Sunday, March 18, 2018



So welcome to the reopening of our sidebar! These will be posts, most likely slapped up on Sunday that aren't book reviews but will be discussing things that are book related. Like specific concepts (say suspension of disbelieve, or consistent characterization) or whatever else I think is worth comment on this review series. These won't happen every week but whenever I feel there's a topic worth conservation and I hope you will join readers. Our upcoming sidebar will be Snow Crash VS Ready Player One!
I had been planing on reviewing Snow Crash for over a year now. It's a grand novel and one of those things I would encourage fans of cyber punk, science fiction or general fiction fans to try out. Ready Player One wasn't something I was planning on reviewing, even with the movie. Until I saw an article where the writer was claiming that Ready Player One was a rip off of Snow Crash, which given what I knew of both plots... Seemed a damn odd claim.

Then on Reddit and other internet places where folks discuss and compare books, RP1 and Snow Crash kept getting throw together. Which was odd to me. So I decided I would look into it. So next week Sunday, after I have posted the book review. I'll be posting it as if it was a book review but if the subject doesn't interest you feel free to skip it.

That said, here's my view going in. I don't see RP1 or Snow Crash has having much in common beyond Virtual Reality Internet. While Snow Crash certainly comes first in that regard, I don't think every work that uses Virtual Reality Internet is a rip off of it. Maybe I'm missing something, do you think so? Please feel free to chime in the comments, twitter or elsewhere. Tell me what you think readers and next week, tell me if I changed your mind.

Keep Reading. Your reviewer.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Snow Crash By Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash
By Neal Stephenson​

"Wait a minute, Juanita. Make up your mind. This Snow Crash thing—is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?"
Juanita shrugs. "What's the difference?"
Hiro and Juanita, Chapter 26​

A meme is a behavior, idea or style that spreads from person to person, it is the unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices. They can be transmitted through any means of communication: speech, writing, music, images, even gestures can be used to transmit a meme or become a meme. Some supporters of the idea often compare memes to genes, in that they replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. That's not the book we're reviewing today, instead we're reviewing another book that tackles memes and did so before the phrase Dank Meme broached from the dark depths of the internet. Snow Crash, approaches the idea of memes in a very related but very different way, instead of comparing memes to genes. Mr. Stephenson in Snow Crash instead compares memes to viruses.

Neal Stephenson was born October 31, 1959 in Fort Meade Maryland to a family of engineers and scientists. His family would move to Iowa afterwards where he graduated high school. He then returned to the east coast to study at Boston University. He started out as a physics student but switched to geography upon realizing that would give him more time on the university mainframe. In his first couple of books, he sharpened his skills for satire, parody, and tense action. Snow Crash, which was released in 1992, was his big break grabbing him a lot of attention, and was nominated for the British Scenic Fiction Award and the Arthur C Clarke award, Time magazine would place it on the 100 best English Language Novels.

Snow Crash takes place in an early 21st century LA where economic collapse has all but killed the United States. The land of the nation has been divided into patches of privately owned gated communities, such as New South Africa, Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong and more. Each of these enclaves have their own legal codes, enforced by hired mercenary security forces and are linked by privately owned highways that compete for traffic (Editor: So… Ancap heaven? Hell for me I suppose, but at least all the ancaps agree that child sex-slaves are bad…That is not necessarily a foregone conclusion.). Even the mail is privatized. Everything is delivered by hired couriers. Even national defense and intelligence services are done by private corporations with the federal government broken into a few struggling enclaves that are increasingly irrelevant to the society around them. Even organizations like the Mafia and the South American Cartels have become corporations that operate in broad daylight, with the Mob and the Cartels often taking their competition to the level of open urban warfare. We also learn that while North America has degraded into anarcho-capitalist chaos a lot of the world is even worse because refugees from Asia come across the Pacific in their hundreds of thousands by the Raft. The Raft is a massive conglomeration of ships tied together propelled by the tide and wind of the ocean with the aircraft carrier Enterprise at the center (What. The. Fuck?). Every couple of years in a cycle the Raft unleashes a tide of refugees who survived the violent lawlessness of the Raft by being the fastest, strongest and most ruthless of the people trapped on the Raft (Cannibalism! Fun for the whole family!) onto the beaches of the west coast. The good people of the west coast react in a number of way and surprisingly only some of them involve machine guns!

Within this manic chaos live and work our characters: the freelance hacker and master sword fighter Hiro Protagonist and the 15 year old skateboarding radical courier, Y.T (standing for Yours Truly). Neither of these two were born with those names. Hiro, the half black, half Korean son of a WWII vet, adopted the name because, let's be honest, you're never forgetting that name are you? Not being forgettable is rather important when you're a freelancer. Hiro does most of his work in the Metaverse, a Virtual Reality style internet that people interact with through the creation of avatars. Hiro was one of the early coders of the Metaverse, he helped write the software that keeps it running and as such he knows a number of little exploits that allow him certain advantages. In real life Hiro isn’t bad with the matched pair of Japanese swords he wears, a traditional daisho of katana and wakizashi. But in the Metaverse? He's the best damn sword fighter in the world, because he wrote the code that allows for sword fighting in the first place (Dev Hax!). Y.T changed her name to keep her mother, a federal worker, from figuring out that she skateboards on freeways using a magnetic harpoon to latch onto cars to go faster as she delivers packages for a living, and because she thought it was cool. That second part is as anyone with experience with teenagers will tell you is the main reason. Despite her age, she is one of the best couriers in LA and incredibly skilled at taking care of herself and others. When she feels like it. Hiro and Y.T are partners in intelligence gathering and they are both separately and together pulled into a massive plot to destroy the world and rebuild it in someone else's image. This is where the meme's come into play you see.

There's a new drug on the street that shares a name with a virus appearing in the metaverse. Snow Crash, when used in the metaverse it disconnects the target from not just his computer but attacks him through his mind. It only affects programmers, attacking them through their understanding of binary. In the real world, the drug snow crash causes people to increasingly disconnect from reality, behave irrationally and increasingly experience bouts of glossolalia, or as most of us likely know it as speaking in tongues (Dang it! It’s a virus and not lovecraftian? Someone call Charles Stross.). The two are clearly related but how? Additionally how does this tie in to the reappearance of Hiro's ex-girlfriend and love of his life Juanita and her obsession with the language and religion of ancient Sumeria? (That’s more like it! Bring on the lovecraftian nightmares!) Hiro finds himself digging through the collected research of a professor who had been working on a theory about how Sumeria; the fact the humans speak many different languages; and religious expression throughout history, are all connected and can be used as an instrument of control. Mr. Stephanson also leaps into languages, in specific the discussion of not just why do we have a bunch of different languages but why do languages tend to diverge over time instead of converge? (Because language evolves by a process very similar to natural selection and isolation creates change?) Now this may seem strange because these days we live in a period of massive language convergence, which is due to the ease of global travel and communication. Not only are many languages disappearing under the onslaught of mass media, global trade and cultural assimilation but the languages that remain strong tend to pick up words from each other. You can see this by the appearance of English words in Japanese for example. The existence of English itself is a massive example of this, as it started as the unwieldy fusion of the French Normans and the Germanic language of the Anglo Saxons. Mr. Stephenson uses the idea of the Tower of Babel and in doing so also creates a bit of alternative history to go along with his Cyberpunk, which is a pretty good mix overall.

Meanwhile Y.T finds herself increasingly connected with the Mafia and the plans of Uncle Enzo the leader of the Mob in America to find the source of the Snow Crash drug in the real world and end it before it becomes a danger to the Mob's business plan (yes, this is a story where the mob saves the world, because it's good for business). It's through this that we see the Mob's own understanding of meme's which is rather rough and ready and how they see them as something to resist. Their belief is that they can resist ideology and through it the transmission of harmful memes by eschewing ideology all together and instead instituting a system of personal relationships and promises to substitute for policies and belief systems (So… neo-feudalism?). This is however subtly shown as failing because that idea itself is an ideology and therefore a meme. This is shown by the dissatisfaction of the elders of the Mob with the middle management that is coming up the ladder behind them. Often complaining that the youths and managers they've trained to look over the vast corporate empire that the Mob has built lack flexibility and a certain hungry desire. Instead they stick to the traditions laid down for them and operate by the procedures outlined for them. As always I find these complaints by elders very ironic since my reply to elders complaining about the youth is pretty much always the same. They are what you made them to be. If they have been made into something you didn't want, maybe you should start asking yourself just what you've been doing this whole time. Y.T on the other hand gains the approval of the Mob by rejecting the structures of it and the ideas underlying their organization. She's a very self sufficient young woman, who refuses to be to closely identified with a group, even her own couriers group. This is displayed by her relationship with Hiro, where she works outside the normal role of a courier by also dabbling in information gathering, and her willingness to ignore basically any rule she doesn't care for. Granted in this version of the future there aren't too many rules left to ignore.

The book shines mostly in its character work, the characters are well defined and in many cases larger than life. Hiro is an incredibly American character, being a half Black, half Korean man who is utterly obsessed with Japanese ideas and cultures but doesn't have the firmest grasp of what they actually mean. Meanwhile Y.T herself displays a cocky self-assurance through most of the book that masks the fact that she's not even old enough to drive and isn't really thinking everything through. Which I think most people would also consider rather American. They're supported by characters that don't take the center stage but are still powerful characters in their own right. Uncle Enzo would easily be an interesting protagonist for example, as would Juanita. The antagonist are suitably terrifying, especially the Aleut Raven, who would also be very able to serve as a centerpiece for a story. Mr. Stephenson also shows a great talent for humor and dancing between the line of parody and seriousness. Snow Crash parodies a great number of the ideas of cyberpunk and the common elements that appear in those stories by taking them to their ridiculous end point. At the same time there's enough realism mixed in and enough seriousness that you don't feel that Mr. Stephenson is trying to be hateful towards the genre but instead inviting everyone to take a step back and have a chuckle at just how silly some of this stuff can be when you look at it in the right way. The book itself takes a good hard look at memes especially those communicated through religion, which even today is one of the most effective memes and vector for their transmission, and how that can be a tool for good or evil. Meme's can promote independence, rational thought, and freedom of expression... Or they can promote mindless obedience, self destructive behavior, and willing enslavement of yourself to people who view you as a resource to be expended. That is always something you need to keep in mind. In the end, even the dankest of memes is nothing more than a tool.

The book's not perfect, Mr. Stephenson does get some historical facts wrong and also makes a big deal about the disappearance of the Sumerian language. While there's still some debate about it, most folks think it might have had something to do with the conquest of Sumner by the Akkadians, who were the first guys in human history to build an out and out empire. With that conquest Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian and while it lingered much the same way Latin does today, eventually it was replaced by other languages. Another note is the fact that Pentecostal Christianity didn't start in Kansas, the idea of speaking in tongues did but it wasn't codified as a part of worship until the Pentecostal churches got started... In L.A. I don't think this detracts from the book that much although I am enough of picky nerd to point it out in the review. Still I can forgive a science fiction writer for playing a little fast and loose with history in order to tell one hell of an inventive story that encourages you think a bit on things. That said, I love this book. It shows just what you can accomplish with science fiction and Cyberpunk in general and the fact that you can look at these serious and heavy themes but still have the space and time to have a good laugh. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson gets an A from me.

Next week, we get a little more modern with Ready Player One. Keep reading.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Mice Templar Vol I By Bryan JL Glass and Michael Avon Oeming

Mice Templar
By Bryan JL Glass and  Michael Avon Oeming
Art by Michael Avon Oeming

Byran Glass was raised with two siblings in a Philadelphia neighborhood known as Fishtown.  Originally he wanted to pursue a career in filmmaking but was pulled into the world of comics instead;  first by providing photo covers for various comics and becoming a writer in the early 90s.  While he did work for the big two (Marvel and DC) he kept returning to independent comics.  His most famous work is likely the comic series Powers, on which he worked alongside Michael Avon Oeming. This wasn't the first time they worked together but it was the most famous one.  Powers would win several awards and become a television series. Today he lives with his wife Judy in Pennsylvania. He first started work on Mice Templar in 2003 when Michael Avon Oeming brought him on board to help flesh out the story and concepts.   Michael Oeming got started in comics when he was 14, starting as an inker and it was as an inker on Daredevil that he got his big break. Afterwards he would work on a number of titles both for DC and Marvel as well as Indie comics but his work on Powers that gave him the influence to try out an idea.  Inspired  by the secret of N.I.M.H and Watership down (although ironically he never read a single Redwall book) he wanted to try telling a mythic fantasy story using mice.  The first volume of Mice Templar was published in 2009 by Image comics after years of toil.  It would go on to win a Harvey award, named after Harvey Kurtzman and founded in 1988 to take over the Kirby awards which were discontinued in 1987.  So let's take a look at volume I.

Once upon a time, in the Dark Lands, the night time dwelling of mice, a warrior priest named Kulh-en rose up to unite the mouse tribes and founded a warrior order to protect mice and other creatures from the many, many predators that hunted them (Editor who studies predation: rodents, the potato chips of terrestrial ecosystems like ducklings are marsh pringles).  They were called the Mice Templar.  Like all mortal creatures Kulh-en died, but the order he created endured.  It was tested and triumphed but triumph brings its own tests.  The doom of the Mice Templar came not from it's many external enemies but from within.  Greed, disunity and the politics those things bred led to a civil war within the order, where Templar fought Templar and the order was shattered.  With the fall of the order, came the fall of Mouse Society, now each city and village turns away from each other and the ties that held mousekind together fray in the face of corruption and cruelty.  Faith in their god Wotan is falling and in its place rises a new religion worshiping the very creatures that devour them, led by an order of rat Druids who have allied themselves with the last Mouse King.  A king whose lust for power has driven him mad. It's in this world that our main character Karic was born and raised.  Now a young mouse on the verge of adulthood, he is pushed into the center of events that he doesn't really understand when an army of Rats attack and destroys his village and takes his family into slavery.  Karic is driven by visions granted to him by Wotan and other ancient gods and the belief that he is being called to carry out a purpose.  A purpose that no one else understands and that most of them don't believe in.  Whether it be the mouse who trains him Pilot the tall, the very priesthood of Wotan or the ragged remains of the Templar order, still lingering over their self inflicted wounds.

Nor is Karic the only figure in this story.  His family has been dragged away to slavery or even worst fates in the one-time capital of the Mouse Nation, among them his best friend Leito.  Like Karic, Leito is carried forward by his fate in Wotan, but unlike Karic Leito doesn't have mystic visions to sustain that faith.  In a lot of ways, I'm finding Leito to be the braver character, and one I can understand better.  That said Karic isn't hard to grasp.  He, like a number of characters I could point to in the Bible or other stories, is filled with self doubt over his suitability to serve as vessel for his god's will.  Meanwhile is pulled in different directions by competing factions who either see his faith as something to use for their own profit or a symbol to rally people to their own ends.   Karic has to struggle to become a Templar in order to achieve the purpose laid upon him and free his people.  While Leito has to struggle to maintain his faith and the faith of those around them, to keep them from turning on each other if nothing else.  Both these struggles are small pieces of larger battles around them, many of which were started before either of these mice were even born and are propelled by forces that will be present when both of them are laid down to rest.  This really helps make the whole thing seem more real.  While Karic and Leito both provide a face to what is happening to their society as a whole, it remains clear that their own struggles are symptoms of greater problems and overcoming those personal issues is really just the beginning for both of them.  While this is their story so far, there are a large number of other characters, such as the Rat Captain Tosk, the Templar Cassius and others.  While well done, these characters are clearly players in Karic and Leito's story.

The world of Mice Templar is drenched in deep myth, like Black Anais the witch, to the tales of the wars between bats and owls, even the existence of night and day take on mystic significance.  The world and the story blend together elements from Arthurian myth, the Old Testament, and Norse myths to create something new but solid feeling.  So I have to state that I think Mr. Glass and Mr. Oeming have done a fine job of world building and making characters to inhabit the world they made and to tell a story of faith and struggle.  There were parts I found somewhat questionable, for example I'm not entirely sure what Pilot the Tall thought he was going to accomplish and Cassius doesn't seem to have a lot of self control. Additionally the book ends just short of what I could call a complete story, which knocks it down a notch in my view. That said, I'm interested and hoping to get to Volume II soon.  I have to admit that when I picked up the book, I thought I would be looking at a copycat of the comic Mouse Guard but this book is a completely different story on many levels. It's more mythic and tied up in themes of faith and belief.  The core of this story is the struggle of faith in trying time. I give Mice Templar by Bryan Glass and Michael Oeming a B+.  Give it a try.

Next week, we return to Cyberpunk with Snowcrash and then I venture forth to Ready Player One.  Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Altered Carbon (netflix series) created by Laeta Kalogridis

Altered Carbon (netflix series)
created by Laeta Kalogridis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 23, 2018

Altered Carbon By Richard K Morgan

Altered Carbon
By Richard K Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein

Daughter of the Sword
by Steve Bein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Priestess and the Dragon By Nicolette Andrews

The Priestess and the Dragon
By Nicolette Andrews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.