Friday, November 17, 2017

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates By Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates
By Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Rat Queens 4: High Fantasies By Kurtis Wiebe Art by Owen Gieni

  Rat Queens 4: High Fantasies
By Kurtis Wiebe
Art by Owen Gieni

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Witch who came in from the Cold Created by Lindsay Smith and Max Gladstone Also written by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Michael Swanwick and Ian Tregillis

The Witch who came in from the Cold
Created by Lindsay Smith and Max Gladstone
Also written by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Michael Swanwick and Ian Tregillis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 27, 2017

Stoneskin by KB Spangler

By KB Spangler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Shadow of What Was Lost By James Islington

The Shadow of What Was Lost
By James Islington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

Keeping It Real
by Justina Robson

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

Right, let's start with our author; Justina Robson was born in Leeds England in the year 1968 AD. She studied philosophy and linguistics at the University of York. In her own words it took seven years of working as a secretary and over 2 million words before she finally published her first novel. Her first published work was in the small press magazine The Alternative in 1994, with her first novel, Silver Screen following in 1999. It was well received and nominated for the Arthur C Clarke award and the BSFA award in 2000. Since then she has published a number of novels and short stories. When she started the Quantum Gravity series, she had 3 novels under her belt and a number of short stories. The first book Keeping it Real was published in 2006, it is the first in a 5 book series. The Quantum Gravity was recommended to me as 'you should try this it's like Shadowrun but...' so let's dive in, shall we?
The background to the Quantum Gravity series goes as such. In the year 2015 AD, there was an explosion in the superconducting supercollider in Texas (if you're saying to yourself. wait there's no such thing in Texas, you're right! In our world it was canceled in 1993 because we are not allowed nice things{An eternal pox be upon congress and all their vile works}). This explosion caused a hole in space-time because quantum. This hole in spacetime caused a number of things to happen backwards and forwards in time (Are there angels what weep? Is Steven Weinberg’s office a TARDIS now?) and odd things resulted. Fast forward to the present year of our story and people refer to Earth as Otopia for some reason (It means ‘local’ in greek) and are aware of five other “realms” of existence and in contact with 4 of them. The first one is Zoomenon, the realm of elementals, where every element on the periodic table is present in abundance but the place is incredibly hostile to human life. The Elementals appear to humans as personifications of Earth, Wind, Water, Fire and Wood (Wait wait… it is both the periodic table of elements Elemental Chaos and D&D style Elemental Chaos?  Is there a Fluorine Chemistry elemental whose special ability to is steal ALL the electrons and then violently explode?). The second is Alfheim, which many of you will have likely guess means elves and the snobbiest elves of course. While Alfheim has diplomatic relations with Otopia, it has otherwise closed its borders firmly shut and tried to keep its people in and everyone else out. It's a Eden like place otherwise, since human technology for the most part doesn't work there's been no industrialization. Instead of technology the elves have magic, which I'll get to a bit. The 3rd realm is Demonia, which is the home of the Demons. Demons are of course much more welcoming of humans than Elves but you do travel at your own risk. That said Demon scientists have been very eager to share information (*sings to tune of Flash Gordon* FAUST!  WOOAAAAAH!  He’s doomed ev’ry of us!) Next up is Faery, home to well... Faeries. Faery has been extremely welcoming and even adopted human bureaucracy, issuing tourist visas and passports and what have you. The last realm is one no human can really discuss, Thanatopia is the realm of the dead and with the exception of necromancers, you have to die to get there. No one comes from Thanatopia and only necromancers visit and come back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.