Friday, May 25, 2018

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IDW Vol: I By Kevin Eastman and Tom Waltz

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IDW Vol: I
By Kevin Eastman and Tom Waltz

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were first created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984. The story being that during a brainstorming session Mr. Eastman sketched out a ninja turtle with a pair of nunchucks and everybody thought it was hilarious. The first issue of the comic (funded by a tax refund and a small loan from a relative) was partially meant to parody comics like Daredevil (the Foot Clan was inspired by Marvel's Hand clan of ninja's) and Ronin who were going through a celebrated run of stories using a gritty and dark tone. The first issue had all of three thousand printings and mostly sold at a local convention, but it caught attention because, dear readers, this was the eighties and there were powerful forces afoot in our entertainment industry: the Turtles caught the attention of the toy companies. By 1987 there was a cartoon series that would last for ten seasons (with more cartoon series that would come in the 21st century), later would come live action movies, more toys, a rock-band tour and of course during all of this was comic book after comic book. The Turtles survive to this day, despite the best efforts of Hollywood. Let's talk about the series creators first and I'll talk about Tom Waltz, who wrote specifically for this comic book series.

Kevin Eastman was born in Portland, Maine, in 1962. He was following a waitress he had met while working in a restaurant (He was dating this waitress, right? Not like, just following her? Because the way you put this is really up for interpretation{No idea, no source says, anyways it's not part of the review}) when he met Peter Laird. They founded Mirage Studios, the name was chosen because, having no money or facilities, the studio was more of a mirage than anything else (Okay, that’s actually pretty damn funny as far as I’m concerned). Eastman would try a number of things out besides creating the Ninja Turtles, such as founding Tundra Publishing (now defunct) and was the owner of Heavy Metal from 1992 to 2014.

Peter Laird, was born in North Adams, Massachusetts in 1954. Before the Ninja Turtles he was trying to scratch out a living doing illustrations for the local newspaper (which paid him the grand sum of $10 a picture) and local fanzines (I'll talk about these another day). It was that experience that lead Mr. Laird to set up a press kit for the release of the Ninja Turtles which helped them grab attention. Additionally Mr. Laird's Uncle actually loaned him the money to set up Mirage Studios, something that profoundly affected him. This led him to founding the Xeric Foundation, a charitable organization that would award grants to comic book creators to help them self publish. In twenty years they would award over 2.5 million dollars.

Now, Tom Waltz is a former active duty Marine serving during Desert Storm, he also served in the California National Guard, he is currently an editor for IDW and served as a writer for this graphic novel.

This collection serves as a reset on the Turtle Origin story. While a good amount of it is left the same as the other comic origins (where the Turtles and Splinter were lab animals, not pets accidentally exposed to the mutagen ooze). The turtles origin is in a botched case of corporate espionage, as they and the mutagen were stolen from the lab they were housed in by Foot Ninjas only for that to be foiled by Splinter in his pre-mutated state. Added is something only referred to a Psychotropic Compound, something that was injected into Splinter greatly increasing the rat's intelligence (thus he was a lab rat with human intelligence before he was mutated) and triggering something odd. Because in this origin the biggest deviation is the interjection of reincarnation. Splinter is not the pet rat of Hamato Yoshi, the wronged and murdered foot ninja, nor is he the ninja mutated into a rat. Instead he is the reincarnation of Hamato Yoshi and being injected with the Psychotropic Compound not only altered his physiology (as his blood now produces the compound) but awakened those memories within him. The turtles are also reincarnations, in this case the reincarnations of Hamato Yoshi's son's murdered by the Shredder many years ago. The turtles themselves don't have any memories of their prior lives but are able to learn the ninja arts at an accelerated rate, possibly due to being exposed to Splinter's blood when they were stolen by Foot Ninjas and rescued by Splinter (Oh wow… this is actually really touching in a way…). New characters are also introduced; in this case the figure of Old Hob, a mutated stray cat. His grudge against our heroes is the result of that botched break out, as a stray cat he tried to nab one of the turtles and fought Splinter. Splinter was injured and left bleeding, but Old Hob lost an eye and didn't get his meal. Old Hob seems to have taken that fight personally and made it his mission to kill the turtles and Splinter. Old Hob has also been exposed to the Psychotropic Compound through contact with Splinter's blood and uses his new intelligent for the twin goals of building an empire on the streets of New York and gaining blood soaked revenge on Splinter for daring to defend his loved ones.

There are also plenty of returning characters. April O'Neil returns as a college student, who while working as an intern Sees Too Much (™). Also we have Casey Jones, who returns as a troubled youth with a heart of gold and a drunken abusive father. Casey Jones is also Raphael’s best friend in this version and they get together at least once a week to cruise the streets and beat up criminals (Awww, they’re bonding!). There are also enemies that return here, such as the Shredder (can't really have a Turtles series without him can we?), along side of the Shredder are Kari, his granddaughter and right hand woman as well as the gang bangers Rocksteady and Bebop, although they aren't mutants yet (Aww man!). Also present in the background is the alien general Krang and taking center stage in this graphic novel, Baxter Stockmen, who was experimenting on the Turtles as a weapon development project for Krang. In this series, Baxter is a scientist and successful businessman. In fact he's the guy who develops the mutagen from the ooze provided to him by Krang. He also played a key role in the development of the psychotropic compound, but for reasons unexplained isn't able to replicate his work and as such funds (but doesn't aide) Old Hob on his quest for revenge as long as he gets Splinter's body reasonably intact at the end.

This is an origin story, a retelling of the origins of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their enemies. As such they do make it a point to make the characters work to find out just who the Foot Clan are and why Old Hob is hunting them. The series doesn't drag it out, knowing full well that most of us already know the answers to these questions so there's not much to be gained to prolonging the story. That said there are things that this series does pretty well. Perhaps due to the reincarnation angle, the feud between Shredder and Splinter feels more visceral, more driven by rage and loss then previous versions I'd seen. Additionally each of the Turtles gets an issue to themselves allowing work to be done on their characterization. The Turtles feel like individuals with their own family dynamics within the unit. Donatello, isn't just the smart nerd in the back, he's the one who openly doubts the idea of them being reincarnated people and is the one most willing to question Splinter while at the same time showing nothing but love and respect for his father. This makes him rather independent in a lot of ways. Leonardo is given more to do then just be consumed by the martial arts. He's the most spiritual of the group, the most willing to explore the idea that he might have been a Japanese teenager at one point in the past who was murdered by a warlord. He is also the Turtle most prone to accepting everything Splinter tells him, which is both a strength and weakness. Raphael is the angrest of the group but is also the first one to make a human friend. While he has a good amount of rage within, it's balanced by a desire to honestly help people. He's the one most likely to jump into a situation to help someone in trouble. Michelangelo might enjoy pizza and partying but he's also the biggest social creature out of the four and out of all of them seems to want to be able to be a part of human society the most. He's also the peace maker of the group, being the one to step in when any of the others are on the verge of brawling and reminding them of what's important.

This series carries the themes of revenge and family. Splinter wants revenge for not just his murder as Hamato Yoshi but the murder of his wife Tang Shin and their four sons. Old Hob wants revenge for his eye. What separates the two of them is that Splinter puts his love for his sons first and is willing to give up vengeance if it will be better for his children, showing a true devotion to fatherhood. Meanwhile Old Hob hates everything alive. The Turtles themselves are bound by brotherhood against a world that would hate and fear them if it knew they existed. On the flip side of that Shredder, Kari and the Foot Clan are held together by toxic and abusive versions of the family bonds that the Turtles display. We also see this in April O'Neil and Casey Jones, Jones family fell apart when his Mother died, his Father crawled into a bottle and never came back. Because of that Jones life is slowly circling the gutter and street violence is really his only outlet left. Meanwhile April's father has suffered a stroke but her family has pulled together to ensure his well being and that April finishes college. Having all these different versions of family as well as a look at revenge (for example Splinter certain has a better complaint then Old Hob but is willing to abandon it for the safety and well being of his sons. Old Hob won't drop his complaint even to save his own life) really ties the graphic novel together. I also found it a good buy in that it had 12 issues and 4 stand alones all brought together so it weights in at over 300 pages. Not bad in a world of shrinking comic page counts and rising prices. I'm giving Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Vol I an A.

Next week, Elves.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Log Horizon Vol IX: Go East Kanami By Mamare Touno

Log Horizon Vol IX: Go East Kanami
By Mamare Touno

So once again we have returned to the world of Log Horizon, where thousands of players found themselves trapped in the world of Elder Tales, a MMORPG turned real. The trapped players aren't helpless because they’ve awoken in the bodies of their characters and have gained their in-game powers and abilities.  Through the actions of Shiroe, in Akiba (Which is geographically Japan, we’ll get to that later), a government has been hammered together to bring rules to the interactions between player. Peace has been made with the People of the Earth, who in the game were computer run NPCs; but are now sapient people with their own goals, desires, and feelings.  That's Japan though, where the last 8 novels have focused but what about the rest of the world? Volume IX attempts to give us a bit of a peek at the rest of the world. As such it doesn't feature any of the characters from the last eight novels but instead gives us an entirely new group battling it's way across Asia to reach Japan. Let's met these folks.

Kanami, while never directly featured has been mentioned and discussed before in the series, as she was the leader and instigator of the Debauchery Tea Party, the old group where Shiroe, Naotsugu, and Nyanta meet and formed their friendship. Kanami back then was playing a swashbuckler but now is playing a monk and was online when the game pulled everyone in.  Only she was in Europe living in Italy, with her husband (who was a member of Doctors without Borders) and young daughter. As such she's fairly interested in getting back to Earth. Kanami is a fairly whimsical woman, whose main motivation is seeing new and exciting things, but she is also a lot smarter then she lets on and fairly brave. For example looking around the chaos of Western Europe, she was able to find and recruit two powerful companions and logically figure out her best bet in achieving her goals.  Kanami wants to get back to Earth, to that end she needs to figure out what exactly happened. Odds are high that it is related to the new expansion, Homesteading the Noosphere, which was only fully implanted on the Japanese servers before everyone was transported to the world of Elder Tales. Therefore she needs to get to Japan. Given how most characters are busy losing their minds in reaction to being transported to a fantasy world that looks like a video game they were playing... That's pretty impressive. Let's look at the people she's recruited for this.

KR is another member of the Debauchery Tea Party that Kanami was able to link with.  He's a summoner, a magic class that makes its bones by summoning spirits and creatures to do their fighting for them.  KR had decided to scout out the parts of Asia closest to Japan and used a summoner skill where he transported his conscious into the body of such a servant.  In this case a horse like creature called a hakutaku from Chinese myth. KR isn't able to do much more than advise as while the hakutaku is fast and able to travel quickly for long periods of time, it's not really a combat monster.  That's okay because Kanami has other members of the party to do the actual fighting and it's not like she's a lightweight in a fight being at max level. That said she does have company on the front line.

Elias Hackblade, is an Ancient, a turbo powered NPC.  The Ancients were high powered NPCs who played a major part in the video game's backstory.  They were presented as the last line of defense for the People of Earth, powerful magic users and knights who stand between them and extinction.  However all the Ancients have disappeared leaving the People of the Earth dependent on the Adventurers (the players who have found themselves stranded) in the exact moment that the Adventurers are least able to serve the role.  Elias himself was locked into a magical sleep until Kanami found him and rescued him, thinking that such a powerful NPC might be helpful. Elias had a fairly unique backstory written out out for him but with a rather harsh weakness.  He can't actually kill monsters with his powers, as that would be kill stealing from the PCs. Back when Elder Tales was just a game, Elias was just a background character but now he's a person with his own powers of reason and motivation.  Elias wants to find out what happened to the other Ancients, why it happened and who did it because if someone out there can wipe out every powerful NPC, it's likely they don't have good things planned for the people of this world. He and Kanami aren't alone however.

Coppelia is an interesting character in her own right.   A high level cleric who Kanami found in France, she doesn't really have goals of her own but is content to follow where Kanami leads.  We learn that she does however have her own reasons for heading to Japan even if she was unlikely to do so on her own. I can't really discuss her however without dropping large spoilers so I'll just say this: it's her relationships with the other characters in this book that are pivotal or maybe I should say relationship with one certain character that's important. Let's talk about him shall we?

Leonardo, named for a popular hero who is a ninja but totally not a turtle, is a New York Geek who fled his hometown during the chaos of the change (the world of Elder Tales actually uses a half size map of Earth, which is kind of clever.  I mean think of it, you could simply use Google Earth to design your overworld, that has to save on some man hours). He did so by leaping through a not completely functional fairy ring, an instant teleportation device meant to ease travel between cities.  The darn thing dumped him in Central Asia of places. Because of the lack of player base in Central Asia, it's very undeveloped in game content but as Leonardo finds out, underdeveloped doesn't mean completely undeveloped as he finds himself trapped in a raid event all by himself until Kanami and her crew get him out.  Leonardo makes for an interesting change but is also honestly the weakest character here and I don't mean combat-wise. Most of Leonardo's character arc is taken up realizing things that we already know or seeing him commit to being a hero like his name sake. We've kinda seen this arc in the series, most effectively in Shiroe himself.  So... Why is he even here then? Don't get me wrong, he's a cool character but I don't see what he's bringing to this story that hasn't been done already.

Additionally, I'm not convinced on Leonardo's Americaness.  He doesn't act like the New Yorkers I've known, nor does he act like an American Geek.  Instead his actions and preconceptions match pretty closely with the Japanese characters we've already seen.  As far as I know Mr. Touno has never spent a lot of time in the United States, so I'm not shocked that he's not quite able to nail an American character in his first attempt.  For that matter this isn't a unique thing on his part, I've noticed European writers have problems writing North American cities and characters as anything but Europeans with slightly different accents and I'm pretty sure there are North American writers who have utterly failed to get European characters (if you’re a European fan feel free to name names in the comments!).  Now I'm not saying that any nation or people is a hive mind and all Europeans, Japanese, or North Americans will act or think or even believe the same things but there are cultural habits, beliefs and actions that make us different from one another. I've been lucky enough to speak to French men, English folks, Indonesian students, and people from Vietnam and East Timour; and we all approach things from a place that's informed by what we're taught growing up, our experiences, and places in life.  An American Geek who models himself on a Ninja Turtle (sorry, frog) isn't going to act like a Japanese shut in. I suppose that while we should always remember the things that bring us together and that we have in common, we also need to keep in mind our differences as well.

Through this story we're given a peek at the rest of the world and we're shown that Akiba's government is a rare thing, perhaps the only example of it's kind in the whole world.  A government where guilds cooperate with each other and the People of the Earth. I'm not entirely sold on that either but I'm willing to go along with it to see what Mr. Touno does with that.  Although I would admit in such a real life situation I would be a touch disappointed in my fellow Americans. I mean really guys, not one of you would not try to follow the example of James Madison and write a Constitution?  Not one of you would try to be George Washington, or at least Thomas Paine? Okay, I'm being silly here, this is a Japanese story and I shouldn't be surprised that Japan and the Japanese take center stage. The book also gives us information on the different character classes, it appears each server got a pair of it's own unique classes and I like that touch.  It's something I could see a computer game company doing to help drum up local interest. Log Horizon Volume IX is interesting in it's change of scene, Mr. Touno clearly has been to Central Asia and admits as much with his vivid description of the environment and the sky. He also introduces new plot elements and clues in the ongoing mystery of how the hell did this happened.  That said, Leonardo kinda brings the story down and having to suffer through the same character arc only from square one is a bit grating. The other characters help to an extent but I find myself asking why couldn't Kanami have center stage instead of Leonardo, as she at least has her shit together and it's her goals and agenda driving the plot in the first place, not to mention it's her name in the title.  Log Horizon Volume IX: Go East Kanami by Mamare Touno gets a C+ from me. Not awfully done but Mr. Touno should be more careful in retreading the same character arc over and over.

Man, now I want to review some Ninja Turtles.  You know what let me post our schedule.

Next Week, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the IDW Collection I.
After that, Delcourt Comics, Elves I
We'll kick off June with Maus Vol I and then Vol II.
Then we go historical with Trail of Hop and Black Wings.

Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Dwarves Vol VI: Jorun of the Forge by Nichols Jarry

Dwarves Vol 6: Jorun of the Forge
by Nichols Jarry, Art by Pierre Denis Goux

“He's a legend and I'm nothing” Jorun, son of Redwin. 

In the dim past of March 2017, I reviewed a French fantasy comic with the rather undescriptive title of “Dwarves”, written by the prolific Nichols Jarry; who has a large number of comics and novels to his name in his native France published by Delcourt comics. They are still the 3rd largest publisher of comics within the French publishing world. It was then that I learned something marvelous and very frustrating. Despite our long political alliance and the fact that France is our 3rd largest trading partner in Europe, there doesn't seem to be a lot of exchange between us in regards to entertainment and fiction. There is some don't get me wrong, we all joke about French Art Films (I'm sure they joke about American Action Films) and such. But perhaps through an accident of history, we honestly get more comics, movies, and video games from Asia; especially from South Korea and Japan, or at least not a lot of French products end up here. I'm sure if this review series has any French fans, they would be quick to inform me that there is quiet enough American entertainment in France but back to the comic. The comic I reviewed was Volume I: Redwin of the Forge (go read it!), which dealt with the struggles of Redwin, a young Dwarf who had to learn how to control himself and just what it was he wanted in the world. I found the comic fascinating and bought the follow up volumes that, while set in the same world, did not really connect with Redwin's tale. Until now.

Jorun, our main character for this story, is Redwin's youngest son. Redwin has retired and given up on a life of violence and death, preferring to focus on being a blacksmith, husband, and father. For the most part he manages it but every child brings special challenges. In this case it's Jorun, a son who in his own eyes has inherited none of his father's talents in blacksmithing and fighting, but he has inherited his father's nearly bottomless rage and self loathing. It doesn't help that Jorun's older brother Ulrog (named for his grandparents) is a exceptionally talented smith and fighter; as well as charming, friendly and well... everything Jorun isn't,and that only feeds that rage further. This is sparked by a accident in Redwin's forge where Jorun scars himself as a young child and sets the tone for his entire life. People tell him what he should do to avoid getting hurt and angry with the world and he ignores them. He then gets hurt and lashes out. This pattern continues throughout his childhood with his Father trying to reign him in and only pouring fuel on the fire. This leaves both of them completely at the end of their rope with each other. Part of it is Redwin seeing himself in Jorun, his younger, self destructive, angry self that left a trail of death and ruin in his wake. Part of it is Jorun so damn sure that he’s inherited nothing of value from his father and refusing to consider any other options. This continues until after one last escalation, Redwin decides that there's only one step he can take to avoid a future where he and his son try to kill each other. He takes his youngest son and inducts him into the Iron Legion.

The Iron Legion is a mercenary army that takes in the reckless, the desperate, those with no hope and no future. It's a place where those accused of crimes or rejected by their families or even those who simply can find no other way to live can start over. All the Legion asks is utter obedience to their code, relentless training, and that you abandon your past and consider the Legion your new family. If this sounds like the Foreign Legion for Dwarves, you wouldn't be far wrong I think. Redwin sends his youngest son to them, leaving Jorun a magic sword as his birthright. Jorun for his part cuts himself off from his family entirely, burning the letters his Mother sends to him and burying himself in the Legion life. It's here that Jorun finds the mentor he needs, who strangely enough was an apprentice of Jorun's grandfather Ulrog. I mentioned in my last review that Ulrog's life was an utter mystery and here we are only given slight hints and clues. What did Ulrog have to do with the Iron Legion? Why did he leave? What drove him to adopt a strict pacifism that he would only drop to save his son's life? Under new mentorship, Jorun manages to contain his rage enough to have friends and even a lover but he's still just holding it back and he still cannot restrain his self loathing. However, he's going to have to learn to come to peace with not just himself but with his family and his past. Because his Father's past is coming and if they can't figure out how to deal with it, there might not be anyone around for Jorun to be angry with anymore. Because ye olde forces of darkness are marching on Dwarf lands once more and the divided Fortress states are dithering and quibbling instead of uniting. Jorun is going to have to decide what is most important to him and make decisions that will dictate the rest of his life from there on out.

This is a story about family, what brings it together and what drives it apart. Whether it be a Mother's love for her son, or a Father frustration with being unable to communicate with his son or a son's inability to look past his self loathing and anger with the world. Like Redwin, Jorun has to learn to deal with his flaws and find his place in the world. The writing is well done, Jorun is not a very likeable character bluntly but he is sympathetic in a way, as you realize as much as you might dislike him, Jorun dislikes himself even more. That said he doesn't whine about it, this book wasn't dripping in angst but it does dictate his actions. The art as always is amazing. The Dwarves look distinctive from humans even without the height difference and it's done without venturing into the uncanny valley. The action is captured in a very dramatic style and the colors are used in very nice way. That said, I do have to state for the record that the Iron Legion armor design is bloody ridiculous. Stop layering spikes everywhere guys, it's actually more dangerous for the guy wearing the armor then anyone else and makes standing in a shield wall or any other close formation an act of bloody insanity. You cannot stand in close file if the spikes layered all over the guy next to you are as likely to stab you as the enemy. Still that only real complaint I have here. So I'll be giving Dwarves Vol 6: Jorun of the Forge an A.

Next Week? We head eastward, join us for Log Horizon volume 9. Keep reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Read my review of Volume I here:

Friday, May 4, 2018

Bookburners season I By Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, Brian Francis Slattery

Bookburners season I
By Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, Brian Francis Slattery

In the grim darkness of last November, I reviewed a book called “The Witch That Came In From The Cold”. It told an interesting story but the thing that set it apart (other then it's setting and characters but I digress) was the fact that it was written episodically. The book was a collection of episodes, each telling a complete story set within a greater story line. I discussed that at length in that review and I think it was recent enough that I won't repeat it. If you haven't taken a look at it, I would encourage you do so and then come back here. There will be a link at the bottom of this review. Now let's take a look at the authors of this work.

Max Gladstone was born in 1984 and studied Chan poetry and late Ming Dynasty fiction at Yale, then lived and taught Anhui province which is one of the smallest and more undeveloped provinces of the People's Republic of China. As you might imagine he speaks Chinese, he also sort of reads Latin and is strangely proud of having a horse in Mongolia throw him (I think I like this guy). Margaret Dunlap is a producer and writer, known for among other things, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Eureka and more. Mur Lafferty was born in 1973 and is an American podcaster and writer. She was the host of Escape Pod from 2010 to 2012 and is the creator and host of I Should be Writing (why does that phrase echo in my backbone?). She is also the editor in chief of the short fiction magazine Mothership Zeta. Last but not least is Brian Francis Slattery, an American writer and editor at the New Haven Review, he has also written four novels with two of them taking place in a collapsed United States.

Bookburners however takes place in our own modern world, just in the part of the world most of us can't see. Our world with our concepts of orderly natural laws, is an island amidst an ocean of chaos. In that ocean of chaos live sea monsters, both great and small. When human wade out from the island we've painfully built for ourselves or dig a metaphorical channel for these monsters to come inland, we call that magic. Magic is dangerous. It's laws, if there are any, are obscure and full of exceptions. To deal in magic is to traffic more often then not with monsters or to deal with powers you can't understand. Your average magic user is a toddler with a set of medical scalpels, running loose in a kindergarten (Sounds like excellent Evil Medical School recruitment material. Wait what? Did I say that out loud?). To prevent the destruction of civilization and keep our world from being overrun by monsters from beyond the pale the Catholic Church (I feel like there are a lot of Helsing and Reformation jokes I could make here) has assembled a number of teams under the banner of the Societas Librorum Occultorum with a single mission. That mission is to hunt down magical artifact, relics, and above all else books; stop any active magic due to these objects; contain the magical object in question; and bring it into the Vatican Library (And now there’s a heist movie. Liberate libros!). Books are the single most dangerous of the items in question, not only because they can spread the knowledge of magic but because most magical books have sealed within them beings that we can only call demons due to their power and sheer disregard for human life and dignity. However the members of the Societas Librorum are also racing against the tide, because more and more magical events are happening every year and sooner or later one of them is going to spin out of control and become uncontainable. They aren't the only people aware of this however, there are a great many organizations and private individuals who seek to control or at least understand magic. These people also seek out the books, to use them or make deals with the creatures imprisoned within them.

None of that would be a concern for New York Police Detective Sally (Sal) Brooks. She just wants to be a good cop and be able to deal with the things she sees while on duty. However when her little brother Perry shows up at her apartment panicking because of a book he found, claiming he's being followed by “them” she finds herself pulled into a world that she had no idea was there. This is because the book that Perry found is called the Liber Manus, or The Book of the Hand in English, and is one of those books that could end the world if it isn't kept closed and locked away. Confronting the demon locked in the book that has taken over her brother takes a heavy toll and Perry is left comatose after suffering a demonic possession (Ouch. How did she confront the demon? Did she find an old priest and a young priest in the middle of a crisis of faith?). From there Sal finds herself assigned to Team Three, the team whose job is to find, confront, and contain the books and the problems they create. Sal is our viewpoint character as a rookie and an outsider on the team as she works to prevent magic from destroying lives; she also peels back the secrets of her team, the society it works for, and the Catholic church itself .

She's working alongside some interesting folks as well. There's Liam, a computer hacker whose life was torn apart when he dabbled with powers he didn't understand. Rescued by team three, he's a bit of a fanatic and is downright frightened of magic. This leads to him clashing with Asanti, the archivist and senior member of the team who studies magic and is less frightened and more fascinated by it. Grace, a woman from China whose relationship with the team and with magic itself’s complicated but she provides the muscle needed to confront the things that go bump in the night. Father Arturo Menchu is a Catholic Priest and the leader of the team, his feelings towards magic are closer to Liam's as his introduction was the destruction of his home and loved ones while he was trying to save them. That said he tempers those feeling with his faith and his desire to help people. So as you can see even within the team there is a fair amount of conflict over what to do with magic in general. This actually makes the team and the people on it feel more real and it makes magic feel more real within the story. The team isn't a hive mind with everyone agreeing and anyone who doesn't being automatically wrong. Instead these are people with very individual reactions due to their specific experiences that inform their stances and prejudices. They do care about each other and are willing to put their lives on the line for each other. That doesn't mean there aren't times where they simply don't like each other very much or where their disagreements don't run the risk of driving them apart.

For that matter, as you might have guessed Team Three isn't the only team on the Catholic Church's roster. Team One, is who you call in when the only solution is pure violence (Even more Helsing jokes). They're a cross between magically powered special forces team and an anti-monster SWAT team. Meanwhile Team Two is the cover up team, removing evidence, planting false evidence, making sure witnesses stay quiet and they do this through some rather questionable means at times. So even while Team Three has its own disagreements they also have bigger disagreements with the other teams which are in turn dwarfed by their disagreements with the other side. So you get less of a feeling of a well managed organization devoted to a common goal and more of an unstable alliance of people with common experiences and understandings who dislike what the bad guys are planning more than what their allies are. What do I like about this is that the writers don't shy away from showing the implications and fall outs of such thing and make it pretty clear that this is a result of a failure of leadership (I feel like there’s some social commentary here.). When you have teams in your organization with such diverse responsibilities and goals there's going to be tension and rivalries. This is normal and in some ways healthy! When your teams turn into opposing ideological camps however, you've failed to keep everyone focused on their common mission and the things that bind them gather. Speaking from my own experience this could have been prevented by cross training and having members of each team working with an opposite number from another team for a mission or three. There are also certain operatives that should have had choke chains applied to their necks a lot sooner but you'll have to read the book for that (Next time on Adventures in Management Failure…). Either way the teams could have been prevented from descending into such open ideological differences with some basic leadership.

That said , it's this ideological conflict over how we should treat and interact with magic that drives the overarching story; while many of the episodes are focused on chasing down magical artifacts and the monsters that love them. There are as I mentioned entire societies devoting themselves to studying or using magic and they exist in a state of conflict with the teams of the Catholic Church. So I find myself less interested in their conflicts with the demonic creatures of darkness and more with their conflicts with other human beings. This is because the conflict with the demons that show up here is fairly simple. They want to destroy our civilization and reduce us to chattel and livestock. We don't want that and work to stop them. There's frankly not a lot of room for argument there, you’re either for or against us. Don't get me wrong, there's still a lot of compelling storytelling that can be told in a conflict like this and the writers of Bookburners manage to tell a good, compelling story with raising stakes in such cases. For me however, it's when the team comes face to face with a collector of books who is actively seeking the very powers they're trying to lock away and they have to deal with the ramifications of such things that is way more interesting.

Another thing I like is how magic is portrayed in this book. In a lot of fantasy series, magic is basically a tame force. It responses predictability and consistency with any risk in it's practice being given lip service at best. This can work perfectly fine in a fantasy setting on another world but in an urban fantasy setting that takes place in our world, you're left asking... Why isn't the use of magic public and openly studied if it's so predictable and safe? In Bookburners, there's nothing predictable or safe about the use of magic. Magic means dealing with alien and often malevolent intelligences to alter the universe in direct defiance of the physical laws we know and understand. It means playing with forces whose rules we do not and maybe are unable to understand and as such the reactions of our poking it are unpredictable. Something as innocent as a wish to make your restaurant the best restaurant in town can end up enslaving your wait staff and turning your kitchen into some strange meat pit from hell (Welcome to Meat Hab). Simply reading from the wrong book can end up burning out your brain and tearing out your soul, leaving you a puppet to an invading force that considers sapient thought the prefered spice for a good meal. When magic behaves like that and carries enough risk that the average magician can accidentally end human civilization through a round of drunk casting, it makes perfect sense for large groups of powerful people think that it simply isn't worth the risk of poking. This is a force that makes things like gunpowder and electricity look like a child's toy in its potential to destroy and ruin. So even if you don't entirely agree with the Catholic Church's methods and goals... You understand why they're doing this because magic set free doesn't just pose a risk to individuals but to everyone. On the flip side, we see just enough potential for what magic can do that we can see why some people would think it's worth the risk (I’ll be honest… I’d be really tempted to Read the Latin(™){This is why you never get recruited to fight ye olde powers of darkness}). The magic here has more to do with H.P Lovecraft then Disney.

This is one of the better urban fantasies I've read lately, if one of the darker ones. There are a lot of mature themes in this story and it's held up by well done characterization of all the members of Team Three. It helps that while Sal is our viewpoint character, we do get to spend time in the heads of each team member and we get to understand not only what they think but why they think it. The writers also do an amazing job of keeping the tone of the work and treatment of the characters fairly consistent throughout the book even through each episode in the book has a different writer. That can be hard to do and takes a lot of communication and trust between the members of the group. So I would like to take a moment to congratulate the four authors of this book just for that accomplishment. Not to mention taking a group that in many stories would be the bad guys and giving them their own space to present their case. Bookburners by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty and Brian Francis Slattery gets an A from me. You can pick up the print version like I did on Amazon or your local bookstore or buy the season digitally from serial box, see the link below.

Whew... I just finished and reviewed a book with... 790 pages... In a week. I think it's time for something short readers. So next week, we're returning to the dwarves, join us for a graphic novel. Keep Reading!

You can read bookburners on line at

You can read my review of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold at

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy
by Ann Leckie

I discussed Ms. Leckie just last week so let me discuss Orbit, the publishing company. Orbit is a science fiction and fantasy publishing company founded in 1974 as part of the Macdonald Futura publishing company. It has dedicated publishing teams in the UK and the US, with an Australian group established in 2006. It currently functions as a imprint of Little, Brown Book Group which bought the Macdonald Futura in 1992.

Ancillary Mercy was published in 2015 and received the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and nominated for a Hugo Award. It is the last book in the Ancillary trilogy, let's take a look. Fair warning, there will be spoilers for the last two books, so if you haven't taken a look at them yet you might want to come back to this review later.

Fleet Captain Breq was once an ancillary; a cyborg soldier controlled by a ship AI. In Breq's case that was the Justice of Toren (an interesting note is that Justice is a ship class, the Radchaai empire had three: Justices, Swords, and Mercies). The Justice of Toren was destroyed by the Lord of the Radchaai empire Anaander Mianaai when the ship reacted to an order to kill a ship's officer. Breq was the sole survivor, a lone shard of the ship AI housed in a single body. Over the last two books Breq has pursued her goals with the single-minded determination you would expect of a computer paired with the adaptability you would expect from a human being. Those goals being to gain a measure of revenge on Anaander Mianaai and to protect the closest kin of that murdered officer. Breq manages to be very human and very alien at the same time in this series, I'm not sure how much of this is from the alien culture of the Radchaai. That said, Fleet Captain Breq, has achieved everything she set out to accomplish. Of course, achieving your goals is great, but you also have to hold on to what you have. While Breq may have secured the system of Athoek, she now has to deal with the rest of the Galaxy and what it thinks of her actions.

Breq has just about faced down all opposition within the system, out maneuvering Captain Hetnys and using him as a hostage to keep his ship AI in line. In doing that, she made an ally (more or less) out of the local Station due to showing concern for the undergardens; a section of the Station that had been allowed to fall to neglect and cut off from the rest. As you might imagine this bred some resentment in the AI who was built to care about the station and look after the people who were living on it. Breq however stepped in and while there was some damage in the ensuing confrontation, it meant in the end that the undergardens will be rebuilt and reconnected with the rest of the station. Additionally, with the aid of the young Lt. Tisarwat (I'll get to her in a moment) she's built a political support base among the leaders of the station and the planet. However, Breq's plan of simply rebuilding the undergardens and letting the people who were living there illegally move right back and take up legal residence just makes too much sense to go unchallenged. In this case the head priest of the the Station takes it on himself to publicly protest this, pushing for the idea that the large spacious quarters of the newly refurbished undergardens go to the “right” kind of people instead of actual residents. This is fueled by the ethnic divisions I discussed last review. See the people living in the undergarden are all Ychana. A group that has stubbornly held to its own traditions and beliefs after conquest by the Radchaai. As a result they get to live at the bottom of the economic and social ladder of Athoek. Meanwhile the Xhai, an ethnic group that assimilated to Radchaai culture and ideals gets to be the dominant group in the system and some of them just can't stand the idea of a group of half criminal, barely civilized Ychana (as they think of them) getting anything nice. I'm not sure if this was intentional but this part of the novel almost works as a comment on gentrification (there’s no ‘almost’ about it).

Gentrification is a process that occurs in cities when low class neighborhoods for whatever reason find themselves being economically revived (read: bought out, eminent domained, condemned, torn down, and then rebuilt on the extreme end. Or simply… invaded by rich people who drive up the prices). The process brings in more affluent residents and can, unless counteracted, end up pushing out the original residents of the neighborhoods who find themselves unable to afford the rising rents and prices of their own homes. This is often resisted and can lead to conflicts between the lower class residences who understandably don't like being pushed out of their own homes and upper class residences who want their homes to be comfortable and convenient (And oh so fashionable! It’s a cycle. I could rant about for days…) I'm not sure if this was accidental or on purpose though so I don't want to put too much weight on this.

This event gives us another interesting look into Radchaai culture. The Radchaai live under a Dictatorship, with all authority under Anaander Mianaai; who is supposed to be perfect and just and never does anything wrong. As such voicing out loud that the government is being unjust is... Discouraged. Radchaai therefore protest things by voicing no such thing. The head priest for example simply sits out front of his temple and refuses to do any work whatsoever. This is a problem because Radchaai temples are where you register things like births, deaths, marriages and so on. Meanwhile a good number of normal citizens who are not upper or lower class have started their own protest of the Head Priest by standing in line. You see in the Radchaai empire you don't need to stand in line, you can call up your local government office set up an appointment or get anything you need hashed out with the Station AI directly. So why bother? Well, it makes a great form of protest against actions you are opposed to. Which shows us something, it doesn't matter how efficient and ruthless your security force is. It doesn't matter how constricting and hide-bound your society is: people will find ways to protest what they hate and people will find out why they're protesting. While station security panics a bit at this, Breq is smart enough to just allow both protests to continue and assign Lt. Tisarwat to finding a way around this. Let's discuss her now.

Lt. Tisarwat is a brand new officer who was assigned to Fleet Captain Breq's ship right before leaving for the Athoek system by Anaander Mianaai (it's amazing how much goes back to her isn't it?). The reason for this was simple: so the Lord of the Radchaai could have a presence in Athoek. Using ancillary implants Anaander Mianaai took the young officer, destroyed her personality and implanted her own into Lt. Tisarwat's body (Excuse me, I’ll be over here screaming in existential horror.). Breq figured this out and during the events of Ancillary Sword destroyed the Mianaai personality in turn. Leaving the body of Lt. Tisarwat alive but inhabited by someone who wasn't Lt. Tisarwat or Anaander Mianaai anymore. In Ancillary Mercy we get a closer look at just what that means. As you may remember kind readers, Anaander Mianaai is at war with herself; her personality is divided under the stress of having genocided an entire system and having been forced to make a treaty with the alien Presger forbidding further conquest. One side believes the Presger have infiltrated the Radchaai Empire to destroy it from within and that she was right to order the murder of every living man, woman, and child in a star system for the crime of resisting the Radchaai war machine too well. The other believes the Presger have done no such thing and it was a mistake to commit genocide. It was this later one who killed Lt. Tisarwat to hijack her body, Lt. Tisarwat was 17. What remains is a person who doesn't know who she is and is in need of great deal of help. The relationship between Tisarwat and Breq hovers on the parental, which makes sense because it's due to Breq's action that this new person even exists. Lt. Tisarwat also serves to remind us that even if one side of this civil war is kinder to Breq, in the end it's still a tyrant manic who thought that stretching her mind and personality across thousands of bodies and leading a campaign of conquest and destruction across of human space were perfectly reasonable and justified actions... On the basis that she wanted to. Anaander Mianaai, no matter which of her you speak to is someone who regards all human beings as mere tools to be used for her own ends. That's the problem when you declare yourself the final arbitrator of all that is just and good in the universe, what is just starts becoming whatever is most convenient for you.

To make matters worse, the other Anaander Mianaai is heading towards Athoek and this one has even less qualms then the one who murdered Lt. Tisarwat. This one regards Breq as her enemy and believes her to be an agent of the Presgar. This is complicated by the fact that a Presgar translator has shown up in Athoek. I've been dancing around this so let me address the Presgar briefly. The Presgar are an alien race of massive power and are, frankly, beyond our understanding. Before the treaty Presgar would, for lack of a better word, prey on humanity and its ships. Appearing without warning and disassembling whatever they got a hold of. Stations, cities, ships... People. The treaty, which the Presgar hold is with all humans because they don't understand the idea of political divisions it seems is a simple one. The Radchaai will not commit any more violence against other humans or other aliens. In return the Presgar recognize humanity as significant beings and therefore having the right to... Live. It's basically a ‘do what we tell you and we'll stop hunting you for sport’ kind of agreement. On the one hand, I'm not a huge fan but on the other if it keeps Mianaai contained and keeps aliens of immense power and unguessable motives from turning my internal organs into external wall decorations I suppose it's an acceptable sacrifice, as most of us like our insides staying that way. 

Breq has to figure out what the partly human, mostly alien translator is here for while dealing with an invasion of Radchaai ships that outnumber and outgun her led by an implacable immortal maniac out of for her blood. She also has to do this fast as the longer she waits the more likely that Mianaai is going to start killing people. Luckily she's made allies, she has tools and she's willing to go all in. This is her final confrontation with the enemy and whether or not she'll survive will depend on not just her skills but the skill of her crew, officers and the AI's she's befriended along the way.

Ancillary Mercy is a adventure story set in a political upheaval as Breq attempts to stand away from the major events of her time but finds them coming to her no matter what she does. There’s a fair amount of subtle social and political commentary of the type that science fiction is great at delivering by putting these events in far off, fictional alien cultures. It manages to deliver that commentary without raising the reader’s defensiveness. It also helps that Breq doesn't preach about the flaws in her society or go on long rants but instead simply exists in her society and doesn't pull back from it's flaws. She does attempt to fix what she can and limit the damage done when she can't but not in service to any political agenda beyond basic decency. Which I can appreciate. While it looks like this book is the end of Breq's story, Ms. Leckie leaves a lot of room for further stories set in this universe and I hope she continues to explore it. I'm giving Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie an A-. Give it a spin.

Next week we change gears a bit with the Bookburners, season I. Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Ancillary Sword By Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword
By Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie was born in 1962 and since then has lead an interesting life. She has by her own count been, a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a survey crew, and a recording engineer. She released her debut novel Ancillary Justice in 2013 while living with her husband and it received mass critical acclaim. I have reviewed the first novel and you can catch the link at the bottom of this review. She would follow up with two sequels (the first of which we are reviewing here) and additional works released in the same universe. She currently lives in St. Louis Missouri with her husband Dave and two children.

The most powerful human state in the galaxy is the Radchaai Empire. They come from a Dyson Sphere, led by the immortal and many bodied Anaander Mianaai, a single person who thousands of years ago decided to unify humanity under their rule. Anaander Mianaai is a single person spread across many minds through the use of technological implants, binding all those specially made bodies under a single personality and will. After unifying the peoples of the Dyson Sphere (because a Dyson Sphere is a big place, much, much bigger than Earth and look how many different cultures and peoples we have here) he led his fleets outward to annex planet after planet. To reduce the burden on his loyal citizens, he had the ancillaries created.

An ancillary is a cyborg human body with its personality destroyed and its mind linked to the AI of a military ship. In many ways it’s a high tech zombie. The person that used to be is dead and all that’s left is a body under the control of a foreign will and intelligence. Commanded by a small but capable citizen officer class, the ancillary armies and fleet of the Radchaai were unstoppable. Until they were stopped; halted by the intervention of a terrifying alien race who intervened in an indirect but unmistakable way by arming one of the planets that was being invaded by the Radchaai. The people of that system were utterly genocided by the order of Anaander Mianaai and a treaty that stopped the expansion was signed with the aliens. That decades-old genocide has had and is having consequences, however. Anaander Miannai has split themselves into two sides. One side believes that the genocide was a mistake and the treaty should be followed. The other side holds that they had every right to order the genocide and any action to limit or halt the expansion of the Radchaai (and therefore themselves) is an alien plot to destroy them. Breq, our main character, is one of those consequences and she is dealing with others throughout this book.

Breq was once One Esk, an ancillary (how is she an ancillary while maintaining an identity? The original personality is destroyed... {Justice of Toren had an identity and the Ancillaries are part of that identity}) on Justice of Toren, a massive troop ship that was destroyed in the opening moves of a civil war that Anaander Mianaai is fighting against themselves. In the last novel Breq was out to try and kill Anaander Mianaai, now she has a different mission. She’s been given a ship, Mercy of Kalr, and has been made a Fleet Captain (basically an admiral). She is heading for the Athoek system to try and make some effort at... Well I wouldn't call it redemption but perhaps restitution.

We often confuse the two in our society. This is partly because Christianity is so utterly a part of our cultural matrix that we tend to consider the two to be one in the same but they are honestly two different things. Redemption involves moving past the sin in question and becoming a better person who will not commit that sin anymore. Restitution involves trying to make amends or repayment for the sin or injury in question. You can redeem yourself without making restitution and make restitution without redemption. In Breq's case redemption is moot. The sin in question, the murder of a Lieutenant who was executed on the command of Anaander Mianaai for speaking up against an injustice, was not something she could have said no to. As an ancillary, she had no free will and as part of the Justice of Toren she could no more disobey the Lord of the Radchaai then I could fly just by standing in a field and wishing to. That doesn't mean Breq doesn't feel guilty or ashamed of those actions or that they feel that they are morally freed of responsibility for those same actions. Because of that, Breq is going to Athoek, where the younger sister of that Lieutenant is living in order to do whatever that sister asks of her to make whatever restitution she can.

Of course the universe isn't going to let Breq have it that easy. The unfolding civil war has led to a collapse in easy faster than light traffic leaving the system and Athoek very isolated. This means that in her capacity as a Fleet Captain, Breq will have to take steps to ensure the system's safety and continued good government. Assuming she can get the rest of the system government to agree with her idea of what good government is.  Which might be a struggle in and of itself.

In the last book we got a good introduction to basic Radchaai culture. Their language has no genders (everyone is referred to using the feminine pronouns) for example. They also have a somewhat sophisticated polytheistic religion which lends itself rather well to assimilating the gods and goddesses of other cultures (because they believe that gods are simply expressions of universal focuses and powers and thus can be be expressed in many different ways). Story telling wise this is actually a good move, as it moves the Radchaai away from the sensibilities of 21st century Americans and allows us to look at a society that’s something other than America in Space! Or Great Britain in Space! Which is another favorite of space opera writers. This makes the society itself a character in the story and in all honesty lets the writer examine themes and flaws within that society without getting to mired in contemporary baggage.

Breq herself is a great character to have, she’s deeply familiar with the customs, beliefs, and actions of the Radchaai but is herself an outsider. She is after all not entirely human as you or I would think of it; she’s the remaining splinter of a Ship AI housed in a human body. The story is told entirely through Breq's point of view but because of her cybernetic implants, she is able to see things through the eyes of her ship and the station orbiting the world of Athoek. This actually helps get around a lot of the problems of a single viewpoint character and is fairly clever.

In Ancillary Sword, which is focused entirely on a single system we are given a much closer look at Radchaai culture, it's assumptions and the actual facts on the ground. Let me give an example. The Radchaai tell themselves that there are no ethnic divisions within the empire. Once annexed and civilized (or stripped of your culture and having it replaced by one more acceptable to your Radchaai conquers) all divisions based on language, religion, gender, and race, simply fade away under the benevolent light of civilization; and make no mistake the Radchaai do believe themselves benevolent. In Athoek however, we can see that those statements don't quiet hold up and that Radchaai civilization doesn't grip as deep into the planet's soil as many would like to think. The dominant ethnic group, the Xhai have made themselves very comfortable under Radchaai rule by collaborating, because of that their religious festivals are celebrated openly, Xhai are represented at the top levels of the system government and they fully reap the many benefits of empire. Other native ethnic groups like the Ychana however, are exiled to the outer fringes of society unless they fully assimilate and become Radchaai and even then there are invisible barriers. The Radchaai have kept control by mostly working on assimilating the Xhai further into Radchaai society and clearing space for people of other ethnic groups who assimilate, while ignoring those who don't.

Of course these are only the problems that Breq has to deal with the on the surface, her ship is not the only military ship in the system. While she outranks Captain Hetnys, the good Captain has been in the system for a considerable amount of time and knows about the civil war as well, so there are open questions about whether he has picked a side, will he pick a side, and if so what will he do. What has he done already? Breq has to look into this while dealing with an entirely new ship and a mostly new crew and figuring out the intrigues and intricacies of the system. She will have to deal with crime, social injustices, and possible international incidents. The book gives us a good ground eye's view of what it means to live in the Radchaai empire, where there are many who do benefit but also a good number of people who are ground down by the system. We also see the many justifications the people on the top of the ladder use for why the people at the bottom, well, stay at the bottom. It's never that the system is rigged against them after all, it's always their own fault that they can't climb up (if you ask the people already at the top of course). But you should remember that the people at the bottom have their own ideas and while they may be denied education and resources, that doesn't always make a person stupid. Sometimes it just makes them angry.

The book series as a whole has been very adept in considering the costs and hypocrisies of empire, because the plain truth of human existence is that you cannot build an empire without taking advantage of someone or some group of people. In this book we get to see a microcosm of the Radchaai empire, how the lies that the Radchaai tell themselves feed into the social problems that they're experiencing and in some ways made the civil war that’s being fought mostly covertly inevitable. Even when your ruling class is more or less a single mind, when it gets big enough, disagreement is inevitable. While the civil war doesn't take up much space in the book, it lingers in the background driving various characters motivations and beliefs, causing conflict and action.

This isn't the first space opera to take the stance that empires and imperialism are bad or evil of course. Empires are a staple of this kind of science fiction, both as settings, and as antagonist/protagonist factions. Space opera stories are full of the fall of empires, glorious rebellions of freedom against empires, the rise of empires, and the glorious victories of empires over dastardly rebel scum. What Ms. Leckie does here is take a moment to look at what empire means. An empire is a single group of people establishing a single political and economic rule over many different groups of people and often dictates a certain set of behaviors, many of them exploitative and oppressive. It's also true that empires are often massively beneficial to a great many of its subjects creating united trade routes, bringing greater cultural and economic opportunities but those benefits come at a cost often paid for by the people at the bottom of the heap.

Ms. Leckie prevents this from becoming an anti-imperialist screed by making these things part and parcel of the story by having Breq be more concerned with the immediate tasks of making government work for everyone while making the system safe for the one person she came to be of service to. By simply having those elements sitting there and having her characters deal with them explicitly, she does a better job getting people thinking about this than any moral haranguing. Ms. Leckie doesn't beat you over the head with moral stances but rather lets you see the situations and problems that arise from the Radchaai’s relentless push to empire and the conflict between their stated beliefs and actions. I honestly really enjoyed this story, although it's easy to get lost if you haven't read Ancillary Justice so I am applying a penalty for that. Additionally the pace can get a little slow in the book as a number of side plots are dealt with, with the main plot all wrapping up at the end. Because of that I am giving Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie a B+. This is a good example of what modern space opera can be if it applies itself and it's a great example of rather good world building paired with interesting characters.

Next week, we finish the series! Join us for Ancillary Mercy, Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Review of Ancillary Justice can be read here:

Friday, April 13, 2018

Warp World IV: Final Storm By Joshua Simpson and Kristene Perron

Warp World IV: Final Storm
By Joshua Simpson and Kristene Perron

“My name is Amadahy Kalder and I came to this world to stop Slavers.” Ama page 440 

Just like last week, a disclaimer. I've been friends with Joshua Simpson for over a decade now, we met online after I came back from Iraq. We've played games together, screamed at each other over politics and swapped stories. He's a good friend. Like I said last week, while everything I give you is my honest opinion on the story, I feel it would be dishonest not to tell my readers when a prior relationship exists. So with that in mind, let's start the review (The same disclaimer goes for me, the editor, dear readers. Any worries you may have about Frigid’s objectivity however may be allayed, as I am more likely to give my friends fantastic amounts of shit, and have higher expectations of them then I do the average prole.).

Joshua Simpson is a native of Texas who has a colorful life behind him and that's just talking about the jobs he had. Over the course of his life he’s been a garbage man, nuclear power plant safety inspector, professional truck driver; and now writes books as well has performs pain release therapy. Which, from what I can tell is a fancy way of saying he inflicts pain on you with his bare hands and that somehow makes you feel better (That’s basically it. He treats nerve adhesions, which is is when scar tissue and the like from injuries or surgery obstructs the movement of and irritated nerve fibers. Physiotherapy for this is basically extremely painful deep tissue massage.). Kristene isn’t any less colorful; she’s a former stunt woman for film and television and she has lived in Costa Rica, Japan, and the Cook islands as well as other places. Her written works have appeared in a number of magazines and she was awarded the Surrey International Writers Conference Award in 2010. Today she lives in her native Canada with her husband.

Final Storm is their fourth book in a five book series. I've reviewed the other 3 (links at the bottom of the review) over the time of this review series and it's been a hell of a ride. Let me recap. Seg Eraranat is a cultural theorist. He’s trained to study foreign cultures, infiltrate them, determine their weak points and lead raiding teams on them to gather slaves (Woah! This is definitely applied cultural theory…) and vita for his culture, which refers to itself as the People (proving that creativity is a rare virtue as that's a common name used by tribal cultures everywhere [But Josh gets points for accuracy. In this context it has another meaning, as seemingly they don’t treat other cultures like..well...people!]). The slaves are used for labor and entertainment, vita is a... Well magical energy generated by belief and mass emotion. Over the course of three books, we seen Seg claw his way up from junior officer to warlord of a major organization that he personally built brick by scheming brick. Seg is cold, logical and ruthless because the People of his birth would have murdered him in his sleep if he was anything else (or maybe not like people…You know, it strikes me that a non-sociopath who has to do sociopath things is probably going to be a traumatized and broken person.), but we'll get back to him. The People have developed into a parasitical culture that only survives by raiding the unaware; the reason they have developed into a such a culture is the Storm. The Storm is a massive paranormal phenomenon that in some ways behaves as it namesake but it doesn't bring water and wind. The Storm brings death, sucking the life out of anything it touches. It has turned the world of the People into a wasteland incapable of supporting more than the barest scraps of life. It has afflicted the world of the People for generations untold to the point that the World (because of course the People can't think of any other name for it) before the Storm isn't even mythology anymore, although that frankly has more to do with what the People have turned themselves into. The People sustain themselves by the theft of lives and Vita, the vita goes to power the shields that protect their cities and the gates that allow them access to other worlds, that they may raid again. They force slaves to do all the labors that they find to dangerous, dirty, or deary to do themselves. The culture of the People has been drained of anything I would consider a redeeming value, as the men and women who made up that culture have embraced decadence and made virtues of being the kind of monsters who attack the unsuspecting to destroy their holy places and enslave their children. That said, the People having been running on borrowed time for generations and are about to learn one of the constants of the universe. All debts come due and must be paid, one way or another.

Seg has struggled throughout three books to try and create something redeeming, to forge a better way for his people even in the face of massive resistance. However he learned in the last book that there was no point in it, as he found another world that had been inflicted with the Storm. A world that had died completely. With this evidence in front of him, Seg realized there was simply no point in trying to reform his society. It was doomed, so instead Seg turned all his energies to escape (Damn. I would have descended into nihilistic ennui at that point and probably offed myself. Good for Seg!). He's going to get his people off the World and he's going to take as many of the victims of the People with him as he can. He faces enemies without in the form of the CWA (the institution that opposes the Cultural Theorist Guild that educated Seg in the first place) and enemies within, in the form of spies and traitors. At least he and Ama are reunited.

Amadahy Kalder, known as Ama for short, is not a member of the People. She's a Kenda, a racial group from another world that was raided by the People in the first book. Ironically, Seg was the point of the spear in that raid and they formed a relationship that led to Seg creating a temporary alliance with the Kenda because they were an oppressed people. Ama is also not a typical human, seeing as she’s developed gills. This is a huge cultural deal for the other Kenda in Seg's group. He recruited a number of Kenda to serve has his private armsmen. In fact we learn that there are a lot of variations on the human form across the multi-verse that the People stalk through. Which is interesting in and of itself. I would love to see more stories simply touring the wonders and horrors of this multi-verse. Mr. Simpson and Mrs. Perron, through hints and meeting various individuals through these stories, have created a multi-verse that is diverse and interesting. Amadahy has gone through a number of changes herself throughout this book series, including becoming the first person in recorded history to be taken by the Storm and returned. Because of that she has been granted powers and understanding beyond human ken, she has also been cursed with a hunger for Vita that makes her a danger to others if she cannot learn to control herself.

This is the most military of the books, and in a lot of ways it serves as the climax of Seg and Ama's story arc as they move ever closer to their final confrontation with the corrupt and venal edifices that govern the World. While Seg has decided the only worthwhile goal is to escape and save whatever he can, Ama hasn't given up on tearing everything down before she goes (Oh I like her…). This actually tells us a bit about Ama's character. While it's easy to think of her as the nice one in the pair, I have to point out that upon hearing that the People who have lived in terror of being drained by the storm their whole lives are going to be destroyed, she's the one who decides their ultimate demise is not enough. She has to personally tear down and ruin their awful society before she goes.

She might be the one more prone to act of kindness but you still don't want to get on her bad side. Ama spends a lot of this book trying to grapple with the changes the Storm made to her, both good and bad. While the Storm healed the damage that the People did to her body, it also made her something not all together human, and because of that she is finding herself the focus of supernatural belief amongst Seg's people. While a minority believe her to be some kind of demon, many more believe her to be some kind of Divinity, sent by the God of the Kenda to bring justice and deliverance. This creates some internal conflict as Ama does not believe herself to be anything close to Divine. Ama and Seg spend a lot of time together in this book, which I enjoy since they've been split apart for at least a book and a half. Their relationship is a actually a very healthy one, created by the fact that they talk things out and are very clear about their expectations and why they are doing the things that they are. This is supported by the fact that they have learned to trust one another, so when one of them says this is something that they’ve got to do, the other backs them to the hilt. Neither one of them plays second fiddle to the other mind you but they do learn to work together and make their goals complimentary. It's a great relationship and it's the kind we need to see more of in fiction.

Other characters show back up to grace the pages, the charming rogue Viren (who remains a favorite of mine) finds himself saddled with the one thing he’s always managed to avoid: responsibility. Seg makes him the commander of his army. We don't get to spend a lot of time with Viren but I enjoy every moment. Shan the cranky but gifted pilot returns as well, and continues her own character arc. I like how Shan has moved away from a typical member of the People and grown as a person without changing her fundamental personality. She may see individuals who aren't members of the People as people now but she’s still as full of social grace as an annoyed rhino. The fact that she's paired with Viren is kinda amusing, most writers wouldn't be able to make a pairing of such opposite personalities work but Mr. Simpson and Ms. Perron manage it with some flair. The ever loyal Mantu is here as well (although he doesn't get a lot of character work). Also with us is Gelsh, who was introduced in the last book as an escaped slave who was kidnapped from his world by the People. He's not only dealing with that, but adjusting to the fact that Ama is with Seg romantically (Ama had lost her memories last book and started a relationship with him before remembering [Ouch. That’s gotta hurt]). In addition to that, he’s dealing with all the changes being wrought on his society by Seg and Ama not the least of which is a new element of hope.

But Seg and Ama aren't the only people with plans. Within the Guild of Cultural Theorists, in the halls of the CWA, in the lower decks of Seg's own fortress, schemes and plots are all being hatched with conflicting goals and objectives. This is another element of the book that I enjoy: watching everyone craft their schemes, carefully set up their plots and set events into motion... Only for the last 150 pages to be a example of everything spinning out of control as all the plots and schemes slam into each other at high speed and start piling up. Our authors actually do a good show of what combat would be like as no plan survives enemy action and everyone is left doing frantic improvisation to achieve their goals. Ama and Seg have an advantage here as chaos is inherently helpful to them since among their goals is to wreck this entire loathsome den of evil and piss on the ashes on our way out but, that's balanced by the fact that their enemies are shown to be somewhat intelligent and capable of using their greater resource base to good effect. The fact that their enemies land real blows and cause real loses helps make the struggle seem more real and gives the victories that are achieved more weight. A number of those blows are also landed by random chance, not out of nowhere mind you but by factors that have nothing to do with the main plot, reminding us that Ama and Seg operate in a world that isn't strictly about them.

There's also a lot going on in this book and if you haven't read the past 3 books, you are going to be completely lost as to what’s going on. I would call this a self contained episode but one in a ongoing series that draws heavily on what happened before. Thus I would strongly advise starting at book I. Even if you have read the last couple of books, you're going to be finding yourself a little dizzy from the sheer speed. Although Mr. Simpon and Ms. Perron do try to put in some slow moments to let you catch your breath, this book has a lot of ground to cover and only so many pages to do it in. This is a hazard of having more than one viewpoint in your story. It lets you explore your world and your story more deeply but it also means that each character and story line has less total time to be focused on. For example Gelsh's issues kinda get pushed to the background; which is fair because we have a lot more important stuff to cover but we really don't see a point where he accepts Ama's relationship with Seg or comes to any decisions about Seg (Maybe he never actually does? Poor schlub.). This book also ends with the ever-dreaded cliff hanger and I have no idea when book V is coming out. So I am docking points for that. Still this was a great read and was a book that had a lot of payoffs if you are a fan of the series itself. For the record I do recommend getting the entire series (the first book is completely free in electronic format! You have no excuse! I'm only mostly kidding here.). That said I am giving Warp World Final Storm a B+. It would have hit an A- if not for the bloody cliffhanger.

See the other reviews here:

Next week, we move forward on another series with Ancillary Sword! Keep reading!