person he loved the most; and then the day after that he wakes up and the world has changed beyond all recognition. He's angry at Kazue but he still loves her and is grieved that she's dead. If for no other reason then that means he'll never get to confront her and hear her reasons from her directly. He honestly comes off as someone unbalanced who doesn't know what he wants anymore, and that's fairly realistic. I don't think any of us in a similar situation would be doing all that well either. This however means his treatment of Suzume is very inconsistent, as he shifts from trying to win her over as anything from a girlfriend to ally to trying to treat her as a slave or pet. Suzume is in much the same situation, when her mother was banished she lost her entire world for something that was both not her fault and something she could have done absolutely nothing about. For a princess she didn't really have big goals: she wanted to marry a nice but older general who wouldn't notice when she flirted with younger men as long she didn't go to far. Which as ambitions go, is kinda sad but she's a princess in NotJapan, her options are kinda limited. Suzume is resentful that her fate keeps being decided by people without any input from her and everyone expects her to not only go along with it but to be grateful for it. Only now with her awakened power coming out, she can do something about that resentment and put her foot down. So while Kaito is fairly inconsistent in his treatment of Suzume, she's is very consistent in treating him as a threat and danger. She can't stop Kaito from dragging her along on his quest but damned if she's isn't going to fight him every step of the way and put her own interests first and I’m thankful to see that.

Ms. Andrews bills herself as writing romantic fantasies so I had some concern as I was reading this that I was going to see a romance that didn't make sense. It frankly makes no sense to start a romantic relationship with someone who keeps talking about how he's going to murder your family or might be murdering you. I can't say I saw any romance in this book, unless we count Kaito and Kazue which we do get to see a bit of. Kaito and Suzume's relationship is intense but in this book at least it's not romantic. Suzume certainly isn't interested in one and is vastly more interested in her own safety and well being. While Kaito can't make up his scaly little mind as to what he wants. Now that said there's more going on then their little interpersonal drama. It turns out that Kaito waking up might have gotten all sorts of the wrong attention and Kaito's sealing isn't the only action of Kazue's that is going to come back and haunt Suzume. In fact there might be a whole laundry list of mistakes all waiting in line to haunt Suzume and she's going to have to sort that out because her alternative is dying. For that matter Kaito isn't untouchable by all this either, so he'll have to learn to get over himself if he wants to be able to continue his own quest. There are a number of other characters here but discussing them in any depth would mean revealing plot details that would spoil the story for you, my good readers. Ms. Andrews does do a good job of giving each of these other characters their own agendas and reasons for doing what they do and creating a dynamic driven by divided loyalties and opposing desires that the characters have to struggle to hash out.

That said the story isn't all emotional drama. There's a fair bit of action here, with battles being fought against various predatory Yokai because, well, Suzume smells delicious to them. See while she is full to the brim with fiery spirit power, she has no idea how to actually use it and that makes her a favorite food for any supernatural being who has no problem eating a self aware being. So Ms. Andrews is able to make good use of the various monsters and boogeymen of Japanese folklore to give us creatures focused on eating Suzume. Which provides us some good old fashioned violence, which is decently written but nothing special. For that matter the plot revelations more or less come in a rush at the end and much of it is left to be resolved in the next book. While the story the book tells is mostly complete, it primarily serves as a kind of prologue to the series that it's opening and it's ending is clearly a transitional one to the next book. I also have to admit I felt the ending was a bit rushed and could have benefited from either more space or introducing the antagonist a bit earlier. Additionally a lot of space in the end is given to set up for the series itself. On the plus side the book gives us some very well rendered characters with depth and personality and handles the various interpersonal relations and behavior fairly well. Whether or not you like the book is going to depend how you feel about books clearly designed to lead you into a book series and how you feel about the characters. If you end up hating Kaito and Suzume, this book is going to be awful for you, if you like them or even just like one of them the ‘a pretty good read. I'm giving The Priestess and the Dragon by Nicolette Andres a C+. It's better than a lot of your average stuff but there's a bit of room for improvement.

Next week, we go to actual Japan in Steve Bein's Daugther of the Sword. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 16, 2018 10:17 pm 
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Daughter of the Sword
by Steve Bein


Dr. Steve Bein was born in Oak Park, Illinois near Chicago several decades ago. As a young man he would attend university in a wide variety of places, his native Illinois, Germany, Hawaii, Nanzan and Obirin universities. It was there that he would translate works of Zen Buddhism and eventually earn a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Hawaii. He also picked up black belts in 2 forms of American martial arts and dabbled in a number of others. Today he teaches at the University of Dayton Ohio, where he lives with his partner and their dog. Dr. Bein has a number of short fictions published in Asimov's, Interzone and Writers of the Future. Today's review is his first published novel, released in 2012 with two sequels released since then and a pair of kindle only side stories set in the same world.

Daughter of the Sword takes place mostly in 2010 Tokyo and tells us the story of Mariko Oshiro, Tokyo's first and so far only woman detective. I have to admit at first I was skeptical of this, as while Japan is more traditional about gender roles than the United States, this is still the 21st century! However after a lot of research, including going to a number of message boards and asking because I couldn't read the Japanese sources (special thanks to the posters of spacebattles.com). It turns out to be shockingly plausible. The first woman chief of police was only installed in 2013 and Tokyo itself only allowed woman police officers to be stationed in Kobans (local police Kiosk from what I understand) a few years ago. So I suppose I was being a bit Americentric there. Anyway, let's look at Detective Oshiro shall we? Mariko is a driven and ambitious lady, having spent her girlhood in the United States, she feels somewhat removed from Japanese society. Her isolation from Japanese society is reinforced throughout the novel by a good number of people commenting how direct and rude she is. This is compounded by the fact that her ambition to be a police officer on the front lines is a goal that, most of her elders agree, a good Japanese girl shouldn't have. Mariko herself questions this, not having those ambitions, but why she is so dead set on achieving them in Japan when she could easily just light out for the United States and be a detective there. Instead, she’s thrown herself into the Tokyo police department and done well. For example she has, after a lot of sweat, blood, and tears gotten into the narcotics unit only to have her new Lt. (oh we'll get to him) over rule her deployment ideas for a sting and she finds her little sister Saori get swept up in the bust. Saori, unlike Mariko, isn't ambitious; she is however a drug addict. As you can guess this is a stormy relationship that runs throughout the novel but isn't the center focus. It's a fairly standard relationship between a junkie family member and a cop. Saori is upset that Mariko shows up when she's trying to buy drugs and then will demand that Mariko get her out of trouble. She’s also completely unrepentant for any wrongdoing while acting as the wronged party. Honestly I don't really care for Saori but I'm not supposed to. To Dr. Bein's credit, he doesn't spend enough time on Saori to allow her to get too annoying. She's established in the plot and then efficiently set forth to make her contribution to the plot. It's a bit mechanical honestly but I prefer that to some writers who will drag it out and cause me to grind my teeth.

The center focus is on swords. Many centuries ago, there existed a master swordsmith, Inazuma. His swords were so well made that the rest of Japan wouldn’t catch up for 200 years, in fact Inazuma's abilities were so great that it was commonly believed that his three greatest swords had magical powers. When Mariko is exiled by her Lt to investigating an attempted burglary of a sword, that's when we meet Professor Yasuo Yamada, who is the owner of one Inazuma sword and on a mad quest to destroy another. Unfortunately for him the last person he brought into the quest took the sword in question, went rogue and decided that what he needed to do was steal the good Professors sword as well. Just as an extra complication, the man in question is a member of the Yakuza and so has access to all sorts of underground resources to make this happen. Also, because Mariko doesn't have enough problems, Professor Yamada is pretty much blind, although thanks to decades of training is still a fairly powerful swordsman. He's also a bit of mystery being a scholar of the history of swordsmithing and swordsmanship with a number of books to his name and a number of friends in high places. He serves as sort of a mentor to Mariko here, teaching her some history and some swordplay as well as using his friends in high places to get her the resources she needs to investigate the crimes in question.

Which is a good thing because Mariko is going to need every scrap of help she can find, beg, barter or steal because her opponent, Fuchida Shuzo, isn't just a member of an underground crime organization but also a skilled swordsman himself, and insane. Fuchida is strangely one of the parts of the book I enjoy the most in a cringing way. He's a monster who has no care for his fellow human beings, to the point of holding most of them in contempt. That said many of his criticism of Japanese society are painfully on the nose and could apply just as well to American society. For example, he sneers at the salarimen of Japan for working long grueling hours and then going to a bar to suck up to a boss that doesn't really care about them, to advance in a job that none of them really care about. He's wrong to hold his fellow humans in contempt but he's right that it makes no sense to kill yourself for a system that at best views you as an easily replaceable cog. Mariko herself is less then thrilled with Japanese culture but unlike Fuchida she chooses to fight it head on, while Fuchida chooses to hold himself aloof. On the flip side it's not like Fuchida cares about people either, he's a cold blooded user of men and women in a manic pursuit of his goal. Ironically however, while Fuchida might be the death of Mariko and her family, it's Mariko's Lt. that takes up most of the antagonists duties in the plot.

Lt. Ko on the other hand is an old disgruntled man who makes no bones about believing that Mariko should content herself to serving coffee and letting her ass get pinched by any jr. officer with delusions of competency and be thankful for the attention. He's open about it in a way that I haven't run into inside the United States (although I'm sad to say I wouldn't to be shocked if I had woman readers who have. Disappointed in my fellow countrymen, but not shocked). We don't learn a lot about Ko in this story, his job is mostly to refuse Mariko resources, try to sabotage her, and mock her to her face in the kind of unprofessional display that would make even hollywood bosses sneer in disgust. I did find it interesting that neither Ko or Mariko actually their shared personality traits. Ko is rude by American standards, never you mind Japanese ones. He's the only one willing to tell Mariko to her face that he thinks this is a boys club and she has no place in it. He's also very direct and blunt about his plan to simply run her out of the unit and the department if possible. While Lt. Ko is a nasty, puffed up old bigot seeped in his own self importance and grudges, he's also pretty much the only person in this story who is up front and direct, except for Mariko Oshiro. Unlike Mariko and Fuchida, Lt. Ko isn't critical of his society but embraces it. Likely because while Mariko is on the outside due to her gender and Fuchida for being from a crime family, Ko is allowed a pretty cushy position.

The main story is broken up by three story lines that take place in the past of Japan, showing the past of each of the three swords in question. Each of the stories is more or less self contained but shows us directly the influence of the swords in question on their wielders. I honestly enjoyed these more then the main plot but only one of them had any importance to the plot so I am left wondering why they were in the novel. The nature of one of the other swords is shown in the main plot and is discussed fairly often by the characters themselves. So they don't feel entirely necessary, and at least one of the stories feels like it's there to pad out the novel a bit. That said the past storyline that does link into the plot manages to link in a way that is both interesting and somewhat compelling. That said I did feel somewhat put off by the suggestion that the reason for the abuse of American prisoners in the Philippines was due to a magic sword that induces insane blood lust in it's wielder. I might be reading to much into it but frankly I don't like subscribing human atrocities to supernatural causes and yes, I would feel the same way if we were talking about American atrocities. It's the same reason I don't care for stories that suggest Hitler was half demon or some kind of day walking vampire. When we take these real events and people and suggest their evil sprang from some inhuman source we are distancing ourselves from this behavior and I feel it's important to say that yes, human beings did these things and we have no one to blame but ourselves for our actions. That's not to suggest that there no goodness in human nature, there is plenty of it in my opinion, only that pretending there is no darkness lurking in the human soul makes it easier to cop out. I'm sure most people will think I'm just being fussy on this point but these reviews are my opinion, so on some stuff y'all will just have to deal with it.

Daughter of the Sword is a fairly good urban fantasy, it's plotted and written with efficiency comes off as a bit mechanical. Maybe it's because I’ve done so much reading in this review series. Some developments occur because that's what the plot says should happen, although Dr. Bein does a good job of making sure it fits with the characters motivations and prior actions. However, when I can tell what Saori's contribution to the plot will be in five pages of her showing up and predict Professor Yamada's fate... Well I have faith that more practice will help Dr. Bein smooth out the edges there. The dialogue is well done and the action fairly average in all honesty and Dr. Bein shows a good grasp of Japanese society at least from the view of Mariko who would be both an outsider and an insider. I found Mariko's position in society realistic as well, I'm the child of deaf parents and even now in my 30s there are elements of hearing culture that I don't follow as well as I should. That said no one would ever realize that just watching me go about my day. A fellow Japanese citizen wouldn't be able to tell Mariko wasn't entirely onboard with Japanese culture until they had a prolonged interaction with her and that makes sense. I'm still hopeful someone will find evidence that there are women detectives in the Tokyo police department however. Daughter of the Sword by Dr. Steven Bein gets a C. It's a good read, fun and serviceable but the predictability of the plot and sudden surprises at the end drag it down, as does the mechanical feeling of plot progression.

Next week, we turn to the future in Altered Carbon. Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 23, 2018 10:53 pm 
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Altered Carbon
By Richard K Morgan


Richard Morgan was born in London in 1965, but grew up in the village of Hethersett near Norwich. He attended Queen's college, Cambridge where he studied history. By his own admission, he almost screwed up hard in his first year, following a grand tradition of college students across the globe (Editor: By way of being drunk on freedom and also literally drunk?). However he managed to pull himself together and gain his degree. He started teaching English after his graduation so he could travel the world, which he did for fourteen years. He’s lived in Madrid and Istanbul and became a fluent Spanish speaker, he later took a post at the university of Strathclyde in Glasgow Scotland. He evolved from teaching English to teaching people how to teach English and it was at this point he remembered that he had wanted to be a writer. Of course like all British writers he holds an extremely negative view of governments and even society. Which leads me to ask my British readers: just what are you putting these people's water? Seriously between Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Charles Stross, and now Mr. Morgan, I'm starting to wonder how science fiction conventions in London don't turn into anarchist rebellions! I'll grant as an American, I'm throwing rocks from glass houses but you can see where I'm coming from! But that's not why we're here today. Today we're here to talk about Mr. Morgans first novel to be published, Altered Carbon.

Altered Carbon was published in February 2002 by Victor Gollanz Ltd, a British publishing company founded in 1926. After the death of its founder it was passed from owner to owner until turned into a science fiction and fantasy imprint by the current owners Cassell & Co and Orion Publishing Group. Altered Carbon made itself hard to ignore in many circles, sort of like a small tank that has parked itself where your living room used to be. Mr. Morgan was able to sell the film rights to the book to noted producer Joel Silver for a million dollars, which allowed him to transition to full time writer. In 2003 it won the Philip K Dick Award for Best Novel. The film fell through but Netflix, a company you may have heard of in passing, decided it would make a great series and released a 10 episode first season recently but I'll come back to that.

Let's start with the basics, Altered Carbon takes place at least 400 years from now. Humanity discovered a path to immortality with the invention of an implant called a cortical stack. Implanted at a young age in the brain stem, the cortical stack can house all of your memories and personality, if your current physical body (referred to as a sleeve) dies, your cortical stack can be implanted into a new body with all your thoughts, dreams, memories and personality entirely intact (this is called resleeving). Unfortunately, it seems that money talks here. Resleeving costs, and not everyone can afford it. So while the wealthy can plug themselves into body after body, normal folks often can't afford to resleeve themselves after their deaths. The wealthy who can live for centuries while profiting from the labor of entire generations of normal people are often referred to as Meths, which is short for Methuselahs. This is, as I think most of you know, a Biblical reference. For those of you who didn't get the benefit of Sunday school, Methuselah is a minor figure in the Old Testament, his biggest achievement being living 969 years before disappearing from the Earth. This isn't all that’s changed. Humanity has also spread to the stars. While physical FTL remains impossible, with colony ships having to traverse the void in long slow voyages carrying their passengers on the stack, which is to say carrying them with their cortical stack removed from the body, communication can take place at Faster than light or close enough that it doesn't matter. The transmission of data at FTL gives humanity a method of FTL travel, simply beam the data on a cortical stack through the network to another cortical stack and plug it into a body on site and there you go. You have successfully traveled to another world, all you had to do was leave your body behind. Humanity has used these technologies to forge an interstellar empire in a 100 light year bubble centered on Earth run by the United Nations, referred to as the Protectorate. However what makes this important for us is that the story opens with our main character Takeshi Kovacs having been transmitted against his will to Earth from his home planet and planted in a new body for a single purpose.

A man has been murdered. This is less of a problem for the people of the Altered Carbon universe then it would be for us but it is still a problem. It's less of a problem because the victim, Laurens Bancroft is still alive. Due to his cortical stack he was promptly resleeved and to make things worse, he's a methuselah. A long lived, super wealthy, and powerful man. The police have ruled it a suicide. After all, he was shot in the face at point blank range with a pistol with only his prints on it, that was sitting in a safe that only he and his wife Miriam could access. His wife was investigated and questioned under truth detecting polygraphs but passed all of them with flying colors. Now one of the reasons Mr. Bancroft survived his murder was the fact that he has remote back ups. At regular intervals his cortical stack is remotely scanned and copied to an off site location so if the cortical stack is destroyed, he can be brought back from one of the back ups into a tailor-made clone body. This is very expensive as you might imagine but Bancroft has beenhoarding massive amounts of money for over 300 years at this point so he can afford an expensive perk or 500. He's also paid for our main character Takeshi Kovacs to be beamed to Earth, plugged into a new sleeve and set forth to prove that Bancroft was murdered, find out who did it, and why they did it. Let's talk about Takeshi Kovacs now.

Takeshi was born on Harlan's World, a colony with a grand tradition of revolution against corrupt authority expressed in a system called Quellism. Despite the authorities being really unfond of that belief system Quellism remains popular among the underclasses. Takeshi was born into those underclasses, he joined the gangs that ran the lower class neighborhoods and after that joined the United Nations Protectorate Marine Corps. From there he joined the envoys. The United Nations Envoy Corps creates troops that are a combination of intelligence operative and special forces trooper using advanced technology and more importantly advanced training methods able to impact and shape the subconscious of the soldier in question. Among other things, every psychological barrier in a normal human mind to committing violent and killing is utterly removed. Honestly, speaking as someone with military service... What the hell are you people thinking? The idea isn't to create people who can go to violence at the drop of a hat but people who can go to violence in specific situations. You've removed the controls that militaries have been struggling to implement since the days of bronze you maniacs! This may be because Envoys are taught how to infiltrate foreign cultures and if necessary utterly destroy them so as to maintain United Nations authority. So they aren't traditional soldiers even if they can perform that role. Still if that wasn't bad enough they are trained to be able to adapt quickly to being resleeved and to exploit any body to its fullest ability. Takeshi was a good envoy but after leaving the Envoy Corps found himself drifting back into the criminal lifestyle and became a mercenary. This led to his capture and imprisonment and that led to Bancroft “hiring” him. Frankly this was inevitable given UN law that envoys cannot hold military or police positions after leaving the envoy corps, which is incredibly stupid. By their training Envoys are really good at any career that involves violence and the mental alterations done to them leave me openly doubting that an Envoy could adjust to a quiet peaceful life. By locking them out of the socially sanctioned careers that would allow them to exercise their unique gifts, you guarantee a steady amount of Envoys going into the criminal world. Which tells me that the UN government is either incredibly malicious, incredibly incompetent or both. I mean there are simple solutions here, ranging from throwing them onto new colony ships and making them someone else’s problem light years and centuries away to setting up things for retired envoys to do. Instead we have to be sloppy and stupid about our oppression; which is historically accurate at least. Takeshi is an extremely frustrated idealist who has collapsed into cynicism but still able to use all of his skills and talents. This doesn't mean he's a good person, Takeshi throughout the story shows hints of a brutality that he barely keeps in check. While he does seem to regard human life as having value, that value is very dependent on how he is feeling at the moment. That said, Takeshi is the hero that 25th century Earth deserves and needs right now. He needs all of his skills and talent because powerful men and women are lining up to stop him from getting at the truth and they will use any means to avert him. Torture, blackmail, bribery, assassination and more are all on the menu here and they're all pointed at Takeshi, so a certain amount of brutality is called for here.

He'll also have to figure out his relationship with the local cops, led by a Lt. Ortega who has her own reasons to be pissed off at Takeshi, some of which even have to do with him! Lt. Ortega's a pretty interesting character herself and gives us a look at the police force of a dystopian world. This is done very realistically. The police not so quietly loath Mr. Bancroft (who hates them in return) and are happy to wash their hands of his case so they can get back to real police work. The reason for this is a mutual lack of respect. Mr. Bancroft feels that as a man who has outlived civilizations he is owed a certain amount of deference and respect. The police feel that Mr. Bancroft is a disrespect to the concepts of law and order, which I know is shocking but a lot of cops take law and order seriously even if they might be iffy on the concept of justice. I can see the frustration in Lt. Ortega. She is constantly throwing herself and her men on the line and her thanks is a small paycheck and to be sneered at by the people who benefit the most from her work, while being actively hated by everyone else. That's going to sour even the sweetest of personalities if we're going to be honest.

Altered Carbon manages to tell a tightly focused story that interweaves through a larger backdrop. This is done by bringing in political concerns; for example the UN is discussing passing a resolution making the resleeving of any violent crime victim mandatory. This is opposed by the Catholic church, who believes that when your body dies your soul departs, so being resleeved is an abomination. So most Catholics have signed orders that they not be resleeved. This however has become an incredibly abused loophole. Criminal enterprises often require prostitutes and other expendable members to legally convert to Catholicism so they can't testify in their own murders. Additionally this turns Catholics into a massively exploited underclass targeted for various crimes that you can't get away with against the common man. Another larger theme is the fact that you no longer own your own body! Since the most common punishment is be put into storage (on stack) and out of body, your body then becomes a commodity that anyone with enough cash can pay for to use for whatever they like. This is key to several plot points in the novel that I don't want to give away so I'll just say this. If there are any specific things that a person should always own no matter what they’ve done... It's their mind and their body. These are in the most literal sense of the term your birthright and no government, no corporation, no religion, and no person has the right to take away either one from you. Even if you can hop from body to body. The fact that people in this system must struggle to retain ownership of their own bodies is frankly vile and renders the promise of the technology in the novel into a tool for ghoulish predation on the citizenry. To be fair, Mr. Morgan would point out that this is a dystopia! It's not supposed to be a great shiny system! I will admit that Mr. Morgan has succeeded in writing an amazing dystopia that pulled me into it that is populated with characters that while devastatingly flawed, are given human enough depth to be sympathetic, even as they wade through oceans of blood. In this case I think Kovacs becomes a heroic figure because he is literally fighting monsters here. That said I do have some minor complaints. Like a lot of European writers, Mr. Morgan's idea of a Californian city is very...not American. For example, where the bloody hell are the Mormons in all of this. The Mormon Church has involved itself in politics before but there's nothing of them here, only Catholics. That's kinda odd for America but works fairly well for Europe. Bay City, formerly San Francisco feels more like a European or even Scottish city then one in California. He's not the only writer who does this and given that it's set centuries in the future, I think it's excusable. It's certainly possible that 400 years in the future that San Francisco will feel like a worn out city in North England or Scotland, stripped of what we think of as it's Californian character. That said I would warn writers to be careful about writing places that seem close enough to you culturally but may be further away than you think. Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan gets an A. This is likely the best first novel I've seen in awhile and shows what new ideas you can bring into Cyberpunk and science fiction.

Next week, we're going to do something a little different and I'm going to talk about the Altered Carbon netflix series (see told you I'd get back to it, didn't I?). Keep Reading!

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 02, 2018 9:24 pm 
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Altered Carbon (netflix series)
created by Laeta Kalogridis

Altered Carbon (netflix series) created by Laeta Kalogridis Since this is only the 3rd time I've reviewed something that isn't a book and the second time I've looked at an adaptation. Let me explain how this is going to be set up. I will be discussing Altered Carbon the series, both how it works on it's own as a series and how it does as an adaptation. As such this review will have two grades. One on how good a television series I found it to be and one on how faithful and good of an adaptation it was. First we'll be tackling how it stands on it's own, let's start with the series creator. Fair warning there will be some minor spoilers below. You are warned! Laeta Kalogridis was born in Winter Haven, Florida in 1965. She would graduate college from Davidson College in North Carolina and end up in the UCLA school of theater, film, and television graduating from there with an MLA in screenwriting. Before that she had a brief flirtation with being a lawyer in college before deciding to become a screenwriter (Editor’s Note: She wanted something stable, dontcha know). Her first big fight was for a script rewriting class in UCLA (that at the time did not exist), where she learned to keep pushing if she really wanted something. She didn’t get the class but did get an independent study program that got her what she wanted. It was while in that independent study program that she actually ended up selling her first script, a Joan of Arc film titled In Nomine Dei but it was never filmed. Since then she’s worked on a number of projects from X Men, to Birds of Prey, Avatar, Alexander, Shutter Island, and Terminator Genisys. She is the lead screenwriter and one of the producers of Altered Carbon.

Altered Carbon takes place hundreds of years in the future. Space exploration turned up evidence of an extinct alien civilization that had spread across the stars. Reverse engineering their technology led to, among other things, the creation of the stack. A device implanted in your neck that copies your mind digitally, allowing your personality and your memories to be transplanted into another body. This allows for what is practically immortality, as you can move from body to body as age, accident, disease, or violence overtakes it. We also discover a means of Faster than Light communication (but not transport) which means your mind in a digital form can be beamed across the lightyears to another world. Slower than light ships are sent out to create colonies on dozens of worlds and more colonists are sent via this communication system called needle casting. This could be used to create a Utopian lifestyle especially with the creation of VR and AI systems. Instead humanity has found itself increasingly dominated by a class of super rich immortal degenerates called Meths, after Methuselah, the figure in the Bible. Because life and death are now rendered cheap, after all if you kill someone, as long as their stack isn't damaged they can always be brought back, the elite classes increasingly treat them as commodities. Meanwhile the average person is lucky if they can afford to bring back dead family members for the holidays and those who qualify for a new body through government programs can and will end up in anything (Editors Note: Yay for seven year old murder victims stuck in the bodies of eighty year olds! This system seems set up to maximize body dysphoria and existential angst for the working classes. I’m writing in red right now, you can guess how I feel about that, dear readers <sings the Internationale>.) [I would like to remind everyone that I am not responsible for my editor and this review does not condone communist revolutions]. As prisons sell the bodies of their prisoners while they serve their time simply having their stack sit in a drawer. To put it bluntly the system has clearly gone out of control and only works for a small elite and their favored servants while the common people are fighting for scraps.

Meanwhile Neo-Catholics, a fundamentalist sect, renounces the use of stacks, calls being re-embodied (called resleeving, as bodies are called sleeves) a mortal sin and demands that they be left dead, even in the case of murders. As you can imagine that makes Neo-Catholics popular targets for murder and other terrible crimes. Crimes that can't be solved because the law forbids bringing back anyone who is formally coded as a Neo-Catholic. A recent attempt to pass a law making it mandatory for murder victims to be re-sleeved and testify in their own murders failed and there is both relief and anger in the streets and with some people the question of who benefits from this lingers.

Into this wakes up our main character Takeshi Kovacs, a man with a complicated past. A man who lost everything over 200 years ago. A man who is considered one of the most dangerous criminals alive. He was a member of the military, but deserted and joined a rebellion led by a woman named Quellcrist Falcon. Trained to be a member of her elite force, named envoys. Kovac fought a doomed battle to bring down the system and watched everyone he knew and love killed for it. He is brought back to a life he's not sure he actually wants by Lauren Bancroft. A man of insane wealth, privilege and influence who was found dead, his stack blown apart along with the rest of his head. However, Bancroft escaped death due to a modification in needlecast technology, where a copy of your stack can be sent remotely to a computer and updated at set intervals. For Bancroft it was every 48 hours. He was shot right before his backup. The police were happy to call it a suicide. The deal Bancroft offers is simple, Kovacs will investigate Bancroft's killing, using resources from the vast fortune that three centuries can provide. If Kovacs can discover the killer and the reason behind the murder, then he gets a pardon and millions of dollars. If he fails, he goes back on ice. Unfortunately for Kovacs, the world he's woken up into is full of enemies both within Bancroft's own family and without, as everyone from the police to the crime world keeps trying to convince him to drop the case. Additionally another murder keeps popping up as he investigates, that of a girl named Mary Lou Henchy. A girl who was, bluntly, a whore and who died by falling out of the sky from nowhere. On top of that Police Lt. Ortega is practically stalking him for reasons that need to be figured out as Kovacs gets deeper and deeper into the mess and finds himself following a trail of bodies that the Bancrofts left in their wake and the damage that the Bancroft family has done to each other and to the innocent people around them. He's also gonna have to figure out whose body he's parked in because that seems to bring a bunch of issues all on it's own.

There are a number of themes running through the series. Through Quellcrist, we're told that the issue is immortality. That with immortality it is inevitable that a small group of increasingly old people will own everything and do as they please. That immortality also inevitable leads to immorality is another message of the show. Every meth character is shown as degenerate in one way or another, losing their empathy for other people as they increasingly believe their age, wealth, and power sets them apart. This actually works better as a metaphor for class conflict. We have one class that controls everything and gets everything, including immortal life and other class that has been reduced to a commodity, their very bodies and lives bought and sold for amusement (Editor’s Note: Karl Marx would call this the ultimate manifestation of alienation, as now the working class is alienated not just from the value of their labor, but from their own bodies. Stripped of everything that they might consider theirs.). This is also supported by the running theme of violence against women in the show. It's interesting to note that the two most powerful women in the show Miriam Bancroft (Lauren's wife) and Reileen Kawahara have their power because of men and the victimization of other women. One of them for the most part turns a blind eye to such things, the other one actively aids and abets it in order to profit. Violence against women is centerpieces in the show as an example of a degenerate system and what happens when people are allowed to act out their darker impulses. There's plenty of violence against men of course. Men die in job lots in this show but for the most part men aren't shown as victims, as most of the men who die, do so because they're trying to kill someone else. There are innocent male victims shown, I want to state that for record but it's my view that the show pays much more attention to the innocent women who are turned into commodities and lined up to be butchered, often for the most trivial and petty of reasons. That said, it's not entirely one way, to give an example, when captured and tortured, Kovac is allowed to keep his pants and his dignity on screen. The woman who was killed for trying to help him is cut apart as naked as the day she is born and not allowed much in the way of dignity or anything else. So this may come down to where you're focusing your attention.

The show becomes a struggle for Kovac not just to discover the truth of Bancroft's murder and earn his freedom but to create some justice in the world he's found himself in and win some dignity for the many victims strewn in the wake of the monsters who run it. As you might imagine the show earns its R rating and I have to strongly suggest that you don't watch it with the kids around, as there's a lot of nudity, blood, violence and disturbing imagines. However, Altered Carbon doesn't depend on it's shock value, the shock value is there to serve it's plot and characterizations. It has a good solid plot and rather good characters from the always fun to watch Poe, the AI running the hotel that Kovacs makes his base of operations to Lt. Ortega the fiery young lady trying to wring out justice by main sheer willpower and brute force if needed and the Elliots, a local family scarred deeply by it's contact with the Bancrofts. There are a number of amazing actors here as well, Matthew Beidel deserves recognition for playing three different people in body and making them all distinct in voice tone, word choice, and body language. Chris Conner as Poe was amazingly fun to watch. Dichen Lachman also stole the show in many of the scenes she was in and I really enjoyed Martha Higareda turn as Lt. Oregta. I thought Josh Kinnaman did good work as well as Kovac but a number of the people above were just stellar.

Altered Carbon is an enjoyable show but held back by it's overly black and white treatment of human society and at times the lack of trust in its audience. Things are turned up to 11 so we can understand that we're supposed to consider all the Meth's bad people. This undermines my suspension of disbelief and I find it hard to believe it's their long lives that does this to them. There are plenty of wealthy people we've caught acting like psychopaths both in the past and in the modern day and they didn't need centuries to reach levels of insanity that turns a man’s stomach. Honestly I would argue the issue is a system that rewards acting like a sociopath with wealth and power. If your upper levels are full of people who could only get there because they were willing to use people like things to get there... Making them immortal will of course result in a bunch of immortal sociopaths. Additionally I don’t think you need to turn it up to 11 for the average watcher to get that these are terrible people so I feel they failed to trust their viewers. That means I can't give it an A or an A- in good faith despite how much I enjoyed it. Altered Carbon as a television gets a B+. I do recommend it as long you know you're watching some decidedly family unfriendly Cyberpunk.

Now for it as an adaptation. Massive changes were made, a number of these were good changes or just didn't matter that much. For example Lizzy Elliot in the book is a young blonde woman who attracted Lauren Bancroft because of how much like his wife she looks. In this show she's mixed race, with a white mother and a black father. While that does undermine Bancroft's behavior slighty, it's not that big a deal, as men can be attracted to more than one type of girl in looks and personality and it's possible that Lizzy reminded Lauren of his wife through her personality or something else. So I'm willing to give that change a gimmie. However the Elliots have their role in the story massively expanded. In the book Lizzy never appears on screen spending the entire novel in VR. Vernon, the father of the family appears once and Ava, the mother of the family has her role remain more or less the same in length and importance but changed by having her cross-sleeved into a man's body. I'm decidedly neutral on those changes. They don't hurt anything but I'm not wildly excited about them maybe because I never really got attached to any of them.

A good change I feel was bringing the Bancroft's children on screen. Isaac never shows up in the book but in the series he's a recurring character and shows how Bancroft and the existence of his generation keeps their children trapped in a permanent adolescence. As they are never allowed to move forward and assume their own responsibilities but will always live directly under their father's hand. I regard Isaac with a mix of pity and contempt with the pity increasing and the contempt lessening as the series went on as it became clear that Isaac was more then the angry spoiled brat he appeared to be. Miriam’s character is actually dialed down a bit I feel. In the book you pick up real quick that there’s a psychopath hiding behind those pretty blue eyes but much of that is removed in the series, perhaps to make the final revel more shocking. Another great change is the expanded role of Ortega and her family. Her family doesn't appear in the novel and Ortega actually isn't given that much time on screen. In the series her role is massively expanded and her family serves as a viewpoint on a society that Kovac can't give us because he isn't a member of it. He's outside of society, not interested in joining it and his investigation pushes him to the fringes of society. Instead we have a family who is living a decent if not wildly comfortable life as members of society and we see their positions and thoughts on the issues affecting their lives and times. We see how they struggle with the idea of the stacks and what they mean for their belief in the human soul. That said, I found Ortega's Mother's theology to be just flat out heretical and she would have been banished from my table for something so... Sloppy and lacking in faith in the Lord Almighty. She suggests in the show that it's possible that the Devil created the technology to lead humanity astray. My reply is that the Devil cannot create! To suggest otherwise is to place him on a level with God which is blasphemy. That part really stuck in my craw, in what was otherwise a very interesting scene that is nothing more than a family dinner. To be fair it is a stance I've run into before but I always find it infuriating, we're a monotheistic religion folks, quit trying to make Satan God's equal (This of course only applies to my fellow Christians). On a side note, the change I like most? Is Poe. In the novel the hotel is called the Anderson and really doesn't have a distinctive personality. Poe through Chris Conner drips with personality and charm and I really enjoyed that. In fact I liked the expansion of the AI's in general. In the novel we don't hear much from them but seeing their discussions in the television series was interesting if at times chilling.

On the other hand I am not wild about the changes to Kovacs’ backstory, gone is his membership in the gang world of Harlan's world (that's passed off to his sister, who never appeared in the book) and in the books Envoys are a government created armed force to suppress rebellion and re-engineer problematic governments for the Protectorate. Additionally a lot of the Envoy's more terrifying but subtle abilities are gone and replaced with things that really don't cut for me. With the Envoy's becoming a maligned terrorist organization from centuries past, we lose a first hand look at just how out of balance this system of government and control has become. Again everything is pinned on the Meths with the message of ‘if they would just go away and die everything would be better’. Which is frankly too simplistic. This ties into the massive change in Quellcrist in the series. In the book, Quellcrist is a historical figure for Kovacs, but as of Altered Carbon he never met her. Additionally from what we see in the novel Quellcrist didn't preach an anti-immortality message but a message of overthrowing corrupt authority and refusing to bow to oppression and exploitation. Making the relationship between them a personal one is again taking away the subtly and going for a more black and white presentation of Kovacs as many of his more unpleasant personality traits are offloaded onto his sister. This turns him into a more heroic character and I don't like that. Kovacs in the book is brutal, violent in the extreme, and willing to do awful things to achieve his goal. Kovacs is also willing to do good things if it will achieve his goal and in fact would prefer to do good things but feels that the system won't let him. He's a man who’s frustration with life and his own constant exploitation has led him to buy into the belief that the only way to win is to be meaner, harsher, and harder than the other guy and he hates himself for it. A lot of that self hate is because he knows much of the blame for this is his own terrible life choices. The show's Kovacs is more sympathetic because he's suffering from survivors guilt and alienation as he has woken up in a world that honestly has no place for him. While I don't dislike the show's Kovacs, but I think the book is a more compelling character because he is in large part responsible for what he has become and how he deals with that is a character arc that the show won't be able to follow. Meanwhile I've seen poor heroic man suffering from alienation and survivors guilty enough times that I don't feel there's anything new to see here. So if you thought Kovacs was incredibly violent and brutal in the show? He's really toned down honestly.

There are also characters that were removed completely such as Trepp, who is a mercenary for hire who has lived a long time herself. In fact, in the book Kovacs kills her the first time they met. Trepp doesn't remember that since that happened in-between backups and accepts it philosophically responding that if Kovacs could kill her, she likely deserved it but that was a different Trepp and it's the here and now that matters. She then proceeds to take Kovacs out to party, get high on drugs, and discuss everything from kittens to literature. I thought Trepp was incredibly fun as a character and provided a counterpoint to how Meth's treat immortality. Showing that there was more than one way to be an immortal. Her removal is another step in making the setting and the story vastly more black and white than it really needs to be. I can understand why they did because she does undermine the idea of a class of immortals as the problem in society but since I failed to buy that theme so I'm left missing her presence in the plot. Of course her professional amorality wouldn't work very well with Kovacs in the show so I suppose that’s another reason she had to go. Lastly is Reileen, who in the show is Kovac's sister. In the book she's a crime lord that Kovacs briefly worked for and loathed as a terrible person. Making Reileen his sister is actually one example I think of where the show makes things a bit more complicated and provides extra depth. I could believe in Kovacs struggle to try and find a way to save his sister from herself and his utter despair at realizing that he was too late and might have always been to late. Reileen is shown as a truly monstrous person, however you can see in the show that she was molded into this monster by society and the system of government and economics that she found herself in. She was an orphan, who was unknowingly betrayed when Kovacs joined the Protectorate forces on the condition that she be cared for. She was instead sent to the Yakuza who turned her into a cold blooded killer. When she found her brother again, he starts running off on suicide missions to save a society she really can't give a damn about. After losing him, she fights for safety and really only knows one way to do it: on top of everyone's else bodies. The show Reileen is honestly more tragic and human in a lot of ways even if she does deserve death... For everyone's safety at least.

It's that removal of subtly and the introduction of the immortality bad subplot that really drags this down as an adaptation. That said if you're a fan of the book, the series isn't going to enrage you but a lot of it is going to center on how you feel about the theme of immortality itself being the problem and the removal of most of the gray in the story. For me, as an adaption Altered Carbon gets a C+. I'm used to a lot worse but that doesn't mean this was a great adaption. Let me note that doesn't mean it's a bad show (see the grade I gave above) as this is the grade on how true an adaptation from book to screen it was. So next week a brief break from Cyberpunk as we take a look at Mice Templar. After that we jump right back in with Snow Crash and then, we're gonna look at Ready Player One. The book and the upcoming film. Keep Reading!

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


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