Friday, July 29, 2016

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms By N.K Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
By N.K Jemisin

One of the reasons I started this review series 2 years ago was to push myself to read new works. At the time, I found myself--for a variety of reasons--pulling inward and sticking to familiar and well worn paths. I won't bore you with the maudlin personal details but it wasn't just in reading and I found myself needing to do something to break out of the rut. This review series was and remains part of that. That is why you have and will continue to see independent and not as well known authors showing up here. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an example of that. Before starting this series I would have never picked up this book, written by someone I've never heard of with no real connection to anything else I've read. Frankly, not every book I've picked up in that spirit has been a winner and there will likely be more reviews that consist of me howling in rage or muttering darkly in disappointment. This will not be one of those reviews.

Let's start as we usually do, with the writer, N.K Jemisin. Ms. Jemisin is the first African American woman author to be reviewed in this series. Why I mention this will become clear in a moment. Born in Iowa City, she would later attend Tulane University receiving a B.S in Psychology and later a Masters in Education from University of Maryland College Park. Before becoming a writer, Ms. Jemisin worked in education as a counseling psychologist, concentrating in career-counseling of young adults and adolescents. She started writing in 2002, with her first credited short stories showing up in 2004. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was her first full length novel and was released in 2010. Since then she has earned Nebula, Hugo, Goodread Choice Award, and the World Fantasy Choice Award; and then there is her brief feud with Vox Day. At first I wasn't sure whether or not to address it but I decided it was best to do what I always do, confront it head on.

The beginning of that feud comes from a speech that Ms. Jemisin gave in Australia. I don't agree with everything she said but I haven't lived her life and that's all I'll say there. Vox Day quickly attacked her calling her among other things an educated but ignorant savage (some people just cannot disagree with someone without doing it in the most hateful and awful manner). Some of his supporters have suggested that she was given her awards on account of her skin color. Here's what I'm going to say. I don't do research on the writer for these reviews until after I have read the book and decided the grade I'm giving it. So I didn't know a lot about her and was vaguely aware at best that she wasn't a white male. So I have done the next best thing to a “blind taste test” if you will. I find these allegations to be, bluntly, horseshit. Which makes the allegations about the average quality I expect from Vox Day and his supporters. I could sit here and tell you about how he should be ashamed of himself but one should not expect a rabid puppy to change it's nature, that's how you get bit. That's all the space I want to waste on this subject, let's talk about this book.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the story of a young woman, barely more than a girl really, named Yeine Darr. She is a noblewoman and ruler of her nation of Darr, but is not sovereign. This is because her nation, in fact every nation on the planet, is ruled by a single family (a very large extended family) of god's chosen aristocrats. We've all heard this song and dance before but this time the family not only really is chosen by a god but can prove it. Of course that proof is blasphemy (I'll come back to this) and a gross violation of all that is good and noble, but details. The proof is provided by four enslaved gods. You see, a long time ago the gods battled and fought over... Everything. The winner threw down the losers and forced them to be enslaved to the whims and desires of a single mortal family. They used to gods to, say it with me now Pinky, Take Over The World! In some ways their rule is somewhat detached as they rule through the local elites and have set up something of a parliament where those elites have representation and can discuss the laws of the world. In other ways their rule is the most absolute tyranny the world has ever seen. There is no religious, economic, or political freedom; the members of this family are utterly above the law and able to act in any way they wish unless the head of the family and De Facto King of the World feels like stopping them. There is no safety or shield from the depredations of those above you expect to cry out for pity from a group of people who have been taught from birth that pity is a vile sin. Worship the wrong god and they will find and kill you, possibly using the very god you were worshiping. Speak poorly about your masters and plagues and monsters may be visited upon you. Trade in the wrong way or with the wrong people and your children will be made to starve. No one is safe, not even members of the ruling family who prey upon each other in ruthless and relentless power games and have enslaved every member of the family who is not a direct, pure blooded descent of their founder, the priestess that their gods were entrusted to.

Yeine Darr is very aware of this and hates it, perhaps in spite of the benefits she has gathered from the system or perhaps because of those same benefits. Ms. Darr is a half breed, her father was the son of the ruler of Darr, a matriarchal nation on the edge of the world. A nation that no one would pay any attention to if it wasn't for the fact that Yeine's Mother was the daughter of said King of the World who rejected her position to marry him. Yeine is their only child, raised in Darr away from half of her heritage. With the death of her parents she has been summoned to Sky, the palace city where only those blood related to the rulers of the world can live through the night safely to meet the degenerate rulers of the world, her family. She will have to confront her family and be pulled into their power games, because the King of the World is dying and someone has to take his place. If she wins, she can rewrite the entire world. If she loses, she'll die and might just take her nation with her into the grave. Meanwhile she'll have to untangle the past and find out just who her mother was and why she did what she did.

I like Yeine, she's an interestingly complex and somewhat flawed character. Mildly sexist given her upbringing in a Matricidal society that considers men somewhat less capable of self control than women. She also has a terrible temper and a tendency to screw up by not controlling herself very well (which is ironic given the above). That said, she is also very intelligent, brave; willing to put her life on the line for her nation and allies, and to keep digging for the truth even if it's something that she might not want to hear. She's ruthless in her willingness to risk herself for her goals and I respect that. She isn't a perfect person or a saint. She's a person with flaws and mistaken beliefs which were ingrained into her by her culture. She is also someone who is in a terrible situation under a huge amount of stress, and she acts like it. She comes across as believable and in a lot of ways. Which is a good thing because the entire story is told pretty much completely from her point of view via first person narrative.

Which actually leads me to one of my complaints. The first person narrative is actually distracting from the plot and other characters because Yeine often takes detours from the story to tell us things. Sometimes it's information that vitally provides context to what's going on. Other times, it's stuff I figured out 30 pages ago or stuff that's kinda interesting but has nothing to do with the story. Other times it's to repeat stuff that has already been covered in the story. Additionally you'll find her arguing with someone else in the narrative, which also doesn't really add anything to the story. Everything does tie together in the last chapter but I often find myself wanting to tell Ms. Jemisin to get on with it! Part of that is her tendency to use this to create mini-cliffhangers within the book itself. Which I will admit grates on me; partly because I want to know what's happening next (which admittedly means Ms. Jemisin has gotten me to care about these characters and the plot); partly because while there is nothing inherently wrong with cliffhangers, I feel it to be a very abused method of generating suspense unnecessarily. Additionally there are jumps forwards and backwards in time due to the narrative choices which I found annoying. Stopping right before a major confrontation to go back a day and tell me about something else is like ripping a juicy piece of turkey out of my mouth. It's annoying and kinda rude. Diversions from the plot also happen when Yeine is dealing with the non-human characters in the plot, the enslaved gods and boy does she do interesting things with these characters.

I am, I admit, speaking as a Christian and a 21st century American here but I have always considered it a type of blasphemy to enslave a fellow human being. If it is blasphemy to enslave a mortal sapient being crafted in God's image... how much more blasphemous is it to enslave a being whose image we are in made in? The empire that Yeine is trying to survive in is built on the enslavement of four gods, one of whom is older than the universe itself. Having lost the war in heaven they were sentenced to serve the whims and commands of the winners most valued mortal servants. It would be bad enough if these gods were simply used as weapons (and they are) but they are used as servants and playthings on top of that. The sheer gall it takes to look a being that is eternal and immortal and command it to do petty demeaning service is frankly beyond me (or at least I hope it is). It should be no surprise that these gods hate their captors and plot to bring death and pain to any of them they can. What is a surprise is the nature of divinity in this world. It is not just humanity that has been crafted in the image of their creators, the gods are forced into shapes and behaviors by the expectations and desires of the humans they created. They are in a very real way made more real and more limited by interacting with humanity and yet even before their enslavement they did it as often as they could. I really wished Ms. Jemisin had spent more time on this idea, it's a very interesting and subtle one, even if it is an incredibly modern take on the relationship between gods and humans.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms brings a story that takes place exclusively in the upper reaches of a society that is rotting from the top down. The elite class (the 1% if you will) has held power for over a thousand years with no curb or check on their behavior and has received divine sanction for their misdeeds.  As you can imagine it’s become a venomous, depraved atmosphere. This is an imaginative and rather original setting that manages to be dark, rich, evocative and disturbing and she is be credited for accepting the implications of her premise and going rather far with it. She doesn't get to Bakker levels of darkness but then that wasn't the point of the story. The story is a good one, the stakes are both extremely personal (the life and well being of a single person) and epic (as her relatives are willing to burn entire nations to hurt her) all at once. We are given a very limited view of this world but it's an eye catching one as we are guided by a character who is both amazingly privileged and among the downtrodden masses (there are a number of characters like that in this story actually bringing some very interesting nuance to the plot). I enjoyed the book immensely. That said I am hoping that Ms. Jemisin is willing to try a more traditional narrative. While I have harped on the narrative choices I will say that a lesser written book with the same narrative style would have led me to abandon it in disgust while with this one I was pulled on regardless. Because of that I am giving The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K Jemisin a -A.

Next week, what happens when someone puts a book in my hands and tells me Amazon has declared the writer the next Tolkien? Let's find out!   

This Review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, July 22, 2016

Log Horizon IV by Mamare Touno

Log Horizon IV
by Mamare Touno

So imagine you play an MMO, a very popular one. Imagine you woke one day and found yourself in the body of your character and in the world of the game. You're lost and alone in a strange world, most likely surrounded by strangers. Fighting is actually painful and scary now, not to mention now the monsters aren't pictures on a screen but in your face with real-live maiming action! How interested would you be in doing game quests which involve a lot of combat? What if there were consequences for not throwing yourself into the meat grinder; really bad ones? What if the game world acted like a real world; complete with sapient NPCs, with their own motivations, desires and plans? What if, when the monsters come out and you don't fight them. real people--men, women and children--are going to suffer and die; what do you do then?

Volume 3 ended with an army of thousands of goblins pouring out the mountains to fight, kill and plunder under the lead of a new Goblin King. This happens right when our new government of the town of Akiba (the town where most of the characters make their main base along with 15,000 other players) are in the middle of sensitive negotiations with the local powers that be in the League of Free Cities. The League is a Confederation of noble fiefdoms where the the various nobles have agreed to support each other and not fight. They're not very organized however, having to set everything up by ad hoc committee. I'll admit to being somewhat snobby about this, but I suppose this is what happens when you don't have a clearly defined leader or hierarchy. What I mean by that is that the rank-structure of the League of Free Cities seems fairly flat. Each noble is almost completely independent of the others, meaning that you kind of have to treat the Baron next door as an equal even if you're a Duke. It's not like there's anyone to appeal to if he rounds up an army to force the issue after all. Having the adventurers show up and start acting like actual people and organizing into a city state is upsetting a lot of this, as now they have to figure out how to treat them and the Goblin invasion is forcing the issue.

In the middle of this is Shiroe, who really wants to help fight off the Goblin Army but also has to keep an eye to the future. If he folds to easily then he might find himself stuck in a situation where the League views the adventurers as their own private army of super humans and acts accordingly which could cause conflict or even open warfare as the adventurers are not going to consent to that. On the flip side, take to long to help and thousands of people could die and that's going to stain and mar the relationship between the two power blocks. Meanwhile the nobles need the adventurers to bring the pain but can't let themselves be held in a position of weakness. They're already militarily weaker than the adventurers on pretty much every level and so feel that politically they need every advantage they can get. This is where I want to talk about a certain princess...

Princess Reinesia was introduced last-volume but didn't really impact the story until this book. I would like to take a moment to point out this is a great method of bringing characters into a story. Princess Reinesia was introduced as the daughter of a Duke, one of the more powerful nobles in the League. In volume 3, we saw Crusty form a relationship with her based on mutual desire to get out of socializing and work. So instead of the princess coming in out of nowhere, we already know this character and have a good idea of what she wants and who she is. Who she is, well she's what you might call a natural born NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) which is a term that came to describe a number of young folks after the recession hit and they graduated college and found no work waiting for them (there's also a population of them in Japan for separate but comparable reasons). Princess Reinesia is ,frankly, lazy, aimless and rather adrift. She dislikes associating with the young men of her class because they do nothing but shower her with compliments and empty gestures. She dislikes the young women of her class for much the same reasons. She doesn't have the drive or temperament to be a rebel so she just kinda mopes and hopes to be left alone to be lazy. I actually found myself somewhat sympathetic to her (on the flip side I am the guy who arranged his class schedule in the pursuit of having at least one day a week where I didn't have to put on pants but could just chill at home). However, when the Goblin army comes roaring down from the mountains she doesn't mope about the possible lost of her lifestyle; she worries about all the people in their path and tries to do what she can to help. She decides what she can do is cut the Gordian Knot of  relations between the adventurers and the nobles of the League, and she does it pretty decisively even if the whole time she's trembling in fear that she's going to puke in front of everyone (also something I can sympathize with).

We also got Scrub/Noobhorizon's doing front line combat with the Goblin Horde. I actually enjoyed this part of the story the most. It's a group of scrappy, willing kids who have just finished their training putting it to use to defend a town of innocent people against ye olde horde. The fight scenes are good and there's a real understanding of how to turn game mechanics into something that works for you instead of against you. I also really enjoy the kids team dynamic, it's different enough from the adults to feel fresh and new but is still a team full of good people who care and like each other. There are rough corners to their friendship, mainly because it's so new that it still squeaks if you handle it wrong. A good part of the drama here comes from Rudy, who’s a sorcerer with a secret. That secret means that bluntly Rudy doesn't belong on the battlefield and is the worse equipped person to be on the field. I can't say why because of spoilers but what I can say is that the very laws of the world are telling Rudy to stay home, sit down, and let someone else do the fighting and Rudy is telling the very physical laws of his universe to go to hell. Rudy is trying to swim uphill but he's doing so with all his heart so you can't help but cheer for the guy. The fact that he's willing to throw himself out in front to help and protect people doesn't hurt either. I'll be honest part of me likes a guy who when told “you can't do this” says “fuck you I'll do it twice as good as you thought I could.”

That said there are parts of the book that get a bit dry, mostly those told from Shiroe's view. I'm also disappointed in how Mr. Touno tells us things that are happening off screen in the blandest way possible at times, and his pulling back at the last moment from following the war all the way to the end. The end of this story has a lot of tell instead of show, which is something I hope Mr. Touno doesn't get into the habit of. Still, it's a fun story and one I enjoyed. Because of that Log Horizon 4 by Mamare Touno gets a B+. Next time, I think I should do a fantasy novel, don't you? Let's go somewhere new shall we?

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Vader Down By Jason Aaron and Kieron Gillen

Vader Down
By Jason Aaron and Kieron Gillen
Art by Mike Deodato and Salvador Larroca

All I am surrounded by is Fear. And Dead Men” Darth Vader

This comic is a crossover between the Vader series and the Star Wars series starring our happy band of rebels trying to overthrow the Empire. I haven't reviewed the other series but I do want to let you know that it's coming. As a consequence, this review is going to mainly looking at it through the viewpoint of the Vader series. Fair warning:  I'm going to hold off on talking about Jason Aaron and Mike Deodato until I actually review their series. Let's get into it shall we?

Last time Vader had gotten a tip that Luke Skywalker; the person he has spend money, lives and material to learn about and find like a drunken sailor on leave was on the planet Vrogas Vas. Without a second thought in his helmeted head the Dark Lord of the Sith rushed to that planet alone to confront and capture Luke... only to find it's a trap (please insert your favorite Admiral Ackbar joke here). It wasn't a trick however, Luke Skywalker was on the planet to visit a deserted Jedi Temple and he brought along a few friends. A battalion of them or so (well more like 3 squadrons and a company but really who’s counting? Besides me I mean.) and Vader is about to brawl with them all. I just gotta say, this is one glorious brawl.

This is where we see Vader just unleash himself because he is just done with everyone's crap. I can't really blame him. His boss and mentor is openly talking about replacing him; people keep disrespecting him to his face; he keeps having to work for sub par officers; it would make anyone murderous never mind a dark side worshiping near-psychopath. Now, I'm going to be honest, up til now my benchmark on what a Force user could do was pretty much Luke Skywalker and watching the Jedi in the prequel movies (yes, yes, we all dislike them but they exist). When I saw Vader going up against dozens of star fighters and companies of troops I was kinda asking myself ‘just what is it he can do?’.  I'm not going to go into details here but let me just admit I didn't know the power of the Dark Side. Vader goes head to head with a small army and it swiftly becomes you worried about the army instead of being worried about Vader. To future writers and creators, this? This right here? This is how you sell me on a villain being utterly terrifying! Vader becomes a force of fucking nature, like a man sized black wearing be-caped Godzilla in a worse mood than usual.
Vader isn't the only character on display here. Our protagonists from the movies (you know, Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie and the Droids) are also here, along with what I've labeled Vader's Villain Party. They all show up for a messy brawl where all the characters throw down and mix it up. Now what happens in a lot of crossovers is you're left feeling that one team was tossed under the bus, forced to lose the fight by writer fiat. That doesn't happen here, it really feels like two teams of protagonists going at it and using everything they can think of to win this brawl. My favorite bits happen to be the droid on droid violence and the awesome fight between Chewie and Krrsantan. That said, Dr. Aphra and Han Solo also get their moments and their duel was fun to read. Meanwhile Luke, who has no clue what's really going on just yet is scrambling to avoid being captured by... Everyone.

However interestingly enough the real conflict of this story isn't Vader's, Luke's or even Han's. It's Leia's. Princess Leia wants Vader dead and with damn good reason. He did help blow terracide her culture. Yeah, you could argue that was Tarkin's order but Vader was up to his neck on that one. There is also the little issue of Vader torturing Leia back in A New Hope. I'm just guessing here, but something tells me Leia might be the kind of lady to hold a grudge over stuff like that. Personal reasons aside there are also solid political and military reasons to pour out a small planet's worth of resources to kill Vader. He is still the Emperor's right hand man and a Dark Lord of the Sith.  While this comic shows that his combat value is... insane, it's his value as someone the Emperor can trust to solve any problem he's pointed at that makes him a high value target. To be blunt it's actually worth losing a literal regiment or more to kill Vader, assuming you can get the job done. Leia is also faced with the question of whether or not it is it worth losing Luke and her friends to kill Vader. I would argue no, personally on simple practical grounds. Yes, killing Vader would be a massive blow to the Empire but the Emperor can replace Vader. It would take years, maybe even over a decade to train an equivalent Sith but it could be done (the biggest strength of the Empire is that it is a machine, every part except the Emperor can be replaced because that is how the Empire was designed. As long as the Emperor lives, everything else can be rebuilt). The Rebellion cannot replace Luke Skywalker, if he dies, the likelihood of their victory drops immeasurably. They can replace a thousand ground troops, they can replace squadrons of fighters but a Jedi? Not so much. Course I am arguing with perfect hindsight here so my math may be tainted by outside knowledge. She doesn't know it but it's Leia's decision here that is going to determine the course of the war and the fate of galaxy. I found that really cool.

The action is bone jarring, the pace fast but not break necked, the attention is fairly well balanced (although Luke and friends do get a bit more time then Vader, Vader gets more time than any single character so I feel it balances out). The writing works well, despite some minor shifts in tone depending on whether it was Aaron or Gillen writing, and some dramatic shifts in the art style (I find myself preferring the Vader's team art but that's a personal decision). This is a story of a battle, one of the many small battles across the galaxy that almost by accident ensure the final fate of the Empire. I greatly enjoyed seeing Vader go nuts on companies of innocent infantrymen.  Yeah sure he's the bad guy but there's something satisfying in seeing an actual powerhouse of a villain go all out and drive his enemies before him. Because of this Vader Down gets an A. Get thee hence and give it a look if you're a star wars fan, you'll thank me later kid.

Next week, we find out just how it is you deal with a goblin army in the tens of thousands and if fate can be denied or not. See you then.  
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland

In the Shadow of the Sword
by Tom Holland

Persian Fire, also by Tom Holland was one of my earlier reviews, my third one actually.  I hope this review is a little more in-depth then that one. Let me start by talking about Tom Holland the writer. Mr. Holland is a English born writer, born near Oxford and educated in Cambridge (receiving a double first in Latin and English, which means graduating with honors for us Americans). He lives in London with his wife and daughters, and is known for being an avid Cricket fan. Mr. Holland is a prolific writer with over 11 books to his credit, a play, 2 documentaries and a translation of Herodotus: The Historians (and I was proud of hitting 60 reviews). One of those documentaries “Islam: the Untold Story” is roughly based on this book.  When it was shown in England it provoked over  1000 complaints to the channel that showed it and a number of death threats against Mr. Holland. Now I'm not going to pretend that death threats are a Muslim only thing. A brief google search of Christian death threats makes that embarrassing clear (As a Christian, guys don't send in death threats because someone said something you didn't like, not only it is wrong but it frankly makes me wonder if you even read the New Testament). That said, if you're going to be part of the 21st century you're going to have to get used to people believing and saying things you don't like, well at least if you want in on the good parts of the 21st century. I think I'll leave the discussion on death threats at that. Let's get to the book, you know, the reason we're all here right?

In the Shadow of the Sword starts with a very basic thesis. See, the standard history about the formation of Islam is that Muhammad, a merchant from Mecca received a visitation from the angel Gabriel in a cave and as a result began having visions. Those visions became the basis for the Quran, the holy book of Islam which he would recite to his companions who wrote it down (or passed it on to people who did). The basic agreement is that the Quran was received whole and unchanged from Gabriel as the final revelation of God and has been unchanged since that time. It's one of the things that makes Muhammad unique among holy figures. Unlike Jesus or Buddha, who despite being the founders of their faiths were dead, or at least no longer among the living, when the holy texts of their faiths were written, Muhammad or at least his companions were still alive. Mr. Holland argues that may not actually be the case. He argues that the traditions and stories that have grown up around the Quran and the Hadiths might actually not stretch back to the founder of Islam. Additionally he goes so far as to suggest that the Quran was not written as early as we've all been led to think. In fact, much like the New Testament it might have been assembled by scholars who only really begun the project once the events of Muhammad's life had passed beyond living memory.

First however, Mr. Holland takes us on a tour of the world that would develop Muhammad and followers. This means of course taking look at the middle of late antiquity, when the middle east was divided between two great, but today nearly forgotten superpowers: the Persian Empire and the Byzantine (or Roman if you prefer) Empire. On one side the Christianized Roman Empire, having lost the western half of the Empire but still one of the greatest powers in the world. It was a centralized, bureaucratic state with a state army. Of course in the early days of Christianity, what it meant to be a Christian was up for negotiation. The nature of Jesus, the trinity, what books were going to be in the New Testament. Whether or not there was going to be a New Testament, all of these things had to be hashed out and often it was a messy and at times violent process. On top of this already complicated and muddled process was the working of the Roman state, whose Emperors were determined to exercise some control over this process and ensure that whatever came out of the other side of it was something that would mesh with the Roman government be of use to them. This wasn't always a process dominated by political goals however, the vast majority of the men (and back then I am sorry to say it was a discussion where only male voices were really welcomed) involved did hold an honest and deep belief in the doctrines they were arguing for. Many of them were willing to die or face life long exile rather than believe anything else. Frankly that is one of the reasons that the process was so complicated and bloody in the first place. Now, because this isn't complicated and layered enough, everyone involved was also trying to hash out what makes a Christian not a Jew. Today that seems a silly question, as it takes but a few minutes to outline the border between the two deeply related but very different faiths. Back then however, there were Christian Jews and Jewish Christians and that's not two ways of saying the same thing. Not that the Christian Bishops were the only ones involved here, the Jewish Rabbis were fully part of the project of creating a clear distinct border between the two faiths and ensuring that they would stay separate. Honestly I feel this is a subject that merits a book all on it's own but moving on.

We also have the Persian Empire, which at the time was dominated by Zoroastrian faith. I've always had a low-level fascination with that religion, which amazingly still exists in Northern India and eastern Iran even today. Like in Rome, the Persian Monarchs had identified themselves with a single faith and were more than willing to use it shore up royal authority. That authority is something they might have needed more then the Romans, because their empire was feudal in nature with great families able to raise their own empires ensuring that a cycle of civil wars would dominate Persian politics. The Zoroastrian priests would preach that the Persian Empire itself was a religious object, an expression of the order of the universe, uniquely blessed by God to uphold the divine order. Stop me when I get to something you haven't heard before. The Romans would do the same of course and like the Romans, the Persians were surrounded by hostile barbarians constantly testing the strength of the empire's defenses, hungry for a chance at the wealth behind those defenses.

We also are shown the other religions of the time. Like the Samaritans; who prayed toward Jerusalem, refused to eat pork, and declared there is no God but God and Moses is his prophet. Or the many prophet lead rebellions within Persia, many of them preaching a utopia where true believers came together and shared their resources and abilities so that no one was hungry or in need. Paganism held on in the corners and forgotten places of the region, despite the best efforts of authorities in both empires. Each of these groups in turn rebels and upon losing scatter into the desert. Mr. Holland also shows us the Arabs in their pre-Islamic state, looked down upon as barbarians but used by both empires as border troops to try and prevent raids on their homes. The two rival federations fought across the centuries and decades with a savagery that would be legendary in it's own right. All the more savage for the religious elements the struggle took on. The Arabs who took Persia's money turned to paganism, to the point of human sacrifice. The Arabs who took Roman coin, converted to Christianity. To put it bluntly the Middle East was seething with religious upheaval and political instability (something I'm sure no one today can envision the Middle East being like) and the wide feeling that an age was coming to an end. Mr. Holland shows us this vivid, brilliant, brutal world that teemed with ideas, faiths and loyalties. Then he shows us the end of that world.

Like most things, it started small. Insect small, as fleas carried by rats on trade ships brought plague to Egypt. From Egypt it spreads across the Roman world and from there into Persia. As many as one out of 3 died. Entire cities are left as ghost towns, whole provinces hollowed out and left barely inhabited. Both empires only held on through the unceasing work of talented and ruthless men determined not let this be the last chapter of their civilizations; even as the empires began to claw their way back from the abyss, ambition, fear and greed combine to throw those civilizations back in. The Emperor of Persia, feeling that his hold on the throne is frail and may be slipping, decided to throw the dice and go for broke. He summoned up his armies and crashed into an exhausted Roman Empire. It looked as if the long feud might finally be over but the Roman Emperor was not a man of small gifts. Having scraped up a tiny army, he lead his men into the heartland of Persia and attacked the temples of Zoroaster, destroying them and attacking at the very heart of the Persian Emperor's power. It's an insane gamble that worked, and Persia fell apart into civil war. The Roman Army staggered home believing that now, at last there is time to heal and rebuild. The End of Days had been averted. Then from the desert come the (now Muslim) Arabs. They hit like a mailed fist through glass, Persia collapsed and Rome was reduced to a rump state fighting to hold on to the provinces in Anatolia. The Arabs had risen from a barbarian people on the margins to the masters of the civilized world.

But how is this world to be governed? What is it that makes a Muslim? What makes a Muslim different from a Christian or a Jew? What is the position of the Commander of the Faithful? Does he speak for God? Who can judge him? These are the problems of victory that the Muslims had to grapple with. Where the Caliphs believed they had the answer (that they clearly were chosen by God to be the ultimate authority) the scholars of Islam had different ideas. On top of this come in the newly converted Persians, Syrians, Egyptians and more, all of whom are pushing for their own rights within this new society. From the bottom come the masses of slaves that the Muslim Arabs took as god-given plunder.  They converted and began adding their own input into what Islam should be. It was in this environment that the first written records of Islamic civilization begin to filter out, over a century after Muhammad's death. Tracing those records and discussing the context and conflicts between those records leads Mr. Holland and the scholars whose research he used to a conclusion that the Quran is not quite what we've been led to believe.  That instead it was a project that took place over a sustained period of time and was the result of intense debate within the Islamic community over what God’s will actually was.

As I mentioned earlier, I am a Christian, so clearly I don't believe that Muhammad was visited by Gabriel and I don't believe the Quran to be divinely inspired. That said, I am also well aware of the nature of the New Testament's assembly and how intensely debated it was, so frankly I'm very comfortable with the idea of a Holy Text being the result of the work of men. Whether this case would convince a Muslim, I will leave to the actual Muslims. To be honest I can't help but feel this is a conversation that the followers of Islam should be having, not us non-Muslim westerners but let's be honest: this is a conservation that can't be held by most Muslims. Not when voicing such ideas in places like Saudi Arabia or Iran is likely to get you jailed or doing so in Egypt or Jordan will get you murdered. Maybe in the future however. There is always hope for a more open and free world, after all. As I read this book, I was reminded of a saying that has stuck with me. Faith is about God, but religion is and always has been about Man. Mr. Holland certainly argues that case here.

Mr. Holland gives us a grand tour of the world that gave birth to Islam and to the forces in the early Arab empire that struggled to define Islam in the wake of it's great victories. I'm not entirely sure that I can rate Mr. Holland's thesis as proven but he certainly makes a bold case worthy of discussion. If you're interested in the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia; if you're interested in the history of the Middle East; or if you want to know more about the history of Christianity, Judaism, or even about the other religions that roamed across the God Haunted sands of the middle east then this book is for you. I learned a lot and the imagery and thoughts in this book are going to stay with me. For these reasons I give In the Shadow of the Sword an A.

Next week, brace yourselves! For we going to have a clash. Because the report has come in and it's VADER DOWN!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Log Horizon 3 By Mamare Touno

Log Horizon 3
By Mamare Touno

A bit of a recap for anyone who hasn't read the last couple of reviews: Log Horizon is the story of what happens when a group of thousands of gamers wake up in the world of their MMO game, in the bodies of their characters. But Mr. Touno doesn't stop there; see, the gamers aren't trapped in a video, they're trapped in a no-shit real world that shares many characteristics and physical laws with the MMO game. What does that mean, you ask? It means the NPCs are real sapient people with their own thoughts, desires, and wills. It means the monsters in the wilderness can act and make their own plans. It means there are consequences for how you treat people even if they aren't players and you cannot take things for granted. Mr. Touno presents these as the themes of this light novel and just like the last two, I enjoyed it.

Shiroe and company got a bit of a shock when the local government of the People of the Land (the self given name for the NPC natives of the world) invite representatives of The Round Table Council to attend a yearly conference. Shiroe attends with a number of representatives of a number of powerful guilds including Crusty the leader of the combat guild DDD (don't look at me like that, I didn't come up with the name). While Crusty was introduced in book 2, it's in book 3 that he becomes a major character in his own right. Mostly because he's able to deal with NPC aristocrats on their own ground without any real problems. While nothing is said about who he was in Japan, I do kinda feel his behavior and ease around the powerful hints he was a child of the upper class. This book also introduces new characters who are NPCs such as the Princess (I'll get to her in the next book) and the Magician Li Gan. Li Gan also goes by the name of the Sage of Miral Lake, as you might guess Shiroe and him hit it off. It's in their conversation that we learn a bit about the sad history of the world and why it is the way it is. Additionally we learn there might be some consequences to death even if you are a player. Every time you die, you lose memories. Not a lot, little things, but it could add up.

Meanwhile the characters whom fans have been known to dub Scrub or Noob Horizon takes center stage in their first real story line. First we have the twins Minori and Tohya, who were both introduced last novel. They had been being held basically captive by a guild who was using kids as sweatshop labor. Shiroe liberated them and the other kids while founding the Round Table Council because he's just that awesome. Minori is the quiet thinker who looks up to Shiroe, while Tohya is more outgoing and carefree and looks up to Naotsugu. I honestly like how Tohya and Naotsugu have this sort of star player/coach relationship going on in the background. It's low key but it's there in how Tohya thinks about things that Naotsugu has said to him as guidelines on how to live. Along with them is Isuzu, a young high schooler turned bard who was also held captive; Raundelhaus, a young man who is an incredibly outrageous sorcerer (this guy could have easily gotten annoying on many levels but Mr. Touno balances the characters mannerisms with his teammates to keep everything under control); and Serara who we met back in book 1. These characters have been tossed together in a training team. This is part of a larger effort to train up the new players who have found themselves trapped in the game-made-reality and brings to home just how organized the government that Shiroe founded is becoming.

How do you train noob adventurers you ask? The same way you do in the game of course, you send them into dungeons to kill things. The Round Table has set up a “summer camp” for the low level kids, to teach them the basics of combat so they can defend themselves and level out of the lower brackets. Which makes sense as a realistic response to the environment they've found themselves in. By leveling the kids (even if it means throwing them into the combat) they're ensuring that the kids can defend themselves in a world literally overrun by monsters. That seems a bit cold but remember, they can't actually die and frankly it's better they learn this sooner rather than later. It's in this story line that Mr. Touno shows that he understands how RPGs and MMOs work, because he graphically shows that without teamwork and communication you won't get very far in a combat zone. Unlike some similar stories, there aren’t going to be lone wolves tearing everything up while all the other characters just gaze admiringly. The kids have to learn to communicate the play styles and strengths of their character classes with each other while working together to cover each other's’ weakness. If they don't they have to run for their lives from very real monsters. If they do, they become greater than the mere sum of their parts. It's a good illustration of how planning and organization are needed to get you anywhere when you operate as a group and it does this without any tiresome sermons or beating the point into the ground.

That leads me to my next point, other characters are given important things to do and lessons to learn. This prevents character fatigue, I don't get tired of Shiroe and company because I'm being switched over to other characters. I don't get annoyed by spending time with Noob Horizon, because I get to see the cool plotting and sneakiness that the adults are up to. Crusty remains interesting without stealing the spotlight from other characters. It's still Shiroe's show to be blunt, but other people get their own acts. Other characters get to do cool and interesting things. If you want to avoid people thinking you're a Mary sue, this is a good tactic to adopt. Another one is that Shiroe doesn't always have the right answer or the best idea. Sometimes he has to listen to other people to get his shit done. That's another good tactic for a writer to use. Additionally, by expanding the cast and splitting them up, Mr. Touno shows that there's more going on in this world than just the little bubble inhabited by the main characters and expands the possible stories he can tell. It's a good move.

That said a lot of this book is simply set up for part 4 and the book ends on a cliffhanger. Remember how I said the NPCs had their own wills, motivations, ideals and desires? That doesn't just apply to the good guys; while the adventurers were holed up in their town freaking out and trying to figure out how they were going to live they weren't out there in the world killing monsters. This gave the monsters time to plan, organize, and prepare. That has consequences that unfortunately won't be explored until book 4. Because of this I'm giving Log Horizon Part 3 a B+, it's a good book but at times feels like only half a full story.

Next week, we leave the eastern shores of Asia and fiction behind and go to hotter, drier places and to history. See you then!