Friday, December 8, 2017

Under Heaven By Guy Gavriel Kay

Under Heaven
By Guy Gavriel Kay


The Son of Heaven cannot be wrong”
Shen Tai page 317


Guy Gavriel Kay, born in 1954 in Saskatchewan Canada, is a writer who is not as well known as he should be in many ways. While understated he had a great influence on the fantasy genre. For example, when Christopher Tolkien (the son of JRR Tolkien) needed help editing his father's unfinished works, he selected Mr. Kay who at the time was studying philosophy at the University of Manitoba. While the Tolkiens were the writers of the work (Christopher Tolkien would put in a lot of work turning his father's unfinished work into something that could be read and understood), to declare that Mr. Kay had no influence on the work at all would be foolish. If that was all he did we could safely declare that he had influenced the genre, but he wasn't done yet. When he was finished with that task in 1975 he returned to his native Canada and completed a law degree at the University of Toronto, and was called to the bar of Ontario in 1981. He would restart his writing career by becoming the principle writer for the Canadian radio drama Scales of Justice. In 1984 his first novel The Summer Tree was released, with our current review Under Heaven being released in 2010 and he continues to this day. Mr. Kay has won acclaim in the field, being awarded the Prix Aurora Award in 1987, the White Pine award in 2007, the World Fantasy Award in 2008, the International Goliardos Award, the Sunburst award for the book we're reviewing here and in 2014 he was awarded the Order of Canada. Mr. Kay primarily likes to write in fantasy versions of historical times and places, not in the way many other writers do but by choosing specific times and events in history and focusing on those. This is something that a number of North American writers have done like Robert Howard, although what Mr. Kay does is a bit different and shows more devotion to scholarly research.


In this case Under Heaven is set in the 9th Dynasty of the Empire of Kitai, a fantastical version of the Tang dynasty empire of China, which in our world is regarded as a golden age for China in many ways. It is however, a sad truth of our world that golden ages end. Before this book began, there was a war fought between Kitai and the Empire of Tagur (Tibet sort of). The war ended in the battle of Kuala Nor, a massive battle in a mountain valley with a beautiful lake that claimed the lives of over 40,000 people. The battle was such a shock to both empires that peace was made and sealed by the marriage of the Tagur Emperor to a Kitai princess. Many years late the Kitai general who fought that battle died. In Kitai unless an active member of the government or the military, a man must withdraw from society for 2 and a half years to mourn and perform the required rituals. Our main character Shen Tai, the 2nd son of this general did more than that. He went to Kuala Nor, now a ghost haunted field of horror and story and dwelt there among the angry ghosts and regrets, finding the bones of the soldiers of both nations and burying them. This story spread across boundaries and borders until it reached the Princess sold to the foreign Emperor, who enjoined her husband to make a gift to Shen Tai. The Emperor does so, making a gift of 250 Sardian horses. Now, Kitai is rich in men, in learning, silk, rice, grain and gold; but it is poor in horses. Sardia on the other hand raises the greatest horses in the world, fast and graceful, tireless and strong. That many Sardian horses is not just enough wealth to make a man a billionaire by our standards but to gives him the ability to create a fearsome military force that can shift the balance of power across the Empire. Shen Tai, a man who had a short and somewhat odd military career and studied in the capital but never passed the examinations needed to hold civil office is now thrust into the center of the intrigues of the Kitai empire. Because there are people who will kill him to get at those horses, people who will kill him to keep anyone else from getting those horses and people who simply want to kill him but can't because of those horses. Meanwhile Shen Tai has his own concerns because he learns as he returns to civilization that his little sister Shen Li-Mei has been adopted into the imperial family, declared an official princess of the empire and given in marriage to the heir of the throne of nomadic empire to the north. To make matters worse, the man who might have masterminded it is his elder brother Shen Liu. Who is now the principal advisor to the First Minister of the Empire, Wen Zhou. To throw even more trouble onto the scales, before Shen Tai left to the margins of the world, Wen Zhou was a rival for the affections of a woman, a courtesan who used the name Spring Rain. He does have allies however; a Kanlin warrior (mystical warrior elites who work for hire) named Wei Song, hired by Spring Rain to protect him at all costs. The famed drunken poet, Sima Zian called the banished immortal and friends from beyond the bounds of the empire that he never meet but who work to protect him and his family nonetheless.


With a grudge against his brother and an unresolved feud with the man running the most powerful empire in the world Shen Tai rides into the very heart of their power in the capital. He is protected by the fact that the horses can only be delivered to him and he needs to be alive for that to happen. He is also protected by the fact that the Empire is on a knife's edge and his horses could make the difference one way or another.  Shen Tai is not the only person that First Minister Wen Zhou has decided to have a feud with. In recent decades the rulers of the Empire felt it was safer to select barbarian generals to lead their armies and guard their borders (This is never never a good idea!). One such general is Roshan, also called An Li, who now leads three armies in the North East and governs a trio of districts. He is militarily speaking the single most powerful man in the empire, feared and hated by First Minister Wen Zhou. In turn Roshan believes First Minister Wen Zhou to be a threat to himself and his sons. Before the belief was that barbarians could not gather enough support to overthrow Emperors. For decades this has held true but now the Emperor is old. The Emperor is old, distracted, and besotted with a new young consort; a young woman who was supposed to be married to one of the Emperor's many sons. But once the Emperor laid his eyes on her... well, he felt he could always find his son another wife. So a young woman named Wen Jian, young enough to be the Emperor's granddaughter, finds herself having to balance the empire, because the First Minister Wen Zhou is her cousin and An Li is a friend and favorite of hers. If she can keep them in balance and prevent them from trying to openly kill each other, she can keep the Empire together. Because she is a woman, she cannot do so openly but must constantly work behind the scenes, influencing men, whispering to the Emperor and making everything look like she's a silly young girl to keep the court from deciding to get rid of her because she's a woman who is getting above her place. She can do that however and she can keep doing it as long as needed. As long as no one upsets that balance of power. As long as no one does anything stupid out of fear of that balance being upset.


Mr. Kay presents us a world of wealth and privilege, soaked in luxury and wine. A world wrapped in ritual and outlined in poetry. Through his story we are shown a fantasy version of a golden age and we are shown how it all ends. These events, while not shoved to the side, are not the focus of the book however, instead the focus remains on a family drama and a personal feud between two men that frankly could be called tawdry if it took place under any other circumstances. The action is fairly understated in this book, while there are battles and sword fights the primary work is on the intrigue, character conflict,  internal character motivations, drives, and the forces that limit them. For example Spring Rain, who once worked as a courtesan and is now a concubine to Wen Zhou is limited because of her gender and her station but still acts as much as she can, often risking her life to achieve her goals. Wen Jian, whose station is more exalted in some ways is even more limited in what she can do than Spring Rain and for both of them the limits placed on their gender force them to constantly work through others and use indirect means in what I can only imagine to be a maddening way to work. The men in this book are also limited. Shen Tai is limited by the rituals of the court and the intricate laws that govern his society. Laws that say that he cannot even declare what was done to his sister an injustice or openly express his rage that his sister has been exiled to live in savagery by her own brother without a so much as a by your leave because to do so would be rebellion against the Emperor and the Heavens itself. It's that observed limitation that led me to chose the quote that starts this review, because frankly if someone could have challenged the Emperor on his behavior, I can't help but think much of this could have been avoided. I suppose one of the lessons we should take away from this novel and the Tang dynasty it is based on is that you should never deify someone while they're still around to enjoy their godhood. Because there's nothing more dangerous than a person who decides that everyone around them is right and they are a god on earth.


I'll be honest and admit that intrigue and heavy dramas aren't usually my cup of tea but this book held my interest as if I was caught in a steel trap. Shen Tai is protagonist that you can identify with pretty easily and he has goals you can't help but be sympathetic to: get his sister back, resolve his feuds with his brother and Wen Zhou, and don't die. You can also feel for his allies as they are often exasperated by his stubborn insistence on provoking the powerful and not admitting to the danger he is often in. What's interesting is that our antagonists, while not likable, are understandable and at times sympathetic as well. I can fully understand what drives Wen Zhou against the Barbarian general An Li, or why that general feels increasingly threatened and pushed against the wall. Some of the characters may come off as short sighted or foolish but they don't come off as cackling villains which makes the story feel more realistic even if you can clearly point at some of them and say “This person is in the wrong here.” Because of this I give Under Heaven By Guy Gavriel Kay an A. Give it a peek and I think you'll find a book you'll enjoy.


Next week we end the year with Persephone by Allison Shaw.  Keep Reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Log Horizon VIII: The Larks Take Flight By: Mamare Touno


Log Horizon VIII: The Larks Take Flight
By: Mamare Touno

We really should live gallantly”
Roe2 page 215

Alright folks, this is eighth review of Log Horizon I've done. If you don't know the concept behind the series, just take a look at my prior reviews because I've gone over it repeatedly (insert link to Log Horizon I here). So this time let me just catch us up on the plot. In the last two books Akatsuki and Shiroe had to deal with separate problems that while small were dangerous in what they could grow into. Akatsuki did so by confronting a man possessed by a cursed sword that him into a super-powered serial killer. Shiroe lead a raid into the most terrifying dungeon he'd ever seen to prevent the ownership of zones (basically sections of land where ownership would be enforced by the laws of physics) from ever becoming a problem. In this story, we focus on the Jr. team of Log Horizon, the kids who joined the Guild; Touya, Minori, Isuzu, Rundelhaus and Serara. None of these kids are old enough to drink but due to the laws of the world they are trapped in, they are all adventurers and thus immortal killing machines able to do feats beyond the abilities and prayers of mortal men and women. In this story they take their first solo trip without the direct supervision of their elders, doing a road trip to gather the materials to make magic bags (which requires that they kill wyverns, which is basically a small dragon without the intelligence or ability to breath fire), which also turns into a bit of a musical tour and well... and a small war.  So to startwith, let me talk about the other side in that small war.

Plant Hwyaden is a group of rival adventures who found very different answers to the problems of being trapped in the world of Elder Tales. Where Shiroe created an alliance of guilds and fostered cooperation, the leaders of Plant Hwyaden forced every adventurer to join a single guild which would then serve as the government of the starting city of Minami. They quickly proved to be expansionist and took over the starting city of Nakasu. They cemented their own alliance with a People of the Land (also called Landers) nation, the Holy Empire Westelande who claims to be rightful ruler of all Yamato. With Plant Hwyaden providing new magical technologies and combat abilities the Empire's leaders are looking to expand right into the lands of Akiba and it's allied Lander state. In this book we see the first opening moves of this plan which has consequences such as the military forces of the Empire cause a monster migration into settled lands. We also meet a disturbing faction of adventurers, the Odyssea knights, a group of adventures who have figured out how to make roving resurrection points that they carry with them as portable shrines. The Odyssea Knights trek across the world of Elder Tales seeking to fight and die as often as possible because they believe that if they die enough, they can go home. This is disturbing given the fact that in Elder Tales every time an adventurer dies they lose a piece of their memories. That said, neither of these factions are the focus here so let's look at our main characters.

The twins Touya and Minori are mostly supporting characters in this book although they both get development and moments where they get to be focus. More of that goes to Touya who before being trapped in an MMO was wheelchair bound due to a terrible car accident. Before the accident he had been a very active boy who loved playing soccer. Afterward he stopped watching his friends play because showing up made them all feel guilty that they could still walk and he couldn't. This led to some complicated feelings on his part and granted him some insight into how people hide their suffering, which comes up when they run into Dariella, a wandering travel writer who falls in with the group. Minori on the other hand is more involved with the other person they meet, the confusing and mysterious Roe2. Roe2 is an adventurer that doesn't seem to be from Japan and from time to time speaks about very strange things. Minori takes it upon herself to figure out just who the hell Roe2 is and where she comes from. Serara doesn't get as much attention but time is taken to show how much she has grown since her first appearance as basically a damsel in distress.

The real heart of this story however is Isuzu and her evolving relationship with Rundelhaus Code.  Isuzu sees herself as a plain country high school girl who loves music but doesn't have the talent to actually pursue it as a career. This low estimation of herself is fed by her father, a professional musician who couldn't make it into super stardom but was able to make a decent living. Her father would brag about his glory days to his little girl and undercut her own efforts by telling her that she didn't have the talent he did. To be fair to the man, it is heavily implied that he was trying (badly) to tell his daughter not to worry so much about such things. His exact words were “If you have to ask if you have the talent to make it, then you don't.” Leaving aside whether it's a good idea to brag to your teenage daughter about all the hot girls you dated when you were younger, if I squint I can see what her father was getting at. Having said that, the consequences of her father's bungled attempts at teaching a life lesson leave Isuzu with the belief that she can't be a real musician and it's up to Rudy to try and convince her that she has skill and talent. Because Isuzu is a bard, but beyond that she is a young woman with not only a major love of music but the kind of musical training that is just impossible for the natives of the world to get and it's her understanding of that and her reaction that might just change the world.

This was a fun story with good amount of interpersonal drama and the reactions of children who are growing into adults walking into great events that they could never have been prepared for. There's a bit of stage prepping for the next major story arc happening here but it's all done in support of the ongoing story so I don't feel like I'm merely spinning my wheels (Like in Volume V). That said, Mr. Touno keeps shying away from showing major events whenever he can.  The entire development of Plant Hwyaden occurred off screen for example and they're only now really starting to show up in the story itself; and he stubbornly refuses to actually address the questions raised by this. There are also philosophical discussions that occur in the book that aren't brought to satisfying answers partly because I'm not sure Mr. Touno has satisfying answers to give. Bringing up these questions as a part of the plot and then leaving them hanging leaves me rather cold. You don't have to hand down a definitive answer but you should at least have one character give an answer instead of chewing on whether or not an answer can be given. Log Horizon 8: The Larks Take Flight by Mamare Touno gets a B- because of that. It's still a fun story and there are worse things to read.

Next week, we take a look at Guy Gavriel Kay's book Under Heaven. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne

A Plague of Giants
by Kevin Hearne

I'm not changing my tale to please them. That would betray my duty to the poet goddess”
Fintan Raelech Bard page 141

Kevin Hearne was born in December of 1970, and graduated from Northern Arizona University (which we won't hold against him) with a degree in English Education, and was an high school English teacher in California before returning to his native Arizona. He currently lives in Colorado with his wife, son, and hound. His first published work was “Hounded”,  the first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles, a series which was not only impressive for it's character work but for the in depth of care that Mr. Hearne took when dealing with mythologies. Although I don't think his interpretation of Thor is going to win out in the public consciousness, even if his Thor has the mythological correct hair color and magical equipment. I've read quite a bit of the Iron Druid Chronicles and enjoyed them, so when I was informed that Mr. Hearne had taken a stab at more traditional fantasy well... I was thankful that it was released in mid-October only weeks before my birthday. I do want to note for the record that I have briefly met Mr. Hearne (in 2012), thanks to my favorite local bar the Rula Bula (if you are in Tempe, try the fish there, it's great and the guinness is good as well!) and my friend Jack, who made a point to tell me that Mr. Hearne was having a meeting there. He was even kind enough to answer a question or five from me and I have to say seemed like good people to me. I doubt he remembers that however and as much as I enjoyed the meeting it's not going to affect his grade!

Plague of Giants takes place in a fantasy world of Teldwen. The known world of Teldwen is divided into six great nations. Five of these nations have had their cultures heavily shaped by the existence of magical gifts that they call kennings. Each kenning is somewhat thematic in its blessing, the kenning of Rael is based on the earth with many of the blessed (as they are called) being able to work stone and earth with a thought. Brynlon's kennings are water based, with their blessed able to travel through water and shape it as well. Kauria's is based on the air and their blessed can even fly if powerful enough. Forn is plant based and their blessed can command any plant. Hathrir's blessed control fire and if that wasn't enough the people of Hathrir are also giants who can stand over 10 feet tall. Out of all these nations only poor Ghurana Nent has no kenning of it's own and it's people for the most part huddle in cities with great walls to hold back the monstrous creatures of their plains while holding onto hope that maybe, one day, somehow, someone will find the mythical 6th kenning that in theory would allow someone to control the beasts of the plains and convince them not to eat people. The kennings come at a terrible price however, in order to receive a kenning one must literally risk death. The people of Kauria must cast themselves off a certain cliff, where they will either fly, land slowly, or fall to their deaths. The people of Hathrir throw themselves into lava flows. Brynlon's people dive into an underwater cave where it's be blessed or drown and so it goes. Additionally while small everyday uses of the gift cause no problems any major use of the gift literally steals away years from your life, aging you years in minutes... or killing you if you push too far. Despite their differences the 6 nations currently live in an age of peace and trade and there are those who hope that peace will become a habit that does not break. Unfortunately they are about to find themselves in a brand new age of violence and struggle. This age is announced like so many other violent ages by a natural disaster.

When the volcano Mount Thayil in Hathrir explodes, the leader of the doomed city of Harthrad. Gorin Mogen starts a gamble that's been long in planning. Instead of fleeing south deeper into the lands of Harthrad and fighting other giants for a place to settle, he takes his people north. Where he'll invade the lands of other, smaller, less fire-proof people and establish a new city in a place less likely to...explode. A place with many trees and rich soil and many beasts to hunt and eat. A new land to rebuild in his own image. Of course the natives have other ideas and aren't eager to see even a small part of their nation overrun by fire slinging giants. You’d think that would be enough of an issue but way on the other side of the continent a completely different group of giants is invading. They are pale, thin, and armored in bone. With their faces painted to look like skulls they’ve slammed into the eastern shores of Teldwen and simply started butchering everyone who gets in their way; man, woman, and child. No one knows why they are there and the language they speak is unknown. The only thing that can be said for sure is they intend to wipe out the native people root and branch and will have no mercy. The people of five of the known nations in the world are going to have to work together and many of them are going to have to make terrible sacrifices in order to protect the people they know and love, or avenge them. Meanwhile out on the plains of Nent, a young man makes his own discovery, one that in the end might lead to more upheaval and destruction then all the armies of giants in the world put together...

The story is told via a recital by an in-story character; the bard Fintan, with his stories serving as both a framing device and a nested narrative with another story taking place around his spoken stories of the war with the giants (both tribes of them). Let me discuss those a bit. A framing device is something you're most likely familiar with even if you've never heard the term. It's when the story is introduced to us by a in-universe story teller, this is a pretty old device that's shown up in The Odyssey and in the Ramayama and I'm willing to bet this was invented by some pre-farming hunter standing up in front of fire telling stories to his tribe,  if not even earlier. It's often used to help provide context for the story as well give it a clear beginning and end. Now a nested narrative is when the framing device is itself a story or when you have several stories within stories moving about. My own favorite example of this is actually 1001 Arabian Nights, where the clever vicar's daughter Scheherazade is constantly delaying her execution by telling her husband the Sultan a story only refusing to end it until the next night, where she immediately begins another story keeping the man hooked for 1001 nights and thus keeping herself alive and sparing any other poor woman a similar fate. In the case of A Plague of Giants, our narrative of a pair of giant invasions is nested within another story involving a nation trying to rebuild itself and characters grappling with loss, moving on, and having to deal with intrigues between nations that,  having won the war, now seek to position themselves to dominate the peace. With the bard Fintan and the scholar Dervan right in the middle of it. I wasn't entirely sold on this at first, as Mr. Hearne has us jumping around from character to character quite a bit but he's able to use Fintan to remind us which character is who and who is doing what fairly cleverly. Mr. Hearne was also smart enough to include a quick list of characters in the beginning of the book. I would like to note for writers who intent to use a large cast of characters or groups of characters whose stories remain mostly separate within the tale... this is a great idea and you should use it.

I would also like to take a moment to discuss the world of Teldwen a bit further, or rather the people in it. Mr. Hearne has made a very inclusive fantasy world here; some of the nations are inhabited by people with dark skin, others with people of pale skin. They live under different types of governments, with some of them having an elected leader, others having kings or being divided into clans and city states. We see merchants, hunters, soldiers and scholars. We see people with different sexualities and orientations, young people and old people all working towards different ends. Mr. Hearne avoids a trap that pulls in many an aspiring fantasy and science fiction writer; he doesn't create a fantasy not-Europe or not-Asia but instead an entirely new world with it's own arrangement of ethnic groups, cultures, and ideologies. He does pull inspiration from real world myths and cultures but doesn't allow himself to be locked in by them. Instead he creates something new and different and I am honestly happy to see that. Before anyone gets excited there is nothing wrong with using real-world cultures as the basis for your own works. It was done by writers like David Eddings, David Drake, and George RR Martin. It has been done well but keep in mind you don't have to write fantasy Not-Europe or some other fun house mirror fantasy culture. You can embrace a bit of variety or deviation and create a medieval democracy of a sort (after all Rome did start as a Republic) or a world with completely different ethnic relations and histories. It’s more work because you can't just crib off of a conveniently developed society.  You will put in most of the work yourself, which will mean some study and consideration if you want it to hang together, but if you put in the work like Mr. Hearne did here you won't have to worry about your readers sighing and going “Oh look another fantasy England, hooray” in a tired tone.

A Plague of Giants is a book with interesting characters of all types and manages to keep you interested despite it's large cast and many, many plots. That said it is a bit slow to start.  I wasn't really able to get into the book until about page 100 or so (that said it's over 600 pages). While I like Fintan the bard and the plot taking place in the “modern day” of the book is interesting in it's own right, I'm not sure it was entirely necessary to set up such a complex narrative structure. I suspect that Mr. Hearne may in fact be showing off a tad here but he is showing off in an impressive way at least. While the book does tell a complete story, it also leaves a lot of hanging plot threads (this may be because it's telling several stories at once) and that does lower the grade a bit for me. I also think starting the book where he does robs it of a bit suspense, because we know in a general sense what the outcome of the war is going to be. It's a question of the price to be paid to get there. All that having been said, it was a good read and Mr. Hearne shows both the heroism and tragedy inherent in war, and how it can serve logical ends but be utterly senseless at the same time. Gorin Mogen is shown as a completely human character who is a loving husband and father, as well as a dutiful leader looking out for the well being of his people as a whole... while being utterly ruthless, willing to sacrifice individuals, and commit some rather awful crimes to get what he wants and that complex characterization holds true for many of the characters in the book. Because of this I am giving A Plague of Giants a B+, the incompleteness of many of the plots and the many characters hold it back a tad but it's still a great book.

Next week, I'm going to read something that isn't north of 500 pages, join me for Log Horizon. Keep Reading!  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates By Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates
By Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

I picked this book thinking it would be a nice uncomplicated history book review and quickly realized that I would writing a review that would be running alongside some various historical and political issues. Additionally... Well you'll see. I should note for the record that looking up the writers is the last thing I do, because I don't want my opinions of the writers influencing the grade. That holds true here. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates was published in 2015 by Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Sentinel was founded in 2003 to publish right of center political works (saying so right on their home website). While I'm of two minds of partisan publishing houses, the fact of that is that they’re something with a long historical tradition behind them and they’re a fact of life. Brian Kilmeade is the co host of the TV show Fox and Friends, a graduate of CW Post (now known as LIU Post) in 1986. Since then he has worked in news and sports programs. He has written five books, three of them on early American history. He is married with three children. He's also known for sticking his foot in his mouth so deeply he can tell you what his knee tastes like as he has repeatedly made ass-backwards remarks about other religions and races. I won't go into the details because this is a book review not a “rehash of someone's mistakes” review and that's all we're going to say about it here (this goes for you to Editor [Awwwww.  OK.  I will comply]). Don Yaeger is an American Sports Journalist who has written over a dozen books. So let's turn to our book.

The book covers the 1st Barbary War between the United States and what was then known as the Barbary States. The Barbary States were North African states that were, in theory, provinces of the Ottoman Empire but functioned as independent states. They maintained their own rulers, laws, and foreign policy. Their foreign policy could be summed up as piracy, blackmail, and worse. The states of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, along with the fully independent state of Morocco were infamous for attacking shipping, stealing goods, as well as kidnapping people and then enslaving them until high ransoms were paid or the slaves converted to Islam. While the rulers of these states would piously mouth that their plundering was sanctioned by the Quran, the laws of the Quran against victimizing your fellow Muslim didn't weigh upon them very much as they would also freely murder each other for wealth and power. The European powers paid tributes to these states to avoid having their shipping targeted. This tactic had very diverse results, we should say, and the Pirate Lords would raise the price of safe passage if they smelled weakness. This went on for so long and on such a scale that a Catholic Holy Order had operated in France for centuries whose goal it was to raise money for the comfort and ransoming of prisoners.

At this point US merchant ships had sailed under the protection of the British Navy but with the signing of the Peace of Paris and the US becoming an independent nation, they were now fair game. This fact was brought home with the brutality that only a slaving pirate can muster when the American ships Dauphin and Maria were attacked and their crews and officers enslaved in 1785. At the time Thomas Jefferson was the US Minister to France, his wife had just died and he had taken his eldest daughter his wife's half sister, the enslaved Sally Hemings, to Paris. Jefferson, hearing the news about the capture and enslavement of white Christians grew disturbed and began through letters a discussion with his friend John Adams as to the problem and how to solve it. Jefferson firmly believed what was needed was a navy that would sail across the ocean, confront the pirates in their home territories and defeat them. Adams didn't necessarily disagree but felt the US was too poor and weak to afford such a navy (strange as that sounds to modern ears[I know, right?  Now our navy dwarfs the next 15 largest navies combined, what a glorious modern age we live in]). Jefferson felt the US was to poor to afford not having such a navy. However, Jefferson lost the first round of debate until his election to the Presidency.

Instead, the United States, in a slow and painfully expensive process, negotiated tribute treaties with the various pirate states over the course of a decade. In 1795 Algiers agreed to release the crew and officers they had taken for over 1 million dollars, about a 1/6th of the US budget at the time (This fascinates me.  “We are too poor to afford a Navy, but not too poor to pay pirates a sixth of our state revenue, as well as continued tribute”.  That makes no sense.  At those rates, you might as well build some frigates.  Thankfully, that is exactly what we did.). With the amount of demanded tribute increasing, the US founded the Department of the Navy and started building ships. By the time Jefferson was elected in 1800 the US Congress had authorized 6 frigates for the navy and more were coming. It's here that the USS Constitution was born although she would not achieve fame until the war of 1812. When the Pasha of Tripoli declared war on the US by cutting down the flagpole of the US embassy Jefferson did not hesitate to send in the new ships to defend US merchant shipping and gradually the amount of ships, men, and money grew until it was enough to win the war. This would take years. However, the US was not unassisted in it's first war on foreign soil; the Kingdom of Sweden (They were once pretty formidable, though not in their hayday anymore… no slouches) would join forces with the US Navy and the Kingdom of Naples would loan ships, materials, men, and supplies to the mission. This was America's first foreign war and the first time the US would deploy forces to the old world. This is when the US realized that even behind the Atlantic ocean there would have to be some active involvement in the outside world to safeguard trade, if nothing else. Given recent events, I would say that has some relevance to us now, especially as the US public seems to question any involvement in the outside world.

The book does a good job of setting the stage and letting us see the problem. It also does a decent job of leading us through the various campaigns, examining the different commanding officers of note and their missions. We are shown the up and down blockade of Tripoli, the quick peace made with Morocco, the single longest treaty relation in US history and still in effect to this day. This was not a flawless war nor were the men who commanded it flawless professionals. Many mistakes were made and to it's credit the book goes over each and every one of them. It also discusses the fearless actions of junior officers and enlisted men to make those mistakes good. Whether it be sneaking into an enemy harbor to burn a captured warship of the United States rather than see it in enemy hands, or marching across the desert of Libya to attack a fortified city. Speaking of taking a fortified city it speaks a bit about the expedition led by US Marines to attack the city of Derna and gives us a fair idea of the problems of marching through the desert with hundreds of mercenaries as well as the measures needed to gain success as a small force operating on the very end of a thin line of support. The book is very good at showing the many acts of bravery and courage that were performed by members of the US Navy and Marine Corps at the time. Although it tends to focus heavily on officers rather than discussing enlisted men (Makes sense.  The officers are more likely to be known publicly at the time, are more likely to be literate and writing diaries, are more likely to be sending formal dispatches etc.  There is just more to be known about them.).

That said the book is rather shallow in its coverage, running over events without any real examination of the detail and barely any analysis. No space whatsoever is given over to discussion of the Barbary States.  How were they governed? How did they organize their forces, decide their goals, what factions existed in them? None of that is really discussed with the exception of the rightful heir of the throne of Tripoli, Hamet. The then-current Pashaw Yussef had seized the throne in a bloody coup and Hamet had been living in exile in Egypt. This is mostly noted in a very bare bones fashion however. We're not told anything about Yussef's coup or how he maintained power. For that matter the relationship between the Barbary States and the Ottoman Empire isn't discussed at all beyond the fact that the Barbary States paid tribute to the Ottomans. For that matter the domestic situation in the United States and how it impacted the war is not discussed beyond the first debate between Adams and Jefferson. We do not get the different policies of the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans in regards to the war and how the US developed its goals with the exception of a brief discussion in Jefferson's cabinet over whether or not he could actually order the US Navy to attack Barbary ships without the explicit approval of Congress. As a result of this, one might be excused from walking away from the book thinking that Thomas Jefferson forced the United States Navy into being alone on pure strength of will as opposed to having the support and aide of a number of other men all of them historically relevant on their own. This simplifies both the war and the lead up to it as well as drains the history of the details needed to really understand the events that occurred.

Then there's the afterward. I'm going to be blunt; the afterward of this book plunged the grade to it's current measurement. In it the writers attempt to try to link the Barbary War to the War on Terror and US operations currently taking place in the middle east, clumsily flailing at some idea of civilization conflict being played out over centuries. The argument isn't going to convince anyone who isn't already fully on board because it is made in a lazy, clumsy, almost half-hearted manner. The writers barely put any effort into connecting the Barbary pirates to the current day Wabbahist extremists who plague Syria and other nations. To be fair that might be because there's no bloody connection to be made between a pack of decadent wealth seeking pirates, and bloodthirsty terrorist, maniacs beyond their common religion. By that logic I am fully fledged member of the IRA or the KKK! I mentioned earlier that the Barbary Wars may have some relevance to modern audiences and I stand by that. An examination of our earlier commitments to foreign shores helps us look at our current deployments and ask: what are realistic goals to set? What are we expecting to get out of this? How far and how long are we willing to go? Attempting to smash the Barbary Wars through a War on Terror shaped hole however is frankly just silly and I am honestly offended by how lazy and clumsily the argument is made. At no point is their point framed clearly, at no point are supporting arguments and facts marshaled and lined up and it certainly doesn't lead to a clear conclusion that gives a complete and thoughtful argument. Frankly I would expect better from a college freshmen (Christ, man.  I’ve graded those papers.) and they would have a done the book a great service if they had cut the afterward with a razor.

This is a book that starts out well enough, moves too quickly and too shallowly over a subject that deserves better and completely blows it in the final pages. Without the Afterward I would have given the book a C, because I haven't seen too many books on the Barbary Wars and most of my knowledge comes from books that discuss them as a prelude to the war of 1812. I was disappointed at the lack of information on the Barbary States and the insistence on using outdated translations of Turkish terms but I could accept the latter as a stylistic choice. With the afterward however, combined with the lackluster scholarship here, I am giving Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger a C-. The Barbary Wars and the brave men who fought in them deserved better from us.

Next week, I turn to Kevin Hearn's new book Plague of Giant to try and chill a bit. Keep Reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Rat Queens 4: High Fantasies By Kurtis Wiebe Art by Owen Gieni


  Rat Queens 4: High Fantasies
By Kurtis Wiebe
Art by Owen Gieni

So back in 2015 I literally tripped over a fantasy comic book called the Rat Queens, starring an all female group of adventurers who fought hard and partied harder.  Each of the characters was an interesting hot mess of emotions and problems but the fact that they were always there for each other gave them a human air (I say with really only one member of the group being human) that made them sympathetic.  The books also managed to keep their sense of humor for the most part while tackling some rather good storylines.  Then, things went a bit pear shaped, by the end of volume 3 the creator of the book Kurtis Wiebe had declared the book on hiatus and it seemed that Rat Queens was going to join the long list of comics that have a good start but quietly slip away into cancellation (much like the Fell's Five D&D comic that IDW still needs to be brought back, not letting that go!).  Well, it seems that Mr. Wiebe was able to get things sorted out enough to restart the comic this year with the fourth graphic novel being released in October of 2017.  I discussed Mr. Wiebe in my first review of the Rat Queens back in October of 2015 so I'm not retreading that ground.  Mr. Gieni who takes over the art duties in this book is known for his work on Manifest Destiny (a comic series where Lewis and Clark run into monsters while exploring America) and Shutter (a comic about a woman explorer confronting some family secrets).  Mr. Gieni's art is a bit heavy and somewhat paler in it's color choices than the previous artists but the art is actually pretty nice.  Now on to the book.

First let me reintroduce our characters as it has been about a year since I spoke about this.  The Rat Queens are led by Violet, a dwarven fighter and sort-of tactician.  Aiding her as the voice of reason is Dee, the human cleric who is dealing with the fact that her gods might actually be real. Betty the always cheerful smidgen (aka Hobbit) stoner and thief serves as the emotional support of the group.   Hannah, a  half elf/ half demon sorceress is the bad influence of the group; she remains steadfast in her refusal to actually admit that she loves and cares for the other members of the group and will always argue for the easy way, especially if it lets her break some rules.  Joining them is Braga the orc barbarian, who is actually fairly even tempered and intelligent especially when discussing the equity of her home. I like the addition of Braga to the group as she's an interesting character in her own right and meshes very well with the team.  Also appearing in this book are family members of the main cast: Gerald, Hannah's step-father and Barrie, Violet's twin brother.  Barrie has founded his own group of adventurers, the Cat Kings (who are male distaff versions of the Rat Queens) mainly to good naturally compete with Violet and screw with her head in the time honored fashion of siblings everywhere.  I mean, if you can't mess with your sibling's heads from time to time, then I have to ask you my readers, what's the bloody point of family?  Although frankly I think Barrie made a mistake in naming his team the Cat Kings, I mean Dog Brothers was right there and creates a more opposing feel than Cat Kings, which honestly just feels lazy as a name.  

This is a soft reboot, in that most of the preceding story-lines happened and are directly referenced in the story but a lot of the stuff that was left hanging at the end of book III is simply resolved with no further discussion.  For example Hannah is back with the group, with no real explanation of how she escaped the magical prison she was trapped in at the close of volume III.  In fact the events of volume III seemed to have been quietly swept under the rug.  Palisade, their home town and base is still in ruins from the events of Volume II and worse there's a sky-squid-worshipping cult that is using violence to prevent rebuilding.  Other adventurer teams have scattered or abandoned the town (with even one of my favorite supporting group the Dave's breaking up.  Which is completely awful news).  This changes the dynamic in the town completely leaving the Rat Queens (and Barrie's Cat Kings) the only game in town.  At least until the Chorus, the shiney church-sanctioned cult hunter group shows up.  I'm going to hold off discussing them right now because they really only show up for a couple pages and don't impact the story, hopefully we make it to Volume 4 and I can discuss them at that point.

Speaking of the story, there is no connecting larger plot for this volume.  In fact it feels more of a setting the status quo for the new series of Rat Queens then anything else and frankly the book does suffer for that.  There's also a lot of setup being done here, with confrontations being set up between members of the Rat Queens and the cult, the chorus, and others but no real pay off.  Instead the book doubles down on the humor, which is fine but leaves it a bit unbalance without a good plot to offset it. So it feels kinda like the book is treading water before actually diving into anything.  This might be unfair as my judgment is very affected by the fact that I wanted to see the resolution of the story set up in Volume III take place on screen rather than being brought in afterwards and told everything is fine.  That said the book does take some time to let us see Barrie and Violet's relationship and a bit of Hannah and Gerald’s, which is fun and to fair, well done.  On the flip side I feel like the Cat Kings would have worked better if the writer was taking them a little more seriously.   In the end the book is fun and serviceable but bluntly after the last three books, I know that Mr. Wiebe can do better and I hope as he gets back into the groove that he does.  As it stands, I'm a bit sad to give Rat Queens Volume 4 by Kurtis Weibe and Owen Gieni a C+.  It's better than a lot of books out there but they need to get back to the plot.  

Well join us next week as we get historical with Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. Keep Reading!

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Witch who came in from the Cold Created by Lindsay Smith and Max Gladstone Also written by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Michael Swanwick and Ian Tregillis

The Witch who came in from the Cold
Created by Lindsay Smith and Max Gladstone
Also written by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Michael Swanwick and Ian Tregillis


No man can serve two masters: for either he. will hate the one, and love the other; or else. he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Book of Matthew 6:24


In this review series I have often defended the internet and pointed out it's positive effect on the writing world and I will continue to do so. If nothing else I am old enough to remember being told as a child that when I reached adulthood I could very well be in a minority for being literate. The internet has made that idea laughable, but there are also a wide range of stories and writers who could only have been possible because of the internet. Authors like DaVaun Sanders, Dr. Bruce Davis, and KB Spangler have arisen because the internet provided them a medium to reach an audience without having to go through the publishing houses. The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, provides an example of another idea that has come back to the fore because of the internet. That being written serial fiction.


The idea of a larger story being printed in smaller parts is not new of course, it reached its greatest level of popularity in the 19th century; Sherlock Holmes was born in serialized fiction, the Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo were originally released as serialized fiction. In Russia such works as Anna Karenina were serialized, even Qing China had serialized stories going to print. In the US, stories like the Princess of Mars and the adventurers of Conan the Barbarian were serialized stories as late as the 1930s. However, as radios and televisions became cheaper, more and more the niche of serialized fiction was taken over by episodic television shows. By the mid 20th century serialized print fiction, outside of comic books, was rare and in many ways a dying art. Then the internet happened. In the early 2000s the first web serial novels began to appear in the English Web while in Japan the light novel evolved and became amazingly popular (see my Log Horizon reviews for more information on that) with the most popular web novel at this time most likely being Worm, by the writer known as Wildbow. Enter the service known as Serial box founded by Justin Yap and Molly Barton bringing together teams of writers to write books the same way you write a TV season with chapters serving as episodes written by a different writer or part of the team tying together into a single book. Let me briefly touch on those writers.


Lindsay Smith lives in Washington D.C her works include the young adult novels Sekret, A Darkly Beating, and Dreamstrider. She's the lead writer in this series. Max Gladstone is the author of the Craft series, which starts with Three Parts Dead and continues to the current installment of Ruin of Angels. Ian Tregillis, who wrote the Milkweed Triptych and Something More Than Night. Cassandra Rose Clarke, who won the Yalsa best fiction for young adults and the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice award, she's written many novels including Our Lady of the Ice, and Magic of Blood and Sea. Michael Swanwick, has written 9 novels and for his sins has received the Nebula, the World Fantasy award, and a Hugo; his latest book is Chasing the Phoenix. I honestly wish I could go into detail on each of these writers, they all deserve it,  but we're here to talk about The Witch Who Came in from the Cold and if I spend the time to give you a detailed look over each of the writers, we won't get to the book. Speaking of that, let's jump into that.


It's 1970 Prague, Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring, an attempt by Czech Socialist leaders to moderate away from hard-line Soviet Communism, has been crushed under Soviet tanks. The grip of “normalization” lies heavy on the city and the nation and the act has caused cracks in relations between the Soviet bloc and the western communist parties. The United States is still shuddering from the effects of Vietnam and spreading social ills sap at it's strength as the Nixon administration works frantically to address this and hold off a USSR which is increasingly becoming moored in it's own domestic problems. Despite all of this the Cold War grinds on and seems only able to end in nuclear exchange. The covert organizations of the Warsaw Pact and NATO grimly duel in the shadows of this war, each side seeking any secret, person, or resource that will give them the advantage... Or at least stave off nuclear Armageddon for one more day. That's just the shadowy struggle that the people of the world are aware of however. Hidden even under the secrets of state is another world where sorcery and magical ritual are the weapons of war. Ice, an alliance of traditionalist magic users, mostly tracing their ancestry from long lines of sorcerers and witches seeks to maintain the world. Meanwhile it's opponent the Flame seeks to destroy everything in a blaze of magical power in order to build a newer, better world from the ashes. Unbeknownst to the world at large both the Flame and Ice grapple for resources and position across the world, one side to lock the world into it's present state, the other to destroy it.


In the early months of 1970, both wars will slam into each and find themselves hinging on the same conflict as the agents of the CIA and KGB stations in Prague square off against another as do the sorcerers of Ice and the acolytes of Flame. CIA Gabe Pritchard has the misfortune to be stuck in both worlds. He is not a sorcerer, nor has he been raised in the secret world of ritual and spell. Instead through sheer misfortune and unrelenting paranoia he has been pulled in when he stumbled into something dark and rare in a basement in Cairo Egypt. Since then he has been afflicted with headaches and worse and his job performance is slipping. Something noticed by his boss and station leader Frank, who while not unsympathetic is running a spy ring in enemy territory and has zero margin for screw ups. Gabe has few people he can turn to besides Jordan Rhemes, neutral witch and bar owner, who feels responsible for Gabe's condition but has her own problems. Her bar is set on a very nice location and every one wants it. He could also turn to Alistair Winthrop, British Spy, Ice Sorcerer and a closet gay man (Editor: Being gay in the clandestine services back then was no picnic, ladies and gentle beasts) who may or may not be romancing Gabe's magically unaware partner Josh but Alistair clearly wants Gabe to join Ice and Gabe's not going easily. Gabe's struggle is to try and grapple with these vast new forces in his life and get a handle on them before they destroy his future.


Meanwhile Tanya Morozova, KGB agent and sorceress of Ice finds herself in an increasingly difficult situation as she must not only try to penetrate the plots of the CIA but fight off the Flame as more and more of it's foot-soldiers arrive in Prague seeking a rare Host for an elemental spirit that could give them the power to start their world burning. On top of this her own station chief is clearly looking to either kill her or break her into working for him instead of Moscow (Porque no los dos?  This is the KGB after all). Her partner Nadia who is also in the KGB and an Ice sorceress is right along side her but as Tanya finds herself having having doubts in Ice's methods (in part due to the brash CIA agent Gabe) she finds herself wondering just who her friends are (You know, I can see this getting confusing.  One minute, you are trying to kill the british spy, the next minute, you have to work with them to prevent some anarchist from exploding the world…). Tanya has to sort out her loyalties and work out her relationship with her past before the web around her gets to close. I feel Tanya is a tragic character in a lot of ways, her disillusionment with Ice mirrors the lost of faith many of her countrymen would soon have in Communism. While I'll never mourn the fall of communism, I can't help but feel sympathetic to people like Tanya who are good, loyal people pouring out their blood, sweat and tears for a system that frankly doesn't deserve their sacrifice. I suppose all I can say is someday we will have a world worth their loyalty and when we do it will because of those people as much as because of the people who stand outside the system and push.


The story uses Tanya and Gabe as characters who bounce off of each other, sometimes helping one another, sometimes foiling one another and as characters whose struggles and troubles reflect the other. This is incredibly well done in my opinion, both of them have supporting characters whether it be their partners like Nadia and Josh who serve as aides and characters who serve as antagonists.  Their battles parallel each other but they are different enough that they not just duplicates of the other. For example Gabe has to constantly keep secrets from Josh, his CIA partner when it comes to magic. Nadia is completely aware of magic and might even be better at it then Tanya. Instead Tanya finds the distance coming from her doubts in Ice not from any secrets she has to keep. Tanya's station master Sasha is very much an antagonist to her constantly prying at her secrets with a goal to turn her into a personal minion or to kill her to prevent her from learning any of his secrets. Frank, Gabe's station master on the flip side is clearly a demanding boss but one who will back up any agent that he knows is giving 100% and doing good work and isn't planning on killing any of his employees. Which is always a big plus in a boss in my mind. There are characters that connect Tanya and Gabe as well, Jordan Rhemes who will aide both of them within reason. Alistair who as a fellow sorcerer in Ice is an ally to Tanya at times but as an agent of MI6 is an enemy at others. There's also Zerena, an ambassador's wife who’s clearly playing her own game, in which world and for what I'll leave to you to discover. Each of the supporting characters have their own goals and desires, Nadia and Josh don't feel like sidekicks but like people with their own stories and desires.The worlds of espionage and magic weave in and out of each other with breath stealing speed and intensity that pull you further and further into the story as secrets are slowly unspooled and operations both magical and mundanely covert are launched in the secret four-way grapple.  That said, for those of you wondering why I opened a review on Cold War magic-using spies with a Bible Verse?  Because as I read the story it comes more and more to mind.  Sooner or later Tanya and Gabe are going to be pushed up against the wall and will have to decide what loyalties have the most claim on them because no one can serve two causes forever.

If you like magic done in dark secret places, if you like mystery and underhanded dealings, if you like stories that acknowledge the banal side of espionage (another thing that ties Gabe and Tanya together is their dislike and despair at all the paperwork involved!)l or if you're interested in seeing what Urban Fantasy might have looked like at the height of the Cold War... Well this is the book for you! I honestly enjoyed this book, I expected to dislike at least some of the characters, as a good number of them are bloody KGB spies but the writers managed to humanize them and keep them from doing anything that would send them over the moral event horizon. I even dare hope that a Russian would find the CIA agents here worth sympathizing with. That said there's not a lot of direct action or violence this book, not that this book is bloodless or without a good fight or three, just this has more of thriller about it than an action movie. Because of this, I give The Witch Who Came In From the Cold by way too many people for me to list again an A. The sequel (aka season 2) is out on Serial Box as well as season 1 so you can get both in a single pop or if you feel like being cautious you can buy an episode for 1.99$. You can also do what I did and pick up season 1 in dead tree format at Amazon.

Next week a look at the soft reboot of the Rat Queens! Keep reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.