Friday, June 21, 2019

Elephant Company by Vicki Constantine Croke

Elephant Company 
by Vicki Constantine Croke

“The more I saw of men... The more I liked my elephants.” James Williams page 257

Vicki Constantine Croke has been writing about and following animals for more than two decades now. She has worked on nature documentaries for Disney and the A&E channel, and also wrote the Animal Beat for the Boston Globe as well as provided stories to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The London Sunday Telegraph, Time, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gourmet, National Wildlife, Discover magazine and others. She has also in that time written a number of books, from Animal ER in 1999 to Elephant Company in 2015. Elephant Company was published by Random House and is the subject of our review. Let's jump in, shall we?

Elephant Company, when you boil it down, is about two individuals. The first being James Howard Williams aka Elephant Bill. The second being the great bull elephant Bandoola, named by his trainer after a Burmese general famous for resisting the British. Both Man and Elephant would have very intertwined lives as they deal first with the challenges of harvesting Teak from the jungles of Burma and then with the Japanese invasion during the height of World War II. A cross between a biography and a history book, Elephant Company mostly takes place in Burma in between the 1st and 2nd World War and is told mostly from the viewpoint of James Williams. I assume this is because Bandoola being an elephant didn't leave any written material behind for Ms. Croke to use in her research. Since Mr. Williams is the subject of the majority of the book and it's from his own writings that Ms. Croke crafted this book, let's take a look at him.

Mr. Williams was born in Cornwall, Great Britain on the 15th of November 1897. From a young age he often found he preferred the company of animals to people (This is reasonable of him). Although he was never anti-social nor prone to hating his fellow human beings. He was the son of a Cornish Miner who had worked in South Africa and a Welshwoman and would grow up in a sort of upper-middle-class environment. Mr. Williams and his Father were both men from a fairly new class that appeared in the latter days of the British Empire. As transportation grew faster and cheaper, it became possible for young men with little capital to travel to the various dominions and provinces, take up jobs reserved for white educated Englishmen, and make their fortunes (In the long run, this means that not only are the countries pillaged by Great Britain and other imperialist powers stripped of natural resources and often population, they are also denied the backbone of skilled trades, scholars, and civil servants necessary to run the place after the colonial power leaves.). They would then return to England, marry and raise children who would repeat the cycle. As a result, his family was wealthy enough to send him to good boarding schools (not the public schools that Mr. Churchill from Code Name Lise would have attended as they weren't that wealthy or had the right social background) and when he joined the British Army he was made an officer. He would serve in the camel corps in the middle eastern campaigns and transport officer in charge of mules. In this, he was lucky to avoid the nightmares of trench warfare in France, although he may have found his own demons out in the desert. Either way, little is known of his service during World War I and later in Afghanistan, as Mr. Williams never really wrote or seemed to speak of it. We do know that despite his father's offer to set him up with his own farms and property if he would stay in England that Mr. Williams instead took an opportunity to head out to one of the furthest and remotest corners of the then expansive British Empire (Shocking, that!). Mr. Williams accepted a job to head into the jungles of Burma to harvest Teak, where he would be isolated from civilization for months at a time. There are a number of reasons that any man would take up the job, the adventure, the escape and for Mr. Williams, there was one great overriding reason, the chance to work with elephants.

Burma was a poor, remote corner of the Empire, denied even a separate administration for much of its occupation by the British, it would be considered a province of India. The Burmese considered the Indians to be just as foreign as the British and resented the fact that every upper-level post and job that wasn't filled with a white Englishman was instead filled by someone imported from India (And people wonder why it’s a very unpleasant place today…). Which meant that there were few if any options for advancement for the Burmese in their own country. The British in turn were mostly interested in exploiting the natural resources of Burma as cheaply as possible (In fairness, all the other colonies had it pretty bad. Hell, so did the British people in this time period. Being an industrial worker in Great Britain at the time was god awful. I could tell you stories. Let’s just say that paying workers and providing decent living and working conditions was not on the list of priorities, and that’s for the people that the British Empire considered genetically and culturally superior. Imagine how they treated those they deemed inferior…). The greatest of these resources was Teak wood, extremely resistant to termites and other pests. Teak is also a very tough strong wood that stands up insanely well to weathering and time. As such it uses were (and are) legion and the prices it commanded were high. Wild old growth Teak was considered the best wood at the time (there were plantations for Teak trees but they weren't considered as tough as the wild trees) and the only way to transport them through the rugged and dense jungles of the time were elephants. So Mr. Williams would move from camp to camp, attending the health of the uzis (as elephant handlers were called) and the elephants. Here through a combination of practice, book reading, and working with the Burmese uzis, he learned the best practices and care of elephants. He also learned a lot about elephant social structures and behavior, some of which was only confirmed by formal science after the 1980s.

Even before the war, Mr. Williams was often fighting the system he was a part of. Pushing for better treatment of his men and elephants (Good! It was sorely needed!). Back then it was practice to only train wild-caught elephants, despite the fact that by tradition elephants were released in the afternoon, often spent the night with wild elephants and would sometimes come back pregnant. Calves born in the working camps were neglected terribly, with almost 70% of them dying (I don’t… I don’t even know how a non-sociopathic person can let that happen. {The decision was left up to men who had never seen an elephant as they cannot fit into the standard boardroom} Sure but I mean the people on the ground with the elephants. Still, there is a mental image. Hostile takeover by an angry elephant coming through the wall like the koolaid man.). If that wasn't bad enough, the process of catching and training a wild elephant was one of torture (Yes, it is morally equivalent. Fight me.). The elephant would be herded into a pen and tormented (up to the point of stabbing them with spears) and abused until the elephant would allow a human on it's back and submit to the man's rule. Mr. Williams was able to put an end to this by training the calves of already trained elephants since these elephants were already used to having humans around, the training was a lot more humane and less expensive. Bandoola was one of those elephants. Born to a captive female elephant, Bandoola was cared for carefully by a Burmese elephant handler named Po Toke. Believing that Bandoola would grow up into a great elephant, both Mr. Williams and Po Toke would work together to protect and educate Bandoola in this period and the young bull became one of the break out stars of the school, being trained to be able to head back to camp solo and grab specific named tools for his handlers (See the smartest of dogs can do this if the toys they’re trained with are not very far away, but elephants…). He was also able to lobby successfully for the establishment of elephant hospitals to care for elephants in their illnesses and injuries. He also lobbied for similar treatment for his men and spent time in native villages providing what medical services he could and there was always a need for it because infection and disease were rampant in the jungle (So much Malaria.{Elephant Bill contracted it at least half a dozen times![Mother of God. Praise be to quinone I guess…]}). The book covers this in great detail and provides a good amount of basic information on how elephants were trained and medically treated back then. Ms. Croke doesn't write as much about the native Burmese and their interactions with Mr. Williams but does show him lobbying for them to be treated as human beings and given responsibility and avenues of advancement. This perhaps showcases one of the tragedies of humanity that even terrible systems can have legions of good men and women working themselves to the bone to make the systems work and be just a little less harmful.

We also get a good view of Mr. Williams family life, his courtship, and marriage to Susan Rowland, who had come to Burma to care for her Uncle. Who himself was a bit of a character (the book abounds with colorful characters made even more vivid by the fact that they were real people) although I rolled my eyes at the fact that he called all his nieces Ms. Poppy so he wouldn't have to bother learning their names (Wow…You know, if I had an uncle who couldn’t bother to remember my name, I wouldn’t travel to Burma to care for them in what I can only imagine is their crotchety and unpleasant dotage. It would be one thing if said uncle couldn’t remember, but if they simply can’t be bothered to try…{Even if it meant living in luxury with access to a first class lab and spending your nights being courted by wealthy, attractive young men/women? Because that’s more or less what she got out of it minus the lab [I can see the appeal but… Ugh {and they call me a Puritan}]}). Then we get to the war, as Japan declares war on the Western Allies and begins to sweep into their Asian colonies. First, we have the evacuation, as Mr. Williams must gather his family (also including a young son) and flee to India ahead of the seemingly invincible Japanese. This trek is only made possible by elephants, as Mr. Williams was able to use them to carry goods and people out of the warzones through paths that jeeps and trucks could not follow. Then we have Mr. Williams rejoining the British Army and founding No 1. Elephant Company with the mission to keep elephants out of the hands of the Japanese and to use the Elephants to provide infrastructure and transport to the British Army (Good. Because as bad as the British were, the Japanese were so much worse. What with vivisecting people for funzies.). Perhaps the greatest use of the Elephants was their ability to build incredibly sturdy bridges at speeds that rival mechanized construction and do so in the heart of the jungle. Although Mr. Williams would have to fight to convince the Royal Engineers that. Building a couple bridges that they couldn't would end up proving his point. Here Bandoola comes into his own, as the prized elephant of Elephant company, working to construct bridges and lead the elephant herds into new ventures. Including on one great trek leading an elephant herd along a hand-hacked elephant stairwell up a sheer cliff. The book also covers the postwar period as Mr. Williams and his family says goodbye to Burma shortly before the nation achieves the independence that it's people had desired for too long. However, this part of the book is the shortest.

Elephant Company gives us a window into a vanished world and a look into a forgotten corner of World War II. While you'll rarely see much discussion of the Burmese campaign, it was where the largest British Commonwealth Army fought a large and powerful Japanese Army into a standstill and then pushed them back. Tens of thousands of British, American, Chinese, Australian and New Zealand troops fought with about a million Indian soldiers against over three hundred thousand Japanese soldiers and tens of thousands of their own allies (And unwilling conscripts from occupied territory.). Mr. Williams or Elephant Bill as he was called in the press performed a vital service in not just building bridges and roads but in transporting refugees and protecting his beloved elephants from both the Japanese and Allied armies. If you have any interests in the interwar period in Asia, or the Burmese campaign or even just an interest in elephants this is a great book to look at. Ms. Croke heavily sources this from Mr. Williams and his wife Susan's writing, preserved by their eldest son; and her research shows on every page (there's also a thick notes section in the back [Which as we all know Frigid just loves.]). So I am going to be giving Elephant Company by Vicki Constantine Croke an A. I hope y'all will check it out and enjoy it. 

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Next week, we head back up to China for a wider look at what the nation went through, as we take a look at China's World War II 1937-1945 Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter.  See you next week and as always... Keep Reading!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Shanghai 1937 Stalingrad on the Yangtze by Peter Harmsen

Shanghai 1937 Stalingrad on the Yangtze
by Peter Harmsen

Peter Harmsen attended Aarhus University (the largest and second oldest research university in Denmark) from 1989 to 1993 where he graduated with a Masters of Science in politics and studied Russian. Later, he attended the National Taiwan Normal University, where he studied the Chinese Language (he speaks both traditional Chinese and simplified) and Literature for a year. From 1994 to 1998, he studied at National Taiwan University focusing on Chinese politics and history. At the same time, he started a journalism career that would continue to this day as a freelance reporter for in East Asia. He focused on Chinese speaking countries and would work for such publications as The China Post, the Economist and more. In 2013 he released the first of a series of books about the Chinese Front in World War II, the topic of today's review Shanghai 1937 Stalingrad on the Yangtze. The book was published by Casemate, also known as Casemates publishers; established in 2001, Casemate is an American publishing company that focuses primarily on Military History. So let's talk about the book, shall we?

The year is 1937, the Nazis have ruled Germany for four years focusing on consolidating their power and oppressing the minorities within Germany. The Soviet Union endures Stalin's rule, as he arrests opponents accusing them of plotting with his arch “rival” Trotsky to undermine the USSR (Note: By arrest, we do of course mean kidnapping them in the night and handing them over to the NKVD who tortured them into giving the names of ‘co-conspirators’, and the either shooting them or shipping them to Siberian gulags. Fucking Stalin.). The Spanish Civil War grinds on with the powers of Europe using it as a testbed for tactics and equipment (and as a proxy war). In the United States, FDR has been re-elected to continued his massive programs to fight back the Great Depression inch by inch. In Asia, the Empire of Japan and the Republic of China are squaring off for another conflict. Ever since Japan emerged from its isolation, it had come into increasing conflict with China and other Asian powers. Whereas China had once been the center of East Asia and viewed itself as having no equal, the failure of its elites to reform and modernize in the face of predatory actions of the Imperial powers had led to it becoming a nation divided and poor in resources and industry. Imperial Japan, on the other hand, had pursued an aggressive campaign of modernization, leading to it being the first Asian power to flat out defeat a European Power in a war, that being the Russo-Japanese War (And a glorious defeat it was. The defeat was so bad it helped spark a failed revolution back in the Russian Empire that came on and ended in peasant blood so suddenly that Lenin himself couldn’t capitalize on it. Also, if you ever get a chance to look up the incompetent buffoonery that was the Baltic and black sea fleet’s trip to the Yellow Sea… do it. I’ll give you some highlights. It involves shooting at British fishing ships in the north sea for fear that they were IJN torpedo boats, shooting at merchantmen along the way thinking they were the Japanese fleet. Some EPIC stupidity on shore leave in South Africa that involved bringing venomous snakes onto a ship and letting them go to bite the CO...). That said, it isn’t like the Chinese were sitting there waiting to become victims, by the time of 1937. the Republic had reformed itself out of the ashes of the Empire of China and pursued its own course of modernization and industrialization. While it had suffered repeated humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan, it's ruling elites had finally accepted the necessity of modernization. Now all China needed was time. Time to educate its people, to build the factories, mines, and farms to create a modern state capable of creating a modern armed force to protect themselves from foreign predators. In 1937, however, time had run out and the Japanese were upon them.

The soldiers of China are numerous and brave but in the era of industry bravery and numbers simply aren't enough. The armies of Japan have more machine guns, more artillery, more tanks, and more planes. So in the plains, Northern China, the soldiers of China are being outmaneuvered, outgunned and frankly outmatched. Chiang Kai-Shek the chairmen and generalissimo of the Republic of China and his high command come up with a new strategy, instead of fighting on the great plains of the North, they will lure the armies of Japan into the great city of Shanghai, where their tanks, artillery, and plans will be of limited use. There they will deploy the best of their army, the crack troops trained by their German advisers and they will mire the Japanese down in the great city and bleed that army to death. They would also deliver a victory for the Chinese people to rally around and to show the Western Powers that supporting China wasn't a lost cause. Mr. Harmsen takes great care to walk us through the logic of the plan and show how it was a logical, rational decision with a chance at working. He also takes some pains to show us just what kind of city was being placed on the altar of war, although no one at the time had any idea how devastating open warfare in a city could be just yet. After all the massive city battles of War World II, where we learned just how terrible deploying modern military technology in an urban environment and how costly it was for a modern army to fight in a city... Hadn't happened yet. Shanghai in 1937 was one of the great cities of the world, it was a city of trade where foreign goods flowed into China and Chinese goods flowed out to the world. The second largest city in Asia and often referred to as the Queen of the Orient. The international section of the city - parts that China was forced to cede to foreign powers - were famous for their sophistication and glamour. Even the Chinese parts of the city were considered wealthy and they drew the populace of China like a magnet with the promise of jobs, education, and advancement. This did lead to great and terrible slums being thrown up as the desperate and the hopeful would flood in with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Into this Chiang sent General Zhang Zhizhong to command the first assault designed to remove the Japanese garrison from Shanghai (a result of the last time Japan and China went to war) although Chiang would remain deeply involved in the decision making process throughout the campaign. In comparison, the Japanese government would pursue a more hands-off policy allowing the General who would lead the Japanese expeditionary force to dictate most of the tactics and plans. That was General Iwane Matsui, who ironically was a Pan-Asian nationalist, who was known in the Japanese Army for his love of Chinese culture and things. This would not lead to him being soft on the Chinese however, because he believed that the Chinese government had sold out the Asian peoples through their friendship and dependency on the Western powers. Therefore he believed that the Chinese government had to be broken and that the people of China would thank him for doing so someday. By July of 1937, the scene is set and the leading players have assembled. However, the actual battle wouldn't start until August. The battle would rage until November with the Chinese making some early gains but increasingly being pushed back until they were forced to surrender Shanghai to Japanese occupation. A surreal element that Mr. Harmsen uses effectively is the fact that neither side dared moved troops or overt fighting into the so-called International Settlement. The parts of the city that were under the control of various Western Powers. That said that part of the city wasn't free of the war, as bombs and shells could fall within there and on the edges, stray bullets would claim the lives of the slow or unlucky. Additionally, the residents of the International Settlement opened it to noncombatant Chinese citizens who flooded in a bid to escape the fighting and later the Japanese occupation troops. The residents of the International Settlement would end up providing much of the coverage of the battle as neither side wanted to make an enemy (yet) of the Western powers and their journalists were allowed a lot of access to both armies (Similar to Nanjing that way). Mr. Harmsen makes a lot of use of the journalists who were there and able to provide 1st hand accounts of both armies.

Mr. Harmsen also takes us through each step of the battle, from the inciting incidents and building tension in July, to the deployment of troops in August and the beginning assaults to the fall of Shanghai to the Japanese. We see the tactics and planning used by both armies and how they broke down when contact with the enemy was made. Using a vast array of primary sources, including the diaries and journals of troops, officers, politicians, and civilians and those who were trapped there. Because of this we see the peak of Chinese hope and daring to the fall of having to give up the biggest city in China at the time. We also see the Japanese going from being caught off guard at this expansion of the war to slowly building up the men and machines that would ruthlessly cull the Chinese army. Mr. Harmsen makes the problems faced by the soldiers of China fairly clear here. They lost their air support early and therefore could only really move at night. Meanwhile, the Japanese could move as they wished during the day limited only by the defenses that the Chinese built. That said we also see that the Japanese didn't have everything going their way, as they were constantly having to shift more resources and men into Shanghai just to maintain the battle. In a way, this did achieve some of the results the Chinese were looking for but at a cost they couldn't really afford to pay as their best divisions were left hollowed-out wrecks by the demands of fighting against the Japanese army. As an American it's a very different view of the Japanese Army I'm presented here through Chinese eyes. The American experience against the Japanese in World War II was of battling a fanatical opponent who did not have nearly enough weight of metal and machinery to overcome their disadvantages as superior American industry and firepower tore them apart. In China, the Japanese were the people who had the metal and machines and were willing to use them to ground China and others underfoot (Part of this is Japan’s lack of natural resources; part of it is the rivalry between the army and navy. You see, during this period the army was ascendant and their machines and material received funding priority. After they were broken by Zhukov at the battle of Khalkhin Gol, the Navy became ascendant and the army stopped getting the funding to develop and build new tanks and such.)

In the west, we tend to focus more on urban battles that took place in Europe, mostly on the Eastern Front (Eh. I’d argue that the Western Front gets more attention in our popular mythos {Name one large urban battle that gets the same attention Stalingrad gets} If you restrain the analysis to urban combat, I’ll grant that. I was referring to the dominance of the Western Front in our popular mythos more generally. {Sure I’ll agree, that’s why I said urban battles in the sentence}). For various reasons the struggles and sacrifices of the Chinese against the Imperial Japanese Army not receiving that much attention. Given how little attention the European section of the war is given in Asia (having served in Asia and spoken to citizens of different Asian nations I can confidently say that they don't focus on it much) I'm not going to apologize for that. However, if you want to learn about a part of World War II that isn't discussed that much in English, this book is a good place to start and gives you an in-depth view of one of the great early battles of the Asian theater. That said it is very focused on Shanghai and sometimes Mr. Harmsen doesn't provide much in outside context and he doesn't discuss their equipment in any great detail, which honestly isn't' enough to drag the grade of the book down. Shanghai 1937 Stalingrad on the Yangtze by Peter Harmsen gets an A.

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Friday, June 7, 2019

Code Name: Lise The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII Most Highly Decorated Spy By Larry Loftis

Code Name: Lise The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII Most Highly Decorated Spy 

By Larry Loftis 

“Gentlemen you must take your pick of the counts. I can only die once.”
Odette Sansom to Nazi Court, page 173

Larry Loftis is an American author. He attended the University of Florida where he graduated with a BA in Political Science and a JD in Law. He served as a senior executive and articles editor on Florida's Law Review, a student-edited journal that operates out of the University of Florida. He also published legal articles in the Suffolk Transnational Law Journal, Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law, Florida Bar Journal, National Law Journal, and Florida Banking. He also worked in the University of Florida Law School as a teaching fellow for Legal Research and Writing/Appellate Advocacy. He also taught law as an adjunct professor at Belhaven University. Code Name: Lise is his second published work, being published in 2019 by Gallery Books, an imprint founded in 2009 by Simon & Schuster, which is currently owned by CBS.

It's 1941, Europe lies under the boot of Nazi Germany and its allies (Death to Nazis!). Of the Western Allies, the United Kingdom stands alone, defiant and unconquered but outnumbered and very possibly outmatched. Nazi Armies have just swept into the Soviet Union and wrecked utter ruin upon the communist armies that they had oh so recently divided Poland with (I would suggest looking at our Trail of Hope review for more information on that. [Also, because I have to say it in case Tatiana Tankikova shows up: F#@! Stalin. Tankies get out!]). The United Kingdom isn't about to surrender though or cease struggling for victory, to that end it must not only fight in the air and the seas but must wage war in a deeply unconventional manner (Praise be unto the SOE, may The Laundry protect us from gibbering horrors from beyond spacetime that seek to eat our brains). Because as been stressed from the Bronze age, a nation that does not know it's enemies courts defeat. Enter the Special Operations Executive. The SOE was a secret organization running campaigns of espionage, sabotage, and recon in occupied Europe, they were also aiding resistance movements in the hopes of preventing the Nazis from gaining the full resources and wealth of the nations they had assaulted. Operatives of the SOE were spies, often conducting operations that meant they had no protection under the Laws of War and thus were open to levels of abuse that most western POWs would not be subject to. As such the Germans would often declare them terrorists and argue that they had the right to execute them out of hand, although they rarely did so. Not out of any moral concerns mind you, but because dead spies can't be forced to give up their fellows. Despite the danger, men and women across the United Kingdom, Europe and beyond would sign up to serve in the SOE, going into the very Lion's Den of occupied territory to perform vital acts and gather desperately needed intelligence. Our characters are examples of such people, let's take a look, shall we?

The focus of the novel and our main character so to speak is Odette Sansom. Odette was born in France and lost her father to War World I. She was raised partly by her grandfather who brought his grandchildren to the grave of their father (his son) and stressing that they would need to rise to the bar their father had set someday, correctly foreseeing another war (To be fair, that doesn’t take a genius if you’re not blinkered by a desire for revenge. Even President Wilson saw that.). Which honestly may set the stage for a lot of Odette's later behavior. That wasn't the sum total of her rather eventful childhood, when she was seven she contracted polio and for a year was completely paralyzed, when she recovered from that, polio stole her sight (I'm just gonna note, that it's because of vaccines that the vast majority of my readers don't have to deal with realities like that [What he means is, and I concur: VACCINATE YOUR SPAWN!] {So much for subtle}). For three years, Odette's Mother searched the medical world for a cure but failed, meanwhile Odette's Grandfather refused to accept blindness as an excuse, pushing her to find things she could do and compensate. Odette in her turn would embrace music to deal with a dark sightless world. Fortunately, a cure was found, but not from doctors but from an herbalist who concocted a solution that restored Odette's sight by bathing her eyes with it over an extended period of time (Interesting. I’m gonna call this a failure of bioprospecting). Odette would be assailed by other childhood illnesses, given the state of medical science at the time (It was bad) these diseases would be vastly more dangerous then what we in the modern developed world are used to and Odette's family would move her to Normandy and enroll her in a convent school hoping the climate and controlled environment of the convent would fortify her until adulthood. The nuns would provide Odette with a good education (though her knuckles would forever be callused by their rulers) and their final report would state that Odette was intelligent and principled but volatile and possessing a petulant streak. A lot would hang on that petulant streak. In 1929 she would meet her first husband, Roy Sansom and the father of her three daughters, Francoise (born 1932), Lily (born 1934) and Marianne (born 1936). They moved to London after Francoise was born and observed with growing fear the shadow growing across Europe.

In 1939 Roy enlisted in the English Army and Odette and the girls were evacuated to Somerset in 1940. While Odette had every reason to stay in England and concentrate on raising her girls, she still felt like she was hiding from her duty. Fate would intervene when she heard on the radio that the Royal Navy was asking everyone for any pictures they had of the French coast, family photos, postcards whatever could be found. Odette had a few herself and dutifully sent them in. She didn't send them to the Royal Navy though, she sent them to the War Office instead. Where she came to the attention of the gentlemen running the Special Operations Executive. They needed native French speakers and Odette certainly qualified, additionally as a woman she would have an easier time moving around an occupied nation. At first, she is hesitant to leave her daughters behind. Their Father is already serving on the front lines after all but from my end, it's not only the influence of her Grandfather that wins out but her desire to do something for both her home nations and to strike a blow against the Nazis in her own name (It is the duty of all good and decent people who are able to fight fascists). So she takes her daughters to a convent and ensures that an aunt and uncle will be on hand to care for them after some soul searching and heads off to her training. After completing her training she shipped out to France, which proved to be an adventure in and of itself but if you want to know that story you need to read the novel. It's in France that she met the main supporting character of our drama Peter Churchill.

Peter, who was of no relation to Prime Minister Churchill, was an upper-class British man by birth. The son of a British Consul, he was born in Amsterdam and attended the Malvern School (referred to as a public school in England [Because it is run by the public and not the state. These private boarding schools in the UK are basically training grounds for the british officer corps in this time period]) from the ages of 14 to 18. He then spent time in Switzerland attending Geneva University before finishing his education at the University in Cambridge in Modern Languages. While there he lead the Ice Hockey team and gained a reputation as a capable sportsman. He briefly served as a British Pro-Consul in Oran and Algeria before joining British Intelligence in 1940. In short Mr. Churchill was what British society at the time considered “The Right Sort” having the right family history, the right education and the right social connections that came with it. To his credit rather than use those connections to get himself a safe job in England or the United States, he chose to become a spy divesting himself of all the protections of the laws of war and jump into occupied territory to fight the Nazis in secret. As such he ran the SPINDLE network, a network of intelligence gathering in Southern France that as the novel progresses, seems rather cursed. In the novel, he serves as the primary supporting character which is honestly a good choice because personality wise, at least the personality presented to us in the novel, he's honestly not as interesting as Odette (People like him were also very normal in british society at the time). A lot of that is due to the novel being more focused on Odette. Another part of it is just circumstance as he does engage in more action but a good part of it is that Odette is simply the more outgoing person and she seems less concerned with risks. That said Mr. Churchill does a good job of showing his own courage and conviction.

The novel doesn't spend to much time on their espionage activities, showing us just enough to get a sense of what they were doing and their skill and daring in those activities. However, espionage is also a matter of luck and sometimes the other side has more than you, especially when one of the best spy catchers in the Nazi military is after you. The bulk of the story focuses on their capture and their treatment in captivity. It is here that Odette would perform the actions that would make her the single most decorated spy in War World II. First by convincing her captors that Mr. Churchill was her husband and didn't know anything of value and then standing up under torture and threat of death and refusing to give up any information (Damn). It's a rare person who can take torture knowing there is no help coming and not break but Odette managed it and the book leads us through her entire ordeal. From the prisons of the Italian Army and the Abwehr to the Gestapo and the all too human savagery of the concentration camps of Germany.

Code Name: Lise is an interesting book even without considering its source material. It bills itself as a nonfiction thriller. Now for those of you wondering what on Earth that means? Mr. Loftis presents us with a true story told via the conventions of fictional writing, by adding emotional states and making educated guesses to the internal thoughts and motivations of some of the people within the story. By doing so, he treads the line between writing a historical thriller and a straightforward biographical story. He avoids wandering too deeply into the weeds through careful research and use of primary sources and above all else he cites those sources. The back of the novel has a very robust notes section where you can find just what sources he used to come to the conclusions that he did. I do appreciate that and if we're going to be honest having someone willing to cite their sources clearly and cleanly is something to be encouraged. I also have to admit it's the first time I've seen a nonfiction story presented this way, with no fictionalized elements beyond the emotional states of the people involved and the result is the creation of a compelling work (The Hot Zone does the same thing{I haven't read that one}). It keeps the novel from being to dry as some nonfiction can be by bringing in humanizing emotions but avoids creating or adding fictional relationships or events. Additionally, I appreciate how he matter of factly presents the various crimes of the Nazis without using it for titillation or exploiting it for cheap thrills. Because of this, I am giving Code Name: Lise The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII Most Highly Decorated Spy by Larry Loftis an A.

If you enjoyed this review, consider joining us at where for as little as a dollar per month you can vote on upcoming reviews and at higher tiers vote on new books and even get sneak peeks at the reviews.  Next week we continue World War II month by moving all the way over to the Asian Front, to look at Shanghai 1937 Stalingrad on the Yangtze by Peter Harmsen.  As always Keep Reading.

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

Friday, May 31, 2019

Ninefox Gambit By Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit

By Yoon Ha Lee 
Yoon Ha Lee was born in Houston, Texas on January 1979. His family moved back and forth between the United States and the Republic of Korea while he was growing up, and he attended high school at Seoul Foreign School, an English international school. He graduated from Cornell and earned a Master's degree in secondary math education at Stanford. In 1999 he published his first story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and additional works in Clarkesworld and Lightspeed magazine, and has since then published over forty. Mr. Lee also designs and writes games, such as the browser-based game Winterstrike. Mr. Lee, who is openly trans, currently lives in Louisiana with his husband and young daughter. Ninefox Gambit is his first full-length novel, published by Solaris books (for more information on them please see the last review) in 2016. It made quite an impression, being nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke award, and winning the Locus Award for best novel. So let's take a look at the book, shall we?

The book takes place in what I can only assume is a far future. The government known as the Hexarchate (oh I love that name) rules a large swath of space. It is a government at first split into seven factions but now six (Well duh. Otherwise it would be the Heptarchate {Yeah, it was… I mean it would be, wouldn’t it?}) with each faction adopting different duties to maintain and organize an intensely ordered society. Society is arranged to support what is called the High Calendar, a system of timekeeping that if enough people observe it allows certain technologies to work (Yas! Techno-sorcery! YAS!). Like the Hexarchate's current FTL called the Moth Drive (Is the destination called a lamp?) which is faster and has greater range then FTL technology that doesn't depend on the calendar. On top of that their communications technology is dependent on the calendar as well, so without it, the nation is at real risk of simply falling apart and being conquered by foreign powers. There are other technologies that depend on this, most of them called exotic technologies. Technology that doesn't depend on the calendar is called an “invariant” (presumably because they do not vary with population levels of calendar observance…). Most of the exotic tech we see in the novel is weapons technology, which is fair since this is a war story. A government at war against its own people. You see, because the technology that supports the Hexarchate depends on observing the High Calendar, not observing the calendar is considered a direct attack on society and is called Heresy. Being a Heretic is bad, but no worries, there's a spot for Heretics in the Calendar. That spot is as the victim in a ceremony called Remembrance where Heretics are publicly tortured to death to reinforce belief in the High Calendar. Which gives the Hexarchate a nice theocratic gloss, on top of the rest of the horror show.

This is the society that our main character Captain Kel Cheris has been born into. The member of a tolerated but suspected minority culture, Cheris had joined the Hexarchate military and for the most part, abandoned her birth culture. She didn't just join the military but the front line portion of it, which is made up entirely of the Kel faction. The Kel faction provides the combat troops and officers of the military for both ground and space operations (there is also a Kel wet water navy but it's irrelevant all things considered) with the Shuos providing intelligence officers and the Nirai providing engineers and other specialists as needed. So if you ever think the modern division into branches of service are silly and pointless take a look at a system where you need three branches just to run one damn ship! (Kafka would love this) Before I get to Cheris I should explain the Kel, because they're the faction taking center stage here and we need to understand them to really understand Cheris. The Kel often have to fight in areas where the High Calendar doesn't hold sway so they have developed formations that allow them to deploy their weapons by overwriting the calendar of a local area with their own through applied math and geometry (Ok, that’s pretty cool). The first wave of formations discovered were suicide formations because they burnt up the men and women in the formation to create the needed effect (Wait, discovered? Not devised? Did they like, experiment with this over a long period of time to optimize the solution through attrition? Like, create a best first estimate and then *iterate* it through a machine learning algorithm that used mass casualties as training data?). I'm speaking literally when I say burnt up. The Kel celebrate this, calling themselves ash hawks or suicide hawks and holding up examples of people who destroy themselves for the group good or follow orders to the death as the ideal (Oh my god they’re a geomantic death cult). Like most militaries, the Kel are very conservative and prize strong group loyalty and self-sacrifice. To the point that Kel High Command has merged itself into a single hive mind that is not so slowly losing its sanity and for the lower ranks they created a technology called formation instinct. How it is applied is kinda vague but here's what I can tell you, it creates a powerful urge to obedience to higher authorities and creates a subconscious need to conform with what is expected of the soldier by the group (Oh this is… awesome. It’s existentially horrifying, but I love the places Mr. Lee’s mind goes. That is so delightfully dark.). To say I am horrified by this is too mild, I know I keep bringing it up but I am a military veteran myself and I served in Iraq. So this isn't abstract for me, I've already seen plenty of firsthand evidence that a lot of politicians and civilians just don't value our lives or rights as fellow human beings and are perfectly happy to get us killed to prove an ideological point or ensure they can maintain a good opinion of themselves. The idea of applying such a thing to fellow Marines and Soldiers makes me physically ill (Note: my giggling above is not a contradiction of this. I just have a different horror threshold than Frigid does, and find this sort of thing fascinating in a very Nietzschean kind of way.{I’m pretty sure that if we talking about doing something like to scientists it would be immediate for you} Oh, I totally get it. I’m just a sick weirdo whose reactions to this sort of thing differ so long as it’s fictional.). You can't have loyalty under these conditions only compelled obedience and it turns thinking soldiers into pawns who cannot choose their loyalties or evaluate their orders on their own, only follow them (Thing is, this is a society that holds its entire citizenry to the observance of a system of timekeeping on pain of horrible death, so I think valuing the lives of soldiers is… well it went out the window a long bloody time ago. Like, that’s just a natural consequence of how fucked up this whole culture is). The only saving grace here is that the formation instinct doesn't impact everyone at the same strength or the same way so there are always those who can subvert it within themselves or resist it but that doesn't reduce the terror here. The Kel don't come across as a military so much as a terrifying perversion of what a good military is supposed to be, it doesn't help that I'm pretty sure that a great many governments, even liberal democratic ones would eagerly embrace such technology and its use (Probably).

Cheris is not the average Kel officer, for one thing, she's very good at math to the point that the Nirai wanted her to join up. Cheris, however, wanted to serve something bigger than herself and wanted to do it on the front lines. So she joined the Kel and beyond that became an infantry officer. However, she can't avoid the fact that she is creative and able to think outside of the box. A good example of this is her treatment of the robotic servitors, AI machines who do a lot of the grunt work in Hexarchate society (Because *of course* there are oppressed AI servitors.{The Servitors are the least oppressed group in the book actually, the human government ignores them as long as the work gets done so the servitors basically do what they want} Huh. Alright then...). Most humans simply ignore them but Cheris is polite to them and even reaches out to them. I like this trait honestly as it helps humanize her and gives us a look into who she is when not dealing with... Well, the events of this book.  Either way, her creativity and willingness to grapple with unorthodox solutions are not encouraged by Kel society (Uh Oh). When she comes up with a bold new formation to subvert an enemy's calendar and destroy their exotic weapons, she's not celebrated because her formations linger too close to the border of heresy (Wait, but… if she subverts an enemy calendar and imposes her own, how can that mathematically even get close to Heresy? {Because she exercised creative problem solving and made new formations without approval} Ah! Now the world makes sense!). However, victory covers a great many sins and it seems that the Hexarchate has better use for her then using her as a showpiece for a Remembrance. They're going to give her a command to retake a fortress (a massive deep space station that was placed to enforce and extend the effects of the High Calendar) that has gone Heretic. Not just any fortress, but the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a powerful fortress with its own fleet and a shield that has never been broken. A fortress that as often proclaimed to be immune from outside assault. A fortress she needs to take despite having never led anything bigger than an infantry company and not having enough forces under her command to just overwhelm it (Well, they do love suicide missions…). If such a place can even be overwhelmed. Cheris is afraid that she's being set up for failure (because she most definitely is) and aware that she has no margin for error decides to be creative again and grabs Shuos Jedao. Let me talk about the Shuos faction first before we talk about him specifically.

The Shuos faction are the assassins, intelligence officers, spies, and such of the Hexarchate. They're led by whoever can assassinate the current leader of their faction (as a result a faction leader is considered lucky if they last a decade [Ah, I see they operate on Necromonger Rules]). They're also known for an intense fascination with games and being rather unstable, since murdering your superior is a lauded way of asking for a promotion you can see why (Unstable institutionally, mentally, or both?{Yes.}). Jedao started out as a Shuos and was trained as an assassin but decided to switch over to the Kel, becoming one of their greatest generals. In his last campaign, he won a great battle with almost no casualties despite being outnumbered 8 to 1 (this was based somewhat on Admiral Yi Su-Shin's victory but Admiral Yi faced greater odds) and followed it up by completely destroying two armies. One of them his own, as he went mad and was found as the only survivor. His punishment wasn't death, but instead to be rendered into what I would basically have to call an undead spirit. Imprisoned in something called the Black Cradle that keeps him a state of undeath, he became a weapon for the Kel (I… I got nothin’). A weapon they only dare pull out when the stakes are high but one that always wins. However there's a problem with deploying him, he needs a physical anchor to function, a living person. So Cheris has to direct a military campaign on a much greater scale then she's ever directed before while carrying the mind of an undead general who may or may not be insane but definitely has his own hidden agenda (Weeee! Fun for the whole family!). While she's also unsure if Kel High Command actually wants her to succeed or not. She has few if any allies and an embarrassment of riches when it comes to enemies.

Mr. Lee gives us a tense story filled with intrigue and battle. It's also a story of a deeply unhealthy society being held up by an increasingly high blood price of both loyal members and rebels. I know it's easy for me to declare the Hexarchate unhealthy. That said if your society is constantly wracked with rebellions to the point that your troops spend more of their time fighting their own people then foreign forces... There is something wrong with the way your society is set up, especially when the penalty for rebellion is being tortured to death. People don't take risks like that unless they have a very compelling reason, after all. Mr. Lee, however, doesn't shy away from the implications of the system he has set up and shows us in spades that this system is deeply unhealthy and needs to change  This is also part of the story as Mr. Lee has made the consideration of military ethics a part of this story and does this without making this a black and white discussion. This mostly done through the interactions of Jadeo and Cheris but there are parts where we are given the views of troops on the front line and Mr. Lee even finds a clever way to give us the viewpoint of the people rebelling in the fortress. Honestly, I can see why Ninefox Gambit is so highly praised and was given the considerations it was. It was honestly hard for me to put the book down despite my intense distaste for the Kel. I do feel I need to put a warning on this book however. Like I said Mr. Lee doesn't try to shy away from the implications of what he's built here. So a number of dark things show up in this book, from war crimes to crimes like sexual assault. This stuff isn't ladled in for titillation but does serve as part of the character's motivations and experience. That said if this is something that is going to bother you, you might want to skip this book. That said I found the book masterfully done and compelling to read. To that end, I am giving Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee an A.

So if you enjoyed this review and would like to see more, please consider joining us at where a 1$ a month lets you vote for what books will be reviewed, 3$ allows you sneak peeks at the unedited reviews and the unrestrained version of our editor.   Next week we start World War II month with Code Name: Lise by Larry Loftis.  Until then, Keep Reading!

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

Friday, May 24, 2019

Champion of Mars by Guy Haley

Champion of Mars 

by Guy Haley 

Guy Haley was born in 1973 in Halifax, United Kingdom. Before becoming an author, he was the editor for a number of science-fiction and fantasy magazines such as White Dwarf, SFX, and Death Ray. He’s written over twenty novels and short stories; and is a prolific writer for the Black Library, the printing arm of Games Workshop, who makes among other things the Warhammer 40K universe and all the associated games. Within that setting he is known for writing a number of books from the point of view of non-humans like goblins and orcs (Good, because we really do need to see more of this universe from a perspective other than blinkered theo-fascists; even if that perspective is that of insane sapient fungi. I would *love* to see some stories about the Tau {I just want to note that the editor’s opinions are his own and not reflective of the review series… Thank you}). Currently, he lives in Yorkshire with his wife and son. Champion of Mars was published in 2012 by Solaris books. Solaris was founded in 2007 as an imprint by BL publishing (aka the Black Library) as a way to publish and support mid-tier writers. In 2009 Solaris was bought by Rebel Developments, a video game development company based in the United Kingdom. Now let's head over to the book.

In the far future, Mars - the last outpost of humanity in the Solar system - is dying. Divided between the lands of men and spirits; and the Stone Lands, parts of the planet unfit for life due to the corruption of the Stone kin. The Stone kin are upper dimensional creatures attempting to push into our universe from outside, due to the limiting realities of our universe, they can only push part of themselves in at a time. Imagine trying to push yourself into a 2-dimensional world and you might get an idea of the issue (So… when they corrupt things, are they doing stuff like extending their N-dimensional pseudopods into the 4th spatial dimension and drawing boxes around areas to prevent nutrient flow, or something?). This is actually where their name comes from because no one can see them move, instead, they in one position one moment and in another the next without actually crossing the space between the two points. A good way to visualize this would be to think of the Weeping Angels from the British television show Dr. Who, only they do this even if you're looking right at them and kill you even with you looking them right in the eye. Assuming they have eyes (Given they’re in a reality foreign to their own, perhaps they took Sam Niel’s advice from Event Horizon and concluded they didn’t need eyes where they’re going.). If that wasn't enough their very presence warps the laws of physics (and biology, chemistry and everything else) and creates changes in the structure of the universe and if they are not ejected quickly can create lingering corruption making the place worse for life then the nastiest radiation (Hm. Bringing Event Horizon to you!). How did this happen, you might be asking? You see, in the distant past humanity sacrificed its home system to lock the Stone Kin in, preventing them from leaving the Sol system but locking hundreds of millions of people in with them. Since then Earth and Venus have fallen to the Stone Kin and so has a good chunk of Mars (How did they pull that off? Did they use mass-human-sacrifice to close off the solar system in some kind of massive necromantic ritual? How do you do that when the enemy alters physics? {I’m not ruling out the necromancy, but their counter ploy seemed to involve rewriting the laws of physics on a local scale to prevent them from being able to leave, going more into depth would be spoilers}). In the face of this threat mankind and it's artificially intelligent allies (who now preferred to be called spirits) spends its time fighting itself in increasingly pointless wars over dominance and control of half a dying planet. Most men do not focus on the threat of the Stone Kin, instead, they focus their energies on securing their next lives. Let me explain (Indeed you should because this seems very counter-productive.).

Much like Altered Carbon (a book that I reviewed a while back,), humans have an implant that allows for their minds to be digitized and when they die their minds are sent to the stacks, a virtual world where you wait for rebirth. What separates this from other books like Altered Carbon is that if you die, your mind isn't just dumped into a new adult body. Instead, your genetic code is artificially mixed with a single or pair of adopted parents and you are born anew. In your new childhood, you don't have access to your prior memories, instead, when you hit puberty you have to choose to remember or not. If you chose to remember your prior life memories are gradually integrated into your mind. If not, well, you'll have that option in your next life. In a lot of ways, this seems like a healthier system and a more creative way of dealing with the problems of immortality. Through having people repeatedly experience childhood and new beginnings you keep them from becoming too set in their ways to allow for society to change and giving them the chance to refuse the memories allows for people to try for fresh starts unburdened by their pasts (Except it isn’t their past. It is an entirely different person they’re “remembering”, it isn’t correct to call this immortality of any kind.{The characters disagree} Of course they disagree, that isn’t the point! They have a very interesting definition of what it means to be the same person. This is a few steps beyond Destructive Cloning like with Star Trek transporters. This is outright reproduction. Being immortal through one’s kids is a metaphor! Think of it like this. This is techno-reincarnation.). By the time of our novel, a person could have lived for thousands of years being reborn, growing up and dying over and over again. Simple time renders the memories of your earliest lives vague and indistinct but leaves everyone with a sort of racial memory of what their history was and what they have accomplished in the past, while their new years blunt the emotional edges of such memories. By the time of the main setting, they've worked out a system where the brave and awesome get reborn first and everyone else has to wait in line. I have to admit it's an interesting system and I kinda wish we could have explored it more since it profoundly shapes human society on Mars and one of our main characters. Let's met him.

Yoechakenon is and was the Champion of the Emperor of Mars, encased in the most powerful set of armor that humanity has ever created and wielding some of it's most devastating weapons, he is also a warrior with thousands of years of training and experience fighting the Stone Kin, fellow humans, and spirits. However, Yoechakenon is a man disgraced; he rejected the position of Champion after leading an army on a siege that ended in a brutal sack (Wait. So this is a science fiction setting, yes? And the culture is so fucked up that they sack cities? Wow…{It's a science fiction setting in a dark age, this is not a new concept}). He was sentenced to fight over and over in the arena stripped of his armor and weapons, despite that he kept winning (So they have fighting pits too. What is this degenerate Bourgeois bullshit?). His reward for this is being sent on a final mission in secret by the Emperor, there's only one chance to end the ceaseless wars of humanity and find a way to throw back the Stone Kin. To find the Artificial Intelligence known as the Librarian of Mars who can bring peace to Mars and organize resistance against the Stone Kin and perhaps even win. To do that Yoechakenon has to go into the Stone Lands themselves, into dead cities haunted by abominations that sit halfway between our form of life and the Stone Kin and piece together the clues that will lead him to his objectives. Well, actually he'll have to go there and let his companion piece together the clues (Because presumably All He Knows Is Killing?). That companion the spirit Lady Kaibeli, who is Yoechakenon's constant companion and lover and our actual viewpoint character for most of the story (Well alright then…). Kaibeli is an artificial intelligence who has for thousands of years sought and found Yoechakenon in life after life and stayed with him. To the point that their relationship has become legendary within society (Given my earlier commentary regarding immortality…). You see, while humans age, die and are reborn, artificial intelligence's instead simply continue onward, although the passage of time, lack of data space and data corruption renders their earliest memories hazy and hard to access at best. So eventually most spirits move on and become distant from their biological friends and allies, but not Kaibeli, who has stayed steadfast to one person (Does she though? She actually is immortal but… he isn’t.) with frankly inhuman devotion. Kaibeli not only serves as our viewpoint character but is the central character of the entire novel. I'll explain.

See, this foolhardy quest into possible madness and death isn't the only story being told in this novel. The novel also takes us back to the earliest days of Martian settlement and the near future when Dr. Holland - fleeing the memories of tragedy and divorce - comes to Mars to work on the terraforming project in an indirect way (Not knowing what the tragedy is, damn that must have been one acrimonious divorce.). Dr. Holland is hired to study and catalog the last ecologies on Mars. As mankind arrived and spread out, eco-systems were found deep in the planet’s lava tube systems (where the hell are these cave systems getting their energy? Mars isn’t geologically active anymore, so chemosynthetic communities are right out. Are they like a sealed glass terrarium, continually recycling energy and nutrients until eventually Entropy kills them?) Now while their very existence is exciting, you should banish visions of Calots or Thoats lurking in the depths of the red planet. The ecosystems that Dr. Holland is studying are microscopic and made up mostly of bacteria and single-celled organisms feeding on chemicals in the depths (Okay, that works.). In fact, it's a plot point that the environment that these life forms inhabit is extremely acidic in nature and when visiting you have to do so from inside specially constructed hard suits. I have to admit the safety measures and the research teams obsessive following of those safety procedures is very realistic. Despite what certain rather poorly done movies would tell you, biologists and other scientists are rather careful in the lab and tend not to move forward until they figure out how to do so safely (Can confirm, this part is correct!). So you would never have a scientist licking a newly discovered life form for example, or running up for hugs until some investigation takes place (In biology, we do not lick the science. Unless you study dogs, then the science licks you!). Of course, there's a wrinkle to all of this, Dr. Holland has an intense phobia of artificial intelligences due to traumatic life-experiences, which is a problem because the rather small research station has an AI named Cybele. However, he's not going to have a lot of time to try and get over his phobia as an underground expedition goes terribly wrong and discovers something deep below the surface of Mars. Something having an odd effect on the environment around it and something that is defying any attempt to analyze it. Not to mention forcing the AI to instantly shut down whenever they get too close. Dr. Holland finds himself having to make some choices and fast to determine just what the future of humanity and Mars is going to be.

Mr. Haley does a good job interweaving the two stories together and connecting them a lot more firmly then I would have thought possible. He also takes us through short intervening chapters through the different time periods which let us take a look at the development of Martian society and how relationships between artificial intelligences and biological humans changed over time. It also lets us see the development of the Stone Kin threat and the counters humanity took to block and contain it. This is an amazing voyage through society and culture and I really enjoyed it, you see golden ages, collapses, rebuildings, wars and peace all in short first-person views sprinkled throughout the book. I found myself both amazed and appalled that Mr. Haley was able to shove so much into a single book. It's somewhat ironic that some fantasy series are stretched out beyond reason and we get a story as epic as this that is contained a single novel. That said, the book isn't without issues. I was left entirely convinced of Kaibeli's devotion and love for Yoechakenon for example but I wasn't left all that sure of how much he cared for her (Well he’s not necessarily going to, now is he?). It may be due to the lack of space since there's a lot going on and the fact that we're never really in Yoechakenon's head but for a lot of the book I wasn't really sure of his feelings towards her (Those feelings are likely pretty damn complicated. He has an actually-immortal robot stalker who seems to have taken a liking to his lineage and because everyone including himself thinks he’s the same person as all those prior iterations… yeah, complicated.). Additionally, I was frustrated at how much is hinted at and will never be explained because there are no other works in this universe. What Mr. Haley does in this book is fantastic and I only wish he had been able to devote more time and space to this story because there is enough for a trilogy here, which would have been helpful because there were points in the book that didn't feel very fleshed out, as if Mr. Haley forebears from really going into details or spending time on character interactions because he had so much ground to cover as it was. Still, this is a great display of economic use of space and time to tell not just one sweeping story but several. To that end I'll be giving Champion of Mars by Guy Haley a B. We would be lucky if future novels could make this level the new average but its lack of space keeps it from going higher.

So our next and last novel of May will be The Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, afterward, we will be embarking on World War II month in June.  If you'd like to vote on what books we would be covering there's still time to join us over at where for a 1$ a month you get a vote on what books get reviewed.

As always the red text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen
The black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders

Friday, May 17, 2019

Caine's Law By Matthew Stover

Caine's Law 
By Matthew Stover

“What if you could take back the worst thing you ever did?” 
Caine page 24 

Hey folks, our regular editor Dr. Allen couldn’t make it this week so we have special guest editor, please welcome Mr. Davis, science teacher, trained in marine biology and the wrangling of small mammals. Hey all Mr. Davis here, like Frigid said your usual editor is away on other business so I’ll be taking the reins. Don’t worry you get the same level of quality in service but with 40% less communist propaganda.

It's been years since we covered Caine Black Knife. So let me start from the top, Matthew Stover was born in 1962 in the United States. He attended Danville high school graduating in 1979 and then graduated from Drake University in 1983. He studied the Degerberg Blend, a style of combined martial arts that is based somewhat on Jeet Kune Do. His earliest novel I can find is the bronze age fantasy Iron Dawn and the first book of the Caine Series, Heroes Die were released in 1997. He would also write a large number of Star Wars novels (including the novelization of Return of the Sith) and dozens of short stories. He also wrote a Flash Gordon novel, entitled the Real Flash Gordon that was unfortunately blocked from publication by the gentlemen who holds the rights on the grounds of it being “unwholesome.” I'll just note for the record that I think we're all missing out and we could have seen a novel that brought Flash Gordon screaming into the 21st century. That's the kind of timidness that kills characters. The novel we're actually taking a look at today is Caine's Law, however. The most recent and as things stand most likely final installment of the story of Hari Michaelson aka Caine, it was published in 2012 by Del Ray Books, which is owned by Ballantine Books which is in turn owned by (say it all together) Random House.

Before we pitch in, let me do a quick recap of the worlds here. Caine (I'm just going to refer to him as Caine for simplicity's sake, although like anyone in his business he has a wealth of other names) is an Actor from a future Earth. Here the world has been unified under a world government that has created a massively restrictive caste system and enforces it by rewriting history, making political and social dissent illegal and breaking the critics of the system as cruelly and publicly as possible. It also keeps the masses distracted via massive entertainments and other diversions, Caine is part of that. See Actors in this Earth don't make movies and plays. That's too blasé and safe for this society. Actors are people fitted with cybernetic gear to record everything they sense, through all their senses, while the Actors provide a sub-vocal narrative that is picked up and recorded by those same cybernetics. These people are sent to an entirely different world, called Overworld, where magic works, there are elves, dragons and worse. There they have bloody, violent adventures which are then edited, packaged and released in everything from virtual reality experiences where you practically experience what the Actor experiences or less immediate experiences that you can watch on a screen with your friends. Of course, while this is an entertainment for you, it's real bloody life for the Actor and many of them can expect to die in the saddle. Suddenly if they're lucky, but if not... Well there's a market for Actor dies an incredibly slow painful death while you watch entertainments as well. (I understand how there is a market for SOME activities to have the full sensory experience, but I’m just imagining if you have it set on a high level of physical sensation when out of nowhere you have some monster chewing on your face. Man i’m guessing netflix and chill could have some really great “date gone wrong” stories from this.) Much like our modern day Actors have varying levels of stardom with starlets and C levels and superstars who can bring a city to a standstill just by showing up. Caine isn't just a superstar, he's basically the superstar. Like Brad Pit smashed together with a Special Forces operator. The guy whose adventures are in the top 10, with billions of followers hanging off his gestures and words but due to the Caste society he's in and the sheer level of control that the Studio maintains, he's basically a dangerous but pampered pet. At least on Earth. On Overworld, he's Caine, a famous and terrifying assassin who has killed kings and paupers with equal disdain. Of course, the people of Overworld aren't entirely ignorant of the aliens in their midst. In their society Actors are the worst type of demons and Earth a wretched hell full of suffering souls dependent on the whims of indifferent and conceited monsters. They aren't entirely wrong about Earth honestly and given the actions of some Actors it's not surprising how they view them. I should also mention that Overworld and Earth actually have a long intertwined history but since finding out the scope and length of that history is part of reading the series, all I'll say is that it's no accident that our legends and myths feature things that are native to Overworld and it's no accident that there are humans on both worlds.

Caine's Law picks up right where Caine Black Knife (the book before Caine's Law) left off so I would recommend reading them back to back. Caine Black Knife gave us a look at Caine's beginnings and how to reach the heights of popularity that he did... He committed a genocide. Maybe I'm a terrible person but it's hard for me to judge Caine to harshly on this, given the Black Knife tribe of Orgilloi (basically orcs) had essentially chased Caine and his party down and proceeded to torture them to death until Caine pulled off his win. This was also the Black Knifes standard procedure, they would raid their neighbors, kill, rape, torture and enslave and would have kept doing it until someone stopped them. However, Caine has been feeling a bit of guilt over this, because frankly his escape and revenge weren't clean ones and he ended up not only basically destroying the Black Knife nation but being the cause of death for a lot of their children. Children who hadn't killed, raped or tortured anyone. So I can understand the guilt. This is also wrapped in the relationship that Caine has with Orbek, a Black Knife survivor who adopted him and who Caine in turn adopted as a younger brother. Because of this relationship, Caine learns that the majority of the survivors have been basically enslaved by a human theocracy and that the males can only get decent jobs and lives by submitting to castration. Frankly, the Black Knives may have been dangerous and wrong but this treatment is just as bad if not worse since the Black Knives can't really fight back anymore. When Orbek decides to address this and Caine tries to save his life, Caine ends up on Earth and is forced into a bad deal. From which our entire story flows.

While Mr. Stover has often experimented with non-linear storytelling, using flashbacks for example to tell related stories set in different times, he embraces the metaphysical fully in this book. As we are sent careening across different times and places of Caine's life as he works to pull off one last trick. To try and make a good bargain from a bad one, Caine moves across time and space to try and tilt history and the universe just enough to in his own words, take back the worse thing he's ever done. With Caine, there's a lot of prior actions competing for that title. To be fair that's not the only thing he's trying to do, as always Caine is trying to maintain the safety and well being of his friends and family. It's interesting to see how this self-professed monster is mostly only moved to violence to keep the people he loves safe, isn't it? He's also quick to enlist others into this quest by offering them the same reward and to be fair it's a hell of a pitch. I don't have anything that I've done that would be considered in the same league, hell even the same sport as Caine does but if he cornered me on the street and convinced me that it could be done? I'd be willing to do quite a bit and give a lot to get it done. Take a moment to ask yourself what you would do if you could make it so that the worst thing you ever did... Just never happened. So you can imagine what Caine, someone who starts his “what I’m willing to do” list with murder and maiming is willing to do. He's going to need every ally he can find though, because not only does he have to pull off a number of wild capers against angry priests, elvish lords and worse, he might be attracting attention from the divine. If you're doing something the gods don't want done, you gotta do it fast after all. Let's talk about some of these folks.

The most pivotal is likely the Horse Witch, a woman or something that looks like one, who travels with a feral herd of horses. Now I don't mean wild, I mean feral, as every horse was an abused animal that escaped it's situation to find shelter with the herd and with the Horse Witch. This is not a human-friendly herd, not necessarily hostile but it's made real clear that these horses are done tolerating abuse from humanity or anyone else. The Horse Witch herself is an interesting character that the book takes time and effort to unwrap for the reader, and her growing and developing relationship with Caine ends up forming a pole for the story to move around. This is true in a literary and metaphorical sense, as the story only makes sense when you fully grasp who the Horse Witch is, what her relationship to Caine is and how important and life-altering that is for him. Now, this isn't a Caine redeemed by the love of a woman story, banish that idea right now. Caine already tried that with his relationship with his first wife and in a realistic fashion, it failed quite miserably. Instead, this is Caine, with the help of someone who cares for him, not their idealized version of him but him the actual person learning to come to terms with himself and forgive himself his mistakes and learn to stop punishing himself. The Horse Witch is strangely well equipped for this as forgiveness and permission are her greatest powers. If you're wondering what that means, I'm going to tell you to read the book. What I will say is that Caine's journey in this book is a reflection of his internal journey which adds another layer to a story that already has a number of them. We also get a look at a real professional assassin, a gentleman by the name of Tanner from the same organization as Caine, he serves as a foil, ally, and snarker to Caine. Tanner kinda ended up being my favorite character in the book. He's not entirely sure what's going on, but he's gonna do his job and try to have some fun along the way, usually at Caine's expense. He can also get away with it because he's at least as good at hurting people as Caine is and younger so he doesn't have the same fear of Caine most men in his position would have. We also have returning characters but going over them would be spoilers so I'll invite you to take a look for yourself.

The book isn't entirely perfect, while Caine faces a lot of obstacles and near death events. Including finding himself almost getting the whipping of his life from a high-class elvish drug dealer and whore, who also happens to be a runaway prince. There's also a scene that I will laugh at until I die, where Caine finds out that an old enemy of his has a death cult devoted to him. Caine is morally appalled of course, but he's also offended that he isn't transgressive enough for some people considering all the ultra-violence and social upheaval he's committed in his life. It's kinda humanizing in a way. As usual, the violence is bone-jarringly real and full of consequences, people are crippled and maimed, our hero takes repeated injuries that slow him down and trip him up. That said, there's not much in the way of organized opposition from the various cosmic forces that the characters keep warning about us and seeing some would have increased the stakes and tension in the books. I do have to repeat for the reader that this book isn't told in an entirely linear fashion and the story becomes an exercise in piecing together clues from Caine's remarks and actions just what he is trying to do. Odds are since I didn't read the series in a single go that I missed a clue or three but frankly if you're paying attention and willing to do the mental footwork you can work it out pretty quickly. That said this book is not for lazy readers or for readers who are looking for straightforward simple storytelling. You definitely need to have read the prior books and expend some mental effort on this one. I'm not going to penalize the book for that though, since in all honestly reading a book or three that makes you expend some effort to figure things out isn't that bad for you. In fact, it might be good for you. (yes it is good for you, active reading skills are lacking in modern society and most people experience a sharp decline in technical reading ability after they leave academic settings. Being able to read and predict outcomes as well as interpret information that is talked about but not directly handed to you is a skill that many industrial psychologists have identified as an indicator of success in almost any profession.) I suppose this is me telling you to read your bloody veggies along with your junk food but there you go. I'm giving Caine's Law an A-, it's inventive, complex and provides a satisfying ending to the Caine saga. I just think it's unfortunate that we're not likely to see more books from Mr. Stover, since this is also the most recent book of his I can find, but you can't have everything.

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Blue text is your editor Mr. Davis
Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Fell Sword By Miles Cameron

The Fell Sword 
By Miles Cameron

It was only in March that I covered The Red Knight, the first novel in The Traitor Son Cycle. So I don't think we need to retread ground on who Miles Cameron is or on the subject of Orbit books. So let me just say that The Fell Sword was published in 2013 and move on.

The Fell Sword opens with our merry company of sell-swords heading into the Empire of Morea, an ancient state that has fallen on hard times. To make things even more complicated, their employer the Emperor is taken hostage by the most powerful noblemen before they get there. Which means their new job is to rescue the guy who hired them and win a civil war against the best army the Morean Empire has to offer. As a cherry on top? The Empire is broke and most of its soldiers haven't been paid in years. So if they want any native support they'll have to pay for it out of their own pockets and hope to make good later. That said, you can't win high stakes if you don't play high stakes and Gabriel, aka the Red Knight and leader of our crew of cutthroats intends to win big. He's not without resources, after all, he is flush with coin after winning a legendary siege in the last book and has the loyalty of a crew of veteran and highly trained killers with a wide variety of skills, is himself a skilled fighter and spellcaster and has a powerful wizard riding along in the back of his head. To counter this, the Imperial Princess they're supposedly working for might be plotting against him, the loyalty of mercenaries is prone to fickleness and he has a powerful wizard riding along in the back of his head (Faust! WAAAAAH You’ve doomed every one of us! Yes that was in the tune of a certain song by Queen.). Why is that an asset and a problem? Well, imagine you have someone who lost their body in your head. They have decades of experience and skill on you and they're perfectly willing to help but they always want to be in the driver's seat. It's not that they don't trust you but they've done this so many times before so why not just get out of the way and let them do it? How long before it's their body and you're the passenger in the back of your own head? That’s something that Gabriel has to balance against the fact that his passenger is literally the most skilled wizard for hundreds of miles around and the only one who can outstrip him for sure isn't human anymore (He is so screwed).

Which leads me to story-line number two in this book, Thorn, the antagonist from the last book has survived and is rebuilding his forces. What he's rebuilding his forces for and why isn't entirely clear because Thorn isn't who he was in the last book. While his power is growing, it's coming at the cost of him coming under the influence of an unknown outside power (I need to sing the Faust song again…). What this power wants is somewhat vague but it's clear that one of its intermediate goals is the end of human civilization as we know it (Well it’s good to have goals. I mean, if that’s its mid-term goal I’d be interested to learn what its long-term goals are.), so it's likely that it's ultimate goal isn't anything good (Are you sure about that? I mean, maybe this human civilization just needs to go, or needs to change somehow? What if their magic feeds off the lifeforce of another universe?{The bad guy uses human souls to power some of his magic. I’m pretty sure he’s not doing this for sustainability reasons}Oh. Never mind. Standard Faustian Bargain then, pretty sure the demonic underworld has standard forms for the contracts...). Along the way though Thorn would like to punish the allies that deserted him which leads us to the third and fourth story-line in this book. Both of them having to do with former allies of Thorn realizing that they aren't done yet with this former man turned demi-god. The first one revolves around an escaped slave who joined a tribe of humans who live in the Wild, the Sossag. The Wild is a land outside of human civilization inhabited by various races, some monstrous and others less so but most willing to hunt and eat humans the same way we do deer. Despite that, some human clans and tribes live very well in the wild. One such example the Sossag are very similar to some tribes of American natives who lived in the Northeast. They live in fortified villages, farm and hunt; and have governing power divided between male and female assemblies. Born with the name Peter, he instead takes on a Sossag name, marries a Sossag woman and works to blend into the tribe and live in peace. However, thanks to Thorn he isn't getting his wish and may just lose his best friend and adopted brother to this new storm. Meanwhile the Jacks, a band of anti-monarchy radicals who barely escaped the end of the last book with their lives find themselves trapped in the Wild (Be strong comrades! Be strong!). With their supplies running out and surrounded by creatures that view them the same way most of us view Thanksgiving turkeys, they're forced to make their own bargains with the powers of the Wild. However, Thorn hasn't forgotten the Jacks either and is preparing to target them along with the Sossag for his revenge.

Meanwhile, back in Alba, the north of the realm struggles to rebuild, central to this is Sir John and Amicia. Sir John was an older knight who had let himself go a bit before the events of the first book but got himself back into fighting trim real fast. He's left as the ranking knight in the North and pushes himself and everyone else to try and keep the lands clear of creatures of the Wild and protect the survivors and new settlers coming in. Amicia is a nun, who is also in love with our main character the Red Knight and is loved by him but won't let herself do anything about it because of her vows. Which is a plot point I like, most modern stories would have Amicia just toss her vows out the window but Amicia means her vows and intents to keep them (Your reviewer and the editor have somewhat different ideas about such things, clearly.). It helps that she's also a sorceress of massive power and growing skill so there aren't many people who can force her to do anything she doesn't want to (You go girl!). Unfortunately, the keeping of her vows leads to one of the people that could bend her, The Red Knight's mother. The woman who wanted her eldest boy to become the bane of humanity but was such an awful person that he decided to become a somewhat heroic figure out of spite. She's also one of the most powerful sorceresses in the world, a politically powerful noblewoman and her husband is one of the greatest warlords in North Alba. I bet you thought your in-laws were tough right? Both Amicia and Sir John are going to have to walk into the heart of their power however to keep the trade lanes alive, because if they don't their town and home withers on the vine.

Further south and deeper in Alba life is still not a bed of roses. The Queen Desiderata is coming under increasing political and social attack. You see, in the last book a small army of knights from Galle - a nation across the sea on the continent where the Wild is but a fading memory - came to Alba under the leadership of Jean de Vrailly. Jean de Vrailly considers himself the greatest knight alive, something a lot of people would dispute but Jean is definitely in the top 1% of best killers alive so disagreeing with him is hazardous. While Thorn might be more dangerous, I honestly loath Jean de Vrailly a lot more. Mr. Cameron is very effective at writing him as a heavy-handed bully armored in a sense of self-righteousness that makes you just beg to have someone slam a hammer into his face (That is what a spike and a hammer are for while he sleeps. Killing someone while their back is turned or they are asleep is the safest way. Such sayeth anti-saint Elim Garak). The Gallish knights were certainly useful when the armies of the Wild were kicking in the gates but now, there's no enemy to point them at and they're ambitious. Jean believes that the crown of Alba has been promised to him by the Lord Almighty and the Queen is one of the obstacles in his path. So he spreads rumors that the Queen has been incredibly unfaithful to the King. Now historically a lot of Queens have been less than faithful to the Kings they've been wed to, but it's incredibly dangerous for that to become a public accusation. Part of this is because bearing the royal heir is a large part of her political duties. Which is an issue because most of the kingdom believes that the King was cursed to be sterile (and he deserved that curse and more bluntly) and the Queen is pregnant. The Queen isn't without friends or powers of her own though, her own magical abilities are growing stronger by the day and that strength has attracted the attention of something old and vast but at least somewhat benevolent. The King, however, instead of standing with the wife who has given him no cause to complain has sent most of the native knights who would defend her off on various missions giving the Galles a freer hand then they would have otherwise. The Queen and her ladies aren't the only ones feeling this, however, nor is Jean de Vrailly acting on his own. The common people of the realm find themselves beset by toughs who ape the Galles, which in this case means going around armed and trying to bully people into letting them do whatever they want via threats of violence. Facing off against them are the armed bands of the various Guilds and the apprentices of various trades as they find themselves under pressure to be more accommodating to the foreign knights.

Jean de Vrailly is just the tip of the wedge here. The King of Galle and his ministers see the chance to reduce Alba to a puppet state or colony and are prepared to pull out all the stops to make it happen. Whether it be through economic warfare by making counterfeit Alban coins that are made from debased metal or hiring their own mercenary army to head into the North of the Wilds and build a base from which to assault North Alba. They have a mercenary army led by a man with his own colorful nickname, the Black Knight: a man whose earned his nickname by having no level he won't stoop to win and now he's loose on the same continent as all the characters we already know and love and looking to make life harder for them. It's like we don't even need Thorn to burn down half of human civilization here. I should note that there are plenty of sympathetic characters from Galle, such as Jean's cousin who is constantly trying to restrain his worse impulses to Clarisse de Sarte, a young woman who has the misfortune to catch the eye of the King of Galle, a man whose gifts do not match his ambitions, to put it mildly. Actually I do have to note that we run into three male monarchs here, the Emperor of Morea, the King of Alba and the King of Galle and all of them are men who are not up to the task of ruling in a time of crisis, and are at the helm of nations experiencing several crises all at once (Such is the peril of hereditary monarchy). Which leaves me wondering... Just how long has whatever is using Thorn been active and just what the hell has it been up to? Because, gentle readers, once is an accident, twice is happenstance but three times is enemy action and we have a wealth of enemies here. That said there is hope in the fact that each of these monarchs has a more capable Queen or Princess around and we’ve got one hell of a bastard aiming himself at all of the enemies of man.

I enjoyed The Fell Sword a lot but was also somewhat frustrated with it. As you guessed from this review there is a lot going on in this book, to the point that 600 pages barely feels like enough and I'm left feeling that there wasn't enough space given to the Morean plot. There was a lot of intrigue and scheming that was left off panel so to speak, and the relationship between the Morean characters and the Alban characters really could have used more space and attention. Those relations aren’t badly written just feeling a bit sparse. Additionally a lot of the plots in these books feel more like set up for the next book (or the one after that) which I don't mind as Mr. Cameron does make an effort to put a good amount of pay off in this book for at least half the storylines, but when the book is this crowded I am left asking if this was the best use of pages? For example, I feel like the story-line featuring the Gallish court could have been moved to the next book and I was left unsure what the point of the story-line featuring Amicia and Sir John was; it didn't feel connected to much of anything going on in this book. Additionally, I'm not sure the story-line with the Jacks was necessary at all. Granted, Mr. Cameron is the writer and I’m just the reviewer but we’re still staring at 600 plus pages here. All the story-lines are well written and honestly, a less talented writer would have been thrilled to have just one of them to hang a good novel off of. I suppose it's telling that my biggest complaint is that it feels like Mr. Cameron is trying to cram three really good novels into a single one but there is it. I do feel that it hampered the pace and robbed space from all the story-lines. I suppose I'll just have to hope that Mr. Cameron starts merging plotlines soon because he does seem to be building up to something amazing and he certainly does have the talent and skill to pull it off in my opinion. However, this continues the problems I had with The Red Knight (although I still recommend both books). So I am giving The Fell Sword by Miles Cameron a B+. I remain hopeful that this series will break into A territory though.

Join us next week as we finally wrap up the Acts of Caine series with Caine's Law by Matthew Stover.  Keep Reading!

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