Friday, February 26, 2016

Seedbearing Prince Part II by Davaun Sanders

Seedbearing Prince II
By Davaun Sanders

So let me start this with the grand tradition of disclaimers. Mr. Sanders is a friend of mine from work and he is aware that I am reviewing his works, in fact he might be reading this right now (Hey, man hope it's good feedback). We no longer work in the same department but none the less. That said everything in this review is my honest opinion and nothing but.

Now for those of you who don't remember or didn't read the review of the first book (you should read the first book and my review!) the Seedbearing Prince takes place in the World Belt, a collection of worlds linked by an asteroid field that is dense enough to travel through spiderman style. Our main character Dayn Ro'Halan is a farm boy who is working and planning to become one of the people who spend their lives traveling through the field of rocks and strange creatures adapted to this existence with nothing but a special suit, some grappling line and breathing gear. This is spiked when when he thwarts an attack on his world by a group of black armored monsters in the form of men known as Voidwalkers. Attack to mild a word though, they are literally trying to kill an entire world when Dayn trips over them, stops the attack and recovers a Seed, an artifact of immense power that bonds to Dayn. The Ring, a floating super fortress and extra-national organization of scientist and warriors found about Dayn and talked him on going on a tour of the Belt (the collection of worlds linked by asteroids) to drum up unity and raise awareness that the Voidwalkers are real. A Defender (a ring special forces soldier basically) named Nassir goes with him as well as a Preceptor (scientist) named Lurec go with him for advice and protection. This trip didn't go as planned. While Dayn was able to do a fair piece of good out there, he also got captured by the Voidwalkers in a massive attack on a city world named Montollos. In fact he got slammed into the belly of dread creature named a Fleshweep, which can hold it's captives for decades and there is almost no escape.

I was honestly less then happy that the first book ended in a cliffhanger. It didn't help that when I got Seedbearing Prince II it was about 200 pages which had me asking if this could have been combined with the first book. I haven't talked to Mr. Sanders about that, so that might be a publishing issue (this happens for example David Eddings planned the Belgariad as a trilogy only to be told to make it five books). On the flip side, the tone of the story shifts here fairly dramatically. In a single book that might have caused some serious whiplash, we go from a young man discovering the wider universe about him in all it's dangers and glories to... Well.. Fair warning here folks, Dayn takes it on the chin repeatedly here. So I'm going to go ahead and let this go, so there will be deduction for splitting the story here. Because of the change of the story we're being told here. The characters and setting remain consistent here I want to note, the change comes in a shift of tone and emphases. The shift is smooth enough that I'm willing to allow it and the story remains interesting and takes us to new places and shows us a lot of new exciting things.

Dayn is no longer on a journey to learn about what's going around him. He's learning how to survival in an hostile environment full of people who want to kill him or worse. He has to learn fast about the nature of his enemies and the extent of the cruelty they are capable and he spends a good part of the book in a captivity of sorts. Let's throw on top of that the fact that he is developing strange abilities and perceptions due to his exposure and bonding to the seed artifact. He has to learn what these abilities are and what his limits are while being taunted and tormented by monsters. Because the Voidwalkers have a plan for Dayn. If they can't kill or destroy him, they'll twist and use him. Dayn doesn't take this laying down though, he's going to escape even if it kills every Voidwalker in the base with him or utterly wrecks him in the process and it just might. We learn a bit about the Voidwalkers, including how the Fleshweeps are made (that's right made), in process that suggest to me that the Voidwalkers have never heard of an ethics committee (my bros and ladies in the bio or medical sciences know exactly what I'm talking about here). Additionally we get to see the Voidwalkers interact with each other and with people who aren't Voidwalkers and... Look, I'm calling them monsters for a reason. They create monsters that slowly break down prisoners over years in their bellies for war mounts. That's completely unnecessary! There's no real purpose to that beyond sadism as far as I can figure. Their favored attack is a mental assault that the people of the world belt refer to as the Thrall. It's an attack on your mind that can shred your very sanity. While they've created mental disciplines to ward off the worse effects of the Thrall, it can stop even Defenders. Add in the fact that the Voidwalkers refer to the people of the world belt as degenerates. With their more advanced capabilities and their extreme tendencies towards cruelty it's very much the pot and kettle. It does kind of remind me of Munteerers Moon, a novel by David Weber where the bad guys also refereed to regular people as degenerates despite behaving in an utter barbarous manner. To be honest though comparing the Voidwalkers to the barbarians of history is an insult to such people as the Mongols and the Huns. While Mongols and Huns acted in terrible ways, there were at least damn good reasons for their behavior. While from the Voidwalkers all I'm seeing is savage, terrible sadism and spite! They have their own world, which has more space and resources then the people of the world belt! They have more advanced capabilities and the their self chosen enemies can't hope to threaten them meaningfully. So I am at an utter lost to explain their actions. I really hope the next book sheds on some light on why the Voidwalkers insist on acting like monsters without even the merest drop of decency or humanity.

Meanwhile Lurec and Nassir find themselves with more then a little work to do on their own. They have the seed, even if they lost Dayn and they need to make sure it doesn't fall into the hands of the enemy. They also have to evade the government of the world they're on. Montollos is a very wealthy, powerful world that chafes at the influence and restraints of the ring and would be more then happy to “barrow” the seed for themselves. Once they escape Montollos they have to decide whether or not to try to rescue Dayn or just make a break for it and take the Seed to safety. Like Dayn, they'll find themselves doing things they would never have imagined doing as they are pushed harder and harder. Additionally we get to see more of the flora and fauna of the torrent (the name of the debris field) which I find very interesting, it's an entire ecosystem that is incredibly dangerous but endlessly fascinating. Course back on the ring, we find trouble brewing. We meet Nassir's wife, a lady who came up with the idea of trying to tame Rage Hawks (giant hawks that hunt monsters in the torrent for food!) as war mounts so she could ride into battle on a bird that can tear apart sheets of metal. She's unhappy that her husband has gone missing and intends to gather up a squad of manics on giant crazy hawks that attack metal ships and go look for him. Frankly this explains a lot of Nassir's attitude last book to me. If I had to leave a lady that awesome behind to guard a pair of naive manics? I'd be grumpy to. Hell, I might even be surly. She's also getting sucked into some intrigue as factions within the ring are setting up for a power play, as even within a fortress that is suppose to devoted to unity has people willing to break everything apart so they can get a bigger piece.

We also get a stunning reveal into the origin and nature of the setting, some of which I thought I saw coming but a lot of which I'll admit caught me off guard. I'm not going to spoil it or discuss those reveals in this review due to my long standing anti-spoilers policy. That said I did like how the reveal was handled and was made into an experience. The information is revealed not by lecture but by showing us by the method of giving one of the characters (Who? Not telling!) a series of flashbacks so s/he experiences the events first hand. We learn that the Voidwalkers have been a blight to the people of the worlds for a very, very long time and again many of their actions seem completely nonsensical to me. Driven only by sadism. We get to see the origins of the worlds themselves and the origins of the Ring, the Defenders, the Preceptors, all of it. It's a wild ride that let's us take a look at the past of the setting without bogging us down in a lecture or sticking it in the back of the book in an appendix. Furthermore the reveal of this history is serves a purpose in the story, to help undo the mental and emotional damage that a character as suffered and to enlighten him as to why he must fight. It's always important to know why you're fighting and to have a decent idea what victory looks like after all.

The book is short and in some ways is a continuation of the first book. That said the tonal shift and the change in goals and plans of the character help the book to translate into it's own separate story from the first book which was a worry of mine when I first opened it up. The pace is good, the story is tight and no page is wasted (which is a good thing because it doesn't have any pages to waste). Mr. Sanders delivers a twist on the setting that I didn't see coming but works in well with what was reveled in the first book. That said, I am left with a hell of a lot of questions mostly as to why the Voidwalkers do what they do. As it stands, they seem almost nonsensical as a culture, a people or a political entity being devoted to just pure sadism and tormenting the people of the world belt for... Reasons. Of course this is balanced out that we only really see them through Dayn and his companions eyes and they only see the Voidwalkers when they show up to fight or torment them. Still I'm hoping for more revelations in the next book and to find out more about the setting. This book has kept me interested and pushing for more. So because of that I am giving The Seedbearing Prince part II a A-.

Join me next time for more Acts of Caine.   

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sidebar II: Harper Lee

Sidebar II:
Harper Lee

This Friday, a woman of 89 years old passed away. She was buried today in a private ceremony in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama with only few people in attendance. This is not because her passing was little noted or remarked but because of the private nature of the woman. Her birth name was Nelle Harper Lee, I and all of those who will read this I think, knew her simply as Harper Lee, the woman who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. She was born in Monroeville in 1926 but like a lot of kids born in small towns did not stay. She left to seek her fortune in New York City and in 1957 turned in the manuscript for To Set A Watchmen. The editor who received it didn't care for the manuscript but in her own words “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line", so she set about getting a book that she would like from Ms. Lee. That book took several years and if you'll excuse me being snobbish about it would be the only book Ms. Lee would write. That book, set in a small southern town set ablaze (metaphorically) by the accusation that a white woman had been raped and beaten by a black man, was released in July of 1960. It became an instant best seller, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and 39 years after it was published in the year of our Lord 1999 was voted best novel of the century in Library Journal (the largest trade publication for Librarians, which I frankly assume means most of the voters in the poll would have been Librarians). In 2006, British Librarians rated the book as one every adult should read. This book was as you well know “To Kill a Mockingbird”

"I never expected any sort of success with 'Mockingbird.'I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected." Harper Lee on To Kill a Mockingbird's success

While she would help childhood friend (and also famous writer) Truman Capote on some of his books, including the based on real life crime thriller “In Cold Blood.” She never wrote a book again, even “To Set a Watchmen” is based on the first draft that she wrote before Mockingbird but if you're only going to write one book, Mockingbird is a hell of a choice for that book. I like a lot of us I read the book in class in high school. Unlike a lot of things I did in high school, I'm actually grateful that they made us do it. I am not going to turn this into a review of Mockingbird, there is simply nothing that I can say that can add to what has already been discussed. That said I felt I should say something when the writer of something so amazing passes from us. I will talk a bit about how the book effected me, at the time I, being a rather dense high school student in a lot of ways had blithely assumed that racism was pretty much done in the United States. I was fairly sure that by the time I was 30 that racism would be something we read about in old books and saw in old movies. When you're done laughing your ass off, I will remind you I wasn't even old enough to drink yet at the time. So when we started reading the book, I was sure it was a nice book but with nothing really relevant to say to modern society. I was wrong (not just about the racism thing, although I was certainly wrong about that). Even laying aside the stone cold look at what racism does to people and the how those effects can cause incredible harm beyond even the immediate effects. There's the rather cutting look at class (no one gave a shit that Mayella Ewell was an abused child trapped in poverty and pain, until someone thought to blame a black man), and more... Frankly the book is a brutal look at society in some ways and all the more brutal in that this is not a polemic. We aren't told, look at how horrible these people are, they are racists and therefore evil. Instead we're shown people who range from good to indifferent, noble to at the very least trying, engaging in terrible behavior because of their beliefs in race, gender or class.

That's not what stayed with me though if we're going to be honest. It's the moment outside of the courtroom when Dill and Scout have fled due to Dill being upset and they are comforted by Dolphus Raymond, a white land owner who spurned white society to the point of living with and having children with a black woman (he didn't marry but that's because the book is set in the south during the depression, interracial marriage was illegal in the south at that time). The town has pretty much dismissed Raymond as a mangy drunk who doesn't know what he's doing. However we find out it's not booze he's drinking, but Coca Cola when he gives Dill some to drink to calm him down. He more or less just let's the town believe him to be a drunk so he can be left alone to live his life. That stuck with me for a lot of reasons, that I'll keep to myself but there you go. I

Harper Lee may have only written one book, compared to some writers who have written dozens, or even more... That might not seem like a lot. But sometimes? Sometimes... Sometimes one book is enough. We should all be so lucky has to leave something like “To Kill a Mockingbird” behind. Rest Well Ms. Lee and thank you.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Abhorsen by Garth Nix

by Garth Nix

This is the third book in the Old Kingdom series and the end of the trilogy. In this book the myriad plots and army of the Necromancer Hedge converge and the heroes roll their dice to try and stop the no shit end of the world. Now usually I don't like end of the world plots. They're overdone and I have a really hard time buying anyone actually ending the world. No seriously think about it. What possible benefit do you get from ending the world? There's no good loot, no one to boss around, you can't even gloat to anyone because they're all dead! I get wanting to take over the world. I get building a doomsday device as a last ditch defense against the heroes or villains (I live in a country that did it! What else would you call our nuclear weapon stockpile?). But making ending the world plan A? I mean even the vampires on Buffy admitted that they were just trying to look tough for the girls when they talked about it. That said, Hedge, our wonderful, genius, psychopath of a villain pulls it off and makes me believe that he would do it and gives me plenty of reason as to why. Better, he does it in 20 words or less. To be blunt about it, Hedge is motivated by a very human fear and his determination to

Hedge remains one of my favorite villains (it's not his personality here, it's his sheer effectiveness) in this review series, which is interesting because we don't really spend a lot of time with him. We don't know his origins, we don't know the roots of his motives, but in the end... We really don't have to. His fear is a human one, Hedge is motivated by a desire to avoid death at all cost. What pushes him beyond the bounds of human behavior is the fact that he doesn't care for any other living being in the entire universe. Because of that, he doesn't care if everyone has to pay the price just as long as he can avoid going pass the 9th gate of death (I'll get to this). I don't know how much of Hedge's operations are a result of Nix's service in the Australian Army Reserve and are just dumb luck but I got to state again I am very impressed. Hedge's consistently chooses tactics that split his enemies forces, isolates enemies in places he is strong and they are weak and keeps them reacting rather then launching their own plans or having the time to consider their tactics in depth. Throw in his willingness to confront his enemies head on without support, although to be fair he never confronts the strongest of his enemies (Sabriel) one on one instead choosing to use minions for that. Seriously, the NCO's who taught me tactics in the Marines would have to give grudging approval to Hedge's operations here. Hell the good guys have an entire family of people who can look into the future and he's still managing to get them on the ropes and preserve my suspension of disbelief. Anyways, all of this forces Sam and Lirael to undertake rather risky and dangerous moves to counter him.

What are Sam and Lirael up to you ask? Well they're going to have go places no one has gone and survived to dodge the armies of the dead that Hedge sent after them. At the same time they have to deal with the possibility of betrayal from within as events leave Mogget's loyalty (which is never really all that firm in the first place let's be honest) in question. We see a lot more of Disreputable Dog, who remains a big favorite of mine and we get to explore just what the hell Mogget and Disreputable Dog really are and what they know. Mogget's true nature could have been better hinted at and foreshadowed, I mean there are clues in the book, but not in the last two. Which makes me wonder if this is something Mr. Nix's just came up with in the last book. The Disreputable Dog's grant reveal wasn't that great of a shock to me, but well... It's been clear since she showed up that she wasn't just some random dog spirit. I got to be honest, I would really like to see more stories set with Lirael and Disreputable Dog going on adventurers. Maybe some short stories set in her days of clearing the Library of monsters?

We also get to learn more about free magic and get to see more of Death, including the fabled 9th gate of Death, beyond which there is no return. I thought the 9th gate was rather well done. As always I like the voyages into Death. Given some questions I got I feel I have to clarify things though. Death is not the after life, but rather the border between the afterlife and life itself. People and things who refuse to accept their deaths hang around here trying to get back into life. Necromancers can go into Death to recruit or destroy these spirits. Death is divided into 9 parts or wards, separated by gates, the more gates you pass the closer you get to the afterlife. The deeper you go into Death, the greater the pull to just go all the way and go into the afterlife. Death itself has a water theme, with that pull is shown as the current of water. This ties back in a clever way to the weaknesses of the dead, for example because Death is spiritually a river that moves you towards the afterlife, the Dead cannot cross running water (I wonder how the ocean effects them on that? In the first book we saw the just being on the sea really weakened Free Magic... Hmmm). I've said it before and I'll say it again, I really liked that. The whole magic system is really interesting and I would like to learn more.

We get to see Lirael, who only learned that she was the Abhorsen in waiting at the end of the last book really get into her necromanctic duties and we get to see Sam really settle into his own role. I got to admit I like Sam more in this book then in Lirael. I suppose freed of the expectation of becoming a necromancer allowed him to grow into a fairly good person and someone who can pull his weight in a quest to save the world. Which is a good thing because that's what he's on. In fact towards the end of the book he gets a pretty cool moment of awesome where he confronts his fear with literally nothing but his will and a set of blowpipes. Yes, you read that right and it's amazing. Lirael herself learns to make peace with the fact that she won't ever get to foresee the future like the rest of her family but that her own gifts (such as looking into the past) are just as important. We also get to spend some time with Nick, Sam's friend from Brit... I mean Ancelstierre of course! He is from an important political family so his being hijacked by an evil spirit and used by Hedge to give him cover to set up forces in Ancelstierre is kind of... Bloody hindering awkward problem. Despite being possessed by something older then our species, Nick manages to put up a good fight though and tries his damnest to contribute to team good guy. You really can't ask for much more then that. Ancelstierre is having it's own problems with a bloody coup kicking off the book resulting in distracting the military and civil authorities at the worse possible time! Which adds to the sheer oh crap factor I feel

The book also tries to hint at the idea of Lirael and Nick hooking up together but I didn't really feel the chemistry beyond Lirael running into a boy her own age that she could talk to and she wasn't related to. To be fair I wasn't completely sold on Sabriel and Touchstone as a couple either. Either Mr. Nix isn't that great at this, or I'm fairly dense on these matters. I will leave that decision up to my readers, course y'all will have to read this series before you can really discuss if I'm missing hint's that Mr. Nix is dropping. Isn't that just a pity?

Most of this story is a desperate race against time to stop Hedge from completing his mission, it works fairly well, although from time to time the characters seem to forget that they're racing against the clock. I also found Disreputable Dog's increasingly strange unwillingness to explain the threat to Lirael kinda infuriating. Is it really that hard to just tell them what's going on and not tap dance around the point? Is there some sort of magical spirit by-law that states you can never actually just tell people things but you have to lead them around until they find the information by other means? Most of the book manages to maintain a level of urgency and desperation that hovers on the edge of despair. You can't even blame them either as Hedge seems to have a plan B, C and D just to delay them another 5 minutes. Lucky for everyone that Lirael has learned to be quick on her feet and Sam is pretty damn relentless. It's a close run fight right down to the last chapter as they confront Hedge, his chief servant Chlorr and Hedge's master itself and I enjoyed it.

That said the book isn't perfect. Like I said I have a problem buying the romantic relationships that Mr. Nix is displaying. Additionally I needed more foreshadowing to buy Mogget's true nature. I mean it holds up when I think about it and poke at it... But this is something you build up a little more to. I'm the kind of guy who likes it when the reveal comes and I go “Of Course! Everything fits together now!” instead of “Wait... What? Where did that come from?” I also would have liked to spend more time with the characters. Like the first book Sabriel, I feel like Mr. Nix doesn't give us enough time with the characters and let us get to know them. That's offset by the amount of character work put into Lirael (although more work was put into Lirael then Sam but you can't have everything). Basically I guess I'm asking for another 50 pages that would just be character stuff for myself. I shouldn't carp to much about, at least Mr. Nix can bloody well finish a story and tell it well under a 1000 pages (That's right! I'm looking at you Sanderson! Way of Kings did not need to be that damn long! I read Mistborn, I know you can tell a story without rambling on like that!). In fact I kinda feel Abhorsen was cut off from Lirael for reasons of length as they really do tell separate parts of a single story. At least this one didn't end on a cliff hanger though.

Everything considered though? I really liked this book, Lirael remains a favorite character that I hope to see more of and the book let Sam do the growing up he needed to address my issues with him. It also gave me thrilling heroics, incredible magic and a battle to save the world. It manages to make me believe that someone would choose to end the world for selfish and in the end pointless reasons. Because of these reasons Abhorsen gets an A. I really encourage everyone to give this series a shot.

Next week, we go back to independent books, as I need to find out what happened to a certain Seedbearing Prince who got himself shoved into the belly of the beast. Literally.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Autumnlands I: Tooth and Claw

The Autumnlands I: Tooth and Claw
Written by Kurt Busiek
Art by Benjamin Dewey

You're on the wrong side.” Seven Scars leader of the Bison
Maybe, but this is the side I'm on.” The Champion

I had dropped by a local comic shop a few weeks ago, wanting to see if they had any word on when the 3rd volume of Rat Queens would be published (they did not) and spotted Autumnlands on the shelves. Now I am somewhat disconnected in some ways, so I hadn't heard of the series before seeing the cover. A cover where a dude was duking it out with a pair of humanoid Bison, surrounded by screaming anthromorphized creatures! That's a good way to get my attention, present the what makes your setting interesting front and center (side note, while I certainly enjoy pictures of pretty ladies, that's not going to get my attention for your comic, the shelves are way over saturated with that). I wanted to know what the hell was going on here. So I picked the graphic novel.

The Autumnlands is a fantasy comic published by Image comics, written by Kurt Busiek. Mr. Busiek was born in 1960 in Boston. His parents disapproved of comics, so he didn't start reading them until he was 14, when he was pretty much hooked. He would start writing comics professionally straight out of college in 1982 and went on to a rather decent career, being among other things the creator of the Thunderbolts (which he deserves a lot of praise for I think) and creating and writing Astro City, if you haven't heard of that series, you should look it up. I won't get into here expect to say that it won a lot of awards and well... Earned those awards. Needless to say Mr. Busiek himself has won a number of awards and as you can guess continues to work in comics. Benjamin Dewey the artist is younger then Mr. Busiek but has himself a rather good career in comics as well. He was born in Ohio, to a father who worked in a number of Art halls and museums. It's no surprise given this that he is trained as a painter, which shows to good effect in the book. He's also worked on a large number of comics. Honestly I like his style of art, it was detailed and stylized in a distinctive way that made the art recognizable and easy on the eyes.

The Autumnlands takes in a world inhabited by anthromorphic animals, some of them using magic are able to live in floating cities in a society of plenty and peace. Others without access to that magic have to live on the ground, for the most part making their living by gathering raw materials for the people on the floating cities. The cities are multi-ethnic with many varieties of animal people living in relative harmony while the ground dwelling animal folks seem to live in single species tribes. The relationship between wealthy city dweller and poor ground dweller is an uneasy one filled with suspicion and distrust. The ground tribes resent the city dwellers wealth and privilege and the city dwellers are firmly aware that if the ground dwellers would murder them all in their sleep due to frankly ill treatment which is demonstrated in the comic to good effect. This becomes the main conflict in the book but not the main problem if you'll allow me to expand.

The floating cities have a problem, they're running out of magic. This is bad because everything they got runs on magic. Basically when they run out of magic, civilization will collapse and most everyone will die. Another big problem is no one really has any idea what to do about it. Well, someone does have an idea of what to do, but the idea is insane. You see magic as a definite origin point, when a mythological figure called the great champion released magic into the world in the midst of a great battle with an evil wizard (although how can you have a wizard in premagic times? I think this myth has plot holes). So the wizard Gharta (who is a warthog) has a plan, craft a spell that reaches back into that misty past and yank the champion to the present and have him do whatever he did again to re-release magic into the world. Which is a rather insane plan, but well compared to the other options thrown on the table has the benefit of actually being a plan. Of course, Gharta is instantly told by the leader of her government (a bald eagle named Tallon) that this is extra heresy and therefore illegal (the comic gives us the image of a bald eagle screaming “THIS IS FORBIDDEN” at a warthog and I love it, I'm going to find that image on the internet and use it for something!). I kinda roll my eyes at this, you have an advanced magical society and something is forbidden without discussion because “the gods don't want us to?” There isn't even a priest caste here, whose coming up with these rules, why are they coming up with these rules, who is benefiting from these rules? Besides me I mean.

Well Gharta decides to do it anyways and convinces a group of wizards to help her. They gather on the smallest floating city and conduct their heresy and... Everything goes pear shaped! Well more like splattered egg shape, as the spell does pull in the champion into the present day... But also causes the city to crash, killing a large number of the population and smiting it's ruin upon the rock. The local ground dwellers, a bison tribe that has been much put upon by this very city sees this and thinks this is a great time to get some revenge. By killing all the survivors and looting the remains of the city. Into this fight comes stumbling the great champion, the creature claimed by every beast tribe, the founder of civilization, the father of magic... And he's a naked human who is pissed off and has no idea what the fuck everyone is babbling about. This is where the story begins.

I won't spoil the rest of it expect to say I enjoyed the story, the champion was an interesting guy who took a different route from most of the guy stranded in strange new world stories. He doesn't try to take charge or get involved in the local politics. His biggest interest is to keep a bunch of helpless people from being butchered. We don't learn much about him but what we do see is interesting. But the fact that he is human and from their past leaves us with a lot of questions. If humans existed in the past, why don't they exist now? Why do the animal people have no memory of humans? Where did magic actually come from? The internal conflicts are honestly less well done. I was left wondering how a certain warthog ever managed to be in charge of anything and kinda rolling my eyes at the secondary villain who is given no real redeeming traits what so ever. Seriously he isn't even all that intelligent frankly so I'm left asking how he gets away with so much shit? No one ever seems to call him on his shit and you think someone who had a lot of experience leading groups in extreme situations could have and been smart enough to realize it was necessary.

The book itself can be a bit gory, with a good amount of blood and dead people and full frontal male nudity on the champion for a page or two so this is not a book you want to share with children. While I was left unimpressed with the secondary villain and the political parts of the book, the rest of it was interesting and I was left wanting to know more about our main character and this strange new world. The Autumnlands by Kurt Busike and Benjamin Dewey gets a B-. It's an interesting world and main character but a lot of the conflicts could have been better done and the secondary characters needed more fleshing out. Next week we return to the Old Kingdom.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Empire of the Summer Moon

Empire of the Summer Moon
By S.C. Gwynne

Empire of the Summer Moon was published in 2010, it quickly began to rack up awards and honorable mentions, winning the Christian Science Monitor's best book of the year award, the Texas book award and the Oklahoma book award, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. It was the second book published by S.C. Gwynne. Mr. Gwynee is a journalist with a history degree from Princeton University and a Masters in Writing from John Hopkins University. During his career he wrote for Time (spending 12 years at the magazine), the New York Times, the Boston Globe and many other papers. He also served as an executive editor for the Texas Monthly where he wrote a number of high profile pieces from 2000 to 2008. Basically he's done a lot of writing and lot of it has been good. Let me move on to the book.

The Empire of the Summer Moon is both the history of the Comanche tribe of native Americans and an examination of the fate of members of a 19th century settler family who become deeply tied with the fate of the Comanches, the family of the Parkers. Most especially of Cynthia Ann Parker and of her children. Cynthia's story starts with the raid on her family's settlement that shattered her birth family began one of the more famous stories of the frontier. The extended family of the Parkers had settled at the very edge of settled land and their farms and homes were on the border of the empire of the Comanche (stretching from across the southern great plains where the Comanche held some of the riches buffalo ranges, empire is the right word here) and as such had made themselves vulnerable. The Comanche attacked, they would kill most of the adult men, torturing to death a number of them. The women and children were kidnapped, the adult women would be gang raped, tortured and if they were lucky enslaved, most of them would be murdered. The children however would be adopted into the Comanche tribe, given to women who had either lost children or seemed unable to have their own and treated equally with any native born Comanche. Right away Mr. Gwynne makes it clear that this book will not romanticize anyone (he describes the early Texas Rangers as bands of dirty, savage, illiterates who had mostly signed up for a chance to kill someone) and pull no punches in telling us what exactly was going on the frontier in the 1800s. He doesn't balk from telling us specifically what the crimes committed by whites or natives were and who the victims were.

To be honest I frankly appreciated it. My own views were formed in Oklahoma where I not only in history class read accounts by white settlers but by natives. In my own case I was exposed to history from the Cherokee side of things. Among other things their war with the Kiowa (strangely enough they show up in this book as the closest allies of the Comanche's) when they were basically exiled to Oklahoma and no one bothered to tell the Kiowa that Washington D.C had given the Cherokee land that the Kiowa considered theirs. For that matter I had even learned about the traditional battles between the Cherokee and the Iroquois, although for obvious reasons my education focused on things that happened after the Trail of Tears. What I'm saying is I already had a vague grip on the idea that this book mercilessly pushes home. The native tribes were not innocents who never fought a war before the white men showed up. Nor were the whites a uniformed band of monsters who relentlessly plotted to see every native wiped from the Earth. They were people, with all the virtues and vices inherent to being people. Now I do not desire to pretend that the United States was pure and unsullied in it's treatment of the native people's of North America and neither does this book. The many massacres and atrocities visited upon the natives at the hands of the United States Government, or more often by private citizens of the United States who could not be bothered to extend even the most basic rights to native men and women are not glossed over. Instead of the actions of both sides are given context and shown to be what they were, the actions of human beings who were both acting and reacting within specific events and contexts. If we're ever going to be better and not repeat the mistakes of the past, it's important that we look at the past and come to grips with the context and motivations of the people living in those eras and not view them as simple angels or monsters. Even for groups of people that it's hard to do that for, like the Comanche.

Before the arrival of white men in North America, the Comanche were a simple people of little note. They were a stone age people, who had not reached the advancements of the Aztecs or the Mississippi mound builders. Instead they skulked ignored by their neighbors on hunting grounds no one else wanted in the high empty plains of North America. They would have likely been one of the forgotten peoples of history expect for one thing, just one thing. The Spanish allowed horses to run wild on the American plains. The horse breeds that the Spanish brought were perfectly adapted to the plains of the North America (which frankly horses had been native to anyways before going extinct, possibly by over hunting by the natives ironically enough). According to Mr. Gwynne we can't be entirely sure when the Comanche meet the first horse but we know it had to be in the 1600s. Because by 1709, the effects were in full bloom. The Comanche hit the tribes and the Spanish colonizers of the southwest like a hammer through glass, chasing the Apache out of their home range and utterly wrecking Spanish plans for New Mexico and Texas. Written annuals of the time show them to be merciless. Even after chasing the Apache out of the territory they wanted, they would raid, burn and murder their way through Apache lands whenever they got the chance. One of the things I got out of this is that the Comanche's could fairly be compared to the tribes of steppe nomads that arose in Central Asia who often became the terrors of surrounding civilizations. I'm fairly sure that farmers in Northern Mexico at the time (the Comanche would raid Northern Mexico killing thousands of people a year until nearly the 1890s) and the various native tribes who struggled with the Comanche would agree with me.

Despite his lack of military training, Mr. Gwynne manages to explain why the Comanche were able to commit such feats of military dominance despite lacking any large scale organizational skills or any real social complexity (the Comanche never advanced beyond organizing at the band level, their raiding bands were basically ad hoc volunteer organizations held together by the force of personality of the man who called the raid). Actually to be fair that lack of social complexity worked in their favor. Without any tribal authority, there are no targets for decapitation strikes, being nomads traveling in small bands, there are no economic or political centers to hit. Hell, the Comanche had no organized religious beliefs meaning there were no sacred sites to take and hold and force the Comanche to fight on your terms. Fighting a society like the Comanche with the tactics that the Spanish and later the Americans had developed in the 1700s and the first half of the 1800s is like fighting a lake with a fork, hit as hard as you want, you ain't doing any damage. It was impossible to bring the Comanche into a large scale traditional battle. To the Comanche, war was a series of raids on lightly or undefended targets where you stole cattle and horses, kidnapped children and women and killed everyone else. On top of this the Comanche had some really hardcore tactical advantages. One was their unmatched horsemanship, at this point everyone else in North America was in the habit of riding into combat and dismounting to fight. This worked fine against the native tribes in central Mexico and the eastern United States, but the Comanche fought in a style more comparable to the Mongols or the Huns. They fought on horse back with bow and arrow and were often able ride rings around their adversities be they native or white. Their bows were much better adapted for this style of warfare than the single shot rifles or muskets being used, having a higher rate of fire and at the ranges the battles were taking place at, were more accurate. To be blunt it wasn't until the invention of the 6 shot revolver and repeating carbine in the late 1800s that the Comanche lost the firepower advantage. It was after they lost their tactical advantages that the US military was able to solve the strategic problem that Comanche posed. Although there was a lot of help from the private sector (the mass slaughter of buffalo destroyed the Comanche logistical base for example).

Woven into this is tales of the Parker family, mostly the women who survived the deadly raid, like Cynthia Ann Parker who would adapt fully into Comanche society and give birth to their last great war chief Quanah Parker, who was the first and last Tribal Chief of Comanche. The book traces his life as well as his mother's and his aunt's Rebecca Plummer. Rebecca was an adult when the Comanche attacked her settlement and the Comanche were not as gentle towards her as they were her niece Cynthia Ann, Ms. Plummer would survive 21 months in slavery and would write about her ordeal at the hands of the Comanche. She would die of illness after finally being reunited with her family and her husband. Cynthia who was 9 when she was taken would marry a Comanche chief and become culturally fully Comanche (frankly I suspect some Stockholm syndrome in some of these situations, as Cynthia and other captives would watch their adult relatives be gang raped, tortured and murdered before being turned over to childless couples who would treat them rather well). Quanah on the other hand would lead the last great war between the Comanche and the Americans, the campaigns between him and the American General who finally broke the Comanche, General Mackenzie, or as the Comanche called him, Bad Hand (he lost 3 fingers in the civil war). The book spends a fair amount of time on General Mackenzie who is a rather obscure figure in American history despite his accomplishments and digs into the relations between him and Quanah in war and peace. The book also details Quanah's life after the war's end where he becomes a figure greatly respected by white and natives alike. Dying a influential and politically relevant figure. I gloss over this because I believe you should read this for yourselves.

Empire of the Summer Moon provides an solid look into the history and lives of a rather neglected tribe in American History. As well as giving us a stark, unrelentingly and fairly factual look at the lives on the frontiers and the people living them. If you're interested in American history, the Indian wars or just looking to read an interesting history book, you got one here. That said, while not graphic or explicit the book is rather blunt and plain spoken about the violence and evil that both groups inflicting on each other and bystanders. I think we could use more of that. I'm giving Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne an A.

I have to admit the year is going pretty well so far, no major disappointments in the book department. Now that I've typed those words, have I jinxed myself? Will the streak continue? Find out next week when I cover the graphic novel, Autumn Lands Vol I and after that Abhorsen by Garth Nix. See you then.