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!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Rat Queens I

Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery
Written by Kurtis J Wiebe
Art by Roc Upchurch

Orcs only know one language, blood. I'm the fucking alphabet.” Braga half orc barbarian

So first graphic novel, I decided to avoid a superhero novel. Not because I dislike superheroes, I love them but because I wanted to give an example of a graphic novel not based on a superhero comic. Just to kinda remind people that there is more to graphic novels then superheroes. I saw Rat Queens after a rather frustrating hour tutoring a very nice lady at Barnes and Noble, mainly because I was explaining things badly. I paged through it and started chuckling. That's when I realized, this was it. Then I did some research for this comic and realized I would be walking into a complicated situation... I've decided to resolve this in the approved Marine manner, attacking it head on.

Written by Kurtis Wiebe, a Canadian from Vancouver who started writing comics professionally in 2009, this is actually the first series of his I've read. In 2012 he won the Joe Shuster Award (named for the Canadian born creator of Superman) for writing. Honestly from what I'm reading here... He's earned it. I hope to see more from him in the future and I honestly hope this is the beginning of a long and awesome career for him. The art of the first issues were created by Roc Upchurch... Who in 2014 was arrested for domesticate violence. He was removed from the comic soon after by Wiebe. I bring it up now because my experience is if I don't bring it up and discuss it, someone else will and then it dominates the conversation. Upchurch claims that his ex-wife hit him first. If she did (there is no independent evidence for that) then she did terrible thing, to suggest otherwise because of her gender is frankly a sexist argument (I won't get into this, this is a comic review). But that doesn't excuse his own hitting his ex-wife. Let me be blunt here, don't hit your loved ones, I know we all get emotional, but we're adults learning to control yourself is part of that. Let me repeat that, don't hit your loved ones. Mr. Upchurch is from what I can find in counseling to learn better, all I'm going to say on the matter is I hope for the best for his ex-wife, his kids and for him. Let's move on.

The Rat Queens is a fantasy comic series about 4 murder hobos who are embarking on the process of growing up... While killing monsters for money and loot. It's the best kind of growing up! But you ask, frigid, what's a murder hobo? Well reader, a murder hobo is a slang term that came out of the D&D tables to describe what it was that our characters were actually doing. See, while most of us start off wanting to do our own version of Lord of the Rings, you know a band of good and stalwart men and women coming together despite their differences to confront a great evil and stop it once and for all. We quickly move on to becoming rowdy mercenaries who fight and kill things for wealth and power. Your average adventurer group has a lot more in common with Robert E Howard's Conan then with JRR Tolkien Aragorn. Most GM's would settle for us deciding to act like John Carter of Barsoom. Not entirely moral, very greedy, hedonistic and perhaps enjoying violence a little to much to be acceptable to wider society (this is actually the main conflict of the book). Rat Queens doesn't feel like an epic fantasy story, it feels like the running in character journal of a really cool tabletop game and honestly I really love it.

While the setting is mostly medievalish, the characters are unrelentingly modern. From our four main characters (Hannah the elf wizard, Violet the dwarf warrior, Dee the human cleric and Betty the halfing thief) to the various supporting and side characters (“old woman” Bernadette the 39 year old elf shop keeper for example) are people who would fit entirely into Phoenix, Arizona in the year of our Lord 2015. As long as we ignore the point ears and so forth. Hannah is a rockabilly girl who is constantly being called by her mother and says things just to piss off her father. Violet is a hipster who turned her back on her traditionalist family to live a lifestyle they don't approve of. Betty is an utter hedonists whose favorite things are sex, drugs, booze and candy, not necessarily in that order. Dee is a woman from an intensely religious family who left due to having a crisis of faith and is currently an atheist. As a side note, Dee's family is the only one we get a glimpse of here and I really like how they are portrayed. Most writers would have been happy to write this as story of a confused young woman run out of house and home for her doubt (does this happen? All to often, but you would be amazed how often it doesn't). Instead it's Dee who decides she have to leave and her mother telling her that her family and her god (who is a blood drinking alien squid... Because of course) still love and believe in her and she can come back whenever. Stuff like that makes Dee and the others feel more like people then stock characters, their backgrounds have humanizing touches and shades of gray all over them.

The main conflicts in this book are also very gray and human. The story starts In Media Res (which is a fancy way to say in the middle of things). The town of palisade was once beset by danger and monsters and looked to a half dozen semi-organized groups of mercenaries and adventurers to fix this. The parties stepped right up and did their jobs, getting very rich in the process. Now the monsters give Palisade space and life is peaceful. Problem you still have a dozens of people whose skills can be summed up as “kill everything in a 20 meter radius” hanging around with nothing to do and money to burn. So they tend to get drunk and wreck the place in running bar battles. This upsets the good people of Palisade who want the adventures to behave themselves in public and not break their shit. This is complicated by the fact that the Captain of the Guard Sawyer (who got his job by being death on two legs) is Hannah's ex who is still carrying a torch (she ain't over him either). This leads people to believe that Sawyer takes it easy on Hannah's group (the Rat Queens) due to his squishy feelings... There's also the fact that Sawyer is taking it easy on the Rat Queens and a number of other groups because of his squishy feelings (and other spoilerish reasons).

Since they can't solve things the legal way, they attempt an illegal way, mainly hiring assassins and luring the adventurer groups out on false quests to kill them. I got a chuckle at adventurer groups on display, we have our ladies the Rat Queens, their main rivals the Peaches (Braga is a member, she is awesome and hardcore) the brony-awful Brothers Pony (in one panel and gone forever, no offense to the pony fans but I'm thankful for that), the 2edgy4me Obsidian Darkness (admit it, you played this group either in Jr. High or High School, it's okay most of us try it out at least once) and frankly my favorites The Daves (because everyone in the group is named Dave!). The Peaches lose half their number killing their assassin, the Rat Queens not only kill their assassin but the random encounter troll. We get to see the Obsidian Darkness (look... there's a lot about 15/16 year old me I don't like okay?) get wiped out. The Daves just kinda show up to the tavern intact like it was no biggie. It's during their rather hamfisted investigation that the Rat Queens start realizing that... The townfolks don't really like them all that much and see them as a problem on par with the monsters. Which for some of them is rather sobering.

One of the things I really like in this story is their actions have consequences both good and bad, finding Braga filled full of arrows and deciding to spend the last of their magical healing on her leads to the Peaches more or less burying the hatchet with them (the snarking remains of course). Killing the Troll leads to negative consequences that almost gets everyone in the town killed. Sharing information with the Daves leads to them running out into the teeth of an Orc horde to back up the Rat Queens. Violet is the one to voice the realization that they've become a very destructive force in their society and not to it's benefit and that maybe they should do better. That doesn't mean giving up on their wild parties or killing the shit out of monsters just maybe every now and again they should think some things through before wrecking the shit out of everyone in front of them. I really liked that and I can frankly see this as the reaction of a GM who has had enough of his players wrecking the shit out of his campaign so by God he is going to rub their noses in their mess ups until they get the picture.

That said the world feels rather tabletop generic. I'm hoping as time goes on and it gets more fleshed out that it'll start to take on it's own character and such. But for the moment I'm being carried along completely on the strength of the characters, the storytelling and if we're going to be frank the violence. They're really good, interesting characters in an good story though so it's not like this story has weak legs. That said, this is not an incredibly deep story, it's fairly basic about a group of young women learning to deal with themselves and other people... While killing monsters, but like I said it's well told and that's frankly enough.

Now I do want to say that this is a very adult story, there are graphic depictions of violence and gore here and the girls aren't virginal choir girls either. They remind me in many ways of a good number of my platoon mates in the Marines, which makes perfect sense to me as they're doing much of the same job and facing many of the same issues. The tone of the story despite the subject manner is actually fairly upbeat and happy and I found myself chuckling a lot. I also can't stress how very happy I was that the characters are for the most part fairly likable as a lot of fantasy stories in this vein tend to be about protagonists that I often find myself hoping die at the end of the story. Don't get me wrong, there's a space in fiction for loathsome protagonist (I completely adore hating Cugel from Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels, oh that is some good hate!) but after awhile it gets wearing and tiresome... Especially if the asshole is always winning and he's got no redeeming character traits (Seg from the Warpworld reviews is an example of an asshole you can root for example). The girls are rough around the edges but in general are decent people which I can live with.

If you're a tabletop gamer like me, or you like fantasy and have a sense of humor (and enjoy watching massive slaughter lovingly drawn and inked). I would very much encourage you to pick up Rat Queens and give it a spin. That said, I would say this is an adult comic book so people under the age of 14/15 should maybe wait a few years (and if you're under 18 ask your folks first, do me a solid and don't get me in trouble here alright?). Rat Queens gets an B.

Announcement! So we're going to try something new folks! After a lot of encouragement I am going to try posting these on a schedule and frankly I think the inclusion of graphic novels might allow me to go weekly so I'm aiming for weekly releases on Friday. So this week is Rat Queens I, next week is Rat Queens II and after that at long last Ancillary Justice! Stay frosty.

Mr. Simpson responds

I want to repeat that any author who sees these reviews and wants to reply is more then welcome and I will post their reply everywhere I post the review.

I get ya.

On the review, let's see...

That said the longer you make a series the greater a need for discrete jumping in points where you can pick a book and not be completely lost in the sauce.

This is a tricky one because the books have a strong direct flow. However, the series has a hard stop at book 5, so we're not looking at thirty books feeding off each other. Back when we were first conceptualizing, we had already written the material that became the first two books.

(Funny part being that the material we had for the second book was almost entirely the run up to the battle of Julewa Keep and the battle itself.)

We had the concept in place for Ghost World but hadn't written it yet. Then we plotted it out, figured out what we needed for the next couple, and arrived at our hard stopping point. Now, while I concede the wisdom of never saying never, I have little enthusiasm or interest in picking up after the hard stop, which would involve an entirely new series. Maybe someday, but right now we're both ready to finish this series and move on to newer things.

We do have a prequel on the backburner that goes into more history of the World, revolving around the famous Theorist Lannit, who was mentioned briefly in the first book.

Seg wants to change his culture and save his people and for the live of I can't see what he thinks is worth saving in this psychopathic mess of a culture.

Writing the People has given me a bit of Stockholm in that regard. I mean, there are the clear baddy bad bads, the assholes like the trio of maintenance techs or Akbas, but for the quasi-sympathetic People I tend to see them as what they could've been had they not be raised in an uber-asshole society.

I'm curious, being as how you're my actual combat anthropologist source, do they ring true to you in terms of development?

I'm less enthralled with Elarn, the People medic but he grows on you through the book, much like Seg did in the last one.

It worked! It worked! That was exactly the progression we wanted most readers go to through with him. 

Elarn and Shan the pilot are meant to be stand ins for the normal members of the People, so at first you really dislike them but as they remove the sticks from their rears and drop the constant refrain of unearned superiority they become people you can bare, maybe even like.

Shan and Elarn are epitomes of Fismar's line about some people being caj. They're both social cast-offs, Shan due to being an average pilot with test anxiety issues that leave her doing shit jobs with shit outfits, and Elarn due to his bout of medical malpractice. Shan's relationship with Ama gives her an opportunity to drop her blinders, as Fismar does for Elarn.

Lissil, the Welf women becomes a character of interest here as well. She frankly disturbs me a lot mainly because I can understand exactly how she became the way she did. Growing up as a member of a permanent underclass, her only means of advancement was the fact that she was pretty and knew how to play men like violins so she did so. Whenever we get a peek into her head it's a cold, rather emotionally barren place, not because Lissil is a bad person but because she was never given a chance to be anything but a cold calculating women who sees men as a tools and playthings. Why wouldn't she? That's all every person in her life ever treated her as...

The constant challenge with writing Lissil is to follow her progression as a character without making her twirl a mustache. She's a negative and malicious force, but as you've noted for totally logical and understandable reasons. Kris and I had the "Is she twirling her mustache here?" conversation over and over from this book on into the current one we're working on.

Whether we succeeded with that or not is entirely up to the reader.

Additionally Seg takes his crew of half trained manics and decides to give the folks at home a full blown demonstration of why he's a genius and they're lucky he lets them breath on his planet.

Quoting mostly because I love the line, and because you have actually helped me appreciate Seg more. Bear in mind, as originally written he was even more of an asshole, and his progression was slower and he was more oblivious to it. When we were working with our Writer's House agent, he suggested we lighten Seg up and make him more likable, which I resisted. We didn't ever tilt him over to being something like a teddy bear or action hero good guy, but we did speed him up down the road toward abolitionism a full book sooner as a result. In the original drafts, he had a big Oskar Schindler moment in the fourth book, as in the scene at the end when Schindler realizes how many more people he could've saved. But this time around, Seg's already in the game a lot sooner.

Storming (heh) a fortress held by a group of people descendant from a band of exiles who have degenerated into a society straight out of Colorado City, complete with lost boys. Frankly I enjoy seeing people like that getting shot, so it was rather good for me.

I wasn't entirely satisfied that we'd made the Etiphars loathsome enough for the readers to be happy with their conquest, nice to see that it worked for you at least.

Then again I'd just spent a couple hundred pages writing really loathsome shit so maybe I was a bit jaded by that point.

Just wait until you meet the As Dead in the third book.

We also get to see Fismar as a killing machine. Which is pretty awesome.

One of my favorites to write. The mystery of Fismar is unveiled in the third book.

I'm gonna be honest here, I would totally read a story just about Fismar!

Just for you I will take this under advisement. Seriously.

As this book is pulls no punches towards them and almost delights in making them suffer for their mistakes.

That's Kris. She's always like "How can we shit on these characters? Okay, now that shit is raining down from the sky, can we set the ground beneath their feet on fire and maybe give them ebola?"

Thanks again for the awesome review, brother.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Warpworld II Wasteland Renegades

Warpworld II Wasteland Renegades
by Kristene Perron and Josh Simpson

For those of you who don't remember the last review, I know and am friends with Josh Simpson. In fact he gave me a copy of this work to review. We also met every Sunday over Skype to roll dice and play games that housewives in the 80s declared works of Satan. So if Josh reads this review? Remember the Organics always win Josh. That's my full disclosure for this review!

Wasteland Renegades is the second book in the series, which picks up right after the first one with not even a breath between them. Additionally the books are heavily interconnected, events from the first book shape almost everything in the second and relationship continue apace in this one. What am I saying here? Read the first book first! Otherwise you will be lost and confused. You have been warned. That said the books tell two complete different stories in and of themselves. This is not a single story chopped into bits, but a story with a beginning, middle and end. So in general I am okay with this. After all, if you try to watch Empire Strikes Back without seeing A New Hope, you are going to have a lot of questions about what the hell is going on. I've never heard anyone suggest that this makes Empire Strikes Back a lesser movie somehow. That said the longer you make a series the greater a need for discrete jumping in points where you can pick a book and not be completely lost in the sauce.

One of the things that separates Renegades from the first book is that it takes place entirely on Seg's homeworld. The homeworld of the People, who threatened by a monstrous wall of death (that they have oh so inventively named the Storm) that cruises their world devouring entire cities the way I scarf down ranch chips. To avoid that fate the People (this group is so bad at naming things) have retreated into great cramped and overcrowded cities barely shielded through bullshit magic and supported by mass slavery. Their magic (the characters will insist it's science but frankly it's magic and I'm going to refer to it as such) shields need what they call Vita, which as far has I can gather from the books is some form of concentrated emotion/faith. They get it and the slave labor they need to run their economy by attacking unsuspecting worlds and stealing it. Renegade introduces us in full to a culture of people who survive by preying on the unsuspecting and unwary. For almost 300 pages you will have your face rubbed in just what kind of culture this produces.

I was expecting something militaristic, regimented with every resource heavily and carefully rationed to prevent waste. With everything devoted to the goal of driving back the Storm from every inch of the World that the People can liberate. I was expecting a grim, stoic culture where sacrifices are expected from every member and every privilege is bought dearly because a luxury is wasting something that could have gone to raking away more space and time for survival. I figured the Houses were regional leaders in charge of disturbing resources. As you might have guessed I didn't get what I expected. The People lived dominated by noble houses where the upper ranks wallow in luxury and the lower classes live crammed lives marked by privation and heavy labor. Basically the lower classes of the People barely have it better then the masses of slaves whose labor keeps the system running but they get through the day by telling themselves that they're members of a superior race and at least they're not slaves (I've heard this before...).

Through out the first half of the book we are mercilessly dragged through the People's society through the eyes of Seg and Ama. Seg grew up in this society and he thought he hated it before. Now that he's had experience with another culture and with other people, he knows he hates this damn place. Remember in the last review how I said that I had Seg's upbringing I would be a raging asshole on my good days? I was wrong, Seg isn't a good guy, he isn't practically Gandhi. To be as together and as a good a guy as he is... He's the freaking Buddha returned! Because from what this book showed me of Seg's family and society... I would have ended up hunting the People in the streets eating their damn faces!

As a group they are that fucking awful! Seg wants to change his culture and save his people and for the live of I can't see what he thinks is worth saving in this psychopathic mess of a culture. Most cultures could do better then Seg for a hero, but for the People? Seg is miles better then what they deserve, but he is the hero they need, like it or not. He's a genius and well written as one, but his social skills keep flopping down to the level of a rather unwashed badger. I keep finding myself moved towards a deep well of pity for his mentor Jarin, who earns every bit of face time he gets in this book (I was really glad to see more of him!), is kept very busy cleaning up after Seg and trying to keep him from getting lynched. It's because of Jarin that Seg finds himself with more allies, including what passes for a reporter in the People's society. Frankly when it comes to PR, Seg is going to need all the help he can get. But let me get into the People's society here.
Imagine Rome, only all the grandeur, grace, beauty, ambition and humanity have been ruthlessly cut out and burnt away, leaving only a relentlessly hungry maw of a society. A stagnant parasite that makes no art, creates no great works, formulates no new science, strives towards no great goal but only seeks to cling to it's gray ugly half live by devouring whatever it can steal from the unsuspecting. They can't even name things decently! Their planet? They call it “The World”, themselves “The People” and so on and so forth. They are so drained of any spark that summoning up the ability to give something a decent name is to much for them! Their society is Capitalism and Imperialism stripped of any virtue and reduced to just constant exploitation and pillaging. I did at first wonder if the People were suppose to be compared to our society but frankly their society is to alien even with it's superficial similarities, (frankly you would have be someone on the level of Noam Chomsky to stretch it that far I think). It's a society where 3 men torturing a slave to death on the street gets less no reaction, a not even a “hey man take it inside.” You would get more reaction from 21st century Americans for torturing a squirrel on the sidewalk then the people have to give for slowly and painfully murdering a human being! With the exception of maybe slightly more then a dozen of the People, I found myself wishing for their slow and complete extinction. I mean at least Mordor was fucking honest about being a pit of despair and oppression.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am trained as an Anthropologist. We are taught that every culture has it's saving graces and while there are higher moral standards that we cannot excuse breaking (I'll admit this one varies and is disputed but I'll have nothing to do with the deep end of moral relativism), we need to understand a culture not judge it. I'm also a Marine, I've been out in other cultures and had some pretty intense interactions with them. So understand where I'm coming from here. The People's culture deserves to go extinct. It deserves to die. I don't say this lightly.

I will say that Ama's arc in this story definitely pushed me to that conclusion. Ama frankly gets herself into boat loads of avoidable trouble through the fact that she does not listen! This is frankly a theme with her, she never listens! It's good that we have a character flaw that is shown not told, but to be honest I found myself wanting to reach into the book and shake some damn sense into her. That said Mr. Simpson and Ms. Perron punish her dearly in this book for her headstrong and reckless nature. The price she pays on many levels is tragic for both her and Seg. I can't go any further without spoilers, I'll just say that Mr. Simpson and Ms. Perron do not pull their punches and do not flinch from following things to their logical conclusion. I'll also say the bastard who inflicted that tragedy got off light, but Seg was pressed for time here. My main compliant is Ama isn't given much to do in this book beyond suffer and try to repair herself. It makes perfect sense but I'm hoping she gets to do more in the next book.

Ama isn't the only member of her people in this book, a group of 50 of them volunteer to follow Seg, giving him his own private armed force. Seg recruits from various raiders to help train these manics into something resembling a professional armed force. It's an uphill battle the entire way. It also brings back Viren who remains one of my favorite characters and introduces us to Lt. Fismar. Who is Awesome! Fismar is a raider veteran and is one of those guys who has no illusions to the truth of his society but decides to do his best to not sink into despair. He's aware that the whole People vs Slave thing is utter bullshit (one of his good quotes “We think there are People and there are Caj, but the truth is there are People who are Caj and just don't know it.”). Despite having no military training the writers manage to make Fismar a rather believable figure and a good trainer. I would have done things differently (for example I would locked Cerd, an ex-pirate that Viren hates, in a room with Viren until they either killed each other or learned to lived together) but I'm hard pressed to find any real mistakes in the training regime given the resources that Fismar had to work with. I'm less enthralled with Elarn, the People medic but he grows on you through the book, much like Seg did in the last one. Elarn and Shan the pilot are meant to be stand ins for the normal members of the People, so at first you really dislike them but as they remove the sticks from their rears and drop the constant refrain of unearned superiority they become people you can bare, maybe even like. Lissil, the Welf women becomes a character of interest here as well. She frankly disturbs me a lot mainly because I can understand exactly how she became the way she did. Growing up as a member of a permanent underclass, her only means of advancement was the fact that she was pretty and knew how to play men like violins so she did so. Whenever we get a peek into her head it's a cold, rather emotionally barren place, not because Lissil is a bad person but because she was never given a chance to be anything but a cold calculating women who sees men as a tools and playthings. Why wouldn't she? That's all every person in her life ever treated her as...

Frankly I like the second half of the book a lot better. Mainly because it involves taking Seg and Ama taking revenge on people for screwing with them and many parts of the People's society getting wrecked. After the mounting wave of things I hate in the first book, it was a relief to see some of them blown apart or otherwise gutted. The authors take this society that they have dragged us through and unleash the simmering resentments and hatreds that are building up with some rather explosive consequences. Additionally Seg takes his crew of half trained manics and decides to give the folks at home a full blown demonstration of why he's a genius and they're lucky he lets them breath on his planet. He does this by being the first man of the People to reconquer space from the ruins left by the Storm in centuries. Storming (heh) a fortress held by a group of people descendant from a band of exiles who have degenerated into a society straight out of Colorado City, complete with lost boys. Frankly I enjoy seeing people like that getting shot, so it was rather good for me. The combat in this book is improved over the last book. From what I can see Mr. Simpson and Ms. Perron do small scale tight battles a lot better then roaming gun battles. We also get to see Fismar as a killing machine. Which is pretty awesome. I'm gonna be honest here, I would totally read a story just about Fismar!  Or Fismar and Viren doing wacky adventures bouncing from planet to planet! 

All in all Wasteland Renegades averages out to a pretty good book. The writers deserve points for not shying away from the ugliness or logic results of that ugliness within the People's society but damn if that didn't make the book hard to read at points. I really like Ama and Seg despite their flaws which may have been part of the problem. As this book is pulls no punches towards them and almost delights in making them suffer for their mistakes. The later half of the book is where things really start clicking for me (nothing like a good riot to get things rolling am I right?) but all in all, I enjoyed this book, but slightly less then the first. But I am left looking forward to the 3rd book. After all the People need to be punched in their collective faces more and there's at least 2 more books in this series that I just know will deliver me justice. Wasteland Renegades gets a B, the first half dragged for me but I really liked the second half. I'd honestly rather reread the first book but I remain with high hopes for the third.