Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Master Sergeant by Mel Odom

Master Sergeant by Mel Odom

So I was at the Phoenix Comic Con at the end of May (Great time if you can get there folks, I really do recommend it!) when I bought way more books then was good for me. You'll be seeing a number of these books popping up from well... Now, to November likely. Now I'll admit that this isn't the first book I picked up at Con that I finished, that honor would actually go to the Usagi Yojimbo graphic novels that I picked up. They were pretty awesome. I decided to read this one first out of the actually printed word novels because... I really like Mel Odom's earlier work.

Let me talk about Mr. Odom a bit, born in California and having lived most of his live in my own Oklahoma where he teaches college courses in writing. Mr. Odom has written about 150 novels, most of them tie in books (Preying for Keeps for example was a pretty decent Shadowrun book) which run the gauntlet from Sabrina the Teen Age Witch novels to Mack Bolan novels. He sold his first book in 1988 (when I would have been all of 7 years old). Basically this guy has been writing books almost as long as I've been capable of reading. My introduction to him was the 2001 book “The Rover” which to date I believe is his best work. It's an original fantasy work with the main character of a libertarian hobbit * COUGH* I mean huh... Halfing of course! Who gets mistaken for a great warrior and pressed ganged into a pirate crew and manages to have thrilling adventures by virtue of being one of the few people on his world who can read a single language, let alone dozens of languages. I'm not gonna lie I found The Rover pretty awesome along with it's sequels... Which I do recommend. It was on the strength of that series that I picked up Master Sergeant, I was expecting something original, quirky and engaging...

I didn't get it.

I instead got Starship Troopers (the movie), Halo, and a dozen other bits thrown into a blender and reduced to a generic feeling consistent honestly bland mil-sci fi story. We have Frank Sage, the half Argentinian/something else to make him ethnically ambiguous Master Sergeant and God Of Death who for the sin of being awesome has spent the last 6 years training soldiers to fight the Phrenorians (I'll get to them). Master Sergeant Sage doesn't want to be trainer of course, he wants to be the front lines killing aliens. Because that's what all these guys want. He finally gets transferred out of his training billet and send to... Makaum a hot, humid jungle death world full of rapidly changing plant, bug and reptile life that is scheming and fighting for the chance to kill humans. Because that's what all these worlds are like. Seriously it's always desert death worlds or jungle death worlds. I mean Warhammer 40k and the Starfist series have a greater range of planets then half of these books/movies/comics, what is with that? The planet's “government” made up of human colonists who survived a crash landing and lived a primitive lifestyle until recontact, is neutral in the war between humanity and the Phrenorians, so the aliens have a presence on the planet to. As do a legion of corrupt, scheming mega corps that would have the guys from Shadowrun and Cyberpunk calling them to dial it down. I mean if nothing else if your corporate security force has a rep for killing government soldiers in bars... It's time to ask some questions. Like if we're locked in a war of survival against alien bug monsters who can build starships... Why are we letting corporations fuck about doing whatever they want?

The General in charge of the planet doesn't want to rock the boat... Of course. And say it with me, doesn't understand or appreciate the awesome talents and morality of our hero Master Sergeant Sage. Our hero must of course whip his troops into shape, confront monstrous corporate security goons, win over the natives and carry out attacks on drug labs hidden in the dangerous scary jungle while not dying and not getting discharged. Lucky for him the guy in charge of the base a rather easy going Colonel honestly is willing to let him do... Pretty much whatever he wants and cover for him later. I mean there's a Major with a Senator daddy who is supposed to be a threat... But frankly you could have cut the character entirely from the novel without impacting the story in any meaningful way. The troops kinda of resent him for being a hard ass and making them train (which is honestly realistic, if you've settled into a routine and then some new jackass comes in and upsets everything by making you do even more work... You're not going to like him) but a small crew of NCOs and Officers (because fuck those junior enlisted guys amirite?) rally to his side to be bad-ass in the jungle waging a War on Drugs.

I'm going to be blunt. Sage is fucking boring. We've seen him before. The guy who father was in army, and his grandfather was likely in the army, who lives and breaths the army and fighting the war. Who has no friends or relationships outside of the army. No interests or hobbies outside of the army. The Army and being the living model of a cutout soldier is all Frank Sage has. Which is boring. Look, I didn't meet a single dude like that in the 4 years I served, you know why? Because such a person would burn out and end up in jail or a mental institution. Even the most Hard Charging, High Speed, Low Drag Moto Motherfucker had interests outside of the military, because that's how you stay sane. Otherwise you lose your edge and burn out.

Meanwhile the Phrenorians who are scropin like lurk in the background. Sometimes supporting Master Sergeant Sage because he's totally awesome and will create chaos that we being the true master race will take advantage of or mostly just not doing much past their actually kinda of cool intro. Zho GhiCemid is honestly a more interesting character then Sage, mainly due to his savagery. We meet him when he's molting and to hurry along the process? Dude literally rips off his own skin. The Phrenorians start off interesting but that changes as we learn more about them. They see themselves as super predators with a right to control the galaxy, they have an eugenics style program to breed stronger and better Phrenorians and birth defects and such are not tolerated. You can advance up the hierarchy by killing your superiors in certain situations and strength is honored and weakness is something to prey on. They are bug like in a lot of ways, but they don't depend on over whelming numbers, with the average Phrenorian being stronger and faster then the average human, in addition to have a stinger tail that will of course kill you dead. They are also just as smart and advanced as we are. So at least Mr. Odom manages to avoid the bug cliches. That said he trips right in other ones. I mean oh look Nazi Aliens intend on conquering the galaxy because it's their right. We have never seen that before have we?

That said, there is next to nothing that is new or interesting in this book. We've all seen the characters in here a dozen times before, we've seen the setting, the bad guys, the plot... Yeah. None of this is badly written mind you. Mr. Odom turns in a workmen like job of a novel that is nothing to be embarrassed about. The prose is solid, the world building consistent if at times questionable, the characterization okay... But... I saw every plot twist coming, knew how the conversations were going to end and what roles each character was going to play by the time of their second appearance. From a first time writer or someone still a bit new and raw like say Myke Cole I would accept that. Mel Odom isn't just that guy, he's a practiced veteran and worse, he's a veteran I know can do better. So I find myself disappointed. I expected more then something that could be a Halo DLC or short story in a book about the Imperial Guard. In a lot of ways this book feels like Odom just hitting points he believes his audience expects. Bar Brawl, check. Attack in market place, check. Jungle ambush, check. Scheming officers, check. So on and so forth.

Additionally Mel Odom doesn't really understand the military. That's nothing to be ashamed of, there is no reason for a man who never served to really get it. Nor is it a requirement to write popular or even good military science fiction, or more importantly good science fiction. Let me stress this, you don't have to grasp the modern military or it's cultures to do either there. But Mr. Odom relentlessly models his Terran Army on the United States Army. Now if you have to have an army, the US Army is certainly a good one to have for all it's flaws (insert snobbish Marine comment here). If you are going to model your fiction military on the US, get a feel for the culture of service, how it works how it's members think and feel. If someone who never served wanted to get a feel for the Marines for example, I would point them towards works like Terminal Lance and other things written by men and women who served. Because some things are timeless. I fully believe that in the misty past there were Roman junior enlisted bitching about how clueless and stupid their officers were and how their senior NCOs were inhuman assholes. I also believed that those same senior NCOs were constantly aggravated by their enlisted men's ability to come up with new and interesting ways to do stupid shit and create giant fuck ups. I also believe those officers were as clueless as I believed mine were. Now I think a United World Military would feel much differently then a US institution. That said this is science fiction we don't have to be slaves to reality here but we should try to make the work feel as real and alive as possible. To put it bluntly I didn't feel that Mr. Odom put the work in to make a believable military unit. Of course when you get to it there were only about 4 and ½ characters actually in the unit anyways as Odom didn't like writing about anyone who wasn't at least a Sgt. Seriously the Terran Army feels overstuffed with officers and NCOs. With Pvts and PFCs and such only mentioned in passing and Cpls only shown doing the work that no one else will do (well there's some realism at least). This leaves the military feeling like something manufactured by Hollywood who has at best a really mixed record when it comes to displaying what the military is like. This could have been done a lot better. I mean I took Myke Cole to town over Shadow Ops Control Point and he deserved it, but at least he convinced he knew what military life was like.

Despite it's predictability and flaws the book is well written. Which is what saves it from being awful. But also that well written prose serves to highlight just how mundane and generic this story is. I'm not saying every fantasy and science fiction has to be original, but they all have to be interesting and this isn't.

Master Sergeant by Mel Odom rates and gets a flat C. Hopefully Mr. Odom lives up to his talent in the next book I pick up.

So next up I take on a book that I know will be awesome and leave me in need of a hug and some booze. My good friend Julian has patiently awaited this day, I'm currently reading and will be soon reviewing R. Scott Bakker's The Judging Eye. After that I finally get to one of Alamo's recommendations, I'd like to thank him for his patience as well. That book will be George Washington's Military Genius by Dave R Palmer.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Goblin Emperor By Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor By Katherine Addison

I was going to review this anyways. I saw it sitting in Barnes and Noble as I was using the coupons they oh so dastardly send me to encourage me to shop in their store and I realized... Oh hey, this book is on my rec's list! And then this whole... thing came up so The Goblin Emperor got moved up. As a side note, I honestly prefer to buy from a brick and motor store over Amazon, Amazon's amazing don't get me wrong but I prefer the brick and motor experience if you get my meaning.

The Goblin Emperor is written by Katherine Addison which turns out to be a pen name for Sarah Monette who has been a published writer since at least 2003. Her other works (6 books and a bunch of short stories, she has done a lot of work), I am completely unfamiliar with these works so I can't comment on them at all. Wondering why I asked around about why an already published author would release a work under another name... The answer was basically that publishers don't like to release to many books under a single name or if they feel the writer is jumping their lane a bit, they put it under another name. Which is fair enough I suppose. Either way Monette is a very experienced author and it shows. The Goblin Emperor was published in 2014 and has received a lot of hype. So let's see if it stands up shall we?

The answer is... Well yeah. The Goblin Emperor is a well written book with a lot of in depth world building and characterization. Which is kinda of a problem because you need a glossary to understand people's names. For 3 chapters I just thought the elves just gave all their women the same first name for example. Part of the problem here is that the glossary is in the back of the book and I had no idea it was there as part of my own refusal to peek ahead for spoilers. Also I may be slow on the uptake. Advice for those of you writing a book that might need a glossary? Put it in the front, or note it's existence up front so I can look at it. Additionally, because of Monette's ruthless devotion to first person single narrative we don't really get to explore the in depth world building because our main character is very much nailed into place in the first couple chapters. It's like realizing someone has made an incredibly rich and interesting painting... But you only get to see a corner of it.

Let me talk about that main character a bit, Maia is the youngest prince of the elvish empire. He is also the most despised son of his father, the Emperor. Because of this Maia has been raised in a back country estate by an exiled noblemen far away from the court... Or anyone else and with a haphazard education. Normally this wouldn't matter, but the Emperor and all his other sons die very suddenly, leaving Maia as pretty much the most powerful person on the planet. Maia is a shy retiring type of person. I can sympathize with that. In fact I like Maia, although there are times where I want to scream at him to do something. That said, his quiet understated courage and devotion to trying his best to be a good Emperor to his people are traits I enjoyed. I also liked that he was also willing to push his own path at times. So I feel that on the whole Maia balanced out well. Certainly better then some protagonists I could name... That said, he's often not the most interesting character in the room and the interesting characters are here and gone.

Now the reason for Maia's disgrace is a very simple one. Maia's mother was a Goblin Princess that was married to the Elvish Emperor for political reasons. The Emperor, like many upper class elves (who are the standard light hair, eye and skin colored types), dislikes goblins. Now when I say goblins, I don't mean the squat ugly fellows you saw in the Hobbit or the green skinned capitalist many of you know from World of Warcraft. I mean dark skinned elves.

So not these guys.

More like these guys.

I'm kinda of two minds on that. On the one hand racism is bad and it's good to address that. On the other hand, Christ this is most well worn, safest message you can pick for your fantasy book. I mean even Harry Potter beat that horse into paste. That said, I'm a white male and this may be coloring my opinion. I have rarely suffered negative effects for my race or gender and certainly never to the extent say... A black person in the United States would. I am aware of this, but at the same time? Heinlein was doing this moral in 1959! I am not against having social messages in fantasy or science fiction, it's a well and time honored tradition and in some ways the two genres are at their best when they are tackling political and social issues through metaphor and allegory. But racism is bad frankly feels increasingly safe as a message. Which is a good thing for our society, but it also means I think unless you can bring something new to the table you may want to consider looking at some of the other issues plaguing our society. By all means keep the racism is bad issue, but lets look at some other issues as well. Besides the book doesn't have anything to really say on the subject nor does it examine the issue in a new or interesting way. It's just, hey the pale skinned upper class elves are mean to the lower class dark skinned elves and that's awful. People who do that are bad and should stop. Which I agree with but what else you got?

Additionally, we have a name for dark skinned elves and it isn't goblins! Yes, I am gonna be a bit of a purist snob here. I would have preferred it if the goblins here were called something else. Use the Norse name if you don't want to say Dark Elf or borrow from another mythology.  I can get the problem of having dark skinned elves be evil (which is why they're increasingly shown as gray instead of black) but the goblins here aren't evil so calling them Dark Elves would have helped deal with that problem. But frigid you say, aren't goblins presented as evil usually. Yes, that's true... But how many people with green skin and fangs do you see on the street?  But I'm rambling now. 

Also there are some questions this brings up. If the Goblins have their own state, which is so powerful, that the Emperor of Elves is marrying one of their princesses to help preserve the peace... Why is the elvish empire's underclass so full of half goblins and such? What's the history here? What happened?!? I am left with many, many questions that I am eager for answers for. Why is Elf society set up this way, how much is the life of the average elf different from the nobility? How did this happen? Where did the nobility come from? Hints are dropped, and they are tantalizing, but that's all I get. I have to admit it leaves me so many questions... Someone get her started on a sequel using one of those soldiers or factory workers I hear about.

I also would have loved to hear some of Maia's lessons on how the Elvish government system actually worked. The Emperor is clearly limited by the law but is still a powerful executive in his own right dealing with a tiered parliament of sorts that is utterly dominated by a hereditary elite but also has elected members (who gets to vote?). He is also the highest judge in the land and we should have seen more of that. Maia only gets involved in a single legal battle and solves it in a single afternoon. The Emperor is clearly more powerful then the say the current English Monarchs but more constrained then the Saudi monarchs.

Maia is forced to confront the fact that most of his court doesn't want him to be Emperor and that someone murdered his father and half brothers. He has to solve the mystery using his own resources as the official investigation gets fouled up by the prejudices of the court officials running it. It's a really interesting plot... That we don't get to see very much of. Most of it happens away from Maia. Bluntly put there's not a lot of action in this book. There's intrigue, internal conflict and political sneakiness.

These are all fairly well done and were interesting enough to keep me reading the book. But if you have no interest in these kinds of things at all, you will be bored out of your damn mind. This is a book where tastes may vary. Monette goes all out on the intrigue and showing the problems a monarch may have trying to manage a powerful and unruly nobility. Nor does she shy away from the consequences of it. Good people die, are ruined or have unpleasant things happen to them because of the actions of other people. Life is unfair, actions have consequences for people other then you and not even an Emperor can change that. Nor does being an Emperor shield you from the fall out of those actions. I really liked that. Still the book manages to keep from veering into the dark darkness of dark that some writers love to play in. I am thankful for that. Monette manages to keep a balance here.

We also see Maia grow from a teenager terrified of the bully who raised him into an adult willing to stand up for himself. Which honestly seems to be the main thrust of the book. Planting a crown on his head didn't really make him a monarch. Nor did giving him a throne make him powerful. It was his own efforts to grow into the role and start developing a willingness to tell people no that did. Realizing that all these people do in fact work for him so he is in fact in charge was kinda a process, but it was process that I kinda liked reading. Monette found ways to keep me from getting to frustrated with Maia as he bungled about especially with the opposite sex. I did find it somewhat true to life that while being powerful and rich certainly helps you with the ladies, when the ladies are used to wealthy and powerful, it's not gonna be enough to carry you over the home plate. Although I kinda disagree with the idea that his goblin blood made so many of the nobility stand at arms length. He's the fucking Emperor! You get on his good side! This isn't calculus, it's addition.

So to sum up, the characterization is interesting and believable. The main character sympathetic and likable and the world itself seems a rich one that I hope to see more stories in. The plot is one that I liked following. That said the world building is dense and not very well explained. The most interesting parts of the story, happen where you can't see them and there is a deep dearth of action and excitement in this story to my point of view. Whether you like this book is going to come down to a simple matter of taste in my view.

The Goblin Emperor gets a B+ as it doesn't suffer the minus from being a book in a series. Still I hope Monette takes more time to explain some of her world building if she should ever return to the world of Maia and I am actually eager to return.