Friday, December 14, 2018

The North Valley Grimoire By Blake Northcott

The North Valley Grimoire 

By Blake Northcott


It's time for the last review of the year! We've made a concentrated effort this year to bring you titles by independent authors and will likely continue to do so next year. In that spirit, I thought we should end the year with an independently published book and you don't get more independent than a book that was funded via Kickstarter. Let's begin with our author Ms. Blake Northcott. Ms. Northcott was born in Bramalea, Ontario Canada, to a Canadian mother and Slovakian father (as a result she is also is a citizen of Slovakia). She started writing early with work appearing in Seventeen Magazine when she was eleven and winning several local contests at thirteen. She would also live a semester in Japan, learning Japanese and some Spanish; and would also become fluent in French (Shocking for a Canadian! Shocking!). She returned to Canada to finish high school and graduate from McMaster University with a degree in English. Ms. Northcott's first novel was written in 2009; called VS Reality it was originally a script for a fourteen issue comic book series. When funding fell through, she self-published it on Amazon in 2011. It would end up topping the best selling list on Amazon UK in two categories. In 2014 she took a job with the comic company Millarworld (which published KickAss, Wanted and Kingsmen among others) as an editorial writer. She also launched the Arena Mode Saga, which ended up being the most-funded science fiction series on Kickstarter. After that, she started writing for Aspen comics and Dynamite comics in addition to writing more novels (...Okay, she is disgustingly prolific.). In 2018 she would go to Kickstarter one more time for her latest book, The North Valley Grimoire because in her own words, she didn't want to compromise the story. So how does this story hold up? Let's take a look.

Calista Scott isn't having the greatest senior year at the exclusive private Hawthorne Academy, where the children of the wealthy and powerful of the North Valley of Virginia come to learn and network. Of course, Calista isn't one of the children of the wealthy and powerful. Her Mother was a federal civil servant (given how close you are to D.C and the Pentagon there are a lot of civil servants in the area), her father divorced her Mother when Calista was very young so she has few if any memories of him. I say ‘was a federal worker’ because Calista's mother was arrested for terrorism and buried in a deep, dark federal prison, without a trial. If this seems odd to you that a federal servant could be arrested on US soil without a trail, well the story does address that fairly well. This led to Calista's popular friends dropping her like a hot potato and leaving her incredibly socially isolated except for two friends. The first is Kaz Hayashi, the son of two doctors who are constantly pushing him to study harder despite the fact that what he really wants is to take a crack at the pro-gamer circuit. There's also Jackson, a young man whose star is on the rise. The star quarterback of the Hawthorne Academy Krakens, Jackson was looking at his choice of colleges when he graduates; so when his family is found dead and their house burnt down... It's a bit of gut punch for everyone, including Calista. However, Jackson may be dead and gone but he left something behind for Calista that may offer her a chance to radically change the course of her life for the better. If it doesn't kill her first of course.

Jackson had a secret before he died he learned how to fiddle with the elemental powers of the universe through the use of words and symbols and he used that to leave Calista a message. This leads her into a hidden world of secrets, spells, murder, and government conspiracy because let's be honest, the governments of the world wouldn't be blind to this despite the best efforts of the people involved. The newly minted FATHER division of the CIA has one mission: to hunt down magic users and drag them into government custody, no matter who kicks and screams (Oh look, the CIA doing what the CIA does best! Morally questionable snatch and grabs followed, I assume, by human rights abuses! Huzzah!).. What brings them to the north valley (besides the massive government industrial complex within a stone’s throw) is a killer who literally drains the life out of his victims with a touch. So far, the feds have managed to cover up the truth of the killings but not only is there the constant threat of the killer becoming more dangerous but the cover-up could be torn through at any moment as the number of eyes that have seen this crime spree is increasing at a rapid pace. Another issue that is plaguing our not-so-friendly neighborhood spooks is the fact that magic itself is becoming more common and easier to use and access. To the point that some people are casting magic spells by accident. FATHER does it's best to disappear as many of those who do that it can get its grubby government funded paws on. They do this through the use of magical agents of their own and the use of magical technology, that they refer to techno-alchemy. Techno-alchemy was the creation of a single man, one Nolan Fox. Mr. Fox, however, burned his notes, stole a number of things from the government and disappeared.

I gotta admit the cover-up was the most questionable thing for me. Not that it exists, but because Ms. Northcott has made a magic system that is insanely dangerous to the practitioner and bystanders. I mean in this book alone we have someone roaming around using magic to kill people with a simple touch! This isn't a complex ritual this person is doing either, the killer is simply walking into convenience stores, robbing them and killing people by touching them. Consider how much American society fights over the ownership of firearms, and now ask yourself the massive debate over the power to burn people alive with a word, turn yourself superhumanly strong, or be able to carry a lethal weapon simply by tattooing yourself with the right symbol. How comfortable are you sending your kid to school, knowing the school bully might be able to stab them to death with their mind? How comfortable are you with a world where companies can force customer loyalty by using the right branding? Where that unfortunate man muttering to himself and tearing away at his skin on the bus is actually tracing the outline of a murder everyone spell? Or where the government can read your thoughts? On the flip side, how do you prevent this information from becoming public if people can do this by accident? How long before something explodes on the evening news that can't be handwaved away or someone too famous or powerful to disappear starts using magic?  (Honestly, these sorts of cover-ups are always implausible, but they become even more so when everyone has a smart phone and the internet. Some kid is going to youtube himself throwing fireball and it’s gonna be over…{Because there are no videos of people doing “magic” on youtube right now, it happens but at the moment most people disbelieve it because everyone “knows” magic isn’t real.  My question is how long can that disbelief hold?})The questionable thing is that it's lasted this long, as it seems to me that the cover-up is increasingly threadbare if you'll excuse the metaphor. Now, this does give the story a political dimension, but Ms. Northcott to her credit attempts to engage with it while avoiding getting up on a soapbox. This story isn't a political allegory or metaphor but does have politics present and frankly has to because it's a story involving a pretty big and diverse group of people.

Ms. Northcott, however, does focus on telling things through the eyes and worldview of her main characters. Mostly Calista in this case, which means that the politics that she does touch on are pretty basic. Calista is vastly more concerned with things that are more personal to her. Like solving Jackson's murder, getting her mother out of jail, not dying or being expelled and... Oh right avoiding being stuffed down a deep dark government hole for the rest of her life. I'll admit in her shoes those would be the top of my list too. Calista is written very realistically as a teenager, so her lack of experience and emotional maturity can sometimes be frustrating, although not as frustrating as her teenaged communication skills, but honestly, I like that. She is clearly intelligent and driven and capable. She also takes the kind of insane risks that only a high school senior convinced of their immortality can take. Frankly, she reminds me of a number of PFCs I served with (That is one reason militaries recruit teenagers…). They weren't dumb but a lack of experience and realistic appreciation of how fragile their lives were led them to make choices that would drive their officers and NCOs half insane (Only half?). Now add in the fact that Calista doesn't just think she has superpowers like a Marine boot would, but actually does have magical powers beyond the reach of mortal men. That's going to skew your decision-making process a tad. There are plenty of books or films with “teenage” characters who act more like people in their late 20s but in this book, they feel like high schoolers and this something brought home when Calista and Kaz argue. This is something to keep in mind folks, teenagers aren't great at communicating their thoughts and beliefs not because they're stupid but because they have no experience and are often grappling with these thoughts and feelings for the first time ever. Additionally, because of that same lack of experience, it means that even normal arguments can explode into hormone-fueled dramatic tragedies. Even when there isn't the stress of a life or death situation. Ms. Northcott very capably works this characterization for her characters so I fully believe that Calista and Kaz aren't stupid or suicidal but instead are just teenagers without the experience or training to realize just how insane half the things they're doing are. Course they're in an insane situation, how do you catch a serial killer wizard and duck government agents without getting a little crazy?

Characterization is a great strength in the novel, as there are a large number of supporting and minor characters but none of them seem to be just acting as the plot demands. Each character that we spend any amount of time with has their own motivations, desires, and worldviews that logically and consistently drive their actions. My only complaint on the characterization front that there are so many characters that we frankly didn't spend enough time with some of them. For example, the substitute history teacher gets an interesting scene or two that should have been built on more in my opinion and the lack of time he got in the book did pull things down a bit (I almost feel like there were scenes that were cut from the final draft). I could say the same thing about Calista's Uncle, who seemed fairly interesting and I wish there was more space for him in the plot. As for the plot, it's well written and not hard to follow but I do think that Ms. Northcott might have tried to do too much in one book. She wasn't able to devote as much space to the more dangerous antagonist as that character deserved. That said the action is well written, Ms. Northcott writes very good and emotionally driven action scenes where she firmly plants you in the head of the character in danger. This makes the action feel very immediate when you're reading it and pushes the pace of the plot. Her magic system is also very interesting. It's driven by written symbols and spoken words (which are honestly just another type of symbol) that cause effects in the real world. It's not enough to have the symbol and words, however, you need the belief and will to power it. Once you have that and endless practice, however... Of course, there is a shortcut, blood magic, magic powered by blood is faster and easier but it leads to the temptation to use other people's blood and not ask first. That said, Ms. Northcott avoids info dumping everything on us and in doing so preserves the mystery of magic. In a world where most writers tend to want to stuff every piece of information they can into the story, it's a welcome change. I would suggest to any writer reading this, it's important that you know what the limits and rules of a magic system are when you're writing it. However, it's much less important for the reader to know it as long you remain consistent in your application of those rules but we'll talk more on that in the future. The North Valley Grimoire by Blake Northcott gets a B+ and I am fully on board for any other books set in the same universe.  If you enjoy urban fantasy with a bit of conspiracy, this is your wheelhouse.


Full disclosure, I backed this book on Kickstarter and honestly... I'm glad I did. This was a good book to end our year with. As usual, we are shutting down for a few weeks but we will return on January 18th, 2019 with a whole new review!

I would have a nice end-year message for everyone, but honestly, I just can’t think of a good one right now so… Yeah. Happy holidays and a happy new year I suppose. May fortune smile upon you etc.  
Until then, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and have a marvelous new year and as always... Keep Reading!

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

Friday, December 7, 2018

Kings of the Wild By Nicholas Eames


Kings of the Wild
By Nicholas Eames

Nicholas Eames was born in Wingham Ontario, Canada. He started writing in high school and actually got himself in a fair amount of trouble over that since he was supposed to be doing school work. His teacher actually sent the story to Ed Greenwood (creator of D&D's Forgotten Realms setting) who commented he had the fire needed for a good storyteller. Mr. Eames would take that comment and... put it on the shelf along with his written work when he headed off to college majoring in theater arts. In his own words, he would abandon that to pursue the more workable career of an epic fantasy writer. Kings of the Wyld is his first novel, published in 2017 by Orbit (an imprint owned by the French company Hatchette Livre, which isn't owned by Random House or Amazon... Yet). It takes place in a world where adventurers live and are treated like rock stars. Let's take a look at it.

Clay “Slowhand” Cooper was a mercenary hero once upon a time; known for wielding Blackheart, a shield he carved from a massive Trent (basically a tree that can move, sort of like the Ents from Lord of the Rings) after killing it for trying to wipe out a town. As part of the elite band ‘Saga’, he traveled the kingdoms of Grandual fighting monsters and committing deeds both fair and foul for money. They fought Hydras, Dragons, Manticores, Trolls, Giants and more. They saved Princesses, liberated cities and towns, and partied with grateful citizens of all social classes and standing. Saga even braved the depths of the Heartwyld; a vast dangerous monster-ridden wood where staying too long can lead to you contracting the Rot. A type of magically powered leprosy that causes your body to slowly rot away. However once upon a time was a long time ago, the band has broken up and gone their separate ways and frankly, Clay is content with that. He's gotten himself a nice side job as a watchmen, married above himself to a pretty if demanding wife who is determined to break him of his few remaining bad habits, and had a daughter; a young lady who loves rampaging in the swamp near his home collecting frogs and other creatures. Sure, Clay has mostly pissed away the riches he earned as a mercenary but all things considered, he's done better than he really thinks he deserves. His buddy Gabriel, on the other hand, has lost his wife, lives hand to mouth on a good day and won't let go of his dreams of reliving the past. Clay could live with that if Gabriel would stop coming by and trying to rope him into those dreams, events that only cause issues with Clay's wife who isn't enthralled with the idea of an aging husband risking life and limb in the pursuit of glory and old dreams. So, for the most part, he tells Gabriel no, has some drinks and sends him on his way. Until Gabriel shows up one last time...

Clay isn't the only member of the band to have had kids. Gabriel also has a daughter named Rose. Unfortunately for them, Rose is definitely her father's daughter and has decided to have a go at being a mercenary hero herself. She started her career by killing a Cyclops at 16. That earned her the nickname Bloody Rose and she decided she could only go up from there. When Rose told Daddy dearest, Gabriel tried to talk her out of it and when that didn't work, he tried yelling her out of it, which never works. Rose went off, got her own band together and took a shot at the brass ring and landed right into trouble. On the other side the Heartwyld, past the trees that scream to mark the rising sun and the cannibal tribes who eat each other because of a lack of options, on the other side of the mountains infested with tribes of Trolls and Giants is the Republic of Castia. A city-state that until recently was a wealthy and prosperous place to live. Now it's a death trap surrounded by a horde of monsters and their allies over a 100,000 strong defended by the broken remains of the Republic Army and the mercenaries they had hired all of them wise enough to know that all they can hope for is a quick death. Because while the monsters take prisoners, they don't do human rights. Gabriel is a broken down, tired old man, whose best days are behind him, he sold off his gear piece by piece just to afford another month's rent and some cheap wine to forget what he sold. Gabriel, however, is still a Father and he isn't going to abandon his only child to a fate most likely worst then death without even trying to save her. Clay's a father to and while he really just wants to stay home and let the past be the past... He ain't gonna be able to look his wife and daughter in the eye if he abandons Gabriel and Rose. So like it or not... They're getting the band back together and if the world doesn't like that... Well so much for worse for the world.

That's easier said than done. First, they have to survive the world that their battles helped make and deal with a number of demons from their past. Whether it be ex-managers and ex-wives, colorful bandits with a sense of humor, or monsters they thought safely slain. It may also mean confronting the new band system that has risen up since they broke up and retired. See, mercenaries don't go out into the wilderness to hunt down monsters and slaughter them away from the comforts of civilization anymore. I mean, no one sees you do it, which reduces the glory you get for it. So instead the cities of humanity have built massive arenas, sending out mercenaries to capture monsters and breeding them in large spaces under the arena to provide an endless stream of sword fodder for would be glory hunters to disembowel every Saturday for the entertainment of the entire family. So the members of Saga find themselves looking at a world that has become somewhat... Less since their heyday, with what was once their virtually needed profession turned into a form of cheap entertainment for the masses and the fact that they made all of this possible in the first place. I found myself putting down the book and really having to chew on that for more for a while, as whether or not he meant to, Mr. Eames has delivered more than a little social commentary with this part of the book. The men of Saga may have the kind of men who would drink to much, drug manically, sleep with anything that said yes, and fight anything that gave them lip to the point that even Clay began to wonder what the difference really was between a human mercenary and an Orc but there was a need and purpose driving their lifestyles. Now? They're a diversion. A way to keep the common masses from asking too many questions and instead focusing on who they're going to see die tomorrow night.

A couple members of Saga also have to be rescued from their current lives, whether that means rescuing a man from a palace, from his research obsession, or a prison cell where he's stood as a stone statue for 20 years. As while some of the members of Saga may be materially better off than others, it does seem that only Clay has actually done well for himself. In doing this the band has to confront their mistakes and short falls as people and adventurers; including the fact that this horde may have its origins buried in their own actions from decades ago. They also have to reignite the common bond that held them together as a unit against the whole world and remember the friendship that made their legendary acts possible in the first place. So this becomes a story of relationships and the consequences of those relationships. Whether it's the bonds between a Father and his somewhat estranged Daughter, between lost spouse and grieving survivor, or between friends who have spent many years apart. Mr. Eames does a wonderfully realistic job of showing a close-knit group of men coming back together. Each of the band relates to each other in different ways, specialized friendships within the band are present, which is what happens in groups. Even close knit ones. The relationships are functional ones as well, so this isn't a dysfunctional band of ragged misfits. This is a group of men who honestly enjoy one another's company and that covers for the fact that they're old, fat and not as fast or strong as they used to be. Saga is just gonna have to hope that old age and experience can provide them with enough trickery to overcome the speed and strength of youth.

Mr. Eames also provides a good amount of humor mostly provided by Clay, as the story is told from his first-hand perspective. This is honestly the best choice as Clay is the most adult member of Saga and the most relatable character in the story. The humor also helps lighten the dark tone of the world a good deal. This leaves the book striking a rather nice balance, it's dark enough to be serious and is easily epic but is funny enough that you're not reaching for your anti-depressants after reading Chapter 1 (Like you will if you read anything by R. Scott Bakker). If you're a fan of 70s rock, you'll also find a number of references scattered throughout the book and the idea of equating the classical band of adventurers to a rock band has way more juice in it then I would have thought just picking up the book. Mr. Eames also does a good job of capturing the frantic energy of his action and sheer mania it takes to fight something the size of a bus with teeth long enough to qualify as a gladius. This book was recommended to me by one of my readers and I'm really glad I read it. Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames gets an A from me. Pick it up, you'll have fun. 

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

So next week, we going to go modern as I look at an Urban Fantasy from Kickstarter. We're looking at The North Valley Grimoire by Blake Northcott.  Keep reading!








Friday, November 30, 2018

Provenance By Ann Leckie

Provenance 

By Ann Leckie 

Ann Leckie was born March 2, 1966, in Toledo Ohio. She graduated from Washington University with a degree in music in 1989 and since then has worked as a waitress, receptionist, a rodman in a survey crew, and as a sound engineer. She didn't turn her hand to writing until after getting married and having children. She was by her own statement driven to writing out of boredom as she was at the time a stay at home Mother. Her first novel Ancillary Justice was first sketched out in 2002, but she didn't start seriously working on it until 2006. She wouldn't finish it until 2012 when it was picked up by Orbit Publishing. So if you're ever feeling like you're taking to long to work on your own novel, remember that six years of work from Mrs. Leckie translates to a novel that would win the Hugo and Nebula award for best novel, the Arthur C Clarke award for best science fiction and many, many more. So don't be so hard on yourself. Mrs. Leckie would also write two sequels Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, which also in their turns won awards. Provenance is set in the same universe as that trilogy but far far away from the events of those novels, allowing us to examine events going on completely independent of Breq's actions. Let's turn to them, shall we?

Ingray is a young lady in a complicated position. Adopted from a public creche by a popular and powerful politician, she is locked in a struggle with her adopted brother over who will inherit not just her Mother's wealth and position but her very name and career. While Ingray is loved and cared for by her Mother, it's very clear that her brother, Danach is very favored over her and there seems to be little she can do to change that. This leaves her feeling like she's in a trap with the walls closing in as she has worked her whole life to inherit from her adopted Mother. If she does not inherit, she may not just lose a chance at power and influence but what little of both she has managed to build up on her own; as she has been working for her Mother's political office and helping manage her political campaigns. Would her brother want to keep her around once he inherits? Would she even want to stay and spend the rest of her life toiling in his shadow? That said, where would she go if she wanted to leave? These are hard enough questions even when the stakes are low but for Ingray, the stakes are life as she knows it. However, Ingray isn't someone who just sits on her rear and dithers while everything spins apart. When a young man in a similar position to hers is convicted of stealing the artifacts of his adopted family and shipped off to a type of prison called Compassionate Removal, Ingray sees an opportunity to achieve something. Something big, bold, and impossible to ignore. Something that not only proves to her Mother her worth but puts one of her Mother's political opponents in her debt. We can also see that whatever Ingray's faults she does not suffer from a lack of ambition. So she heads off to the neighboring system of Tyr with every scrap of cash she can beg, borrow, or earn with one goal. She's gonna get that thief out of Compassionate Removal, she's gonna find the artifacts and she's gonna become a hero or die trying. Of course, it's never that simple.

Family and the various different ways we build, understand and maintain our families are at the centerpiece of this story. Alongside that theme is the difficulty we can have when presented with an alternate way of understanding what a family is and who is part of it. I can understand this because if there's anything that seems universal and essentially basic, it's family. Families have traditionally provided the bedrock of our societies and are commonly considered to be the bonds that hold even when all other bonds of law, justice, and friendship fail. For the overwhelming majority of us, the role of our families in shaping our early lives, worldviews, and grown-up personalities cannot be overstated (My relatives and family, two distinct and only partially overlapping things, certainly created the creature whose red text you read today). We are all part of at least one family either by emotional or biological bonds, whether we want to be or not (For instance, Frigid is part of the Family I Choose). The idea that there are other types of families out there that have completely different ways of relating to each other and determining who is a member and who isn't can seem incredible to some people. But there are a vast array of ways to organize and maintain a family that is practiced even on our single little blue world. There are family systems that would not count your father as a relative, that would count cousins as siblings, that would say that a person can have three or four mothers and even more fathers (I have two dads and one biological father-who-is-not-dad, for instance. Neither dad is related to me by blood or marriage), these are real systems that developed here on Earth by human beings living in familiar environments. So imagine the incredible variation of family and what it means to people that would happen to a species that has not only lived on thousands of worlds but has done so for thousands of years with no common political or social framework to hold them together.

Leckie introduces us to these family systems and the people in them but leaves us to figure out how these families work and what the rules are through observing the characters and how they interact. Ingray's society is perhaps the easiest to figure out, as there are male and female parents, children, siblings, etc. It's also the system and culture we're exposed to the most as the story is told entirely through Ingray's point of view, so let's touch on this. Ingray is from Hwae, a system settled by humans long ago by other planets, that has functioned as an independent state for a number of generations. Unlike the Radch of the prior books, the people of Hwae have the concept of genders in their society and do make distinctions but the treatment of the genders seems to be fairly egalitarian since we see male and female soldiers, police and politicians at all levels of society. Adoption is common and seems to be expected of the upper class, although it is not just children without parents. Even well-connected families will ask a wealthier, more powerful family to adopt one of their children and this is considered perfectly normal (Not unlike ancient Rome?). In fact, it's considered good parenting, as it gives your child access to a level of education, connection, and power that you could never provide and that child may be able to provide additional favors and access to your other children someday. There is also an obsession with artifacts in Hwae culture that they refer to as vestiges. Vestiges are always physical artifacts of a past event, older, powerful families tend to have collections of them that they present as proof of their history and rightful claim to their social position. People even collect vestiges which can be almost anything; an invitation card to an old party, the guestbook from a hotel, a card that you bought when you visited the zoo. Having an old vestige that belonged to someone important or from a historical event is considered to be a great thing and can bring a lot of prestige to the person who has it and can be politically useful to an ambitious person (sort of how the early Christian church would treat supposed relics from saints or Biblical persons). As you might guess, this has created a market for fraud, forgery, and more. Which Ingray finds out about when the person she's looking to rescue explains to her in detail just what is going on behind the scenes in regards to vestiges.

This is complicated as Ingray finds herself drawn into alien and interstellar affairs. The Ambassador for the Geck, an alien race that allowed some humans to settle on their world but is otherwise isolationist, has taken an interest in the ship Captain that Ingray hired. The Ambassador insists that the Captain is Geck and a thief. The Captain insists that he is from Tyr and never stole a thing. Meanwhile, her Mother has guests from another star system. An archaeologist looking to dig into the past, believing that her own people might have been from Hwae or had lived there for a time before moving on to their current world. Any such discoveries would have political implications, as the nation that the archaeologist is from also has a number of imperial ambitions and is looking for ways to justify them. The archaeologist isn't alone, of course, she brought a distant relative but it's odd that she did so, since by the rules of her culture that relative and her aren’t allowed to speak to each or discuss the other person with other people. I'll be honest, I'm deeply perplexed how that even works within their society but it does make for some entertaining interactions. Imagine having a conversation with two people who are bound by every rule in the book to not only not interact with each other but to refuse to acknowledge anyone else's interactions with the other person while not being rude. When the survey on the dig site goes terribly wrong and accusations of criminal behavior start flying, Ingray has to parse all these relationships, and how they tie into the greater political actions going on in the background.

Ingray herself is a very believable and fun character. While she's smart, capable and often decisive in her decisions and actions, she's also very anxious and prone to feeling overwhelmed by the runaway events that are pulling her along. That said she's at her best when she's dealing with people directly because she's been trained from a young age in politics and politics is the art of dealing with people. While privileged by her upbringing, she is still something of an outsider due to the fact that she is unlikely to inherit from her Mother. That said, she was brought up in what I would refer to as gentle society so violence is very shocking to her when she meets it face to face. She's not an action character and would prefer to sit down with everyone and discuss this rationally over a hot meal. This makes her a very different character from Breq, who as a former soldier and ship of war was no stranger to violence and its consequences. Not to mention that in the first book of her trilogy, Breq was pretty much hellbent on murder So expect a much different main character this time around. That Mrs. Leckie is able to write both characters as convincing people that you can feel sympathy and root for is a testament to her writing abilities.

If you feel a bit intimidated by the Radch trilogy, this book actually makes a good gateway into the universe. Just be aware that there no common characters or events between the books and that Provenance might just spoil a touch of the trilogy for you. That said, it stands up on its own magnificently. You could read this book and none of the other books set in the universe and still walk away with a complete story that contains everything it needs to, to be understandable. I'm giving Provenance by Ann Leckie an A.

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

You know while it was great book, there wasn't a lot of action here. I think we need something wilder next.

Next week, Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. Keep reading!

Friday, November 23, 2018

Monstress Vol: III Haven written by Marjorie Liu Art by Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol: III Haven

Written by Marjorie Liu Art by Sana Takeda


It's been a while since we've covered this series, so let me start from the ground up. Marjorie Liu was born in 1979 in Philadelphia, in the United States. Her father was Taiwanese by birth and her mother born in the United States. She would attend Lawrence University in Wisconsin, majoring in East Asian Languages and Cultures and minoring in Biomedical Ethics (Woot! I too studied biomedical ethics extensively). It was while in college that she found herself drawn into the world of comic books. Afterward, she would attend law school at the University of Wisconsin. While there she would also take an internship in Beijing working in the American embassy for the Foreign Agriculture Service which was dealing with the Chinese government's newly created rules in regards to importing genetically modified foods. She graduated in May 2003 and was swiftly admitted to the bar. However, she quickly found that lawyering wasn't working for her and decided to become a writer She published her first novel Tiger Eye in 2005, and started writing for Marvel comics in 2009. She would start publishing Monstress in 2015 but we'll get to that. She currently teaches a course on comic book writing at MIT and a class on popular fiction in the Voice of our Nation workshop. Sana Takeda was born in 1977 in Niigata Japan. She got her start as a professional artist at age 20 working as a 3D CGI artist for Sega, she would become a freelancer at age 25 and found herself working for Marvel, in 2010 she worked with Ms. Liu on X-23. In 2013 Ms. Liu would first pitch her idea for Monstress to her and well here we are.

Monstress is a creator-owned comic published by Image. Volumes one and two both won Hugo awards for best graphic novel, in addition to winning a swath of Eisner awards for its writing and art and honestly, it earned each and every one of those awards. It is set in a matriarchal world inspired by 1900s Asia, a world that is still reeling from a race war and teetering on the edge of another one. The division lies between humanity and well...everyone else. Whether that be the cats who are traditionally neutral and focus on gathering knowledge and learning; the Ancients, immortals who look like various animals and tend to have vast magical powers; or their half breed children the Arcanics who trace their origin to interbreeding between the Ancients and the humans. Humans and Arcanics once lived together more or less peacefully but the rising power of the all-female religious order the Cumaea has spread a poisonous doctrine of human purity... Backed by magical powers they gain from using Lilium, a material created using the bones of Arcanics or Ancients. The last war ended in an uneasy draw and even now various forces push everyone towards the brink of a new war. In the middle of this Maika Halfwolf embarks on a journey to learn more about her past, who she was and what the hell is this thing she's carting around in her body? That thing turns out to be Zinn, one of the Old Gods, creatures that had been cast out of the world and can now only be seen as massive but harmless apparitions. Zinn, however, is very physical and even more dangerous, as he brings Maika plenty of power to achieve his aims. As long as he gets to feed and he loves best to feed on sapient life. Along the way she is joined by the Nekomancer Cat, Ren who has his own hidden agenda and loyalties and companion/foster daughter Kippa, who is a fox blooded Arcanic with no hidden agenda and a disturbing amount of faith in Maiko's ability to chose to do the right thing.

This volume opens up with Maiko fleeing to the city of Pontus, a city in the very heart of human territory but protected by a shield built by Maiko's long dead and lost ancestor the Shamen Empress, who is also the person who brought Zinn into this world. In Pontus, Humans, Arcanics, and Cats more or less live in peace but things are tense. The city is full of refugees fleeing purges and slavery in human lands, meanwhile, the shield is old and can only be powered by someone from the Shamen Empress' own line. At any moment the shield could fail and if it does, it's a death sentence for everyone in the city. Maiko, of course, is not helping the situation, having made a number of powerful enemies among them an Arcanic ruler known as the Blood Queen. The forces of her enemies have followed her to Pontus and are threatening the city. The government of Pontus thus makes a deal with Maiko, she and her buddy Zinn the life eating abomination can go into the forgotten depths of an installation build by the Shaman Empress or the city will use everything in its power, including weapons created by the Shaman Empress to kill things like Zinn, to subdue her and hand her back to her enemies to keep them from burning down the city. Maiko for once makes a deal and goes in with Zinn, to plumb the secrets of her ultimate grandmother and try to preserve some corner of safety for innocent people. Meanwhile, Kippa finds herself drawn into the affairs of the Fox People living in refugee camps. The refugees having survived one batch of screaming chaos, now know the signs of the approach of a whole slew of problems and this time they aren't standing still for it. They're planning their own way out of Pontus, hoping to find hiding places in the wilderness to preserve them from the wrath of a humanity gone mad. As if this isn't enough, Ren is called upon by his superiors to decide where exactly his loyalties lie and made aware of what the price of choosing poorly might be. Just in case all of this wasn't enough, we also have intrigue boiling away in the Human lands, as the Prime Minister of the Human Federation is making her own moves to try and win independence from the Cumaea and the remaining factions of the Ancients are making deals and drawing together to make their own plans for the war and for Maiko. Leading these people is someone who was once very close to Maiko, so the danger for her is growing by the moment and she doesn't even realize it yet.

Fair warning, if you haven't read the first two volumes, you're going to be completely lost. The story picks up more or less directly from volume II and keeps driving forward with no brakes. The plot of the story also thickens as we start to see moves by the greater powers of the world in the military and political sense as almost everyone has given up on preventing a war and is working to either survive it or win it. The writing is amazing and the art is drop-dead gorgeous, the amount of detail and the careful work of light and shadow in what is much more subdued color scheme then most comics creates a very unique and amazing style from Ms. Takeda. Frankly, I would tell any writer who had an artist this talented working on their series to do whatever they had to do to keep them, marry 'em if you have to, whatever. The world is dark but engaging and fearsomely realistic and the characterization is well done. We see Maiko as a person, she cares about members in her family but is still a teenager, by turns rebellious, angry at her unjust and brutal treatment and eager to dish it back to sullen and at times even happy and joyful. I can't recommend this series enough. I'm giving Monstress III: Haven by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda an A.

Red text is your editer Dr. Ben Allen
Black text is your reviwer Garvin Anders.

Join us next week for Provenance by Ann Leckie, Keep Reading!

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Poppy War By R.F Kuang

The Poppy War 
By R.F Kuang

Ms. Kuang was born in Guangzhou, China on May 29th, 1996. In the year 2000 her father - a former student who was at Tiananmen Square - took his family to Dallas Texas where Ms. Kuang would grow up. She graduated from the Greenhill school in 2013 and attracted by the debate team attended Georgetown University. She took a gap year in China working as a debate coach and like many newly liberated students found herself feeling strange without the specter of homework hanging over her every moment (the lack of homework can lead people who've been in school too long to do strange things, like review a novel a week). So she decided to write a book. She was 19. The book was published when she was 22. She is currently attending the University of Cambridge with a Marshall scholarship to earn a Masters in Chinese studies. Much like Ms. Kuang herself, The Poppy War is a result of the global system that we live in, allowing us to see stories we would never have seen in generations past; written by a person who in the past wouldn't have been allowed space to tell her story to western audiences. I'll get to that in a bit though, first let me discuss the story itself and the world that Ms. Kuang has been kind enough to write for us.

The Poppy War takes place in the Nikara Empire; once a vast and powerful state the empire could now be more rightfully considered a creaky confederacy of semi-autonomous provinces. Each province has its own money, it's own rulers and it's own army. In theory, they are united under the rule of the benevolent Empress Su Daji but in fact, they could barely be considered to be working together at times. This is unfortunate because the Empire has powerful enemies, chief among them is the island nation the Federation of Mugen. The Empire was once occupied by the Mugen, after being defeated in a conflict called the 1st Poppy War. The wars gained their name due to a strategy adopted by the Mugen. While the island is densely populated the fact is that the people of Nikara greatly outnumber them. Facing the problem of occupying a nation larger than their own and with a greater population base, the Mugen flooded the Nikara Empire with cheap poppy drugs. This reduced a good amount of the population to the state of hopeless drug addiction and the frank fact is that poppy addicts don't make good soldiers. On top of this, the Mugen played games of divide and conquer, pitting the rulers of the various provinces (called warlords) against one another so they wouldn't be able to cooperate effectively (This whole strategy seems remarkably similar to something that occurred historically…). During the occupation, however, three heroes, the Dragon Emperor, the Gatekeeper and the Vipress arose to unite the country and wage a long war called the 2nd Poppy War and drive the Mugen out. Two of the three heroes have disappeared and now only the Vipress remains to rule as Empress trying to hold together a nation in the face of possible destruction. What really ended the 2nd Poppy War though was when the western nation of Hesperia intervened after the Mugen committed genocide on the island of Speer wiping out all of its inhabitants due to their special gifts. The Speerlies were able to summon fire and they used that to fight the enemies of Nikara, as you can imagine that made them utterly devastating. The Mugen, fearing this ability, attacked one-night using advanced weapons and wiped out every Speerly they could find. This was over a decade ago now and Hesperia's attention is elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Federation of Mugen has a new emperor fully committed to conquering Nikara and taking its lands and resources for his people. He could honestly care less if the Nikarans come with that land, however. Which if you're a Nikaran kinda makes the whole thing even worse.

Our main character, Runin Fang (or Fang Runin, as the Nikarans put the family name first) is deeply aware of that. Rin is an orphan, raised by a foster family thanks to the Empress’ decree that every family with less than 3 children should take in at least one orphan. For many orphans, this was likely the difference between life and death and for a good number of them likely delivered them to happy homes. Rin was raised by poppy smugglers, who used her as cheap labor and were planning to marry her off to a man old enough to be her grandfather as a bribe to continue their work. Rin isn't just not-excited about the idea, she's violently opposed. She's only got one shot out of this however, she needs to ace the Keju, the Empire-wide test meant to find the best youths to study at the various academies of the Empire. She can't just pass it, however since most of the academies charge for the honor of studying there. She needs to utterly dominate the scores so she can enter Sinegard, the elite military academy where the best of the best study to become of the officers of the Nikara Militia. Their nations best hope of preventing a physical and cultural genocide at the hands of the Mugen military. The military is also Rin's best hope of advancement and doing work that actually matters to her. Of course getting to Sinegard is only the start of the battle, because Rin will now be competing directly with the children of the upper class for the right to stay in an academy with a 20% washout rate in the first year. She has to deal with students who look down on her for her skin color (the south part of Nikara is darker then the northern part, the northern part of Nikara is wealthier), her accent and her class origins. She'll also have to deal with the fact that some of the instructors think teaching her is a waste of time. So she has a year to learn enough martial arts, logic, strategy and more to compete with people who have been training for this from the cradle. The book does a good job showing just how desperate Rin's situation is and the kind of lengths she has to go to make up the gap. It also shows us how such a thing builds and fuels a desire for power within Rin. A desire to be taken seriously, to be free from the constant threat of having to live a terrible life or not even have a life to live and how far that will drive her. As a fun little cherry on top of all this, Rin may also have mystic gifts that most had believed to be just empty stories told to children. Rin might just have the power to contact gods that the people of Nikara don't believe in anymore and summon their power into the material world. Such gifts are dangerous though and there's a good chance that she may lose herself entirely using them, or worse, find that there's no barrier between her desires and reality. All of this while a possible Mugen invasion is constantly looming in the background.

The Poppy War is based on real-life events, specifically, the 2nd Sino-Japanese War or as many of us in the west would call it, the Chinese front of World War II (although if we're gonna be honest it started a good two years before any other part of the war). This is a forgotten part of the war in most of the West honestly but it's not forgotten in China. Nor is it forgotten in Ms. Kuang's family, her maternal grandfather fought for Chiang Kai-Shek, her paternal grandfather lived under Japanese occupation. During that time the people of China suffered horribly, as the Japanese military had for over a decade instilled blood-thirsty fanaticism within its troops and a disregard for the lives or even the basic humanity of their opponents. This was graphically illustrated in the Rape of Nanjing, the then capital of the Republic of China, where according to Western, Chinese, and Japanese sources (including members of the Japanese Imperial Army[But denied/minimized by the Japanese government in violation of all logic.]) the Japanese Military engaged in a six weeks of utterly brutal behavior murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians, killing surrendered Chinese soldiers, along with untold amounts of torture, rape, and theft. I mention this because Ms. Kuang bases part of her book on the Rape of Nanking and she doesn't spare any punches. To paraphrase her own words in a number of interviews she has given, she felt it was important to tell this story, especially given that there is a faction of Japanese academia who either claims that the Rape of Nanking was over-inflated (some of them claiming 20,000 deaths as opposed to over 300,000) or that it never happened and it was completely made up the Republic of China as wartime propaganda. In the west, the Rape of Nanjing was virtually unknown until the 1980s and 1990s [The Rape of Nanjing was one of those rare times where a Nazi could be classified as good. A Nazi official by the name of John Rabe -he was the liaison between the chinese government, the Nazi Party, and Siemens at the time - held his swastika armband up like a shield while protecting chinese civilians with his own body. That’s how fucked up it was. Granted John Rabe was very bad at actually being a Nazi and he’d been in China prior to the Nazi takeover.] While Ms. Kuang doesn't write out explicit scenes of such behavior, she makes it clear that these things are happening in the story and doesn't pull any punches. I would honestly defend this, as unlike some stories which use such scenes in a pornographic manner, this is presented starkly and coldly. It's not meant to titillate but communicate the sheer madness being unleashed in such a war. That said, it does make the book hard to read at some places and there are parts of the books that some readers would be advised to avoid and there are some people I would tell to avoid the book entirely for their own health.

Ms. Kuang as created a very well realized world for her characters to inhabit and shows us a high stakes conflict where losing could be the end of an entire people and the vanishing of an ancient culture as it's members are raped, tortured, and murdered. She unflinching shows us the stakes of such a conflict and the very human cost of refusing to admit to the basic humanity of your enemies while asking us how far would you go in such a situation? While the internet has gifted Ms. Kuang with the title of Grimdark's darkest daughter, I wouldn't call this book grimdark. For those of my readers who are unaware grimdark is a term for fantasy and science fiction that trade heavily on dark themes and grim endings. In a Grimdark fantasy, the hero is often little different from the villains he or she fights and the world is always a brutal, unfair violent place where the best you can hope for is being the one who does unto others before they can do unto you. There is also usually no hope of any improvement or change for the better, the wide eye reformer will end up the power-hungry cynic swiftly, the pure-hearted hero will be corrupted and twisted, left more brute than man. The Poppy War, while dark, isn't grimdark. Ms. Kuang take a great amount of pain to clearly present to us that Rin has a choice at every step along her path. That there are options beyond embracing the darkness. The question is whether Rin will realize that or throw herself off the cliff in the pursuit of power? The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang gets an A, along with my hopes that future generations will find a way to avoid bringing such stories to life.

I would also like to welcome back our editor (whose comments are in the red text), who gave the hunting parties a good run but no one escapes forever.

I am the most dangerous game, many of them died at my hand, but even I am not immune to intravenous ketamine.

Next week we return to comics, via Monstress Vol III. Keep Reading!    

Friday, November 9, 2018

Log Horizon 10: Homesteading the Noosphere By Mamare Touno

Log Horizon 10: Homesteading the Noosphere
By Mamare Touno

“I don't want that to have been temporary!”  page 233

    It's been half a year since I discussed Log Horizon so let me go over the high points.  Elder Tales was the world's most popular MMO and was releasing a new expansion across the world.  It hit midnight Japan time, the moment the new expansion went live every logged in player found themselves in the game world, for real.  The novels have focused mostly on Japan but book 9 gave us peeks of the rest of the world.  Given that this is a Japanese novel series written by a Japanese author, one can't be surprised that Japan is the center of events for the most part.  Now in the player starting city of Akiba, a self-governing organization was set up due to the machinations of our protagonist Shiroe.  Shiroe is a young man, who in real life is a graduate student but in-game has a reputation as a brilliant if somewhat diabolical strategist.  Through a combination of bribery, reasoned argument and blackmail, he created the Round Table Council of Akiba, where the representation is done by Player Guilds.  It's not very democratic but it managed to bring order and a measure of prosperity to Akiba.  However the players (referred to in story as Adventurers) aren't the only sapient beings on the world, as there are the People of the Earth, who were NPCs in the game but now are fully sapient beings (or were they sapient the whole time?) as well as the various monster races who prey on the People of the Earth if the adventures don't keep them under control.  Neither was the Round Table the only organization set up by stranded players, as the players on the western half of Japan chose to unite under a single guild (Plant Hwyaden) and make an alliance with the leading People of Earth State of the region, the Holy Empire Westelande.  The combat power, magic, and technology that those adventurers provide have caused the Holy Empire to engage on an increasingly aggressive foreign policy.  The Holy Empire considers itself the rightful successor state of an empire that united all of Japan and thus the other People of the Earth states in rebellion.  Including the one that has allied itself with the Round Table, the League of Free Cities of Eastal.

    Meanwhile, Shiroe is also trying to head off internal problems in the city of Akiba as the expanding economy isn't working for everyone.  Yes, some adventurers are able to create new technologies and services and reap the rewards but others... Others are barely coasting along and the emerging class divide could cause rifts in adventurer society.  However, there are limited ways of addressing that, since the Round Table isn't a proper government but a self-governing organization.  That might sound like hair-splitting but the distinction would become very important to you when it comes time to discuss who has the right to tax you or enforce laws by imprisoning you or seizing your goods.  So far in the prior novels, Shiroe has acted decisively and even ruthlessly to solve or minimize these problems before they get too big but he finds himself paralyzed with doubt as what an effective solution that is acceptable to everyone might be.  Especially since he also has to deal with the fact that a major war might be kicking off on his doorstep and he's not sure what to do about that either.  As if this wasn't enough, another problem rears its head.  It turns out that there's yet another group of sapient creatures knocking about and they have their own agenda as well (fair warning, spoilers past this point).

    It turns out that a group of alien beings was also pulled into the world of Elder Tales, although this might be all their fault.  They're artificial life forms from an alternate universe and they're running low of an energy resource that they believe is plentiful on the world of Elder Tales.  They were created in their home universe to come to the world of Elder Tales and harvest this resource and get as much possible home. However, their understanding of the laws of reality states that there can only be one type of intelligence in every universe so they figured any place they could reach wouldn't have any intelligent natives to protests their resource harvesting.  Turns out they landed in a place where sapient creatures are actually kind of plentiful.  Interestingly enough when discussing sapient creatures they don't make racial distinctions, to them an elf Person of the Earth is pretty the same as a human one.  To them, the only real distinction in intelligence types is between the Adventures, themselves and the People of the Earth.  In response to realizing that there were other people involved in this giant beautiful mess, they responded by splitting into two factions.  The book translates the two factions into Fools and Genius but some research on my end has suggested the better translation might be Inspector and Collector.  That said I'll use the book terms to avoid confusion.  The Fools, believe in observation and making contact with the Adventurers and trying diplomacy and possibly cooperation to achieve their goals.  If nothing else they can exchange their superior understanding about how they all got here for services from the Adventurers.  The Geniuses feel this takes to long and is a silly way to solve problems, they'll use the monsters to take the resources they need and if the People of the Earth and the Adventurers get in the way?  So much the worse for them!

    Now the aliens in question didn't have physical bodies the way we understood them.  So they had to, well... Borrow bodies they could find lying around.  These bodies tend to belong to inactive accounts and one of them is an alternate character of Shiroe.  See when you play an MMO, you often create more than one character so you can try out different classes and story-lines.  In this case, Shiroe had kinda parked his spare on the bloody moon, which suggests that's where the Fools are hanging out. Interestingly it seems that there were a number of bodies on the moon, which the characters state a test server was located.  The Fool in question, going by Roe-2 also helps out by sending a letter to Shiroe to give him some additional information.  Now, Roe-2 was a character that had met the younger members of the Log Horizon guild, so this letter does clear up the mystery around her character.  That said, it feels a bit like an info dump and I have to honestly say the insertion of the Genius/Fool plot was rather sudden.  It's clear in hindsight that he had something like this in mind but I feel it could have been foreshadowed a bit more.  Meanwhile, Shiroe has to figure out a way to contact the rest of the Fools and he also has to do while keeping the Geniuses from burning down the planet in the meantime.  Which is gonna be harder than you think because they kinda lit the match on that fire 35 minutes ago.  In the face of a sudden and surprising threat, Shiroe has to react quickly and decide on what goals he's going to prioritize here.

    This is actually the main conflict of the book, as Shiroe's hesitation in deciding on a single goal and carry it out bogs him down and degrades his performance.  Which is honestly true to life, nothing will cripple your ability to achieve your goals than your own hesitation and half-hearted measures.  This is one of the reasons why the Marines will teach their members that an imperfect plan executed aggressively and with commitment will beat out a perfect plan that is carried out timidly or too late to matter.  Shiroe has actually been pretty good about this once he commits but getting him to commit is sometimes a problem.   I actually like this, it's a real flaw that drags Shiroe down.  He is by nature indecisive, he wants to sit down and think things through and carefully plot out his response.  Mamare Touino shows a good level of skill in writing characters that are flawed, in a way that would normally drive me insane but he manages to make me root for them in the end.  Whether they be lazy princesses, anti-social ninjas or hesitant plotters.  That's a skill worth developing in a writer.    Log Horizon 10 is carried on the strength of the characterization and character interactions, it's also where we see a new plot development in full.  That said, there is a bit of clumsiness here and I'm not sure if it's due to the translation or not but I have to grade what I see.  Log Horizon 10: Homesteading the Noosphere by Mamare Touno gets a B+. 

Next week, the Poppy War by R.F Kuang.  Additionally, I have been informed that our editor has been brought to ground so he will be rejoining us next week.  Keep reading!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Professor Judith Herrin

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
by Professor Judith Herrin

Professor Judith Herrin was born in the United Kingdom in 1942, she was educated at Bedales School and studied history at the University of Cambridge and was awarded her Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham. She would also train in Paris, Athens, and Munich. Dr. Herrin, would work as an archaeologist with the British School at Athens and on-site in Istanbul. Between 1991 and 1995 she would serve as Professor of Byzantine History at Princeton University. Afterward, she was appointed Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King College London and also the head of the college's, Center for Hellenic Studies. She would retire from the post in 2008 becoming Professor Emeritus. She would in 2011 become President of the International Congress of Byzantine Studies. In 2015 she would win the Dr. A.H Heineken Prize for History for her work. She would also be awarded a Golden Cross by the Republic of Greece, a Medal from the College de Franc and become a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. To boil it all down folks, this woman has not only spent a good chunk of her life studying the Byzantine Empire, she is one of, if not the authoritative voice on Byzantine history.

Course some of you might be wondering, what the hell is the Byzantine Empire? It's a legitimate question since even the people of that state wouldn't have recognized that title. It was given to them by outsiders and only became popular after their conquest by the Ottoman Turks. For the majority of that state's long existence and to the majority of the people who knew of and interacted with it, it was the Roman Empire. What we call the Byzantine Empire is the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Basically, in the latter half of what we call the Classical period of history (when you could divide Europe into Roman and not Roman parts), the Emperors of Rome began to realize that they couldn't effectively administer and govern the Empire. It was just too large, that seems odd to us today but remember, they didn't have the internet, radio, or even telegraphs. Every message could only travel at the speed of a physical messenger. Which means that it could take months to get information from one side of the Empire to another, which can be fatal if that message is “huge army pouring over the border and killing everyone, send help!” In response to this, the Empire was divided and an Eastern Emperor was appointed to run affairs in the east. The western empire would be gone by the 400s AD. The Eastern Empire would endure for another 1000 years until finally meeting its fate in 1453. For much of that thousand years, it would be considered a titan among nations and the final word on art, culture, power, and civilization in Europe and much of the Middle East. Even the Islamic states (who would hold most European and Christian states in disdain, to be honest with good reason), viewed and spoke of it in glowing terms. Even while they openly desired it's conquest. For many of them, the conquest of the Byzantine Empire would be the great milestone in their mission to bring the word of their Prophet to the world, because for generations that same empire was the biggest obstacle to that goal. This conquest was thwarted for centuries by a combination of military strength, brilliant diplomatic maneuvering, technological and social innovation and depending on what you believe the grace of Almighty God or pure dumb luck.

Americans tend not to know much about this stage of history because it's popularly assumed that the Byzantine Empire doesn't have a lot of impact on American history and history teachers already have a lot to cover and little time to do it in. For that matter, your average western European doesn't know much more of the Empire's history for much of the same reasons. On top of that, there is often the view that the Byzantine Empire was a relic of a bygone age. A moribund, decaying state that did nothing but slowly collapse for centuries, soaked in degeneracy and overly complex and prone to self-defeating scheming and backbiting. The very word byzantine is used to communicate this. Dr. Herrin, however, has taken the field to not only combat this viewpoint but give us an overview of the history, economy, and culture of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The book starts us with Emperor Constantine selecting the city of Byzantine as his new capital and describes his efforts to build a grand city worthy of being the capital of a massive Empire. The city of Constantinople would grow to be one of the greatest cities of the Mediterranean and a major port that not only connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean but would be a major crossroad between the east and the west. Throughout the vast majority of the empire's history, the city of Constantine would be the heart of imperial power and the seat of the ruling family, whoever they were at the time. From there, we get a look at the Byzantine Empire before the medieval period, this Byzantine Empire ruled the entire Eastern Mediterranean, from Egypt in the south to the river of the Danube in the north. At it's greatest extent, it would rule from Naples and Carthage in the west to Jerusalem and Damascus in the east. In this period the Byzantines would struggle with the Persian Empire and barbarians coming from the north and west. Emperors would often encourage these barbarians to go settle in western Europe and pick over the remains of the western empire. Which is a bit cold-blooded perhaps but there wasn't much they could do to save the western empire, so they focused on preserving the east. During this period they build a system for feeding Constantinople with grain from Egypt and using resources from the southern parts of the empire to feed crafts and trade in the north. This was also a time of intense religious discussion, as Christianity moved from a widespread but disorganized movement to an organized, hierarchical, national religion. The Emperors of the time would organize the church and host meetings of church leaders to decide just what the newly organized Christian Church would believe and preach. This was not an easy question either! Debates over the nature of Christ and God raged alongside questions of Church organization and whether not priests would marry (in the east priests can marry, in the Latin West, they can't) the role of women in the church and more would explode into violence and rioting. This shows that this wasn't just a preoccupation of the elites but a pressing question to the common men and women of the empire. The efforts to enforce Orthodoxy at all costs, however, would end up causing some Christian groups to prefer Muslim rule, as while they might charge an extra tax, they wouldn't imprison you for your beliefs.

The emergence of the armies of Islam from the Arabic desert is where Dr. Herrin marks the change of the Byzantine Empire from an empire of the classic period to a medieval state. The Arabic armies would conquer Egypt, Syria, and Palestine from an empire already reeling from plague and war. This shattered the old economic system and forced the Byzantines to develop new sources of raw materials and food, most of them in the European provinces of the Empire. It also led the Emperors of Byzantines to develop new military and administrative systems that were not only successful in holding off Arabic conquest but began to push them back and reclaim ground. While reduced in territory, the empire remained powerful and wealthy and the Arabs would look to it as a model, alongside the conquered Persian Empire and eventually the Caliphs would treat the Emperor of the Byzantines as an equal in diplomacy, trade and cultural exchange. The Byzantines did have a rich culture, it was incredibly literate with a lot of effort put into teaching people how to read and write. Their literacy rate was nowhere near modern standards but compared to the standards of the time, their educational system was amazing in its reach and depth. It was focused on teaching people how to read and write Greek and Latin would gradually die out. The death blow came when the Eastern Church decided that all services would be given in the native languages of the congregation instead of Latin (the western church would continue Latin services as the norm until 1967). This led to them calling western Europe and the people of Western Europe Latins (or Franks if they wanted to remind that they were a bunch of johnny come lately jumped up barbarians)

In fact, Byzantine Church was so devoted to this that it bankrolled the creation of the Slavic alphabet and wrote the first bibles in Slavic languages. This would create a 3 part division in the old Roman world, where you had the Latin West, the Byzantine East and the Muslim South. However, it was the Byzantines who would most successfully bridge the practices and ideas of the ancient world and the Medieval world of Christianity and Islam. While western access to classical works was spotty at best, in the east entire libraries were preserved (many of these would be lost later, as many to western invaders as to Muslim ones to be blunt but I'll get there) and this influenced religious and secular thought very deeply. One example is the practice of hesychasm, which is a type of meditative prayer. This is done to practice a strict mental discipline, where the mind is focused by repeating the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner." ) to still the mind and remove all temptation, until the person making the prayer can experience God directly, even if only for a moment. This moment is described as seeing uncreated light (we just don't have space to get into this but it's an intriguing piece of eastern theology). If my Buddhist readers feel some similarities to their own practices, that should give you an idea of how radically different the evolution of the Eastern Orthodox church was from the Latin western church. One point of interest to me was that literacy was so widespread that not only were there novel series written about adventurers on the frontiers but there were book reviewers and critics such as the church official Photios (also called Photios I of Constantinople), who wrote letters for circulation among a large group of friends and family where he discusses different books he's read and whether he thought they were any good or not. As you can imagine I'm somewhat tickled to find a kindred soul so many centuries ago and so many miles away. He is also a major historical figure but I'll let you find out more about him on your own.

Dr. Herrin also discussed the fall of Constantinople but points out that the real fatal blow came from the betrayal of the Republic of Venice. I call this betrayal because the book shows us that trade with Byzantine is very responsible for Venice rise in the first place. In fact, the merchants of Venice didn't have to pay any taxes on goods bought and sold in the empire. This gave them a huge advantage even over native Byzantine merchants. This betrayal occurred in the 4th Crusade, also called the one where they didn't even fight any Muslims (I don't approve of religious warfare but if there's something that smacks of spectacular failure when you declare a war and then march off to fight... Anyone but the people you declared war on). Instead at the urging of Venetian money lenders, they attacked the Christian city of Zora and then assaulted Constantinople... Twice. The first time to place a puppet emperor on the throne and when he refused to pay the Crusaders, they sacked the city and placed a Latin (western) Emperor on the throne in 1204. This split the Byzantine Empire into a trio of rump states and the Turks, already steadily pushing into Byzantine territory began to flood in. While the Byzantines would manage to fight back, retaking the city in 1261... The damage was done and it would be mainly a city-state with a long history until it's final conquest by the Turks. Interestingly enough the Turks didn't see themselves as killing the Byzantine Empire but as inheriting it. The Ottomans would repeatably lay claim to the glories of Rome as their rightful inheritance, even if no one else would agree with them. Which shows the allure and power of the Roman Empire, one that holds true today as you'll hear people compare nations like the United States to the Romans, proving that even half a millennia later they remain the benchmark for civilization in the west. And the Byzantines? I think this book makes a powerful case that they were the true carriers of the Roman flame during the Dark Ages and the Medieval Era. They didn't let themselves be trapped by tradition but they did honor it and learned from it as well as fusing it with new practices to create a powerful state that stood as a model of civilization, art and military strength for centuries. That's something to be proud of. Dr. Herrin manages to give us a good overview of the empire while keeping at a level that a layman could understand and follow. It's a great text for anyone who wants to learn more but isn't sure where to start or someone with some knowledge of the state but who wants to go deeper Byzantium the Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin gets an A. Go take a look.

It's been a busy week for me, so we're going to indulge a bit next week. Join me for Log Horizon: Homesteading the Noosphere. Thank you and Keep Reading!

No editor this week, he took an early vacation but don't worry my hunting parties assure me he will rejoin us soon.