Friday, December 18, 2015

Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia

Son of the Black Sword
by Larry Correia

Okay, let me grasp the bull by the horns. I've discussed my stance on some things Mr. Correia is/was involved with. I'm not doing it again, and my opinion has not changed. If you're interested go take a look at the first and so far only sidebar I've posted. While I have differences of opinion with Mr. Correia politically, there are also things I agree with him over. That said I don't think such things are relevant in a discussion about his books. So on to the book!

This is the second book of Mr. Correia's I'll have reviewed here, unlike the last one, this book is the first in a series! So unlike Monster Hunter Nemesis a reader doesn't need knowledge from half a dozen prior books to really appreciate what's going on. It's not that I'm against long series mind you, but I do feel that the industry seems hell bent on turning every story into a 7 to 12 book series... Which is unnecessary. Some stories do need that kind of space to tell their tales, but a number of series really went longer then they should of (Wheel of Time is the poster boy of this to me. That's right! I said it!). But I digress.

Unlike the other two series of Mr. Correia's that I've read. Son of the Black Sword is a more or less straight fantasy. Being a fantasy taking place on another world, we of course have... Backstory! In this case long ago, the Gods went to War and cast Demons out of heaven. Unfortunately the aim of the Gods leaves a lot to be desired as those Demons landed on the world of men. Unprepared and unwarned the Demons were able to cause widespread destruction and chaos, and basically brought about the downfall of civilization, as demons tend to do. The gods realizing that this little oops was on them sent a great hero to save mankind, his name was Ramrowan and he united mankind, taught them magic and created the weapons they needed to kill demons. Under his divine leadership they fought back and drove the demons literally into the sea. The Demons however were not destroyed, instead they remain in the sea, lurking, waiting and at times attacking the land seeking weakness. So they may once again throw down the works of mankind and bring ruin. To ensure that this would never happen, the sons and daughters of Ramrowan were made into kings and priests. The 1% if you will. Over the generations, they grew degenerate, venial and cruel. Until unable to bear their unjust rule anymore, the people rose up, killing many of the Kings and Priests and forcing their relatives into a subservience. Mankind then established The Law, creating a stable society that had a place for everyone and put everyone in their place and ensured that a watch would be kept on the sea... Or did they?

The society that rules the continent of Lok, which due to the ocean being a demon infested death trap is completely cut off from the outside world, is an harsh, demanding one. A complex Caste system sprawls over the land, locking men and women into social roles dictated by birth. The Castes themselves have internal ranks and hierarchies as well. A man (or woman) can move up the ranks of their Caste, but they can never hope to move beyond that. Political administration and power is handled by Great Houses ruled by noble families served by military families, fed by farming families, with goods and services provided by merchant families. Meanwhile the dirty, painful disgusting jobs are handled by the untouchables. A group of people who are literally lower then slaves, slaves usually being war captives or debtors, who unlike the untouchables can be freed. The system itself is maintained by a number of organizations who exist outside the control of the Great Houses. The Judges, who hear and decide the law. The Inquisitors who seek for those who would subvert or corrupt the law. The Protectors, who fight and kill those who would openly defy the law and also fight and kill outside threats to society (like Demons). Protectors are able to do this because they are magic super soldiers! Just think of them as an order of psychotic Captain America's who live like warrior monks and have no problems tearing people apart with their bare hands. The deal with the Protectors is pretty simple, very young men are sent to train by their Great Houses. They are made into the best two legged killing machines possible and given strength, speed and stamina beyond the limits of normal men. They are unleashed against the enemies of Order and Law. If they survive 20 years of this, they can be promoted into high office within the Order of Protectors... Or they can go home. Most never face that choice.

Our main character and his best buddy are actually Protectors. Ashok Vadal, who is the son of the black sword in the title (I'll get to the magic sword in a minute) and his bestest best friend (to be honest from what I can tell his only friend) Devedas. Ashok Vadal has survived 20 years in the service by being the most dangerous man on the continent. He's aided in achieving this status by his magic sword, Angruvadal the Black Sword of the title. Angruvadal gifts Ashok with the battle memories and reflexes of all it's past wielders, meaning that he always knows what the right counter move or the best tactic in a fight is. Add this to his Protector given speed and strength and fighting him is really a messy method of suicide. Angruvadal isn't unique, as there are a number of black swords out there and they all grant their users such abilities. However each sword chooses it's wielder and if someone who the sword doesn't approve of tries to pick up the sword... Well, honestly folks it might be better to go tug the tail of a cobra or something. What really makes Ashok special though, is his utter and complete devotion to the Law. Serving the Law is everything to him, fulfilling his proper duty and station are what give his life meaning. He literally cannot conceive of another life and even if he could, he wouldn't want to. He is what everyone thinks they want a perfect law enforcer to be (trust me. Y'all don't really want that though). Which may be why he reacts so violently when he finds out everything he thought he was and everything about his past... Is a damn lie. Ashok's refusal to go with the lie and his refusal to let anyone keep it buried or well, to let the people who profited it... Live... Adds fuel to the fire of a crisis already shaking the foundations of his society (the untouchables have had enough of your shit sir and they got a prophet to lead them this time). In a lot of ways Ashok's character is comparable to Master Sergeant Sage, from Mel Odom's Master Sergeant. Only instead of me being bored out of my mind because Sage isn't real person, Correia goes with the fact that real people aren't like this and asks “What would it take to make a person like that?” What answer did he come up with you ask? An atrocity so vile that despite the fact that I'm not sure that I like Ashok...

I was cheering him on when he hacked an old lady to death for what she did to him to make him the perfect wielder of the Black Sword. It's a revelation I found disturbing because, frankly I think if it could be done there are people who would support doing it to police and soldiers and in doing so would take away large parts of our humanity and autonomy. Not to get political on you folks, but my experience has been that there are people on the left and on the right who would gleefully scrape away the free will and independence of every Marine, Soldier, Police Officer, Sailor and so on in order to achieve their goals. Some of those goals are even noble but speaking as a man with 4 years in the Marine, I find the sheer gleeful disregard of my own personal right to rule my own mind unnerving as it seems some folk are perfectly okay with viewing us as less then human because we decided to wear a uniform. But enough of that. Let me talk about Devedas.

Devedas is the son of a Black Sword wielder, he grew up being trained to take his father's place so when the sword shattered (when the wielder does something that the sword finds disgraceful, it breaks and usually the wielder dies soon after if not on the spot) his family is disgraced and cast out of power and he joins the Protectors because... Well he doesn't have any other options. He's loyal, cunning, smart, brave and ambitious. In another book, he would be our main character! He's also deeply jealous of Ashok because... He has everything Devedas wants. He has done his level best to master his jealous of his friend when the truth comes out... It's the final straw. Devedas washes his hands of Ashok and goes to become leader of the Protectors. Which in an interesting twist means that he's the one who is confronts and for most of the book is doing the most to oppose the villain of the story. The villain being Grand Inquisitor Omand.

As we all know, being an Inquisitor is a bad sign in fantasy fiction. Omand lives up to this being a vile, double faced, monster of a human being that someone should have drowned in a pond before he reached adulthood. I hate Omand's guts all the more because... I agree with his premise. Our Grand Inquisitor argues that the Great Houses have to much power. To many lives and resources are wasted in their petty conflicts and border wars. Additionally despite the best efforts of the Judges, Inquisitors and Protectors, the Great Houses often twist or bend the Law to their own advantage with the leading families being more concerned with their privileges then their duties. He's not wrong, but his solution is to create a centralized state (ruled by him of course) via methods that place him firmly alongside people like Pol Pot! His solution is worse then the problem! It's akin to fixing broken legs by cutting off everything below the waist! The cherry of what in the hell is wrong with you on this you are a terrible person sundae is the fact that... I think Omand knows this and just does not care because this method ensures that he'll be in charge when the dust settles. Which makes him even worse!

Ashok, Devedas and Omand form 3 factions moving through larger events that the other characters find themselves falling into. My two favorites being Thera and Rada, both of them are women, but that's all they really have in common. Thera is an outlaw and criminal because she can't keep to her place. Because of that she is officially done with your shit. She's blunt, outspoken, clever, sneaky and always pushing at Ashok and letting him know firmly what an idiot he is. Which I approve of. She's also rather talented with knives which while a traditional choice for women characters, makes perfect sense. She's a criminal who legally isn't suppose to own any weapons, any weapons she does own is going to have to be easy to hide, easy to obtain and be cheap enough that you can afford to lose it. Knives fit that rather well. Rada on the other hand is an upper class woman, her father is the chief of the libertarians, who function as the record keepers, researchers and general scholars for the central government. All Rada wants to be left alone to do a good job with her books and provide complete untampered with information to the Judges who ask for it. She doesn't have any problems jumping into bed with Devedas mind you and isn't militantly anti-social, it's just she would be perfectly happy if all these political manics just left her and her books alone damn it! But when they do drag her kicking and screaming out of her book stacks, she is going to do her level best to do the right thing. I like Rada honestly and I can completely sympathize with where she's coming from. Devedas also doesn't have a problem jumping into bed with Rada, which shows he has good taste in woman at least.

Unfortunately, I spend a lot less time then I would like with characters like Rada and Thera and more with Ashok, who I'm not sure I like. I'm sympathetic to his inner turmoil but his stubborn death grip on what he knows to be merely be someone else rearranging his life grates on me. Maybe he has no choice in the matter but it gets damn annoying and I find myself wishing Thera would hit him over the head with a rock and hopeful knock the stupid out. At this point I'm going to have throw my hands up and declare that protagonists that grate on people are Mr. Correia's specialty. Ashok is also damn passive throughout a lot of the book, leaving a lot of work to Rada and Devedas. The Caste System is pervasive through the book, but honestly we're left with no voices to really make an argument for it. The book takes the position that Caste systems are bad, which I agree with but... Seriously have someone make a good argument for it if it's going to be something everyone agrees with. Additionally the book ends on a bloody cliff hanger which frustrated me greatly. It's not a huge cliff so to speak but still... Tell a complete story in a single book guys! That doesn't mean you can't have plot threads that continue through more then one book but each book should be a story in it's own right! Still, despite this Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia lands at a B-, hopefully the sequel won't have a cliffhanger.

Announcement! I am going on a holiday break as I am leaving my home in Phoenix for awhile to visit my parents in Oklahoma. As such the reviews are on January 15th with Heroes Die. What else can you expect to see? Empire of the Summer Moon, Lirael, the Dinosaur Lords, Seedbearing Prince II and more! Thank you for reading! I Will Return!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Sabriel by Garth Nix

By Garth Nix

Sabriel was written in 1995 by Garth Nix, right when I was in high school and devouring fantasy books at an absurd rate. Strangely enough though... I had never heard of it. In fact it wasn't my buddy Russell mentioned the book to me almost 20 years after it had been published that I found out about it. Russell would then go on to buy the first 3 books in the series for me as a Birthday gift. So I'd like to take a minute to say thank you to him for that. Now to the book!

Sabriel is named after the title character, a young lady graduating from Wyverley College, an all girls school (that is not an actual college, it's a boarding school in the British fashion). It's an unremarkable upper class institution, expect for one thing, it's very close to the wall. What's the wall you ask? It is the barrier separating Ancelstierre (the nation the school is in) from the Old Kingdom. See, Ancelstierre is pretty much like early 20th century England. There's a class structure but it's a fairly modern capitalist one as opposed to a feudal one. There are cars, but they are rare. Soldiers carry bolt action rifles and have machine guns. The further away from the wall, the less powerful magic is until it stops working at all and you find yourself in a world that would seem very filmilarfamiliar to us. The Old Kingdom on the other hand... Is a place where magic works and technology doesn't. It is a wild, savage place where authority is breaking down under the assault of dead. Where the armies of the dead and those who command them are gnawing away at the very fabric of life and few can stop them.

There are some few obstacles in their way. To explain let me discuss the magic presented in this book. There are 3 kinds. Charter magic is the magic of order and law, created by the memorizing and utterances of certain symbols. Charter Mages are marked with symbols on their foreheads. Furthermore magical devices called Charter stones are set up at town and villages to help strengthen and protect Charter Magic and the people who depend on it (which is pretty much everyone). That said it's a fairly free form magic. It works by combining different symbols to produce various effects. The more symbols you know, the more combinations and the more you can do. It's the kind of magic where it makes sense for it's users to be constantly in a book. Which I appreciate.

Free Magic is dangerous and often practiced by nonhuman creatures who are for the most part very hostile to humanity. Last is necromancy, which just in case this is your first exposure to this stable of fantasy, is magic concerning the summoning, creation and control of the (un)dead. The necromancy in this book is presented very interestingly. First of all necromancers have the ability to enter death, which is divided into 9 parts with gates. The first ward of death is a giant rushing river that washes the dead deeper into death. All the wards of death have a water theme more less and those without ability or a whole lot of willpower get washed deeper into death until they past the 9th gate from which there is return. This actually explains a few of the weakness of the dead, for example they can't cross running water. Nor can they stand natural sunlight. So the dead tend to attack at night or on days where the sun cannot be seen. In the old kingdom no one is happy about cloudy days.

Additionally every necromancer uses bells as a tool to control the dead (the phrase undead doesn't appear in this book which is interesting). The bells are stored very carefully as it is the sound they make that produces the magic (I assume that I could produce magic by ringing these bells just really screwed up magic). They tend to be worn across the chest wrapped and stoppered to prevent accidental ringing. Each bell has a different effect (one compels obedience, another sleep, another kills everything that hears it, including the ringer... It is not a popular bell) and has to be ring in a certain way and pattern to control the effect. I'll admit I find it fascinating the use of sound in the magic system. Nix isn't the first to do this. Mercedes Lackey liked to use music in her magic systems for example, while Christopher Stasheff really liked using poetry and rhymes in his magic. This is the first time I've run into bells however or anything comparable though. I'll admit part of the fascination is due to my upbringing. My parents are deaf so music was not something I encountered regularly until I was a teen. Even then it was my little sister who really introduced me to stuff. So all things musical seem rather exotic to me honestly. I mean if I wrote a magic system it would likely depend more on gestures (or well... sign language) and will then the spoken word or song. It would certainly never occur to me without outside prompting to make musical instruments an important part of it.

Ahem, the book yes. The main obstacle to ye olde forces of darkness is the Abhorsen, who is well... The state necromancer. His/her job isn't to raise the dead but put them back and make sure they stay put back! To this end the Abhorsen is allowed to use charter magic, various magic items and of course necromancy. It is a family job, being passed down through the family line. In this case the current Abhorsen is the father of our main character Sabriel. Let me talk about her for a minute here.

Sabriel as I mentioned at the opening of the story is attending an all girls boarding school in Ancelstierre. That said she was born in the Old Kingdom but the Abhorsen felt it best that she grow up away from the Old Kingdom. This may have to do with the fact that the Old Kingdom is going full on Dark Ages Mad Max on us. Sabriel is unaware of this. While educated in Charter Magic and Necromancy by her father in secret, I found the idea that he appears to her every month to teach her things really interesting as well. She has friends and a vague idea of going to university with them to expand upon her future just like a normal girl. All of this is put on hold however when a dead creatures appears with a message from dear old Dad. That message? “HELP!”

This finds Sabriel inheriting the office of the Abhorsen much earlier then anyone would have liked and without much time for on the job learning. Now to be fair to dear old Dad (yes, I'm sticking to that!) he also sent his gear. His magic sword (and badge of office), his books and his bells. Sabriel is now let loose on a mission to find out what happen to her father, where he is and to rescue him. To do that she has to get into the Old Kingdom, a place she hasn't been since she was a toddler, figure out who she can trust and where she can find clues. She's not without resources here, she has all the knowledge her father gave her and she is able to locate some companions. To boil it down, she's got the tools, she's got the talent but her intell on the ground is nonexistent and she's more then a little blind to the situation.

The first of these is the slightly untrustworthy and rather magical Mogget. Mogget is currently a talking cat, who has been bound to serve the Abhorsen but does have his own agenda. That said his actions are limited due to a magical collar on his neck that only the Abhorsen can remove. It's generally a bad idea to do so however. Mogget is a bit of a smart ass, but he's fairly funny in a laid back sardonic kind of way. There's also Touchstone, who unlike Mogget is human but is hiding a lot. He's a fairly impressive in a number of ways, although there are a number of times where like Sabriel I want to smack him in the mouth and tell him to stop being a jackass. In this case his jackassery comes in the form of to much bowing and scraping. Which drives Sabriel half insane. Opposing them is an army of the dead and necromancers, arrayed under a mysterious villain who had been working to undermine peace, law and order in the Old Kingdom for a very long time now. By the time Sabriel shows up this enemy seems to have all but won. His armies and minions are lurking everywhere including in the very places of power of the Old Kingdom, they are breaking Charter stones (which is done using a very dark ritual which requires killing a Charter Mage and using their fresh blood) and gathering larger and larger armies of the dead. Things look very dark and our hopes ride on a freshly graduated school girl of 18, a magical cat-thingy and a guy who even tell us his real name. It's enough to make you want to invest in a boathouse.

The mostly takes place in the Old Kingdom, but with enough scenes in Ancelstierre to increase the alien strangeness of the Old Kingdom. As a setting itself the Old Kingdom harkens back more to the old sword and sorcery settings then Lord of the Rings. There are no elves, there are no orcs, dwarves or trolls. There are creatures and spirits born of magic, wicked magic users who thrown away the very idea of restraint and a few men and women who fight them using magic and blade. I... Really like this book.

It's not perfect of course. Sabriel and Touchstone could have used more time together, more basic interaction really. The book itself moves a break neck pace, which leaves me wanting more as I feel I didn't get to see to much of the characters. Honestly the characters are fairly well done but I feel like there should have been more character work laced into this book. Ah well. Sabriel by Garth Nix's get an B+. I really enjoyed this book and wish more people knew about it.

Next week, Son of the Black Sword.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Graphic Novel: Darth Vader Written by Kieron Gillen Art by Salvador Larroca

Darth Vader
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Salvador Larroca

We do not suffer failure.” Darth Vader

There are standards. Standards by which you measure and weigh things to see if they are worthy or will be found wanting. Even for villains and antagonists. Standards like Magneto, Sauron and Darth Vader. When I was but a tiny lad, watching Star Wars for the first time, Vader immediately got my attention. He was massive, dark, implacable and relentless. He seemed more a force of nature in a black suit then a man. When he beat the crap out of poor Luke in Empire Strikes Back, I believed every moment of it because Vader Was Unstoppable. I mean Han even shot him and Vader didn't even seemed annoyed. A blaster shot didn't even slow him down! Of course Luke, who was no where near as cool and cunning as Han Solo (look I like Luke, he's cool but we're talking Han Solo here) was just meat to the grinder. Of course you could bring up Luke's win in Return of the Jedi, which is fair, but let me ask you, when our favorite Jedi was on the ground bawling due to having an entire lighting storm frying his ass... Who did he need to pull out the win? Daddy Vader himself of course. The man who won the war for Luke single handed.

So you can understand why the prequels hurt? I mean it was kind of a gut shot. The kind of injury that rots and leaves you suffering a slow lingering death full of pain and humiliation. I was expecting Anakin Skywalker to be a hardcore kind of guy, a hero maybe. Instead, well, the Anakin in the movies didn't sell me on any idea expect that Obi Wan really needed to find someone to be a parent to the boy. Maybe I expected to much? Maybe my standards were to high? Either way the result was for a period of time I was put off Darth Vader, his appeal had been tarnished a bit. Of course I could still take refuge in the movies but well I think we all know how the human mind works. Doubts and concerns have a way of worming their way in. So when I heard there was a Vader comic, I was kind of on the fence about it. I really wanted more awesome stuff about Vader... But other attempts to look at him had been kind of... Underwhelming.

The Dread Lords of the Mouse however do not tolerate failure and are not as forgiving as the House of Lucas. Summoning a creative staff from deep within the pens of Marvel, such as British born, veteran comic book writer Kieron Gillen. He started his work in 2003 and hit the big time in 2006, since then he's written for Uncanny X-Men, Young Avengers, Thor and Iron Man. He wrote an issue for Avengers vs X-Men but everyone makes mistakes. The other half of this team Salvador Larroca is also a long time Marvel Veteran. Born in Spain way back in the 1960s, if I were to list all the comics he's done art for I wouldn't have space to review the actual graphic novel that brings us here today.

The comic begins after A New Hope but before The Empire Strikes back. The Death Star is a very expensive cloud of dust orbiting Yavin and Vader is the sole survivor of the greatest military disaster in the Empire's short history. The Emperor makes it clear who he's blaming for this and it ain't the dead guys. So Vader, insulted, degraded and dismissed is sent back out to the trenches to make good. Having a bucket list of problems and diminishing resources Vader decides what he needs to do two things, one, start murdering his problems. Which he does with ruthless aplomb. Two, subcontract the problems he can't murder. There are a couple of ways to do this, either by hiring outside help or by recruiting new personal, Vader opts for both of course. Hiring bounty hunters to deal with a couple problems and recruiting others to deal with yet other problems.Which brings us to the other major characters in this graphic novel.

Dr. Aphra is one of the new recruits, a rogue archaeologist and lover of old weapon systems, she makes her living by hunting down old super weapons or abandoned weapons tech, updating it and selling it to the highest bidder. This also means she will break into high security vaults and areas in order to loot these systems as she believes “It Should Be In an Armory!” She's very talkative compared to Vader, which I find a good thing. It helps maintain Vader as a laconic brooding presence while giving us some humor to keep the mood from getting sour. Dr. Aphra also provides the two other members of Vader's Adventuring party Triple 0 for example is a protocol droid who has a sideline in torture and interrogation. He also has a nasty habit of draining his masters of their blood for shits and giggles. He's very snarky and a bit snide which makes his interactions with Darth Vader really fun. His counterpart is BT-1 who can pass as an astromech but is actually an assassin droid. Whoever made it seems to have made what I like to call the Gandhi mistake, after the Gandhi in the civilization game (if you don't know, there's a reason why veteran civ players will tell you to kill Gandhi before the fucker gets nukes). See, BT-1 was designed an in advanced weapons lab and right after he was turned on? He kinda killed everyone in the lab. Needless to say Dr. Aphra is incredibly excited about turning him on. She's that kind of girl.

With his adventuring group Vader confronts the conspiracies and schemes within the Empire that threaten his position and power. It's interesting that in this comic we never see Vader going head to head with the Rebels (that's left to the other Star Wars comic). Instead he's fighting pirates, robbing from aliens, threatening Jabba the Hutt, and fighting and killing other imperials. Vader doesn't seem to consider the Rebellion his main threat in this book instead being much more worried about other imperials and backstabbing from the Emperor. To be fair, Emperor Palpatine has a much better record in killing Apprentice Sith (ask Count Dooku) then the Rebellion does at this point and it is in the nature of the Sith to brutally murder each other at the drop of a light saber (hence why we have the rule of two in the first place!). The book never lectures us about this or points this out though. We are left to simply read and consider as it makes very clear the backstabbing untrustworthy nature of the Sith Regime, where it's rulers and elites must spend time and resources against each other just to make sure they can do their jobs without... Dying. Maybe I'm naive but that's kind of a flaw in the organization if I got worry just as much about the people on my side as the people who are suppose to be shooting at me. Maybe being in the United States Marines Corp spoiled me. I mean yeah I had personality conflicts and people I didn't like but I never had to ask myself, hey if we get attacked is the Lcpl there going to shoot the enemy or me? Darth Vader does and his solution to this problem is to destroy everyone that he can't be sure of. But in the Empire, just who can you be sure of? It's no accident that he had to go outside of the Empire for trustworthy henchme... Henchwo... Henchpeople?

All that said, Darth Vader is definitely back in true form! He's amoral at best, he's relentless, pitiless, massive and unstoppable. More Machine then Man! He is the villain protagonists we want, the one we need and the one we deserve! The book avoids trying to sell on the idea that Vader isn't a villain. Instead the book says, yeah Vader's a bad guy but hey, there's a lot of bad guys in this Galaxy. The writing is worthy, the art is worthy and the opponents are type I can't wait to see fall beneath his lightsaber! That said, the graphic novel doesn't really resolve this story, it's half of the story and a lot of set up. Which I suppose is a problem in serial story telling. I'm a big believer that a graphic novel should tell a complete story and I feel the ending left me hanging a bit. Of course I'm very eager to see what happens next and I will be bringing you a review of Darth Vader Volume 2! If you're a Star Wars fan, if you want to see more of the real Darth Vader or if you enjoy a good (bad?) villain protagonists who doesn't engage in any moral waffling or gray areas... Then you too should come to know the power of the Dark Side. Darth Vader gets a B+ as I have A New Hope but the Empire hasn't struck yet .

Next week we sound the bells with Sabriel by Garth Nix.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Confederates In the Attic by Tony Horowitz

Confederates in the Attic
by Tony Horowitz

Confederates in the Attic was published in 1998 by writer and journalist Tony Horowitz. It was his third published book. In this book Mr. Horowitz moves across the old American South (the southern states that are east of the Mississippi river and south of D.C.) looking at the contemporary attitudes and memories the people of those states had of the civil war. He started this journey when he and his Australian wife (Geraldine Brooks) moved to Virginia and a chance encounter re-sparked a boyhood passion for the civil war. Because of this he will travel across Virginia, the Carolina's, Alabama, Georgia and more speaking to members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, store keepers, mayors, school teachers, activists, tour guides, park rangers, a convicted shooter, reenactors, widows, factory workers and more. Let me first talk a bit about Mr. Horowitz.

Mr. Horowitz was born in Washington D.C, his mother wrote books for children and young adults. Mr. Horowitz himself would go on to write a number of books himself after getting a masters from Colombia University in journalism (he did his undergraduate studies at Brown University getting a history degree). He would work on 3 continents in journalism and married his wife Ms. Brooks in France in 1984, they remain married. Ms. Brooks herself is a very accomplished writer (one of her books March, is actually set in the American Civil War) from Australia. Given this, it is perhaps no surprise that Mr. Horowitz himself is a very skilled and prolific writer. Mr. Horowitz and Ms. Brook remain married to this day (In the unlikely event either one of you read this review, I'd like to extend my congratulations on maintaining your marriage) and have two sons, at least one of which was born during the writing of the book.

The book begins by setting up Mr. Horowitz's personal connection to the civil war, the memory of his great grandfather studying books of the civil war pouring over photos and art with a magnifying glass. This was interesting as his great grandfather was a immigrant to the United States. He wasn't here when the war was fought, he didn't have any family that was involved. Yet, for reasons lost to time he study and peered into the past at that war. He also passed on that interest to his great grandchild who developed a childhood obsession leading to the painting of a giant mural of a civil war battle across the walls of his bedroom. Among other things... He of course moved away form it for a time in his teens and early adulthood but moving to Virginia with his wife re sparked the interest in him. Which brings us to the writing of this book.

A major part of the book is Mr. Horowitz's experiences with a sub-set of the reenactor community who refer to themselves as Hardcore Reenactors, referring to the others as “Farbs.” We all know people like this, willing to utterly devote themselves to an interest on a level that makes you think this might be less then healthy. In this case the Hardcore's devotion is such that it becomes the central theme of their life, dictating their diet (keeping on intensely low calorie diets so they can look just like the half starved Confederate soldiers) to their dress in the field (nothing that was invented after 1860 is allowed, not even for underwear) and their supplies (Mr. Horowitz wasn't even allowed to bring a bag of applies because they were bred into existence in the 1880s) and their sleeping arrangements (they were only allowed to bring 1 blanket a piece and slept in all in a huddle, spooning for warmth.). This introduces us to one of the recurring characters in this book, Robert Lee Hodge, hardest of the hardcore. Made all the better for being a real person (because no one would believe a fictional character like this!). Mr. Hodge even graces the front of the book, giving a full force Confederate scowl. He's a man utterly obsessed with capturing the feeling of being in the civil war of making some common experience with those men who 150 years ago marched under the banners of Union or Confederacy. To that end he is willing to experience and inflict on himself hardship after hardship, go on pursuits for cotton and wool or just manic hunts for just the right button. To be honest, it's hard for me not to respect the sheer amount of work and effort someone like Mr. Hodges puts into this. It is certainly no mere hobby or diversion for him. We see this when Mr. Hodges leads Mr. Horowitz through a whirlwind tour of civil war sites and battlefields, that he calls a wargasm. Where they move from site to site sleeping on battlefields, eating on the run and constantly looking for the next hit. The parts with Mr. Hodge are in my opinion the best parts of the book and certainly the funniest and most light hearted.

There are parts of the book that aren't so light hearted I'm sad to say. Throughout the book we meet members of various organizations (for example the United Daughters of the Confederacy) whose goal in life is to rewrite history. Frankly this annoys me to no end, look I get it, no one likes to be cast as the bad guy and it's true that in the United States that the southern redneck is one of the few whipping boys that it's acceptable to represent in broadly stereotyped and negative ways. That gets tiresome. That's no excuse to rewrite history to try and erase or minimize the crimes of the past. All to often in this book, we see white southerners cheerfully chirp about how it wasn't about slavery when the south left and you know slavery wasn't all that bad anyhow (one is forced to note that they say this where black southerners might hear it). Let me note for the record anyone that reads this reviews and announces that I need a history lesson has best have their ducks all in a row because bluntly on this subject? If you come at me half cocked you ain't gonna be giving lessons, you gonna be getting one. Let me be blunt here, I find this behavior outrageous. I find it at best to be display of ignorance, often willful and at worse an utterly dishonest attempt to expunge problematic history so to make life a bit easier. Saying it's cowardly and dishonest is bluntly the nicest thing I can say about behavior.

For that matter parts of this are downright depressing to read. The fact that while legal segregation might have ended, social and economic segregation remain. Mr. Horowitz notes that when it comes to the Confederacy (or for that matter remembering the work of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr) rarely if ever do the white or black citizens of the south mix. Although recent news about pushes for desegregation (for example we have integrated proms being organized and held by the students themselves recently) are heartening, the fact that is necessary in the 21st century is in itself something that brings an unwelcome feeling. This book drives home the point that the American south (and if we're going to be honest the entire nation to a certain extent) is home to two societies that despite sharing the same land for centuries have different histories, different views, desires and needs. To bring in more bad news these two societies are still really bad at communicating with each other. On both sides we see everyone is defensive, hurt and frankly so very angry about the past and the pain that has been inflicted that any attempt to simply talk to each other gets tangled up into a series of perceived attacks and defenses that cannot be lower. I don't have a solution for this frankly. Realistically no one does, I'm sure a lot of people will say “Oh it's easy they just need to do X” or “They just need to start Y” but the phrase easier said then done comes to mind. Mr. Horowitz does visit several public schools (and to my horror I find that a number of states are trying to sweep the entire war under the mat, some dictating that funds be concentrated on American history after 1890) and finds little to fuel hope there. While children start off ignoring race, by the time they hit high school all the white kids sit on one side and all the black kids on another. I'm trying to avoid bringing up modern events in this review as this is a book review and not a political soap box but frankly it's in this behavior that we see the seeds of many of the tragedies that have boiled up. You don't have to like or agree with the modern movements, but I think it would behoove us all to realize that if African Americans felt that they were being treated fairly by the system, then we wouldn't have these protests and conflicts today. I'm not saying they're completely right, or that everything they do is good. Just that there's a legitimate compliant that has to be addressed if we're going to move forward as a society and we can't be dismissive of it. That's all I'm going to say on that.
That said, there are confrontations with African American activists as well, Mr. Horowitz is Jewish and when he meets a lady from Selma who is willing to support Louis Farrakhan sparks fly quickly. Which is what you should expect if you're willing to throw your support behind someone who publicly suggests that Hitler was a great guy. Frankly I don't have anything nice to say about Mr. Farrakhan (which I'm sure he's perfectly okay with) and going to much into it would derail the review so I'll stop here.

Confederates in the Attic makes for hard reading at times. This isn't the fault of Mr. Horowitz who at least tries to be fair and allow everyone their say. There are parts that are really enjoyable, there are parts that are deeply informative and there are parts that are just damn sad. Sometimes there are parts that are all of these at once. Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horowitz gets an -A, I think we could all use a read of this book and to think on it for awhile.

That said... Next week?

You Will Know the Power of the Dark Side!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Log Horizon I by Mamare Touno

Log Horizon I
By Mamare Touno

Let me start by explaining just what a light novel is. Light novels are in a way an evolution of the pulp market in Japan (it truly fascinates me how close and how different Japanese and American culture gets at times). Like in the United States, a lot of fantasy and science fiction started as stories told in series in cheap magazines (the name comes from the fact that they were printed on cheap wood pulp paper to hold down costs). In the US the most successful pulp magazines (such as Ace, Dell and Avon for example) transitioned over to printing paperback novels. In Japan around the 1970s, the pulp magazines started taking up a more anime style (adding anime illustrations in the front and end of every chapter on featured stories) over time more illustrations were added. Cue the internet and legions of writers slapping up their fiction (be it fan fiction or otherwise) for public reading and well!
Today light novels are huge business in Japan. They're short, about 40 to 50,000 words long, usually very focused on teenagers, have dense publishing schedules and are often long sprawling series. Japanese publishing companies spare no expense hunting down the newest talent, holding contests that span the country (the largest had 6,500 submissions in 2013), the winner gets a cash prize and their novel published usually. Alot of light novels are quickly adapted to other formats as well, becoming animes (Sword Art Online started as a light novel for example, so did Spice and Wolf!), manga and live actions films. It's a big business, with the light novel industry clearing over 30 billion Yen in 2009. In a lot of ways they're the Young Adult novels of Japan. Unfortunately their also compariable in quality (Wizard, Furkio, Jason please stop screaming it'll be okay) in a lot of ways.

Log Horizon is a light novel that started on the internet. Written by a young man who goes by Mamare Touno, a native of Tokyo (listing the Bokutou Shitamachi area actually), he started writing Log Horizon in April of 2010, and it was picked up for publishing in 2011. Since then the novels have been translated into English, there have been 4 manga series and 2 seasons of an anime. Which is where I come in. I first ran into Log Horizon after telling a buddy how dissatisfied I was with Sword Art Online (my little brother likes it for good reasons, I dislike it for better reasons of course) while liking the idea of it. He suggested I try Log Horizon, which had just been released on Crunchy-roll (an streaming website where you can watch animes for free!). He told me the anime was alright but the novel was better (as anyone ever said the movie/television series was better then the novel?). After watching 4 episodes... Well I thought the anime was pretty damn good, so I really wanted to find this novel. Wondering around Barnes and Nobles on Veteran's Day trying to walk off a free burger and having a pocket full of birthday money (look I have a job, but other people's money just spends soooo much nicer) I spotted Log Horizon Volume I and I dived on it like a Martyr on a grenade. So let's babble about the story here.

Log Horizon is the story about a very large group (tens of thousands) of Japanese gamers who found themselves taken from Earth to the world of Elder Tale, which on Earth happens to be the most popular, longest running, badass Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game around. One moment they were playing the game, the next moment they were standing there in the bodies of their game characters. Our main character is Shiroe, a grad student who is really good at breaking down and solving problems. He plays an enchanter, a magical support class, with good buffs and debuffs, but otherwise crap combat abilities. Despite this he's well known for his strategic abilities and while he likes people, his inability to really get them tends to led to him keeping most people at arms length. Part of the problem for Shiroe is he's never sure if anyone who approaches him in the game is doing so out of friendship or just wants to get access to his knowledge and skills. Because of this he's a bit stand offish and because he's stand offish people tend to stay away from him... Unless they've decided they can get something from him. Causing a bit of a feed back loop honestly.

The novel is told from his point of view has he grapples with his situation and it's implications and starts to ask... Just what the hell are we suppose to do here? How are we going to deal with each other? This is important as everyone has the skills and abilities of their game character... And game mechanics have transferred over to the extent that our players can't die! So you have tens of thousands of people with a huge ability for violence and they incapable of dying. What exactly do you do in this situation? There are also the more personal questions, like who can I trust? What am I going to do? What role am I going to play here? Shiroe spends the book trying to figure out just where it is he fits into in this new world and what he is suppose to do in it. Of course he's not the only one doing this.

His two closest companions are Naotsugu and Akatsuki who are two very different people. Naotsugu is one of his oldest buddies in the game. We all know someone like Naotsugu I think. A generally good guy, who fairly dependable and rock steady. As a reflection of this, he plays a tank class by the name of Guardian. Guardians are melee fighters with decent offensive attacks, but they really shine using their defensive stats and abilities. He's cheerful in the face of danger and despair and covers his discomfort with jokes. In Naotsugu's case he uses dirty humor. Often joking about woman's underwear (I honestly begin to wonder about this insistence in anime that having a panties fetish is normal) as a way to shrug off discomfort. Some might insist that Naotsugu is honestly a lech but given his behavior with real women... I don't see it. In any case, he's not a creeper or anything in my view. Just a guy who perhaps uses dirty jokes a bit to often when he's feeling off balance and let's be fair, being dropped into a completely different world in a different body will leave anyone uncomfortable. Course if you want uncomfortable, you have to look at Akatsuki. Akatsuki is a girl whose character was male. This is actually a thing called cross gaming and is actually considered fairly normal as far as I know. That said it's more typical for a guy to cross game as a female character, although I'm told a number of ladies cross-game to avoid harassment. Which I find kinda sad honestly. My position is everyone should be able to play the games they like without people bothering them or worse because of their race, gender... Or anything else really. I mean striking back against a greifer is okay, but constantly bugging a girl for topless pics is not. Sorry, let me get back to the review. Akatsuki played as a male assassin who was about a foot or so taller then her in real life. I got the sense from the book that the height was the important thing here. Akatsuki is often treated by people who don't know her very well as a child, because of her height mostly, but also because of her gender and her looks. She's a very pretty girl, but pretty in a young looking way. As a result for her life is a struggle for someone to take her seriously! Which is also a problem I'm told many women in games have (I say I am told because honestly guys, I'm not a woman and I'm not going to claim I know what it's like to be one). Now assassins aren't just a stealth class, they're also a hardcore damage class. Akatsuki is the biggest damage dealer of the 3 of our main characters, which means frankly anyone who doesn't take her seriously in a fight... Well dies. Lucky for them, this is a world where if an adventurer dies, they just wake up in a temple, but dying still hurts like a bitch.

We actually meet Akatsuki in the book as she goes hunting for and finds Shiroe. See, she woke up trapped in a man's body that was taller and heavier then the one she was born with and it was causing her no small amount of problems. She remembered that Shiroe had a potion that would allow a player to change the appearance and gender of their character, hence her urgent need to find him. While Shiroe is happy to give her the potion, she feels that she can't let this pass without repayment. So she swears to serve Shiroe as his faithful ninja. Which brings us to the final trait of her's I want to address. Akatsuki is a role player, that is someone who is playing a character in the game separate from themselves in real life. To boil it down further, she was pretending that she wasn't playing a game. The fact that she keeps at it, by declaring Shiroe her liege and herself as his ninja suggests this is a bit of coping mechanism on her part.

We also meet some close allies of Shiroe's the Crescent Moon Guild. The Crescent Moon Guild is a mid-sized and mid-leveled support guild. Not focused on anyone thing but on supporting it's members. It's leader Marielle and her XO Henrietta are two capable women who find themselves looking after about 20 people who are not only much lower level then they and Shiroe are (Mari, Henrietta, Shiroe, Noatsugo and Akatsuki had all been at the level cap of 90 before signing on to play the new expansion, most of the players aren't that high) but having to do so in a very stressful and chaotic environment. The plot begins to take off when Shiroe steps forward to help rescue a member of the guild who is trapped in another city which being taken over by a guild of people who have... Well gone bad frankly. I won't go to much into it because frankly you should read it yourself.

Log Horizon present a story that when you boil it down is over a 100 years old, what if a person or group of people were transported from our world into a new world that operated under different physical and social rules? What would they do? What kind of people would they become. Added into this is the mystery of just what kind of world have they been transported into? Are they in the game? In a world that just resembles the game? Or was the game just a window into this world? Frankly it's a more mature telling of this kind of thing then works like Sword Art Online and isn't afraid to look at diverse issues from social order, to politics, to the sheer slow effect of having nothing to eat that doesn't taste like wet rice crackers and how that tears away at your ability to get up in the morning and get to living. As you might have gathered, I like Log Horizon a lot and I like Shiroe a great deal. For all the shit he gets he's constantly willing to bend his talents and efforts to just help people in any way he can and that counts for a lot with me. Log Horizon volume I gets a B from me. The plot just isn't quiet there to get it pass that level but frankly it's got nothing to be embarrassed about. I would recommend it anyone.

Next week, we leap back into Nonfiction when I review Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horowitz,

Friday, November 13, 2015

Artesia by Mark Smylie

Artesia by Mark Smylie

Artesia, named after the main character is the creation of Mark Smylie. Before writing Artesia he was mostly known for interior art work on a number of RPG source books (two of which Faith and Pantheons and the Complete Warrior I think I have knocking around somewhere in the depths of the library). Arteisa's first issue was printed in 1999 by Sirius Entertainment, Smylie would later found his own publishing company which would mainly publish Artesia related stories (although other independent comics would be published by the company, Archaia Studios Press). Mr. Smylie is still releasing works set in the world of Artesia most recently a novel that I hope to have appearing in this review series once I get through all the graphic novels. This graphic novel debuted with a pretty big splash winning a fairly long list of awards, such as Foreword Magazine's Gold Award Winner for Best Graphic Novel of 2003, Broken Frontier 2004 Paper Screen Gem for Fantasy and more. So let's sit down and take a look at this shall we? The graphic novel comes with a great appendix that made interesting reading but I'm going to stick with what was actually presented in the story.

Artesia is a fantasy graphic novel that takes place in a solid and lushly detailed world. Background details about the cultures and peoples of the world abound and it is a fascinating one. Although I could do without the Christianity expy (Why does everyone turn us into Sun worshipers? Why!?!) bit. We have the native goddess of the highlands, which feel like an actual pagan religion! Alot of fantasy novels, don't do this, at best they repackage 21st century Wicca (to those who are Wiccans I mean no offense but 21st century Wicca is not the paganism of the dark ages or the ancient world) at worse, it's liberal Catholicism with polytheism layered on top. In Artesia, the religion is wild, raw and has the kind of edge that people living in a very untamed and violent world would demand. It is very much part of the world as well. We see through the main character's eyes spirits coming to take the souls of the dead. We see goddesses roaming the earth without much care for mortals. We see animal sacrifice and other rituals that were actually part of ancient pagan religions. I really like how Mr. Smylie made it feel like a religion that could have been practiced by our ancestors. Although I was rolling my eyes at the religious conflict that is touched upon in this novel. We have one side a goddess worshiping religion where there seem to be few if any male deities (this is despite men occupying the majority of the important political and military roles but I'll let it slide). On the other side we have a male dominated sun worshiping cult that worships male deities and seems to loathe the idea of powerful women. It's honestly a kinda lazy division that I hope Mr. Smylie fixes in later books. That said the work put in the main religion displayed in the book is amazing. As is the character's reaction, which feel more elder days then modern. Gods and goddesses aren't just revered but also feared. There's one interaction where our main character trembles in the presence of a goddess and can't bring herself to even look upon her. I liked that, that the divine wasn't turn into a drinking buddy but was presented as an awesome, powerful and while a begneinbenign force, also an incredibly dangerous one.

The politics are not deeply delved into but are fairly believable and competently handled. We have the highlands, a land divided into a series of pocket kingdoms that are always feuding with each other for land, power, glory, who looks prettier in the latest fashion, etc. The kings rule from grim stone citadels and send out companies of men with pikes and halberds led by mounted officers to duke it out. They are loosely allied with a confederation called the Midlands and beyond them is an Empire. The Empire is a dangerous foreign enemy who is believed to want to conquer the world. They're also the home of the sun worshipers. Interestingly enough they are given an Arabic spin, with rulers being called Sultans and Emirs (their Emperor is immortal but somehow unable to rule, as one character puts “lost in the gray dream”). Giving them a Christian, Arabic feel that I kinda like if simply because it's different. When the characters discuss this, there is a sense of history, a weight of many prior events shaping their views and relationships with these foreign powers. There isn't a lot of time spent on this as the focus is on events taking place in the highlands, where our main character faces a number of problems. Let's talk about her for bit.

Her name is Artesia, she's a warrior, a priestess (possibly a witch) and a concubine for a man named Branimar. She's also very nice to look at, but side issue. Neither she nor Branimar are from the highlands but through the dint of their personal talents and skills have risen to high offices. Artesia seems to have done most of Branimar's fighting and the very beginning of the book shows us why as we see a short battle where Artesia proves herself to be a very skilled two legged murder machine. We're shown a lot of her individual skill of combat in the book and the loyalty her company has for her. Although I'm not entirely sure if the basis for their loyalty is anything besides her sheer badassness. While several characters make a big point at her tactical skills, that's not really shown here (maybe in Vol II?). Her skill in magic is shown however, as is her command over 3 rather alarming familiar spirits who show a connections to the goddesses of war. There are number of conflicts swirling around Artesia, first is her conflict with Branimar, they don't have a close relationship and fall out with each other in the first chapter (he converts to the Sun worshiping religion). Another conflict is one she seems to have with other women who don't approve of her choice of taking up arms and a military career. She is berated for abandoning a woman's arts and magic (if she's abandoned any magic I'm not seeing any sign of it), to which she'll reply she's abandoned nothing but decided to follow her own path.

Which leads to another conflict, which is with the memory of her mother. From what the graphic novel tells us, her mother was also a woman with a lot of magic power who was burned at the stake as a witch. Artesia repeatedly states that she knows that her mother would be disappointed in her path and that does seem to wear on her, not a lot but a little. Artesia is shown in this book to be a very intelligent, brave, headstrong woman, who from what I can tell is carrying a grudge or five. Considering that the grudge might be about having to watch her mother die a terrible death and having to run for life to the highlands... That's probably pretty good grounds for a grudge or five. An interesting note here, Artesia doesn't seem to be able to have close friendships with men, all of her close friendships are with women and she seems distant even with her own brother. Let me be clear she doesn't hate men and has perfectly good working relationships with her male Lt's. She is even attracted to men. She just doesn't seem to consider having a friendship with a man to be something that is worth the effort. It's an interesting reflection of a number of male protagonists who have in the past displayed the same attitude but towards women. I've known people of both genders with this stance in real life and all I can say is while everyone should be free to decide such matters for themselves... If you decide you can't be friends with an entire gender you're cutting yourself from really good people, no matter which gender it is.

Moving on...

I can't talk to much about secondary characters in this graphic novel. The antagonists go down fairly quickly so we don't get much of a sense of them, most of the male Lt's all blur together for me and outside of that, no one else gets a lot of time to display any real deep characterization. This book is relentlessly focused on Artesia. She's a pretty decent character to focus on all things considered. I'm hoping in the next 3 volumes to see other characters expanded on honestly.

As for the art, it is damn pretty! The battle scenes are so nice you might want to hang them on your walls. The characters are well drawn and inked. I was very impressed. I liked the equipment the troops showed which was clearly based on late medieval/early renaissance period arms and armor. Most of the women in this book wore armor that wasn't any different from the men! Artesia's armor is... Okay. Her torso is fully covered by her armor as are her arms but her armpits are very exposed. I got the feeling that Mr. Smylie didn't know that people didn't wear armor over bare skin (because it's very clear Artesia is) which frankly means after a battle she should be chaffing so badly that she needs medical attention. Her upper legs are also very exposed. It's restrained compared to the standard Red Sonya get up and sexy in it's own right, but if I was in charge of her gear I would shake my head and send her back to the armory to get some padding and upper leg protection but I'm honestly quibbling there. There is also a lot of smut in this book. Do not get this for a child! It's equal opportunity smut with both male and female nudity but it's still smut. In this case it's a little embarrassing for me as I am not trying to review only smutty graphic novels (this isn't a porn by any means but between this and Rat Queens...) thankfully for my birthday I've picked up something to break that streak.

Artesia get's an A-. A well crafted main character and world along with it's art carry this story pretty far. Hopefully future installments will give us additional characters and deeper looks into the world itself.

Next week, our first light novel.  Which light novel?  Well let me ask, are you ready for the punchline?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Thieves Profit by Doc Davis.

Thieves Profit
By Doctor Bruce Davis

So this is the 3rd review I've done for Doc Davis' books and most of you likely know the deal by now, but I will continue with the disclaimers. I am a friend of Doc's oldest son (and his daughter-in-law) and I've know Doc Davis for years. He even sold me these books at Phoenix Comic Con (at a discount!), autographed and with an agreement that I would review them. I should note that I am always grateful to the Davis family for their friendship. Now that we have the mushy stuff out of the way, on to the review!

Thieves Profit is the sequel to Glowgems for Profit, the story of Zack Mbele a freelance captain of a re-purposed Martian Interceptor looking to stay in the black in several senses of the phrase. I found Mbele a rather difficult character to deal with last book, not because he was poorly written but because I flat out didn't like the guy. He did after all turn on a paying passenger because Cleo Jones made some puppy dog eyes at him. While I do like pretty ladies, thinking with your pants when dealing a women you know will kill people for money is not only immoral but frankly stupid. I found myself liking Cleopatra Jones more then him and I wasn't sure what side she was on! If it wasn't for his relationship with Rabbit I would have written him off entirely and that would have made the book hard for me to read. That said Cleo wasn't even close to my favorite character, that honor was split between Rabbit and Deuce (poor, loyal Deuce who doesn't get enough time in the spotlight).

That said, I finished Thieves Profit with a lot more understanding for Mbele and I found I even liked him a bit better. Mbele still comes off as a scummier Malcolm Reynolds to me but the differences between the men are deeply strengthened for the better. I should note before I go any further that I am a big fire fly fan, I loved the series (ironically introduced to me by my friends in the Davis family among others), saw the movie in theaters twice, played the RPG... I can keep going but I'll stop here. Doc takes a Mbele a man with some similarities to Captain Reynolds (born in the colonies, joined a rebellion, lost his war) but creates deep differences in their histories and personalities. Mbele was directly betrayed by those he went to war for, his Glorious People's Revolution purged him, threw him into prison and experimented on him. As much as he hates the Earth Federal Government... He owes it his life, his freedom and more. So he pushes and tells himself that morality is dead, while acting at times in a strangely moral manner (granted a very unorthodox morality I can't agree with but still!). Captain Mbele doesn't like himself but can't bring himself to truly grapple with his issues. This book helped me get that about Mbele and with that understanding came a lot more sympathy for Captain Mbele and his actions. I can understand what it's like to wake up look into mirror, realize you're not sure you like the person looking back at you and have no damn idea what to do about it. I would still never trust the man and I would say until he can bring himself to confront his issues and determine a solution... He won't get much better.

Thieves Profit takes place a couple of years after Glomgem's for Profit. They're still flying the Profit, a refitted Martian Warship made into a fast small merchant ship. Cleopatra Jones and Captain Mbele got married... And divorced. Despite that they're still both living on the Profit with Cleopatra becoming half owner of the ship. I got to take time out here and ask if Captain Mbele had a shit lawyer or something? Because he owned the ship before Cleo showed up and hired her on as part of the crew. I'm not sure how that entitles her to half the ship? Maybe I'm missing something here? Or maybe Martian Divorce Law was written by those eval feminist lawyers that the MRAs keep warning me about? Doesn't matter. When the story begins Mbele is of course working a con for a big score, which... Of course fails and leaves him in front of someone much more powerful and wealthy. Mr. Wu, the son of man who got rich off of mining asteroids and means to stay rich. Mr. Wu wants him to do a job. Just go out into space and grab a single box off a freighter as quietly and quickly as possible. Here's the catch, Mr. Wu, has bought out the loan on the Profit. If Mbele fails the job? He loses the ship (which is both his home and his business). If he pulls the job off? The loan is paid off in full with a little extra besides. Of course there's a deadline and of course there's complications, such as having to rescue Rabbit from an assassin and as a result being grounded by an AI judge (Having AI law enforcers and judges seems to be near a theme in Doc Davis' work...). Captain Mbele is going to have to figure out how to pirate cargo without leaving the port or how to leave port without anyone realizing or getting blown up for piracy. Add in a heap of interpersonal persons between him and Cleo, him and Deuce and Deuce and Rabbit, as well as friends and love ones in trouble and well... It's not shaping up to be a good time for Captain Mbele is it?

We do get to learn more about Deuce, we learn that he has a step brother and about his mother. We even learn that he was fairly close to his step brother and his wife. We learn where he was when Captain Mbele was carted out to jail, which helps explain why Deuce didn't try to break him out. We still however don't know why Deuce is still so insanely loyal to Captain Mbele. I mean it certainly isn't for his sparkling personality or great leadership abilities. I'm actually hoping that if there's a 3rd book it'll help answer these questions for me. Because Deuce is still something of a cipher. He does however play a much bigger part in this book then he did last book and we learn a lot more about him. So I'm fairly happy.

Rabbit doesn't get a lot of character exploration in this book, but he was a heavy focus in the last one. So you know... Fair's fair. He does get to pull of hacker shenanigans but those actions don't take a lot of page time, although we see that Rabbit's paranoia hasn't improved over the years as he continues to insist on living in as close to a fortress as he can find and maintain. It doesn't seem to help much though in this story.

Cleopatra Jones spends a lot of the story off camera so to speak, with much of her time in the story interacting with Captain Mbele. I've been told this is suppose to be a toxic relationship, but I'm honestly not seeing that. Before they hooked up Captain Mbele was a drunk, who abused drugs to escape his past and his problems with the experimental nanofibers stretched across his nervous system. This book we don't see a trace of any drug or alcohol abuse on the part of the good Captain and we're very aware that Cleo disapproves of such things. So in least one small thing we know that the relationship has been possibly good for one of the parties involved. That said, this is in no way shape or form a healthy relationship. For one thing, they are constantly lying to each other and trying to trick each other. Both parties are willing to engage in manipulation on several levels to try and get the other to do what they want. At no point do we see Captain Mbele or Cleopatra Jones consider sitting down and discussing their positions like adults. I can't claim to be a relationship expert beyond having made a bucket load of mistakes but I have learned that if you're in a relationship where lies, emotional string pulling and misdirection happen a lot more often then basic conservation? Your relationship is broken and it may be time to consider leaving. Neither one of these two are innocent here and frankly I have to wonder if they're capable of a healthy romantic relationship on any level. I'm certainly not seeing any evidence of that here.

I also want to note that I think it's a shame that Cleopatra Jones basically gets framed in the story through her romantic relationship with Captain Mbele, as it colors every interaction we the readers have with her. Don't get me wrong here, Cleo is written to be as much a person as Captain Mbele. She's not his trophy, his plus one or anything along that lines. She's shown to be intelligent, professional, capable and like everyone else on this ship (expect maybe Deuce) incredibly flawed as a human being. In this book we'll see her outsmart herself pretty good for example. I'm really hoping if Doc Davis' comes back to this series, he'll spend some time on Cleo's origins or give her a side story. Same goes for Deuce. I'd really like a story where Cleo and Deuce team up to find a disappeared Rabbit and Captain Mbele!

We also have the Red Dragons returning to play on team bad guy, which I enjoy because the image of a Welsh drug gang as the terror of outer space is never getting old. More front and center is a mysterious assassin who keeps showing up to cause pain and discontent for the crew. I would tell you more about this guy but... Well you'll have to read the book. That said Mr. Wu is our main big bad and very central to the plot, despite not showing up very often. Not only does the plot turn on Captain Mbele trying to figure out just how to do this job without dying or ending up in a jail cell but on him constantly trying to dig up something... Anything he can use on the rich manic threatening to take away his ship and home. We also get to see just how insane Captain Mbele can be as each revelation has more and more people telling him to break off and take up something safer to do with his time... Like boxing rabid tigers maybe... Only for Mbele to double down. It's another clue to Captain Mbele's mental state where he can't back down and just can't shut his mouth. Not only does he have to insist on taking actions that increase his chances of getting kill but he has to talk shit to everyone while he does it. Frankly it's no wonder that he doesn't get a lot of repeat customers. I'm trying to figure out how he gets decent references honestly.

I'm still a bigger fan of... Everyone else on the ship then Captain Mbele but I do find myself better disposed towards him, which is a good thing. If you enjoyed Firefly, or you like the Han Solo who shot first (which is of course the ONLY HAN SOLO AND EVERYTHING ELSE YOU HEARD IS A FILTHY LIE!) you'll like this book. If you're like me and you need to be able to sympathize with your protagonists, you'll like this book better then Glowgems for Profit (although you should still read that!). Thieves Profit gets a B+.

Next week we return to graphic novels with the award winning Artesia  

Friday, October 30, 2015

Ancillery Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice
By Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice is the first novel by Ann Leckie. Ms. Leckie started writing Ancillary Justice after the birth of her children as a way to stave off boredom while being a homemaker. In fact she hammered out the first draft for National Writing Month (Which is November folks!). After attending a workshop under Octavia Estelle Butler she hammered on it for 6 years until she produced a novel that won the Hugo award, the Nebula award, the Arthur C Clarke and the BSFA award... So you know all in all not bad for 6 years of work. For comparison, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone? Took Rowling 7 years, there are worse ways to spend nearly a decade.

I've been told by some folks that this book is the great liberal hype or hope depending on whose talking. Honestly I don't see it. While it's true the main culture in the book doesn't have gender... Let me expand. The Radch don't have a concept of gender, it's completely gone in their language. This doesn't make them a liberal society however! Just a very different one. The Radch are human, but humans thousands in the future in a very different environments then humans live in now. In general I disapprove of layering our political system on different times and places. The current liberal/conservative divides are artifacts of our time and situation and do not apply to Republican Rome or Imperial China for example and they don't apply to Radch. That said, they are a militant, aggressive, xenophobic and incredibly authoritarian power. I think very few people would approve of the society presented in this book. The fact that we have such a society and it is filled with sympathetic and likable characters that you find yourself rooting for is a testament to Ms. Leckie's writing abilities. Let me talk a little about them.

Justice of Toren One Esk, is a person, but she is not human. She is instead an ancillary, a dead body implanted with cybernetics and inhabited by an A.I. Calling her undead might be a stretch but we're not reaching far here. These AI's until recently were one of the main weapons in the Radch's war of eternal expansion. There are 3 kinds of ships. The Swords, the large powerful ships. The Mercies, the smaller warships. The Justices which are troop carriers, traditionally those troops are ancillaries, lead by a small group of human officers. Each of the ancillaries are organized into companies led by a small group of human lieutenants. One Esk (as I will refer to her for the rest of the review) was one such body. She used to be a part of the Radch war machine, conquering planets in the name of the Radch as part of a vast multi-body creature. Now she's alone outside of Radch on a mission of revenge. She knows who to blame for her many, many loses and she is going to make those responsible pay. One Esk is our viewpoint character with the entire book being told through her narration. She's an introspective and calm narrator without being emotionless or so up her butt that you want to scream at her. She is entirely relatable without becoming to human, basically staying just inhuman enough that you are aware of seeing humanity through an outsider's view. By human standards she's very cool and somewhat distant. I don't mean that she's emotionless just that her expression of emotion is very controlled and contained (with some exceptions) and the emotions she does feel are not necessarily the emotions a human being would feel. Despite being in a human body, One Esk feels alien. In many ways she could be compared creature out of nightmare. An eternal intelligence wrapped in a human body... That was murdered for her use. Because the state she served found that better then dealing with the problems of human soldiers. To be fair to One Esk, she's not nightmarish but rather easy to respect and even like. Which in a way feeds into the horror of the situation for me but that's not the focus of the book.

Captain Seivarden Vendaii is our second character, an officer from One Esk's past. She was an Lt on Justice of Toren in the past... The long distant past of a 1000 years, which is a long time for people even in the far future. After being promoted to her own ship. Captain Vendaii's ship was lost in battle. Captain Vendaii escaped the destruction but laid in stasis for nearly a millennium and awoke to found her perfect culture the best culture in the galaxy as far she was concerned, altered and changed. She didn't have a good reaction to it. One Esk finds her outside the Radch and for reasons she doesn't understand decides to save Vendaii's life. The interesting thing is that One Esk doesn't really like Captain Vendaii but for reasons she can't explain often moves to protect and better Vendaii's lot. I've pointed out relationships like this (Rabbit and Mbele from Glowgems for Profit come to mind) in the past. Usually it's done to humanize a character that audiences would have problems dealing with, instead in this case Vendaii helps us to see the difference between the past Radch and the present Radch. One Esk helps us understand why the differences matter. The interactions between them also help shine a deeper light into Radch culture itself which is massively interesting to me.

Let me address the Radch here because the culture is very much a character as well as a background for the story. It's a totalitarian, militant, classist, xenophobic and it was expansionist until recent events... Events that pretty much set One Esk on her path. It's also a very ritualized stable society with things changing so little that a person from a thousand years ago can show up and still have a good idea of what is going on and still talk to everyone. That's bloody amazing when you consider that someone brought from 1000 years ago to today wouldn't even be able to communicate effectively with us in a lot of ways. Certainly not in English! The Radch culture is divided into Houses that are constantly competing for wealth, power and status. Much of this is conducted through the gathering of clients for both personal and family status as well as attaining prestigious posts and doing glorious deeds. Most of these deeds were done in the annexations, where the Radch would show up in their mighty AI run ships and declare that your world was now part of Radch space, (you lucky dog you). By the way, if you try to fight we will kill you and everyone you love. The Radch would co-opt the local elites and bring them into the Rach culturally letting them become clients of already established houses (in time they would create their own Houses of course and so the game continues). The Radch religion is a polytheist one, with gods being the focal points of universal and moral forces that the Radch believe in. These gods are not very anthropomorphized and the Radch deal with them mostly through the throwing of omens and the giving of sacrifices. If you're thinking to yourself that there are some Romans influences in the mix, you would be right. But Ms. Leckie manages to create a society with Roman inspirations that doesn't feel like Rome transplanted into space. Just a culture that shares some commonalities with Rome. Some differences are that positions are given via the results of a series of tests call the Aptitudes (although it's suggested that for most of Radch history that family ties played a deep role in your score). The lack of gender (everyone is refereed to as She, One Esk has trouble even grasping the concept of gender) and the very complex set of manners. Such as an insistence on wearing gloves at all times in public (people running around without gloves are practically treated as if they showed up naked) as well as obsession for tea. Add in a rather post modern disregard for Judeo-Christian sexual ethics as well and the fact that you are always being observed by AI's no matter where you go... This leaves you with a very alien society with complex rules and mores. As you might guess I really, really like reading about this culture. Not because I would want to live there (oh God No!) but because it's so different and isn't just a re-skinned British Kingdom/French Republic/United States of American In Space! Given my Anthropologist training and enjoyment of learning about other people's cultures, Ms. Leckie might as well be feeding me the world's best Italian food laced with cocaine.

I also have to praise Ms Leckie for her delivery. No long dry paragraphs of characters musing over details they already know, no statements of “As you know John,” nothing that clunky. Observations of Radch culture are delivered to us in bite sized chunks by One Esk as observations on events occurring or comparisons between the modern era and Captain's Vendaii's time. All in all it was well done to string out these observations and revelations through out the book and make them part of the plot... Instead of just splattering giant paragraphs of exposition everywhere (You Know Who You Who Are! YOU KNOW!).

I should mention the government before I turn to other topics. The Radch are governed by one mind. One mind, with thousands upon thousands of bodies. This group mind goes by Anaander Mianaai. She is everywhere, all AI's report to her, since those AI's see almost everything (including your vital signs by the way), Anaander Mianaai sees almost everything. There are no checks or balances on Anaander Mianaai, her word is law and nothing but her word is law. She decides everything on every issue. She is ultimately responsible for every decision and policy in Radch space. While the great Houses may make their opinions and possibly, maybe sway her through good argument or logic. In the end it is Anaander Mianaai that commands and the Radch who obey. I would just like to say that Saron himself didn't have dominion this absolute over Mordor. This is utterly and completely terrifying on almost every level for me. I do have to give Ms. Leckie points for not shying away from the logical implications of this either. She does not try to soften the blow or whitewash what this means. But this book also does ask an important question about this style of government. A style of government that has been the dream of a wide variety of people, on the right and left wing. I won't spoil the question because frankly discovering it is part of the joy of the story.

There is some violence here but it's very rarefied. One Esk doesn't have the same emotions or perceptions as we do towards violence or most external stimuli. So while the violence is well described and written... It lacks a visceral feel and is often the least gripping parts of the book. I can't help but wonder if that's by design. Not to get snobbish here, but often it seems that people who haven't really experienced violence (and I don't mean a playground fight) have trouble really getting the feel of it on the page. Of course I'm sure that there are hundreds if not thousands of writers out there who managed now that I've put such a statement on to paper. Still if that's the case, I think Ms. Leckie found a good work around by filtering through One Esk, making the violence ring considering the alien mind it's being filtering though. We're also left with a lot of questions of how Radch life actually works (I mean... How does starting a family work if you don't have a concept of gender or separate sexes? What's going on here?).

As you might of guess, I'm going to state very strongly that Ancillary Justice has earned it's rewards and it's acclaim. As for my part I am giving Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie an A. It's right up there with Bridge of Birds or the Judging Eye for me and you haven't read it. I must urge you to seek this book out and give it spin. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Next week, Thieves Profit.  

Friday, October 23, 2015

Rat Queens II: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth

Rat Queens II: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth
Written by Kurtis J Wiebe
Art by Stejepan Sejic

Here we are with my second graphic novel review, we're still on the Rat Queen train. Rat Queens was and is written by Kurtis J Wiebe with a new artist for this novel Stjepan Sejic. Stjepan is a professional comic artist from Croatia partly know for being the longest running artist on Witch blade. He has many varied projects in addition to that, he writes and draws the Death Vigil comic (which is an amazing urban fantasy comic story about people working for death to fight necromancers trying to destroy life as we know it) and Sunstone which is an adult webcome romance featuring two woman getting into BDSM (I figured this out when I found Sjtepan's DA page). As you might have guessed, Death Vigil will likely show up here, Sunstone won't. Nothing against that, just not comfortable reviewing it... Or reading it honestly.

Rat Queens continues following the adventures of our four main characters, Hannah, Dee, Violet and Betty. Starting the morning after the first graphic novel ends our girls are fairly sure they have solved their problems and that everything will be smooth sailing from here. They are of course completely and utterly wrong because we got a comic series to continue here. But the Rat Queens are blissfully unaware of this, instead embarking on a job for the mayor for 50 gold a pop (this is likely a slightly more realistic treatment of gold then your average table top but 50 gold? Kinda cheap...). While they're out on the job glorifying in their new found respectability and civic responsibility (they had a party and no one got hurt! They only dinged one statue!). Other people are catching it in the neck.

I stated last review that one of the themes was that actions have consequences and this graphic novel continues it. This time it's not the Queen's actions that catch up to them, it's Sawyer's. The Captain of the Guard past isn't all that clean and it turns out that some folks aren't about to forgive or forget (not telling you the details, read the book!). This happens as Sawyer investigates the disappearance of one of the supporting characters (who was kidnapped last book). We also get introduced to Sawyer's second in command of the guard, Sgt Lola, who is a bad ass. That said I am gonna nitpick a little here. Writers, would it kill you to go over to Wikipedia and look up a rank chart or two? I mean the rank structure goes Captain-->Sgt---> Trooper? Seriously? What if they have to operate in more then 2 groups? What if Sgt Lola and Captain Sawyer are both taken down, I mean granted they are both pretty fucking hardcore (we see Lola rip apart 7 armed men with her bare hands) but demons and shit happen you know? Would it be that terrible if she was Lt. Lola and had 3 or 4 Sgts under her command? I can get some understanding of how paramilitary organizations work beyond what you saw in a Saturday morning cartoon? I mean really. Good news, this is really my only complaint and it's fairly minor.

Sawyer's kidnapper has a heavy grudge and to prove it, he's willing to summon abominations from the Abyss to end all of reality. This is where things get interesting, because attacking said abominations causes people to black out and relive their memories. Which means a string of revelations for various characters! We get to see more of Hannah's and Violet's back stories which is good, but not the whole thing (Wiebe seems to really enjoy teasing it out). Hannah's back story appears to be rather tragic, we learn that the leader of the Peaches (a group that's more of a duo then a team now) Tizzie, was Hannah's friend in college and for some reason things went south. To be fair, things going south seems to be Hannah's back story. Which honestly explains a lot of Hannah's character. She is easily the most abrasive, defensive and outright angry of the Rat Queens. This novels suggests very strongly that the reason she's so angry and hostile is... Everyone treated her like shit with few exceptions (We see like two) until she got into the Rat Queens.

We also see Violet being profoundly unhappy with the traditions of her family and once she's aware the telling those traditions to go hit the bricks is an options... She does it a bit... huh violently. Interestingly enough, we also see that her Mother is actually very supportive of her choices and decisions. Again it's these touches that make the back stories feel more human and less black and white. We also see hints of why they call themselves the Rat Queens. Hannah is mocked by prissier elves calling her a rat elf and Violet learns from a role model that rats are harbingers of destruction in Dwarf mythology. I really like these little touches. We also get more scenes of her and Orc Dave together and frankly... I love them as a couple. I really hope they stick together and make a go at it. We also get some glimpses of Orc Dave's past and realize, he might not always have been the nice laid back bluebird of healing that we see today. I am kinda intrigued at both his and Braga's back stories and hope to see more. Who am I kidding, I want to see more of all the Daves!

We also learn a lot more about Dee... See those abominations from the Abyss? Well our bad guy stole a bunch of stuff from Dee's... Cult? Sect? Hidden Priesthood worshiping a mind wrecking elder god? That enabled him to summon these things, he of course does it wrong which means now the world is at risk of ending (wait summoning these things could end the planet? WHY DO YOU EVEN HAVE THESE THINGS?). We're told this by someone from Dee's past, her husband. He's actually pretty cool, he shows him as fairly supportive of Dee's choice. Telling her that he wouldn't have bothered her on her journey but a lot of important stuff has been stolen so things gotta be done. He clearly cares for Dee and wants her to come home but he's not going to put personal stuff in front of the end of the world and he's trying hard not to be jerk about his wife wondering around the world without him. Despite being a worshiper of some sort of demon squid... I kinda like the guy. His appearance and the abominations from the Abyss (AfA? AftA?) really push Dee along on her journey of faith. How that picks up in the 3rd book will be interesting.

Interestingly enough Betty remains completely untouched so far in terms of her history or taking a look inside her mind. Sure she's the most cheerful of the Rat Queens and seems the most well balanced. She's also the most sensitive and insightful often displaying empathy for people around her whether they be members of the party or not. I do find myself wondering if she gets depressed easy, which would explain the constant concentration on candy, sex and drugs, but she could also just be a hedonist. I'm hoping for more information to come later.

The tone in this book is more serious than the last one but still rather lighthearted in the end. While dark and bloody things happen, people don't get grim and angst is left in a ditch in favor of snark and battleshiploads of murder. The violence is still graphic and very well done I think. The art in this book does get more sexual. We have full frontal male nudity along with female toplessness. There is a sort of sex scene in the book, but it's fairly soft core with a nude Hannah sitting on a nude Sawyer. The language is of course utterly filthy. This book is not child or work safe and you should get a parents okay before handing this to a teenager (although frankly I assume by the age of 15 they will have seen worse on the internet).

The world gets a little deeper, as we learn more about it. Although it still remains feeling somewhat generic. The characters and the storytelling itself however are more then enough to keep me coming back. Weibe's insistence on dribbling out revelations in bite sizes keeps me wanting more and often the revelations answer a question and raise 3 more in their place. We also still have no idea how these women meet, why Sawyer did a complete 180 in his life, what the deal with Hannah's parents is and so on. But there are more books coming, so I will trust to hope in the future here.

Rat Queens II gets a B, yeah I know just like the last book. It's fun, it's well done and if you're into the whole tabletop feel you'll have a blast. Long as you don't mind sex, cursing, violence, drugs and of course... Rock and Roll.

Next week: Ancillary Justice at last!