Monday, December 8, 2014


GyreWorld by Eve and Robert Forward. 

Like Warpworld, this review also has a number of firsts, this will be the first web novel I've reviewed, the first unfinished work I've reviewed and the first work written by siblings.  Eve Forward has two novels (The Villains by Necessity which I hope to one day get a copy of and review and Animist which I know nothing about) and a number of animated episodes from shows like GI Joe (a great favorite of my childhood) and Biker Mice from Mars (which... I'm gonna be honest, I loathed).  Robert D.Forward has also written two novels and has an extensive list of writing work for various shows among them Transformers Beast Wars (which I also enjoyed), GI Joe and BraveStarr... Which most of you won't have heard of and I won't get into here.  I was around to watch both shows as a child though, which I am aware dates me. They are both the children of Robert Forward, a noted science fiction writer and physicist whose work I also hope to review here in the future.  Rest assured I will do at least some of the works that have been recommended to me first, especially given that the folks of SpaceBattles, Libarc and elsewhere have handed me a huge list of books.

But moving on!

GyreWorld is a fantasy story set in a fairly original world very unlike our own.   It's a world of moving gears and parts with 3 races of sapients settled in whatever parts can support life.  It's a harsh world in a lot of ways, but the inhabitants have managed to create civilizations and cities despite that.  While there are 3 races mentioned in the book, the story only focuses on two of them and so will this review.  The most important race in this story is that of the kin, a small race of fuzzy humanoids that live in the city with humanity but apart in their own area they call the warren.  The kin could have easily been another hobbit knock off race and I'll admit when I started the story, I had my doubts.  The Forwards however do a very good job at making them distinct and a touch alien.  None of the citizens of the Shire would fit in with these small, but at times, feral people. Their practices and outlook on life have been shaped by a long period of living in sparse, harsh environments and even centuries of easy city life haven't dimmed those cultural memories or erased the marks of that past.  What I like best about this though is this is never info-dumped to us but details are fed to us through the interactions and statements of the characters.  We are introduced to traditions and ideas that the Kin have by the Kin characters and left to come to our own understanding of this culture.  Which makes the anthropologist in me giddy and the reader tired of wading through giant paragraphs of "As You Know Bob" dialogue feeling liberated when writers do this.  There is one bit where a drunken ex-priest in jail begins to explain some social and political background to another character but I'm willing to spot a writer one chapter of "As You Know Bob" when you make a world this different and complex.

The story that takes us through Gyreworld is a simple one.  A band of thieves have stolen a very important holy relic from a local church.  I say important because with it missing, bad things are happening. Very lethal and dramatic bad things.  I can't say much more then that without giving up some big spoilers.  Suffice to say, our heroes have to find the relic and get it back to the church in question or the consequences will be dire. As in Oh God! Oh God! We're All Gonna Die!  The Forwards do a good job with showing us these consequences to, as things build up gradually but unavoidably and we the reading audience must logically agree that the damn relic has to go back!

Our main viewpoint character is an odd Kin, by the name of Tod Pottersfield.  Tod is a priest of the Kin god Badger and the Human Church Merciful and Inevitable. I think most of you have figured out that the Church concerns itself mainly with the dead and death.  In fact we meet Tod in the course of his day job....  Cutting out the organs of a dead woman for storage in jars.  Afterwards he'll cut away the flesh as well.  Burial rituals on GyreWorld are very involved.   Badger is a Kin god, a totemic force which also has a lot to do with death, dying and the here after. Tod is actually part of a thing in his culture where some Kin serve both Kin and Human religious organizations and it's made very clear that not all Kin (or all Humans for that matter) approve of this.  I'll talk more about the religions later but right now I want to focus on Tod.  

Tod is a howling zealot of a fanatic. Utterly and completely devoted in his belief and service to the divine force of death (divinity is not anthropomorphized in this story which makes it kinda like Roman religion before the Greek influences) to the point that it frankly unnerves even some of his religious superiors. It certainly unnerves me and I am religious!  Most stories would make someone like Tod a one note character but Gyreworld refuses to do so. Tod is a zealot. Tod is a fanatic. Tod is also a person with thoughts, emotions, ties and desires outside of his admittedly powerful religious devotion. He loves people such as his sister and other family/clan members. He's feels guilty about the way a past relationship ended. He struggles with the burden put on him by his now dead father Wey, who wanted him to work to bring the Kin and Human religions together. He desperately wants to live up to the goals given him and do the right thing.  Of course he has his vices as well, he tends towards self righteousness, can be rather tiresome about the whole death thing and... He's kind of a bigot. This really comes up in regards to our third main character. Tod's bigotry is however a product of his culture. Tod's position in this culture is complicated, what with his ties to a major human institution and his clan talent which leaves him in a distant position. See all the Kin are divided into clans and each clan has a special talent. Tod's clan talent is being able to tell when someone is going to die. This doesn't mean they can see the future, it's just that if you're terminal ill or if something especially lethal is going to happen soon, they can sense it. As you can guess most people don't take the news of "Hey my special mojo tells me you have 2 months to live." all that well. Add in Tod's withdrawn and somewhat downbeat personality and... He is not Mr. Popular with the Kin or humanity. Tod is also strangely divided at times. The division between Tod Pottersfield and Brother Tod, priest of Badger and fucking Death Itself is readily apparent. When given the responsibility for tracking down the thieves Tod becomes relentless and unstoppable. The Terminator would find Tod's gives no fuck and will not stop for shit attitude impressive as Tod is willing to fight, question or threaten anyone and everyone under the sun to complete his holy mission and if that means he got to run you over? So the much the worse for you! Meanwhile when not on church business Tod is passive, unwilling to do violence even in self defense (to the point that a band of teenage Kin punks rob him pretty much everyday) and frankly a push over. The reasons for this emerge over the story and are fairly interesting and make sense. What we see is a person who doesn't trust or care much for himself and is looking to be of service to what he sees as the best and greatest power he can serve. Unfortunately for him, that means he gonna get ass kicking after ass kicking.

Our next viewpoint character and only second to Tod himself is also a Kin named Jillick.  Jillick is in many ways Tod's equal and opposite.  She's a girl and not very religious.  He's conservative and very law abiding, Jillick likes to dabble in law breaking for the thrills.  Tod is a bigot, especially in regards to the third character.   Jillick had an licit relationship with him for shits and giggles and remains friends with him.  Jillick is a watchmaker and lockpicker.  Both of these things have alot to do with her clan the Pinchbecks whose talents has to do with machines.  Figuring out how they work, how to make them, how to take them apart all sorts of things.  It's frankly a more useful talents in many respects then the Potterfields' one and certainly has a lower social cost.  No one gets afraid of the guy who knows how to fix your watch (well... girl in this case).   But maybe they should because Jillick thinks your damn watch is boring and would rather take apart your locks and see if you have any cool stuff.  She is quiet a bit more worldly then Tod in a variety of ways as you've likely guessed by now. She's a very vibrant, fun loving character and rarely judgmental.  Most likely because she's aware that her metaphorical house is made of glass.  She's also fairly clever, which is good!  Because she's keeping a hell of a secret from Tod, who has recruited her to find the thieves who stole the priceless holy thingy bob.  Jillick is not as selfless as Tod nor prone to wide character swings.  She's fairly consistent throughout the story in mainly playing for what's best for herself and the people she personally cares about.  This really helps balance Tod out, as I think if Tod was surrounded by characters who reinforce his world view and actions he would quickly become insufferable as character.  On the flip side Tod also helps balance Jillick out, as her selfish streak could render her very unsympathetic without someone constantly pulling her towards working for a greater goal then breaking her boredom. What I really find interesting is despite her dabbling with corruption, is that Jillick enjoys greater status in Kin society.  Tod is something of an outsider despite (or maybe because of) his priestly status.  Jillick is a person in good standing in the both the respectable and disreputable layers of Kin society.  Which is a testament to her charisma I think. 

The third member of the cast is a half Kin, half human named Spanghew.  He's considered an abomination by Kin society and human society isn't much kinder.  At first he seems something of a joke character.  Another obstacle to Tod in his inhuman pursuit of fulfilling his superiors commands.  But over chapter by chapter, we see more of him and realize what's going on.  His existance is a comfortable but tragic one.  Adopted by a wealthy but childless couple, he lives well but with no official legal rights.  He can't marry (being a hybrid he's sterile which means under the laws of the Church of life... No marriage for him).  He can't inherent.  He can't be considered a citizen and in many ways he's rather insane.  He's had many relationships with curious women of both Kin and Human background but all those relationships are fleeting ones  at best and he knows it.  Because of his half in and half out status in society all of his friends, lovers and so on eventually move on.  "They grow up" is how Spanghew puts it and you realize that he views his place in society as someone imprisoned in an external childhood.  He can never have the rights of an adult, he can never be allowed to fulfill the responsibilities of an adult, he will always be viewed as half a person at best.  So in public he adopts the role of the eternal teenager because why the fuck not?  Spanghew gets involved when one of the few friends he has who didn't leave him was murdered in his home. Tod realizes Spanghew is holding on to important evidence and Spanghew uses it blackmail his way into the investigation.  That said, Spanghew doesn't become a load around Tod's neck but instead is at times incredibly useful for reasons of his studies, money or use of the influence of his adoptive parents.  He also is amazingly polite and cheerful in the face of Tod's rather rampant assholery (Spanghew makes the point that almost everyone thinks what Tod's says but Tod has the honesty to just say it to his face).  It's not until much later in a scene set in a church run brothel (the church of life views sex as holy thing, because that's how you make more life, so you should have lots of sex) where a bribe is offered to him.  The church can make him able to sire children or as the priestess puts it "We can fix you."  Spanghew's response of screaming at the top of his lungs "I'M NOT BROKEN!" Pulls back the curtains of the hidden pain and rage that is in him.  We don't get to see this inner font often but when we do, we're reminded that Spanghew isn't a joke and his societies treatment of him as one has a cost.  

There are more characters here, from the thief that Tod is hunting who happens to be a famous adventurer (to be honest in a more standard fantasy novel this guy would be the protagonist).  The various clan members of both Jillick and Tod. Like the details of the cultures we deal with we are feed parts and pieces of these characters leaving us guessing at their roles in the story.  Are they allies?  foes?  Recurring individuals?  Walk on parts?  The mystery pulls you along as the Forwards refuse to make this a standard find the macguffin plot.  We are also shown the the consequences of the holy relic of stuff's disappearance long before we're told.  In fact when Spanghew finally digs it up in a Library, you're nodding along as it all makes sense with what  you've already seen.  

I also really enjoy the somewhat alien religions you deal with in Gyreworld, humans worship 9 divine forces (the Kin worship 3) that are very impersonal and focused.  The "gods" aren't anthropomorphized here, their these vast alien forces that a person cannot hope to understand but many are driven by emotion and reason to serve.  The sheer power that the priests and their devotees wield justify the political powers of the churches and you're never left wondering why these gods don't take a more direct hand in these things.  Again we're not told these things, we're shown.  Left to piece it together from things we hear and see while accompanying Tod, Jilliack and Spanghew in their quest.  Which is I think one of the better ways to do it.   

That said there are times when I want to scream at the Forwards to just get on with it.  There's a bit of wondering around I felt we could have done without which means the plot isn't a tight as it could be.  There are also several encounters which I felt were done mostly so the Forwards could show off this amazing world they built, not to tell a better story.  There are also conflicts I felt we could have done without (Tod and his superior Badger Priest for example).  That said it's hard to make that determination until the story is finished.  Which I believe we are close to, as it stands Gyreworld weights in at 167 chapters.

 Gyreworld gets a B, which is as high as it can go until it is finished.  Once it is, I will revisit it and decide if the grade should be changed. 

This is a response from the author (well one of them) of Warpworld to my review.  I'd like to thank Mr. Simpson for letting me post this.

Wow, that's much nicer than I was anticipating.

Okay, to hit some points:

Don't look at me like that, it's tech that runs off the energy built up by belief and emotion, it's fucking magic! I don't have a problem with this in all honesty but a number of books these days attempt to tell me that the magic isn't magic, which I refuse to fall for! In fairness to the writers of warpworld, they don't try to sell me a potion of bullshit here, they get the characters to try to sell me a potion of bullshit.

Yeah, it's magic 'energy' Z that shows up in a lot of stories, and honestly I kind of cringe at calling it 'energy' in the first place because it doesn't have the characteristics of actual defined-by-physics energy. It's an entirely different state of, well, magic shit, the energetic equivalent of unobtanium. Explaining that it's not really 'energy' would make for too much exposition, so we leave it as 'emotional energy', a concept that the audience can readily relate to in terms of stuff like chi and other mystical concepts. So... guilty!

I don't know if the writers were trying to make the point that imperialism isn't very nice and is often a dirty, nasty business... But they did a good job of making that point without giving any lectures or rubbing your nose in it.

I don't consider myself a 'message' writer. Obviously a lot of my beliefs are going to bleed through, but I never set out with a story like this to tell people things, especially stuff that should be blindingly obvious to the average educated person. I tend to follow the David Drake model of just taking actual examples of our own world and adjusting them to differing circumstances. So I guess that worked in that depicted a scene without being preachy. Neato.

Seg's mentor Jarin, a cunning and crafty old man with his own mission and his own possibly shady past. He seems to have been in Seg's position before in a lot of ways and is trying to keep the kid from repeating his mistakes. Seg seems to feel that Jarin hasn't done him that many favors coming up, but considering the fact that someone with Seg's lack of connections and rather smart mouth is still breathing... I kinda think Jarin has spent a lot of time giving Seg cover.

And how. Jarin sees in Seg a model of the sort of revolutionary thinker that he feels they need to break the declining stagnancy of their own culture. They're losing their fight for survival, and they're too busy knifing each other in the back and fighting to keep the status quo.

The problem he has with Seg is that a revolutionary thinker is, well, revolutionary. Also Jarin's one of those guys who rarely comes out and just says what he means. He's using to being the puppetmaster, and that in and of itself is a source of much of their friction.

Viren was a bit of treat for me. He's sly, clever and irrelevant and completely refuses to take this shit seriously. He's no Han Solo but he is pretty fun.

I think you'll be satisfied with his role in the upcoming novels, then. He gets a lot of screentime.

The antagonists are the weakest part of the story. We don't get much of a sense of them, other then one member of the people being ambitious and petty and a law enforcer being an utter bastard for reasons unknown.

Guilty guilty guilty. Here's where I'll let you in on the dirty secret of the first book manuscript: Corrus and Dagga weren't in the original. Neither was Jul Akbas, for that matter. Or Adirante Fi Costk. There wasn't a single named villain in the entire thing, and it was a much more compact story. Akbas didn't actually show up in the original run of the series until the fourth book, Fi Costk got a cameo role in the second and third, while Corrus and Dagga were incorporated during our revisions on the original manuscript, so most of the material concerning them and responses to their actions were added in, which is why their characterization gets short shrift.

We do end up with some mustache-twirling on the parts of our villains in the series, something we've worked to chop back on. 

My original concept and the reason for no named villains is because ultimately what Seg and Ama were fighting and will continue to fight throughout the series is not so much people as systems. If Dagga and Corrus weren't wandering around being nasty and throwing their weight around, it'd just be another pair of thugs with badges. The same goes for the CWA baddies- they're the product of a corrupt institutional ethos, and the real enemy is the system that produces them. Which isn't to say the Guild are the 'good guys' because as the next few books will show the Guild is basically a giant egotistical clusterfuck. Again this is a personal belief shining through in the way I write, but it comes back to my belief that institutions cannot have honor and without good people to steer them away from bad things, they'll inevitably get nastier and nastier in the name of expediency. 

I'm left wondering why the CMC (the People's organization that is opposed to the Cultural Theorist Guild) is so dead set on wrecking Seg's raid when he can provide grand amounts of the the very energy they're so desperately hungry for.

To clarify from the story, the CWA is trying to usurp the Guild's role in raids. For centuries since the two institutions were founded, they've existed in an uneasy balance of power, with one side or the other tending to have a slight dominance. The Guild has carefully protected its formulas and methodology so that you can't kick off a raid and expect to have a good amount of success without employing a Theorist to do the scouting. On the other side, the CWA is the central vita bank of the world, and thus holds a tremendous amount of economic power.

After the disastrous Lannit raid some forty years before, the Guild took a big hit in the PR department and the relationship (which had been leaning heavily toward the Guild at that time) took a heavy turn backward. Going along with that, the CWA had been steadily implementing a policy of incremental gain- they were taking on the debts of cash-strapped Houses/raider units and absorbing them into a growing coalition.

So as mentioned in the story, the CWA has been developing their own version of the Guild in-house, with an eye toward eventually replacing the Guild altogether. Because the Guild's primary function by far is scouting and plotting raids, once that's gone they're fucked. 

The weakness of the Guild is that by and large it's a collection of fractured political cliques with little to no coherent long-term policy. After all, they've survived for centuries and why won't they just keep on surviving? The irony being that people who've studied the history and cultures of literally hundreds of worlds have been in many ways blind to their institutional decline, pointing at somebody else's house while their own is on fire.

The CWA, on the other hand, has a reasonably coherent pair of missions: protect the World from the Storm, and knock out the Guild. Even though they're full of bureaucractic knife fights, they have that much going for them and at this point of the story it's doing pretty damned well. 

As for why they're willing to dick themselves out of a load of vita, that's just taking a long-term gain over a short-term loss. They're accountants by the nature of their institution. 

And if you have to write several paragraphs after the fact to explain an important plot point, you obviously didn't communicate it well enough in-story. My bad.

And now, as a DVD extra!

The original, never-before-released-anywhere original short concept story I wrote that spawned this monstrosity.

Heh, never edited, either. I just spotted a major goof-up there, but whatever, here's the raw.

"Cultural Theorists are the very backbone of our society," Segkel said, taking a sip of water before turning away from the window toward his pupils. Behind him, the dark clouds of an afternoon storm whipped across the landscape, heat lightning shimmering as it struck in rapid, strobing pulses. His acute eye could see the tiny forms of scrabbling surface scavs darting through the dusty surface, seeking shelter or trying to pull in that last bit of precious salvage. He put his glass down on the mantle, then turn to take a slice of fruit from a proffered tray. "Cultural Theorem divides us from any number of primitive raiding societies and barbarians. Without it," he gestured toward the window. "We'd all be out there until the gates burned the planet lifeless. There would be no caj, no luxury, ultimately no survival."

The three students sat quietly, making no comment or question. Questions, of course, would come afterward, submitted in written form. Segkel actually felt that tradition to be obsolete and counterproductive, but he'd caused enough issues of Non-Orthodoxy for any two careers and really needed to occasionally demonstrate a willingness to work within the accepted bounds of the Guild. Besides, he was going to have to fail one of these seekers, and her family was likely to cause him no small amount of pain in consequence. 

He turned back toward the window as the light darkened, the storm finally arriving. The faint pattering sound of drops against the armored glass belied the driving force of the impacts as the water began sheeting down. He loved the storm, the power and the sheer chaos of it. It was much like storming through a gateway with an armored legion, pouring forth into an unsuspecting world to capture and pillage their fortresses, citadels, and cities. 

"These thoughts are first cycle training," he said. "I repeat them to drive home their vitality. The level of responsibility assumed by the CTG is enormous, crushing. Corinse, what percentage of raids bring back enough vita to justify the cost of expedition?"

She answered quickly. "Fifty-seven percent." Facts and figures were no challenges to the young woman. It was understanding the nuances of her desired profession and a basic lack of social proficiency that failed her. He nodded at her, then looked to the woman next to her.

"Usalln, what percentage of raids bring in enough vita to meet goal?" 

"Thirteen percent, mentor." This one was more promising. Sharp, incisive. Should she survive the next stage of training, she could well go far.

"Gelen, what percentage fails to return entirely?" This was something of a trick question, another of his motions to draw his final and most enigmatic pupil out. Gelen seemed to have the necessary attributes, but balanced this with a seeming dispassion for the work. He often seemed... bored. 

"Seven percent failure," the final pupil answered. "For actual complete loss of mission force. Fifteen percent recovers no vita." He offered a small smirk at having evaded the trap inherent in the question. Segkel nodded, granting him the small victory. Dispassionate but arrogant. Marks of a prodigy, as he'd thought. He'd make double sure to grind on the little bastard. Either Gelen would break, or he'd find enough challenge to get up and start actually applying himself.

"So, upon the weight of thirteen percent rests forty-three percent of failure, with twenty-two percent being abject. Non-goal expeditions bear some slack, but are still a form of failure. It is imperative that we maximize every trip through the gates. Every trip. Every trip."


"Did we evolve here, or did we immigrate by some happenstance in the distant past? Who knows? Our myths and stories contain tales of fantasy and exodus, but then so do the myths and tales of nearly every world we encounter. The irony is that we'll laboriously sift through those foreign myths to learn their ways and isolate their centers of vita, while essentially ignoring our own. This brings us to the assignment of the week- a level one survey of our own society. What are our centers of vita?"


"So when I'm finished with these three neophytes, my exile will be finished?" Sekgel paced impatiently as he fired off the question.

"Seg, you're one of the few I've ever met who regarded a home assignment as exile," his old mentor answered. "The answer lies, as always, with the Council." Jarin shook his head. "Twenty years and you're still as pig-headed and willful as ever. I tried to break you of that."

Sekgel snorted derisively. "I should apply some of your methods to the current crop. I'm sure a bit of pain-stim would work wonders. I'm going to down the Haslit neo. She'll make the Guild a good accountant."

"And when the Haslits call for your head?" Jarin drummed his fingers on the desk.

"I'll point out to the Council that we already have enough half-qualified morons running about carrying Guild badges and remind them that this training rotation was their idea. I have a job and a responsibility to the Guild, and I'll discharge it to the best of my ability." He settled into the overstuffed armchair across from Jarin.

"So what is the current assignment?" Jarin asked.

"Locate our centers of vita," Sekgel said, waving a dismissive hand. 

"Evil," Jarin said. "They'll waste the entire week tearing their hair out over that."

"Not the boy. He'll make a conclusion one way or another inside of three days. If he makes the correct assumption, he'll spend the rest of the week drinking and fucking caj. Usalln likewise may figure it out, though she'll proceed to thoroughly and exhaustively test her hypothesis, then agonize over her answer until presentation. The Haslit will probably give me a coordinate list of arenas and brothels."

"That is where we've got what little vita left, of course."

"Of course, but the point of the exercise is to demonstrate that we live in an utterly barren wasteland that wouldn't be worth raiding. The larger issue being that we're in a terminal arc of decay that is only being braked by the actions of the Guild, which is why we can't let idiots like the Haslit girl be guiding expeditions into dumps like this one."

"You've been drinking, Seg,"

"Of course I have. Why haven't you?"

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Warpworld by Kristene Perron and Joshua Simpson

Warpworld by Kristene Perron and Joshua Simpson.

So this review will feature three firsts for this series.  First of all, this is the first book I've reviewed with more than one author.  Second and likely more important, this is the first book I've reviewed where a friend of mine is one of the authors.  I've been friends with Josh Simpson for years, we've argued together, bitched, celebrated and generally carried on like a pack of manics.  That said, I've never met him in the flesh, only online but I still think of him as a good friend and why not?

Lastly and the first I am most gleeful over, this is the first review of a book I didn't pay for.  Josh was kind enough to send me a Kindle copy in exchange for my honest opinion.  Why am I telling you this?  Well, while I will swear to you that none of these things have had any impact on the review.  I think I owe to y'all to be completely up front and honest over things like do I know the author, was I given this book in expectation of a review and so on and so forth.  So expect to be told if I am reviewing a book that was given to me in exchange for a review, especially if by the author.  If it wasn't the author, I will try to mention the individual who provided me with a copy anyways, so the credit (or blame) can be shared out as everyone deserves. But enough of me being more upfront then your average games journalist, let's get to the book.

Warpworld is Ms. Perron and Mr. Simpson's first book and it is a fantasy story.  The story revolves around two lead characters Seg and Ama.  I'll be focusing a lot on them in this review because the story not only is entirely dependent on their choices and actions, but 90% of it is through their eyes.  So you'll be spending  alot of time with them if you decide to pick this book up.  Seg... Excuse me, Segkel Eraranat, Field Cultural Theorist (a cultural theorist being basically a combat anthropologist, something which tickles me pink) is a fucking asshole.  A man who has knife fought his way up from the humblest of origins to the point where he can almost see the top of the mountain of his society.  And Whoo Boy, this is a society of sharks and  piranhas.  They call themselves the People, because they don't regard anyone else they meet as people.  Just living tools they can use up as they see fit. The People however, have a problem, their world is trying to kill them via a big angry life eating thing, they call the Storm.  Frankly I can't blame the planet.  Because of this, they must open Warpgates to other worlds, attack them and rob them of people and cultural and religious artifacts.  Why cultural and religious artifacts?  Because the technology they use to travel to other worlds and to keep their planet from murdering them wholesale is powered by magic.  Don't look at me like that, it's tech that runs off the energy built up by belief and emotion, it's fucking magic!  I don't have a problem with this in all honesty but a number of books these days attempt to tell me that the magic isn't magic, which I refuse to fall for!  In fairness to the writers of warpworld, they don't try to sell me a potion of bullshit here, they get the characters to try to sell me a potion of bullshit.  Which I can live with.  Seg would roll his eyes at me and tell me firmly that this is not magic... And he would be full of shit, but characters are sometimes full of shit and often the story is better for it.

Anyways, back to Seg.  He has been commissioned to find artifacts and sites of great religious and cultural impotence so one of the many armed forces of the People (divided between mercenaries and Noble Houses, because the People are to big a collection of Dicks to bite the bullet and centralize their armies for the greater good) can come through the warpgate and loot them dry!  This of course isn't a new thing, the People have been doing this since Seg's grandfather's grandfather was a bouncing baby boy.  So there are procedures, codes, regulations.  Seg, despite being on his very first real mission... Believes he knows better then people who have been doing this entire lives.  Because he is a genius and everyone else is a moron.  He's not shy about letting people know they're morons either.  I told you he was an asshole.  What keeps him bearable is his willingness to admit when he doesn't know something and the fact that he keeps his word to the last.  Additionally is his utter refusal to leave people behind or stab them in the back.  Seg is also very forthright and blunt, which makes me wonder how the hell he survived in his society but it does add to his entertainment value.  All in all, Seg keeps from being unbearable or a big enough dick that I am not consumed with hatred for him.  I don't know if I like him... But I respect him and I enjoy his toils and efforts. Plus I usually hate the people he's being an asshole to more. Sometimes I'm even sympathetic to the amount of shit he's going through. Besides to be fair, given his culture and his experiences growing up he's practically Ghandi.  I mean imagine being surrounded by people who are not only waiting for you fail, but are wanting you to fail so they can send you off to a life of backbreaking labor and humiliation.  Now imagine this is your life from the age of something like 9...

I'd be a raging asshole to, on my good days.

On the flip side of the coin we have Captain Amadahy Kalder of the Kenda.  She and her people have a problem.  This problem is a another group of people named the Shasir.  The Shasir are a group of people who had the industrial revolution first on their planet.  Unlike the Europeans of our world though, the Shasir decided to make a religion out this and ensure that only those who entered and climbed the ranks of their priesthood would be allowed to study and understand the resulting technology.  Using firearms and airships, they proceeded to conquer and subdue a good chunk of the globe. Including the part the Kenda were living on.  The Kenda are a waterbound people, they worship a water god, love to sail on boats, make water oaths and metaphors so on and so forth.  They're very much an oppressed people however and the book shows us this through little things (conversations and interactions between the characters) that the Kenda's lives are ringed around with restrictions and obstacles both grand and petty.  In alot of ways it's kinda like looking back at the lives of the some of the colonized peoples here.  Although the Kenda are not without privileges, being better off then the other subdued people, the Welf.

 The Welfs don't really get to speak for themselves in this novel, the story isn't about them, they're just more or less background to it.  Although we do get a couple of moments that shine a light on their lives.  They live on the bottom of the social and economic order.  There are no Welf priests (there are Kenda priests), no Welf land owners or anything like that.  The Welf have 3 roles in society.  To grub in the mud so their betters can eat without toil.  To serve as their maids and cooks and other low level servants and to perform the work no one else wants to.  Honestly the Welf made me a bit uncomfortable, calling back indirectly to parts of American History I rather not think about to often... But that adds to the realism. The Shasir are a imperialist, racist bunch of assholes who have seized control of large chunks (if not all) of their planet through better technology and being willing to use it and horde it.  Course that kind of empire is fragile, Seg himself openly states that Shasir empire couldn't last more then another 2 or 4 generations but it can and will smash alot of people into the mud, for no better reason then who their parents were, in that time frame.  Worse, it'll do so because that's one of the things it was designed to do.  I don't know if the writers were trying to make the point that imperialism isn't very nice and is often a dirty, nasty business... But they did a good job of making that point without giving any lectures or rubbing your nose in it.  The actions and thoughts of the characters drive that point home without any really calling attention to it.  

As for Ama herself.  I didn't like her at first.  Not because she's unpleasant or anything.  She's a fairly nice person as far as characters go, it's just...  Let me just ask if this sounds familiar...  She is a person fighting against what her society and family expects of her, trying to reach her own dreams.  Her mother died when she was young and she wants nothing more then to be a free ship Captain.  Her family on the other hand wants her to settle down and get married and live a respectable life.  Her society isn't very keen on a woman Ship Captain (which I admit is very silly of them).  As such she finds herself arguing with her Father, who Just Doesn't Understand!  I call this standard fantasy protagonist number 3, variant b.  For Ama to be variant a, she would have be a child or a teenager, a very popular choice in fantasy books, in fact I'm not sure Mercedes Lackey has actually written any other kind of character.  That might be unfair dig at Ms. Lackey, and this isn't a review of one of her books, so I'll stop there.

Thankfully Ama, doesn't spend a lot of time acting like standard fantasy protagonist number 3b.  She doesn't mope around and wish for adventures and whine and nag and generally act like a angsting teen.  Note to aspiring and published writers, reading someone whine and angst gets old... FAST.  Instead Ama does stuff. She plots, schemes, fights, swims, sails and curses.  It also helps that she actually pretty good at at least some of that.   Additionally, she's not moping around wanting a higher destiny or anything, she just wants to be allowed to sail her damn boat.  Which is a reasonable desire in my book and a point her favor.  Ama doesn't want to be a princess or an archmage... Or run around with a magic white horse with an over inflated sense of it's own importance (okay I'll stop now).  She just wants people to leave her alone and let her be a ship captain and she's willing to work to that end.  When she discovers Seg's secret, her reaction is "how do I make this work for my people and for me?"  It's realistic, pragmatic and decisive, which makes Ama and her decisions frankly a breath of fresh air compared to say Shadow Ops, nor does Ama sit around moodily and wonder about her enemies like a certain jumped up Starship captain (I still like that character, but there are bits I could do without).  Additionally pragmatic and decisive is her willingness to go behind Seg's back to warn her people and family and make sure they get the most out of this.  Frankly I approve this, she isn't willing to let the best interests of her family and friends take a back seat to some dude she meet a few days ago.  Ama is fairly straightforward and easy to deal with once you realize that she isn't protagonist 3b, or if she is, she's a very well done one who isn't constrained by the mold.  Honestly I like her more then I like Seg, but Seg is the more interesting of the two characters.  Additionally, his goals and plans end up pretty much superseding Ama's.  So what Seg is going to do next towards the end of the book becomes alot more important then what is Ama going to do next.

I also enjoyed a number of the secondary characters, like Brin, Ama's cousin.  Seg's mentor Jarin, a cunning and crafty old man with his own mission and his own possibly shady past.  He seems to have been in Seg's position before in a lot of ways and is trying to keep the kid from repeating his mistakes. Seg seems to feel that Jarin hasn't done him that many favors coming up, but considering the fact that someone with Seg's lack of connections and rather smart mouth is still breathing...  I kinda think Jarin has spent a lot of time giving Seg cover. However, my favorite minor character is hands down the old rogue that is Viren.  Who we met trying to rob Seg when he stumbles around a port city after being drugged by Ama (I told she was pragmatic didn't I?).  Viren was a bit of treat for me.  He's sly, clever and irrelevant and completely refuses to take this shit seriously. He's no Han Solo but he is pretty fun.  Just don't ever play cards with the man.

There are drawbacks to the story.  I felt the action scenes were overall pretty average.  Not bad just... Average.  They are competently written and plotted out, I was never left lost or confused but they lack a certain edge.  The mass firefight at the end of the book for example didn't quite click for me.  I enjoyed reading it but I was also sitting thinking "that's not how it would really work..."  This might be my own life experiences working against me, plus I'm not a huge fan of 'large masses of under equipped enemies throw themselves in frontal assaults against dug in enemies with better weapons.'  Yes, it's happened more than a few times in history.  Yes, it makes perfect sense in the context of the story.  I'm still just not a fan.  I'm hoping to see more even fights later in the series.

The antagonists are the weakest part of the story.  We don't get much of a sense of them, other then one member of the people being ambitious and petty and a law enforcer being an utter bastard for reasons unknown.  For the most part the antagonists are a faceless mass.  The People's society and the Shasir empire are the main antagonist forces in this book, only they are left without spokesmen (or spokeswomen) to speak to their side of the story or to give an opposing viewpoint to the characters.  Instead everyone who opposes them is a petty, ambitious bastard, an utter psychopath or a deluded victim.  I'm left wondering why the CMC (the People's organization that is opposed to the Cultural Theorist Guild) is so dead set on wrecking Seg's raid when he can provide grand amounts of the the very energy they're so desperately hungry for.   Why is the Constable so fired up to see Ama put in what he thinks is her place?  For that matter why is he so anti-Kenda?  That said, they serve fairly well as forces or individuals that are dangerous to our characters.  Ama and Seg bleed, they get beat up, they have problems and suffer.  This is not an easy walk over for them, unlike some professionally published stories I could name.  So there is more then enough tension in the story to keep you turning the pages.  For that matter, you don't feel like the antagonists are absolute idiots (Seg's opinion not withstanding, but he thinks almost everyone is an idiot), it's just you're not very sure their motivations or their goals expect in a vague broad sense (keep the Shasir in power, get more power over the People and get more magic energy to keep the planet from killing us, stuff like that).  The antagonists are serviceable but nothing more.

Warpworld rests on the character of it's protagonists and their relationship with each other.  Which is a dynamic evolving relationship between two people with their own goals and desires.  The relation is also put under strain by the stakes and tensions of the situation and how Seg's and Ama's goals align or clash depending on the situation.  Which works fairly well.  It makes for a strong interesting story with enough bad things happening to the protagonists to keep it interesting.  This is good first book for these authors and a good start to the series (there are something like 4 more books) and I can recommend these books with a clear conscience.

Warpworld gets a B+, the lack of attention to the antagonists and averageness of the action keep it from going any higher but the well written plot and characterization lift it firmly out of the average run of the mill fantasy.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945

The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 by John Toland 

The Rising Sun, was written in 1970 by John Toland, who is a known historian, this isn't his first book, nor was it his last.  This book was written from interviews from Japanese Generals, Admirals and government officials.  As well as a number of veterans and civilian witnesses.  Interesting to note, Toland married a Japanese woman.  I'm not sure how it impacted the book but all things considered I think it was a factor. A massive book even without counting acknowledgements and the index it's 877 pages which meant it took me awhile to crawl through.  I found it worthwhile however.

The book while focusing on events from 1936 to 1945 (the period of hostilities on the Asian front in World War II), it also discusses events from the Japanese-Russian war and events in the 1920s but not in any great detail.  The opening introduces us to the concept of Gekokujo, rebellion against authorities for the greater good of the nation (I'm skipping a number of subtleties).  Gekokujo which claims the tale of 47 Ronin as it's inspiration becomes a source of much of the instability and trouble that shook Japan in the 20s and 30s.  One of these events was the 2/26 Incident, an uprising of jr. officers ideologically motivated they attempted a wholesale purge of the government, including the Prime Minister of the time Okada, who they hated for supporting a recent Naval Treaty they felt unfairly limited Japanese power.  The uprising failed, but none of the members of the cabal were punished beyond being dismissed from the Army.  This happened in 1936.

Events like this and others (for example Japanese ship Captains refusing to preform convoy escort duty because it wasn't proper warrior duty) makes a convincing case that the Japan's officer corps was Japan's worse enemy.  The Japanese government comes off as very unstable and insecure here, only one mistake from violent overthrow and held together only by everyone's honest and shockingly deep loyalty to the Emperor.   Seriously even the Japanese Communist Party is quoted as wanting to keep the Emperor. Which makes them the 3rd weirdest Communist Party I've ever heard of in fiction or history.  Still this book offers a fascinatingly deep and complex look at the mechanisms and inner working of the Japanese Government before and during the war.

 The book examines Japan's war in China, but strangely glosses over the details.  The Rape of Nanking is mentioned but barely gone into.  This establishes a frankly worrying pattern in the book.  Japanese crimes and excesses will be mentioned (although unit 731 isn't mentioned at all) but glossed over or excused.  I found this a glaring problem in the book, this is a suppose to be an honest discussion of the Japanese Empire in WWII.  I get this is suppose to be from the Japanese point of view but given these were Japanese crimes, shouldn't they be discussed?

Additionally is Toland's attempts to justify Japanese actions and repeated statements that America simply had no business waging war.  I will quote page 146:

"Finally, America made a grave diplomatic blunder by allowing an issue not vital to her basic interests-the welfare of China-to become, at the last moment, the keystone of her foreign policy."  And on the same page:

"More important, by equating Japan with Nazi Germany, her diplomats had maneuvered their nation into two completely different wars, one in Europe against Fascism, and one in the Orient that was linked with the aspirations of all Asians for freedom from the white man's bondage"

While I am not as learned as Toland, I feel educated enough to declare my total disagreement with these statements.  It was completely in American interest to prevent a militarist, brutal empire from gaining domination of Asia no matter what their racial origin.  This is not to defend European or even American colonialism, which deserved to be torn down.  That said Japanese victory did not mean lifting the boot from the oppressed peoples of Asia.  It simply meant trading one boot for another.  There is after all a reason why many of the resistance groups fighting the European colonial governments decided to continue the battle against the Japanese.  And while the Japanese military was welcomed at first as liberators, their conduct and open racism quickly wore out their welcome.  I invite those who disagree to by all means ask the Chinese and Vietnamese how they felt about Japanese occupation and I will point out neither nation really has any reason to do the US any favors.  I would be dishonest if I didn't admit that this affected the book's grade.

Rising Sun also covered the attempts on both sides (American and Japanese) to reach a peace, with the Japanese government and it's military staff feeling that a war with America was incredibly dangerous and best avoided.  Of course the Japanese also implanted a secret deadline where they would start the war if they hadn't achieved acceptable peace terms.  To cover for the fleet steaming Pearl Harbor they kept talking however.

We also get a look at the planning of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  We get to know Admiral Yamamoto, who going off this book was a great Admiral, but also way to addicted to gambling.  Something that would be ruinous for the Japanese fleet in the future. From the post Pearl Harbor celebrations (and there were celebrations) we are taken to every major battlefield and fleet engagement of the war, getting both a first hand look from statements and stories of the soldiers and officers who fought (mostly Japanese because again, a book from the Japanese side of the war) and the view from headquarters.   These segments also cement my belief that the Japanese officer corps was the Japanese Empire greatest enemy. During Guadalcanal we are brought to bear witness to amazing amounts of infighting and backbiting between senior staff on the island.... WHILE THEY ARE UNDER FIRE AND OUTNUMBERED BY INVADING AMERICAN FORCES!  The rampant insanity is on full display here. Nor are these isolated incidents, Japanese officers would engage in frankly moronic behavior right up until the very end.

We watch the reactions as the frontiers of the Empire inevitably and relentlessly shrank towards the main islands of Japan.  We see denial, hysteria and obsession with the divisive battle.  A number of Japanese senior officers were utterly convinced that if they could just force a big enough battle where they won and inflicted big enough causalities on the Americans, they would force America to come to the peace table.  It worked for them against the Russians in the early 1900s, but this was a utterly different war... But they refused to accept it.

We also see the Japanese officer corps refusal to accept reality even up to Okinawa, where officers would insist on leading manic charges against dug in American units... Despite knowing they were worthless tactically.  This denial carried on even after the Atom bombing where we read about Japanese Generals begging the government to be allowed to lead people with muskets and spears against the incoming American invasion.  I used to think this was just people trying to hold on to power, but considering some of these Generals committed suicide in a gambit to change the Emperor's mind... Not so much after this book.

I am left utterly convinced that the atom bombings were necessary after this book however.

So summing up.  This book is a great source of history.  It is a direct look at the officers and officials who lead Japan into the greatest war in history and into it's most disastrous defeat. It pry's back the curtains and let's use see what was going on in the palace antechambers, the meeting rooms and smokey meeting rooms where policy was decided and examine why those policies were chosen.  It shows us the mindset and desires of the lower level officers on the ground who carried out those policies.  Introduces us to the grunts and civilians who felt the effects of those policies.


It avoids really looking at the negative effects of those policies, often coming near white washing or throwing out justifications like the Japanese had to conqueror Manchuria to protect it from the Communist. In short I think Toland allowed his attachment to Japan and the Japanese people to cloud his judgement.  I admit I could be being unfair to the man.  This book was written in 1970 when the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China seemed a looming, unending threat.  But, in the end, politics and personal attachment can be seen influencing this book.  Which means that as a source for someone looking for information in the war this book is invaluable... But it should never be given to a beginning student of history nor read without counterbalancing sources that will point out just where Toland is sweeping things under the rug or is just plain wrong in his assertions.

Because of this, The Rising Son: Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 by John Toland gets a B.  It's undeniable value as a history source keep it high, but the writers own bias drag it down.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings

1914 by Max Hastings. 

"The great lords have quarrelled, and we must pay for it with our blood, our wives and children" German POW to Countess Turczynowicz page 410.

Yeah I'm pretty much going to refer to the book as 1914 from here on out.  It's a damn long title.  1914 focuses on the year 1914 as you could have guessed, the first year of World War I.  A glance at the calendar should suffice as to why I've decided to review this book.   World War I was the end of a world order, of the empires and nations that fought that war 5 of them would suffer a collapse of government or utter destruction of the nation itself the entire European system suffered terrible injuries that it would never recover from.  That said, as an American, I've primarily been taught to view WWI as the prologue of World War II.  While in Europe I'm told World War I looms larger, which honestly makes sense given they fought it longer and paid a higher cost for doing so.

"Where a Serb dwells, there is Serbia"
Popular Serbian Catch phrase page 17

Anyways, Hastings starts before the war discussing the radical group the Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist group whose goal was to drive Austria Hungary out of the Balkans and establish a Greater Serbia or Yugoslavia. The Black Hand was supported by elements within the Serbian government including the head of military intelligence Col. Dragutin Dimitrijevic aka Apis.  The Black Hand was a vicious group, responsible for a number of crimes before the war.  He goes into the domestic situation of each of the major combatants, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and Austria-Hungary.  A note is made of the social unrest simmering (and in Britain outright boiling) in all of these nations.  The German leaders are noted for outright stating that a good victorious war was just the thing to keep the Socialists under heel.  The assassination of Sophie and Franz Ferdinand by Princip is shown as the small match that lit the fuse.  Interestingly enough, Franz Ferdinand is shown to be rather unpopular among the nobility of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, but the fact that the heir to the throne (and his socially embarrassing Czech wife) was murdered by a Serb was too much to be borne.  This is where the gears began to turn.

Here Hasting begins a short examination of who should bear the blame of the war.  It's a matter of some disagreement and interestingly enough Hasting argues (somewhat convincingly) that the blame for the war lays on Austria Hungary and Germany in the main.  Mostly Germany though, as the Germans are shown to be perfectly willing to start a European wide war believing   A lot of the book is devoted to the months of June and July the build up of the war, showing the stances of the men in power a number of whom were rather blase about sending millions of men off to war.  An interesting note is that the President of France Poincare was in Russia or sailing back to France during most of the buildup to war, rendering him out of touch for the most part.

"You soldiers ought to be very please that we have arranged such a nice war for you" Foreign Ministry official to General Knox page 260.

Then the war starts, Hasting covers both the western and eastern front, although I feel he devotes just a bit more time to the western front (given that most of the people reading this would be westerners, I suppose that's forgivable).  I learned the most reading about the Eastern front, which was an appalling exercise of incompetence, beyond what I had even imagined.  The Austrian and Russian lack of a logistic system alone is enough to make a man weep!  Add in their officer corps and being a soldier in that army seems more like a punishment from an angry God, seriously folks this is so bad it would be comedy if it wasn't so damn heart breaking.  The Austrians alone would send half their army into Serbia only to get their asses whupped. The sheer level of idiocy on display should be enough to convert any believer of the superiority of nobility into a die hard Republican for life.  The Austrians would do no better against the Russians, whose army wasn't what I would call expertly lead.  The German army was the best army in the theater but even then it was plagued by over optimistic leadership and greatly inflated expectations.  Which often left them over extended.

"We must wait and see whether it will be such a nice war after all." General Knox's reply.

Over on the western front, we get a examination of the first French offensive and the sheer disaster it entitled. What really shocked me was how in the month of August both armies were willing to use tactics that were used in the American Civil War.  As in men marching in column and line to attack dug in troops with bolt action rifles and machine guns.   Slaughter doesn't begin to cover the results.  Thankfully everyone involved moved pass these tactics quickly but frankly they didn't have much of a choice!  Even has it stands, there are casualties like regiments of 57 officers and 2629 enlisted to 6 officers and 748 enlisted in a single day.  That's more than American forces in Iraq lost in a year.  While Hasting doesn't linger on this, he does call attention to the human cost of the war.  From German troops obsessing over finding francs-tireurs, civilians in occupied France and Belgium who were operating against them and the ruthless measures they took (burning whole villages over a rumor for example or taking thousands of hostages).  This book is very good at showing us just how awful and brutal the war was while not turning it into a show of horrors.

"The gentlemen pass without one car stopping to pick the most exhausted [casualties]. The major mustn't be late for his roast!" Edouard Coeurdevey French soldier page 529

Another subject of note that attracts my attention is the sheer indifference that the upper ranks showed to their men.  In the modern US military being treated in such a fashion by our leaders would seem practically unthinkable.  I didn't see my battalion CO often, but I knew he was up in the front somewhere when we invaded Iraq.  He wasn't chilling out in a hotel in Kuwait City.   I think I prefer our system.

1914 is a very good and informative book.  Easy to understand peppered with quotes like the ones I've been using throughout this review.  It is a thick book at 566 pages (but given the sheer amount of things to cover, I can't blame Hastings for that) but I don't think that's a problem.  Hasting does take positions on the matters of who started the war and whether or not things would have been any better if the Germans had won.  He asserts (although not much proof is given) that a Europe that saw Central Powers victory would be a worse off Europe than the one that saw Allied victory.  While I honestly agree with him, I feel he doesn't present much in the way of evidence for that and that does pull the score down. Additionally the jumping back and forth between the East and Western front is not something I've fond of.  I would have preferred to see each front covered completely before moving on the next one, but that's a personal preference.

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hasting gets a B+, it was greatly informative but not as much as Persian Fire. Then again, maybe WWI shouldn't be that much fun.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Lost Fleet: Fearless

The Lost Fleet: Fearless by Jack Campbell.

We continue with the adventures of Captain John Geary and his fleet trapped behind enemy lines.  Which makes this the first review of a sequel!  Yay!

How did I feel about this sequel?  On the whole I enjoyed it, while a friend of mine did warn me that the series got worse as continued, I don't feel this degraded to much... While I did enjoy Dauntless a bit more, I feel Fearless was pretty close to it in quality.  However... I feel this book missed an opportunity.   That the story that Campbell decided to tell was in fact not the best story he could have told.  But I'll get into that.

Fearless, opens with Captain Geary storming another Syndicate star system (this starts to run the risk of becoming routine), we see the fleet is still uneasy under his leadership, with ships breaking formation and running face first into a minefield (thus starting a theme in this book).   They also in the opening chapters find a Syndicate labor camp, filled with Alliance POWs.  Captain Geary of course liberates the prisoners, really he couldn't do anything else both the book he's based on command on and the fleet that's shown itself twitchy with his leadership demand it.  Still there's a ticking bomb coming onboard with those prisoners.  A rival for the loyalty and command of the fleet, Captain Fighting Falco!  When it was revealed that this was a guy that was idolized by the officers of the fleet, dreaded by the political leaders of the Alliance and a man who caused great damage to Syndicate fleets (and Alliance fleets for that matter).  Here's where I feel the missed opportunity, see the big problem is that the various elements of the fleet that don't like Geary have no one to rally around.  Well here's a guy on a silver platter!  And they do!  Kinda.  I'll avoid spoilers, but it's resolved way to quickly and relatively painlessly.  This should have been the centerpiece of the book, as it's the only conflict that Geary could actually lose!  Falco was more interesting as a nemesis then the faceless Syndicate fleet or Geary's inner demons.  I mean yes, we do see Geary wrestling with self doubt and so on but it's a understated conflict in this book. But no, Falco is really more a cameo role in this book, which saddens me deeply. Falco should have been the glorious charismatic warlord contrasted with the professional disciplined officer but I didn't get that.  I got two bloody conservations and no public confrontations, no sneaky maneuvers and counter maneuvers.  I mean come one, I get Captain Geary is suppose to be the lone soldier of civilization amongst the barbarians brought to their lowly state by unending war, but I've seen officers in professional militaries, these fuckers know how to politic!  I almost wish this series had been written by an enlisted man (or woman) then we would get officers as sneaky motherfuckers.

The quarrel with Co-President Roine actually takes up more of the book but honestly isn't all that interesting. Captain Geary has plan that takes the fleet even deeper into enemy space in order to throw the Syndicate into confusion and dismay. It also rest on the fact that Geary understands the older form of FTL he's keeping the fleet reliant on. Roine accuses him of glory hounding and betraying her trust in a screaming match but the fight really doesn't hold my interest.  The stakes are that Roine will stop regarding Geary with any respect and start working against him, but she's smart enough to realize that there isn't much she can actually do without killing everyone else in the fleet so at best all she can do is bide her time (which makes her screaming fight with Geary actually kinda stupid for a politician, but I'll chalk that up to emotion).  They weren't all that close before the fight, being allies with a limited level of trust, so it's not like I'm watching a friendship die. Speaking of emotion, I don't think it's a spoiler to mention that they literally kiss and make up.  This was telegraphed a bit given that it was specifically mentioned to Geary that it was perfectly legal for him to sleep with the Co-President as she wasn't under his command.  The relationship is really... Kinda of lukewarm, they both seem to be sleeping with each other because there's no one else they can sleep with and the tension is getting to them.  While they do seem to get more friendly with each other it's a very restrained friendship where neither side is big on trusting each other.  But neither side dares start sticking knives in each back either so there's no thrill of danger there.  I'm way more interested in the conflict between Roine and Flag Captain Desjani, as that is a fight that we're not allowed to know anything else (as they won't discuss it with Geary our viewpoint character) but this is a fight where the fighters can dare hurt each other and work against other.

That said the fighting does get more exciting, because there is less Geary shouting orders that mean absolutely nothing to me and more descriptions of what is actually going on!  This is much better and it is I think an improvement.  This is partly because Geary is forced to stand on the sidelines and watch a gifted subordinate do the fighting and thus Campbell is forced to tell me what Geary is actually seeing.  Here the mechanics of fighting at a range measured in light minutes without FTL sensors or coms which means by the time Geary sees the fight, it was over hours ago (as this is a detached task force doing it's own thing).  We also see some short ground combat scenes, which are utterly glossed over, but since this is a navy series, I'll let that slide.  I will note that for someone who's suppose to be squeaky clean, Geary's tactics in maintaining troop safety in a city would drive many people into frothing fury and denounce him as a war criminal.  You know, what with leveling entire city blocks to create a safe zone for his Marines looting foot from a city after orbitally bombarding several planets.

I'll be fair, Geary's choices are loot foot and supplies from the Syndicates or have the fleet decay around him as he is trapped behind enemy lines and surrounded.  But he's still looting cities while talking about the rules of war.  I kinda find it funny, course that may be because of my experience in the war, after the invasion I was searched before I was allowed to go home to prevent Marines from looting the Iraqis.  I didn't object to this honestly, the average Iraqi I saw was living in a mud hut, they needed the gold in Saddam's palaces more then I did after all (although a pile of gold the size of toilet sure would have came in handy over the years, all well), although it did bother that it seemed that others higher up the food chain were allowed to loot. In some ways it seems troops aren't allowed to loot anymore because the privilege has been handed off to polite soft voiced men in suits.  I'm not arguing that I should have been allowed to loot, it would have been wrong.  Still at least I would have fought for it, the suits did really little to justify their looting beyond having MBAs. Well that was a weird divergence and I apologize.

Eh anyways, the book ends with Geary's command solidified, which I honest regard as a mistake.  So far there's little drama in the conflict with the Syndicate, they charge in like barbarians and are faceless and characterless.  All the real character conflict comes from the Alliance Fleet trying to buck Geary's leadership.  It was still a good read though and if you can get past losing that, it's fun to read.

Lost Fleet: Fearless gets a B- While full of lost opportunities, the fact that it fixed the problem with combat and expanded several characters and added a new one that I find interesting gets it the grade.

That said it's time for a break from Lost Fleet.  I'm gonna dive back into history.  Next up is Catastrophe: 1914 Europe Goes to War by Max Hasting.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless 

tLFD by Jack Campbell is a retired navy officer (bloody hell this is going to turn into a theme isn't it?) who turned his hand to writing Space Opera books. For those of you who don't know, Space Opera is a sub set of science fiction, focusing on dramatic adventures in space often on a grand scale.  Basically, think stuff like Star Wars (or for my truly nerdy brothers and sisters Farscape) and you're pretty much in the right ballpark. Space Opera tends towards the soft side of science fiction (soft vs hard is the scale to determine how much the story conforms to our modern understanding of physics vs how much magic pretending to be technology is in the story) but there are examples of Hard Sci-Fi Space Opera, they're just rare.

Lost Fleet isn't Hard Sci-Fi but it brings a bit of hardness to the table so to speak.  But I should actually get to the damn book right?

The Lost Fleet is about Captain John Geary, a man out of time.  See 100 years ago, the convoy he was escorting was ambushed.  Captain Geary turned and to buy the rest of the ships under his command time to escape, attacked his enemies (a rival human space power known as the Syndics) and went down fighting saving everyone else in the process.  Well, actually he survived, in a damaged escape pod that held him stasis for 100 years.  100 years where his own state The Alliance remained locked in a war to the death with the Syndicates.  Captain Geary is rescued by an Alliance fleet about to launch a crippling surprise attack on the enemy capital and end the war!  Huhhhh Expect not.  The fleet has walked into an ambush, the Admiral is dead and the last thing he did was give Captain Geary command of the fleet and ask him to get everyone home.   And that's when the story starts.

Geary soon learns that fighting the enemy is the (ridiculously) easy part.  The Alliance navy taken by surprise and starting the war on the back foot was desperate for ways to keep up morale.  They needed heroes, legends, tales to inspire and examples to follow.  So they took the missing Captain John Geary and turned him into "Black" Jack Geary, SuperCaptain!  Hero!  Demigod! Pinnacle of Virtue!  Conveniently not here to disagree with Command!  That legend would take on a life on it's own and become practically a religious belief.  A religious belief that Captain John Geary doesn't and in fact can't share.  A religious belief that haunts him and is at time his strongest asset and at others the heaviest mill stone around his neck.

Worse is the changes to his fleet in the century since his *cough* glorious charge.  The war has turned into a devouring maelstrom of combat on a scale not possible for people who only live on one planet to grasp.  As such both sides are short of everything.  Short of ships, short of training, short of experienced officers and NCOs who could fix that problem.  Basically the only things they seem to have a lot of are weapons and men and women willing to charge at the enemy no matter the odds for a slim chance of killing someone before being blown out of the void.  Geary has to convince these men and women that fighting as disciplined unit in a formation isn't some strange coward way of war but is in fact the key to victory.  He also has to do this while convincing a head of an allied state (who is also a Senator in his own state which honestly seems strange to me, this like having the Prime Minister of Holland be a US Senator) that he's not some kind of
demagogue out to win more glory on a quest for personal power.  Because his life was complicated enough simply being trapped behind enemy lines with a military unit that has turned into a professional soldiers nightmare of a how a military unit works.

Now, like I mentioned, I served 4 years in the United States Marine Corps but I'm hardly God's gift to warfare.  But even I can see the problem with the idea that the Captains of the fleet are all suppose to vote on their course of action and the majority rules (Why even have admirals anymore?).  Staff officers don't exist, the manpower needs of the war have sucked them all away to line officers positions.  No one really knows how to fight in a formation, which is harder then you might think because Campbell did decide to interject some realism here.  While FTL is a thing, all combat takes place at Slower then Light Speed because FLT combat is impossible.  Additionally there are no FTL sensors.  You have to depend on light speed sensors.  This might not sound like problem... Until you realize that in such an environment if an enemy fleet (oh for example) were to drop into orbit around Neptune... We wouldn't see the event until 4 hours later.  4 hours in which that enemy fleet is moving in an unknown direction and speed.  This makes space combat somewhat problematic. Fighting in formations that are light minutes across (Oh did I mention there are no FTL comms either?  So it might take 15 or 20 minutes for your orders to reach someone... In the middle of a shooting match.  This is hell for any officer who wants to retain direct control).  Now it's certainly possible, but it takes very specialized training to do (which makes sense) and the skill was lost given the heavy causalities of war.  In short, these people fight like Hollywood knights only they're using weapons that could vaporize entire cities.

Luckly Geary was trained before the war.

Geary is a wonderfully done character, he doubts and worries enough to seem human but resists those doubts and fears enough that you're rolling your eyes at Emo McAngst Broodypants.  He's confident and capable in his skills but victory is more a result of him being the only one with those skills.  Captain Geary is not presented as a tactical or strategic genius.  He's just a professional in an environment where no one else has had the training and education he has had.  I really like him.  Which is a good thing because the book is relentlessly in first person and the only view point we get is Geary's.  Which does help increase the uncertainly but I do wish I could have see inside some of the other character's heads.  I also like Co-President Rione, the allied head of state accompanying the fleet (which is a multi-national unit now) who is both ally and problem for Geary.  As she doesn't trust him and worries about him overthrowing the Republican government of the Alliance and installing himself as a dictator.   Rione comes off as clever and capable in her own right, a person who is against our main character but with good reason.  Which keeps this book from devolving into Geary is always right and everyone who doesn't like him is a moronic asshole (although we have plenty of those, there's always at least one in every group right?).

I do have problems with this book though.  First off, I have problems buying the idea of a industrial Total War that lasted 100 years with no long term truces or cease fires.  Even pre-industrial conflicts like the 30 years war or the famed 100 year war itself had long stretches of time (decades for the 100 year war) where both sides maintained truces and such.  That you can maintain a stalemate for a 100 years while pouring continents worth of metal and men into the fire with no break seems... Well impossible to me.  Additionally at some point you would think someone would break down and just start talking or that in a century of constant conflict to the point where there's not even enough time to fully train your officer corps, one side would seize the advantage by accident at least!  The story and the characters are good enough to carry me through that, but it still detracts from my enjoyment.

Another problem is the combat.  Which is to easy and well... Kinda slow and a bit boring.  It's very realistic given that Campbell has refused to use Star Trek style FTL comms and sensors  but it doesn't really make for pulse pounding combat.  It kinda makes me wish we could drag Myke Cole in here because the combat scenes were one part of his book that were fairly well done.  This means if you aren't interested in politics, character relationships or in John Geary... You won't like this book.  On one hand, I like Campbell's grasp of what the technology actually means on the other hand, I really wish for some actual excitement in the battle scences, which play out as Geary watching things that happened minutes to hours ago and waiting for other things to happen, while radioing in orders that most of us aren't going to really understand.  For example:

"Formation Fox Five Five, increase down angle at two zero at time three eight."

I have no clue what is being said here, other then Formation so and so, do something else in 38 minutes. Which isn't really pulse pounding is it?  All well.  Despite that I enjoyed the book very much and it is currently the best fiction book to show up in this review (I hope it doesn't hold the title long, I'd really like to see more awesome fiction show up here).

The Lost Fleet Dauntless gets a B-  A good book, but combat and the problems buying the setting are holding it down.  Still I enjoyed it enough to get the sequel Lost Fleet Fearless, which I will be reviewing next!  Breaking the fiction-non fiction pattern because you should learn to expect the unexpected.